The otter, which rises to the surface of the water and then dives below it, possesses lunar symbolism and from this derive the properties for which it is used in initiation. Otter-skin is used in initiation societies both among North American Indians and among Black Africans, especially the Bantu of Cameroon and Gabon.
The Ozila, the female initiates with magical powers of conferring fertility, who dance especially at birth and marriage ceremonies, hold a horn in one hand and wear otter-skin girdles.
The shamans of the North American Ojibwa Indians keep their magic shells in an otter-skin bag. The messenger of the Great Spirit, who acts as intercessor between him and mankind, is supposed to have seen the wretched state of human weakness and disease and to have revealed the most sublime secrets to the otter and interfused its body with Migis (symbols of the Mide or members of the Midewiwin Medicine Lodge) so that the creature became immortal and could, by initiating humans, make them holy. All members of the Midewiwin carry otter-skin medicine bags. These are the bags which are aimed at the candidate at initiation ceremonies as if they were fire-arms and ‘kill’ him. They are then laid on his body until he is restored to life. After song and feasting the shamans present the new initiate with his own otter-skin bag. The otter is therefore an initiating spirit which kills and restores to life.
In Europe evidence of the role of conductor of souls being assigned to the otter comes from a Romanian folk-song which speaks of the otter, with its intimate knowledge of rivers, guiding the soul across fords unharmed to the cool spring from which it can find refreshment.
In the Celtic world the symbolism of the otter (Irish doborchu; Welsh dyfrgi; Breton dourgy, literally ‘water-hound’) complements that of the dog. Ciichulainn began his succession of exploits by killing a hound and he ended it, a few moments before his own death, by killing an otter with a sling-shot.