Mythical Zoo | Witchcraft | Body, Mind, & Spirit
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Boria Sax

Santa Barbara, California Denver, Colorado Oxford, England

Copyright © 2001 by Boria Sax

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Sax, Boria.
The mythical zoo : an encyclopedia of animals in world myth, legend,
and literature / Boria Sax.
p. cm.
Includes index.
Summary: An encyclopedia of animals as they have appeared in myth and
legend throughout history.
ISBN 1-57607-612-1 (hardcover : alk. paper); 1-57607-613-X (e-book)
1. Animals—Folklore—Encyclopedias. 2. Animals—Mythology—
Encyclopedias. 3. Animals, Mythical—Encyclopedias. 4. Animals in
literature—Encyclopedias. [1. Animals—Folklore—Encyclopedias. 2. Animals—
Mythology—Encyclopedias. 3. Animals, Mythical—Encyclopedias.] I. Title.
GR705 .S344 2001

06 05 04 03 02 01 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

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Preface, vii
Introduction, ix

The Mythical Zoo

Ant, 1 Elephant, 104
Ape and Monkey, 6 Falcon and Hawk, 111
Ass, Mule, and Camel, 14 Fly, Louse, and Flea, 114
Bat, 21 Fox, Jackal, and Coyote, 116
Bear, 23 Frog and Toad, 123
Beaver, Porcupine, Badger, and Grasshopper, Locust, Cricket,
Miscellaneous Rodents, 29 Cicada, and Mantis, 129
Bee and Wasp, 34 Hare and Rabbit, 135
Beetle, 41 Hart and Hind, 141
Bull and Cow, 44 Hedgehog, 147
Butterfly and Moth, 52 Heron, Ibis, Crane, and Stork,
Cat, 57 149
Cock and Hen, 64 Hippopotamus, 154
Crocodile, 68 Horse, 157
Crow, Raven, and Other Hyena, 164
Corvids, 72 Lion, Tiger, Panther, and Jaguar,
Cuckoo, Nightingale, Lark, 173
Woodpecker, and Other Ostrich, Hummingbird, Parrot,
Musical Birds, 78 and Peacock, 185
Dog, 85 Owl, 189
Dove and Pigeon, 95 Pig, 193
Eagle, 101 Rat and Mouse, 201

Rhinoceros, 207 Starfish, Clam, Octopus, and
Salmon and Carp, 211 Other Creatures of the Sea
Scorpion, 214 Floor, 244
Seagull, Albatross, and Other Swallow, 247
Seabirds, 217 Swan, Goose, and Duck, 249
Seal and Dolphin, 219 Turtle and Tortoise, 255
Sheep and Goat, 222 Whale, 263
Snake, Lizard, and Related Wolf, 267
Animals, 227 Worm, 274
Sparrow, 235 Wren and English Robin, 276
Spider, 237
Index, 281
About the Author, 299

vi Contents

Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,

In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.
—W. B. Yeats, “The Magi”

I would like to thank my wife, Linda Sax, who read parts of this man-
uscript at various stages of composition and made numerous correc-
tions and offered many useful suggestions. My thanks go also to Di-
anne Littwin, my agent, who did an excellent job of selling the
manuscript. Several of the illustrations are taken from the Pictorial
Archive Series from Dover Books. All biblical quotations are from the
Jerusalem Bible.
Both animals and their symbolism are overwhelming in their va-
riety, and this book could theoretically become as endless as the sub-
ject itself. In a similar way, the sources of this book are so many and
varied that it would be very cumbersome, and perhaps impossible, to
list them all. I have tried, in the selected references following each en-
try, to give either those that had special importance for the preceding
text or would be particularly useful to the reader who wishes to in-
vestigate further. Citations have been confined to direct quotations. In
a few retellings of stories, I have taken the liberty of inventing bits of
dialogue to make the story more vivid, and these, of course, are not
cited. In doing this, I have never changed the plot, and this mild li-

cense certainly follows in the tradition of the legendary Aesop, whose
stories exist in several variants but not in any definitive edition.
In a project such as this one, finding material is never a problem,
but deciding what to leave out can be a very big one indeed. My pol-
icy has been to emphasize depth rather than breadth. I wished to con-
vey the ideas underlying the treatment of animals in myth, legend,
and related aspects of human culture, rather than simply give bits of
disconnected information. This book is intended not only for use as a
reference but also to document how profoundly animals and their
symbolism are integrated into human values. It is important for us to
be aware of this today, as we confront the massive extinction of fa-
miliar varieties and the genetic engineering of new ones.

viii Preface

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet (act 1, scene 5)

You are sitting in the park and your eyes meet those of a squirrel.
What do you see? The Vikings saw a messenger that moved back and
forth between the underworld and the abodes of humans and gods.
The Ainu saw the worn, discarded sandals of the god Aioina. For late
medieval people, the squirrel was sometimes a form taken by a witch.
Simply by saying the name “squirrel,” however, we dissipate part of
the mystery.
In the second biblical tale of creation, Adam gains dominance
over the animals by naming them (Gen. 2:20). Did he give them names
as species such as “Elephant”? Did he give them individual names
such as “Babar”? In the language of God, words fit reality so perfectly
that there was no need for such distinctions. Since human beings were
scattered after Babel, we have lost that perfect language. A single crea-
ture is “Rover,” “dog,” “pet,” “canid,” “mammal,” and many other
things besides.
Without the primal language of Adam, the act of naming the an-
imals is a continuous process. Aristotle first systematized the classifi-
cation of animals. In the modern era, the Aristotelian system of classi-
fication was greatly refined by Carolus Linnaeus. Before the
eighteenth century, bats were usually considered winged mice. After
looking carefully at their anatomy, Linnaeus decided that bats were
really primates. Reconsidering, he finally placed them in a separate
family, and that is where they have stayed ever since. The classifica-

tions we use in everyday life are usually rough, informal versions of
those that have been worked out by scientists over the centuries.
Scientists generally regard animals as belonging to different
species when they do not habitually mate together. Although dogs,
wolves, jackals, and coyotes are capable of mating together, they gen-
erally do not do so in the wild, so each of these is considered a distinct
species. In contexts of domestication, however, such a definition be-
comes problematic. A horse and an ass not only can mate but also are
often induced to do so to produce a mule, which retains useful quali-
ties of both species. Today, with food animals the genetic manipula-
tion is so intense that sometimes one can no longer speak of species at
all. The turkeys that are sold for Thanksgiving have such large breasts
that they cannot reach one another to mate but must be reproduced
through artificial insemination.
With gene splicing, it is now possible to cross divisions not only
of species and genus but even between plants and animals. Scientists
have produced a cross between a sheep and a goat, known as a
“geep.” They have inserted genes from flounder into the genetic code
of tomatoes to increase resistance to frost, and they have inserted
genes from chickens into tomatoes to make the plants more resistant
to disease. They have placed human genetic material in pigs to pro-
duce organs that will not be rejected when transplanted into human
beings. These creatures are like the monsters of folklore, and it may
well be that in the future we will see crosses between human beings
and chimpanzees or gorillas. Contemporary genetic theory views an-
imals, including human beings, less as individuals or representatives
of species than as repositories of hereditary information. As we ex-
amine new ways of thinking about animals, it is best not to forget the
older ones. These traditional perspectives are intimately linked to cul-
tural values and practices that we have developed over millennia.
When it comes to establishing the identity of an animal, biology
is not nearly enough. Often we are so impressed with the success of
science that we forget it is merely one aspect of a larger tradition.
Every name places an animal in a tradition that is constantly devel-
oping. It surrounds the animal with ideas and associations. My dic-
tionary defines “tradition” as “an inherited pattern of thought and ac-
tion.” It comes from “trade,” which originally meant “track.” To study
a tradition is to track a creature, as though one were a hunter, back
through time. The names we give animals carry intricate expectations
and assumptions. As we learn of the traditions that have grown up
around animals, they regain something of the magical quality that
they had in cave paintings of prehistoric times.

x Introduction
Tradition does not mean uncritically following precedents but
simply retaining continuity with the values of the past. Some people
are suspicious of tradition because they associate it with cruelty and
injustice—as in the Inquisition, for example. Yet it is the values em-
bedded in tradition that enable us to protest such abuses. The Chris-
tian value of love, for example, proved more basic than injunctions
against heresy, and so the Inquisition was ended. Traditions develop
in an organic way, which is a bit like the evolution of living organisms.
Like many species of animals and plants, traditions are vanishing.
To define a kind of animal strictly in terms of biology is too nar-
row, too technical, and too restrictive. It is not even very meaningful
under conditions of domestication, whether on a farm or in a zoo,
where animals do not necessarily choose the partners with which they
breed. It becomes almost meaningless with genetic engineering,
where breeders exchange genes across lines of species. Suppose we
work to preserve either a species in the wild or a breed in domestic-
ity. What exactly are we preserving? A collection of physical charac-
teristics? A piece of genetic code? A part of a habitat?
If we define each sort of animal as a tradition, our definition in-
cludes all of these and more. It also includes stories from myth, leg-
end, and literature. All of these, with the love and fear they may en-
gender, are part of an intimate relationship with human beings that
has been built up over millennia. To regard each sort of animal as a
tradition also encourages respect. Why should we care about species
extinction? Why should we care about the welfare of strays? Appeals
to transcendent reasons do not satisfy people in our secular society.
Appeals to pragmatic reasons, such as preserving the ecosystem, are
easily subject to challenge. Tradition links animals to the ideas, prac-
tices, and events that make up human culture.
Perhaps the greatest of the many ethical problems faced by hu-
man beings at the beginning of a new millennium is deciding the ex-
tent to which we are entitled to alter the natural world for our con-
venience. Unprecedented capabilities such as genetic engineering and
the harnessing of atomic energy give us far more power than wisdom.
The idea of every animal as a tradition will not give us a simple an-
swer to our dilemmas, but it will at least provide a way in which to
think of them. Traditions tend to degenerate when they are not ad-
justed to changing conditions, but alterations are generally made in a
cautious and respectful manner. To preserve an animal as a tradition,
we must know it intimately, we must be familiar with the lore that has
grown up around the creature since time immemorial.

Introduction xi
Metamorphosed Animals
Remember the Frog Prince from a famous fairy tale by the Grimm
brothers, the very first in their collection? Well, he had a long and dis-
tinguished history, though it is not mentioned in books for children.
Long ago in the days of the mammoths, he was a powerful totem, sa-
cred to human beings. During the Middle Ages, he joined forces with
the Devil to become the animal companion, or “familiar,” of a witch.
Then, probably in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, he reformed.
A young woman transformed him into a human prince by—depend-
ing on which version of the story you prefer—giving him a kiss,
throwing him against a wall, or chopping off his head.
In tribal societies, human form is not always important. All be-
ings are forever changing their shapes, like waves breaking on the
shore. Human beings may become ravens, while hares may turn into
human beings. You become what you eat; you become what you are
eaten by. Death is simply a transition, a bit like the passage from girl
to woman or boy to man.
Totems are animals from which a tribe traces its ancestry. Be-
yond that, they are guardians of the tribe, at times revisiting the
members in trances or in dreams. Among the Indo-Europeans, the
tribal totem was perhaps most frequently the wolf. Going into battle,
warriors would be possessed by the spirit of the wolf, and our leg-
ends of werewolves are a legacy of that archaic time. A mother wolf
suckled Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome; a
woodpecker fed them. Among people of the Far North, totems were
most often birds. For the Native Americans of the Northwest coast,
the favorite totem was frequently the raven, sometimes the bear; for
tribes farther south, it might have been the coyote, beaver, or jaguar.
Legends of totemistic societies commemorate learning the arts of
civilization from observation of animals. The Navaho Indians, for ex-
ample, tell how women learned to weave from Spider Woman. Other
stories may tell of learning to build from beavers or to hunt from
wolves. Traditional dances often imitate the motions of animals, while
music sometimes mimics their sounds. Observing what bears or
snakes would eat has revealed many herbal medicines. Many totems
from archaic societies lived on as the helpful animals in fairy tales—
the cat in Charles Perrault’s “Puss in Boots,” for example. Today the
legacy of totemism is everywhere, from the mascots of sports teams to
heraldic animals on coins.
Marriages of people with animals often led to the founding of a
tribe. As they hunted or went off to war, men told tales of animal
brides. As they sat together and spun, women told of animal grooms.

xii Introduction
Illustration by J. J.
Grandville showing
animals entering a
steam ark

For both men and women, the animal was that mystery in a partner
that no intimacy could fully overcome. In each other’s eyes, lovers
still are “squirrel” and “dove.”
Among many tribal peoples, the ability to take the form of an an-
imal had been the sign of a great shaman, but this changed in urban
societies. In the Metamorphoses of the Roman poet Ovid, taking the
form of an animal was generally a punishment. The maiden Arachne
was changed into a spider for being arrogant. Zeus changed King Ly-
caon into a wolf for serving his guests human flesh. The goddess Di-
ana changed the hunter Actaeon into a stag for intruding upon her
bath. Buddhists and Hindus believed that animals needed many rein-
carnations spread across millennia to become human beings.

Divine Animals
The prehistoric cave paintings of France and Spain are among the most
ancient works of art that we have. The human beings in these paintings
are usually crude stick figures that the artists must not have considered
very important. The animals are painted with far more care and pas-
sion. The first clearly identifiable religious shrines in history are at
Çatal Hüyük in Anatolia and date from around the middle of the sev-
enth millennium A.D. They were dedicated to animals, especially bulls,

Introduction xiii
Some of the forms
taken by the
Egyptian cow-
goddess Hathor

but also vultures, foxes, and others. The ancient Egyptians believed
their creator god Ptah was incarnated in a bull named Apis that could
be recognized by specific markings. Apis was kept in a temple and
honored in sacred rites. The Egyptians also worshipped their gods as
incarnated in cats, ibises, and many other creatures.
Over millennia, anthropomorphic goddesses and gods slowly
replaced the animal deities. The archaic divinities accompanied their
more human successors, often as mascots or alternate forms. Athena,
for example, was pictured with an owl, Zeus with an eagle; Odin was
accompanied by ravens and by wolves; Mary, mother of Christ, was
often shown with a dove. The monkey-god Hanuman, who fought
alongside the hero Rama in the epic Ramayana, is now perhaps the
most popular figure in the Hindu pantheon. There is a bit of an ar-
chaic mother-goddess in the “wicked witch” of Halloween, pictured
with a faithful spider at her side.
As tribes were absorbed into kingdoms and empires, their reli-
gions were fused and local deities were combined. Archaic practices
sometimes continued as local cults or customs. In Rome, people
would sometimes keep snakes in their homes, believing it the spirit of
an ancestor. This practice survived into modern times in parts of Italy.
A few holy men and women retained the shaman’s gift of speaking
with creatures of the woods and fields. Saint Francis preached to the
birds, while Saint Anthony evangelized the fish.
Figures that blend human and animal features became common
with the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. The
gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt often had a human torso and the
head of an animal—crocodile, baboon, jackal, cat, falcon, or ibis. The

xiv Introduction
Greeks had their centaurs and satyrs, while the Hebrews had cheru-
bim and seraphim. Garuda, the carrier of the Hindu god Vishnu, had
the torso and face of a man but the wings and beak of an eagle. Yet an-
other fantastic animal was al-Borak, the steed on which Mohammed
made his flight to Heaven; she had the body of a horse and the face of
a woman, and she could see the dead.
The unicorn, usually shown as a horse with the horn of a nar-
whal, became the most popular fantastic animal in the Middle Ages.
Edward Topsell, a zoologist of Renaissance England, rebuked those
who doubted the existence of the unicorn, saying that that was to
doubt the power of God. In the early modern period, many sailors
told of encountering mermaids, creatures that embodied the wonder
and terror of the sea.

Demonic Animals
The Hebrews constantly struggled against the old animal cults. Moses
killed thousands of people for introducing the Hebrews to worship of
the golden calf. The old totems would not simply disappear; they of-
ten became devils. A devil will often have the horns of a bull, the teeth
of a wolf, the legs of a goat, the tail of a monkey, and the tusks of a
boar. One poor weaver who was convicted of sorcery in early modern
Scotland described demons as being “like flies dancing around a can-
dle” (Scott, p. 249).
In witch trials of the Renaissance, especially in Britain, people
claimed that demons would visit a sorcerer as an animal companion.
The demon was frequently a cat, and felines might be burned along
with a convicted witch. Often, it was a snake, toad, lizard, spider, cat,
or dog. A suspect was sometimes forced to sit in the middle of a room
where she would be deprived of sleep and watched for twenty-four
hours. Witch hunters made a hole in her door, and any creature that
approached her, whether spider or cat, was considered her familiar.
For the poor and vulnerable, keeping pets or even feeding animals
could arouse suspicion of witchcraft.
Furthermore, witches themselves were often shape shifters. In
sixteenth-century Scotland, Isobel Gowdie confessed without com-
pulsion to being a witch. She said that witches commonly took the
form of animals such as crows or cats. Once she took on the form of a
hare to deliver a message for the Devil. A neighbor’s hounds began to
chase her; she jumped into her home and took refuge behind a chest.
Finally, Isobel managed to elude the dogs long enough to say a charm
that returned her to human form. A mark where a dog had nipped at
her remained on her back.

Introduction xv
Satiric Animals
In The Epic of Gilgamesh, from Mesopotamia early in the first millen-
nium, the hero undertook a journey to the world below and found the
plant of immortality. A snake stole the plant, shed its skin, and lived
eternally. Ever since human beings have striven to be heroes, animals
have deflated human pretensions. Along with the story of Gilgamesh,
archeologists digging up the library of Assyrian king Assurbanipal
found the first animal epic, known as The Fable of the Fox, where lion,
dog, and wolf all boast and plead, acting as pretentious and vulnera-
ble as human beings.
After Homer wrote of the heroes of the Trojan War, an unknown
Greek wrote Batrachyomachy, the epic battle between frogs and mice.
These mighty warriors clashed around a pond, as Zeus and all the
gods looked on. The invincible mouse-hero Meridarpax seemed about
to lead his men—or, rather, mice—to victory, when Zeus sent armored
crabs to drive the invaders away.
According to Judeo-Christian tradition, animals spoke to Adam
and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Countless tales all over the world begin
with a formula like “In the days when animals talked like people . . .”
The fables of Aesop, who lived on the Greek island of Sámos in the sixth
century before Christ, are set in a world where all beings, from gnat to
lion, can speak to one another like human beings. In epic stories of an-
imals, such as the Hindu Panchatantra or the Arab Kalila wa Dimna, an-
imals have a society unto themselves. They bargain, quarrel, and make
friends with little regard for species.
In the folklore of the Merovingians, who ruled Germany and
much of France at the beginning of the Middle Ages, the creatures of
the forest have a court. The lion is king, while the bear and stag are no-
bles. Every year at the summer solstice they meet to hear lawsuits and
dispense justice. As human rulers in Europe appeared less glamorous
and more corrupt, people also took a more jaundiced view of the ani-
mal kingdom. In stories of Renard the Fox, told throughout Europe to-
ward the end of the Middle Ages, the king of beasts was just a fool for
all his pomp. The wolf and fox quarreled over chicken stolen from the
coop, in the language of piety and romance.
Brer Rabbit outwitted the fox and wolf in tales told among peo-
ple of African descent in the Caribbean and the South of the United
States. Satirists such as J. J. Grandville drew goats and roaches parad-
ing about in formal clothes. On the editorial pages of newspapers,
politicians today become newts and dogs.

xvi Introduction
Illustration by J. J.
Grandville to a fable
by La Fontaine,
“The Frog Who
Wanted to Be as
Large as a Bull.”

Political Animals
Animals became degraded as giant industries took agriculture over
from smaller farms and private homes. Once feared and killed with
ceremony, animals are now raised in cramped cells and according to
rigid regimens, and then they are slaughtered on assembly lines. And
yet this degradation and helplessness makes human beings identify
with animals. The experimental lab where several million rats and rab-
bits are killed every year has often been used as a metaphor for Bol-
shevik Russia; the industrial abattoir has become a common metaphor
for the concentration camps in Nazi Germany.
Animal Farm by George Orwell, first published in 1946, begins
with the animals revolting and driving the farmers away. Gradually,
however, the pigs become more and more like human beings, as they
learn to sell, slaughter, imprison, and exploit the other creatures. The
novella ends, “The creatures outside looked from man to pig, and
from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was
which” (p. 128).
Animals are constantly used in propaganda. Portrayed as apes,
people might be mocked. Or people might be called “pigs” or “sheep,”
so they could be slaughtered. They might be called “wolves” or “bears”
so they could be hunted down, or “viruses” so they could be extermi-
nated. In Maus (1991), a comic book telling of his father’s life in Ausch-

Introduction xvii
witz, cartoonist Art Spiegelman made inmates into mice, the Nazis into
pigs or cats. In 1988 the prime minister of Israel said he would crush the
Palestinians “like grasshoppers.” A sales pitch for mouthwash shows lit-
tle creatures cowering in terror and tells us, “They’re germs; they de-
serve to die.” One advertisement for Orkin pest control shows the bar-
rel of a large high-tech gun pointed by an exterminator with the caption
“The last thing a bug sees.” Still another, this one for Combat Roach Bait,
shows a bunch of dead cockroaches lying on their backs with the cap-
tion “Tired of living with thousands of strangers”—a clear appeal to re-
sentment against recent immigrants (Boxer, section 4, p. 2).

The Modern Period and After

People usually think that there is a big difference between animals
and ourselves, but just what it is, is very hard to say. Is it our intellect?
Emotion? Stupidity? Technology? Tragic destiny? Religion? Lan-
guage? Success? Morality? Wickedness? Power? War? Our use of fire?
Our upright stance?
Modern scientific culture began in the seventeenth century with
René Descartes. He described animals as intricate machines, yet few
people could believe that of a beloved dog. As pets proliferated, so
did their stories: a cat had learned to open all the locks in her home; a
pig could do arithmetic and spell; a nightingale gave singing lessons
to other birds from inside its cage; dogs beat all comers in card games.
Toward the end of the sixteenth century, Michel de Montaigne in
France collected anecdotes in “Apology for Raymond Sebond” to
show that human intelligence was not so special. He explained that
tuna must know mathematics since they move in regular patterns;
they must also know astrology, since they guide themselves by stars.
In the Romantic Movement of the late eighteenth and early nine-
teenth centuries, a revolt against the constraints of civilization led to the
celebration of wild animals. Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, the most
popular naturalist of the time, believed that all animals once had a civil
society with laws, before they were murdered and enslaved by human
beings. The last remnants could be found in the New World, where
beavers still built villages, created constitutions, and held courts of law.
In the eighteenth century, Linnaeus classed human beings as
primates, placing them in the same genus as apes, monkeys, and
lemurs. Then in 1859 Charles Darwin proclaimed his theory of evolu-
tion in The Origin of Species, suggesting (at first, he did not dare say it
outright) that humanity evolved from something like an ape. There
were passionate debates and embarrassed snickers; people joked
about having gorillas for grandfathers. Racists depicted those from

xviii Introduction
other cultures—Africans, Irish, Jews, and Japanese—as being like
apes. The targeted people were drawn as slouched over with dan-
gling arms and receding foreheads.
But modern people have feared above all the “animal” in them-
selves. The metaphor of “the beast within” was used in the Victorian
era to explain all sorts of vices, from lechery to gluttony. Physiogno-
mists looked for animal features in the faces of human beings. Sig-
mund Freud and his disciples divided human character into the “id,”
which represented the beast (or instinct) in human beings, and the
“ego,” or self—the two of which were in constant conflict.
Today anthropomorphic animals are everywhere we look: tigers
sell cornflakes and gasoline; talking cows sell milk; bulls and ducks
represent sports teams. Centerfolds of undressed women in Playboy
are called “bunnies,” while in Penthouse, a rival magazine, they are
called “pets.” The cartoon character Joe Camel was so effective in sell-
ing cigarettes to teenagers that massive protests forced the tobacco
company to discontinue ads with him in 1997.
Hatred as well as love can still “humanize” other creatures. De-
monic animals fill our horror stories, such as Cujo by Stephen King
(1981), named after a beloved pet who goes on a rampage of lurid
murders. Perhaps Cujo was infected with rabies by a bat? Perhaps
Cujo is a reincarnation of a policeman who killed many women? The
author leaves the reader to decide. Diabolic animals also fill the silver
screen, from the shark in Jaws to the tyrannosaurus in Jurassic Park and
the snake in Anaconda.
Over the millennia, the greatest trend in our understanding of
animals has been an increasing secularization. In early human settle-
ments, animal gods replaced the totems of tribal societies. These
deities, in turn, were generally subordinated to anthropomorphic
gods and goddesses. By the Middle Ages, the predominant view of
animals was symbolic and allegorical, and it became increasingly nat-
uralistic in the modern period. Today, countless species are driven to
extinction, and people, who are becoming increasingly urban, have
ever less contact with animals on a daily basis. This has resulted in
two seemingly contradictory trends.
On the one hand, there is ruthless exploitation of animals in fac-
tory farms and in industry. In 1989, an animal was patented for the
first time: a mouse genetically engineered to develop cancer. The
cloning of a sheep named Dolly in 1997 has largely broken down the
boundary between living organisms and manufactured objects. There
are now entire varieties called “pharm animals,” developed solely to
produce certain chemicals.

Introduction xix
At the same time, our current estrangement from animals seems
to have revived some of the numinous qualities they had in the ar-
chaic past. They connect us with a history in which people often
seemed to live on a grander and more heroic scale than they do today.
Now the discipline of ecology makes animals guardians of the ecosys-
tem, and their fate is linked with that of human beings. Ecologists
count frogs or butterflies to learn about a possible apocalypse; these
researchers are a bit like the ancient priests of Greece or Babylon who
would foretell the future from the flight of birds. Scientists have tried
to decipher the languages of animals, from bees to monkeys.
Every animal is a tradition, and together animals are a vast part
of our heritage as human beings. No animal completely lacks human-
ity, yet no person is ever completely human. By ourselves, we people
are simply balls of protoplasm. We merge with animals through
magic, metaphor, or fantasy, growing their fangs and putting on their
feathers. Then we become funny or tragic; we can be loved, hated,
pitied, and admired. For us, animals are all the strange, beautiful,
pitiable, and frightening things that they have ever been: gods, slaves,
totems, sages, tricksters, devils, clowns, companions, lovers, and far
more. When we contemplate the inner life of animals, myth is finally
our only truth.

Selected References
Boxer, Sarah. “Look into Those Big Bug Eyes and Shoot.” New York
Times 4 (August 27, 1995): 2.
Cooper, J. C. Symbolic and Mythological Animals. London: Aquarian/
Thorson’s, 1992.
Griffin, Donald R. The Question of Animal Awareness: Evolutionary Conti-
nuity of Mental Experience. New York: Rockefeller University, 1976.
King, Stephen. Cujo. New York: New American Library, 1981.
Le Guin, Ursula. Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences. New York:
New American Library, 1987.
Montaigne, Michel de. “Apology for Raymond Sebond.” In The Com-
plete Essays of Montaigne (2 vols.). Trans. Donald M. Frame. Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1959, vol. 1, pp. 428–561.
Orwell, George. Animal Farm. New York: Harcourt, Brace and
Janovich/ Signet Classics, 1946.
Rifkin, Jeremy. The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the
World. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/ Putnam, 1998.
Sax, Boria. The Frog King: On Legends, Fables, Fairy Tales, and Anecdotes of
Animals. New York: Pace University Press, 1990.
———. “The Mermaid and Her Sisters: From Archaic Goddess to Con-
sumer Society.” ISLE 72 (summer 2000): 43–54.
———. The Parliament of Animals: Legends and Anecdotes, 1775–1900. New
York: Pace University Press, 1990.

xx Introduction
Scott, Sir Walter. Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. J. and J. Harper,
Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (2 vols.). New York: Pantheon,

Introduction xxi
See Seagull, Albatross, and Other Seabirds

In the ant’s house, the dew is a flood.
—Persian proverb

In Greek mythology, after a plague had wiped out his people, King
Aeacus begged Zeus, the supreme god, to give him as many citizens
as there were ants in a certain sacred tree. Zeus changed the ants in
the tree into warriors. These were the Myrmidons, who later fought
under Achilles. Ants are a lot like warriors: They march in columns;
they show unbounded courage. No matter how large their foe, they
still attack. No matter how many of their number are killed, they will
not surrender or retreat. An ant that is decapitated will continue to
bite at its adversary. For their size, ants are the strongest creatures in
the world, able to carry objects many times larger than themselves.
According to another myth, Zeus changed himself into an ant to
make love to the maiden Eurymedusa in Thessaly. She gave birth to a
child named Myrmidon, ancestor of the martial race. The efficient
Myrmidons not only prevailed in war but also prospered in peace.
Like ants, they would diligently work the soil.
Ants have regular access to the mysterious depths of the earth,
where metals and jewels are found. Herodotus told of ants in India
that were larger than foxes. As they burrowed in the ground, these
ants threw up huge heaps of sand that contained gold. The Indians
watched from a distance, then quickly packed the sand into bags and
carried them away on camels. The treasure hunters had to rely on sur-
prise in these raids, since the ants were extremely swift in pursuit.
“Why bother about the winter?” asked the grasshopper in a fa-
mous fable attributed to Aesop. The ant said little but went on storing

grain. Snow began to fall, and the
grasshopper begged for food. “You
sang all summer, so now dance all
winter,” replied the ant. This fable
makes ants appear almost as ruthless
in their diligence as they are in their
wars. “Idler, go to the ant; ponder her
ways and grow wise,” says the Bible
in a passage traditionally attributed
to Solomon (Prov. 6:6). Around the
world, the proverbial ant has long
been synonymous with industry.
Tribal healers in Morocco fed ants to
lethargic patients.
Creatures that live beneath the
earth, the world of the dead, are
frightening and mysterious. At festi-
vals of the dead, Jains and certain
Hindus feed the ants. West African
tribes have traditionally believed that
ants carry messages from the gods. In
ancient Greece and Rome, ants some-
Illustration by times appeared in prophetic dreams. When King Midas was a child,
Ludwig Becker ants carried grains of corn to his lips as he slept, a sign that he would
of soldier ants on one day achieve enormous wealth.
sentry duty According to Plutarch, when the Greek commander Cimon sac-
rificed a goat to the god Dionysus during a war with the Persians, ants
swarmed around the animal’s blood. They carried blood to Cimon
and wiped it on his big toe, predicting his imminent death. Ants are
still used in divination. To step on ants brings rain. A nest of ants near
your door means you will grow rich.
For all their reputation for ruthlessness, ants in folklore often
protect the weak and vulnerable. In the story “Cupid and Psyche,”
told in the novel The Golden Ass by first-century Roman author Lucius
Apuleius, the young maiden Psyche had fallen in love with Cupid.
The goddess Venus, Cupid’s mother, did not approve. She captured
Psyche, locked her up with a huge stack of many kinds of grain, and
demanded that all be sorted by nightfall. The ants pitied Psyche and
carried the different grains, one by one, to separate piles.
According to Cornish legend, ants are fairies, which over the
centuries have grown ever smaller and are now about to disappear.
Other legends make them the souls of unbaptized children, who are

2 Ant
admitted neither to Heaven nor to
Hell. All such tales reveal a kinship
that people feel with ants. Part of the
reason for the feeling may be recog-
nition of similarities between their
bodies and ours, large heads and
hips but slender waists. It may also
be that their small size and conse-
quent vulnerability elicit our sympa-
Ants appear in many European
tales as grateful animals. In one fable
by Jean de La Fontaine, a dove used
a blade of grass to a rescue a drown-
ing ant. Later, a hunter tried to shoot
the dove. The ant bit the man on the
heel and made his arrow go astray.
In Aztec mythology the seed of
maize was once kept in a mountain
by red ants. The god Quetzalcoatl
transformed himself into a black ant
and stole the seed to bring food to
humankind. As in so many European
stories, grain formed a bond between ants and humanity. The Hopi Illustration by
Indians traditionally believed that the first human beings were ants. Ludwig Becker of

In Walden, Henry Thoreau reported going to a woodpile and find- ants holding an
assembly in a pear
ing a battle raging between two varieties of ants, with the ground al-
ready “strewn with the dead and dying.” In one camp were “red re-
publicans”; in the other, “black imperialists.” “On every side,” Thoreau
continued, “they are engaged in deadly combat . . . and human soldiers
never fought so resolutely.” A valiant Achilles among the red ants came
to avenge a fallen comrade. He killed a black Hector, while the enemy
cavalry swarmed over his limbs. The gentle hermit of Walden Pond
wrote of this carnage with great excitement (pp. 206–207). Perhaps
those who believe there are no more heroes today should spend more
time around anthills. Ants live in a world a bit like that of old ro-
mances, filled with monsters (that is, termites, spiders, woodpeckers,
or human beings). Kingdoms with mysterious powers surround the
anthill. The ants must constantly battle in order to survive.
Perhaps when kings and lords ruled most of the world, it was
easier to identify with ants. The anthill could be seen to be a perfect
authoritarian state, one in which everyone accepted his or her role. As

Ant 3
Illustration by J. J.
Grandville to
La Fontaine’s
version of “The
Grasshopper and
the Ant.”

governments became more democratic, however, it became harder to

believe that such a society was possible or even desirable. Artists and
writers have tried to individualize ants, and that certainly has not
been easy.
When people look closely at ants, there is no telling what they
may find. Michel de Montaigne reported in “Apology for Raymond
Sebond” that the philosopher Cleanthes once observed a negotiation
between two opposing anthills. After some bargaining, the body of a
dead ant was ransomed for a worm.
Rev. J. G. Wood, in his extremely popular collection of animal
anecdotes entitled Man and Beast (first published in 1875), gave this re-
port of a lady who had killed several ants:

After a while, one more (ant) came, discovered his

dead companions and left. He returned with a host of
others. Four ants were assigned to each corpse, two to
carry it and two to walk behind. Changing tasks at
times so as not to become weary, the ants eventually
arrived at a sandy hill where they dug graves and
buried the dead. About six ants, however, refused to
help with the digging. These were set upon by the
rest, executed and unceremoniously thrown into a
mass grave. (p. 42)

4 Ant
Anthills are like metropolises or vast armies, and people can al-
most never distinguish among individuals. Perhaps, though, even ants
can have their nonconformists. The Disney film Antz (1998) tells of one
ant named Z, who was unable to work or dance in the same way as the
others. Gradually, he moved the workers over to his style of thinking.
He saved the colony from a flood and married the princess. Did they
live happily ever after? The ants started having millions of children,
but their anthill did not seem greatly changed. Perhaps the movie is
about the loosening of social restraints in the West during the late six-
ties. “Revolutions may be fun,” the message seems to be, “but don’t ex-
pect too much! Just like ants, we are ruled by our genes.”
Nothing we can say about ants is ever quite right. They are not
really communist or authoritarian. They don’t really even have work-
ers, soldiers, slaves, or queens. As scientists discover more about these
creatures, the experience of ants becomes harder to imagine. French
author Bernard Werber took up the challenge in his novel Empire of
Ants (first English edition, 1998). The ants, he explained, communi-
cate mostly by scent, using pheromones, so they are like one enor-
mous mind spread across the globe. A young female ant, separated
from her community, set out to found a new anthill. She explored the
world of a yard, filled with beetles, termites, and birds, until finally
she became queen of one vast colony that was powerful enough to
challenge human beings.
Well, ants really do not threaten us, but their society will almost
certainly outlast humankind. Ants thrive everywhere, from the Brazil-
ian rain forests to the tiny cracks between the pavements in New York.
Though they may appear frail, ants are able to survive even nuclear
tests. During the Renaissance, an ant was sometimes depicted de-
vouring an elephant to show the changeable nature of all things.

