All over the globe, there are a variety of fascinating folk stories that go back hundreds and even thousands of years. Many of these stories have central figures, motifs and symbols that represent something important from the cultures they come from. Some have long been forgotten, while others are still kept alive in the hearts of the people. Below are some of the coolest folk symbols across the planet.
1. Manaia, New Zealand
Deep in the caves of New Zealand are the ancient cave paintings of the Maori people. They’re called manaia and no one knows what they really are. Is it a serpent? A man in profile? Or perhaps a bird-headed humanoid creature. The only clue seems to lie in the Maori language – the meaning of the word varies from lizard to raft, sea-horse, ornamental work and finally “a grotesque beaked figure sometimes introduced in carving.” In similar Polynesian languages the word means embellishment. So maybe they’re really just random carvings that have no meaning?
2. Woyo Tribal Masks, Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola
The Woyo people who live off the Atlantic coast of Central Africa are known for outstanding masks that are said to have their own individual character and are usually revealed during ritual dances. They are commonly worn by the “ndunga,” who are tasked with maintaining law and or in the tribe. They’re basically police officers who often carry out daily duties like tracking down witches and other criminals, while wearing these imposing masks. On the flipside, locals waste no time blaming the masks as bad omens that cause natural disasters like droughts.
3. Shetani, East Africa and the Island of Zanzibar
In East Africa, specifically Mozambique, Tanzania, and parts of Kenya, as well as the island of Zanzibar, it is not at all uncommon to find strange statues of hideous stunted hags, dog-headed demons and Dali-esque elephants. They are known as the Shetani or “devils” and have origins in the same Semitic root that gave rise to the Christian “Satan” and the Islamic “Shaitan.” Many of the natives wholeheartedly fear these figures and there are still some cultic practices that are kept alive. As we’ve come to expect from similar cultures, the people place all blame of strange circumstances and situations on these statues.
4. The Green Man, Britain
During the pre-Christian era in Europe, people in modern Britain were connected by an ancient figure known as the Green Man. He was a symbol of being one with nature and was an omen that brought good fortune and luck for a plentiful and bountiful harvest. He also warned man that to fully leave nature is to invite it as an enemy. Strangely enough, the Green Man managed to survive the Roman invasion and Christianity – allowing them to keep some of their old views made the conversion to the new religion a bit smoother.
5. Potnia Theron, the Mediterranean and Near East
Potnia Theron is like the female Mediterranean cousin of the Green Man. But instead of having a deep relationship with nature, Potnia Theron is more of an animal fan, hence her moniker “The Mistress of Beasts.” This motif goes all the way back to at least 6,000 BC in the form of a clay figurine that depicted a seated female with two lionesses at her side. Although Potnia Theron is not fully understood, it is believed that she is associated with defense from husbandry and hunting.
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