Cranes Mythology and Culture


Illustration in the English manuscript Harley Bestiary (13th century) of the legend of the vigilant cranes. At night cranes take turns keeping watch for enemies.

The fable of the geese and the cranes, from Aesop’s Fables, has it that the geese and the cranes were feeding in the same meadow, when a bird catcher came to ensnare them in his nets. The cranes, being light of wing, fled away at his approach, while the geese, being slower of flight and heavier in their bodies, were captured.

The cranes’ beauty and their spectacular mating dances have made them highly symbolic birds in many cultures, with records dating back to ancient times. Crane mythology is widely spread and can be found in areas such as the Aegean, South Arabia, China, Korea, Japan and in the Native American cultures of North America.

In northern Hokkaidō, the women of the Ainu people performed a crane dance that was captured in 1908 in a photograph by Arnold Genthe. In Korea, a crane dance has been performed in the courtyard of the Tongdosa Temple since the Silla Dynasty (646 CE).

The Sanskrit epic poet, Valmiki was inspired to write the first śloka couplet by the pathos of seeing a male Sarus Crane shot while mating.


Cranes depicted in a bas-relief from Ankor Wat 12th century

In Mecca, in pre-Islamic South Arabia, Allāt, Uzza, and Manāt were believed to be the three chief goddesses of Mecca, they were called the “three exalted cranes” (gharaniq, an obscure word on which ‘crane’ is the usual gloss).

In China, several styles of kung fu take inspiration from the movements of cranes in the wild, the most famous of these styles being Wing Chun, Hung Gar (tiger crane), and the Shaolin Five Animals style of fighting. Crane movements are well known for their fluidity and grace.

The Greek word for crane is Γερανος (Geranos), which gives us the so called Cranesbill, or hardy geranium. The crane was a bird of omen. In the tale of Ibycus and the cranes, a thief attacked Ibycus (a poet of the 6th century BCE) and left him for dead. Ibycus called to a flock of passing cranes, who followed the attacker to a theater and hovered over him until, stricken with guilt, he confessed to the crime.

Pliny the Elder wrote that cranes would appoint one of their number to stand guard while they slept. The sentry would hold a stone in its claw, so that if it fell asleep it would drop the stone and waken. A crane holding a stone in its claw is a well-known symbol in heraldry, and is known as a crane in its vigilance.

Greek vase depicting the battle between the cranes and the Pygmies

Aristotle describes the migration of cranes in the History of Animals, adding an account of their fights with Pygmies as they wintered near the source of the Nile. He describes as untruthful an account that the crane carries a touchstone inside it that can be used to test for gold when vomited up. (This second story is not altogether implausible, as cranes might ingest appropriate gizzard stones in one locality and regurgitate them in a region where such stone is otherwise scarce.)

Greek and Roman myths often portrayed the dance of cranes as a love of joy and a celebration of life, and the crane was often associated with both Apollo and Hephaestus.

Throughout Asia, the crane is a symbol of happiness and eternal youth. In Japan, the crane is one of the mystical or holy creatures (others include the dragon and the tortoise) and symbolizes good fortune and longevity because of its fabled life span of a thousand years. The crane is a favourite subject of Haiku poetry and the tradition of origami or paper folding.

An ancient Japanese legend promises that anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish by a crane. After World War II, the crane came to symbolize peace and the innocent victims of war through the story of schoolgirl Sadako Sasaki and her thousand origami cranes.


Suffering from leukemia as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and knowing she was dying, she undertook to make a thousand origami cranes before her death at the age of 12. After her death, she became internationally recognised as a symbol of the innocent victims of war and remains a heroine to many Japanese girls.

Pine, Plum and Cranes, 1759, by Shen Quan (1682—1760). Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. The Palace Museum, Beijing.