Selected References
Apuleius, Lucius. The Golden Asse of Lucius Apuleius. Trans. William
Adlington. London: Abbey Library, ca. 1920.
Davies, Malcolm, and Jeyaraney Kathirithamby. Greek Insects. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
La Fontaine, Jean de. “The Pigeon and the Ant.” In Selected Fables.
Trans. James Michie. New York: Viking, 1979, p. 49.
Montaigne, Michel de. “Apology for Raymond Sebond.” In The Com-
plete Essays of Montaigne (2 vols.). Trans. Donald M. Frame. Stan-
ford: Stanford University Press, 1959, vol. 1, pp. 428–561.
Plutarch. Greek Lives: A Selection of Nine Greek Lives. Trans. Robin A.
Waterfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, and Other Writings of Henry David
Thoreau. New York: Modern Library, 1965.

Ant 5
Topsell, Edward, and Thomas Muffet. The History of Four-Footed Beasts
and Serpents and Insects (3 vols.). New York: Da Capo, 1967 (facsim-
ile of 1658 edition).
Werber, Bernard. Empire of the Ants. Trans. Margaret Rocques. New
York: Bantam, 1999.
Wood, Rev. J. G. Man and Beast: Here and Hereafter. New York: Harper
and Brothers, 1875.

Ape and Monkey

How much like us is the revolting ape.
—Attributed to Ennius by Cicero, De Natura Deorum

Nowadays, scientists distinguish among species using methods based

on evolutionary descent. Earlier methods were less precise but more
colorful. The word “monkey” did not enter the English language until
the sixteenth century. Prior to then, the word “ape” was the only com-
mon term for primates other than human beings. The difference be-
tween apes and human beings was never clear either. If somebody
called you an ape, it might not be just a metaphor. In History of Four-
Footed Beasts and Serpents, and Insects, published in 1647, Edward Topsell
included the satyr and the sphinx among apes—the term encompassed
any creature that was almost “human” but not quite. This sort of defi-
nition, and not a conventional biological one, must be used when look-
ing back over the lore of apes and monkeys through the centuries.
Among the most popular religious figures of China is Old Mon-
key, who was born when lightning struck a stone. Old Monkey broke
into heaven, got drunk on celestial wine, erased his name from the
book of the dead, and fought back the armies of Heaven. Finally, he
caused so much trouble that the gods and goddesses appealed to the
Buddha for help. The Buddha sought out Old Monkey, and their dia-
logue went something like this:
“What do you wish?” the Buddha asked Old Monkey.
“To rule in Heaven,” Old Monkey replied.
“And why should this be granted to you?” asked the Buddha.
“Because,” said Old Monkey, “I can leap across the sky.”
“Why,” laughed the Buddha, “I will bet that you cannot even
leap out of my hand,” and he picked Old Monkey up. “If you can do
that, you may rule in Heaven, but if you can’t, then you must give up
your claim.”
Old Monkey made a tremendous jump and soon arrived at a pillar
of Heaven. To show that he had been there, he urinated and wrote his
name. Then, with another leap, Old Monkey returned to claim his prize.

6 Ape and Monkey

Illustration of various monkeys from a nineteenth-century book of natural history.

“What have you done?” asked the Buddha.

“I have gone to the end of the universe,” said Old Monkey.
“You have not even left my hand,” laughed the Buddha, and he
raised one finger. Old Monkey recognized the pillar of Heaven and re-
alized that what the Buddha said was true.

Ape and Monkey 7

The Buddha imprisoned Old Monkey under a mountain for five
hundred years. Finally, Old Monkey was rescued by Kwan-Yin, bod-
hisattva of mercy. To redeem himself, Old Monkey had to guard a
Buddhist monk on a dangerous journey from China to India. Old
Monkey served faithfully, through fantastic adventures in which he
did battle with countless demons and sorcerers, and finally became a
Buddha in the end. These adventures were chronicled in the epic
novel Journey to the West, attributed to Wu Ch’eng-en, in the early six-
teenth century. Old Monkey was often depicted alongside solemn
portraits of Buddhist sages, but even as a Buddha he retained a mis-
chievous streak.
The monkey-god Hanuman is similarly beloved in the Hindu
pantheon, largely because he is capable of both childish mischief and
noble sacrifice. When Hanuman was a child, he looked up, saw the
sun, and thought it must be a delicious fruit. He jumped to pick it and
rose so high that Indira, god of the sky, became angry. Indira hurled a
thunderbolt at the intruder, striking Hanuman in the jaw. At this the
father of Hanuman—Vayu, the god of winds—became furious and
started a storm that threatened to destroy the entire world. Brahma,
the supreme god, placated Vayu by granting Hanuman invulnerabil-
ity. Indira added a promise that Hanuman could choose his own mo-
ment of death. Ever since, however, monkeys have had swollen jaws.
This story, taken from the Ramayana, an ancient Hindu epic, shows the
amusement with which apes have generally been regarded through-
out the world. Because Hanuman is a monkey, his divinity does not
seem intimidating. In the Hindu Panchatantra and the early Buddhist
Jatakas, the ape was one of the more sensible animals, often serving as
chief adviser to the lion king. People in the Far East regard the play-
fulness of monkeys and apes as divine serenity, not simple frivolity as
do people in the West.
To find a major simian figure in Western religion, we must go
back to Thoth, the baboon-headed god of the ancient Egyptians.
Thoth was the scribe of Osiris, ruler of the dead, and inventor of the
arts and sciences. Perhaps in those archaic times reading and writing,
still novel and full of mystery, appeared more simian than human. To-
day, of course, we use language, especially writing, to proudly distin-
guish ourselves from all other creatures.
By contrast, the peoples of Mesopotamia and Greece often re-
garded apes as degenerate human beings. According to one Jewish
legend, some of the people who built the Tower of Babel were turned
into apes. According to another, apes were the descendants of Enosh.
On the other hand, some legends also claimed that Adam had a tail

8 Ape and Monkey

like that of a monkey. The debate
over whether apes should be consid-
ered human probably goes back to
the beginnings of civilization. In the
religion of Zoroaster, the monkey or
ape is the tenth and lowest variety of
human beings created by Ohrmuzd.
In many mythologies, apes or
monkeys were created as alternative
human beings. In Philippine mythol-
ogy, Bathala, the creator of the world,
was lonely and decided to make the first human being out of clay.
When he was almost finished, the lump of clay slipped from his hand illustration showing
and trailed to the ground. That created a tail, and the figure became a an apelike creature
monkey. Bathala created people on his second try. According to the allegedly captured
mythology of the Maya, the Creator once tried to fashion people from in 1530 in Saxony.
wood. They behaved so wickedly that all the animals and deities
turned against them. Finally, the few that remained retreated into the
forest and became howler monkeys. Then the Creator made human
beings out of maize.
Closely related to apes, at least in folklore, were wild men and
women. Perhaps the first of the wild men was Enkidu in the heroic
epic of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia in the early second millennium
B.C. Created not by human parents but out of clay by the gods, Enkidu
jostled with the beasts at the watering hole. With more than human
strength, he overturned the traps of hunters. All who saw him were
filled with fear and awe. A sacred prostitute was sent to him, and she
taught him the ways of men. He started to drink wine instead of wa-
ter, and he began to dress as a human being. But then the beasts re-
jected him, and human sorrow slowed his step.
Body hair, especially on men, has traditionally been a sign of
wildness. In the Bible, Esau, eldest son of Isaac and brother of Jacob,
was covered with hair. He was also a bit of a wild man, one who liked
open country and hunting but was ready to sell his birthright for a
bowl of soup. When Isaac was old and blind, he prepared to bless
Esau. Aided by his mother, Jacob covered himself up with the fleece
of lambs and then went to his father, pretending to be Esau. Isaac in-
sisted on touching his son, but fooled by the fur, Isaac allowed Jacob
to steal his brother’s benediction (Gen. 27). This story has often been
interpreted as a triumph of civilization over savagery.
Apes are forest dwellers. Ape sightings are rare in the wild and
usually occur under tense conditions. In the early sixth century B.C.,

Ape and Monkey 9

the Carthaginian navigator Hanno led an enormous expedition down
the West Coast of Africa. According to his account of the voyage, they
sighted a huge mountain called the “chariot of the gods.” There,
Hanno and his crew confronted wild men and women covered with
hair, creatures that threw stones at them and climbed adroitly up the
slopes. Ever since, people have speculated whether the wild beings
were people in skins, chimpanzees, baboons or, most likely, gorillas.
At any rate, the vague rumors of wild men and women began to cir-
culate. Accounts of ape sightings from mariners back from distant
lands blended with reports from distant lands of men who had the
heads of dogs, men with the feet of goats, men with their faces on
their chests, and many other creatures just as strange. Stories of such
wild men with clubs were told around the fire and sometimes acted
out in medieval pageants.
In the Islamic world as well, the resemblance of apes to human
beings was disconcerting, and apes were often invoked to mock or
parody humans. The anonymous medieval Arabian Nights Entertain-
ments contained a story in which a cruel Jinn, finding his mistress in
the company of a man, killed the woman and turned her companion
into an ape. The man wandered in simian form until he came to the
court of a king, who was amazed at his skill in calligraphy and chess.
The king proudly ordered that the ape be dressed in fine silk and fed
rare delicacies. A eunuch summoned the princess so that she, too,
might see the wondrous animal. On entering the room, the princess
immediately veiled her face, for she, as a Muslim, considered it im-
proper for a strange man to see her features. She explained to her fa-
ther that, unbeknownst to him, she had studied under a wise woman,
was herself a great enchantress, and knew that the visitor was not an
ape but a man. The king commanded his daughter to disenchant the
ape so that he might make this man his vizier. The Jinn appeared, his
eyes burning like torches, and the princess began to recite some magic
words. As the two traded spells, the Jinn became a lion, a scorpion,
then an eagle; the princess became a serpent, a vulture, then a cock.
They fought underneath the ground, in water, and in fire, until at last
the Jinn was burned to ashes. The princess received a mortal wound
as well, but she was able to disenchant the ape before she died.
The Barbary apes (which zoologists do not consider apes at all)
are the only primates other than human beings that are somewhat in-
digenous to Europe. At some point in time, they came over from
Africa, though nobody knows if they swam or were carried by boats.
At any rate, they were found scattered near the Mediterranean coast
until modern times, and a small population still hangs on at the Rock

10 Ape and Monkey

of Gibraltar. The sight of these apes vanishing into the trees certainly
contributed to many legends about fairies and wild men. In the Mid-
dle Ages, Barbary apes started to become popular as pets of nobles
and wandering entertainers. The word “monkey” was probably first
used to refer to the Barbary apes. While the etymology is uncertain,
“monkey” may have originally been an affectionate diminutive mean-
ing “little monk.” Renaissance painters such as Albrecht Dürer often
included monkeys in religious and courtly paintings to add a playful
touch to otherwise solemn occasions.
At about the same time, a sudden expansion of maritime trade
and exploration took Europeans to all the exotic corners of the world.
Europeans began to discover the great apes and remote cultures, and
sorting the one from the other was not an easy matter. Scientists as
well as sailors might often conflate orangutans with gorillas and
African tribesmen, all of whom were known mostly through fleeting
glimpses and rumor. Tribes in West Africa regarded apes as human.
Some believed that chimpanzees could speak but chose not to so that
they would not be forced to work. Orangutan was initially a Malay
word for “wild man.” When the Dutch anatomist Nicolaas Tulp dis-
sected the body of an orangutan in 1641, he thought that it was the
satyr of classical mythology. A colleague of his, Jacob de Bondt, be-
lieved these creatures were “born of the lust of Indonesian women
who consort in disgusting lechery with apes” (Dekkers, p. 41).
Explorers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries brought
back tales of apes living in huts, foraging in trees, and fighting using
cudgels. Some people maintained that apes ravished human females
or made war on human towns. The enormously popular History of
Animated Nature published by Oliver Goldsmith during the late eigh-
teenth century tells how apes in Africa would sometimes steal men
and women to be their pets. Visitors to Victorian zoos complained that
the apes tried to seduce human women. Sometimes apes were even
made to put on clothes. It took several centuries to untangle the fan-
tastic accounts.
Literature as well blended folklore about wild men and women
with recent accounts of primitives and other primates. In Gulliver’s
Travels by Jonathan Swift (first published in 1726), the hero was ma-
rooned on an island and adopted by highly civilized horses. In the
woods on the fringes of their settlement were hairy men and women
known as “yahoos.” These primates constantly wallowed in their
own filth. They had long claws and swung through trees. They
roared, howled, and made hideous faces. The narrator was filled with
revulsion at them, yet he could not help but acknowledge that these

Ape and Monkey 11

creatures were his own kind. Such reaction clearly showed the feel-
ings of Europeans at the discovery of their kinship with apes. Gul-
liver’s disgust with the yahoos anticipated the racism that took such
terrible forms in the next few centuries. He reported, with fear but no
suggestion of disapproval, that the horses proposed a complete exter-
mination of yahoos.
Apes later figured prominently in racist propaganda. We can see
this in the story “Ursprung der Affen” (The origin of apes), told by the
late-medieval folk poet and shoemaker Hans Sachs. Jesus, accompa-
nied by Peter, stopped in his wanderings at the house of a blacksmith.
Along came an elderly cripple, and Peter asked Jesus to make the in-
valid young and strong. Jesus promptly consented and asked the
smith to heat his furnace. When the fire was blazing, Jesus placed the
cripple inside it, where the invalid glowed with light. After saying a
blessing, Jesus took the man out and dipped him in water; everyone
was amazed to see the cripple transformed into a strong young fellow.
After Jesus left, the elderly mother-in-law of the smith sought to be re-
juvenated. The smith, who had watched everything, agreed to per-
form the transformation. After placing the old woman in the furnace,
just as Jesus had done with the cripple, the smith realized the magic
was not working properly. He pulled out his screaming mother-in-
law and dipped her in water. Her screams brought the smith’s preg-
nant wife and his also pregnant daughter-in-law to the scene, where
they saw the old woman in the tub howling, with her face wrinkled
and distorted. They were so terrified that they give birth to apes in-
stead of human beings.
Apes have long had a reputation for being undignified and im-
moral. Long before the dawn of Darwinism, the essayist Montaigne,
denouncing human pride, had observed in “Apology for Raymond
Sebond” that of all animals the apes, “those that most resemble us,”
were “the ugliest and meanest of the whole herd” (p. 478).
Quasimodo, the hero of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame,
was certainly based partly on reports of anthropoid apes that were
filtering back to Europe when the novel was written in the middle of
the nineteenth century. The character was deformed and could
barely speak, yet he had superhuman strength and agility. He
climbed like an ape among the gargoyles and demons in the remote
corners of the cathedral. His tragedy was to be almost human, yet
not quite. He could feel the same passions as other men, yet could
not share their lives.
Just as the process of distinguishing the apes and men was
nearly complete, Charles Darwin announced his theory of evolution

12 Ape and Monkey

with The Origin of Species in 1859. Not everybody could understand
the book, and some people thought that Darwin was crazy. In a fa-
mous debate in 1860, Bishop Wilberforce asked Thomas Huxley
whether the ape was on his mother’s or his father’s side of the family.
Huxley replied that rather than be descended from a gifted man who
mocks scientific discussion, “I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for
the ape” (Barber, p. 27). His brilliant rhetoric may have won the day,
but wisecracks about apes for grandparents were constantly made in
the vitriolic debate about evolution.
In the early twentieth century, racist caricatures usually showed
people, whether African, Jewish, Irish, or Japanese, slouched over in
apelike fashion. Adolf Hitler wrote in My Struggle (first published in
1926) that Germans must dedicate the institution of marriage to the
goal of “bring[ing] forth images of the Lord, not abominations that are
part man and part ape” (Sax, p. 54).
Today, rumors continue to circulate about ape-men such as the
Yeti. In supermarkets all around the world, tabloids announce such
exploits as “I was Bigfoot’s Love Slave.” Fantastic anthropoid apes en-
tertain us in films, from King Kong to Planet of the Apes. Our movies are
also full of wild men, from Tarzan of the apes to Rambo. Middle-class
men in contemporary America now flock to “wild man weekends” in
the woods, where they listen to lectures and discuss their problems
around a fire.
In the early eighties, experiments in teaching great apes to com-
municate with human beings, either by computers or by hand signs,
generated a great deal of excitement. Jane Goodall and many others
observed that apes use tools such as stones to crack nuts and sticks to
extract termites from wood. It is odd, though, that people found such
observations surprising, since simian use of language and tools had
been regularly noted in natural history books until about the end of
the nineteenth century. In 1994 Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer pub-
lished The Great Ape Project: Equality beyond Humanity, a book of essays
championing the cause of extending human equality to apes. Few if
any of the contributors realized that they were merely reviving a very
old debate.

Selected References
Barber, Lynn. The Heyday of Natural History: 1820–1870. Garden City,
NY: Doubleday, 1980.
Boia, Lucian. Entre l’ange et la bête: Le mythe de l’homme différent de
l’Antiquité à nos jours. Paris: Plon, 1995.
Cavalieri, Paola, and Peter Singer, eds. The Great Ape Project: Equality
beyond Humanity. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Ape and Monkey 13

Coomarasway, Ananda K., and Sister Nivedita. Myths of the Hindus
and Buddhists. New York: Dover, 1967.
Corbey, Raymond, and Bert Theunissen, eds. Ape, Man, and Apeman:
Changing Views since 1900. Leiden: Leiden University Press, 1995.
Dekkers, Midas. Dearest Pet: On Bestiality. Trans. Paul Vincent. New
York: Verso, 2000.
Goldsmith, Oliver. History of Animated Nature (4 vols.). Edinburgh:
Smith, Elder/T. Tegg, 1838.
Haraway, Donna. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World
of Modern Science. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Montaigne, Michel de. “Apology for Raymond Sebond.” In The
Complete Essays of Montaigne (2 vols.). Trans. Donald M. Frame.
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1959, vol. 1, pp. 428–561.
Sachs, Hans. “Ursprung der Affen.” In Hans Sachsens Ausgewählte
Werke (2 vols.). Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1945, vol. 1, pp. 166–169.
Sax, Boria. Animals in the Third Reich: Pets, Scapegoats, and the Holocaust.
New York: Continuum, 2000.
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. New York: Penguin, 1987.
Tompkins, Ptolemy. The Monkey in Art. Wappinger’s Falls, NY: M. T.
Train/Scala Books, 1994.
Wu Ch’eng-en. Journey to the West (4 vols.). Trans. Anthony C. Yu.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Ass, Mule, and Camel

Orientis partibus
Adventavit Asinus,
Pulcher et fortissimus.
Sarcinis aptissimus.
[From the East
the ass approached,
lovely and very strong.
It carried the sacks.]
—From the carol sung at the medieval Feast of the Ass at Beauvais, France

The ass, or donkey, and camel are, for the most part, animals of peace
that help with daily tasks, while the horse excels in arts of war. The
ass and camel both have greater endurance than the horse, though
they are not as large or fast. The camel thrives especially in hot, dry
climates, and the ass is very surefooted in mountainous areas. The an-
cient Mesopotamians noticed that crossing a mare, a female horse,
with a jackass, or male donkey, would produce a mule, which had
many advantages of both species. Nevertheless, the mule has some-
times been stigmatized as a product of an “unnatural” union.
The Avesta, a scripture of the Zoroastrians, told of an ass with
three legs, six eyes, nine mouths, and a single horn. This animal was as
large as a mountain and stood in the middle of a wild sea, whose wa-

14 Ass, Mule, and Camel

ters it forever purified. This early uni-
corn symbolized the primeval inno-
cence of a time when the world was
new, but it also shows the awe with
which the ass was once regarded.
The ass was first domesticated
in ancient Egypt around 3000 B.C.,
well over a millennium before the
horse. In the Bible, Job marveled at
the difference between the donkeys of
god and those kept by human beings:

Who gave the wild donkey his freedom,

and untied the rope from his proud neck? The donkey has a
reputation as a sort
I have given him the desert as a home,
of holy fool,
the salt plains as his own habitat.
strangely poised
He scorns the turmoil of the town:
between wisdom
there are no shouts from a driver for him to listen for.
and stupidity. In
In the mountains are the pastures that he ranges this nineteenth-
in quest of any green blade or leaf. (29:5–8) century illustration
by J. J. Grandville, a
The ass survives precariously in the wild today, but most people think charlatan exhibits a
of this animal as fully domesticated. The ass began to acquire new as- supposedly learned
sociations through domestication, without casting off old ones, until donkey at a fair.
it became one of the most complex animal symbols of all.
The camel has had much the same fate in Arab lands and parts
of Eurasia as the ass has in most areas around the Mediterranean. As
the horse took over the more glamorous role of a mount of warriors,
the camel, like the ass, was increasingly relegated to being a beast of
burden. Although the Bible does not specify this, the Magi, or wise
men who brought gifts to the infant Jesus, are traditionally portrayed
riding on camels. Though sometimes praised for humility, the camel
had the additional reputation of being lascivious. Jeremiah used the
camel as a symbol of Israelites who had commerce with heathens:

A frantic she-camel running in all directions

bolts for the desert,
snuffing the breeze in desire;
who can control her when she is in heat? (2:23–24)

Much later, the Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales urged

women to fight their husbands like camels.

Ass, Mule, and Camel 15

Because of the unstinting ser-
vice it performed, the Hebrews had a
special affection for the ass, much as
the Arabs did for the camel. Accord-
ing to the classifications in Leviticus,
the ass was an “unclean” animal, yet
the people of Israel never regarded it
with revulsion. After the asses car-
ried the Israelites and their posses-
sions from slavery in Egypt, Yahweh
ordered that every ass be consecrated
with the sacrifice of a lamb (Exod.
The king of Moab once sum-
moned the magician Baalam to place
a curse on the Israelites. Baalam set
out on his she-donkey, when an an-
gel, sword in hand, appeared in his
path. The donkey turned aside from
the road, and Baalam beat her to
draw her back. This happened a sec-
ond time, and then a third. Baalam
A twelfth-century picked up a stick and began to strike the donkey furiously. The don-
French depiction key reproached Baalam, saying, “Have I not carried you since you
of a troubadour were a young man? Have I ever failed you? Why do you beat me
as a donkey. It is now?” Then Baalam looked up and saw the angel. “It is lucky for
very similar to
you,” the angel told him, “that your donkey saw me, though you did
illustrations from
not, and turned aside. Had you continued, I would have killed you,
the ancient Near
but I would have let the donkey live.” This story, from the Old Testa-
ment (Num. 22:22–35), is one of the earliest and most explicit con-
demnations of cruelty to animals in the ancient world. For us, perhaps
there is another lesson: If people knew a bit more about the proud his-
tory of the ass in human culture, being called an “ass” might be taken
as a compliment rather than an insult.
The ass was used for work in vineyards and was sacred to Diony-
sus, the Greek god of wine. The Greeks, however, generally associated
the ass with the Phrygians, their traditional enemies. In one legend,
Midas, king of Phyrgia and a follower of Dionysus’, failed to appreci-
ate the music of Apollo, god of the sun. “You have the ears of an ass,”
Apollo told Midas. When Midas looked into a stream, he saw that his
ears had grown long and hairy. The ears of a donkey became a famil-
iar symbol of stupidity. The foolscap used by jesters in medieval Eu-

16 Ass, Mule, and Camel

rope had two points with bells, symbolizing the ears of a donkey. But,
however we think they look, donkeys actually hear very well.
In the fables of Aesop, the ass was always a loser. In one tale an
ass put on the skin of a lion and roamed about frightening man and
beast. A fox heard him braying and said, “Oh, it’s only you. I might
have been scared myself, if I had not heard your voice.” Socrates, in
Plato’s dialogue “Phaedo,” stated that a person who is too concerned
with bodily pains or pleasures might after death be reincarnated as a
The novel The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius, written in Rome
during the first century A.D., looked beyond the image of the donkey
as a fool. The hero, Lucius, had an affair with the maid of a great sor-
ceress. When the couple saw the mistress of the house turn herself
into an owl and fly away at night, Lucius wanted to do the same. His
mistress gave him a potion that was supposed to turn him into a bird.
It was the wrong charm, and Lucius became a donkey. His mistress
told him that he could be turned back into his true form only by eat-
ing roses. When he tried to nibble some roses at an altar, the stable boy
chased him away. This began a long series of adventures in which Lu-
cius as a donkey was beaten, forced to carry heavy sacks, and even
sexually abused. As a beast, he learned humility and wisdom. When
his ordeal was over, he received roses from a priest of the goddess Isis,
into whose mysteries he was initiated. One interpretation of the story
is that the form of an ass represents the physical body, imprisoning
yet challenging the human spirit.
An ass, together with an ox, visited the infant Jesus in the
manger. An ass transported the Holy Family to safety in Egypt. Fi-
nally, an ass carried Jesus on his entry into Jerusalem. Riding an ass
was a sign of majesty for the contemporaries of Jesus. The ass in the
Near East was still the mount of kings. Legend has it that the ass still
bears a dark cross over its shoulders as a symbol of Christ’s passion.
When the ass lost prestige, Christians often understood the choice of
a mount by Jesus as a sign of his humility. Well into the Middle Ages
and the Renaissance, however, clergy preferred to ride on an ass
rather than a horse in emulation of Christ.
For many animals in the Western world, popular symbolism has
combined radically different traditions of Christianity and paganism,
and the ass may be the best example of all. The pagan tradition, which
made the ass an object of mockery, has been more dominant. But be-
hind the mockery was usually affection. The ass, unlike the horse, was
very rarely accused of being the familiar of a witch or tried in me-
dieval courts.

Ass, Mule, and Camel 17

In ancient Mesopotamian art, we often see the motif of a donkey
standing upright on his hind legs, playing the harp and singing. This
motif was taken back to Europe by crusaders during the Middle Ages,
where it symbolized the divine folly of love. William Shakespeare
uses this motif in his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The mischie-
vous fairy Puck gives Bottom, a simple tradesman, the head of an ass.
Bewitched by a magic potion, Titania dotes on Bottom for an evening;
abashed after the charm wears off, she no longer dares to defy her
The lore of the ass is full of wonders, in the East as well as West,
yet almost always with a touch of humor. The Taoist immortal Chang
Kwo-lao, an elderly gentleman who rode a donkey for vast distances
every day, would fold the donkey up like a piece of paper and put it
away whenever he finished a journey.
Medieval people understood that what appeared as foolishness
could sometimes be holy innocence, even wisdom. A pageant known
as the Festival of the Ass became popular in the northwestern parts of
medieval Europe. In Beauvais, France, a splendidly dressed maiden,
representing Mary and bearing an image of Christ, would sit on an ass.
There would be a magnificent procession from the cathedral to the
parish church of Saint Stephen. Instead of praises of Christ, however,
the choir would sing a hymn to the ass, and at the end, instead of say-
ing “Deo gratias,” or “Thanks to God,” the congregation would say
“hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw.” The clergy, of course, often complained
about the apparently sacrilegious ceremonies. Nevertheless, the festi-
val was tolerated in the name of both religious tradition and fun.
A worldly equivalent is the donkey whose excrement was gold,
a character that appeared in the “Donkey Skin” by Charles Perrault
and in many other European fairy tales. The donkey again combined
something wonderful with something ridiculous. In the fairy tale
“The Magic Table, the Gold Donkey, and the Club in the Sack” by the
Grimm brothers, the image was, so to speak, cleaned up. A donkey
spewed gold from its mouth whenever a person said the word “Brick-
lebrit!” The image was a strange anticipation of the automatic teller
machines used in banks today.
The camel, however, in addition to sharing with the ass a reputa-
tion for foolishness, carried the stigma in European culture of being
filthy and ugly, a sort of deformed horse. Medieval bestiaries said that
camels are so drawn to slime that they pass up clean waters for dirty
ones. This reputation even obscured the grace of the giraffe, which, at
least since the time of Pliny the Elder through the Middle Ages, had the
misfortune of being considered a camel with spots, or a “cameleopard.”

18 Ass, Mule, and Camel

The toughness and endurance
of the ass were celebrated in the pop-
ular story of the American steelman
Joe Magarac; the name Magarac is
Slovak for “jackass.” “All I do is eatit
and workit same lak jackass don-
key,” said Joe (Botkin, p. 247). He
was born from a mountain and had
superhuman strength. When there
was no more metal to mine, Joe
stepped into the furnace and melted
himself down into steel. This tale is
often taken for folklore, but Owen
Francis created the character in an ar-
ticle in the November 1931 issue of
Scribner’s Magazine.
The donkey is now most famil-
iar as a symbol of the Democratic
Party in America. The idea was partly inspired by the statement of Ig- Illustration by
natius Donnelly to the legislature of Minnesota not long after the Civil Arthur Rackham
War that the Democratic Party was like a mule, lacking both pedigree showing the trades-
and posterity. Thomas Nast popularized the symbol in political car- man Bottom with

toons. The metaphor may have been first intended as an insult, but the fairy Titania in
Shakespeare’s “A
the Democrats certainly didn’t mind. In fact, they adopted the symbol
Midsummer Night’s
officially in 1874. Perhaps they realized that the symbolism of the don-
key has always had many layers. If the long ears of a donkey suggest
foolishness, the large teeth are a formidable weapon. The donkey is
tough; it has a devastating kick. The donkey may have a reputation
for stubbornness, but isn’t that often a virtue in politics?
Among the most eloquent tributes to animals ever written is
Platero and I by Juan Ramón Jiménez (first published in 1957). It is a
series of remarks addressed by the author to a gentle donkey named
“Platero,” described as “loving and tender as a child but strong and
sturdy as a rock.” The donkey is not only a helper but a wonderful lis-
tener as well. Together the companions enjoy the flight of butterflies,
the playing of children, the touch of water, and all that the richly sen-
suous life a remote village in Spain has to offer.
As for the camel, a cigarette company has exploited its reputa-
tion for sexual potency. The brand known as Camel has as its trade-
mark symbol the animal standing in front of a pyramid. The smoker
in the company’s advertisements has almost always been male; both
the pyramid and the hump of the camel suggest the belly of a preg-

Ass, Mule, and Camel 19

nant woman—proof of his virility. The advertisers even exploited the
reputation of the camel for ugliness by creating the cartoon character
Joe Camel, who had the face of a camel and the body of a man, to sug-
gest a blue-collar toughness. Joe was such a commercial success that
antismoking activists protested against him, and the ads were made
illegal around the end of the nineties. For the most part, however, the
camel of Arab lands, like the ass and mule of the Occident, has be-
come a symbol of a vanishing way of life.
In Latin America and parts of the Mediterranean, the mule is the
preferred helper of many solitary workers such as peddlers. Even to-
day, in many villages, mules are used to deliver mail. There is often a
quiet intimacy between the mules and their handlers, who share a
humble status.
Selected References
Apuleius, Lucius. The Golden Asses of Lucius Apuleius. Trans. William
Adlington. London: Abbey Library, ca. 1920.
Botkin, B. A., ed. A Treasury of American Folklore: Stories, Ballads, and
Traditions of the American People. New York: Crown Publishers, 1944.
Clutton-Brock, Juliet. Horse Power: A History of the Horse and the Donkey
in Human Societies. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Dent, Anthony. Donkey: The Story of the Ass from East to West. Washing-
ton, DC: George G. Harrap, 1972.
Gotfredsen, Lise. The Unicorn. New York: Abbeville Press, 1999.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Trans.
Margaret Hunt and James Stern. New York: Pantheon, 1972.
Jiménez, Juan Ramón. Platero and I. Trans. Eloise Roach. Austin: Uni-
versity of Texas Press, 1983.
Perrault, Charles. “Peau d’Ane.” Contes. Paris: Gallimard, 1981, p.
Schrader, J. L. A Medieval Bestiary. New York: Metropolitan Museum of
Art, 1986.

20 Ass, Mule, and Camel

See Ape and Monkey

See Beaver, Porcupine, Badger, and Miscellaneous Rodents

But when he brushes up against the screen
We are afraid of what our eyes have seen
For something is amiss, or out of place
When mice with wings can wear a human face.
—Theodore Roethke, “The Bat”

Bats have always presented a problem for those who like to divide
things into neat, unequivocal categories. Not only are they nocturnal
but they also seem, in other ways, to reverse what appears to be the
normal order. They sleep hanging upside down by their feet. They
live in shelters such as caves or hollow trees, but they also take ad-
vantage of human structures. Like most small animals that are drawn
to human habitations, bats have often been identified in folk belief
with the souls of the dead. As a result, in cultures that venerate an-
cestral spirits, bats are often considered sacred or beloved. When spir-
its are expected to pass on rather than return, bats appear as demons
or, at best, souls unable to find peace.
According to one well-known fable, popularly attributed to Ae-
sop, the birds and beasts were once preparing for war. The birds said
to the bat, “Come with us,” but he replied, “I am a beast.” The beasts
said to the bat, “Come with us,” but he replied, “I am a bird.” At the
last moment a peace was made, but ever since, all creatures have
shunned the bat. The earliest version of this story, by the Roman Phae-
drus, contained no explicit moral, and perhaps he intended to suggest

that bats prefer human civilization to nature. The learned folklorist
Joseph Jacobs, however, appended the lesson: “He that is neither one
thing nor the other has no friends” (Aesop, p. 63).
Today taxonomists place bats in a separate order of mammals, but
both laypeople and scientists have puzzled for centuries whether bats
are avians, flying mice, monkeys, or something else. Revulsion against
them, however, is far from universal, and their quizzical faces have of-
ten inspired affection. There were no glass windows in the ancient
world, and so people had little choice but to share their homes with
bats. According to Ovid, the daughters of Minyas had refused to join
the revels in honor of Bacchus and stayed at home weaving and telling
stories. As punishment, they were turned into bats, but they continued
to avoid the woods and flock to houses. In a similar spirit, the medieval
bestiaries praised bats for the way they would hang together “like a
cluster of grapes,” showing affection that was not often found in hu-
man beings (White, p. 141). In medieval times it was common for the
entire household, from the lord and lady to the serfs, to sleep in the
great hall of the manor, and little privacy was available. In such close
quarters, they must, indeed, have felt rather like bats in a cave.
In Africa, Swahili-speaking people have believed that after death
the spirit of the departed hovers near his or her body as a bat. People
in Uganda and Zimbabwe have believed that bats taking wing in the
evening are departed spirits coming to visit the living. The flying fox,
a large bat found in Ghana, however, is believed to be a demon in
league with witches and sorcerers.
Perhaps the most unequivocally favorable view of bats can be
found in China, where the word for “bat” also means “joy.” In ancient
times the Chinese noticed the service that bats provided in eating in-
sects, thus impeding the spread of malaria. Bats seemed to exemplify
such Confucian virtues as filial piety, since they would live together
in a single cave for many centuries. They were believed to live for cen-
turies, and Shou-Hsing, the god of long life, is depicted with two bats.
Bats did not really come to be thought of as spooky in Europe
until the end of the Middle Ages, as folk belief became increasingly
equated with witchcraft. Bats came to be regarded as familiars of
witches and as a frequent disguise for the Devil. Dragons and demons
would often be depicted with the wings of a bat. The association of
bats with vampires—that is, the living dead—goes back only as far as
the latter half of the eighteenth century, when the zoologist Georges-
Louis Leclerc de Buffon examined newly discovered bats from South
America. Because the variety sucked small quantities of blood from
cattle, though rarely from human beings, he called them “vampires.”

