Anyone who has ever watched a squirrel jumping from tree to tree will know what amazing acrobats they are, able to leap ten times their body length. They can turn their ankles 180 degrees to face any direction when they climb, and their tails account for nearly half their body length. In fact the name “squirrel” is derived from the Greek (via Latin and Anglo-Norman) for “shadow” (“skia”) and “tail” (“oura”), rather apt for a rodent that lives in the shadow of its own tail.
Ask any child to name a fictional squirrel and they will probably choose either Squirrel Nutkin or Scrat, the prehistoric squirrel from the Ice Age series of films. Scrat is an interesting creation in that his appearance was widely mocked by palaeontologists when the first film was released, as a ridiculous fictional creation that was nothing like anything that had ever existed. However, the same year as the film was released a 60 million year old skull was found in Argentina of a mammal resembling a squirrel, but with an elongated snout and sabre teeth – basically Scrat.
Squirrels might seem like cute little chaps, but the Vikings had different ideas about them. In Norse mythology, “Ratatoskr” was a squirrel who ran up and down the tree of life, delivering gossip between the dragon at the bottom and the eagle at the top, doing his best to aggravate them both. Oddly, some Native American tribes also have a myth of a troublemaker squirrel, called “Meeko”. Perhaps the simplest explanation for this is the chattering sounds squirrels make. It is not difficult to imagine how two unconnected cultures could both interpret that sound as “gossip”.
There is also some evidence that “shadow-tails” can be troublemakers in real life as well. In the spring of 2013 residents of a street in Camden were puzzled to find their soap going missing from their bathrooms, until one of the gang of thieves was spotted making a getaway with a bar of soap. The culprit was a squirrel.
The article above was first printed in Envoy, the magazine of Midhurst Parish Church. I am an occasional contributor to Envoy and I am including a selection of my previous articles on this blog to allow them to reach more readers who might be interested in the topics.