The Tiger in Folklore, Mythology and Legend

Man’s relationship with the Tiger has been strong throughout the centuries. Whether this magnificent beast is feared or revered, there is no denying that it holds a certain intrigue, not least because of its solitary nature, incredible physique and stunning beauty. For hundreds of years this creature has signified different things to different cultures and, across the board, has become symbolic in many ways.

India, China, Japan and Vietnam are steeped in ancient culture and the beautiful animal appears almost to excess in their legends, myths and folklores. For anyone considering Tiger travel to see this iconic creature in the wild, knowing more about its relationship with man will make the experience so much more fruitful. Here is a short introduction to how the big cat features in the folklore of these four countries.


First and foremost, the Tiger is one of the twelve zodiac signs. It is also the earth sign in the Chinese martial arts and represents matter, opposing the Dragon that represents spirit. Many movements in this ancient art are based on the animal’s physique and the way it moves.

The markings on the forehead of the big cat are actually very similar to the Chinese symbol that means ‘King’, and therefore it is considered the ‘King of the Animals’. It also has a place in the Chinese Constellation (which comprises four symbols) and, because of its courage and fierce hunting abilities it is used to represent the highest-ranking army generals in Imperial China.


India is a wonderful place for Tiger travel, as it is one of the few places you can see these stunning creatures in the wild. Indian mythology is understandably bursting with references to the big cat. Not only is it believed that it brings grain in drought, it is also thought to promote fertility, protect children from nightmares, fight dragons, and heal the sick.

The God Vaghadeva is known as the Tiger God and is believed to protect the forest. There is even a tribe in Central India that believes they are descendants of the beast. In the region north of Mumbai, harvested crops are donated to its honour, with the animal a symbol of life and regeneration.


As is common in myth and legend, animals are believed to carry spirits. Over 100 years ago, Captain Henry Bandesson was travelling in what is now Vietnam before returning to tell the tale of a lady who was killed by one of the big cats. The local people believed that the soul of her dead husband, to whom she had been unfaithful, had possessed the animal. This did a lot for decreasing infidelity in the villages and towns in the area.

Conversely, the big cat is considered a protector. It is thought that if one kills a human, the soul possesses the person and transforms it into a protector. Consequently, the animal is revered and people avoid hurting it.


In Korea the animal is regarded as a messenger, thought to have been sent from a mountain spirit that features in many paintings, depicted as a bearded old man. When the Olympics were held in Seoul, the majestic creature was used as the symbolic representation of the Korean athletes. This shows how strong the animal is in the country’s culture, which believes it to be a guardian that brings good fortune.

These incredible beasts continue to fascinate us in the modern, western world. Dedicated, eco-friendly Tiger travel is the best and most responsible way to see them in their natural habitat.

Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in Tiger travel. Being passionate about her subject, Marissa chooses the expert-led wildlife holidays organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.

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Author: Desiree Michels