22 Bat
At about the same time, gothic horror became fashionable throughout
Europe, and popular writers discovered it was piquant to identify
bats with vampires.
It was really only in the twentieth century that the new medium
of movies established the popular association between the two. In a
wave of vampire movies starting in the 1920s, actors such as Bela Lu-
gosi gave Dracula and other vampires the appearance of bats. They
would, for example, wear a long black cape that resembled the wings
of a bat, large ears, and claws. While some vampires were purely evil,
others were grandly tragic, and quite a few were not so different from
ordinary human beings. In the 1950s, the popular comic-book charac-
ter Batman assumed much of the paraphernalia of vampires, but he
used these to fight crime rather than to capture souls.
But the mystery of bats has not been diminished by either fan-
tasy or science. In the late twentieth century, the philosopher Thomas
Nagel probed the nature of consciousness in a famous essay entitled
“What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” He tried to imagine what it might be like
to navigate by sonar and decided that the human mind was unequal
to the task. His conclusion was that we must recognize facts that we
can neither state nor comprehend.
Selected References
Aesop. The Fables of Aesop. Edited and retold with notes by Joseph
Jacobs. New York: Macmillan, 1910.
Knappert, Jan. African Mythology: An Encyclopedia of Myth and Legend.
London: Diamond Books, 1995.
Marigny, Jean. Vampires: Restless Creatures of the Night. Trans. Lory
Frankel. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994.
Nagel, Thomas. “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” In Moral Questions. New
York: Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 169–180.
Nott, Charles Stanley. The Flowery Kingdom. New York: Chinese Study
Group of America, 1947.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Rolfe Humphries. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1955.
White, T. H., trans. The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from a Latin
Bestiary of the Twelfth Century. New York: Dover, 1984.

So watchful Bruin forms, with plastic care,
Each growing lump, and brings it to a bear.
—Alexander Pope, The Dunciad

Of all animals, the bear is probably the one that most clearly resem-
bles human beings in appearance. Even apes can stand upright only

Bear 23
slouched over and with considerable difficulty. The bear, however,
can walk and even run on two legs almost as well as a human. The fur
of a bear resembles clothing. Like a person, a bear looks straight
ahead, but the expressions of bears are not easy for us to read. Often
the wide eyes of a bear suggest perplexity, making it appear that the
bear is a human being whose form has mysteriously been altered.
Bears, however, are generally far larger and stronger than people, so
they could easily be taken for giants.
Perhaps the most wonderful characteristic of bears, however, is
their ability to hibernate and then reemerge at the end of winter,
which suggests death and resurrection. In part because bears give
birth during hibernation, they have been associated with mother-
goddesses. The descent into caverns suggests an intimacy with the
earth and with vegetation, and bears are reputed to have special
knowledge of herbs.
At Drachenloch, in a cave high in the Swiss Alps, skulls of the
cave bear have been found that face the entrance in what appears to
be a very deliberate arrangement. Some anthropologists believe this is
a shrine consecrated to the bear by Neanderthals, which would make
it the earliest known place of worship. Others dispute the claim; true
or not, the very idea is testimony to the enormous power that the fig-
ure of the bear has over the human imagination.
A cult of the bear is widespread, almost universal, among peo-
ples of the Far North, where the bear is both the most powerful pred-
ator and the most important food animal. Perhaps the principal ex-
ample of this cult today is that followed by the Ainu, the earliest
inhabitants of Japan. They traditionally adopt a young bear, raise it as
a pet, and then ceremoniously sacrifice the animal. Before stories of
the lion were imported, the bear was regarded throughout northern
Europe as the king of beasts. Eskimo legends tell of humans learning
to hunt from the polar bear. For the Inuit of Labrador, the polar bear
is a form of the Great Spirit, Tuurngasuk.
Countless myths and legends record a sort of intimacy between
human beings and bears. The Koreans, for example, traditionally be-
lieve that they are descended from a bear. The tiger and the female
bear had watched humans from a distance, and they became curious.
As they talked together on a mountainside one day, both decided that
they would like to become human. An oracle instructed them that they
must first eat twenty-one cloves of garlic, then remain in a cave for one
month. They both did as instructed, but after a while the tiger became
restless and left the cave. The mother bear remained, and at the end of
a month she emerged as a beautiful woman. The son of Heaven, Han

24 Bear
Woon, fell in love with her and had a
child with her, Tan Koon, who is the
ancestor of the Koreans.
The bear was sacred to the Greek
Artemis, the Roman Diana, goddess
of the moon and protector of the ani-
mals. According to the Roman poet
Ovid, the god Jupiter once disguised
himself as Diana and raped her com-
panion the nymph Callisto. On realiz-
ing that Callisto was pregnant, Diana
banished the young girl from her
presence. Eventually Callisto gave
birth to a boy named Arcas. Juno, the
wife of Jupiter, turned Callisto into a
bear and forced her to roam the forest
alone and in perpetual fear. Arcas
grew to be a young man. He went
hunting in the forest, saw his mother,
and raised his bow to shoot her. At
that moment, Jupiter looked down,
took pity on his former mistress and brought both mother and son up The enormous size
to Heaven, where they became the constellations of the great and little of the bear, together
bear. This is only one version of the story among many, but the Arcadi- with its similarity
ans traditionally trace their origin to Callisto and her son. to human beings,
The Hebrews, who were herders, regarded carnivorous animals often makes it an

as unclean, and the bear was no exception. In the Bible, the young object of both awe
and derision, and
David protected his flock against bears (1 Sam. 17:34). The bear be-
dancing bears were
came a scourge of God when small boys followed the prophet Elisha
until recently a
and made fun of his bald head. Elisha cursed them, and two she-bears
common feature of
came out of the woods and killed the children (2 Kings 2:23–24). Ac-
traveling shows.
cording to tradition, however, Elisha was later punished with illness (Courtesy of the
for his deed. Department of
The Tlingit and many other Indian tribes on the northwest coast Library Services,
of the North American continent have told stories of a young woman American Museum
who was lost in the woods and was befriended by a bear. At first she of Natural History,
was afraid, but the bear was kindly and taught her the ways of the for- #2A4017)
est. Eventually she became his wife. She grew thick hair and hunted
like a bear. When the couple had children, she at first tried to teach
them the ways of both bears and human beings. Her human family,
however, would not accept the marriage, and her brothers killed her
husband, whereupon she broke completely with the ways of humans.

Bear 25
Many tales pay tribute to the maternal role of the mother bear.
Repeating a bit of lore found in the works of Pliny the Elder and other
writers of antiquity, medieval bestiaries told of cubs that were com-
pletely formless at birth. Their mother would mold them with her
tongue, literally licking the cubs into shape.
The mother bear must constantly protect her offspring from the
father, who would eat them out of jealousy and hunger. This fierce
protectiveness is part of what has moved contemporary American au-
thor Terry Tempest Williams to posit a special bond between women
and bears. “We are creatures of paradox,” she wrote in an essay enti-
tled “Undressing the Bear.” She continued, “Women and bears, two
animals that are enormously unpredictable, hence our mystery” (p.
108). The name Artemis literally means “bear,” as does Arthur, de-
rived from Artus, the name of the legendary king of Britain who led
the knights of the Round Table. Such nomenclature suggests a totemic
bond between man and bear that goes back to very archaic times.
Many European fairy tales suggest such a bond. For example, ac-
cording to the Norwegian story entitled “East of the Sun and West of
the Moon,” recorded by George Dasent, a bear went to the house of a
poor family and asked for the daughter in marriage, promising great
riches in return. The father persuaded his daughter to reluctantly agree,
and the bear carried her home on his back. The bear visited the young
woman every night but departed at the break of day. She lived well but
was forbidden to know where her husband went every morning. Fi-
nally, one night she was overcome with curiosity and lighted a candle,
only to see him vanish. Then she had to make a long and perilous jour-
ney to the land east of the sun and west of the moon, where she was fi-
nally reunited with her husband. Her love broke the enchantment of a
sorceress, and he turned out to be a human prince. In another version
of the tale, three sisters are talking about the men they will marry, when
one says in jest, “I will have no husband but the brown bear of Nor-
way.” So it comes to pass, but the couple is permanently united only af-
ter many trials and tribulations. These stories belong to the cycle of
“Beauty and the Beast” fairy tales in which a bride must learn to see
past the bestial appearance of her partner to find a gentle young man.
One tale that seems to lament the loss of intimacy between bears
and human beings is the Icelandic saga “King Hrolf and His Champi-
ons,” from the thirteenth or early fourteenth century. It tells how King
Hrolf was drinking with his warriors when the army of Queen Skuld
attacked them. Only Bothvar Bjarki, the greatest of the king’s knights,
could not be found, and all thought he must have been killed or cap-
tured. As the battle raged, an enormous bear appeared at the side of

26 Bear
King Hrolf. Weapons simply rebounded from the skin of the bear, and
he killed more enemies with his paw than could any five heroes. One
of King Hrolf’s champions, Hjalti the Magnanimous, ran back to
camp, where he found Bothvar in a tent. Outraged, Hjalti threatened
to burn the tent and Bothvar. Calmly and a bit sadly, Bothvar rebuked
Hjalti, saying that he had proved his courage many times. He was
ready to join the battle, Bothvar explained, but could offer his king
more help by remaining behind. Indeed, as soon as Bothvar joined the
fray, the bear disappeared, for Bothvar and the bear were one. King
Hrolf and his champions all fought valiantly, yet they were over-
whelmed by the enormous host of Queen Skuld and killed.
Still another such tale is Valentine and Orson, which was popular
in the Middle Ages and is preserved for us in French and English texts
from around the end of the fourteenth century. The story began with
the infant Orson lost in the woods. A mother bear took him home to
her cave and raised him as one of her cubs. He grew up to be huge,
immensely strong, covered with hair, and able to speak only in grunts.
For a time, Orson was the terror of the woods, feared by both animals
and human beings. When his beloved mother died, Orson let himself
be taken by his brother Valentine to the court of King Pepin of France,
where he learned the ways of men and became a knight.
There a dreaded warrior known as the Green Knight had cap-
tured a princess and challenged to a battle anyone who wished to res-
cue her. Many of King Pepin’s knights took up the challenge, but the
Green Knight bested them all and hung them from a tree. Finally
came the turn of Orson. When he first jousted with the Green Knight,
Orson inflicted several wounds, but he noticed that they healed at
once. Realizing the Green Knight could not be defeated in the con-
ventional way, Orson leaped from his horse, threw away his sword,
and tore off his armor. Then Orson pulled the Green Knight from
horseback and forced his adversary to yield, rescuing the princess and
winning her for his bride.
In medieval times, the sport of bear baiting was very popular at
country fairs. The dancing bear, clumsily mimicking a human being,
was also a favorite entertainment. For all their cruelty, these symbolic
affirmations of human dominance perhaps paid the bear a sort of com-
pliment as a representative of natural powers that might inspire fear.
Many aristocratic houses adopted the bear as a heraldic symbol, but
perhaps resentment against a predatory nobility was taken out on the
poor animals. In the medieval tales throughout Europe since the end of
the eleventh century, “Bruin” the bear is an aristocrat whose natural
strength is no match for the peasant cunning of Renard the Fox.

Bear 27
Legends, however, still show a respect for the abilities and
knowledge of bears. Edward Topsell, the Elizabethan zoologist, re-
ported in 1656 that a man was walking along carrying a large caul-
dron one autumn day when he saw a bear nibble a root, then descend
into a cave. The man was curious and started to chew on the root of
the same plant. Immediately he began to feel very sleepy, and he was
barely able to throw the cauldron over his body. He remembered no
more until he lifted up the cauldron to find the last snow melting on
a beautiful spring day.
Like all large meat-eaters, bears had become rare by the twenti-
eth century. The terror that bears once inspired came to be remem-
bered though a haze of nostalgia, and the teddy bear became a favorite
toy of children. The name comes from a story that had President
“Teddy” Roosevelt, an avid big-game hunter, declining to shoot a bear
cub, thinking it unsporting to take advantage of the helpless creature.
In William Faulkner’s short story “The Bear,” a giant brown bear
known as Old Ben becomes the symbol of a vanishing wilderness in
the American South. As long as he is there, the land remains wild and
strangers do not dare to intrude. The hero of the tale is a boy who is
learning to be an accomplished woodsman, an occupation that be-
comes obsolete when a hunting party finally kills Old Ben.
No longer greatly feared, the bear has become a symbol of vul-
nerability. Everybody in the United States who was born before the
seventies or so has seen posters with Smokey the Bear, who was cre-
ated during World War II to warn people that Japanese shelling might
begin a conflagration in the woods of America. When the war ended,
the United States Forest Service retained Smokey as a symbol in a
campaign to prevent the careless ignition of forest fires. Far from bes-
tial, he has a rather parental image. He wears human clothes and a
forester’s hat. He is mature, friendly, and a little melancholy. Yet if
Smokey seems absurdly civilized, his role remains that of bears since
archaic times—protector of the wild.
Selected References
Carpenter, Francis. Tales of a Korean Grandmother. Rutland, VT: Charles
E. Tuttle, 1973.
Dasent, George. “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” In Scandina-
vian Folk and Fairy Tales. Ed. Claire Booss. New York: Avenel Books,
1984, pp. 63–70.
Faulkner, William. “The Bear.” In Go Down Moses. New York: Vintage
Books, 1970, pp. 181–316.
Jones, Gwyn, trans. “King Hrolf and His Champions.” In Erik the Red
and Other Icelandic Sagas. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991,
pp. 221–318.

28 Bear
Shepherd, Paul, and Barry Sanders. The Sacred Paw: The Bear in Nature,
Myth, and Literature. New York: Viking Penguin, 1992.
Topsell, Edward, and Thomas Muffet. The History of Four-Footed Beasts
and Serpents and Insects (3 vols.). New York: Da Capo, 1967 (facsim-
ile of 1658 edition).
Watson, Henry, trans. Valentine and Orson. Ed. Arthur Dickson. New
York: Kraus Reprint, 1971.
Williams, Terry Tempest. “Undressing the Bear.” In On Nature’s Terms.
Ed. Thomas J. Lyon and Peter Stine. Austin: Texas A & M Univer-
sity Press, 1992, pp. 104–107.

Beaver, Porcupine, Badger, and Miscellaneous Rodents

Come play with me;
Why should you run
Through the shaking tree
As though I’d a gun
To strike you dead?
When all I want to do
Is to scratch your head
And let you go.
—W. B. Yeats, “To a Squirrel at Kyle-na-no”

From the viewpoint of the lay observer, rats and mice have always
seemed a sort of paradigm for other animals. This extends even to
creatures that are not rodents—so pigeons are called “rats with
wings”; deer, “rats with hooves”; and bats, “mice with wings.” Other
rodents share the relatively small size and basic form of rats and mice
but are usually distinguished by a few dramatic features. There are
many varieties throughout the world, many of them picturesque and
exotic, including flying squirrels, naked mole rats, kangaroo rats,
marmosets, and capybaras.
Among the rodents of greatest folkloric importance is the beaver,
which is distinguished by its large flat tail, its huge teeth that can gnaw
down trees, and above all, its amazing ability to build. In the ancient
world, the most widespread legend about beavers was that they pos-
sessed in their testicles a powerful medicine known as castoreum (it is
actually in another organ). When a hunter chased a beaver, the beaver
would bite off its testicles, giving the pursuer what he probably
wanted and thus escaping alive. This was reported by Pliny, Aelian,
Horapollo, Cicero, Juvenal, and many others. Priests of Cybele and
also a few early Christians practiced self-castration. In Freudian terms,
this act might have represented the instinctual renunciations that the
founder of psychoanalysis believed were necessary for civilization.
Beavers have often been regarded as the most civilized of creatures. At

Beaver, Porcupine, Badger, and Miscellaneous Rodents 29

any rate, the legend was often repeated in medieval bestiaries and
other manuscripts, where it was interpreted as an allegory of the soul
that, pursued by the Devil, must give up all lewdness.
The beaver was a popular totem and often a bearer of culture for
Native American tribes. According to the Algonquin, Lenape, Huron,
and many other Indians, the beaver first created land, often helped by
the muskrat or otter, by dredging up earth from the bottom of the sea.
The Blackfoot Indians tell of a man named Apikunni, who had been
temporarily banished from his tribe and took refuge during the win-
ter in the beaver house. When he left in the spring, the patriarch of the
beaver family gave him a pointed piece of aspen. Using the stick as a
weapon, he became the first man ever to kill in war, and so he was
welcomed back by his people and made their chief. The Osage tribe
traced its origin to a chief named Wasbashas, who was taught to build
by beavers after he had married the daughter of their king.
Early explorers were amazed by the size of beaver lodges in the
New World. Influenced by the tales of Native Americans, they
brought back to Europe fantastic stories of a highly sophisticated
beaver society. Beavers were said to build with mortar, use their tails
as trowels, and have a system of parliamentary law. By the seven-
teenth century, the beaver was regularly mentioned, along with the
elephant, ape, dog, and dolphin, as perhaps the most intelligent ani-
mal after man. Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, a preeminent natu-
ralist of his day, argued that the beaver did not possess extraordinary
native intelligence but merely showed what all animals might be ca-
pable of were their social cohesion not disrupted by human beings.
Oliver Goldsmith, in his enormously popular History of Animated Na-
ture (first published in 1774), wrote of America, “The beavers in those
distant solitudes are known to build like architects and rule like citi-
zens.” He added that the homes of the beavers “exceed the houses of
the human inhabitants of the same country both in neatness and in
convenience” (vol. 1, p. 176). At about the same time that many Euro-
peans were idealizing the American beaver, colonial trappers were
finding it a lucrative source of fur. Greed prevailed over sentiment, as
the British, French, and Dutch engaged in the Beaver War, an intense
competition for furs that often escalated into armed conflict and drove
the beavers in North America close to extinction.
Today, beaver is often a slang word for the male sex organ, used
most frequently in raunchy magazines for men. Larry Flynt, the
owner of Hustler, has sometimes had himself depicted as a beaver in
cartoons in ads for his magazine. One obvious reason for this usage is
the size of the beaver’s tail. If, however, the usage ultimately goes

30 Beaver, Porcupine, Badger, and Miscellaneous Rodents

This early American
print illustrates the
slaughter of beaver
due to importation
of firearms and the
demand for beaver
pelts. Note, however,
the great architec-
tural sophistication
of the beaver homes.
The animals were
reported to “build
like architects,” in
the words of Oliver

back to the legends of self-castration, it suggests ambivalences that

the pornographers prefer not to acknowledge.
Often associated with the beaver in both Europe and America is
the porcupine, a rodent known primarily for the spikes covering its
back. The most widely spread legend about the porcupine, found in
the work of Pliny and many other authors of the ancient world, is that
it can shoot its spines when attacked. Aelian added that the porcupine
can aim its quills at an attacker with considerable accuracy and that
the quills “leap forth as though sped from a bowspring” (vol. 1, book
1, chap. 31). The fiction is still widespread today.

Beaver, Porcupine, Badger, and Miscellaneous Rodents 31

In Native American mythology, the porcupine frequently ac-
companies the beaver, usually as a companion but occasionally as an
adversary. The Haida of the Northwest coast told a story of the war
between the clans of Beaver and Porcupine. After Porcupine had
stolen Beaver’s food, the clan of Beaver placed Porcupine on an island
to starve, but the clan of Porcupine rescued their leader when the wa-
ter froze and they could walk across the ice. The clan of Porcupine
then captured Beaver and placed him high in a tree. Beaver could not
climb, but he chewed his way down the tree, and the two clans finally
made peace.
The beaver and porcupine are known for gentleness, but the
weasel has impressed people above all with its fierce temperament.
Though usually comparatively small, weasels do not hesitate to do
battle with rats or snakes. Pliny the Elder stated that the weasel was
the only animal that could defeat the basilisk, a serpent able to kill
other creatures with simply a gaze. The diminutive rodent doing bat-
tle with such a monster later became a symbol of Christ triumphing
over the Devil. In the modern era, as traditional martial virtues have
come to be less valued, the reputation of weasels has declined. In Ken-
neth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows (first published in 1906), they
appear as a vicious yet cowardly mob.
The ermine, a relatively large weasel, was sacred to the Zoroas-
trians. Because of its white color, it has often been associated with the
fierce chastity of a soldier of God, and Mary Magdalene was depicted
wearing an ermine coat to show that she had reformed. A popular Eu-
ropean legend stated that an ermine, pursued by hunters, would al-
low itself to be killed rather than soil its beautiful coat with mud.
Still another important rodent in folklore is the badger, which is
noted for its powerful front legs and its long claws adapted for dig-
ging. Its practice of burrowing under the earth and its nocturnal
habits make the badger a creature of mystery. In China and, most es-
pecially, Japan, badgers are shape shifters, and many stories are told
of spirits haunting old buildings, desolate fields, or ponds that turn
out to be badgers. Typical is the story of an ascetic hermit on Mount
Atago near Kyoto. A hunter would bring him food every day, and one
afternoon the hermit confided to his benefactor that the bodhisattva
Fugen visited him every evening upon a white elephant. At the invi-
tation of the hermit, the hunter stayed to see Fugen. At first the hunter
was dazzled by the vision, but as he gazed more closely he began to
feel suspicious. Finally he shot an arrow at the vision. The bodhisattva
immediately disappeared, and there was a rustling in the bushes. “If
it had really been Fugen,” the hunter told the hermit, “the arrow

32 Beaver, Porcupine, Badger, and Miscellaneous Rodents

couldn’t have done any damage. So it must have been some monster.”
The next morning the two followed a trail of blood and found an
enormous badger with an arrow through its breast (Tyler, pp.
The badger is often thought of as a small bear, and it is one of
many animals that have taken the place of the bear in forecasting the
coming of spring. The end of the winter was originally indicated by
the return of the bears from hibernation. As these large animals be-
came scarce, they were replaced in Germany and much of Britain by
the badger. According to a German proverb, “the badger peeps out of
his hole on Candlemass Day, and, if he sees the sun shining he draws
back into his hole” (Santino, p. 58). In the United States, the wood-
chuck or groundhog has replaced the badger in forecasting spring. On
February 2, the groundhog will lift its head out of its hole. If it sees its
shadow, the groundhog will return to its hole and winter will linger
six more weeks, but if the groundhog comes out, spring is at hand.
The most beloved rodent in the Northern Hemisphere, however,
is the squirrel. It is primarily the squirrel’s long bushy tail that differ-
entiates squirrels from rats, yet what a difference that makes in the
way the two are regarded. Rats may often be feared and despised, yet
squirrels are such a part of our yards and parks that these places
would appear desolate without them. Nevertheless, squirrels have
been the subject of many ambivalent legends. For the Ainu of Japan,
they represented the discarded sandals of the god Aioina, which
would never rot, perhaps because squirrels move in spurts that are
like footsteps. Malaysians believed squirrels were produced, like but-
terflies, from the cocoons of caterpillars, and they thought the dried
penis of a squirrel was a powerful aphrodisiac. In Norse mythology,
the squirrel Ratatosk was the bringer of rain and snow. It moved up
and down the tree of life Yggdrasil, constantly trying to stir up strife
between the eagle at the top and the serpent at the base. In Irish
mythology, the goddess Medb has a bird perched on one shoulder
and a squirrel on the other, her messengers for the earth and sky. The
habit of hoarding nuts made squirrels symbols of avarice in some me-
dieval bestiaries, but Victorian books of natural history often praised
squirrels for their thrift. Today, squirrels thrill urban dwellers with
their spectacular leaps between trees or runs along telephone lines
over busy highways. Every now and then a squirrel will turn and
stare at a person, with a gaze that suggests curiosity but neither fear
nor anger. Because they seem completely untroubled by human pres-
ence, they reassure us that perhaps we have not alienated ourselves
too much from the natural world after all.

Beaver, Porcupine, Badger, and Miscellaneous Rodents 33

Selected References
Aelian. On Animals (3 vols.). Trans. A. F. Scholfield. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1972.
Bruchac, Joseph. Native Plant Stories. Golden, CO.: Fulcrum, 1995.
Gill, Sam D., and Irene F. Sullivan. Native American Mythology. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Goldsmith, Oliver. History of Animated Nature (4 vols.). Edinburgh:
Smith and Elder/T. Tegg and Son, 1838.
Lewinsohn, Richard. Animals, Men, and Myths: An Informative and
Entertaining History of Man and the Animals around Him. New York:
Harper and Brothers, 1954.
Santino, Jack. All around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American
Life. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Sax, Boria. The Frog King: On Legends, Fables, Fairy Tales, and Anecdotes
of Animals. New York: Pace University Press, 1990.
Tyler, Royall, ed. and trans. Japanese Tales. New York: Pantheon, 1987.

Bee and Wasp

Ask the wild bee what the Druids knew.
—Scottish saying

The word bee ultimately goes back to the Indo-European “bhi,” mean-
ing “to quiver.” The same root is in the Greek “bios,” meaning “life.”
A quiver is the motion of spirit, a pulse, or a breath. Life is a sort of
“buzz,” a humming in the void. Bees appear primordial. In ancient
Egypt, bees sometimes represented the soul. People said that bees
were born from the tears of the sun god Ra, or, later, those of Christ.
Bees do not fly mechanically from one place to another. Instead,
they often hover pensively in the air. They build complex homes and
communities, almost like human cities. Above all else, their ability to
produce honey and wax has always seemed wondrous. In Plato’s di-
alogue “Phaedo,” Socrates suggested that those who live as good cit-
izens might be reincarnated as bees or other social insects. He meant
this transformation to be a reward, of course. It is small wonder that
author Maurice Maeterlinck, in the early twentieth century, consid-
ered bees the most intelligent of animals next to humankind.
In Georgics, Virgil bestowed great praise on bees, hoping to
shame his decadent countrymen in Rome:

Alone of living things they hold their young

In common, nor have individual homes:
They pass their lives beneath the might of law:
They know the patriot’s zeal, and reverence

34 Bee and Wasp

For household gods: mindful of frosts to come,
They toil through summer, garnering their grains
Into the common store. While some keep watch. . . .
(part 4, lines 194–200)

According to Virgil, bees neither lost their minds through love nor
weakened their bodies through sexual pleasure. They were spared the
pains and hazards of pregnancy, since their young spring sponta-
neously from plants. Most of all, Virgil admired the patriotism of bees.
Spiders, hornets, worms, and other menaces constantly threatened
their hives, yet the bees never ceased their vigilance. The individuals
sacrificed their lives, but the community survived.
Aristotle had considered the generation of bees “a great puzzle,”
but he suggested various possibilities. One was that they drew their
young from various flowers, while others included copulation and
spontaneous generation (book 3, section 10). Virgil told us that the
Egyptians near Canopus by the Nile had a rite in which priests would
lead a two-year-old bull into a small room. The priests would club the
animal to death, then continue to pound the flesh, taking care not to
pierce the skin. Next they covered the body with thyme, bay, and
other spices. A short time later, bees emerged from the body.
The practice began after the nymph Eurydice, beloved of Or-
pheus, departed from her husband into the underworld. The bees
died, and they could be brought back only when the spirits of the
lovers were placated by the sacrifice of an ox. Persephone, queen of the
dead in Greco-Roman mythology, returned yearly from the under-

A worker bee as
drawn by Ludwig

Bee and Wasp 35

world as vegetation; Eurydice returned as a swarm of bees. Initiates
into the mysteries of Dionysus, god of wine and religious ecstasy, had
another interpretation of the ceremony: Dionysus had been torn apart
by titans as an ox and reborn as a bee.
Like agriculture, tending of bees is very seasonal. Bees die and
hives lie dormant in winter. In the ancient and medieval worlds, farm-
ers and their children would watch carefully in spring for signs that
the bees were beginning to swarm; then people would gather and fol-
low the bees. They would set up attractive new hives and beat on ket-
tles, believing that the noise would help the bees to settle down. In au-
tumn the farmers would harvest the honey.
Bees are so beloved that people have generally forgiven them
their painful sting. In one of Aesop’s fables, however, the bees begged
Zeus for stings to protect their honey. Zeus was displeased at their
covetousness. He granted the request but added that the bees had to
die whenever they used their stings. That bees pass away on stinging
is true, since they cannot remove the sting without tearing their ab-
domens. Thus the individual dies for the hive; even a stung person
might be moved to forgiveness by the sacrifice.
Sometimes armies have set loose bees against their enemies.
Michel de Montaigne reported in “Apology for Raymond Sebond”
that when the Portuguese were besieging the town of Tamly, the de-
fenders brought out a great number of hives and placed them around
the town wall. Next, residents of Tamly set fires to drive the bees into
the invading host. The enemy was completely routed, yet not a single
bee was lost. Montaigne does not record how the bees were counted.
The keeping of hives probably began around the seventh cen-
tury B.C., but bees can’t be called “domesticated.” Even in hives made
by human beings, bees always retain a life of their own. They are full
of mystery. Aelian, writing in the first century A.D., reported that bees
knew when frost and rain were coming. When bees remained close to
their hives, beekeepers warned the farmers to expect harsh weather.
If the bees know this, what else might they know as well?
Swarms of bees were closely watched as portents in ancient
Rome. Priests used the size and direction of a swarm to foretell for-
tunes during war. Karma, the Hindu god of love, has a bowstring
made of bees, perhaps because discovering love is a bit like a swarm
of bees setting off to find a new home. Herodotus, the Greek historian,
tells how Onesilus once led some Cyprians in a revolt against the Per-
sian Empire of King Darius. After Onesilus was killed in battle, the
people of the Cypriot city of Amathus, who had sided with the Per-
sians, cut off his head and placed it over one of their city gates. After a

36 Bee and Wasp

Illustration by J. J.
Grandville showing
a queen bee giving
out bread and honey
to her children in
the hive.

while, the skull became hollow. A swarm of bees filled the head with
honeycomb. The Amathusians consulted an oracle, who told them to
take down the head, bury it, and offer sacrifices every year to Onesilus.
Country people in Europe and North America have traditionally
notified the bees when the owner of their property died. There is a de-
scription of this ceremony in Lark Rise to Candleford, a fictionalized ac-
count by Flora Thompson of her childhood in a poor rural family in
England during the latter part of the nineteenth century. An elderly
woman named Queenie would knock on each hive, as though at a
door, and say, “Bees, bless, your master’s dead, and now you must
work for your missis” (p. 87). At times, rural people would tell the
bees a lot more about affairs of the household, and it is not terribly
hard to understand why. Working alone in the fields, one might eas-
ily feel an urge to talk. If no other people were around, one might
speak to whatever seemed most human—that is, to the bees. The
word bee is sometimes used to refer to activities where people work
and talk, for example, a quilting bee or a husking bee. A rumor is
sometimes referred to as a “buzz.” European peasants have some-
times believed that ancestors return to their property as bees.

Bee and Wasp 37

People have always considered the honey of bees a divine food.
Zeus was raised on the island of Crete drinking the milk of the fairy
goat Amalthea and eating the honey of the bee Melissa. In the Bible,
Mark tells us that John the Baptist “lived on locusts and wild honey”
(1:7). Pliny the Elder wrote that bees placed honey in the mouth of
Plato when he was a child, foretelling his later eloquence. The same
was later said of Saint Ambrose, Saint Anthony, and other holy men.
Cesaire de Hesterbach reported in the early thirteenth century that a
peasant once placed the Eucharist in a hive, hoping it would inspire
the bees to produce more honey. Later he found that the bees had
made a little chapel of wax. It contained an altar on which lay a tiny
chalice with the Host.
For some reason, people pair related animals as opposites: the
rat and the mouse, the dog and the wolf, the lion and the tiger. The
bee is constantly paired with the wasp, which lives in nests instead of
hives. One legend from Poland has it that when God created the bees,
the Devil made the wasps in a failed attempt at imitation. In a Ro-
manian legend, a peddler persuaded a gypsy to exchange a bee for a
wasp by saying that the wasp was larger and would make more
honey. All the gypsy got for his greed was a sting.
While the bee is a symbol of peace, the wasp is associated with
conflict and war. The Greek comic poet Aristophanes, in his play
Wasps, compared these insects to jurors, since both came in annoying
swarms. Saint Paul seemed to conceive of death itself as an insect,
probably a wasp, since he asked, “Death, where is thy sting?” (1 Cor.
15:55). At the end of the Middle Ages, the wasp was frequently the
form in which the soul of a witch flew about at night.
Some cultures, however, have admired the martial qualities of
wasps. Greek warriors went off to battle with wasps emblazoned on
their shields. Among Native Americans and Africans, enduring the
stings of wasps can be a test in initiation ceremonies. The wasp was a
form often taken by Native American shamans. A wasp killing a
grasshopper became a medieval symbol of Christ triumphing over
the Devil.
The mason wasp is a deity of the Ila people in Zambia. They be-
lieve that the earth was once cold, and so the animals sent an embassy
up to heaven to bring back fire. The vulture, eagle, and crow all died
on the journey. Only the wasp arrived to plead, successfully, with
God. Because it brought fire to the hearths, the wasp now makes its
nest in chimneys.
Today in the United States, the acronym “wasp” stands for
“White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.” The term is usually used in a deroga-

38 Bee and Wasp

tory way. It suggests a combination
of aristocratic restraint and vicious-
ness. A wasp gives little warning yet
has a terrible sting. The term “wasp
waist” is used to describe people, es-
pecially women, who have what is
also called an “hourglass figure.”
This suggests beauty that is obtained
in an artificial, calculating sort of
way. But if the bee were not thought
of as holy, the wasp probably would
not be so maligned.
It is hard for people to think of
bees as individuals, and even bee-
keepers can hardly ever distinguish
among them. Only the queen—for
earlier ages, the king—stands out
from the rest. Social insects such as
ants and bees may be the inspiration
for states in which the individual is
subordinate to the state, from ancient
Sparta to the Soviet Union. Napoleon
took the bee as his emblem. People
have constantly aspired to emulate
the bees.
Edward Topsell, in the mid-sev-
enteenth century, described the society of bees as an ideal monarchy. Illustration by J. J.
The king (what we now call the queen) was set apart by his size and Grandville showing
royal bearing. His subjects all loved and obeyed him. The court of a fashionable young
lady with a “wasp
bees also contained viceroys, ambassadors, orators, soldiers, pipers,
waist,” who is
trumpeters, watchmen, scouts, sentinels, and far more.
charming but also
Thomas Muffet, who collaborated with Topsell, has told us that
bees “are not misshapen, crook-legged any way, pot-bellied, over
close-kneed, bulb-cheeked, great mouthed, lean-chopped, rude fore-
heads or barren, as many great ladies and noble women are, who have
lost the faculty of generation.” He went on to say that in the “demo-
cratical state” of the bees, everyone is employed in some honest labor.
The bees were generated by putrefaction of animals such as oxen,
with the kings and the nobility created from the brain and the com-
moners from the other parts. Muffet added that bees could not endure
the presence of lechers, menstruating women, or those who use per-
fumes (Topsell and Muffet, vol. 3, pp. 892–897).

