Cranes are among the most symbolically meaningful birds, and indeed, animals, in the world. From China to Japan to North America to Australia, these elegant and beautiful wading birds have a wide-reaching impact on human cultures and stories.
Cranes are amongst the tallest flighted birds in the world, with the Sarus Crane achieving heights of almost six feet. Despite their large size, the crane’s powerful wings allow it to carry itself across the sky. (1)
Representing wisdom, longevity, peace, prosperity, and a huge array of other ideas and virtues, cranes stand out amongst their peers as birds which truly speak to the human heart. Something about the crane, with its tranquil beauty and flashy mating dances, captures our imagination like few other animals can.
Table of contents
- Crane Symbolism and meaning
- Crane Native American Symbolism
- Crane Eastern Symbolism
- Crane Christianity Symbolism
- Crane Celtic Symbolism
- Crane African Symbolism
- Crane in Dreams
- Crane Encounters and Omens
- Crane’ Mythology and Folklore
- Crane Spirit Animal
- Crane Totem Animal
- Crane Power Animal
- Crane Tattoo Meaning
Crane Symbolism and Meaning
Cranes are major symbols for endangered species and conservation. In fact, the Whooping Crane has a long and troubled history with humans which has inspired some of the earliest United States legislature regarding endangered species and preservation. In 1942, the total known population of Whooping Cranes was reduced to just sixteen birds. Miraculously, thanks to extensive conservation efforts, Whooping Cranes do persist to this day, however their numbers remain in the double digits. For this reason, cranes may represent endangered species, vulnerability, or habitat concerns. They may also represent new beginnings, hope, conservation, and responsibility. (2)
Cranes are often used as symbols of tranquility, peace, or patience. Often, wading birds are associated with such ideas thanks to their slow graceful movements and serene appearances.
Cranes are known for the mating dances which they perform. Cranes use both vocal calling and dancing to communicate. Cranes often dance in order to win a mate and form a pair, but they may also dance in order to strengthen their bonds. Crane dances are often imitated by human cultures, including some Native American tribes, native Japanese Ainu groups, and Australian indigenous peoples. Cranes may represent romance, synchronization, or rhythm. (4)
Crane Native American Symbolism
Native American cultures often see cranes as being connected with weather phenomena. They are also considered good luck symbols by many tribes. (5)
According to a Cree legend, the red face and long legs of the crane are the result of a favor that it once did for the rabbit. The story goes that the rabbit was admiring the moon one day when he decided that he would like to go there. He asked each of the birds to take him, but the hawk and eagle said the moon was too far and the sparrow and wren said that he was too heavy to carry. Finally, rabbit asked the crane who promised to try his best. The rabbit held onto the crane’s legs, but since he was quite heavy they began to stretch. Still, the crane endured until he was huffing and puffing and red in the face. Still, he kept going. Finally, the two reached the moon and enjoyed the view of the earth below. From then on, the crane has had long legs and a bright red face. (6)
Crane Eastern Symbolism
Much of Japanese symbolism regarding the crane is associated with longevity. Japanese folklore suggests that cranes can live for as long as a thousand years. Since World War II, cranes have taken on a new meaning in Japan and around the world. On August 6, 1945, the United States detonated an atomic bomb over the city of Hiroshima. This was the first of two such bombings, the other targeting Nagasaki, and the consequences were immediate and devastating. (7)
Tens of thousands of people were killed instantaneously and many more suffered from injuries and displacement in the chaotic aftermath of this event. The parents of two-year-old Sadako Sasaki were among those affected. When the bomb struck, Sadako’s mother feared that her daughter had been killed by the impact. Miraculously, though, Sadako and her brother had both survived. Their grandmother was killed, but within a few years the family managed to achieve some semblance of normalcy once again. By 1955, the war was over and Sadako was a happy and playful girl who enjoyed athletics and thrived in school. One day, however, she reported feeling dizzy and unwell. It was determined that the radioactive fallout from the Hiroshima bombing had given the twelve-year-old child leukemia. (8)
While in the hospital, Sadako’s father told her of the legend of the crane. Because cranes were said to live for one thousand years, he told her that there was a myth stating that if one person folded one thousand origami paper cranes, then any wish that they had would be granted. Sadako was taken with this idea and set to work folding cranes. Over the course of her eight-month-long hospitalization, Sadako Sasaki folded over 1,300 paper cranes. She wished for herself and then moved onto wishing for the wellbeing of her family. When she ran out of paper, she used medical wrappings, gift wrappings from get-well presents, and anything else she could find. In the end, Sadako died from her illness. What she did not know was that her paper cranes, and the wish that she poured into each of them, would resonate with both her nation and the entire planet. Sadako Sasaki has become an international symbol for peace, hope, innocence, and the dire costs of war. Likewise, cranes have come to represent Sadako’s wishes for a world without suffering. (9)
We will discuss Japanese crane myths further in the mythology section of this article.
According to Chinese legend, Taoist monks were sometimes thought to be capable of transforming themselves into cranes.
Chinese legend also states that a disciple of Confucius named Tseng sang showed mercy to a wounded crane that he had found. As a reward for this kind act, the crane returned the next day with its mate and both birds held a pearl which they gave to Tseng sang as thanks.
Above all else, cranes tend to be connected with longevity and wisdom in Chinese folklore.
