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Not only do national animals represent a country’s values, but they’re meant to symbolize the collective nation. In the U.S., the fiercely independent bald eagle signifies the country’s penchant for freedom. In India, the sacred tiger is a symbol of power and beauty. And in Australia, the kangaroo is practically synonymous with the country itself. But what does it mean if the emblem of a nation doesn’t even exist? Here are eight national animals that aren’t actually real, and how they came to be officially recognized.
In most countries, unicorns are limited to children’s birthday parties, but not in Scotland. There, the mythical animal is revered amongst the public — portrayed on castles, cathedrals, and coats of armor throughout the country. As a symbolic icon used by Scottish kings, the unicorn traditionally represented purity and power in equal measure. According to local lore, unicorns are also proud and cannot be tamed, which may explain why the Scottish have such an affinity for the beautiful mythical creature.
Chollima (North Korea)
North Korea’s national animal is celebrated in a towering statue in Pyongyang, depicted by a flying horse carrying two Korean workers on its back. Called the “chollima,” which translates to “thousand-mile horse,” the animal has great meaning to North Koreans, despite its Chinese origins. Alluding to the country’s determination, grit, and pace in rebuilding after the Korean War, the strength and speed of the flying chollima represents how quickly the country was able to get back on track. As a special nod to the ability of the national animal, the country’s football team is also named after the flying horse.
It may seem odd that Indonesia’s national animal, the garuda, is a creature derived from Hindu mythology — especially since the country is predominately Muslim. However, the figure of the ancient, mythical eagle is redolent with symbolism to Indonesians. The bird’s gold-and-black feathers represent Indonesia’s strength as a nation and the natural world, respectively. The number of feathers on the tail (8), wings (17), and neck (45) are a nod to Indonesia’s Independence Day on August 17, 1945. And the motto in the garuda’s claws proclaims Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity), demonstrating how Indonesian citizens stand united, despite varying cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.
Thunder Dragon (Bhutan)
Bhutan, a country situated between China and India, is known as Druk Yul or the “Land of the Thunder Dragon.” As such, the thunder dragon is a source of pride for the Bhutanese, portrayed on both the national flag and the national emblem. On the Bhutan flag, in particular, the thunder dragon is prominent, divided between an orange-and-yellow background meant to depict equal division between religious and secular power. The dragon itself is meant to represent the purity of the country as a whole — the snarling mouth is a symbol of protection from the gods and the jewels enclosed in the dragon’s claws portray Bhutan’s prosperity and financial security.
Derived from Greek mythology, the national bird of Greece is the legendary phoenix, an immortal creature with the ability to rise from its own ashes. The regenerative nature of the phoenix has historical relevance in Greece, first as an emblem of the revolution in 1821 and later as the name of the country’s first currency. Often associated with life after death, the phoenix is often paralleled to the country’s ability to rise from its financial crisis.
Welsh Dragon (Wales)
The Welsh dragon is an icon of Wales, emblazoned on bumper stickers, badges, and jerseys throughout the country. Although it wasn’t officially adopted as a national symbol until 1959, the dragon first appeared as a battle flag in the 4th century and was later used by Henry Tudor in 1485. The legend behind the Welsh dragon harkens back to Arthurian Britain, when Merlin the magician was a just young boy. Merlin warned a Celtic king about two dragons — one red and one white — sleeping beneath the ground where the king wanted to build his castle. When the king went ahead with the castle’s construction anyways, the dragons were awakened and began to battle each other. The red dragon won the fight, and the creature went on to become an emblem of victory.
Double-Headed Eagle (Russia)
In Russia, the double-headed eagle is one of the nation’s most prominent national symbols, although there are several theories behind the meaning of this unusual creature. Some historians theorize that in 1497, when Ivan III borrowed the idea of the two-headed eagle from the Byzantines, he wanted to associate himself with the power of the fallen empire. From then on, the double-headed eagle was often employed by the monarchy and frequently featured on coronation regalia. However, since the two heads face different directions, it’s widely believed that the double-headed eagle represents the geographical position of Russia, as it spans from the Baltic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west.
Rooster of Barcelos (Portugal)
The fabled Rooster of Barcelos comes from a well-known Portuguese legend: When a traveling pilgrim was visiting the town of Barcelos, he was charged with a crime he didn’t commit. As he was pleading for his innocence to a judge, the pilgrim vowed that the judge’s meal (which happened to be a roasted cockerel) would stand up and crow as proof of his innocence. Just before the pilgrim was to be executed, the roasted cockerel crowed, and the judge rushed to save the pilgrim. Years later, the pilgrim carved an image of the Rooster of Barcelos, which became a symbol of luck, fortune, and justice throughout the country. As one of Portugal’s national animals, a figure of the Rooster of Barcelos is displayed in most Portuguese kitchens in order to bring good luck to the home.