Bee and Wasp 39

For others of the Renaissance, these bees seemed a little too per-
fect, too virtuous, and too austere. Bernard Mandeville, a Dutch
physician, satirized them in The Fable of the Bees (first published in
1724). The bees appealed to Jupiter to organize their state according to
the ideals of perfect virtue. They got rid of the corrupt officials and
lazy courtiers. The trouble was that the virtuous replacements didn’t
know how to get things done. Since the bees no longer produced lux-
uries such as honey, their economy collapsed. Because the bees lived
only for peace, they forgot how to fight. Finally, a few melancholy sur-
vivors withdrew into a hollow oak to await their end.
The priestesses of the goddesses Demeter and Rhea were known
as Melissae, or bees, a hint that in remote antiquity people may have
realized that the bees are a matriarchy. If so, that knowledge was for-
gotten until the start of the modern era. It was not until the mid-sev-
enteenth century that the Dutch scientist Jan Swammerdam examined
bees under a microscope and learned that the so-called king was re-
ally a queen. Bees could no longer be used as a model for a perfect
For the French author Maurice Maeterlinck, around the start of
the twentieth century, the religion of the bees was that of progress.
“The god of the bees is the future,” he wrote in Life of the Bee. “There
is a strange duality in the character of the bee. In the heart of the hive,
all help and love each other. . . . Wound one of them, and a thousand
will sacrifice themselves to avenge the injury. But outside the hive,
they no longer recognize each other” (p. 43). The bees had become
radical socialists, living only for the cause.
During World War II, the distinguished scientist Karl von Frisch
was studying bees at the University of Munich. He had been classified
as one-quarter Jewish by the Nazi regime, which normally would have
deprived him of his job. A disease began to kill off the bees in Ger-
many, however, threatening the orchards, so the government allowed
him to continue his work. Pouring his frustrations into work, the in-
troverted von Frisch began to decipher the communication system of
bees. They indicate the direction and distance of food by dances within
the hive. This remarkable story, though completely true, reads almost
like a fairy tale of grateful animals. The scientist seemed to have a
covenant, a special intimacy, with bees. As he worked to rescue bees,
they saved him. He was then initiated into their society and their
speech. Of course, there is a difference. Unlike the heroes of fairy tales,
von Frisch published the secrets of bees to the world.
Still, though a bit of the language of bees may be deciphered, only
bees themselves may speak it. A person could certainly try doing the

40 Bee and Wasp

dance of bees, but that would be art. It would not impart information.
We teach other animals such as chimpanzees to use human language.
Then, much of the time, we think of them as imperfect human beings.
But people are also, as Virgil knew long ago, imperfect bees.
Selected References
Aristophanes. “Wasps.” Trans. Moses Hadas. In The Complete Plays of
Aristophanes. New York: Bantam Books, 1998, p. 143–184.
Aristotle. The Generation of Animals (3 vols.). Trans. A. L. Peck.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953.
Davies, Malcolm, and Jeyaraney Kathirithamby. Greek Insects. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Maeterlinck, Maurice. Life of the Bee. Trans. Alfred Sutro. London:
George Allen, 1908.
Mandeville, Bernard. The Fable of the Bees: Or Private Vices, Publick
Benefits (2 vols.). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924.
Montaigne, Michel de. “Apology for Raymond Sebond.” In The Com-
plete Essays of Montaigne (2 vols.). Trans. Donald M. Frame. Stan-
ford: Stanford University Press, 1959, vol. 1, pp. 428–561.
Parrinder, Geoffrey. African Mythology. London: Paul Hamlyn, 1973.
Plato. “Phaedo.” The Last Days of Socrates. Trans Hugh Tredennick and
Harold Tarrant. New York: Penguin, 1993, p. 93–185.
Thompson, Flora. Lark Rise to Candleford: A Trilogy. New York: Pen-
guin, 1973.
Topsell, Edward, and Thomas Muffet. The History of Four-Footed Beasts
and Serpents and Insects (3 vols.). New York: Da Capo, 1967 (fac-
simile of 1658 edition).
Virgil. The Singing Farmer: A Translation of Virgil’s “Georgics.” Trans.
L. A. S. Jermyn. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1947.

The poor beetle that we tread upon
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.
—William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure (act 3, scene 1)

Beetles are often found near garbage, around excrement, and in dank
areas. People usually associate beetles with filth, squalor, and decay,
yet myth often regards these qualities are often a preliminary stage to
the creation of life. In ancient times in the Mediterranean region, peo-
ple believed that life, particularly that of insects, sprang sponta-
neously from decomposing matter, and a few varieties of beetles came
to be regarded as holy. Foremost of these is the scarab beetle, also
known as the dung beetle, which has been represented in countless
amulets, some of which were found wrapped in cloth together with

Beetle 41
mummified corpses. The scarab lives
off dung and is frequently seen near
farms. It pushes a globe of dung to
an underground burrow before con-
suming it, and to the ancient Egyp-
tians the ball suggested motion of the
sun crossing the sky. The scarab was
sacred to Ra, god of the sun. The god
Khepera, associated with creation
and immortality, was depicted with
the head of a scarab beetle. The fe-
male scarab beetle lays her eggs in a
ball that she creates inside her hole.
The Egyptians confused the two
processes of feeding and reproduc-
tion in scarabs, thinking the eggs
hatching from the ball were gener-
ated spontaneously from the earth.
The Egyptians held a number of
other beetles as sacred as well. One
long, slender click beetle (Agypus
notodonta) was sacred to Neith, a
very ancient goddess associated with
A beetle cavalier, both fertility and war, and it was often depicted on amulets and in hi-
drawn by Ludwig eroglyphs. In the later periods of Egyptian civilization, including the
Becker, from The Ptolemaic and Roman eras, beetles were mummified and placed in
Population of an miniature sarcophagi in expectation that they would enter the next
Old Pear Tree by
world. According to Louis Charbonneau-Lassay, the veneration of
E. Van Bruyssel
certain beetles eventually spread from Egypt throughout much of the
Mediterranean. It also spread south to Africa, to the Hottentots and
Kaffirs, who revered the golden-tinted rose beetle up through at least
the eighteenth century.
One brightly colored insect, usually orange with black spots, is
known as the ladybug in the United States and the ladybird in Britain.
“Lady” refers to the Virgin Mary. In France the insect is sometimes
called “poulette à Dieu,” or “chicken of God.” These names and the re-
gard with which the insect is viewed hint at a divine role in the reli-
gions of antiquity, but this has never been fully explained. One theory
is that the beetle was once sacred to Freya, the Scandinavian goddess
of love. The association of the ladybug with the sun, however, indi-
cates that its cult may be connected with that of the Egyptian scarab.
To have a ladybug alight on your clothes is considered a sign of

42 Beetle
good fortune, and you must never kill or injure the creature. You are
to send it away with a rhyme, though you may also hurry it along by
blowing gently. A common British variant of the rhyme goes:

Lady Bird, Lady Bird,

Fly away home,
Your house is on fire,
Your children will burn. (Baring-Gould, p. 209)

The verse may refer to the ladybug’s association with the sun, which
could be partly due to the bright orange or red on its back. Another
theory is that the lines refer to the burning of hop vines after harvest
to clear the fields. Sometimes, if the request is made in additional
verses, people have believed the insect will fly to one’s sweetheart.
In traditional rural societies, the cycle of putrefaction and re-
newed life was evident in yearly routines such as fertilizing the land,
but it is experienced less intimately in urban life of the twentieth cen-
tury. The beetle, a form of “vermin,” sometimes appears as a symbol
of unredeemed filth. In the story “Metamorphosis” by the German-
Jewish writer Franz Kafka (first published in 1915), a traveling sales-
man named Gregor Samsa, subject to degrading demands from both
family and work, woke up one day to find he had been changed into
a giant insect. Some readers take it for a cockroach, which is now per-
haps most intimately associated with squalor and decay. The creature
in Kafka’s story is indeterminate, but the description of it as lying on
its hard back with legs kicking helplessly in the air suggests a beetle.
Gregor struggled to communicate what remained of his humanity,
until his family eventually tired of caring for him, so he died of neg-
lect and was thrown out in the trash.
Selected References
Arnold, Dorothea. An Egyptian Bestiary. New York: Metropolitan Mu-
seum of Art, 1995.
Baring-Gould, William S., and Ceil. The Annotated Mother Goose. New
York: Bramhall House, 1962.
Charbonneau-Lassay, Louis. The Bestiary of Christ. Trans. and ed. D. M.
Dooling. New York: Parabola Books, 1991.
Fabre, Henri. Fabre’s Book of Insects. Trans. Mrs. Rodolph Stawell. New
York: Tudor, 1935.
Gubernatis, Angelo De. Zoological Mythology or The Legends of Animals
(2 vols.). Chicago: Singing Tree Press, 1968.
Jones, Alison. Larousse Dictionary of World Folklore. New York:
Larousse, 1996.
Kafka, Franz. “Metamorphosis.” In The Complete Stories. Trans. Willa
and Edwin Muir et al. New York: Schocken, 1971, pp. 89–139.

Beetle 43
Blue Jay
See Crow, Raven, and Other Corvids

See Pig

See Bull and Cow

Bull and Cow

Man in his prosperity forfeits intelligence.
He is the one with the cattle doomed to slaughter.
—Psalms 49:20

Bulls and cows are prominent in the Paleolithic paintings on the walls
of caves in France, Spain, and other parts of Europe. In the main
chamber of the cave at Lascaux, five enormous bulls decorate the ceil-
ing. In the homes of Çatal Hüyük, near Jericho in the Near East, large
heads of bulls modeled in clay extend from the walls. These shrines to
bulls date back to the middle of the ninth millennium B.C. Similar
shrines to bulls have been found in much of the Mediterranean area.
Only very slowly did people lose their fear of these giants. Cattle were
not domesticated in Europe until around 3,000 B.C., long after other
animals such as the dog, sheep, and goat.
Sacred texts in the religion of Zoroaster made man and bull inti-
mate associates. Ohrmuzd made a lone white bull, “shining like the
moon,” as the fifth act of creation and made the first man, Gayomart,
as the sixth. The seed of man and bull were then created from “light
and the freshness of sky,” so that both would have abundant progeny
(Zaehner, pp. 40–41). Zoroastrians believed that when the world drew
to an end, Soshyans, a descendant of Zoroaster’s, would sacrifice a
great bull named Hadhayans, and the fat of the bull would be used to
make the elixir of eternal life.
As the largest of domestic animals, the bull was the supreme sac-
rificial offering throughout almost all of the ancient Mediterranean.
Its skin, bones, gristle, and a small bit of its meat were left on the al-
tar for a god, while the humans feasted on the rest of the animal. Some
people, however, thought it impious to give the gods such a tiny
share. On important occasions, the Hebrews would perform a holo-
caust, a sacrifice in which the entire animal was offered up to God.
The Bible gives a very detailed description of the bull sacrifice that ac-

44 Blue Jay
Greek painting of a
bull being led to the
altar for slaughter.

companied the investiture of priests. Some blood was placed around

horns by the altar to purify it, and the rest was poured out onto the
ground. Every part of the bull was disposed of according to a precise
ritual (Lev. 8:14–17).
In Greece the sacrifice of a bull was generally reserved for trib-
utes to Zeus; in Rome, for tributes to Jupiter. The slaying of the bull
became the central rite in the religion of Mithras, which rivaled Chris-
tianity in popularity during the latter part of the Roman Empire.
Mithras, accompanied by a dog and other animals, would plunge his
sword into a great bull at the end of the world so that all things might
live again. Artists of the Roman Empire would depict grain sprouting
from the wounds of the bull as it was slain by Mithras.
In one myth of the Greeks, Poseidon, god of the sea, gave King
Minos of Crete an enormous bull, intending that Minos should offer
it back as a sacrifice. But Minos kept the bull instead. This act, an al-
lusion to the first domestication of animals, led to a sequence of
events in which great buildings were erected, unnatural acts per-
formed, and people sacrificed. The angry god caused the wife of Mi-
nos, Pasiphaë, to fall in love with the bull. She ordered Daedalos, the
great inventor, to construct a hollow cow of wood, and she crept in-
side. From there, she made love to the bull and conceived the Mino-
taur, a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man. Deeply
ashamed, Minos ordered Daedalos to construct a labyrinth, an under-
ground series of passageways, in which to house the Minotaur. Later,
when his son was killed hunting a boar in Athens, Minos demanded
that the Athenians send a tribute to him in Crete of seven youths and
seven maidens every year as penance. The fourteen were placed in the
labyrinth, where they would wander until they were eaten by the

Bull and Cow 45

monster or else died of hunger. Theseus, a prince of Athens, volun-
teered to go as one of the youths. Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, fell
in love with him. She gave him a ball of yarn to unroll as he wandered
through the labyrinth and a sword to do battle with the Minotaur.
Theseus killed the creature and escaped from Crete with Ariadne. A
short while later, he deserted his benefactress on an island. He went
on to kill other monsters and brigands, to defeat the Amazons, and to
give Athens its first laws.
The tale mocks the religion, especially the fertility rites, of the
Cretans, who were often adversaries of the Greeks. Minos, a fool and
tyrant in Greek mythology, appears to have been an actual ruler in
Crete. He claimed the bull as an ancestor, and he did indeed have an
elaborate palace with underground chambers at Knossos. The Mino-
taur was a god, whom the Greeks considered a grotesque, unnatural
creature. With his horns and his dwelling beneath the ground, he an-
ticipated the Christian Devil.
Cretan wall paintings depicted acrobats turning somersaults on
the back of a bull. In the Mesopotamian tale of Gilgamesh, our earli-
est heroic epic, the Bull of Heaven represented a terrible drought,
which came early in the second millennium and may have destroyed
the mighty Akkadian empire. The Bull was sent down to earth as a
punishment because Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu had cut
down the cedar forests of Lebanon and killed its guardian, Humbaba.
The animal immediately killed hundreds of people. Enkidu grabbed
the horns of the bull and leapt aside, a bit like the Cretan acrobats. Gil-
gamesh killed the bull with his sword. But worship of the bull per-
sisted in Mesopotamia. The animal was identified with Anu, the god
of the sky, and with Adad, the god of storms. There are a number of
depictions of bull-men, which may have sometimes represented
Enkidu himself.
In Egypt, the sacred bull Apis was considered an incarnation of
the creator god Ptah. Conceived when fire came down from heaven
and impregnated a cow, Apis was a unique animal that, legend had it,
priests could find by searching among calves for one with very spe-
cific markings. He would be black but with an inverted triangle of
white on his brow. A mark shaped like the silhouette of a vulture
would stretch across his shoulders, and there would be a crescent
moon on his sides and a sign like a beetle on his tongue. Once the bull
was found, there would be great rejoicing. He would march in a large
procession. Women would pray to him for children, and priests
would perform sacred rites. Finally, he would be brought to the tem-
ple of Ptah, where he would live. When he died, the bull would be

46 Bull and Cow

consecrated to Osiris, god of the
dead, and buried in great splendor.
Then priests would search for his
The Greeks and Romans, who
had anthropomorphic deities, some-
times thought the animal-gods of
Egypt were strange or primitive.
Nevertheless, they generally re-
spected the sacred bull Apis.
Herodotus recounted how Camby-
ses, king of the Persians, committed a
sacrilege against Apis after conquer-
ing Egypt. The new ruler, filled with
arrogance, threw his dagger at the
bull, striking the animal in the thigh.
Then Cambyses had the priests of
Apis beaten and forbade them, under
penalty of death, to celebrate any fes-
tivals. Apis died unattended in the
temple and was secretly buried.
Shortly afterward, the gods struck
Cambyses with madness. He killed his brother, his sister, and many Illustration by
trusted servants in fits of temper. Finally, after he had driven his sub- Albrecht Dürer to
jects to revolt, Cambyses accidentally wounded himself in the thigh Sebastian Brandt’s
with his own sword. When he realized that the place of the wound Ship of Fools
corresponded exactly to where he had struck the sacred bull, Camby- (1494), showing

ses knew that he was doomed. The wounded limb became infected worship of the
golden calf.
with gangrene, and he died shortly afterward.
The golden calf, which the Israelites worshipped during their
flight from Egypt, is a form of the sacred bull Apis. The Hebrews were
constantly struggling with the old animal cults, and Moses put this
one down with great ruthlessness, killing about 2,000 people. Today,
bullfights reenact the struggle against the ancient cult of the bull. It is
remarkable that, with all our technology, we still need such ritual af-
firmations of human dominance.
The many deities of the ancient world who were depicted in the
form of a bull also included the Greek Dionysus, Phoenician Moloch,
and Syrian Attis. Siva, part of the Hindu trinity, rides on a white bull.
He is the god of creativity, a quality vividly embodied in the fecundity
of cattle. For this reason the cow and bull are sacred in much of India.
The cow and bull are also important in the culture of the Far East, but

Bull and Cow 47

there they have been viewed with a bit less awe and a bit more inti-
macy. The ox is a sign of the Chinese zodiac. The sage Lao-tzu has of-
ten been depicted riding on a water buffalo, and so are small boys play-
ing the flute. Cattle in Asia are not only admired but often loved as well.
With many animals such as the cat and the dog, worship eventu-
ally led to domestication. In a similar way religious awe can evolve into
economic power. Cattle in the ancient world, where most exchanges
were conducted by barter rather than by money, were a measure of
wealth. To show the wealth of Job, the Bible numbers the animals in his
herds yet says nothing about money at all. The value of coins, initially,
was measured according to the animals they might buy, and the earli-
est coins are stamped with pictures of cattle. In Homeric times, a talent
of gold was the equivalent of an ox. Our word “pecuniary” comes from
the Latin “pecus,” meaning “domestic herd animal.”
It is strange that English has no common word that can stand for
either bull or cow in the singular. The closest, perhaps, is “bovine,”
which sounds a bit pedantic. When we speak of a rabbit or spider, the
subject may be either female or male. For the cow and bull, however,
sexuality is such an intimate part of their identity that, apparently,
even the word cannot dispense with gender. The same is true in other
languages, for example Latin. Both the bull and the cow are extremely
important in the religious history of humanity, but their symbolism is
so different that they sometimes hardly seem to be of the same
species. As we have seen, the bull is generally associated with gener-
ative power and energy. The cow is, by contrast, maternal.
The cow has often been worshipped as a provider of milk. Un-
like bulls, cows were seldom sacrificed. In Norse mythology, the cre-
ation of the world began when the cow Audhumbla was created from
melting frost. She nourished the giant Ymir with rivers of milk. When
she grew thirsty, Audhumbla licked grains of salt on ice of the frozen
waste. She formed the first man, Buri, ancestor of the gods, with her
tongue. The Egyptian goddess Hathor, mistress of the underworld,
was often depicted in the form of a cow. As goddess of love, music,
and fertility, she was among the most beloved of deities. Once, how-
ever, the deities appointed her to punish humankind. She took the
form of a lioness and created such devastation that the divinities
feared she would destroy every person on the earth. Finally, they gave
her wine to calm her. In Greek mythology, Hera, the wife of Zeus, is
referred to as “cow-eyed” by Homer. In remote times, she may have
been a bovine deity. Her husband, the supreme god, was constantly
having affairs with mortals. Once Hera caught him with the maiden
Io. Hoping to cover up his transgression, Zeus turned Io into a cow.

48 Bull and Cow

Assyrian winged
bull from the palace
of Sargon.

Hera saw through the trick. She sent a fly to prod the maiden and
drive her over the world.
Hollow images of cows in which people might be buried were
made in Egypt and elsewhere in the ancient world. Herodotus told
how the daughter of the pharaoh Mycerinus, in her last moments,
asked her father that she might still see the sun once a year. Devastated
by her death, Mycerinus ordered that a large cow be made of wood. It
was hollowed out and covered up with gold. A golden orb represent-
ing the sun was placed between the horns. The young woman was
buried in the cow. Lamps were kept always burning beside the cow,
and once a year it was raised and exposed to the light of day.
What is greatly valued easily becomes an object of contention.
Cattle raids were frequent and often led to wars. According to the
Greeks, the infant Hermes, who later became messenger of the gods,
stole the cattle of the sun god Apollo. Hermes killed two of the animals
and locked the rest in a cave. After eating, he strung the guts of the cat-
tle across a tortoiseshell to make the first stringed instrument, a lyre.
Apollo, who could tell the future, easily found the thief. The mother of
Hermes protested that her son was but an infant and certainly not ca-
pable of theft, but Apollo demanded that his property be returned. Fi-
nally, though, Apollo exchanged the cattle for the lyre and became the
patron of music. The story is about the exchange of the spiritual value
of art for pecuniary value, property in the form of cattle.

Bull and Cow 49

Perhaps the most important epic of the Celtic people is the Táin
Bó Cuailnge, or “The Cattle Raid of Cooley.” As it began, Queen Medb
and her husband, Ailell, were arguing about which of them brought
greater wealth to their marriage. They tallied up their goods, item by
item, including clothes, jewels, and sheep. Medb was able to match
every possession of Ailell’s except for a white horned bull named
Finnbennach. There was only one bull so fine in all of Ireland. It was
named Donn Cuailnge and kept in the province of Ulster. Queen
Medb resolved to have that bull. When it was refused to her, she sent
an army to take it. The hero Cú Cuchulainn valiantly defended Ulster,
but after many battles Medb finally carried off her prize. The story
ended as the two bulls fought and Donn Cuailnge was victorious. He
wandered about carrying the entrails of Finnbennach on his horns
and then finally died. The story is not so different from the plots of
many American Westerns, once so popular as cheap paperbacks and
early television shows.
The symbolism of animals is often remarkably universal, and
similar meanings can frequently be found in cultures that seem to
have had little or no contact over centuries or millennia. The Ameri-
can buffalo, much like its relatives, the cow and bull in Eurasian cul-
tures, is viewed as a nurturer among the Native Americans in the
West. In Animals of the Soul, Joseph E. Brown writes that “because of
the overall value of the bison in Oglala (Sioux) religious beliefs, the
animals and all parts of it represent some aspect of the sacred . . . ”
(p. 14). Hunting buffalo was understood as a quest, accompanied by
rituals of purification. Every part of the buffalo was used, whether for
food, clothing, or the construction of artifacts. The near extinction of
the buffalo in the United States during the twentieth century was a
systematic attack on the traditional culture of the Indians inhabiting
the Great Plains.
Even after millennia of domestication, cattle have not entirely
lost their numinous quality. Those who are associated with cattle
seem to gain some of their power and virility, at least in popular imag-
ination. This is so for the heroes of ancient epics as well as the gauchos
of Argentina and the cowboys of the American West. Eating of beef is
still associated with strength and virility. Muscular men are called
Ancestral patterns can be very persistent, even when the culture
no longer appears to sanction them. Despite the Christian ban on ani-
mal sacrifice, medieval bestiaries often saw a symbol of Christ in the
ox or bull that was slain for food. In 1522, desperate to stop the black
plague, Pope Leo X allowed bulls to be sacrificed in the Old Roman

50 Bull and Cow

Coliseum—to no avail. On farms in England, sacrifices of bulls have
been practiced from time to time, even in the twentieth century for
such purposes as stopping disease or witchcraft. Bulls have sometimes
been killed in very brutal ways, such as being buried upside down or
burned alive, when people thought that was what the magic required.
When Emperor Charles V of Spain had a son, later to become
Philip II, he celebrated by publicly killing a bull in the marketplace.
The most notable example of the survival of animal sacrifice may be
the bullfights of the Iberian Peninsula and Latin America. Barbaric as
the sport may seem, bullfighting began gaining popularity at the start
of the modern era around the sixteenth century. The elaborate cere-
mony and pageantry that accompany bullfighting date only from
around the end of the eighteenth century. The bull is enraged by be-
ing kept in darkness and then abruptly exposed to the bright lights of
the arena. Lancers on horseback systematically goad the bull, and
then, when the animal has been worn out, the matador delivers the fa-
tal thrust with his sword. The contest symbolizes the triumph of the
matador’s finesse and skill over brute power. Despite the obvious cru-
elty, matadors insist that they respect and even love the bulls. Fervent
aficionados of the bullfight find themselves unable to explain the ap-
peal to others. On a barely conscious level, it is based on the idea that
death can release a cosmic energy that may then nourish all of life.
Today, most people live in urban areas and rarely see a bull or
cow, yet hamburger is perhaps the favorite food of all. Restaurants
and packaging plants constantly invoke the romance of cowboys and
the old West. The meat is mixed together to a point where nobody
knows which part, much less which animal, is being eaten. The fast-
food hamburger is now a symbol of the homogenization of global cul-
ture, where all origins and peculiarities are obscured. Chains like Mc-
Donald’s are constantly vilified, yet they retain enormous popularity.
Cows and bulls, perhaps more than any other animals, have
seemed through most of history to embody cosmic energy, which
might be worshipped, harnessed, absorbed, or contained. People
have felt they drew strength from contact with them, whether by eat-
ing or by tending these animals. But today, that cosmic energy has
come to seem anonymous, much like the hamburger from a giant

Selected References
Attenborough, David. The First Eden: The Mediterranean World. Boston:
Little, Brown, 1987.
Brown, Joseph Epes. Animals of the Soul: Sacred Animals of the Oglala
Sioux. Rockport, MA: Element, 1992.

Bull and Cow 51

Dalley, Stephanie, ed. and trans. Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the
Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. New York: Oxford University Press,
Herodotus. Herodotus (4 vols.). Trans. A. D. Godley. New York: G. P.
Putnam’s Sons, 1926.
Lewinsohn, Richard. Animals, Men, and Myths: An Informative and En-
tertaining History of Man and the Animals around Him. New York:
Harper and Brothers, 1954.
O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical
Beasts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Zaehner, R. C. The Teachings of the Magi: A Compendium of Zoroastrian
Beliefs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Butterfly and Moth

I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether
I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.

The idea of a butterfly or moth as the soul is a remarkable ex-

ample of the universality of animal symbolism, since it is found in tra-
ditional cultures of every continent. The custom of scattering flowers
at funerals is very ancient, and the flowers attract butterflies, which
appear to have emerged from a corpse. A butterfly or moth will hover
for a time in one place or fly in a fleeting, hesitant manner, suggesting
a soul that is reluctant to move on to the next world.
The transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly seems to pro-
vide the ultimate model for our ideas of death, burial, and resurrec-
tion. This imagery is still implicit in Christianity when people speak of
being “born again.” The chrysalis of a butterfly may have even in-
spired the splendor of many coffins from antiquity. Many cocoons are
very finely woven, with some threads that are golden or silver in color.
The Greek word “psyche” means soul, but it can also designate a
butterfly or moth. The Latin word “anima” has the same dual mean-
ing. Several gems from ancient Greece depicted a butterfly hovering
over a human skull. Late Roman artifacts often portrayed Prometheus
making humankind while Minerva stood nearby holding aloft a but-
terfly, which represented the soul. A story inserted in the first-century
novel The Golden Ass by Roman-Egyptian author Lucius Apuleius
tells of a young girl named Psyche who was given in marriage to Cu-
pid, the god of love, and contemporary illustrations often showed
Psyche with the wings of a butterfly. The wings of a butterfly are fre-
quently used to designate the soul in Western art, and they have also
been painted on fairies.

52 Butterfly and Moth

Their close
In lands around the eastern shores of the Pacific Ocean, the idea
association with
that the soul of a person will return in the form of a butterfly that hov-
flowers helps to
ers around the grave of the body is widespread. In Indonesia and make butterflies
Burma, people have traditionally believed that if a butterfly enters a symbol of both
your house, it is likely to be the spirit of a deceased relative or a friend. fecundity and
On the island of Java, it is traditionally believed that sometimes dur- transience.
ing sleep the soul flies out in the form of a butterfly. You should never
kill a butterfly, since a sleeping person might then die as well.
The Chinese sage Chuang-tzu, one of the disciples of Lao-tzu,
the founder of Taoism—used to flutter about as a butterfly at night.
On waking, he would continue to feel the motion of wings in his
shoulders, and he was unsure whether he was truly a butterfly or a
man. Lao-tzu explained to him, “Formerly you were a white butterfly
which . . . should have been immortalized, but one day you stole
some peaches and flowers. . . . The guardian of the garden slew you,
and that is how you came to be reincarnated” (Werner, p. 149).
The way certain butterflies perform a courting dance—each
partner moving off in various directions yet always coming back to
the other—has made these insects symbols of conjugal love, especially
in Japan. Lafcadio Hearn has collected a Japanese story of an old man
named Takahama who was nearing death. A nephew was sitting at
his bedside when a white butterfly flew in. It hovered for a while and
perched near Takahama’s head. When his nephew tried to brush it

Butterfly and Moth 53

away, the butterfly danced around strangely and then flew down the
corridor. Surmising that this was no ordinary insect, the nephew fol-
lowed the butterfly until it reached a gravestone and disappeared.
Approaching to examine the grave, he found the name Akiko. On re-
turning to his uncle, he found Takahama dead. When the boy told his
mother about the butterfly, she was not in the least surprised. Akiko,
she explained, was a young girl that Takahama had planned to marry,
but she died of consumption at the age of eighteen. For the rest of his
life, Takahama had remained faithful to her memory and visited her
grave every day. The nephew then realized that the soul of Akiko had
come in the form of a butterfly to accompany the spirit of his uncle to
the next world.
The soul of a beloved also takes the form of an insect, probably a
butterfly, in the ancient Irish saga “The Wooing of Etian.” The god
Mider had fallen in love with a mortal named Etian, but the goddess
Fuamnach struck the young woman with a rowan wand and trans-
formed her into a puddle. As the water dried, it became a worm, which
was then changed into a “scarlet fly.” “Its eyes shone like precious
stones in the dark, and its color and fragrance would sate hunger and
quench thirst in any man; moreover, a sprinkling of the drops it shed
from its wings could cure every sickness . . . ” (Gantz, p. 45). The insect
accompanied Mider as he traveled and watched over him as he slept,
until Fuamnach sent a fierce gale to blow it away. Pursued constantly
by the goddess, the insect was finally carried by wind into the goblet
of a chieftain’s wife, who drank it and gave birth to Etain 1,012 years
after the infant had been first conceived. Mider had searched for her
for a thousand years, but when he finally found her, she was the wife
of the king of Ireland. Finally, after Mider had won his wife from the
king in a game, the lovers flew away in the form of swans.
Biologists distinguish between butterflies and moths by anatom-
ical features that strike laypeople as arcane, but folk culture usually
distinguishes in a very simple manner—moths are nocturnal while
butterflies are diurnal. Furthermore, butterflies have many dazzlingly
bright patterns of color, while moths tend to be shades of white and
When homes were lighted by candles or tapers at night, people
were particularly fascinated by those moths that would fly toward the
fire even when that meant they would expire in a sudden blaze. In
one of his most famous poems, “Blissful Longing” (“Selige Sehn-
sucht”), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe used this motif as a symbol of
the soul’s desire for transcendence. The poem tells of a moth drawn to
a flame and ends with these words:

54 Butterfly and Moth

Dost thou shun the great behest,
This, Become by Dying!
Thou art but a sorry guest
On this dull earth staying. (p. 95)

While many people find the poem beautiful, some critics have been
troubled by the romantic celebration of death.
A less mystical but perhaps more compassionate view of such an
event is given by the early-twentieth-century British author Virginia
Woolf in her essay “The Moth.” She tells of watching a moth dance
about by day as its motions became gradually fainter. Many times she
gave the moth up for dead, only to see it flutter once again. Finally,
when the tiny body relaxed and then grew stiff, she felt awed by both
the power of death and the courageous resistance of the spirit against
so formidable an antagonist.
As the pace of modern life has become increasingly frantic, peo-
ple have come to admire the leisurely flight of the butterfly. As W. B.
Yeats puts it in his poem “Tom O’Roughley”:

‘Though logic-choppers rule the town,

And every man and maid and boy
Has marked a distant object down,
An aimless joy is a pure joy,’
Or so did Tom O’Roughley say
That saw the surges running by,
‘And wisdom is a butterfly,
And not a gloomy bird of prey. (p. 141)

Sometimes the way a butterfly moves from flower to flower has also
been decried as lack of commitment, and Yeats, in the same poem,
calls it “zig-zag wantonness” (p. 141). Today many ecologists regard
butterflies as a keystone species, and they will count butterflies per
acre in an attempt to determine the health of an ecosystem, perhaps in
a manner not altogether different from that of diviners in the ancient
Selected References
Gantz, Jeffrey, ed. and trans. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. New York:
Penguin Books, 1982.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. “Blessed Longing.” Trans. John Weiss.
Representative German Poems. Ed. Karl Knotz. New York: Henry
Holt, 1985, p. 95.
Hearn, Lafcadio. Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. Rut-
land, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1971.

Butterfly and Moth 55

Werner, Edward T. C. Ancient Tales and Folklore of China. London:
Bracken Books, 1986.
Woolf, Virginia. “The Death of a Moth.” In The Death of a Moth and
Other Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1942, pp. 3–6.
Yeats, W. B. “Tom O’Roughley.” In The Poems of W. B. Yeats. New York:
Macmillan, 1983, p. 141.

56 Butterfly and Moth

See Ass, Mule, and Camel

See Salmon and Carp

The cat is the only animal to have succeeded in domesticating man.
—Marcel Mauss

A cat has enormous eyes that shine especially dramatically when the
rest of its body is shrouded in darkness. Because the pupils of the cat
constantly expand and contract to adjust to the level of light, they
seem like the waxing and waning moon. The lunar cycle, in turn, is
closely bound up with the menstrual cycle of women. Most civiliza-
tions, especially Indo-European ones, have thought of the moon as
feminine (a partial exception is the Germans, for whom the word for
“moon”—Mond—has a masculine gender).
The position of women in patriarchal societies is a bit like that of
cats in homes. In many ways, cats may be subordinate to the master or
mistress of the house. Nevertheless, their manner always suggests con-
fidence and power. They are able to bestow affection and appreciation
without debasing themselves. Furthermore, the intense attachment that
cats develop to their homes is a bit like the domestic role that women
have often played. Jean Cocteau called the cat “the soul of a home made
visible” (Delort, p. 426). The troubled partnership of cat and dog in
many human homes often resembles that of women and men.
We can also think of the cat within the home as the secret wild-
ness in every person that survives despite the regimentation of our
public lives. The confident bearing of cats suggests secret knowledge,
which people have both valued and feared.

“When I play with my cat, who
knows but that she regards me more
as a plaything than I do her?” wrote
Michel de Montaigne in “Apology
for Raymond Sebond” (p. 444). Touch
or pet a cat and there may be sparks!
Cats are constantly rubbing their
backs against any available surface,
so static electricity builds up in their
fur. People have always been mysti-
fied by the ability of cats to survive
after falling from tall trees or build-
ings. No wonder cats have always
seemed magical.
The curvilinear design of the fe-
line body and the cat’s rhythmic way
of walking are very feminine. No
doubt this is why so many archaic
goddesses were closely associated
with cats. The Greek Artemis, god-
dess of the moon, fled to Egypt and
changed herself into a cat to escape
the serpent Typhon. A panther was
sacred to the goddess Astarte, the
Mesopotamian equivalent of Aphro-
Illustration by
dite. She was often portrayed standing upright and riding on her mas-
Richard Heighway
cot. The Hindu goddess of birth, Shasti, also used a cat as her mount.
to Aesop’s fable of
Freya, the Norse goddess of love, rode in a chariot drawn by cats.
“The Cat Maiden.”
Perhaps most important, the Egyptian goddess Bast was de-
picted with the head of a cat and the body of a woman. Our word puss
or pussy for cat comes from Pasht, an alternative name for Bastet. The
yearly festival of Bastet, held in autumn, was the most splendid cele-
bration in all of Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of people would come
on boats, singing and clapping to the music of castanets. They would
offer sacrifices at the temple of Bastet, then feast for several days.
The Egyptians punished unsanctioned killing of a cat with
death. Diodorus Siculus reported that in the middle of the first cen-
tury B.C. a member of a Roman delegation to Alexandria accidentally
killed a cat. A crowd stormed his house. Not even fear of Rome could
keep the local citizens from punishing the perpetrator with death.
Several superstitions about cats probably go back to ancient Egypt,
and many people still say that killing a cat brings bad luck.

