‘Evolution’s greatest survivor’ – that’s author Lynne Kelly’s ode to the crocodile. In the West, both alligator and crocodile are symbols of destructive voracity, and agents of divine retribution.
For many of us, our introduction to the crocodile comes in the story of Peter Pan (1904), in which the villain, Captain Hook, has lost a hand to a croc, and later loses his very life. Both are seen as hypocritical murderers. But to be consumed by such a powerful beast rings of human sacrifice in which the victim believes he’s died an exalted death.
Alligators and crocodiles are both members of the ‘crocodilian’ family, one of the few species on earth that don’t hesitate to treat humans as food. That puts them at the top of the food chain, challenging human supremacy.
Alligators and crocodiles are powerful symbols of stealth, patience, and ‘hidden danger’. Their protruding, retractable eyes are like binoculars, resting just above the water’s surface, while the bulk of the reptile remains invisible under water. When they strike, they’re extremely accurate and efficient, as if they possess an underwater radar. With an excellent sense of sound, and with sensory organs all over their bodies, they can extrapolate the vibrations of its prey into a deadly attack plan. As an opportunistic ambush predator, the crocodile will remain submerged anywhere from thirty minutes up to two hours.
Psychologists find crocodilians an obvious symbol of our unconscious thoughts, urges and desires. Showing up in dreams, an alligator or crocodile might signify something known on an intuitive level, something not yet risen into consciousness, but which threatens to strike without mercy. Jungian analysts have a name for this unconscious and unwelcome part of ourselves – the ‘Shadow’.
Sporting a ‘crocodilian’ tattoo might suggest that there’s more to you than meets the eye. But that might be interpreted more as a warning than a welcome.
A crocodilian as animal totem includes its more positive qualities – maternal love (female crocodilian will fiercely protect their nest of eggs and newborn young), swiftness, survival instinct, primal energy, and an unbridled creative force. And, yes, fury and ferocity. But best of all — revenge through patience. The crocodile and the alligator is also the keeper and protector of ancient knowledge. If you identify closely with the alligator or crocodile, you have the potential to be wise, but you must caution against being consumed by this wisdom.
Ancient Egyptians worshipped the crocodile as lord of the water and king of the Nile. It was the symbol of the Pharaoh, not only because it was the most ferocious predator, but because people associated it with the wetlands, which were the lifeblood of the country. Legend tells of Menes, the first king of Egypt, being rescued by a crocodile when he fell into a swamp. Ferried to safety, Menes built a city on the spot and called it Crocopolis, dedicating it to the crocodile fertility god, Sobek. Priests kept tame crocodiles, adorned their ears and legs with gold ornaments, and allowed pilgrims to present the animals with gifts of food. Egyptians embalmed many of these holy crocodiles in the same manner as they did humans. According to the Greek historian, Heroditus, the pyramids were beyond description, but the labyrinthine temples containing the mummies of crocs and kings impressed him more.
In Papua, New Guinea, the indigenous ‘Crocodile people’ practice a rite of passage that involves the use of scarification so that the backs of adult male members resemble the armored leather scales of a crocodile. The process of male initiation is of great social importance in Sepik societies and the ritual has specific symbolic meaning. During the ceremonies that make up the rite of passage, adolescent males hear stories about their ancestors, learn the uses of secret instruments, learn to withstand pain with stoicism and they are instructed on a man’s obligations within the culture. In those rituals where the skin of the young is deeply cut, mimicking the design of a crocodile skin, the ritual is a grueling ordeal. The wounds are later rubbed with a mixture of ashes, oil and mud to promote the formation of keloid scar tissue, and thus create a permanent relief pattern.
While alligators and crocodiles have much in common, their difference is usually noted in the shape of their jaw. Crocs have the more pointed V-shaped snout adapted for a largely fish diet, while the alligator’s more rounded jaw proves better for crushing turtles. The crocodile is also identified by a lower tooth that protrudes when its mouth is closed.
As for ‘crocodile tears’, it would seem that the myth is true. Crocs have an extra set of transparent eyelids that contain lubricating fluid for use when the croc is out of the water. People report seeing the croc ‘crying’ over its kill.
Crocodilian can inhabit both fresh and saltwater and some saltwater crocodiles have reached enormous size, over twenty feet in length, with some legendary creatures reaching twenty-five feet in length. In places like Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia, saltwater crocodiles are extremely dangerous and once an individual crocodile develops a taste for human flesh they will often specifically target people. For cultures that live along the water’s edges, and depend on the water for transportation, food and drinking water, the crocodile is a creature much to be feared.
In Africa, the Nile Crocodile can grow up to twenty feet in length, and in parts of West Africa the local crocodiles have learned to time their feedings with the seasonal migrations of the large herbivores such as the wildebeest, antelope, warthogs and the zebra. The crocodiles will gorge themselves during the migration season and then often go months between meals. A crocodile can eat up to half its body weight. During periods of famine and drought, large, hungry crocodiles will even attack the Cape Buffalo and other large predators like the leopard and even lions. A group of crocodiles has even been observed killing a rhinoceros.
Approximately 200 people around the world are killed each year by crocodilians, primarily in Africa and Southeast Asia.