Sunday, June 8, 2014

Animals in Medieval Heraldry

This post is brought to you by Janalyn Voigt. Escape into creative worlds of fiction.

As an author of allegorical Christian fantasy set in the middle ages, I am perhaps more tuned in to symbolism than the average person. That's whay I'm blaming for my fascination with medieval heraldry, anyway. Animals, important symbols in medievel heraldry, were divided into natural classifications like beasts, birds, sea creatures, and others. For purposes of brevity, I'll focus here on the most popular heraldic beasts found in nature. I cover mythical creatures and their symbolism at Fantasy Worlds, my fantasy book extras site.

By far the animal most often used in medieval heraldry was the lion, depicted standing erect with forepaws raised. One lower leg might also be raised as well. All heraldic beasts can most often be found in this rampant position. This was not necessarily how the animal represented would actually hold itself, but experience of exotic heraldic animals was limited, and rampant position seemed most natural to medieval artists.

Other beasts occurring often in heraldry include the wolf, bear, boar, horse, bull, and stag. All were used to convey specific meanings.

Symbolism of Popular Animals in Medieval Heraldry

bear in medieval heraldry
Bear: represented a great warrior in Celtic heraldry and also served as the royal emblem for Persia and Russia. It was used to convey skill in diplomacy, strength, courage, and ferocity in defense. The bear also symbolized health.
Boar: stood for intrepidness and fierceness in combat. Even when cornered and at bay, a boar never stops fighting, so only the fiercest of warriors displayed this animal.

Bull: signaled courage, generosity, strength, and fortitude. It was also used to indicate a dedicated father.
Horse: symbol of speed, intellect, spirit, power, bravery, virility, and loyalty. It was used to show readiness for battle.
Lion: The lion displays the deathless courage of a valiant warrior, majesty, strength, justice, military might. The heraldic lion also symbolizes Christ due to a quaint notion of their compassion. They were said to attack man only and to spare women and children. Another source of the lion as a symbol of Christ is the Bible, itself, which describes the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. "Then one of the elders said to me, "Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals" Revelations 5:5 (NIV).

Stag: This emblem of the ancestors of the Celtic race shows the wisdom not to fight unless provoked. A favorite in Ireland, it is a symbol of peace and harmony, purity and fleetness. Its branch-like antlers are said to represent the Tree of Life. The regenerating of its antlers also makes the stag representative of renewal. The stag was also used as a symbol of healing.
Wolf: Symbolic of ferocious strength, intelligence, and bravery, the wolf was thought to be able to paralyze its enemies with a look. A wolf crest was granted for loyal military service in a guardianship capacity.

I've covered the most popular heraldic animals. Do you have a favorite?

Below you will find links for further study and to look up your own family's coat of arms, if one exists. Discovering the meanings it contains can be very enlightening when considered in light of your family history.

About Janalyn Voigt

Escape into creative worlds of fiction with Janalyn Voigt. Her unique blend of adventure, romance, suspense, and fantasy creates worlds of beauty and danger for readers. Tales of Faeraven, her epic fantasy series beginning with DawnSinger, carries the reader into a land only imagined in dreams.

Janalyn is represented by Sarah Joy Freese of Wordserve Literary. Her memberships include ACFW and NCWA.

When she's not writing, Janalyn loves to discover worlds of adventure in the great outdoors.

Visit the author site for Janalyn Voigt
Further Reading

Research Your Family's Coat of Arms


  1. This is really interesting. The McDonough family crest has a square in the middle with two lions facing one another at the top of the square and a boar at the bottom. The whole shield is green and yellow, except for the lions, which are red, and the boar, which is white. Do you know if the colors hold any symbolism?

  2. Everything in heraldry holds symbolism, Vickie. I'll try to do some more posts on it. The first thing you should know is that you are describing a coat of arms and not a crest. The portion of the coat of arms that sits above the helmet. For the McDonoughs that is an arm holding a dagger on which there is a salamandar. Here's a link to some McDonough family history: and one to help you with your symbolism question:

  3. Oops, I should have read back through that answer. This sentence: The portion of the coat of arms that sits above the helmet should be this: The portion of the coat of arms that sits above the helmet is the family crest. Also, I fogot to mention that the arm represents a person with strong leadership qualities, the dagger is symbolic of justice and military honor, and the salamandar stood for protection. From what I read, the McDonoughs are descended from the ancient kings of Connacht and from the King of Sliego, so this makes sense.