58 Cat
According to Herodotus, the entire family in an Egyptian home
would go into mourning when a cat died. All members would shave
their eyebrows to show their sorrow. Dead cats were taken to the city
of Bubastis, where they were embalmed and ceremoniously buried.
Hundreds of thousands of mummified remains of cats have been
found in Egyptian tombs. Veneration of the cat eventually reached far
beyond the Mediterranean, and Robert Graves has reported in The
White Goddess that when Saint Patrick arrived in Ireland, there was a
shrine in a cave at Connacht where the oracle was a black cat upon a
chair of silver.
A fable known as “The Cat Maiden,” traditionally attributed to
the Greek Aesop, records a triumph of feminine wiles over masculine
power. The gods and goddesses were arguing about whether it was
possible for a thing to change its nature. “For me, nothing is impossi-
ble,” said Zeus, the god of thunder. “Watch, and I will prove it.” With
that, he picked up a mangy alley cat, changed it into a lovely young
girl, had her dressed in fine clothes, instructed her in manners, and
arranged for her to be married the next day. The gods and goddesses
looked on invisibly at the wedding feast. “See how beautiful she is,
how appropriately she behaves,” said Zeus proudly. “Who could ever
guess that only yesterday she was a cat!” “Just a moment,” said
Aphrodite, the goddess of love. With that, she let loose a mouse. The
maiden immediately pounced on the mouse and began tearing it
apart with her teeth. This fable has been written down in many ver-
sions, some of which date back to the fifth century B.C. in Greece. Per-
haps in some still earlier version, the cat was Aphrodite herself.
“Dick Whittington and His Cat,” an early rags-to-riches tale
from England, shows how cats were valued in the early modern pe-
riod by those engaged in trade. The hero, Dick Whittington, was an
impoverished young man in London who had worked hard and man-
aged to buy a cat, which he lent to a ship’s captain. The captain sold
the cat for a vast fortune to the king of the Moors, who was plagued
by rats. Dick became a wealthy man and was Lord Mayor of London
in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, though the tale
was not written down until much later.
Aboard ships, cats were used as mascots and to catch mice. Vir-
tually all mariners were male. Sailors sometimes believed the pres-
ence of a woman on board, or even the mention of a woman’s name,
would bring ill luck. The cat, often the only female on the ship, was a
mediator with the feminine powers of the weather and the sea.
Mariners predicted weather by watching the cat. When the cat
washed its face, they would expect rain. When the cat was frisky, they

Cat 59
would expect strong winds. Cats would also know if the ship was
about to sink. Every detail of the cat’s behavior would be closely scru-
tinized for portents.
Superstitions about cats are almost as diverse as they are nu-
merous. A black cat, for example, is usually thought of as a sign of bad
luck, while a white cat means good luck. Sometimes, however, this
has been reversed. Wives of mariners in England would keep black
cats as a charm for the safe return of their husbands at sea, a practice
that people in other communities could misinterpret as witchcraft.
In Renaissance Europe, cats were often thought to be the famil-
iars of witches, and black cats in particular were frequently named as
such in the witch trials. Jean Boille, who was burned as a sorceress at
Vesoul in 1620, claimed to have seen demons and cats participating
together in sexual orgies at the witches’ Sabbath. A pact with the Devil
was sealed with a paw print placed on the body of a witch. The Black
Witch of Fraddan flew through the air at night on an enormous cat. In
the early thirteenth century, the bishop of Paris, Guillaume d’Au-
vergne, claimed that Satan appeared to his followers in the form of a
black cat and they had to kiss him beneath the tail.
Diabolic, and sometimes almost as frightening as the Devil him-
self, is the King of the Cats in Irish folklore. Sometimes the King is
black and wears a silver chain, but he cannot always be recognized.
Lady Wilde in Legends of Ancient Ireland tells of a man who once, in a
fit of temper, cut off the head of a domestic cat and threw it into a fire.
The eyes of the cat continued to glare at him from within the flames,
and the feline voice swore revenge. A short time later the man was
playing with a pet kitten; suddenly the kitten lunged, bit him on the
throat, and killed him.
When people are fond of certain animals, they assume the ani-
mals will also be beloved by the gods and goddesses, and they offer
them up as sacrifices. The ancient Egyptians may have punished the
killing of a cat outside of a temple with death, but they offered thou-
sands of cats to Bastet, generally by breaking their necks. Christianity
officially rejected animal sacrifice, but ceremonial killing of cats contin-
ued for thousands of years. Cats were burned alive on Ash Wednesday
in Metz and other Continental cities during the Middle Ages to pro-
duce the ash for the mass. In England, the effigy of Guy Fawkes that
was ceremonially burned every year sometimes contained a cat that
would howl as the flames rose. Cats have been found walled up alive
in the foundations of several medieval buildings, including the Tower
of London. This was the theme of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous horror
story “The Black Cat.” Terrified that his wife was a witch and her black

60 Cat
cat the Devil, the narrator killed his wife and built a wall to conceal her
body. The cat howled from behind the wall until the police came.
Toward the end of the Middle Ages there were few cats left in
Europe. Their absence led to a great increase in rats and diseases, in-
cluding bubonic plague. The few cats that had survived the persecu-
tions came to be highly valued. For the first time, Europeans began to
realize that cats were not only useful but also loyal and affectionate.
Benevolent cats began to appear in fairy tales, though they still usu-
ally seemed to have something a little disturbing about them. In “The
White Cat” by Madame D’Aulnoy, a magical feline guided the hero
through all sorts of trials and tribulations. Finally, the cat cast off its
skin, became a woman, and married him. Then she burned the skin;
after all, would the man want his wife changing shape and casting
spells? Perhaps the magic here is the power of young love, to be put
away as a person enters maturity.
In “Puss in Boots” by Charles Perrault, a cat loyally helps a
young man. To win a fortune for him, however, the two must connive
and deceive everybody else. Master Puss makes up a title, “the Mar-
quis of Carrabas,” for the young man. Then the cat tells harvesters
that they will be chopped up into little pieces if they don’t tell the king
their land belongs to this marquis. At the request of the cat, the ogre
who really owns the land in question transforms himself into a
mouse. The cat immediately pounces on the mouse, eats him, and
takes over the ogre’s castle for the young man. Finally, the young man
has so much wealth that he can marry the king’s daughter. If the story
were told from another point of view—say, that of the ogre—the
reader could easily take this cat for the Devil. At any rate, it is great
having such a cat on your side.
In folklore, the animals in a household often make up their own
little society, a sort of microcosm. The dog, of course, is among the most
domesticated of animals, while the rodents are completely wild. The
cat is in between. The dog and cat are constantly quarreling and mak-
ing up. Sometimes they cooperate to help their master, but the old en-
mity can break out at any time. The cat and mouse, by contrast, are
mortal enemies. The mice in the household hardly ever defeat the cat,
though they often manage to get away. The situation is a bit like a trou-
bled family of human beings, where mother and father quarrel and the
children suffer. In a tale traditionally attributed to Aesop, the mice meet
in council to decide how to protect themselves against the cat. One
mouse proposes that they fasten a bell around the cat’s neck to warn
them when she approached. After the proposal is warmly applauded,
an old mouse stands up and asks, “But who is going to bell the cat?”

Cat 61
Buddhists take a negative view of the cat, though they have sel-
dom carried this to the extremes we find in the West. The Jatakas, an-
cient Buddhist fables, in describing the animals assembled around the
deathbed of Buddha to pay him homage, note that the cat was taking
a nap and didn’t come. According to another traditional tale, Maya
sent a rat with medicine for the ailing Buddha, but the cat killed the
rat, so Buddha perished. Nevertheless, cats were regularly kept as
mousers in households of China, Japan, and other countries of the Far
East. Artists were often fascinated by their alertness, their sensitivity
to subtle sounds and motions. For such a common animal, cats were
notably absent from the Chinese zodiac, in part because they were
closely associated with the element of earth.
For all their differences, Christianity and Buddhism have both
tended to be suspicious of archaic magic. Perhaps this is part of the
reason the cultures that have grown around these religions so often
view the cat, the most magical of animals, with mistrust. Islam may
be a legalistic religion, yet the Koran delights in extravagant tales of
the supernatural; consequently, Muslims have always been lovers of
cats. According to legend, Muhammed once found his cat Meuzza
sleeping on his robe. So as not to disturb his pet, the prophet cut off a
sleeve and put on the rest of the garment. When he returned, Meuzza
bowed to him in gratitude. Mohammed blessed the cat and her de-
scendents with the ability to fall and land on their feet. When cats en-
ter a mosque, it means good luck for the community. In one story from
Oman, told by Inea Bushnaq, a cat caught a mouse and was about to
devour it; the mouse begged to be allowed a prayer before death.
When the cat agreed, the mouse suggested that the cat pray as well.
The cat raised its arms and the rat escaped. When a cat rubs its face,
the story concluded, it is remembering the smell of the rat.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the German writer E.
T. A. Hoffmann took on the formidable task of trying to imagine the
feelings of a cat in The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr. A passionate if
somewhat reluctant romantic, Hoffmann felt cats were like those who
work magic in verse or paint. Like artists, cats have mysterious in-
sights. Like artists, cats often seem vain and impractical. Both cats and
artists have an odd combination of innocence and guile. The cat Murr,
who tells his story, affectionately mocks his master. He has adventures
climbing the rooftops of the town. He reminds the reader in his pref-
ace, “Should anybody be bold enough to raise doubts concerning the
worth of this extraordinary book, he should consider that he confronts
a tom-cat with spirit, understanding, and sharp claws” (vol. 2, p. 11).
Poets always love mystery, and so they also love cats. W. B. Yeats

62 Cat
and T. S. Eliot are among the many who have found inspiration in
cats, but the most famous poem of all about cats is “My Cat Jeoffrey”
by Christopher Smart. The author takes precisely the characteristics
that have impressed people as diabolic and uses them to make the cat
a symbol of Christ:

For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the

For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin
& glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about
the life. (p. 28)

For Smart, the many paradoxes that surround the cat are a proof of
The decades immediately following World War II saw a roman-
ticizing of alienation in the United States and Europe. In the slang of
the Beatnik movement, a “cat” became somebody who preferred the
colorful life of the streets to the mainstream of American society. In
the last few decades of the twentieth century, cats have replaced dogs
as the most popular pet in the United States. Some reasons for this
preference are pragmatic. Cats are smaller, eat less, need less space to
exercise, and are less expensive to care for than dogs. For those who
find the emotional exuberance of dogs embarrassing, cats seem to of-
fer emotional support without sacrifice of decorum. The relationship
of cats to people can be warm and nurturing yet with a distance of re-
spect, intimate yet full of riddles.
Selected References
Aesop. The Fables of Aesop. Ed. Joseph Jacobs. New York: Macmillan,
1910, pp. 180–182.
Briggs, Katharine. Nine Lives: The Folklore of Cats. New York: Dorset
Press, 1980.
Bushnaq, Inea, ed. and trans. Arab Folktales. New York: Pantheon, 1986.
Dale, Rodney. Cats in Boots: A Celebration of Cat Illustration through the
Ages. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997.
D’Aulnoy, Marie-Catherine. “The White Cat.” Trans. Minnie Wright.
In The Blue Fairy Book. Ed. Andrew Lang. New York: Dover, 1965,
pp. 157–173.
Delort, Robert. Les animaux ont une histoire. Paris: Éditions du Seuil,
Graves, Robert. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth.
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993.
Herodotus. Herodotus. (4 vols.). Trans. A. D. Godley. New York: G. P.
Putnam’s Sons, 1926.

Cat 63
Hoffmann, E. T. A. The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr. In Selected Writ-
ings of E. T. A. Hoffmann (2 vols.). Ed. and trans. Leonard J. Kent and
Elizabeth C. Knight. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.
Houlihan, Patrick F. The Animal World of the Pharaohs. New York:
Thames and Hudson, 1996.
Jacobs, Joseph, ed. “Dick Whittington and His Cat.” In English Fairy
Tales. New York: Dover, 1967, pp. 167–178.
Montaigne, Michel de. “Apology for Raymond Sebond.” In The Com-
plete Essays of Montaigne (2 vols.). Trans. Donald M. Frame. Stan-
ford: Stanford University Press, 1959, vol. 1, pp. 428–561.
Perrault, Charles. Perrault’s Fairy Tales. Trans. A. E. Johnson. New
York: Dover, 1969.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New
York: Doubleday, 1966.
Smart, Christopher. “My Cat Jeoffrey.” In Animal Poems, ed. John
Hollander. New York: Knopf, 1994, pp. 27–31.
Lady Wilde (Speranza). Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Supersti-
tions of Ireland: With Sketches of the Irish Past. Galway: O’Gorman,
1971 (1888).

See Horse

See Ape and Monkey

See Grasshopper, Locust, Cricket, Cicada, and Mantis

See Starfish, Clam, Octopus, and Other Creatures of the Sea Floor

Cock and Hen

It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever, ’gainst that season comes
Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’ed and so gracious is that time.
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet, (act 1, scene 1; said after the ghost
of Hamlet’s father had vanished upon the crowing of a cock)

Aelian wrote in the second century A.D. of two Greek temples sepa-
rated by a river, one consecrated to Hercules and the other to his wife,

64 Centaur
Two cocks fighting
over a hen in an
illustration from
the mid-nineteenth
century by J. J.

Hebe. Cocks were kept in the temple of the god, and hens in that of
the goddess. The roosters would cross the waters once a year to mate,
returning with any male offspring and leaving the females for the
hens to raise. The arrangement is not very plausible, among other rea-
sons because cocks generally cannot stay together without fighting,
which is why barnyards have only one. Nevertheless, this account
shows how cock and hen, even more than other animals, seem to be
defined by their gender, to the point where they hardly appear to be-
long to the same species. Both cock and hen were indeed kept for sac-
rifice in temples throughout the ancient world from Egypt to Greece.
On the altars, their entrails were used to predict the future.
Until historically recent times, even urban dwellers would gen-
erally be awakened by the call of a rooster at dawn. From ancient
times through much of the Middle Ages, the crowing of the cock at
certain times was so predictable that it was used to signal the chang-
ing of the guard. It had a triumphant ring and was said to frighten
away the spirits of darkness. The crowing of a cock served as the voice
of conscience in the Bible after Peter had denied knowing Jesus, since
the sound moved him to tears of regret (Matt. 26:75). The red comb of
a cock heightened its association with the sun. Cocks have always
been celebrated for their fierceness, as they seemed to lord over the
The cock is also a solar animal in East Asia, where it is the tenth
sign of the Chinese zodiac. According to one Japanese tale, the sun

Cock and Hen 65

goddess Ameratsu, angry at the vio-
lence of the storm god, moodily
withdrew into a cave, leaving the
world in darkness. When a cock
crowed, she wondered if the dawn
had come without her and went to
the entrance of her cavern to find
out. There, indeed, it was bright day.
Hens, by contrast, are symbols
of domesticity and maternal care. Es-
pecially when brooding on their
eggs, they seem unconcerned about
all else, even the cock. In the Bible,
Jesus says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . .
how often have I longed to gather
your children, as a hen gathers her
chicks under her wings, and you re-
fused!” (Matt. 23:37).
Long before Christ, the cock
symbolized resurrection. The cock
The cock outsmarts was associated with Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, who as a
the fox in this mortal physician once raised a man from the dead. The last words of
medieval fable, Socrates, as recorded in Plato’s dialogue “Phaedo”: “Crito, we ought
retold by La to offer a cock to Asclepius. See to it and don’t forget” (section 118a).
Fontaine and Perhaps Socrates wished to thank the god for spiritual healing as he
illustrated by J. J. moved on to the next world.
Grandville. Cockfighting has been a popular sport since ancient times, and
its willingness to fight another to the death has made the cock a sym-
bol of the warrior spirit. Before such battles as Marathon and Salamis,
commanders would rouse their men to battle by showing them fight-
ing cocks. The general Themistocles ordered an annual cockfight in
Athens to commemorate the victory of the Greeks over the Persians.
Fighting cocks were also used to predict the outcome of a battle. In the
medieval Japanese Tale of the Heike, a local warlord used a cockfight to
decide which side to take in the war between the Heike and Genji
clans. He matched seven cocks that were white, the color of the Genji,
against seven that were red, the color of the Heike. When all of the
white cocks proved victorious, he knew that he should take the side
of the Genji.
In an Irish tale that relates the call of the rooster to the resurrec-
tion, a group of unbelievers sat around a fire over which a cock is
boiled. “We have buried Christ now,” said one, “and he has no more

66 Cock and Hen

power to rise from the dead than the cock in this pot.” Immediately
the cock leaped up and crowed three times, saying, “The Virgin’s son
is saved” (O’Sullivan, p. 53).
The cock also experiences a sort of resurrection in a famous story
from the work of Alcuin, a learned monk at the court of Charlemagne.
A rooster, boasting of his powers, forgot to remain watchful and sud-
denly found the jaws of a wolf had closed about his neck. The cock
begged to hear the wolf sing just once, so he would not have to die
without hearing the wonderful harmonies of a lupine voice. The wolf
opened his mouth to grant the request, at which point the cock imme-
diately flew up to a tree and admonished the wolf, saying, “Whoever
is taken in by false pride will go without food” (Ziolkowski, p. 241).
The jaws of the wolf here represent the grave or, perhaps, the gate of
Hell, and the bird is saved not only by his cleverness but also by grace.
In later versions the adversary of the cock was usually the fox, and the
story has been retold by Marie de France, Geoffrey Chaucer, and
countless other fabulists from the Middle Ages to the present.
Since the cock and hen are so quintessentially male and female,
people have often viewed any violation of their sexual roles with hor-
ror. According to traditional belief in cultures from Germany to Per-
sia, a hen that crows like a cock augurs terrible fortune and has to be
killed immediately. Similarly, a number of cocks were judicially con-
demned to death in the Middle Ages for laying eggs. Writing around
the end of the twelfth century, Alexander of Neckam stated that an
egg laid by an old cock and incubated by a toad could produce a
“cockatrice,” a serpent able to kill with a glance.
Today, the proud society of the barnyard has almost disap-
peared, and most people rarely see fowl before it reaches the super-
market or the dinner plate, though heraldic roosters still decorate
packages of cereal and many other products. Smaller farms, often run
by humane activists, still raise free-range chickens. Cockfighting is
now illegal in the United States and most of Europe, but people, par-
ticularly from Latin America or the Caribbean, still engage in it, be-
lieving they are preserving the values of a more heroic age.

Selected References
Aelian. On Animals (3 vols.). Trans. A. F. Scholfield. Cambridge: Har-
vard University Press, 1972.
Alexander of Neckam. De Naturis Rerum. Ed. Thomas Wright. London:
Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts and Green, 1963.
Gubernatis, Angelo De. Zoological Mythology or the Legends of Animals
(2 vols.). Chicago: Singing Tree Press, 1968.
Hawley, Fred. “The Moral and Conceptual Universe of Cockfighters:

Cock and Hen 67

Symbolism and Rationalization.” Society and Animals 1, no. 2 (1993):
McCullough, Helen Craig, trans. The Tale of the Heike. Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1988.
O’Sullivan, Patrick. Irish Superstitions and Legends of Animals and Birds.
Dublin: Mercier Press, 1991.
Plato. The Last Days of Socrates. Trans. Hugh Tredennick and Harold
Tarrant. New York: Penguin, 1993.
Ziolkowski, Jan M. Talking Animals: Medieval Latin Beast Poetry,
750–1150. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

See Bull and Cow

See Fox, Jackal, and Coyote

See Heron, Ibis, Crane, and Stork

See Grasshopper, Locust, Cricket, Cicada, and Mantis

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!
—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Crocodilians, including crocodiles and alligators, are the only large,

partially terrestrial animals that do not hesitate to attack human be-
ings. Since our traditions tend to make the food chain into a meta-
physical hierarchy, this makes them appear to challenge human su-
premacy. What makes crocodiles even more frightening is the
suddenness with which they strike. Most of the time, they appear ut-
terly lethargic, yet they can rouse themselves almost instantly and at-
tack, for short periods, with remarkable speed. Sometimes a lunge
will thrust a crocodile partially out of the water until, for a second or
so, it seems almost to be standing upright.

68 Cow
Illustration entitled
“The Lying Demon”
from a religious tract,
Philadelphia, ca.
1900. The deceiver is
accompanied by a
crocodile, symbol of

Unlike lions, for example, crocodiles can still inspire a sort of

primeval terror, yet they do not seem entirely alien to us. The expres-
sions in the eyes of most reptiles are almost impossible for us to read,
but those of crocodiles sometimes appear to share a glimmer of hu-
man awareness. Female crocodiles care briefly for their young, and
according to some observers, crocodiles may even engage in commu-
nal hunts. The upturned mouth of a crocodile can appear to be a per-
petual smile, but the large teeth that always protrude on the sides give
it a sinister aspect.
Crocodiles are closely identified with wetlands and, in conse-
quence, with irrigation and fertility. According to legend, Menes, the
first king of Egypt, was hunting when he fell into a swamp. His dogs
failed to help him, but a friendly crocodile ferried the monarch to
safety on its back. At the place where he arrived in safety, Menes
founded the city of Crocopolis, where the crocodile-god Sebek was
worshipped. Much the same story was later told of Saint Pachome,
who founded a monastic order in Egypt during the third century. He

Crocodile 69
was so beloved of animals that crocodiles would ferry him across the
Nile River to whatever destination he might indicate.
The Greek historian Herodotus reported that Egyptians in some
districts killed and ate crocodiles, but those in others considered the
animals sacred. In Crocopolis priests would place a tame crocodile in
a temple, and golden ornaments would be placed in its ears and
bracelets on its legs. Pilgrims would bring the holy crocodile special
offerings to eat, and after death, it would be embalmed and placed in
a coffin. Herodotus, who visited the labyrinthine temple containing
the remains of crocodiles and kings at Crocopolis, wrote, “Though the
pyramids were greater than words can tell, . . . this maze surpasses
even the pyramids” (book 2, section 148).
Other mythologies throughout the world reflect admiration for
the crocodile and its power. The dragon of Chinese mythology, which
appeared to the emperor Fu Hsi out of the Yellow River, resembled a
crocodile with its teeth and short legs, though stylized almost beyond
recognition. A Muslim legend from Malaysia held that Fatima, daugh-
ter of Muhammed, created the first crocodile. In some parts of Java,
mothers would traditionally wrap the placenta of their children in
leaves and place it in a river as an offering to ancestral spirits that had
become crocodiles.
But terror and scorn for the crocodile go at least equally far back
in history. In paintings to illustrate The Egyptian Book of the Dead, the
goddess Ammut would be shown waiting hungrily to devour those
who were found wanting, as a soul was weighed in balance. In this ca-
pacity, she had the head of a crocodile, as well as the forepart of a lion
and the hind legs of a hippopotamus. Several monsters of legend to
whom human sacrifices were made may originally have been croco-
diles. In Greek mythology, for example, the Ethiopian maiden An-
dromeda was chained to a rock to be eaten by such a creature before
the hero Perseus saved her. Human sacrifices to crocodiles of people
chained beside a lake or river have been widely practiced from Africa
to Korea.
The crocodile has been closely associated with magic from time
immemorial. In one Egyptian text from the early second millennium
B.C., a sorcerer made a wax crocodile and threw it into the Nile River.
It immediately grew large and devoured his wife’s lover. Sorcery is al-
ways closely linked with deception, and in Western Europe the croc-
odile has been a symbol of hypocrisy. Bestiaries would report that
crocodiles weep as they eat human beings. Naturalist Edward Topsell
wrote in 1658 that the crocodile, “to get a man within his danger, he
will sob, sigh, and weep, as though he were in extremity, but sud-

70 Crocodile
denly he destroyeth him.” Topsell noted that, according to other ob-
servers, the crocodile wept after eating a man, much as Judas had
cried after betraying Christ (vol. 2, p. 688).
Several cultures, Arabs and some African tribes, for example,
have offered accused criminals to crocodiles as a test, and those peo-
ple who were eaten or bitten were presumed to be guilty. In the Mid-
dle Ages, the entrance to Hell was sometimes depicted as a huge jaw
filled with teeth, often resembling that of a crocodile. The idea that
crocodiles eat only the guilty has persisted into the latter half of the
twentieth century among the Turkana people who live around Lake
Rudolph in Kenya. When Alistair Graham saw them wading casually
into waters filled with crocodiles, he was told by a tribesman, “My
conscience is clear; therefore, I am in no danger” (Graham, p. 68).
In the British classic for children Peter Pan (first published in
1904), James M. Barrie created the villain Captain Hook. A hypocriti-
cal murderer like the crocodile of legend, the captain is called Hook
for an iron claw that has replaced one of his hands. His hand was bit-
ten off by a crocodile, which liked the morsel so much that it has fol-
lowed Hook ever since, though the beast does not seem to threaten
anybody else. The crocodile has also swallowed a clock, and the cap-
tain is terrified whenever he hears it tick. Eventually Hook is thrown
to the crocodile, the clock stops, and the captain goes contentedly to
his death, a bit like the victim of a human sacrifice who believed that
to be eaten was an exalted destiny.
Selected References
Alderton, David. Crocodiles and Alligators of the World. New York:
Blanford, 1998.
Arnold, Dorothea. An Egyptian Bestiary. New York: Metropolitan
Museum of Art, 1995.
Barrie, James M. Peter Pan. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1995.
Graham, Alistair. Eyelids of Morning: The Mingled Destinies of Crocodiles
and Men. New York: A and W Visual Library, 1973.
Herodotus. Herodotus (4 vols.). Trans. A. D. Godley. New York: G. P.
Putnam’s Sons, 1926.
Ions, Veronica. Egyptian Mythology. New York: Peter Bedrick Books,
Topsell, Edward, and Thomas Muffet. The History of Four-Footed Beasts
and Serpents and Insects (3 vols.). New York: Da Capo, 1967 (fac-
simile of 1658 edition).
Waddell, Helen, trans. Beasts and Saints. Grand Rapids, MI: William B.
Eerdmans, 1996.

Crocodile 71
Crow, Raven, and Other Corvids
This is a story about crows: One is for sorrow. Two is for mirth. Three is a
wedding. Four is a birth.
—American nursery rhyme

Birds of the Corvidae family, or corvids, particularly crows and ravens,

are creatures of paradox. Their black plumage, slouching posture, and
love of carrion sometimes make them appear morbid, yet few if any
other birds behave in as playful a manner as they do. Even their voices
are at once harsh and spirited. Ravens are larger than crows. They are
relatively solitary and make their nests far from human beings, while
crows generally move about in flocks and are attracted to human set-
tlements by the promise of food. Both, however, are associated with
death and share a reputation as birds of prophecy. They are also
monogamous, making them symbols of conjugal fidelity. People prob-
ably did not distinguish sharply among ravens, crows, rooks, and re-
lated birds in the ancient world, and they all appear much the same in
heraldry. The blue jay is one corvid that is not black, but among the
Chinook and other Native Americans along the northwest coast of the
United States and Canada it shares the family reputation as a trickster.
Sometimes identified with corvids in myth is the vulture, which the
Egyptians associated with Nekhbet and other goddesses.
The ambivalent character of ravens is apparent in the Bible,
where, though described as “unclean,” they sometimes appear to
have a special intimacy with God. After the Flood had raged for forty
days, Noah sent out a raven to find land. It flew back and forth until
the waters receded but did not return (Gen. 8:6–8). Later, however,
ravens fed the prophet Elijah every morning and evening after he had
fled from Ahab into the wilderness (1 Kings 17:4). According to the
Talmud, when Abel had been slain, Adam and Eve, who had no ex-
perience with death, did not know what do. A raven slew one of its
own kind, dug a hole, and performed a burial, thus demonstrating to
the first man and woman how the dead ought to be treated. In grati-
tude, God feeds the children of the ravens, which are born white, un-
til they grow black plumage and can be recognized by their parents.
The crow even taught people how to die in a myth of the Mur-
inbata, an aboriginal people of Australia. Crab demonstrated what
she believed was the best way to die by going to a hole and casting off
her wrinkled shell. Then she waited for a new one, so that she might
be reborn. Crow responded that there was a quicker, more efficient
way, rolled his eyes, and immediately fell over.
The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that two “black doves”

72 Crow, Raven, and Other Corvids

flew from Thebes in Egypt; one set-
tled in Libya while the other went on
to Greece and settled in the sacred
grove of Dodona, where it rustled the
leaves and brought forth the
prophetic voice of Zeus. Herodotus
believed the birds were originally
dark-skinned priestesses, but schol-
ars have suggested that they may
have been crows or ravens.
Closely bound with their re-
puted wisdom is their reputation for
longevity, and corvids can indeed
live for decades. In The Birds, by the
Greek comic playwright Aristo-
phanes, crows are said to live for five
times the life of a human being. In
the dialogue by Plutarch entitled
“On the Use of Reason by So-Called
‘Irrational’ Animals,” the wise pig
Gryllus states that crows upon losing
a mate will remain faithful for the remainder of their lives, seven Illustration by
times that of a human being. Precisely because of this reputation for Albrecht Dürer

fidelity, however, the Greeks and Romans considered a single crow at to Sebastian
Brandt’s Ship
a wedding to be an omen of possible death to one partner.
of Fools (1494).
The god Apollo took the form of a crow or hawk when he fled to
The raven tells the
Egypt to escape the serpent Typhon. The crow remained sacred to
fool “cras,” Latin
Apollo, but the relationship between the god and corvids was not with-
for “tomorrow,”
out ambivalence. As Ovid tells the story in Fasti, Phoebus (Apollo) was leading him to
preparing a solemn feast for Jupiter and told a raven to bring some wa- procrastinate.
ter from a stream. The raven flew off with a golden bowl but was dis-
tracted by the sight of a fig tree. Finding the fruits unfit to eat, the raven
sat beneath the tree and waited for them to ripen. He then returned
with a water snake that he claimed had blocked the water, but the god
saw through this lie. As punishment for lateness and for deceit, the god
later decreed that the raven from that time on could not drink of any
spring until figs had ripened on their trees. A constellation of depicting
a raven, a snake, and a bowl was placed in the sky, and the voice of the
raven is still harsh from thirst in the spring. The call of the raven was
often said to be “cras,” Latin for “tomorrow,” and through the Renais-
sance the raven often symbolized the procrastinator.
The intelligence of crows and ravens has amazed people from

Crow, Raven, and Other Corvids 73

ancient times. A fable about this, traditionally attributed to the leg-
endary Aesop, is “The Crow and the Pitcher.” A thirsty crow came
upon a pitcher of water but was unable to reach inside and drink. The
bird began to pick up pebbles and drop them one by one into the
pitcher until the water had risen to the top. The usual moral given this
story is, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” This is one anecdote
that could well be based on fairly accurate observation.
The Romans viewed birds as mediators between gods and hu-
man beings, at times in homey as well as solemn ways. Pliny the El-
der told of a raven that had been born on the roof of a temple in Rome
that had flown down to the shop of a shoemaker. The owner, wishing
to please the gods, welcomed the bird. By watching the customers, the
raven soon learned to talk. Every day he would fly to the podium
across from the forum and greet Emperor Tiberius by name. Then he
would fly around and say hello to various men and women before re-
turning to the shop. One day a neighbor killed the raven, perhaps
thinking the bird had left some droppings on his shoes. The people of
Rome were incensed and lynched the man. Then they gave the raven
a splendid funeral in which Ethiopian slaves carried the bier and
many people left flowers along the path.
On the European continent, where there are few vultures, corvids
would always hover above a battlefield and later descend to eat the
corpses. Two ravens perched on the shoulders of the Norse Odin, who
was intimately associated with battles. They were named Huginn
(thought) and Muninn (memory), and they flew all over the world to
bring news to the god. The Celtic war goddess known as the Morrígan
would take the form of a raven or crow and come as a herald of death.
When the hero Cúchulainn had been mortally wounded, he tied him-
self to a tree and stood with his sword in hand. His enemies watched
from a distance but did not dare approach until a crow, the goddess
Badb, perched on his shoulder. In one of many versions collected from
oral traditions, the traditional British ballad “The Twa Corbies” begins:

There were three ravens on a tree,

They were as black as black might be:
The one of them said to his mate,
“Where shall we our breakfast take?”—
“Downie in yonder green field,
There lies a knight slain under his shield. . . . (Hall, p. 373)

The ravens find they must take their meal elsewhere, for this knight is
guarded by his dogs, hawks, and wife. In many wars, however, it

74 Crow, Raven, and Other Corvids

gave soldiers a sense of foreboding to
see corvids following their armies
and hovering over the battlefield.
The giant Bran, traditionally de-
picted with a raven, was mortally
wounded while leading an army of
Britons against the Irish. At his com-
mand, his followers beheaded him
and carried the head to the site of the
Tower of London for burial so that it
might serve as a charm to protect
Britain. This is the origin of the leg-
end that Britain will never be suc-
cessfully invaded as long as ravens
remain in the Tower. Such pagan leg-
ends eventually led to the demoniza-
tion of crows and ravens at the end of
the Middle Ages, when they were of-
ten seen as either familiars of witches
or a form in which witches flew
about at night.
Rooks share the reputation of
the more illustrious ravens for wisdom, but they are more approach- Illustration by
able. In Precious Bane by Mary Webb (first published in 1924), a novel Richard Heighway

about peasant life in the English countryside during the early nine- to Aesop’s fable of
“The Crow and the
teenth century, a family told the rooks when the old master of the
house died so that the birds would not bring ill luck by deserting the
home. The new master of the house observed the tradition cynically,
remarking quietly that he was very fond of “ricky pie,” that is, pie
made of rook meat (chap. 5). The birds rose and circled thoughtfully
but then returned to their branch, letting the people know they in-
tended to stay. Their hesitation, however, left a sense of foreboding,
and the farm was soon struck by disaster.
Though sometimes birds of ill omen in China, crows can also be
symbols of fidelity in love. A collection of Taoist lore usually entitled
Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (Liao Chai Chih I), written in the lat-
ter part of the seventeenth century, tells of a young man from Hunan
named Yü Jung who had failed his examinations and was, in conse-
quence, unable to find employment. Desperate and hungry, Yü Jung
stopped at the shrine of Wu Wang, the guardian of crows, and prayed.
After a while, the attendant of the temple approached and offered him
a position in the Order of the Black Robes. Delighted to have found a

Crow, Raven, and Other Corvids 75

way to earn his living, Yü Jung accepted. The attendant gave him a
black garment. Putting it on, he was transformed into a crow. Soon he
married a young crow named Chu Ch’ing, who taught him corvid
ways. Unfortunately, he proved too impetuous, and a mariner shot
him. The other crows churned up the waters and made the mariner’s
boat capsize, but Yü Jung suddenly found himself once again in hu-
man form, lying near death on the temple floor. At first he thought the
whole adventure had been a dream, but he could not forget the joys
he had known as a crow. Eventually he recovered, passed his exams,
and became prosperous, but Yü Jung continued to visit the temple of
Wu Wang and made offerings to the crows. Finally, when he sacrificed
a sheep, Chu Ch’ing came to him and returned his black robe, and Yü
Jung again took on a corvid form.
In the story “Herd Boy and the Weaving Maiden,” popular in
many versions throughout East Asia, corvids come to the aid of
lovers. The daughter of the king of Heaven, who would weave the
silk of clouds, married a humble herdsman, and the two spent so
much time together that they neglected their duties. The father finally
placed the Weaving Maiden in the western sky and the herd boy in
the eastern sky, where they were separated by a river of the Milky
Way. One day every year the crows and magpies gather and form a
bridge across the sky so that the lovers may be briefly reunited.
The lore of corvids among Native Americans is perhaps even
more varied than that in Europe or Asia. The major themes, prophesy
and death, are much the same, though the tales of the Indians are of-
ten richer in humor. Among the Haida Indians and related tribes
along the American Northwest coast, the raven is at once a sage and
trickster. They tell a story about how once there was no light in the
world, and everything had to be done in complete darkness. All light
was held in a box kept in the house of the chief of Heaven. Raven
didn’t like that, and he conceived a plan to steal the light. First, he
transformed himself into a cedar leaf floating in a stream where the
daughter of the chief of Heaven went to drink. She gave birth to him,
and for many days he played as an infant in the house of the chief. Af-
ter a while, Raven began to cry and clamor for the box that held the
light. The chief, who was charmed by his young grandson, let Raven
hold the box. Then Raven put on his wings and carried the container
through the sky. Dazzled by all the new things he saw, Raven dropped
the box, and the light broke into many fragments, which became the
stars, the moon, and the sun.
In the Ghost Dance religion founded by the Paiute Indian
shaman Wovoka near the end of the nineteenth century, the crow was

76 Crow, Raven, and Other Corvids

the messenger between the world of human beings and that of spirits.
Indians from many tribes in the American Southwest, together with
some whites, engaged in an ecstatic dance to bring about the regener-
ation of the earth. The celebrants wore crow feathers, painted crows
upon their clothes, and sang to the crow as they danced. Sometimes
they sang of Wovoka himself, flying about the world in the form of a
crow and proclaiming his message.
Corvids have always figured prominently in poetry, and the
most famous example is Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven” (first
published in 1845). The narrator asked a raven that had flown into his
chamber whether he could be reunited with his deceased beloved:

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! prophet still, if bird or devil!—

Whether tempest sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” (pp. 11–13)

The bird gazed imposingly, as befitted a messenger from the world of

spirits, but revealed nothing.
In literature of the twentieth century, corvids are sometimes ar-
chaic deities that now rebel against the order of the universe. In a vol-
ume of poetry entitled Crow (1971), British poet Ted Hughes con-
structed a personal mythology. A figure named Crow continually
does battle with cosmic powers; he may be defeated or victorious but
always survives.
In “Vincent the Raven” (first published in 1941) Portuguese au-
thor Miguel Torga tells a story about the raven that accompanied
Noah. Vincent becomes increasingly restless. Though not personally
mistreated, he becomes angry that the animals and the earth should
be punished for the crimes of humankind. At last he leaves the Ark
unbidden, perches on the peak of Mount Ararat, and calls out his de-
fiance to God. The flood continues to rise, but Vincent refuses to leave.
God, realizing that should he drown Vincent, his creation would no
longer be complete, finally relents and reluctantly allows the water to
But ravens and crows are not at all endangered. Corvids are
found nearly everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, from remote
cliffs and forests to cities. They neither fear man nor need him, and
their resilience constantly inspires our respect.

