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Weasels and stoats are among the world’s small­est preda­tors, and yet they fig­ure large in the hu­man psy­che, ap­pear­ing in leg­ends and myths from around the world. Sto­ries of their prow­ess date to an­cient times when they were as­so­ci­ated with witches and be­lieved to be omens of death.

The an­cient Mace­do­nians be­lieved that see­ing a weasel was a good omen, while the an­cient Greeks held the su­per­sti­tion that a weasel was an em­bit­tered bride who had taken the guise of an an­i­mal and would de­stroy the wed­ding dresses of brides to be. In me­dieval times, weasels ap­peared in myth­i­cal bes­tiaries and some leg­ends claimed that weasels con­ceived through their mouths and gave birth through their ears. Weasels were also be­lieved to be the only thing that could kill a basilisk (a mon­ster so lethal it can slaugh­ter you with a sin­gle glance), which they did by re­leas­ing a lethal odour. In Ir­ish folklore, it was bad luck to see a stoat at the be­gin­ning of a jour­ney.

In the Bri­tish psy­che, a weasel’s rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing un­trust­wor­thy is such that the very word ‘weasel’ means sneak­ing or con­niv­ing. This as­so­ci­a­tion is hardly sur­pris­ing, as gen­er­a­tions of Bri­tish chil­dren have grown up with books such as Ken­neth Gra­hame’s The Wind in the Wil­lows (1908), in which stoats and weasels are cast as vil­lains and crim­i­nals. Ad­mit­tedly in The An­i­mals of Farthing Wood by Colin Dann (1979), the weasels are far more lov­able, if a lit­tle cheeky.

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