Throughout human history, the diverse peoples who populated the vast Asian continent have had one thing in common: They feared and revered the tiger. Throughout this cat’s range, their stealthy, illusory habits—suddenly appearing and disappearing in dense forests, often at night—elevated them to the status of otherworldly beings.
For millennia, the largest of the world’s cats has been an iconic symbol of power and courage, woven into culture, religion, folklore and ritual. Teeth, claws and other body parts became amulets. In legend, tigers brought food to men and women lost in the forest; tigers fought the forces of evil, protecting tribes, holy men, babies; tigers acted as a potent agent of fertility—and provided passage between the worlds of the living and the dead.
Nine tiger species once roamed from Siberia’s boreal forests southward to the steamy tropical jungles of Indonesia, and from present-day Turkey all the way to the East China Sea. The earliest fossil, a tiger-like skull unearthed in China, is two million years old.
Neolithic cave paintings are the earliest existing depictions, etched into rock walls across the Indian subcontinent 8,000 years ago and in China’s Helan Mountains; the oldest surviving tiger statue was sculpted in China some 1,000 years later.
Tribal cultures everywhere deified this cat, and it’s no wonder. This magnificent animal is the reigning predator across its range, huge, muscular, possessing fearsome teeth and claws and a roar that resounds for miles. Tigers radiate power. They inspire awe.
That reverence has taken many forms. For the Chinese, the tiger represents the masculine and rules over all the world’s creatures, literally marked by royalty: The four stripes on its forehead form the character wáng, meaning king. The Tibetans believed that tigers held the key to immortality. The Koreans considered them messengers sent by a venerated mountain spirit that appears in paintings as an elderly, white-bearded man—accompanied by a tiger. The Naga tribes in Myanmar and India believed that man and tiger are brothers, one human, the other striped.
For many tribes, killing the beast was an unforgivable sin.
Shaman in many countries invoked tigers to move between worlds in order to communicate with the dead. Accounts from the early 1900s describe “were-tigers” in Sumatra, people who transformed into tigers at nightfall and shape-shifted back into human form at sunrise.
Morphing into a tiger seemed to be a common occurrence across Asia. In India, were-tigers were evil sorcerers, in China were-tigerhood was considered a hereditary curse, and in Thailand, rampaging man-eaters were thought to be angry were-tigers. In Malaysia and Indonesia, the harimau jadian (benevolent were-tigers) that guarded plantations were only dangerous if they were hungry.
The transformation from human to striped feline is described in various fables: It usually began with the feet turning into enormous paws, equipped with sharp, sheathed claws. Legs and arms, chest and back expanded, rippled with muscle, and then the skin was blanketed in russet fur, slashed by black stripes. A tail appeared between the man-cat’s long rear legs. Finally, an enormous tiger head appeared. Back in human form, these people appeared normal, except for one tell-tale physical anomaly: They lacked a groove in their upper lip.
Tigers were widely believed to carry the spirits of the ancestors. Captain Henry Bandesson, who traveled in Annam (modern-day Vietnam) at the turn of the 20th century, recounted a case where a woman was killed by a tiger that was thought to be inhabited by the soul of her dead, cuckolded husband—and acts of infidelity in her village instantly became very rare.
But tigers were most commonly worshipped as powerful protectors. Many believed that when a tiger slayed a human, their soul entered the animal’s body, transforming it into an everlasting protector that would forever watch over them in time of crisis—so few dared to kill them, even the man-eaters. The Javan tiger, before it went extinct in 1980, guarded the Tree of Life.
Indian mythology is filled with tigers: the tiger fights dragons, brings rain in time of drought, brings babies to the childless and then keeps those children safe from nightmares, and has the ability to heal. In a creation story from the northeast state of Nagaland, the mother of the first spirit, the first tiger and the first man emerged from the earth together through a pangolin’s den.
But worship continues to this day: Vaghadeva, the tiger god, is honored as guardian of the forest, propitiated with offerings of flowers and incense placed on simple rock shrines. In Central India, the Baigas, or Tiger Clan, consider themselves the cat’s descendants. North of Mumbai, the Warli tribe erects wooden tiger statues for use in fertility rites: At harvest time, they decorate them with images of entwined snakes, trees, the moon, stars and the sun—and donate part of the year’s harvest to the tiger as a symbol of life and regeneration.
These cats also watched over the dead. As far back as the 13th century in China, tiger imagery was etched into tombs and monuments to ward off the malevolent spirits that tormented the deceased. In Chinese folk tales, the cat killed the evil and guarded the good. And in pre-colonial Indochina, the forest-dwelling Moi people endowed them with supernatural powers that required extreme deference: They called the cat ‘his eminence’, ‘lofty one’, ‘the master’, ‘my lord’, or ‘the gentlemen’—but never ‘tiger’.
Bandesson also discovered a belief that the soul of a tiger’s victim is carried around on the tiger’s back—and they carry deities, too. The warrior Hindu goddess Durga, slayer of demons, rides a massive tiger. A tiger helped Chang Tao-Ling (who’s considered the founder of Taoism) to vanquish the king of the demons and amass enough power to ascend to heaven; he, too, rode a tiger.
In art, tigers have been depicted with wings or drawn conjoined with a streaking white star amidst the Milky Way, protecting Earth from above. With their ancient legacy as givers of life, mediums, gods, and guardians, it’s no surprise that for millennia, medicine men of the East have imbued tigers and their parts with untold healing properties. It’s a belief system that has proven deadly, with growing demand for tiger parts pushing tigers towards the brink of extinction.
Follow Sharon Guynup on Twitter: @sguynup
Next up: In part six of the Talking Tigers series, I’ll report on the use of tigers as part of the ancient traditional Chinese medicine apothecary.