Crow, Raven, and Other Corvids 77

Selected References
Elston, Catherine Feher. Ravensong: A Natural and Fabulous History of
Ravens and Crows. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland, 1991.
Giles, Herbert A., trans. Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (Liao Chai
Chih I). New York: Boni and Liveright, 1926.
Hall, S. C., ed. “The Twa Corbies.” In The Book of British Ballads.
London: George Routledge and Sons, 1879, pp. 373–374.
Hughes, Ted. Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. New York:
Harper and Row, 1971.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Raven.” In Last Flowers: The Romance Poems of
Edgar Allan Poe and Sarah Whitman. Providence: The Poet’s Press,
1987, pp. 11–13.
Toperoff, Shlomo Pesach. The Animal Kingdom in Jewish Thought.
Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1995.
Torga, Miguel. “Vincent the Raven.” In Farrusco the Blackbird and Other
Stories from the Portuguese. Trans. Denis Brass. London: George
Allen and Unwin, 1950, pp. 83–88.
Webb, Mary. Precious Bane. New York: The Modern Library, ca. 1960.

Cuckoo, Nightingale, Lark, Woodpecker,

and Other Musical Birds

No more than ever seems it rich to die,

To cease upon a midnight with no pain,
While thou are pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.
—John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”

Before the modern era, the sounds of nature were everywhere, day and
night. Buildings, even medieval castles with walls thick enough to resist
sieges, were not constructed to keep them out. Sounds of birds, most
especially, were used to mark both the hours of the day and the seasons.
The cuckoo is the bird of spring, while the lark sings in the early morn-
ing and the nightingale during the night. This gave them significance at
once practical and poetic, as is illustrated by this exchange in Williams
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, taking place after a night of love:

Juliet: Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day;

It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree:
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.
Romeo: It was the lark, herald of the morn,
No nightingale. (3.5)

78 Cuckoo, Nightingale, Lark, Woodpecker, and Other Musical Birds

Until the modern period, when clocks became relatively inex-
pensive and accurate, the songs of birds were constantly used to sig-
nal the time of day and night. The association of birdsong with hours
is why many of the first affordable clocks used a mechanical cuckoo
to announce the hours.
The song of the cuckoo traditionally announces the beginning of
the growing season with an outpouring of exuberant energy. Farmers
understood it as a signal to begin planting, but spring is above all the
season of love. Through most of history, apart from the high Middle
Ages and the nineteenth century, amorous passion has been regarded
with suspicion, and that may also be said of the cuckoo. Its song has
traditionally been a good omen for those who planned to marry but a
warning of possible adultery for those already wedded.
Pliny the Elder suggested that hawks transformed themselves
into cuckoos, since the hawks seemed to vanish at about the same
time as cuckoos became numerous. He observed, however, that
hawks would eat cuckoos if they did meet. The idea reflected the
bird’s reputation for treachery, since, as Pliny put it, “the cuckoo is the
only one of all the birds that is killed by its own kind” (book 10, sec-
tion 21). This superstition has continued into the twentieth century in
parts of Europe.
According to one myth, Zeus first made love to Hera after he
had moved her to pity by appearing in the form of a disheveled little
cuckoo. The bird was one of Hera’s attributes and adorned her
scepter. Indian poets knew the cuckoo as the “ravisher of the heart”
(Gubernatis, vol. 1, p. 226), and the god Indra also assumed the form
of a cuckoo for the purpose of seduction.
The idea that the cuckoo is an adulterer has at least some dis-
torted basis in observation, since the European cuckoo will lay its
eggs in the nest of another bird. The egg containing the young cuckoo
will generally hatch first, and the fledgling will push the other eggs
from the nest. Pliny explained this by saying that all other birds so
hated the cuckoo that it would not dare make a nest, for that would
be vulnerable to attack. The only way the cuckoo could procreate
would be by concealing the identity of its offspring.
The use of the word cuckold for a man whose wife is unfaithful
goes back to The Owl and the Nightingale, a poetic dialogue on love and
marriage written in England around the end of the twelfth century.
And Shakespeare wrote in his play Love’s Labor’s Lost:

When daisies pied, and violets blue,

And lady-smocks all silver hue,

Cuckoo, Nightingale, Lark, Woodpecker, and Other Musical Birds 79

Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then on every tree
Mocks married men; for thus sings he,
Cuckoo, cuckoo” O word of fear,
Unpleasing to the married ear! (5.2)

In an era when marrying for love was still a somewhat revolu-

tionary idea, the cuckoo increasingly came to represent sexual energy,
while the nightingale was more romantic.
Although the cuckoo of literature is masculine, the nightingale is
usually female in Western culture, and people have found her song
less exuberant than sweet and sad. Her tragedy, as told by Appol-
lodorus, began as Procne, a princess of Athens, married King Tereus
of Thrace. They had a son named Itys. Tereus raped Philomela, his
wife’s sister, and then cut out her tongue so she could not reveal his
crime. Philomela wove characters telling her story into a robe and
gave it to Procne, who then killed Itys, boiled him, and served him up
to his father, Tereus, in revenge. When the king realized what had
happened, he set out in pursuit of the two sisters. The women prayed
to the gods, who then turned Procne into a nightingale, Philomela
into a swallow, and Tereus into a hoopoe. Latin authors, however,
confused the two sisters and called the nightingale Philomela, a name
later used by poets throughout Europe, perhaps because the song of a
nightingale seemed to belong less to a killer than to an innocent vic-
tim. According to Pliny the Elder, the nightingale’s song was so
beloved in Rome that caged nightingales there commanded the sort of
prices paid for slaves.
In The Owl and the Nightingale, the songster becomes an advocate
for courtly love and the owl accuses her of promoting licentiousness.
In traditions of the Near East, the nightingale is masculine and in love
with the rose, a tragic passion incapable of consummation, but the Is-
lamic world shared Western ambivalence about romantic passions. In
The Conference of Birds, written by Sufi poet Farid Ud-Din Attar in Per-
sia around the end of the twelfth century, the hoopoe summoned the
birds to a pilgrimage to their king, the Simorgh. The nightingale re-
sponded that the rose flowered only for him and he could not leave
her for a single day. The hoopoe then replied that the love of the rose
was a superficial illusion, and the rose really mocked the nightingale
by fading in a day.
In the tenth-century Islamic fable The Island of Animals, however,
the nightingale proved to be the most eloquent and sensible of the an-

80 Cuckoo, Nightingale, Lark, Woodpecker, and Other Musical Birds

imals. He surpassed even such fine speakers as the jackal and the bee,
as the beasts, claiming mistreatment, brought suit against people be-
fore the king of Djinn. When a man from Mecca and Modena argued
that human beings were especially favored by God, the nightingale
carried the day by replying that humans therefore had special re-
sponsibility not to abuse other creatures.
In Russia, by contrast, nightingales were often associated with
witchcraft. There was a great demand for caged nightingales to sing
in the homes of aristocrats and wealthy merchants. Peasants hired to
capture the birds would have to wander about the woods at night fol-
lowing the birds’ sounds, and they often feared becoming victims of
enchantment. In Russian folklore, Nightingale was a monstrous brig-
and who was half bird, nested in oak trees, laid in wait for travelers
on the road to Kiev, and could whistle up a wind strong enough to kill
human beings.
The lark begins to sing early in the morning before the sun has
even risen, and so it has been associated with beginnings. In The Birds
by the Greek comic playwright Aristophanes, the lark boasts that it is
older than not only the gods but also the very earth itself, an idea per-
haps inspired by the lark’s ability to sing in flight. When the lark’s fa-
ther died, there was no ground in which to bury him, so the lark had
to bury its daddy in its head.
As is true with so many other things, people tend not to appre-
ciate animals until they begin to disappear. As Europe industrialized
and birds became less common, Romantic poets of the nineteenth cen-
tury celebrated birdsongs with perhaps unprecedented intensity. The
singing of birds represented a sort of poetic inspiration that was ut-
terly natural and spontaneous. Among the most famous lyrics of the
period were “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats and “To a Skylark”
by Percy Bysshe Shelley, in which the poets long to enter the world of
joy that could inspire the songs of a bird. Hans Christian Andersen
celebrated the beauty of nature over the creations of humankind in
“The Emperor’s Nightingale,” a fairy tale about a mechanical bird
that fails to sing as sweetly as a bird in the wild.
An elegiac poem, which perhaps marks the end of this tradition,
is “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy, published in the first
years of the twentieth century, which concludes:

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;

Cuckoo, Nightingale, Lark, Woodpecker, and Other Musical Birds 81

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the glowing gloom.

So little cause for carolings

Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed hope whereof he knew
And I was unaware. (pp. 1743–1744)

As the twentieth century progressed, writers increasingly thought ref-

erences to nightingales or larks as an outmoded poetic contrivance.
The woodpecker is not so much a singer as a musician, but its
sound announces the start of the rainy season in many cultures. The
sound of a woodpecker knocking its beak against a tree resembles
martial drumming and resonates loudly through the forest. The
woodpecker was sacred to Ares, the Greek god of war. Romulus and
Remus, the legendary twins who founded Rome, were suckled by a
wolf and fed by a woodpecker. Ovid in his Metamorphoses told of the
witch Circe, who changed a young man named Picus, son of the Ro-
man god Saturn, into a woodpecker after he had refused her ad-
vances. Jacob Grimm and other scholars derived Beowulf, the name
of the Anglo-Saxon epic hero, from “bee-wolf,” meaning woodpecker,
though that etymology is not generally accepted. Seen more as a
fighter than a lover, the woodpecker has never been terribly popular,
yet it may do better than songbirds in the raucous popular culture of
the latter twentieth century. One of the most popular cartoon charac-
ters has been the violent and frequently amoral trickster Woody

Selected References
Apollodorus. The Library of Greek Mythology. Trans. Robin Hard. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Aristophanes. The Birds. Trans. Alan H. Sommerstein. New York:
Dover, 1999.
Attar, Farid Ud-Din. The Conference of Birds. Trans. Afkham Darbandi
and Dick Davis. New York: Penguin, 1984.
Gubernatis, Angelo De. Zoological Mythology or the Legends of Animals
(2 vols.). Chicago: Singing Tree Press, 1968.

82 Cuckoo, Nightingale, Lark, Woodpecker, and Other Musical Birds

Hardy, Thomas. “The Darkling Thrush.” In The Norton Anthology of
English Literature. Vol. 2, 5th ed. Ed. M. H. Abrams. New York: W.
W. Norton, 1986, pp. 1743–1744.
Johnson-Davies, Denys, trans. The Island of Animals. Austin: University
of Texas Press, 1994.
Pliny. Natural History (10 vols.). Trans. H. Rackham, W. H. S. Jones,
et al. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953.
Pollard, John. Birds in Greek Life and Myth. New York: Thames and
Hudson, 1977.
Ryan, W. F. The Bathhouse at Midnight: Magic in Russia. University Park:
Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.
Shakespeare, William. Love’s Labor Lost. New York: Viking Penguin,
———. Romeo and Juliet. New York: Dover, 1993.
Stone, Brian, trans. The Owl and the Nightingale/ Cleanness/ St. Erken-
wald. 2nd ed. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Cuckoo, Nightingale, Lark, Woodpecker, and Other Musical Birds 83

See Hart and Hind

Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men;
As hounds, and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, water-rungs, and demi-wolves, are clept
All by the name of dogs. . . .
—William Shakespeare, Macbeth (act 3, scene 1)

In Eurasia around 12,000 B.C.—or much earlier, according to some the-

orists—the dog became the first animal to be domesticated by human
beings. Cats continue to appear wild even when raised in the family
living room. Sheep and cattle generally stay together in herds, even
under human direction. In the continual war between man and na-
ture, only dogs appear to be on our side. According to a legend of the
Tehuelche Indians, after the sun god had created the first man and
woman, the deity immediately created a dog to keep them company.
Emotionally, dogs seem akin to human beings. Some people believe
that dogs are the only animals apart from humans that can feel guilt.
Others dismiss that perception as an anthropomorphic illusion or
even hypocrisy. People often regard dogs as icons of either the faith-
ful companion or the sycophant. In much the same way that the dog
joins the realms of culture and nature, the mythic dog serves as a me-
diator between life and death.
In ancient Egypt, dogs and cats were the most beloved of pets.
According to Herodotus, when the family dog died every person in
the household would shave his or her entire body, including the head,
in mourning. Many Egyptian pictures have been preserved through
the ages of people caressing dogs, as well as using them in the hunt.
While cats were associated with the sun god Ra, dogs were associated

with the underworld and with death. The appearance of the Dog Star,
Sirius, was a sign to people that they should prepare for the rising of
the Nile River. Plutarch, however, reported in his essay “Isis and
Osiris” that when the blasphemous conqueror from Persia, Cambyses,
had slain the sacred bull Apis, only dogs would eat the body, and so
the dog lost its status as the most honored animal among Egyptians.
Throughout the ancient world, owners were interred with their
dogs. Tombs with canine effigies or canine corpses alongside human
bodies have been found throughout Eurasia and in parts of Africa as
well as in pre-Columbian America. Just as dogs led hunters tracking
game through the wilderness, they were expected to guide people
through the next world. In Egypt, dogs were associated with Anubis,
god of the dead, who is most often depicted with a human body and
the head of a jackal or dog.
Lady Wilde has written of dogs in Ireland: “The peasants believe
that the domestic animals know all about us, especially the dog and
the cat. They listen to everything that is said; they watch the expres-
sion of the face and can even read the thoughts. The Irish say it is not
safe to ask a question of a dog, for he may answer, and should he do
so the questioner will surely die” (p. 146). The dog certainly shares the
life of human society more intimately than any other animal. This, of
itself, can make people feel uneasy. Human beings view dogs with a
strange combination of affection and contempt, of domination and
Though dogs are occasionally seen as solar animals, they are
usually associated with the moon. Perhaps this is because they howl
at the moon, as do their relatives, wolves, coyotes, and jackals. By ex-
tension, dogs are also associated with night and with death. In Greek
mythology, they are companions of the lunar goddesses Artemis and
Hecate. The association of dogs with the star Sirius reaches all the way
from Mexico to China.
Their sense of smell gave dogs an ability to guide people in the
hunt. A dog would know the location of game that was not even re-
motely visible. After the hunt, a dog guided people through the
woods back to their settlement. We should remember that this was
long before the use of the compass or of even remotely accurate maps.
This ability must have impressed people as miraculous. It is small
wonder that a vast range of cultures on every continent has regarded
dogs as guides to the world after death.
Many cultures view the howling of dogs as an omen of death.
According to Jewish tradition, dogs can see the angel of death. In Vir-
gil’s Aeneid, dogs howl at the approach of the goddess Hecate. Several

86 Dog
This ad from the
early twentieth
century exploits the
dog’s reputation for
fidelity. (Courtesy of

traditions also make dogs the guardians of the underworld. The best
known of such sentries is Cerberus, who keeps watch at the entrance
to Hades in Greco-Roman mythology. According to Hesiod, this dog
had fifty heads, though later writers reduced the number to three. In
Norse mythology, the abode of the dead is watched over by the dog
Garm. When the final battle at the end of the world comes, Garm will
swallow the moon. This monstrous dog will finally do battle with the
god Tyr, and both will be slain. In Hinduism and Buddhism, two dogs
accompany Yama, the lord of the dead. They each have four eyes and
serve their master by searching out those who are about to die. In
Aztec mythology, the departed soul descended to the underworld
and came to a river guarded by a yellow dog. In European folklore,
demonic dogs accompanied the Wild Huntsman across the sky in his
search for lost souls. To even hear the hounds meant that you would
die soon. A black dog was a frequent omen of doom. In the lore of
western England, the devil’s Dandy Dogs passed over the moors dur-
ing storms. They breathed fire and tore hapless strangers to pieces.
The name of Cúchulainn, the popular hero of Celtic myth, liter-
ally means “hound of Ulster.” When he killed the ferocious hound of
a smith, Cúchulainn had to take on the role of the creature he had
killed. When roused to battle, his appearance changed. His eyes
bulged or contracted. His jaw opened from ear to ear, like that of a
dog, while a light like the moon rose in his head. When three witches
in the form of crows tricked him into eating the flesh of a dog as well
as violating other taboos, Cúchulainn was killed.

Dog 87
In the religion of the Aztecs, the canine deity Xotol was intimately
associated with the world of the dead. At one point human beings died
out and the gods wished to bring them back. Xotol traveled beneath
the ground to obtain the bone of the departed races. The god of the
dead pursued him in anger. Xotol stumbled and fell, breaking the bone
into many pieces, but he recovered and brought the bones back to the
surface of the earth. The gods sprinkled the bones with their blood,
and the pieces became human beings of many shapes and sizes.
A further reason dogs have been associated with death is that
throughout the ancient world feral dogs roamed in packs in search of
carrion, including the bodies of human beings. The greatest disgrace
for a corpse in most cultures of the Mediterranean was to be eaten by
dogs. In Homer’s The Iliad, the Trojans feared such would be the fate
of Hector’s body. In Antigone by Sophocles, the heroine feared this
would be her brother’s fate if he was not given a proper burial. In
Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Actaeon experienced an especially demeaning
death: he was changed by the goddess Diana into a stag and killed by
his own hounds. In the Bible, because Jezebel, wife of King Ahab of Is-
rael, spread the worship of Baal, the prophet Elijah prophesied that
dogs would devour her body (1 Kings 21:23). Jehu later ordered her
thrown down from a window, and those who went to bury her found
only the skull, feet, and hands (2 Kings 9:34–37).
Dogs were held in special reverence in Persia. According to leg-
end, Cyrus, who founded the Persian Empire, was left out to die at
birth but was suckled by a dog. In the religion of Zoroaster, which be-
gan in Persia, a dog had to accompany a funeral procession to ensure
a peaceful journey to the next world. The Zoroastrians believed that
dogs were able to see spirits and could protect families from evil pow-
ers that human beings were not even aware of. To express their grati-
tude for the protection, families were expected to feed hungry dogs,
using ritualistically prepared food. The members of the family then
said prayers as the dogs ate. Dogs guarded the Cinvat Bridge that led
to the next world, protecting the righteous but leaving the unrigh-
teous to demons. In the religion of Mithras, the major rival to Chris-
tianity in the latter part of the Roman Empire, a dog would be among
the animals to accompany Mithras at the sacrifice of a great bull to re-
juvenate the world. After the sacrifice, the dog would lap up the blood
that had been spilled.
Just as the dog guards the home, dogs in the ancient world were
also thought to guard the body from demons or disease. In
Mesopotamia, the dog was sacred to Gula, the Babylonian goddess of
healing. At times Gula was represented as a bitch suckling her pups.

88 Dog
When in human form, she was accompanied by dogs. Many dog fig-
urines have been found in her temple, and they were used to ward off
illness. In Greece, a dog generally accompanied Asclepius, the leg-
endary doctor who once raised a man from the dead. In the Middle
Ages, Saint Roch, who is invoked for protection against diseases, was
also depicted with a dog. The holy man worked with victims of
bubonic plague. One day, however, he himself was stricken, and sores
appeared on his body. Saint Roch wandered into the woods to die,
when a dog came up and licked the sores. With the help of the dog,
who brought him bread, Saint Roch miraculously recovered.
The ancient tradition in which the dog serves as a guardian to
the next world is reflected in medieval burials. The lord and lady of
the house would often be buried with their dogs. Splendid sculptures
and bas-reliefs on graves show the deceased stretched out with a
faithful dog at his or her feet. Today, dogs are often buried in pet
cemeteries and more seldom with their masters, yet many people still
hope to be reunited with a beloved pet in the world beyond.
Dogs were, for the most part, favorably regarded in the Greco-
Roman world as well. Many people find the most touching scene in
Homer’s The Odyssey to be when the hero finally returned home and
was recognized only by his hound Argos. The dog wagged its tail and
then died. The Greeks and Romans sometimes wrote very affectionate
epitaphs for their dogs.
The philosopher Diogenes, a contemporary of Alexander the
Great’s, called himself a “hound.” Members of his school were known
as “cynics,” after the Greek word for “doglike.” Like dogs, they lived
in the society yet did not fully belong to it. Since that time, dogs have
often symbolized alienation. Diogenes not only praised the fidelity
and the modest needs of dogs but also admired their lack of shame,
since they would not hesitate to urinate or copulate in public.
Ancient authors such as Ctesias and Pliny the Elder wrote of the
cynopheli, who had human bodies and the heads of dogs. The legend
probably originated in Egypt, where the creatures could have been in-
spired partly by baboons. Through the Middle Ages, travelers spread
accounts of dog-men in distant lands. They were among the many
marvels reported of the mythical kingdom of Prester John in India.
Saint Christopher is often portrayed with the head of a dog. One pop-
ular legend had it that Saint Christopher was from a race of cynopheli.
They were fierce and ate human flesh. They had no language beyond
a bark. In answer to his prayer, God gave him human speech. To ac-
count for his strange appearance, another legend suggested that Saint
Christopher was once extraordinarily handsome. He prayed to God

Dog 89
for the head of a dog so that women would leave him in peace. The
figure ultimately goes back to the jackal-headed Egyptian deity Anu-
bis. Soldiers of Alexander of Macedonia conflated Anubis with their
god Hermes, since both were guardians of the dead. They called this
composite deity Hermanubis and erected a temple to him in Alexan-
dria. His temple became one of the most popular shrines in the an-
cient world. In time, his cult was absorbed into Christianity.
A version of this deity also entered Chinese legend. One very
popular tale had a dog marrying a princess. Barbarians had invaded
from the west, and the desperate emperor promised that anybody
who could drive back the enemy could marry his daughter. A dog
heard the pledge, crept behind enemy lines, and killed the opposing
commander; he chewed off his victim’s head, brought it back, and
presented it to the emperor. When they discovered what had hap-
pened, the barbarians withdrew. The dog, who could speak like a hu-
man being, then reminded the emperor of his promise. When the em-
peror objected that marriage between a person and an animal was
impossible, the dog replied that he could be made human by being
placed under a bell for 280 days, provided that nobody disturbed him
in the interim. This was done, but when only one day remained, the
emperor was overcome with curiosity and lifted the bell, only to see a
creature with a human body and a canine head. The marriage went
ahead as planned; members of the tribe known as the Fong of Fuzhou
claim to be descended from the couple.
Being close to humanity has by no means necessarily worked to
the advantage of dogs. We often try to judge dogs by human stan-
dards, which may not always be appropriate. We include them in hu-
man hierarchies, which means they are at or near the bottom of the
scale. The epithet “dog” traditionally suggests a combination of con-
tempt and mistrust, such as masters would feel for their slaves. We
use the term “ass kisser,” taken from the greeting behavior of dogs, to
describe hypocritically servile people.
Partly in reaction to other cultures, especially that of Egypt, the
Hebrews developed a repugnance for the dog. Not only is the dog an
“unclean” animal in the Old Testament, but a revulsion against the
dog is expressed repeatedly in very graphic terms: “As a dog returns
to its vomit, so a fool reverts to his folly” (Prov. 26:11). The view in the
New Testament is not much more generous. Revelations lists “dogs”
among those who must remain outside the kingdom of Heaven, to-
gether with “fortunetellers,” “fornicators,” “murderers,” “idolaters,”
and “everyone of false speech and false life” (22:15).
When people vilify an animal, they are usually reacting against

90 Dog
others who regard the creature as sacred. The Hebrews were very fas-
tidious about the preparation of food, and they insisted that animals
be slaughtered according to prescribed rituals. For other cultures of
the Near East, the hunt using dogs was often sacred. The Hebrews
took a dim view of the hunt in general, and they regarded meat
touched by hunting dogs as unclean. This meant that dogs had little
chance to display their most spectacular abilities. Dogs are often com-
pared to the enemies of Israel in the Old Testament:

Yahweh, God of Sabaoth, God of Israel,

Up, now, and punish these pagans, show no mercy to these
villains and traitors!
Back they come at nightfall,
Snarling like curs,
Prowling through the town. (Ps. 59:5–6)

It took some time for dogs to be accepted as pets. In 1613, Mar-

garet Barclay of Scotland was tried for witchcraft. With the assistance
of another woman, Isobel Insh, and in the company of a black lapdog,
she allegedly had made clay images of mariners and their boat one
night. Then, together with the dog, she had gone down to the shore
and cast these images into the waves. Immediately the water had
turned red and the sea had begun to rage. At about the same time, a
ship had gone down near the coast, killing all the crew except two
men. The daughter of Isobel Insh, a girl of only eight, was called in to
testify. She claimed to have witnessed the witchcraft and added that
her mother had been present only at the making of the clay images
and not when the spell was cast. The child went on to testify that the
dog gave off fire from his jaws and mouth to illuminate the scene.
Margaret Barclay was forced to confess under torture. Though she
later retracted the confession, she was executed.
Islam as well takes a negative view of dogs, though there are
noteworthy exceptions. Moslem tradition places nine animals in
heaven, including two dogs. One is the dog of the apocryphal prophet
Tobit. The other is Kasmir, the dog of the Seven Sleepers of Ephessus,
from a Christian legend that passed over into Islam. Seven young
Christians took refuge in a cave to escape persecution by the Roman
soldiers during the reign of Decius. They slept for two hundred years.
After waking, one of them went into town to purchase provisions. He
was amazed to find that almost everyone had converted to Christian-
ity. According to the Koran, Kasmir kept watch outside the cave for
the entire time, not eating, nor drinking, nor sleeping himself.

Dog 91
Just as many tales celebrate the fidelity of dogs, others lament
the inability of human beings to reciprocate this loyalty. The most fa-
mous is the Irish tale of the thirteenth-century Welsh prince Llywelyn
and his hound Gelert. The prince had gone hunting and left the dog
to guard his infant son. He returned to find the boy missing and Gel-
ert covered with blood. Horrified, Llewelyn immediately killed Gel-
ert with his sword. Then, looking closely, he found the baby sleeping
peacefully on the ground beside the body of a serpent that Gelert had
Almost the same story is told of Guinefort, a greyhound on the
estate of Villars near Lyons in France. After the dog had saved a baby
from a snake and after being killed by the master of the house, the
body of Guinefort was thrown into a well. The grave of the dog be-
came a site of pilgrimages, where parents would bring sickly or de-
formed children to be healed. Monks in a nearby monastery looked
on in consternation as peasant women prayed to the dog, hung swad-
dling clothes in nearby bushes, and practiced what seemed to be pa-
gan rituals.
The absolute fidelity of a dog to its master is a central virtue of
the feudal world. With the rise of the middle class in Victorian times,
unconditional fidelity became a nostalgic remembrance of the Middle
Ages. Since one could no longer demand such loyalty of men, one val-
ued this virtue all the more in hounds. One story that was constantly
retold is that of the “Dog of Montargis.” The dog belonged to a
courtier of Charles V of France named Aubry, who was murdered in
the wood of Montargis near Orléans in 1371. The dog was the only
witness and followed the murderer, Robert Macaire, everywhere, con-
stantly barking in an accusatory manner. Finally, a duel between the
dog and man was arranged. After being badly defeated, Macaire con-
fessed to his crime and was executed.
There are countless stories throughout the world of dogs that
killed themselves after their masters had died, often by refusing all
food. Pliny the Elder wrote of a dog named Hyrcanus that threw itself
on the blazing funeral pyre of its master. Seldom do people pass the
test of canine loyalty. One of the few who did is Yudhisthira, in Hindu
myth, when he was invited to enter Heaven without his dog. There
was thunder, then a great light. He could see the god Indira waiting
for him in the divine chariot. Invited to enter, Yudhisthira stepped
aside so the dog might go first. Indira objected, saying that the pres-
ence of a dog would defile Heaven. Yudhisthira replied that he could
conceive of no greater crime than to send the faithful dog away. At
that moment the dog was transformed into Dharma, the god of righ-

92 Dog
teousness. The words of Indira had been a final test, and Yudhisthira
had shown his worthiness through fidelity to his companion.
During the Nazi period, the dogs of Adolf Hitler became a pub-
lic obsession. Hitler was fanatically possessive of his dogs and would
not allow anybody to touch his puppy named “Wolf.” The regime
wanted to promote unquestioning obedience, a quality that people
found in dogs. Hitler once said that he trusted nobody but his girl-
friend, Eva, and his dog, Blondie. Even with the fall of Nazi Germany,
people’s fascination with Hitler’s dogs continued almost unabated.
People wondered especially about Blondie during Hitler’s final days.
Did he really risk his life to walk her every day in spite of bombs?
How did Hitler take his final leave of Blondie and her pups? Did he
personally administer cyanide to her, or did he delegate the task to the
SS? Author Günter Grass satirized the obsession with Hitler’s dogs in
his novel Dog Years. Perhaps much of the fascination comes from the
juxtaposition of great guilt and innocence—one of the worst mass
murderers in history and a blameless animal.
Dogs have also served as surrogates for human beings in space.
The first living creature to be sent into orbit was a Samoyed named
Laika, launched in a Soviet satellite in 1957. After six days the oxygen
ran out and she died, but her corpse remains in orbit to this day. For
many, she has come to symbolize the fragility of all life in this age of
scientific exploration. Two years later, another Soviet husky, Otvazh-
naya, was sent into space, together with a rabbit, and safely returned.
Dogs seem to not only reflect but also exaggerate the ideals of
the society in which they are kept. In aristocratic societies they were
valued according to their ancestry. Like kings and queens, the thor-
oughbred dogs in noble houses had recorded bloodlines that went
back several generations and fabricated ones that went back to remote
antiquity. As society industrialized, dogs became a nostalgic reminder
of the rural past. Especially in the fifties and early sixties, dogs such
as Lassie and Rin Tin Tin were enormously popular on American tel-
evision. But it is not easy for most people to keep a dog humanely in
increasingly urbanized communities. Today, the keeping of dogs mir-
rors to the point of parody the commercial values of contemporary
Western culture. Dogs have special gyms, fashions, gourmet foods,
therapists, beauty parlors, and almost everything that people have.
But dogs, like people, pay for all of this luxury with freedom. In the
last decades of the twentieth century, most urban communities have
prohibited dogs from running free even in city parks.
As the role of the dog in our lives is slowly reduced, the symbolic
importance of dogs may even be increasing. In this age of electronic

Dog 93
security systems, dogs are relatively inefficient at guarding the home.
Nevertheless, most people have seen the cartoon dog McGruff, in a
trench coat and floppy hat, who tells people on television to “take a
bite out of crime.” Dogs are used to sell a vast variety of products re-
lated to security, from alarms to software programs against computer
Our commercial culture today can sometimes make fantasies so
vivid that reality seems . . . well, almost irrelevant. Among the most
familiar canines on television is Spuds McKenzie, who is used to ad-
vertise light beer. In 1990, Spuds made People magazine’s list of the
world’s ten best-dressed men. Not only does Spuds pitch a product
that is not at all for dogs, but the canine model for this distinctly mas-
culine persona is actually a bitch.
Not everybody likes dogs, but those who do are very passionate
about them. Dogs often appear helpless, yet they are usually pretty
able to take care of themselves. This combination of vulnerability and
strength makes dogs, for good or ill, so very “human.”
Selected References
Christie, Anthony. Chinese Mythology. New York: Barnes and Noble
Books, 1996.
Comfort, David. The First Pet History of the World. New York: Fireside,
Leach, Maria. God Had a Dog: Folklore of the Dog. New Brunswick, NJ:
Rutgers University Press, 1961.
Menache, Sophia. “Dogs: God’s Worst Enemies?” Society and Animals
5, no. 1 (1997): 23–44.
Plutarch. “Isis and Osiris.” In Plutarch’s Moralia (15 vols.). Trans. Frank
Cole Babbit et al. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962, vol.
5, pp. 3–384.
Schwarz, Marion. A History of Dogs in the Early Americas. New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1997.
Scott, Sir Walter. Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. New York:
J. and J. Harper, 1832.
Thurston, Mary Elizabeth. The Lost History of the Canine Race: Our
15,000-Year Love Affair with Dogs. New York: Avon Books, 1996.
White, David Gordon. Myths of the Dog Man. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1991.
Wilde, Lady [Speranza]. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Supersti-
tions of Ireland: With Sketches of the Irish Past. Galway: O’Gorman,
1971 (1888).