Crane Christianity symbolism
“I hearkened and heard, but they spake not aright: no man repented him of his wickedness, saying, What have I done? every one turned to his course, as the horse rusheth into the battle. Yea, the stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle and the crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming; but my people know not the judgment of the Lord.”–Jeremiah 8:6-7 (10)
In the above passage, the crane is used to demonstrate the innocent wisdom of nature. Unlike mankind, who rebels and questions God, the bible suggests that the animal kingdom is full of creatures which innately understand their role in God’s plan. (11)
Crane Celtic Symbolism
In Celtic traditions, cranes are connected with magic and the Otherworld. The legendary Irish god, Lugh, is said to have performed magical curses by hopping on one leg to imitate the crane. According to legend, standing on one leg allowed to walk between worlds, just as closing one eye was thought to allow one to see into other worlds. (12)
Further folklore focuses on the myth of the “crane bag.” According to Irish mythology, the vicious witch Aoife was transformed into a crane. When she died in this form, Manannan Mac Lir, a god of the sea, is said to have used her skin to craft a bag inside of which he hid incredible treasures. It is speculated to this day that the crane bag may have contained the “ogham ciphers,” letters from the lost pre-Christian writing system of Ireland. The crane bag is a legendary treasure which is said to have been passed down to a number of Irish heroes through the ages. (13)(14)
Crane African Symbolism
According to one African legend, the an African king was walking through the savannah one day when he became hopelessly lost. Thirsty and desperate, he asked the animals that he encountered to help lead him to an oasis. One by one, the elephant, the zebra, and the wildebeest refused to help him because they knew that he had hunted them before. Then, a long slender crane stepped before the king and graciously led him to the oasis where his companions were searching for him. The king was humbled and rewarded his savior by placing a crown of gold upon the crane’s head. That is why, to this day, the Gray Crowned Crane of Africa sports an impressive crown of golden feathers. (15)
Cranes are associated with leadership, humility, and regality. (16)
Crane in Dreams
Dreaming of a crane may represent harmony or prosperity. A crane dream may signify a bit of good luck in one’s near future. Crane dreams may also indicate that one feels at peace with their choices.
Dreaming of a pair of cranes may indicate a desire to communicate freely with someone else. Such a dream might mean that you feel as though you are holding back in your self-expression.
Crane Encounters and Omens
Encountering a crane may be a sign of health, longevity, or even a good luck sign which indicates that one’s wish might just come true. Crane encounters will continue to grow scarcer and scarcer if preservation efforts cannot keep up with habitat loss. A crane encounter might be a reminder of the importance of preserving these birds along with other threatened wildlife.
Crane Mythology and Folklore
The myth of the “Crane Wife” is one of the most well-known crane myths in the world. This Japanese story begins with a poor man who finds an injured crane with an arrow through its wing. The man pitied the crane and chose to tend to its wounds. He sternly warned the crane to avoid hunters and then saw it off as it flew away. When the man returned to his home, he heard a woman’s voice call out to him. The voice welcomed him home and said that she was his wife. When he entered his home, he saw a beautiful woman with a bag of rice. He explained to her that he was too poor to take care of her, but she answered that her bag of rice would always be full enough to feed them. Sure enough, the two lived happily on that bag of rice until one day, the wife warned her husband not to look into her weaving room. Then, she spent several days weaving a beautiful bolt of cloth for him to sell. The man was curious, though, and chose to peak the next time she locked herself away to weave. Instead of a woman, he looked into the room and saw a crane weaving cloth from its feathers. The crane looked at him sadly and explained that she had fallen in love with him when he rescued her, but now that he had seen her true form she could no longer stay. That night, the crane left and the man never saw her again. (17)(18)
In heraldry, cranes represent vigilance. This is due to an old myth from Pliny the Elder which states that cranes appoint one of their number as a sentry to watch over the flock. The sentry bird holds a stone in one claw so that, if it falls asleep while on the job, the stone will drop and the other birds will be warned of their vulnerability.
Crane Spirit Animal
If your spirit animal is the crane then you are likely thoughtful, giving, and innocent. People with the crane as their spirit animal strike a difficult balance between maturity and innocence.
The crane spirit animal is selfless and often devotes quite a lot of thought and hope towards others. People with the crane as their spirit animal are truly giving and put others before themselves. (19)
Crane Totem Animal
The crane totem animal is connected with health, healing, and rewards. People with the crane as their totem animal may have a talent for healing. Furthermore, the crane totem animal can be a useful comfort for those in need of healing during periods of difficulty or strife.
The crane totem animal also represents the incredible rewards that can come to us when we perform selfless acts. Putting good energy into the world is sure to yield happy returns. (20)
Crane Power Animal
The power of the crane is connected with serenity and peace. During even the most trying times, a bit of relaxation and comfort can be essential. Reducing stress always helps. The crane power animal represents the strong resolve that comes from a calm heart.
Crane Tattoo Meaning
An origami crane tattoo represents peace, hope, and innocence. Such a tattoo may also represent one’s wishes.
Crane tattoos may represent healing, health, or a long life. A tattoo of a crane with a stone in one claw is a heraldic symbol for duty, vigilance, and protection.
There is so so so much more that we could say about the crane and its many roles in human cultures from around the world. As a matter of fact, the stories and legends included here hardly scratch the surface of the impact of this incredible and breathtaking bird. The crane’s amazing impact on humanity makes it all the more vital that these often endangered birds are protected and preserved so that many more generations of humans can grow up alongside them.