Animals and their Symbolic Meaning in the I Ching
Frank O'Shea firstname.lastname@example.org
Dragon (mythical) -- Awesome Power, symbolic of the Superior Man
Horse -- Service to Man, means of advance,escape or retreat
The Ox -- Docility, religious sacrifice
The Bull -- Horns, advancing, opening a gate
The Ram -- Butting strength
The Fishes -- Medium of Exchange (possibly)
The Pig (Boar) -- Dangerousness, violent movement
Marmot -- cowardice, stealth
Pheasant -- Success in Hunting, a prize
Tiger -- Conduct, Fear
Leopard -- Successful Change
Fox (young) -- Lack of Caution
Birds (generic) -- Exceeding, going to extremes
The horse appears in a number of hexagrams as a creature for the service of man. It can be symbolic of the secondary world (hexagram 2) that is, man as servant or slave. The horse is often seen in association with a carriage or chariot, a means of movement. Otherwise it symbolises swift escape following wounding.
The ox appears as symbolic of the quality of being docile. The I finds this to be a quality necessary to the accomplishment of difficult or unpalatable undertakings. To nourish a docility like that of a cow, a docile humility, leads to good fortune. In another part of the I the ox becomes a religious sacrifice or offering.
The bull is symbolic of goring, therefore of danger from the horns, which must be guided or covered.
The ram is used in a similar context to that of the bull. Both animals are used to illustrate the task of opening a gate (overcoming an obstruction). Both animals have horns which they attempt to use to advance through a gate. The lesson in both cases is on the use of strength or the correct measure of strength to be used in overcoming obstacles.
Fishes might be considered a medium of exchange in ancient China in so far as this meaning might be deduced from the way in which they are referred to in the text. If you consider that the buck was used as medium of exchange in early American history (and became a slang word for the dollar) the fish may also have played a similar role in China. The text refers to a subject 'having no fish in his wallet' (ill fortune), 'having fish in his wallet' (which brings good fortune) or leading on the people like 'a string of fishes'.
The pig is a symbol of dangerousness, particularly of sexual dangerousness, of violent movement and even hysteria. It is spoken of in association with castration.
The marmot or rat is only mentioned in one line in the I and represents cowardly advance, or negative qualities in a person.
The Pheasant is used to mean both a prize of hunting and a luxurious food (Hexagram 50).
The Tiger and the Leopard are often used interchangeably. The popular saying 'changing like a leopard (tiger) does when he changes his spots' is practically a verbatim quote from the I and perhaps this is where it comes from. The tiger or leopard is used in the I to mean an apprehensive power, a power that commands respect and fear, a power that if it is transgressed will bite, especially the unworthy.
The Fox, although mentioned elsewhere in the I is a dominant motif of the final two hexagrams (63 and 64). In the west the fox is a symbol of cunning. So also in the I but here the young fox symbolises lack of caution or the lack of mature judgement that its elderly relative symbolises. The young fox is seen crossing a river and although almost across yet sinks beneath out of inexperience and recklessness. Its traversing of nine tenths of the river is all for nothing because of its failure at the end. So also the bringing of human affairs to a successful end (the endgame) is perhaps the most difficult task especially in a world given to continuous change where no conclusion is absolute.
Finally the ascending and descending power of birds is used to represent 'the right approach'. To fly aloft is to exceed and miss the proper course. To descend is sometimes better than to ascend. Undue measure in the face of a problem or excessive abstraction when a concrete practical response is called for can be a disaster for the individual or state.