See Ass, Mule, and Camel

94 Donkey
Dove and Pigeon
Pigeons in the grass, alas.
—Gertrude Stein

Doves seem holy and clean, but pigeons appear commonplace and
dirty. Nevertheless, the two are very closely related in biology and
closely associated in folklore. In ancient texts it is often impossible to
know which is meant, and perhaps the best way to think of these
birds is as the sacred and profane aspects of a single creature.
A grove near the city of Dodona contained one of the most an-
cient and venerable oracles in Greece. According to legend, a black
dove from Egypt alighted there. As it moved among the oak trees, the
branches would rustle and speak to the priests in the voice of a
woman. In the time of Homer, the shrine at Dodona was the most
revered in all the land.
In the ancient world, doves were often associated with prophecy.
In The Voyages of the Argo, Apollonius of Rhodes told how the Greek
heroes in search of the Golden Fleece found their way through a sea
barred by the Clashing Rocks, which would continually open and
close. They released a dove. It passed between the rocks, so the heroes
knew they could navigate unscathed. In Virgil’s Aeneid, doves guided
Aeneas through a forest to a golden bough, which he needed to enter
the world of the dead. Even Christianity, which often took a dim view
of pagan oracles, was full of stories in which doves assist in divina-
tion, perhaps because doves seemed above every suspicion of evil.
One apocryphal gospel had a dove from heaven alighting on the staff
of Joseph and anointing him as the husband of Mary.
Of course, whatever pleased the gods would be offered up to
them in the ancient world. For the Hebrews, doves and pigeons were
the only birds that might be offered for sacrifice (Lev. 1:14), and they
were the favorite sacrifice of people who could not afford sheep or
The biblical book of Genesis states that “God’s spirit hovered
over the water” (1:2). This image certainly suggests a bird, and it has
usually been depicted as a dove. During the Flood, Noah sent out a
dove. When it returned with an olive branch, he knew that the waters
had begun to subside. In Christianity, the dove represents the Holy
Spirit. A dove descended on Jesus at his baptism. In pictures of the
Annunciation, the dove has traditionally been portrayed descending
to Mary from God the Father as she becomes pregnant with the infant
Jesus. The scene recalls the amorous adventures of Zeus, for example,
when the god assumed the form of a swan to impregnate the maiden

Dove and Pigeon 95

Leda. The dove, usually painted directly between Mary and God the
Father, seemed to shield Mary with its purity.
The dove was sacred to many goddesses of the ancient world.
Doves drew the chariot of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.
Though sometimes thought promiscuous, Aphrodite became a
guardian of chastity when the hunter Orion attempted to break into
the home of the Pleiades, the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione.
She changed the girls into doves so they might escape by flight, and
Zeus later transformed them into stars.
Doves fed the legendary Assyrian queen Semiramis, daughter of
the goddess Derceto, when she was abandoned as an infant in the
desert. They were also closely associated with the Roman Venus, the
Babylonian Ishtar, and the Semitic Astarte. The following amorous
symbolism enters the Judeo-Christian tradition through the biblical
“Song of Songs,” which probably referred to turtledoves:

The season of glad songs has come,

the cooing of the turtledove is heard.
The fig tree is forming its first figs
and the blossoming vines give out their fragrance.
Come then, my love,
my lovely one, come.
My dove, hiding in the clefts of the rock,
in the coverts of the cliff,
show me your face,
let me hear your voice. . . . (2:12–14)

Jews and Christians have interpreted this song of love as an allegory

of the longing of the soul for God. The image of the dove has always
served to spiritualize erotic desire. It is also a symbol of conjugal fi-
delity. According to the medieval German poet Wolfram von Eschen-
bach in his epic Parzifal, a dove that has lost its mate would always
perch on a withered branch.
The Holy Spirit is traditionally spoken of with a masculine pro-
noun. Nevertheless, it is hard to think of it in that way. The Trinity and
the very concept of God seem unbalanced without some feminine el-
ement. Several heretical groups have identified the dove with the
feminine concept of “Sophia,” or divine wisdom, as well as with Mary
herself. The wings of a dove, spread out and pointing downward, are
sometimes stylized in Christian art to form an M for Mary.
When Christianity was introduced into Russia, people were for-
bidden to eat the flesh of doves. The dove is also important in the

96 Dove and Pigeon

Grail romances. In Eschenbach’s Parzi-
fal, written in Germany around 1200, a
dove visited the Castle of the Grail
every year on Good Friday to bring the
Host from Heaven. The dove was also
the badge of the Knights of the Grail.
European folklore made the dove the
one shape that the Devil could not as-
sume. The dove was also one of the very
few common animals that were never
mentioned as familiars of witches.
In the ancient world, several cul-
tures sometimes portrayed the soul as a
dove. There is an enormously moving
sculpture in New York City’s Metropol-
itan Museum of Art from the grave of a
Greek child who died in the mid-sev-
enth century B.C. The young girl holds a
pair of doves or pigeons in her hands,
and her lips touch the beak of one. The
doves are to go on and have the mar-
riage and family that were denied the
maiden. The dove was the symbol of
Saint Scholastica, founder of a convent
and the patroness of rain. Her twin
brother, Saint Benedict, visited her on
her deathbed. When she died, Saint
Benedict saw her soul ascend to Heaven
in the form of a white dove. A Greek grave relief
from the island of
The dove is also holy in Islam. Christian polemicists sometimes
Paros, ca. 455–450
tried to discredit Islam by claiming that Mohammed had a dove feed
B.C. This girl is
from his ear. This was allegedly a trick to make his followers believe
remembered caring
that the Holy Spirit was giving him advice.
for animals, perhaps
In their collection of German legends, the Grimm brothers tell
at the annual festival
how a dove saved the town of Höxter. This community had held out of Artemis. She
valiantly against the mighty army of the Holy Roman Empire during kisses one of two
the Thirty Years’ War. At last, when other attempts had failed, the im- doves or pigeons,
perial generals ordered their troops to bring in the heavy artillery and which will go on
bombard the town into submission. In the evening, a soldier was to have a family
about to light the fuse of the first cannon when a dove flew down and though fate denied
pecked his hand, forcing him to drop the kindling. The soldier took that privilege to her.
this as a sign from God, and he refused to fire. This delayed the bom-

Dove and Pigeon 97

bardment long enough for Swedish troops to arrive and lift the siege.
The dove, particularly in a drawing by Pablo Picasso, was a sym-
bol of the peace movement during the Cold War. Is the dove a little
too perfect? It suggests eroticism without lewdness and virtue with-
out self-righteousness. It is rare, indeed, for any symbol to be accepted
with so little ambivalence. Perhaps it is possible in this case because
the pigeon functions as a sort of double to the dove, deflecting any
When people do distinguish between doves and pigeons, the
rock doves become the black sheep of the family. The urban pigeons
descended from the rock doves, which originally came from the
northern coasts of the British Isles. People have not always distin-
guished very sharply between pigeons and doves. Pigeons were often
trained to carry messages in the Roman Empire. This probably con-
tributed to the role of a dove in Christianity as a sort of messenger
from God. In Christian paintings the dove of the Annunciation was
often portrayed as a white rock dove, with a very broad fanlike tail
rather than the narrower tail of the turtledove and related varieties.
The passenger pigeons of North America, once so numerous that
they darkened the skies, were driven to extinction in the early twen-
tieth century. Now they are remembered as a symbol of human ra-
pacity and the lost bounty of the New World. Poet Wallace Stevens
probably had the passenger pigeon at least partially in mind when he
wrote “Sunday Morning” in 1915. It ends with the lines:

And, in the isolation of the sky,

At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings. (p. 41)

But pigeons generally blend in so well with our urban environ-

ments that most people hardly even notice them. The few who do pay
attention find much beauty in their enormous variety of patterns and
tones, caused largely by the mixing of urban and feral birds. Pigeons
thrive in cities because the facades of buildings resemble the stony
landscapes of their original homes. People sometimes call pigeons
“rats with wings.” It is now illegal to feed them in New York City,
though many people, especially immigrants from the Mediterranean,
do anyway.
There are small but devoted circles of pigeon fanciers who race
the birds and display them at pigeon shows. While lovers of many an-
imals, such as horses and cats, tend to be female and aristocratic, pi-

98 Dove and Pigeon

geon enthusiasts are generally male and blue-collar. They identify
with the toughness of these birds, which can survive easily in the
roughest of neighborhoods.
Mourning doves are also found in New York and other cities, al-
though they are not as common. They are a bit smaller, have a delicate
call, and often seem like feminine counterparts to the more masculine
pigeons. Most of the time, mourning doves are even more unobtru-
sive. Few people ever even think, at least consciously, of a connection
between the dove on the street and the one in church. But isn’t it like
that with many religious symbols?
Selected References
Benwell, Gwen, and Arthur Waugh. Sea Enchantress: The Tale of the
Mermaid and Her Kin. London: Hutchinson, 1961.
Charbonneau-Lassay. The Bestiary of Christ. Trans. D. M. Dooling. New
York: Parabola Books, 1991.
Eschenbach, Wolfram von. Parzifal. Trans. A. T. Hatto. New York:
Penguin, 1980.
Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm. The German Legends of the Brothers Grimm
(2 vols.). Ed. and trans. Donald Ward. Philadelphia: Institute for the
Study of Human Issues, 1981.
Staal, Julius D. W. The New Patterns in the Sky: Myths and Legends of the
Stars. Blacksburg, VA: McDonald and Woodward, 1988.
Stevens, Wallace. “Sunday Morning. Stevens/ Poems. New York:
Knopf/ Everyman’s Library, 1993, pp. 40–41.

See Snake, Lizard, and Related Animals

See Swan, Goose, and Duck

Duck 99
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in azure lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
—Alfred Lord Tennyson, “The Eagle”

The symbolism of no other animal is quite so simple and unam-

biguous as that of the eagle. The majestic bird is associated with the
sun and, largely by implication, with monarchs. Eagles have re-
markable eyesight and appear able to gaze directly into the sun.
Contrary to their reputation, they are not exceptionally high flyers
as compared with other birds, but they are extremely powerful and
are often able to lift large prey such as sheep or monkeys. Perhaps
their remoteness also contributed to an exalted reputation, since
they prefer rocky cliffs or tall trees for their nests. Though eagles
may be majestic, we should remember that royalty has never been
universally beloved.
This symbolism of the eagle was already clearly established in
the ancient Mesopotamian poem about Etana, possibly the first ruler
ever to have his story written down. The epic of Etana begins with an
eagle and a serpent swearing an oath of friendship to each other be-
fore Shamash, the god of the sun. The eagle lived in the top of a tree
and the serpent at its base, and for a time they and their young shared
every kill. One day the eagle ate the young of the serpent, who then
burrowed in the carcass of a bull. As soon as the eagle approached to
eat, the serpent bit it, cut its wings, and threw the bird into a pit to die
of hunger and thirst. Shamash sent the hero Etana to rescue and nurse
the eagle, which became his guide. Etana mounted on the back of the
eagle to fly up to the heavens to ask Ishtar, a goddess of fertility, for
the plant of birth so that he might have a son. The last sections of the

manuscript are fragmentary, but Etana apparently did attain his goal
and founded the first Sumerian dynasty.
The ascent of Etana is depicted on many seals, and the story
seems to have had a wide influence. The Greeks later retold the
episode of the two quarreling animals as an Aesopian fable called
“The Eagle and the Fox.” The eagle violated a friendship by eating the
young of the fox, which then set fire to the eagle’s tree in revenge. The
motif of a tree with an eagle at the top and a hostile serpent at the
base, however, has often been found in myth and legend, and an ex-
ample is Yggdrasil, the Norse tree of life. The story of Etana may well
have influenced the Greek myth of Ganymede, a young man who was
abducted by Zeus, in the form of an eagle, so that he might serve on
Olympus as cupbearer of the gods. Eagles are, however, entirely ca-
pable of carrying off an infant or small child, and perhaps the story
goes back to such a tragic incident.
The eagle was sacred to Zeus, and the god of thunder sent an ea-
gle to eat the liver of the disobedient titan Prometheus each day, as he
lay chained to a rock in the Caucasus Mountains. The liver would
grow back during the night, and the cycle continued until the eagle
was finally slain with an arrow by Hercules. The Roman standard was
an eagle, and conquered peoples often adopted the symbol.
The eagle is the initial inspiration for a huge range of mytholog-
ical figures. The double-headed eagle first appears on Hittite reliefs in
Mesopotamia. From there it spread to the Byzantine Empire, and to-
day it is a symbol of Russia. The Assyro-Babylonian epic poem
“Anzu” told of a lion-headed eagle so powerful that it could cause
whirlwinds simply by flapping its wings. It once stole the Tablets of
Destiny from Enlil, the god of the sky, and briefly ruled the world.
Mysterious figures, sometimes known as “demon-griffins,” were
carved on palace walls of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II. They
had the bodies of men but the heads and wings of eagles, and they
held up a pinecone in one hand, perhaps to enact a fertility rite.
The lion shared a solar association with the eagle, and their fea-
tures were often blended. Perhaps related to the lion-headed eagle, or
Imdugud, is the first griffin, which had the face of an eagle, the body
of a lion, and, sometimes at least, wings. The griffin first appeared in
the art of Mesopotamia but quickly spread to Greece and beyond.
Herodotus believed a griffin lived in the mountains of India, where it
made a nest of gold. Dante placed a griffin in Paradise, where it drew
the chariot of the church.
Closely related to the griffin was the Hindu Garuda, the king of
birds and the mount of the god Vishnu. Garuda had the wings and

102 Eagle
beak of an eagle, and the rest of his body was human, but his vast
form could darken the sky. Also inspired largely by the eagle were
several other huge birds of legend such as the Arabian Roc and the
Persian Simorgh.
In Christianity, the eagle became the symbol of Saint John the
Evangelist and is always depicted on the ground by his side. Accord-
ing to The Golden Legend, written by Jacobus de Voragine in the late
thirteenth century, this is because John once said, “The eagle . . . flies
higher than any other bird and looks straight into the sun, yet by its
nature must come down again; and the human spirit, after it rests
awhile from contemplation, is refreshed and returns more ardently to
heavenly thoughts” (vol. 1, p. 54). But like an eagle, John soars
straight to the mystical heights at the start of his gospel: “In the be-
ginning was the Word . . .”
Medieval bestiaries reported that when an eagle grew old it
would first find a fountain. Then it would fly directly into the sun un-
til its wings were singed and it fell into the waters. After repeating this
three times, the eagle would once again be filled with youthful vigor,
much like Christ, who rose from the dead on the third day after his
One of the very few literary works in which eagles are viewed
not with awe but with tenderness is “The Parliament of Fowles” by
Geoffrey Chaucer, written in the late fourteenth century. On Saint
Valentine’s Day, the birds gathered at the temple of Venus to choose
their mates. Several birds paid court to the lovely female eagle that sat
in the hand of the goddess. When they had all set forth their claims,
Nature ruled that the female eagle herself should make the choice,
thus upholding love over politics. Lords and princesses, after all, are
still human beings, just as even eagles are birds.
In many ways the Native American view of the eagle was sur-
prisingly similar to that of Europeans. The Plains Indians, most espe-
cially, admired the strength of the eagle and associated the bird with
the sun. Eagle feathers represented solar rays, and they were used on
headdresses and shields to indicate skill in war or hunting. The Indi-
ans also stylized the eagle into a mythical creature—the thunderbird.
The beating of its wings causes thunder, while its beak is like lightning.
The eagle is a bit like singers and actors who, after achieving
great popular success, find themselves dominated by their public im-
age. People have trouble comprehending that the eagle, so mighty in
legend, can be very vulnerable in fact. This creature has been so
prominent in symbolism over millennia that people even have trou-
ble thinking of it as a genuine animal, and the cultural significance of

Eagle 103
the eagle seems to provide it with little protection. In countries such
as the United States and Germany, eagles remain endangered despite
being national emblems.
Selected References
Black, Jeremy, and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons, and Symbols of
Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary. Austin: University of
Texas Press, 1992.
Brown, Joseph Epes. Animals of the Soul: Sacred Animals of the Oglala
Sioux. Rockport, MA: Element, 1992.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Parliament of Fowles.” In The Works of
Geoffrey Chaucer. 2nd ed. Ed. F. N. Robinson. Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 1961, pp. 309–318.
Dalley, Stephanie, ed. Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood,
Gilgamesh, and Others. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Nigg, Joe. The Book of Gryphons. Cambridge, MA: Applewood Books,
Voragine, Jacobus de. The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints
(2 vols.). Trans. William Granger Ryan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1995.
White, T. H., trans. The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from a Latin
Bestiary of the Twelfth Century. New York: Dover, 1984.
Williams, Ronald J. “The Literary History of a Mesopotamian Fable.”
The Phoenix 10, no. 2 (1956): 70–77.

See Worm

Elephants are always drawn smaller than life, but a flea always larger.
—Dean Swift

The elephant is set apart from other creatures by its immense size, its
enormous tusks, and above all, its prehensile trunk. Rough as the skin
of an elephant may appear, the trunk has such fine coordination that
it can be used to pick flowers or lift small coins. But this strange, par-
adoxical nature has made people identify intensely with the elephant,
since the animal seems to share with humans an alienation from the
natural world. Cicero wrote in the first century B.C. that “although
there is no animal more sagacious than the elephant, there is also none
more monstrous in appearance” (book 1, section 97). No other animal
has been so intensely and consistently anthropomorphized. The eyes
of an elephant are disproportionately small and on opposing sides of
the head, but the folds about the eyes give them enormous expres-
siveness. Their gaze can be so intense that one popular book on ani-

104 Earthworm
mals in the late twentieth century was entitled When Elephants Weep,
despite the fact that crying is a human trait that elephants do not ac-
tually share.
Pliny the Elder spoke for many when he said the elephant was
the animal “closest to man as regards intelligence” and added that
“the elephant has qualities rarely apparent even in man, namely hon-
esty, good sense, justice, and also respect for the stars, sun, and moon”
(book 8, chap. 1). One traditional description of humanity is “homo re-
ligiosus,” but elephants, according to tradition, share even the reli-
gious impulse. Pliny wrote that elephants would come down from the
mountains of Mauritania to bathe in the river Alimo and pay homage
to the moon. This theme was frequently repeated in Christian Europe,
where the religious impulse of elephants was regularly praised and
their paganism ignored. In the latter eighteenth century, Marcel
LeRoy, forester to the king of France, wrote that “many authors say
this animal is lacking in nothing but the worship of God, while others
accord it that virtue as well” (vol. 3, p. 99). Even today, the debate as
to whether elephants are religious has not been entirely resolved. For
centuries, elephants have been said to bury their dead, and re-
searchers in the latter twentieth century confirm that they at least
cover their dead with vegetation.
Most of our elephant lore comes from India, where the elephant
may have been domesticated as early as the middle of the third mil-
lennium B.C. According to the Indians, after the sun had been hatched
from a cosmic egg, the god Brahma took the two shells in his hands
and began to chant. Out of the shells emerged the elephant Airavata,
which later became the mount of the god Shiva, followed by fifteen
other cloud elephants. They and their progeny could fly about and
change their shape at will. One day, however, the young elephants on
earth became too boisterous and disturbed the sage Palakapya, who
cursed them and relegated them to the ground.
Up through at least the nineteenth century, elephants continued
to be accorded superhuman abilities, including total recall and life
spans of centuries. But even as these ideas have been debunked, re-
markable new qualities of elephants have been discovered. People
had long puzzled over the social cohesion of elephants, and in the
1980s researchers discovered they communicate with ultrasound—
that is, by means of frequencies inaccessible to the human ear.
Among the most beloved deities of the Hindu pantheon is Gane-
sha, the mischievous god of wisdom, who has a human body and an
elephant head. He is usually depicted riding on a rat and has a pot-
belly and a broken tusk. There are many stories that explain his origin

Elephant 105
and odd appearance. According to one, when the god Siva was away,
his consort Parvati was lonely and desired a son. She covered her
body with scented lotion, rubbed off the dirt, formed it into a young
man, and directed him to guard her home. After a while Siva returned
and demanded admittance. The young man refused to let him pass. A
fight ensued and Siva beheaded his adversary. When she saw what
had happened, Parvati was so furious that she threatened to destroy
the entire world if Siva did not restore her son to life. To do this Siva
needed another head, so he sent his servants in search of one. They
came upon an enormous elephant, decapitated the animal, and re-
turned to their master, who placed the head of the elephant on the
body of the young man.
Among the incarnations of Buddha was an albino elephant, and
such animals are traditionally held in great honor in Southeast Asia.
The conception of Gautama, who was to become Buddha, resembles
that of Christ, but the mediator of that virgin birth was not a dove but
an elephant. Queen Sirimahamaya dreamed that she had been trans-
ported to a palace on a mountain peak. An elephant, bearing a lotus,
approached her and bowed. She heard the call of a bird and awoke,
pregnant with the redeemer.
The elephant entered European awareness at the battle of Hy-
daspes, when Alexander the Great invaded India and faced King
Porus, whose army included 200 mounted elephants. Alexander was
finally victorious, but the power of the elephants so awed his troops
that his generals refused to venture any farther east. At the end of the
third century B.C., Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus in Greece, used ele-
phants to defeat the Romans in several battles until his outnumbered
army was finally overwhelmed. In 219 B.C. the Carthaginian general
Hannibal crossed the Alps with an army that included elephants and
inflicted many defeats on the Romans, though his troops, too, finally
succumbed to the superior numbers and discipline of the Romans. It
is interesting that the Romans, despite experiencing the damage ele-
phants inflicted in battle, rarely included these animals in their le-
gions. One reason may be that the Romans were aware of the military
limitations of elephants, which, even when trained, were unpre-
dictable in battle.
The reason may also be simply that the Romans were too fond of
elephants to use them in such a manner. They were slain in Roman
circuses, but the spectacles were not very popular. Pliny recorded that
on seeing one elephant killed with a javelin in the arena at a festival
organized by Pompey, the other elephants tried to break through iron
railings. “But when Pompey’s elephants had given up hope of escape,

106 Elephant
In the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries elephants were grandly displayed as wonders of the world
and drew large crowds. Little attention was paid to their diet or treatment, however, and this one is said on
some days to have drunk “30 bottles of porter, drawing the corks with his trunk.” (Courtesy of the New York
Historical Society, negative # 23508)
they played on the sympathy of the crowd, entreating them with in-
describable gestures. They moaned as if wailing, and caused the spec-
tators such distress that, forgetting Pompey and his lavish display de-
vised so to honor them, they rose in a body, in tears, and heaped dire
curses on Pompey . . . ” (book 8, chap. 21). The resulting loss of popu-
lar support, Pliny believed, was partly responsible for Pompey’s de-
feat by Julius Caesar not long afterward.
Harun ar-Rashid gave an elephant as a gift to Charlemagne and
his court. A few European princes of the late Middle Ages imported
elephants as exotic trophies, to display their splendor and power. In
general, Europeans of the Middle Ages knew elephants only through
ancient books and confused reports by mariners, but the animals were
far from forgotten. As their physical presence vanished, their sym-
bolic importance increased, and no painting of Noah and the Flood
was complete without an elephant.
According to one medieval bestiary, elephants lived for hun-
dreds of years. Other bestiaries held that when an elephant couple
wanted to have a child, they would go eastward toward Paradise un-
til they came to the Mandragora, the Tree of Knowledge. First, the ele-
phant wife would eat from the tree. Then she would give some of the
fruit to her husband, at which point the two would copulate and im-
mediately conceive. The elephants were like the first Adam and Eve,
except that the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge was not forbidden to
them and they could freely enter or leave the Garden of Eden. The au-
thor also says of elephants, “They never quarrel with their wives, for
adultery is unknown to them. There is a mild gentleness about them,
for, if they happen to come across a forwandered man in the deserts,
they offer to lead him back to familiar paths” (White, p. 28).
In most of the Arab world, the elephant was only slightly less ex-
otic than in the West, and it was held in much the same high regard.
The seventh voyage of Sinbad the sailor, from the medieval Arabian
Nights Entertainments, contains an episode that anticipates modern
ecological and humanitarian concerns. After Sinbad is captured by pi-
rates and sold into slavery, at the direction of his new master he hides
in a tree and shoots arrows at a herd of elephants to obtain their tusks
for ivory. This continues for a few days, but then the elephants sur-
round him and uproot the tree. Sinbad expects the elephants to kill
him, but instead they take him to their graveyard so that he may
peacefully obtain their ivory.
Meanwhile, in Africa, elephants were very much a physical re-
ality, and the practical problems of living alongside the animals re-
stricted their appropriation in fantasy or symbolism. They were a co-

108 Elephant
pious source of meat but also a formidable challenge to hunters. An
Ashanti proverb goes, “If you follow an elephant, you don’t have to
knock the dew from the grass” (Courlander, p. 131). Strength and
power rarely go together with cunning in folklore, and African tales
often present the elephant as mighty but naive. According to a
Mbochi tale, the animals once selected the elephant as their king. As
the elephant was going to his coronation, the hare lay in his path and
pretended to be terribly ill. The elephant did not wish the hare to miss
the great event and lifted the little fellow upon his back. When they
reached the council of animals, the hare protested that the elephant
had carried him on his back—as the rider, he was superior to the
beast of burden. The animals crowned not the elephant but the hare
as king.
Africans traditionally hunted elephants primarily for meat, so
both the danger and the bounty obtained from a single kill kept
slaughter within limits. With colonization and the advent of modern
weapons, the demand for ivory has placed the once vast populations
of elephants in danger. Desperate to stop poaching, some African gov-
ernments in the latter twentieth century have imposed the death
penalty for killing elephants. Elephants are accorded an ironically hu-
man status, both as objects of slaughter and protection.
Selected References
Cicero. The Nature of the Gods. Trans. Horace C. P. McGregor. New
York: Penguin, 1972.
Courlander, Harold. A Treasury of African Folklore: The Oral Literature,
Traditions, Myths, Legends, Epics, Tales, Recollections, Wisdom, Sayings,
and Humor of Africa. New York: Marlowe, 1996.
Courtright, Paul B. Ganeša: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Delort, Robert. The Life and Lore of the Elephant. Trans. I. Mark Paris.
New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992.
LeRoy, Marcel. “Lettres sur les animaux.” Variétés litteréraires recueil
des pieces tant originales que trauites, concernant la philosophie, la
littérature et les arts. Paris: Lacombe, 1768, vol. 3, pp. 1–173.
Pliny the Elder. Natural History: A Selection. Ed. and trans. John F.
Healey. New York: Penguin, 1991.
Sax, Boria. The Frog King: On Legends, Fables, Fairy Tales, and Anecdotes
of Animals. New York: Pace University Press, 1990.
Sillar, F. C., and R. M. Meyler, eds. Elephants, Ancient and Modern. New
York: Viking Press, 1968.
White, T. H., trans. The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from a Latin
Bestiary of the Twelfth Century. New York: Dover, 1984.

Elephant 109
English Robin
See Wren and English Robin

See Beaver, Porcupine, Badger, and Miscellaneous Rodents

110 English Robin

Falcon and Hawk
I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin,
dapple-dawn-drawn falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy!
—Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Windhover”

The falcon turning and circling overhead is a stirring sight even today,
and we can only imagine how inspiring it must have seemed before
human beings had learned to fly. The peregrine falcon, which is in-
digenous to Egypt, not only is capable of elaborate aerial maneuvers,
but also has been clocked at the fastest speed of any bird. A poem on
a fragment of pottery from the vicinity of ancient Cairo celebrated the
sun god Ra in his incarnation as a falcon:

You awaken in beauty, o falcon of morning,

You lion of the night,
You worthy bringer of light,
That opens the eyes . . .” (trans. Boria Sax, after the German
version of Günter Röder.)

Since Egyptian times, the falcon has remained a symbol of transcen-

dence and of love.
The Egyptians also depicted their god Horus, who came to be
partially conflated with Ra, as a falcon. After Osiris had been mur-
dered by his wicked brother, Set, Isis, wife of Osiris, conceived Horus
as she mourned by hovering over the body of her husband in the form
of a kite. Horus later defeated Set in combat to gain dominion over
Egypt, but he lost one eye in the battle, which was replaced by the god
Thoth. As the Egyptians realized, raptors have remarkable eyesight,
and the lost “eye of Horus” was frequently represented as a protective

talisman in Egyptian culture. The motif eventually entered Christian-
ity as the “all-seeing eye of God.”
Although biologists now place hawks and falcons in separate
families, ancient and medieval people did not distinguish clearly be-
tween the two. Egyptian representations of the god Horus combined
features of several species, though the most important model is prob-
ably the peregrine falcon. In what is probably the oldest animal fable
to have come down to us from the Greeks, Hesiod used a hawk to rep-
resent the inexorable power of fate. A hawk had caught a nightingale
in his claws and carried her high into the clouds, at which point she
began to weep. The hawk rebuked her, saying, “Goodness, why are
you screaming? . . . He is a fool who seeks to compete against the
stronger: he both loses the struggle and suffers injury on top of insult”
(Works and Days, p. 43). The context, however, made this fable am-
biguous, since Hesiod in the following passage urged his brother to
refrain from violence, saying that justice would triumph over force in
the end. Perhaps Hesiod was assuming his readers knew of a now lost
ending in which the call of the nightingale brought help and the hawk
was punished.
Falconry goes back to very ancient times and has been practiced
throughout Eurasia, but its greatest popularity was probably in the
European Middle Ages. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who
was known for his prodigious learning, wrote a treatise on falconry.
Hunting with falcons became a favorite recreation of medieval lords
and ladies, who would ride out on horseback in the spring, dressed in
elaborate finery and with the hooded birds perched on their wrists.
When the eyes of the falcon were uncovered and the bonds released,
the people would vicariously participate in the pursuit of game.
Wooing was frequently compared to the hunt in medieval times,
and metaphors from falconry were often used to describe amorous re-
lationships. The medieval troubadours and minnesingers often cele-
brated the falcon as a symbol of unhindered love. “The Falcon” by
minnesinger Dietmar von Aist begins:

By the heath stood a lady

All lonely and fair;
As she watched for her lover,
A falcon flew near.
“Happy falcon!” she cried,
Who can fly where he list
And can choose in the forest
The tree he loves best!” (p. 1)

112 Falcon and Hawk

She goes on to compare her knight to a falcon and to long for his
Not only proper falcons but also a variety of other birds of prey,
including hawks, were used in hunting. Sir Gawain, the greatest of
King Arthur’s knights in early tales, though less significant in the later
ones, is called Gwalchmai, meaning “hawk of May,” in early Welsh
tales. He appears to be a version of the Irish hero Cúchulainn, whose
father was the sun, so perhaps the name comes from the raptor’s ar-
chaic solar associations. Merlin, the legendary magician of Arthur’s
court, also takes his name from a raptor that was sometimes used in
The Irish poet W. B. Yeats used the image of a circling falcon to
represent the social and cosmic order in his poem “The Second Com-
ing,” which begins:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned. (p. 178)

Later references in the poem to Egyptian culture indicate that Yeats

may have connected his falcon with the deity Horus. The image of a
circling falcon, however, also suggested a bomber, particularly since
the poem was published in a brief period of peace between the two
world wars.
Selected References
Charbonneau-Lassay, Louis. The Bestiary of Christ. Ed. and trans. D. M.
Dooling. New York: Parabola Books, 1991.
Hesiod. Theogony/ Works and Days. Trans. M. L. West. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1988.
Matthews, John. Gawain and the Goddess: Restoring an Archetype.
London: Aquarian/Thorsons, 1990.
Röder, Günter, trans. “Gebet des fälschlich Verurteilten an die Sonne”
[ancient Egyptian poem]. Der Tierkreis: Das Tier in der Dichtung
aller Völker und Zeiten. Ed. Karl Soffel and Klabund. Berlin: Erich
Reiss Verlag, 1919, p. 1
von Aist, Dietmar. “The Falcon.” Trans. E. Taylor. In Representative
German Poems: Ballad and Lyrical. Ed. Karl Knortz. New York: Henry
Holt, 1885, p. 1.
Yeats, W. B. “The Second Coming.” In The Poems of W. B. Yeats. New
York: Macmillan, 1983.

Falcon and Hawk 113

See Fly, Louse, and Flea

Fly, Louse, and Flea

Little Fly
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brush’d away
Am I not
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?
—William Blake, “The Fly”

The authors of the ancient world generally did not distinguish sharply
among the different types of small insects that might be a minor, if per-
sistent, irritation, and the term fly is used here loosely as a general des-
ignation for them. In the biblical book of Exodus, the fourth plague
sent by Yahweh when the pharaoh refused to release the Israelites was
a plague of gadflies that filled the palaces (8:1–20), a particularly in-
sulting punishment since these insects are generally attracted to cattle.
The Egyptians, however, seem to have admired the appearance of
houseflies, which they frequently used in decorative pins. Pendants of
gold in the form of flies were awarded to soldiers for valor.
In the play Prometheus Bound by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus,
Hera changed the maiden Io into a heifer as punishment for having
an affair with Zeus. Then the goddess sent a gadfly to drive the un-
fortunate creature across Europe and Asia. A similar image is used,
though in a positive way, in Plato’s “Apology,” where Socrates com-
pared himself to a gadfly sent by God to prod the Athenians out of
their complacency. In a similar spirit, the Greek poet Melegros called
upon a mosquito to buzz in the ear of his beloved to remind her of his
love. In many cultures, especially in East Asia, insects have repre-
sented the soul. In Journey to the West, a mythological epic written by
Wu Ch’eng-en in late medieval China, Old Monkey sometimes took
the form of a fly to escape from demons or to elude detection.
Among the Montagnards of Vietnam, fireflies have traditionally
been considered the spirits of departed heroes. In Japan and China,
fireflies are the companions of impoverished scholars engaged in noc-
turnal study. Because they provide moments of illumination, short
poems written on fans or pieces of silk have been known as fireflies.
The name of the demon Beelzebub, originally a Phoenician deity,
literally means Baal of the Flies or Lord of the Flies. In the Old Testa-

114 Flea
ment, Beelzebub tempted King Ahaziah of Israel away from Yahweh
(2 Kings 1:2–6), and later he was called the “prince of devils” (Matt.
12:24; Mark 3:22; Luke 12:15). In the Christian Middle Ages, demons
were frequently depicted as flies, and so people often thought of swal-
lows and other insectivorous birds as holy. There are several stories of
devils taking the form of insects to enter the bodies of people by
mouth. According to a local chronicle, for example, in 1559 a maiden
in the Harz Mountains near Joachimsthal inadvertently swallowed an
evil spirit, disguised as a fly, in her beer. The demon immediately pos-
sessed her and began to speak through her, though it was finally ex-
orcised by the parish priest.
Before improvements in hygiene in the modern period, lice could
be found in the hair and on the body of nearly everybody, from king to
peasant. Though a perpetual annoyance, they could also serve as a
means of social bonding. To pick lice off a person was a service that
might be performed by parents for children or servants for masters. It
was even a ritual of courtship and love, performed by couples. The
presence of an inordinate number of lice might indicate either coarse-
ness or, for ascetics, a lack of worldly concern. Thus, Julian the Apostate,
the austere Roman emperor who attempted to revive paganism, once
compared the lice running freely in his beard to wild beasts in a forest.
Fleas also tended to be thought of in a familiar and, at times,
even affectionate way, though they were by far the most dangerous
insects of the lot. Though it was not realized until the end of the nine-
teenth century, fleas had been carriers of many diseases, including
bubonic plague. In the Renaissance, references to fleas became a hu-
morous convention in poetic diction. Among the most famous exam-
ples is “The Flea” by John Donne, a poem in which the author re-
quests sexual favors from a woman by showing how their blood has
mingled in the body of a flea:

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,

Where we almost, nay more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, we are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.

When the young woman kills the flea, the speaker concludes:

Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me

Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

Fly, Louse, and Flea 115

The words, however, certainly seem ironic from today’s perspective,
since we know that fleas carried bubonic plague, which wiped out en-
tire villages in the early seventeenth century when this poem was
But insects, like rats, are now often put in the service of medi-
cine. Apart from human beings and perhaps rodents, the drosophila
fruit fly has become the most studied animal in the world. Scientists
have found that the genetic code of the fruit fly is easy to manipulate
and has many affinities with that of human beings. In hope of corre-
lating them with parts of the genome, all features of the creature’s life,
from anatomy to courtship dances, have been intricately observed.
One journalist recently remarked that researchers who study fruit
flies “are easily provoked into confessing that they think of people as
large flies with wigs” (Wade, p. F1)
Selected References
Davies, Malcolm, and Jeyaraney Kathirithamby. Greek Insects. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Donne, John. “The Flea.” In Animal Poems. Ed. John Hollander. New
York: Knopf, 1994, pp. 127–128.
Evans, E. P. The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals:
The Lost History of Europe’s Animal Trials. Boston: Faber and Faber,
Melegros. “The Mosquito.” In Poems from the Greek Anthology.
Ed. and trans. Dudley Fitts. New York: New Directions, 1956,
p. 26.
Wade, Nicholas. “The Fly People Make History on the Frontiers of
Genetics.” New York Times (April 11, 2000): F1–4.
Zinsser, Hans. Rats, Lice, and History. New York: Macmillan, 1963.

