Animal Power

What does Spider-man share with a San shaman? Is Black Panther anything like the Impundulu? What do artefacts from our ancient communities, and the stories we grew up with, reveal about modern superheroes? 

Left: Supervillian King Cobra (Marvel comics) Created by: writer Stan Lee and artist Don Heck. Fair Use Comic Single Panels. Rinkhals. Photo by: Matthew Sephton. Right: Man-Bull a villain with superhuman strength (Marvel comics). Created by: Gerry Conway and Gene Colan. Daredevil 2014 issue 01. Fair Use Comic Single Panels. Nguni bull. Photo by: Razas Bovinas de Colombia, Nguni 2 CC BY-SA 2.0

Animal Symbols 

Animals are part of every single human society – both past and present. From San rock art to modern superheroes, animal symbols have been used to convey meaning. People observe animal behaviour and form, and compare these features to what we see in humans. These observations can be new but are often passed down from one generation to the next.  These animal attributes often become symbols,  for instance, large animals like the lion or bull can symbolise strength, snakes often symbolise danger, sheep can be seen as gentle, and young animals as harmless. Superhero creators are also influenced by these symbols. 

Many of these observations and symbols have also survived in modern languages as sayings

Masked images by: Matthew Sephton, Zimbart, Odd Wellies and Matěj Baťha. CC BY-NA-SA 2.0. Honey Badger (Mellivora capensis) at the Prague Zoo, Hyperolius swynnertoni form Broadleyi
and Adder, the Oa


In storytelling, many cultures create narratives of creatures to communicate a specific message. Among some isiZulu- and isiXhosa-speaking communities in South Africa there are stories of the Impundulu (or lightning bird) which can shift between human and animal form. The Impundulu attacks people when it is in its bird form and conjures up lightning storms with its powerful wings. This narrative, along with other stories about the Impundulu conveys the message of danger. The Impundulu is strongly associated with the Hamerkop, or Thekwane. In the ǀXam San culture, this bird is also associated with lightning.  Hamerkops flying overhead are often seen as harbingers of death. 

The Hamerkop (Afr.) or Thekwane (Zul.), Scopus umbretta, is recognised as the shapeshifting lightning bird across several southern African cultures.
Image by: Frans Vanderwalle. Hamerkop, Scopus umbretta. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Modern Superheroes can be shapeshifters, like the Impundulu. Some characters, both heroes and villains, shapeshift either partly or fully into animal form. An example of this is Snowbird (Marvel Comics Universe) who transforms from a human to a variety of arctic creatures, using their powers to fight evil forces. Snowbird chooses what Arctic animal to transform into based on the ability of that animal. When she needs to fly, she will become an owl, and when she needs to swim, she becomes a sperm whale.

The Snowbird character shapeshifting into a polar bear. Image by: Marvel Comics, John Byrne. Fair Use Comic Single Panels

Humanlike creatures that have animal features or abilities are called therianthropes. Therianthropy is the merging of animal and human attributes.
We see this in rock art where individuals in a trance (shamans) are often depicted as having both human and animal features. For the San from southern Africa, the eland is a sacred and powerful animal. Shamans who enter a trance state enter the spiritual realm and there, with the help of power from the eland, they perform many rituals such as healing the sick. The shaman's experience is painted on the rock and most often, the shaman is depicted with a human body with hooves instead of hands and feet. 

Left: Shaman figure with hooves instead of hands and feet. Middle: Eland depicted in rock art. Notice the similarity in hooves between the eland and the above shaman
image. Right: The Linton Panel. All images from: The Linton Panel. 

Another iconic South African artefact that has a mix of human and animal representation is Head #7 of the Lydenburg Heads. It is thought to depict an aardvark (anteater). This animal lives on the surface and underground. It moves between two different spaces just like a coming of age initiate moves between the child and adult world.  This is one of the reasons archaeologists speculate that the Lydenburg Heads were used as part of a rite of passage ceremony. It is also thought that all seven heads where used like puppets to tell the initiates stories.  

Left: Lydenburg Head #7. Image by: Iziko Museums of South Africa. Right: Aardvark Orycteropus afer. Image by: Erdferkel.


Adopting Animal Symbols 

Many superheroes don’t shapeshift but rather adopt animal characteristics by wearing clothes or using objects similar to those of an animal. To adopt an animal characteristic could mean to wear something (a mask, clothing or jewellery) or mimic mannerisms (sounds such as roaring or howling, and movements such as postures or dance) that remind us of animals. The original Spiderman mimics the movements of a spider climbing up walls, he also invented a gadget that he wears to make webs.

Spider-man making webs. Created by: Marvel Comics. Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and Kaare Andrews. Fair Use Comic Single Panels.

Black Panther is an African superhero in the Marvel Comics Universe. He wears well-known symbols of African traditional leaders, which are motifs inspired by the leopard, also known as a panther.

Like many African traditional leaders, he wears a claw necklace. His mask resembles the head of a panther. This indicates he is a leader in his society of Wakanda – a fictional country in the Marvel narrative. The leopard symbolism is fitting considering his enhanced strength, speed, and fearlessness  (which comes from an elixir he drinks). 

Left: A completely black leopard, Panthera pardus, is known as a panther. This genetic condition is called melanism.Image by: Tambako. The Jaguar. CC BY-ND 2.0.
Right: Black Panther wearing symbols which mimic the leopard: claws and mask. Image by: William Tung. Wondercon2019 Black Panther Cosplay. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

In some traditional societies, highly ranked persons ceremonially wear body parts of a powerful animal as a symbol of power.  Many southern African societies reserve the wearing of lion claws and leopard skins for royalty or chiefs. Images of animals are also used as symbols in the flags and heraldry of nations, territories, and houses of nobility.

Left: HM King Goodwill Zwelithini, the current monarch of the Zulu nation, wearing the symbols of authority and royalty: lion claw necklace and leopard skin garments. Image by: Reinhardt Hartzenberg. HM King Goodwill Zwelithini. GNU CC BY-SA 3.0. Right: Royal Standard of the Kingdom of eSwatini, emblazoned with the maned lion, which is also the royal style of the Swati monarch, the Ingonyama (lion).

Iziko Museums of South African is the custodian of many South African artefacts, artworks and objects which have global historical and cultural importance. These collections help us understand ourselves as humans in this part of the world, by investigating cultural aspects of our ancient communities. Though our technology has changed, many of our symbols and methods of story-telling have remained the same.