The beaver is known in Gaelic as dobhran losleathan, meaning ‘broad-tailed otter’. The European beaver was hunted to extinction by the 18th century but it is now making a comeback in Scotland.
It is surprising how few Scottish beaver folktales there are when you think about how recently this charismatic rodent was still with us. But it does feature in the folklore of some other cultures and has had a long relationship with humans.
In times past, people prized the beaver for its meat, fur, and also for castoreum, an oily substance produced by glands beneath its tail. This scent-marking secretion was seen as as something of a wonder-drug. Castoreum was definitely an effective remedy for some ailments.
One of the beaver’s favourite foods is the inner bark of willow. Willow bark contains salicylic acid, the chemical compound from which aspirin was developed. This substance is found in castoreum, so it did provide anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. Castoreum was still used in some parts of the world as a base for perfumes into the 20th century.
Humans have used the beaver’s thick waterproof fur for thousands of years. At Sutton Hoo, archaeologists found scraps of a beaver-skin lyre bag in the burial chamber of Raedwald, King of the East Angles. In recent centuries beaver hats remained popular fashion items.
The front teeth of beavers are so strong and sharp that Neolithic and the Iron Age people used them as woodworking tools. Gold-mounted beaver incisors have been found in Anglo-Saxon burial mounds.These may have been amulets believed to protect the owners’ own teeth.
Beaver meat has also been popular, and the paws and tail were eaten by Catholic monks on Fridays. The church believed that beavers qualified as fish rather than meat.
In the past, there was a lot of misinformation about the beaver’s lifestyle and habits. There was a particularly bizarre notion about the male’s response to being hunted. This myth was presented in one of Aesop’s Fables, the 6th century Greek collection of moral tales.
The story of The Hunted Beaver tells of how, when pursued by hunting dogs, the beaver chewed off his own testicles (or tail in some versions) and ran away. This gave the hunter the prize he was after, saving the beavers own life. Beavers don’t do this!
There was probably some confusion as to what the hunter was after. Castoreum is actually produced in the anal glands. Even so, the moral of this slightly disconcerting tale is that a voluntary sacrifice may help avert even greater loss.
A more damaging notion was the belief that beavers eat fish. This is a total fallacy as they are completely vegetarian. In more recent popular mythology, we find a heroic pair of beavers in C.S.Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
Mr and Mrs Beaver are friendly and hospitable, and shelter the Pevensey children soon after they arrive in Narnia. They also lead them to the great lion, Aslan. They are shown to have pride in their home and real beavers are indeed good house-keepers.
However, the lovable beavers in the story are portrayed as eating fish. Lewis was no doubt completely unaware of the damage this did to beaver – human relations. Many people, even today, are hostile towards beavers because they mistakenly see them as competition for fish.
The presence of beavers in Britain is still echoed in a number of place-names. Examples include Beverley in Yorkshire, meaning beaver’s stream.
Canada’s national animal, the Canadian beaver is a different species to the European beaver. It is far more industrious in its damming activities, giving rise to the popular term ‘eager beaver’.
Beavers feature a lot in Native American folklore, and modern ecologists have dubbed beavers the ‘Earth’s kidneys’ as they play such a vital role on freshwater ecosystems.
Fossils show that during the last Ice Age a giant species of beaver the size of a bear dwelled in North America. It was probably hunted to extinction by humans. An Algonquin myth about Wishpoosh, the giant beaver, may be an echo of that ancient time. In the tale, ferocious Wishpoosh doesn’t allow anyone else to fish in his pool, killing them if they try. The trickster, Coyote, decides to take him on, and an epic battle ensues.
An Ojibwa legend, tells of How the Beaver got its Tail. The beaver visits a series of animals in the forest to show off his big round fluffy tail, which he is very proud of. When he realises no one is impressed, he begins to gnaw down trees in pure frustration, until a tree falls and squashes his tail.
The Creator sees his tears of sorrow and asks why he is crying. “My tail is ruined!” wails the Beaver, “no-one will like me now!” The Creator replies “A beaver isn’t liked for its tail, but for its kindness and wisdom. And besides now you can swim better and signal to your family by slapping your tail on the water!” The beaver was happy once more and never boasted about his tail again.
In many parts of Europe the beaver is now sought not for its fur or oil, but by tourists and nature lovers, seeking a glimpse of this fascinating animal.
There are places in the Britain where beavers are back in wild again thanks to reintroductions. Perhaps before long we will begin to hear new stories and folktales about this characterful rodent.
Sources and further reading:
- Beck, J.C. (1972) The Giant Beaver: A Prehistoric Memory?
- Ethnohistory, Vol. 19, No. 2 pp. 109-122
- Buczacki, S. (2002) Fauna Britannica. Hamlyn:London
- Lambert, R.A. (1998) Species History in Scotland. Scottish Cultural Press: Edinburgh.
- O’Connor, T. And Sykes, N. (eds). (2010) Extinctions and Invasions: A social history of British fauna. Oxbow Books: Oxford.
- www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/HowTheBeaverGotHisTail-Ojibwa.html (Accessed 10th April 2020)