Fox, Jackal, and Coyote

You can think, study, brood, and gloss
More on Renard than on anything else.
—Anonymous, “The Romance of Renard”

The fox and jackal are predators of moderate size, which has proba-
bly made them easier for most people to identify with than the awe-
some lion or the ferocious wolf. The fox and jackal are almost inter-
changeable in the literature of the Near East; in fact, it is usually
difficult for translators to know which of the two is meant in pas-
sages. Both of these canids are renowned for their cleverness. The
sagacity of animals in folklore is often a rationalization of magic, and
archaic manuscripts confirm that these animals once appeared as
powerful sorcerers. The coyote is a canid of about the same size as

116 Fox, Jackal, and Coyote

the fox and jackal, but it is indige-
nous to the New World. In a striking
instance of the universality of animal
symbolism, the coyote has much the
same role in Native American lore as
that of its cousins in Eurasia.
In one of the very earliest liter-
ary manuscripts that have come
down to us, written in Mesopotamia
about the middle of the third millen-
nium, a fox brings back the son of
Enlil, god of the air, from the nether-
world. The Sumero-Babylonian god
of magic, Enki, was closely associated
with a fox. In another cuneiform man-
uscript, Enki had disobeyed Ninhur-
sag, the great earth mother, and she
punished him with the curse of death.
The other gods gazed on helplessly as
Enki sank into oblivion, when the fox
appeared and brought the deity back.
The tale probably originated with a
shamanic trance, in which Enki en-
tered the realm of the dead as his Print by Ando Hiroshigi from “Hundred Famous Views of
body was possessed by a fox. Edo.” This shows the foxes that are said to gather annually
By the second millennium the at Oji near Tokyo. A large number of foxes at the congrega-
role of the fox as a trickster was al- tion, according to legend, means a plentiful harvest the next
ready established in Mesopotamian year. The flames emanating from the foxes are known to the
animal proverbs, which are the ances- Japanese as “kitsune-bi” or “foxfire.” They can sometimes
tors of the fables attributed to the leg- signal mischief, but in this case it is a sign of fecundating
endary Greek Aesop. A Babylonian power. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, #MM60544B)
tablet known as The Fable of the Fox
from around the middle of the second millennium told of a fox, a
wolf, and a dog who brought suit against one another before a lion.
They accused one another of sorcery, theft, and, most especially, of
provoking the gods into sending a terrible drought that threatened to
destroy the world. Much of the manuscript is missing, but the fox
seemed to carry the day with its cleverness. In the final tablet we learn
that rain had come and the fox was entering the temple in triumph.
The Egyptian equivalent of this magical fox was the god Anubis,
shown with the head of an animal that may be either a dog or a jackal.
The jackal’s burrowing instinct may have suggested intimacy with the

Fox, Jackal, and Coyote 117

earth, while its habit of scavenging may have contributed to an asso-
ciation with the dead. Anubis was a psychopomp, who guided the
dead to their place of judgment. He would weigh the heart of the de-
ceased against Maat, the spirit of cosmic order, which was often rep-
resented by an ostrich feather. If the heart sank on the scales, the de-
ceased would be devoured by demons, but if the heart rose, he or she
might join the god Ra and sail across the sky in the boat of the sun.
The fox was a trickster in the fables attributed to Aesop in Greco-
Roman civilization. It constantly matched wits with other animals,
though it was generally obsequious to the lion. The most famous of
these tales was known as “The Fox and the Grapes,” and the story
could hardly be simpler. A fox looked up at grapes on a trellis. It tried
repeatedly to reach them by jumping, but without success. Finally, the
fox said, “They are probably sour anyway” and walked away. This
anecdote has been told in various eras with different morals. In me-
dieval versions the fox is called wise, while in modern ones he is
mocked as foolish. For a trickster, even a frustrated one, wisdom and
foolishness are often very close indeed.
The Bible, however, took a less anthropomorphic view of ani-
mals, which were often credited with pathos but rarely with wit.
Foxes were associated with trickery, but this was as hapless imple-
ments rather than perpetrators. Samson caught 300 foxes (or, possibly,
jackals), tied them in pairs by their tails, fastened a torch to each pair,
and set them loose in the cornfields of the Philistines (Judg. 15:4). The
fox received increasing attention and respect in Jewish literature of
the Diaspora, where political sensitivities forced leaders to express
themselves indirectly by means of fables and parables.
Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph once defied Roman authorities by teach-
ing the Torah. When a follower asked him if he was afraid of the gov-
ernment, he replied with the following story. A fox once asked some
fish why they kept moving from one place to another, and they
replied they were fleeing the nets of the fishermen. The fox invited the
fish to come out on dry land and live with him in peace. A wise fish
replied that the danger they faced in their own element must be much
less than what they would face in a foreign one. In a similar way, the
Jews would face greater danger if they abandoned their traditions.
The Talmud also contains many stories that celebrate the wit and wis-
dom of the fox. Without their own army or police, the Jews of the Di-
aspora had to live by wit and diplomacy, and they often identified
with the crafty fox with respect to both its virtues and its failings.
The dual nature of the jackal and the fox is especially clear in the
Hindu-Persian Panchatantra, also known as The Fables of Bidpai, which

118 Fox, Jackal, and Coyote

was probably written down in about
the second or third century B.C. The
frame of this collection of stories con-
cerned two jackals, the devious
Damanaka and the honest Karataka,
at the court of the lion king.
Damanaka became jealous when the
lion adopted the ox Sanjivaka as his
favorite. Against the counsel of his
companion, the insidious jackal
stirred up strife between the lion and
ox by telling each lies about the
other. Finally, Damanaka provoked
the former friends to engage in a bat-
Illustration by
tle, in which the lion was wounded and the ox was slain. The debates
Richard Heighway
and intrigues provide occasions for all of the various characters to tell
to Aesop’s fable of
stories in support of their advice. “The Fox and the
With trickster figures, excessive cleverness is often a form of Mask.”
folly. In one of the tales of Bidpai, a jackal had strayed into the city,
where it was chased by dogs. In desperation, it jumped into an enor-
mous vat of blue dye to hide. When it could no longer hear any bark-
ing, the jackal slowly climbed out and then returned to the jungle.
When the other creatures saw the strange blue beast passing, they
were terrified and thought it must have supernatural powers. The
blue jackal was declared king. It made the lion prime minister, and the
elephant and monkey became royal attendants. The jackal assigned
some role in its kingdom to every creature except for the other jackals,
which were banished out of fear that they might expose the king as a
mere jackal. One day, however, the blue jackal heard other jackals
howling in the distance. Unable to restrain itself, it began to howl with
them. Realizing what had happened, the other beasts were outraged
and tore the blue jackal to pieces.
The Panchatantra was translated into Arabic by Mohammed al
Haq, and then it became known as Kalila wa Dimna. The Arab version,
in turn, was translated into Latin and eventually into all major Euro-
pean languages during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. It be-
came the basis for the cycle of Renard the Fox stories, which were first
written down in French toward the end of the twelfth century and
then quickly spread throughout Europe. The fox here is the clever
peasant who outwits the other animals, especially its more powerful,
aristocratic adversaries such as the wolf and bear. The fox’s opponents
end up ruthlessly beaten, cuckolded, maimed, eaten, and otherwise

Fox, Jackal, and Coyote 119

destroyed. Any sympathy we may have for the fox as the “underdog”
is at least severely tested by its unscrupulousness. Depending in part
on the class affiliation of the authors of various manuscripts, Renard
comes across as a thorough villain, a flawed hero, or simply a figure
of raucous fun. In one popular story the lion is ailing, and the fox con-
vinces the king of beasts that the cure is to wrap himself in the skin of
the wolf. The wolf, Renard’s great adversary, accordingly is flayed, but
the lion dies soon after, leaving Renard alone in triumph. Such so-
phisticated authors as Geoffrey Chaucer, Jean de la Fontaine, and Jo-
hann Wolfgang von Goethe retold folktales of Renard.
Readers will find a complex and thoughtful perspective in the
Fox Fables of the French rabbi Berechiah ben Natronai ha-Nakdan,
sometimes known as the Jewish Aesop. These fables, written in He-
brew around the end of the twelfth century, are a bit reminiscent of
the Old Testament, filled with violence and iniquity yet told with a
highly moralistic gloss. Although most of the fables do not center on
the fox, the author sometimes uses the fox as a spokesperson. Much
as the Jews often had to look to monarchs for protection, the fox of
these stories has to cultivate a relationship with the lion king. The fox
of ha-Nakdan is highly pragmatic but, unlike that of the Renard cycle,
rarely vicious. In one fable the fox gnawed the bones of goats that a
lion had killed. When the lion rebuked the fox, the fox said it was
ashamed and promised not to take from the lion again. Ha-Nakdan
concludes with the moral that we should forgive those who wrong us.
As the peasants were gradually emancipated from serfdom and
the Jews from the ghettos, the traditional elites sometimes took out
their anger at these groups on the fox. When hunting stags and boars
ceased to be an aristocratic privilege, the nobility, especially in En-
gland, began to pursue the fox instead. Through the Middle Ages, the
fox had been considered unworthy to be hunted by a lord. During the
modern period, however, foxhunting became a ritualistic affirmation
of the feudal order, conducted in the most ceremonious way with
elaborate calls, rituals, and uniforms. Modern sportsmen such as John
Mansfield and Siegfried Sassoon wrote passionate accounts of the fox-
hunt, and prints of the chase often decorated living room walls. But
many people were also distressed by the spectacle of so many men,
ladies, dogs, and horses all arrayed against one diminutive creature;
the foxhunt was sometimes used to symbolize abuse of privilege.
In East Asia, the fox of folklore has remained associated less with
wit than with magic and has generally been female rather than male.
Foxes in Asia are symbols of marital fidelity, and the vixen is also an
icon of maternal love. Early Chinese writings on the sanctity of mar-

120 Fox, Jackal, and Coyote

riage often invoked the model of the
vixen in urging mothers not to prac-
tice female infanticide. But in their
dealings with human beings, foxes
are not necessarily bound by the
same loyalties. As shape shifters,
they often assume the form of beauti-
ful women to seduce men. They fre-
quently carry out their seductions to
draw the life force from men, yet
sometimes they truly fall in love with
their partners. While they may fool
human beings, fox maidens are
sometimes recognized by other ani-
mals. They can also be identified be-
cause they do not leave any reflection
in a mirror or otherwise show their
true vulpine countenances.
Among the earliest recorded
stories about these shape shifters is
“Jenshih, the Fox Lady,” written in
China by Shen Chi-chi around the
end of the seventh century A.D. A
poor soldier named Cheng Liu once
Frontispiece by Paul
saw a lovely lady, Jenshih, walking through the streets and gallantly
Meyerheim to a
offered her his donkey as a mount. They fell in love, and one day Jen-
shih confessed to him that she was truly a fox, but she offered to re-
collection of tales
main with him in human form if he would not reject her on that ac-
about Renard the
count. On his acceptance, she not only proved to be a loving wife but Fox.
also brought him prosperity by managing his affairs with tact and
skill. At the marketplace one day, however, some dogs caught scent of
her. Jenshih immediately fell to the ground, assumed the form of a
vixen, and began to run. Cheng Liu followed as best he could but was
unable to save her from the hounds. More than anything else, the fox
maiden in Asia represents the female realm, enticing and frightening
men through its secrets. Among the few unequivocally benign foxes
in Asian lore are the messengers of Inari, the Japanese god of rice, who
himself is often depicted as a fox.
Much like Renard the Fox, the coyote of folklore is both a sage
and a buffoon. The biggest difference, perhaps, is that the coyote of
Native American legend is far more of a cosmic figure than any of the
foxes or jackals of folklore, at least since ancient Egypt and

Fox, Jackal, and Coyote 121

Mesopotamia. Known simply as Coyote, his (the folkloric coyote is in-
variably male) vocation is divine play rather than social satire. His
gifts are almost endless, but they are usually flawed. According to the
Zuni Indians, Coyote and Eagle once stole the sun and moon in a box
from the world of spirits so that there would be light, but Coyote
opened the box out of curiosity. The heavenly bodies then flew away,
so there is winter as well as summer. The Klamath tell how Coyote
won fire from Thunderer by cheating at dice. The Pueblo Indians re-
port that Coyote once helped a great magician to make human beings
of clay and then bring them to life by baking them in an oven. Unfor-
tunately, most people were flawed because Coyote took them out of
the oven either too early or too late. Coyote is also widely credited
with bringing death into the world. It should surprise nobody that the
European legends of Renard and the Native American myths of Coy-
ote have blended in the tales told in the pueblos of Mexico and the
American Southwest.
Capitalist society always loves tricksters, and Coyote remains
very popular today. Some Indians have complained that white inter-
preters of their traditions emphasize the undignified and amoral as-
pects of Coyote at the expense of his holy qualities. One inheritor of
that tradition is Wile E. Coyote, a cartoon character who entertains
people with his fanatic, but usually futile, pursuit of a bird called
Road Runner. Wile often ends up falling off a cliff or being run over
by a car. At first he might appear to be too much of a loser to be a suc-
cessor to the Native American trickster. On the other hand, whether
Coyote won or lost was always less important than that he always
survived, and that is something that Wile does remarkably well.
Selected References
Dobie, J. Frank. The Voice of Coyote. Lincoln: University of Nebraska
Press, 1961.
Erdoes, Richard, and Alfonzo Ortiz. American Indian Trickster Tales.
New York: Penguin, 1988.
Ha-Nakdan, Berechiah ben Natronai. Fables of a Jewish Aesop. Trans.
Moses Hadas. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967.
Johnston, Johanna. The Fabulous Fox: An Anthology of Fact and Fiction.
New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1979.
Lambert, W. G., ed. and trans. Babylonian Wisdom Literature. Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1960.
Mourning Dove [Humishuma]. Coyote Stories. Lincoln: University of
Nebraska Press, 1990.
Ryder, Arthur W., ed. The Panchatantra. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1964.
Sax, Boria. “Bestial Wisdom and Human Tragedy: The Genesis of the
Animal Epic.” Anthrozoös 11, no. 4 (1998): 134–141.

122 Fox, Jackal, and Coyote

Schochet, Elijah Judah. Animal Life in Jewish Tradition: Attitudes and
Relationships. New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1984.
Terry, Patricia, ed. and trans. Renard the Fox. Boston: Northeastern
University Press, 1983.
Wang, Chi-Chen. Traditional Chinese Tales. New York: Columbia
University Press, 1944.

Frog and Toad

The old pond—
A frog jumps in,
Sound of water.
—Basho (trans. Robert Hass)

Frogs and toads have always seemed to be close to the mythic origin
of life. When relaxed, they have almost the form of a ball, the most
primeval of shapes. They are found mostly in ponds or in moist areas
that suggest the chaos out of which living things were created. People
have long believed that frogs were generated spontaneously out of
earth and water and that they could survive for centuries in stone.
Frogs also seemed to embody fertility when people observed their
copulation, which can last for several days. The female frog will often
lay tens of thousands of eggs every year. The Egyptian hieroglyphic
sign for “one hundred thousand” was a tadpole (Houlihan, p. 122).
The transformation of a tadpole into a frog has been a model for all of
the myriad metamorphoses in myth and legend. That is why tradi-
tional stories so often contain frogs that are transformed into men or
women. Evolutionary theory partially confirms the intuition of early
mythologists about the primal origin of frogs, since fossils of frogs
have been found going back at least 37 million years.
The popular distinction between frogs and toads is not fully rec-
ognized by professional biologists. Both groups of amphibians are
members of the order Anura, and they are almost interchangeable in
myth and legend. The word toad is generally, though not always, used
for creatures of the family Bufonidae, which have short legs, rough
skin, and spend much of their time on land. Toads are generally asso-
ciated with cultivated places such as gardens, as well as with dark
magic. But frog and toad, as the terms are often used, seem almost like
words for different aspects of a single creature.
The economy of ancient Egypt was centered on the Nile River,
which teemed with frogs. The frog was particularly identified with
Heket, a deity of fertility and childbirth. When the waters of the Nile
receded, innumerable frogs would be heard croaking in the mud, the
sort of event that may have influenced many myths. In one Egyptian

Frog and Toad 123

creation myth, Heket and her ram-headed husband, Khnum, made
both gods and human beings. According to another Egyptian creation
myth, the original eight creatures were frogs and snakes that carried
the cosmic egg.
The Hebrews, who reacted violently against their Egyptian cap-
tors, found the frog unclean. The Bible tells us that when the pharaoh
refused to let the people of Israel leave Egypt, Yahweh sent Moses to
him with the following threat, which he later carried out: “Know that
I will plague the whole of your country with frogs. The river will
swarm with them; they will make their way into your palace, into
your bedroom, onto your bed, into the houses of your courtiers and
of your subjects, into your ovens, into your kneading bowls. The frogs
will even climb all over you, over your courtiers, and over all your
subjects” (Exod. 7:27–29).
Though most of Hebrew tradition treats these animals as repul-
sive, some rabbinical interpreters during the Diaspora have viewed
the frogs in Egypt as heroic defenders of the faith, willing to embrace
martyrdom by being burned alive.
Since frogs generally are seen after a deluge, it may be that the
biblical plague of frogs once referred to a storm. In mythologies
throughout the world, frogs are associated with the primeval waters
out of which life arose. Among the Heron Indians and other Native
American tribes, the frog is often a bringer of rain. The scriptures of
the Zoroastrians mention the frog as among the first creatures to
emerge from dark waters as part of a plague created by the demonic
Ahriman. In the New Testament, demons in the form of frogs spring
from the mouths of the Dragon, Beast, and False Prophet (Rev.
Among the aborigines of Queensland, Australia, there is a story
about a frog that once swallowed all of the waters on the earth. There
was a great drought, and the animals decided they could save them-
selves only by making the frog laugh. But the frog remained unmoved
by their comic routines until the eel danced, awkwardly twisting and
turning. Then the frog began to chortle hysterically, thus releasing the
lakes and rivers.
The croaking of frogs around a pond has often suggested an as-
sembly, which is a frequent theme in fables attributed to Aesop. In one
of the most famous, the frogs were content in their swamp but longed
for a conventional government. They asked Zeus to give them a king,
and he laughingly threw down a log. After recovering from their awe
at the splash, the frogs began to dance on the log. After a while, how-
ever, they decided the log was not a proper king and asked Zeus for

124 Frog and Toad

another. The god, irritated, sent down a stork, and the new monarch
immediately began to gobble up the frogs.
The classical Greek poem “The Battle of the Frogs and Mice” is a
burlesque of the martial epic. A mouse fleeing a cat took refuge in a
pool. A frog offered to carry the mouse to safety but drowned the
mouse, setting off a war between frogs and mice that was filled with
reckless acts of courage and bombastic rhetoric. Finally, the mice ap-
peared on the point of victory, but Zeus, looking down with pity on
the frogs, sent crabs to drive the mice back in confusion. For a long
time the poem was attributed to Homer, but most scholars now date
it from the third century B.C. The story may have been a satire on the
Peloponnesian War in which the frogs represented Athens, the great
sea power, and the mice represented Sparta, the dominant military
force on land. The crabs, then, would have represented the city of
Thebes, which finally broke the power of the victorious Spartans. No
doubt somebody who had grown tired of the grandiloquent speeches
that always accompany bloody rampages wrote “The Battle between
Frogs and Mice,” and it is not very hard to guess why he or she may
have wished to remain anonymous.
In The Frogs by the Athenian dramatist Aristophanes, frogs actu-
ally did not play much of a role in the story. They provided a chorus
by croaking in the River Styx as the god Dionysus visited the under-
world—“bre-ke-ke-kex-koax, koax!” Just as the chorus in Greek
tragedy tended to provide the perspective of ordinary people as coun-
terpoint to the grand dramas being enacted, the chorus of frogs was a
reminder of a mundane reality that not even the gods can escape.
In Greco-Roman culture, frogs often had a reputation for coarse-
ness because of their wide mouths and muscular bodies. In his Meta-
morphoses, Ovid told how Latona, exiled from Heaven by Juno, wan-
dered about the earth with her children, the god Apollo and the
goddess Diana. She knelt down to drink water at a stream, but some
country bumpkins tried to stop her. When she pleaded with them,
the rough fellows responded with threats and insults, and they mud-
died the water with their feet. At last, Latona cursed them, saying,
“Live forever in the foul puddle!” and the ruffians turned into frogs
(book 6, lines 310–381). The story anticipated the frequent depiction
of toads and frogs in Hell by many artists of the late Middle Ages and
Frogs and toads were used in innumerable medicines and mag-
ical formulas. The Renaissance zoologist Edward Topsell reported a
superstition that held that if a man wished to know the secrets of a
woman, he first had to cut out the tongue of a living frog. After re-

Frog and Toad 125

leasing the frog, the man had to write certain charms upon the tongue
and lay it on the woman’s heart. Then he could begin to ask questions
and would get nothing but the truth. This, however, was a bit much
even for the normally credulous Topsell, who remarked, “Now if this
magical foolery were true, we had more need of frogs than of Justices
of the Peace . . . ” (vol. 2, p. 723).
Many who used anurans, especially toads, in magical charms in
the early modern period were not simply ridiculed but tried for
witchcraft. Toads were frequently mentioned in witch trials as famil-
iars. They were also frequently ingredients in the brews of witches.
Hieronymus Bosch depicted a damned woman copulating with a
toad in his painting The Seven Deadly Sins. Many painters of the early
modern period showed demons forcing the damned to eat toads in
Hell. Others depicted anthropomorphic toads or frogs cooking and
devouring human beings. There were many reports of frogs or toads
emerging from the mouth of a woman, an event that might sometimes
be understood as evidence of witchcraft and at other times simply as
a noteworthy phenomenon.
The number of superstitions connected with frogs and toads was
virtually endless. At least since the time of Pliny and Aelian, toads
have been widely considered poisonous. In William Shakespeare’s
Richard III, the wicked king was called a “poisonous hunch-backed
toad” (1.3). It has, however, also been popularly believed that toads
had a precious stone inside their heads. This stone has been avidly
sought by alchemists for its magical properties, especially for use in
detecting or neutralizing poison. Up through most of the nineteenth
century and even afterward, many books of natural history reported
that frogs could survive for many centuries encased in stone.
In China, toads were one of the five venomous animals, men-
tioned together with the scorpion, centipede, spider, and snake. A
three-legged toad was often depicted on the moon, with one leg rep-
resenting each of three lunar phases. According to legend, the hermit
Liu Hai decontaminated a pool by luring out the toad Ch’an with a
string of gold coins. He killed the toad, thus punishing the sin of
avarice. Nevertheless, Liu Hai has often been painted with Ch’an sit-
ting affectionately at his side as a sort of pet, and a toad with a coin in
its mouth is a symbol of good fortune.
Sometimes people have envied the ability of frogs and toads to
find contentment in a humble pond. The eighteenth-century Japanese
philosopher Shoeki Ando, a relentless critic of human arrogance,
wrote that the toad once prayed to walk upright like a person. This
was granted to him, but then he found that, with his eyes focused

126 Frog and Toad

only on Heaven, he could no longer see where he was going. When he
regretted his request, Heaven returned him to his original state. He
had, the toad explained, been like the sages such as Sakyamuni or
Lao-tzu, for “looking only to the heights, they failed to see the eight
organs of their own senses . . . ” (pp. 75–76).
In the modern period, people often found the perceived homeli-
ness of frogs and toads endearing. An old story of a witch with a frog
as her demonic companion evolved in the oral tradition to become
“The Frog King” (or “The Frog Prince”), the first tale in the famous
collection of German fairy tales by the Grimm brothers. It told of a
talking frog that was disenchanted, became a prince, and married a
lovely young girl. “Frog Went A-Courting” became one of the most
popular of British and American folk songs. It told of a wedding feast
of a frog and his mouse-bride, together with all the animals invited as
guests. In The Call of the Toad, a novel written by the German Günter
Grass as a sort of epitaph for the twentieth century, the primeval voice
of a toad served much the same role as the chorus of frogs did for
Aristophanes—an admonition against hubris.
Selected References
Degraaff, Robert M. The Book of the Toad: A Natural and Magical History
of Toad-Human Relations. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1991.
Grass, Günter. The Call of the Toad. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New York:
Harcourt, Brace and Janovich, 1993.
Hine, Daryl, trans. The Homeric Hymns and the Battle of the Frogs and the
Mice. New York: Anthenium, 1972.
Houlihan, Patrick F. The Animal World of the Pharaohs. New York:
Thames and Hudson, 1996.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. A. E. Watts. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1954.
Robbins, Mary E. “The Truculent Toad in the Middle Ages.” In
Animals in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays. Ed. Nona C. Flores.
New York: Garland, 1996.
Sax, Boria. The Frog King: On Legends, Fables, Fairy Tales, and Anecdotes
of Animals. New York: Pace University Press, 1990.
Shoeki Ando. The Animal Court: A Political Fable from Old Japan. Trans.
Jeffrey Hunter. New York: Weatherhill, 1992.
Toperoff, Shlomo Pesach. The Animal World in Jewish Thought. North-
dale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1995.
Topsell, Edward, and Thomas Muffet. The History of Four-Footed Beasts
and Serpents and Insects (3 vols.). New York: Da Capo, 1967 (fac-
simile of 1658 edition).
Warner, Rex. Encyclopedia of World Mythology. New York: Galahad
Books, 1975.

Frog and Toad 127

See Sheep and Goat

See Swan, Goose, and Duck

See Ape and Monkey

Grasshopper, Locust, Cricket, Cicada, and Mantis

The poetry of earth is ceasing never:
On a lone winter evening, when the frost
Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The cricket’s song, in warmth increasing ever,
And seems to one in drousiness half lost,
The grasshopper’s among some grassy hills.
—John Keats, “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket”

Entomologists place grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, and mantises in a

single order, the Orthoptera, while cicadas belong to the order Ho-
moptera. But modern taxonomies do not necessarily reflect popular
perception of animals today, much less the ways in which creatures
have been regarded over the centuries. For the ancient Greeks,
grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, and sometimes mantises went under
the single name of akris, and modern translators of their works have to
determine which insect seems most appropriate from the context. All
of these insects were usually difficult to see and were known to peo-
ple primarily through their sounds in open fields. These noises, pro-
duced by the insects’ rubbing parts of their bodies together, are often
amazingly loud for the tiny creatures that generate them, and they are
often synchronized. They are mating calls, produced almost exclu-
sively by males, and some ancient myths suggest a surprising aware-

ness of this fact. In the case of the orthopterans, people also knew the
insects through the enormous damage they inflicted on crops, which
was only partially compensated for by their popularity as food.
The Bible tells us that when the pharaoh refused to let the peo-
ple of Israel leave Egypt, locusts were the eighth plague sent by Yah-
weh in punishment: “The locusts invaded the whole land of Egypt.
On the whole territory of Egypt they fell, in numbers so great that
such swarms had never been seen before, nor would be again. They
covered the surface of the soil till the ground was black with them.
They devoured all the greenstuff in the land and all the fruit of the
trees” (Exod. 10:14–15).
In North Africa and the Near East, plagues of locusts have con-
tinued to occur up through the twentieth century, sometimes darken-
ing the sky and confirming the general accuracy of the biblical de-
scriptions. In similarly vivid terms, the prophet Joel compared locusts
in their vast numbers and their destructiveness to an invading army
(2:25). The same imagery was used by the Egyptians and in an in-
scription commemorating the deeds of Ramses II, the very pharaoh
who was defied by Moses, at the battle of Kadesh, where the armies of
the Hittites are said to have covered the mountains like locusts. For all
the trouble such insects caused, however, the Egyptians do not seem
to have hated or despised them, and one text from the Old Kingdom
speaks of a ruler ascending to Heaven in the form of a grasshopper.
According to an Islamic folktale from Algeria, the Devil looked
scornfully on the newly created world and said, “I can do better than
God.” “Very well,” replied God, “I will give you the power to bring to
life whatever creature you create. Stroll about the world and return in
a hundred years.” The Devil took up the challenge and put together a
creature with the head of a horse, the breast of a lion, the horns of an
antelope, the neck of a steer, and parts from several other animals.
Since the parts did not fit properly, he began to whittle away at the
creature, until all that was left was a tiny locust. The Lord said, “Oh,
Satan . . . What is this! To show your impotence and my power I will
send swarms of this creature around the earth, and thus I will teach
people that there is only one God” (Dähnhardt, pp. 10–12).
Perhaps because locusts in the Bible were always a scourge of
God, the insects have usually not been heavily stigmatized. People
will hardly ever eat creatures that they find repugnant except in times
of severe hunger, but locusts and grasshoppers are eaten in much of
Africa. They are also mentioned as a possible food in the Bible (Lev.
11:20–23). The New Testament states that John the Baptist lived on
“locusts and wild honey” (Matt. 3:4; Mark 1:6).

130 Grasshopper, Locust, Cricket, Cicada, and Mantis

Lydia Bolton
photographed by
her father with a
praying mantis in
her hand. The word
“mantis” means
“sage,” and the
enormous eyes of the
insect can suggest
secret wisdom.
(Courtesy of the
Department of
Library Services,
American Museum
of Natural History,

Grasshoppers are very similar to locusts in appearance, but they

do not breed as quickly and are solitary. In ancient Egypt the grasshop-
per was a popular motif, often appearing on festive items, cosmetic
boxes, or jewelry. Grasshoppers do not seem to have shared the fear-
some reputation of their close relatives. The song of grasshoppers,
which is rhythmic, if not conventionally musical, charmed people.
The prophet Isaiah said of Yahweh, “He lives above the circle of
the earth; its inhabitants look like grasshoppers” (11:24). These insects
have continued to be used as symbols of insignificance, in ways that
may be either endearing or contemptuous. It is possible to see a bit of
each response in the Greek myth of Tithonus, a prince of Troy who
was loved by Eos, goddess of the dawn. The deity asked Zeus to grant
her lover immortality, but she forgot to ask for eternal youth. As
Tithonus grew old, Eos left him, and eventually he withered away to
become a grasshopper or cicada.
Cicadas, especially, are generally known only through their
sound, since they dwell in trees and are seen only when they die and
fall to the ground. For the Greeks, they seemed to be incorporeal be-
ings and symbolized immortality. In Plato’s dialogue “Phaedrus,”
Socrates and the young man Phaedrus had been engaged in a pas-
sionate discussion of philosophy when the former remarked that the
cicadas, while singing and conversing among themselves, must
surely also be observing the two men’s dialogue.

Grasshopper, Locust, Cricket, Cicada, and Mantis 131

Socrates explained that the cicadas had been men in a remote,
primitive age. Then the Muses, goddesses of the arts, appeared, and a
few people were so ecstatic that they would do nothing but sing. They
would not even pause to eat or drink, and, without being aware of
what was happening, they died. They returned to earth as cicadas. In
gratitude for their devotion, the Muses decreed that they would sing
from the moment of their birth until the day of their death, without
need of food and drink. When their time on earth had expired, they
would return to Heaven and report to the Muses, saying who had
honored their mistresses and how.
Socrates assured his young pupil that the two of them might ex-
pect a good report from the cicadas for discoursing on the theme of
love. These insects have traditionally had a similar meaning among
the Chinese, who believed that cicadas lived only on dew. From the
late Chou through the Han dynasties (ca. 200 B.C. through ca. A.D.
220), the Chinese would place jade cicadas in the mouths of their dead
to ensure immortality.
For cultures of the Far East, the songs of insects such as cicadas
and crickets also represent the chanting of Buddhist priests. Cicadas
and crickets are sometimes kept in cages, and their songs are often es-
teemed more than those of birds. The Chinese also value crickets for
their martial spirit. Gladiatorial combats between crickets have re-
mained a popular sport in China since ancient times.
The repeated sounds of crickets have not always impressed
Westerners as unequivocally beautiful. In Germany somebody with a
neurotic obsession is said to have crickets in his head. On the other
hand, repetitions can represent the sometimes irritating, yet essential,
lessons of conscience.
One variety of cricket is known as the “house cricket” for its
habit of frequently entering homes. Because these crickets are drawn
to warmth, they are symbols of the hearth. To have such a visitor is
traditionally considered good luck throughout Europe, and killing it
can bring ill fortune. In Carlo Collodi’s classic for children Pinocchio
(first published in Italy in 1883), the hero, a wooden doll that has
come to life, smashes a cricket named Jiminy with a mallet but, after
many misfortunes, regrets the evil deed. Disney Studios later made
Jiminy Cricket into one of their most popular animated characters and
even had him introduce the television show Walt Disney Presents.
The word “mantis” is Greek for “seer,” and the praying mantis
certainly looks the part. Its long front legs are constantly moving. For
ancient people this suggested a conventional posture of supplication,
with hands upturned toward the sky, while Christians have some-

132 Grasshopper, Locust, Cricket, Cicada, and Mantis

times thought of its claws as hands folded in prayer. The wings of a
mantis suggest the flowing robes of a priest, but the most noticeable
feature of the insect is its enormous eyes. People in the ancient world
believed that the mantis had the power to curse with its gaze. People
in the Far East have been impressed by the aggressiveness of the pray-
ing mantis, which is willing to attack creatures several times its size.
A traditional saying in Japan goes, “Like a mantis raising its arms to
stop the wheel of a passing cart” (Shoeki, p. 81).
Like other religious figures, the mantis of folklore seems to veer
between extremes of good and evil. There is a widespread legend that
the praying mantis can divine the goal of a traveler at a glance, as well
as any possible dangers along the way. When asked by a wanderer,
the mantis will point in the direction he should take. In the nineteenth
century, however, when females of the species were observed to eat
their mates after copulation, people were disillusioned and even be-
gan to demonize the mantis.
Selected References
Arnold, Dorothea. An Egyptian Bestiary. New York: Metropolitan
Museum of Art, 1995.
Charbonneau-Lassay, Louis. The Bestiary of Christ. Trans. and ed. D. M.
Dooling. New York: Parabola Books, 1991.
Dähnhardt, Oskar. Naturgeschichtliche Volksmärchen 1. Leipzig: B. G.
Teubner, 1909.
Davies, Malcolm, and Jeyaraney Kathirithamby. Greek Insects. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Eckholm, Eric. “China’s Little Gladiators, Fearsome in the Ring.” New
York Times (October 4, 2000): 4.
Houlihan, Patrick F. The Animal World of the Pharaohs. New York:
Thames and Hudson, 1996.
Plato. “Phaedrus.” Trans. R. Hackforth. In The Collected Dialogues of
Plato. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. New York:
Pantheon (Bollingen Series), 1961, pp. 475–525.
Shoeki, Ando. The Animal Court: A Political Fable from Old Japan. Trans.
Jeffrey Hunter. New York: Weatherhill, 1992.

See Eagle

See Seagull, Albatross, and Other Seabirds

Gull 133
Hare and Rabbit
What is it—a hopper of ditches, a cutter of corn, a little brown cow without
any horns? Answer: A hare.
—Irish riddle

The hare and rabbit, members of the family Leporidae, are rodents, yet
they usually have a far more benign reputation in folklore than does
their close relative the rat. While rabbits are highly social, hares often
tend to be solitary. Hares are also larger than rabbits and have smaller
litters. Nevertheless, the two are often confused in folklore, and much
the same stories are told of both. Like most other animals that are
prominent in myth and legend, leporids are dramatically distin-
guished from other animals by a single feature—their long ears.
Though not terribly fast runners, they are remarkably agile, and their
ability to elude predators by changing direction instantly has doubt-
less contributed to their reputation as tricksters. Even more than most
other rodents, they reproduce prolifically, a characteristic that has
made leporids, especially rabbits, symbols of fertility throughout the
world. They are endearingly timid, arousing an affection that often
makes it hard for farmers to shoot them, even when they ravish
planted fields. The most remarkable feature of their lore, however, is
the notion that a hare may be seen in the moon, a belief shared by
many cultures across the globe, including the Chinese, Hottentots,
and Maya Indians.
The widespread association of the hare with the moon cannot be
due simply to the contours of lunar landscapes, since people envisage
the hare in the moon in very divergent ways. One reason for the as-
sociation is that the act of a hare leaping suggests the rising moon.
Also, the patterns of white, gray, and brown on the bodies of hares
are suggestive of the lunar surface. But the most important reason is
probably the extreme watchfulness of hares, which at attention stand
almost completely still with their eyes wide open and their ears

Brer Fox laughs
uproariously after
Brer Rabbit gets
stuck to the Tar
Baby, in this
illustration by A. B.
Frost to an Uncle
Remus tale by Joel
Chandler Harris.

raised. This suggests the moon, especially when full, which appears
to be continually watching events on earth.
The Jatakas, early Buddhist animal fables from India, tell one of
the many stories created to explain the hare-moon relationship. The
future Buddha was once a hare and lived together with three wise an-
imals, a monkey, a jackal, and an otter. He preached to the other crea-
tures of the forest, telling them to give alms. Sakra, the god of thun-
der, heard him and came down to the forest in the guise of a Brahman.
The monkey offered him fruit, then the jackal offered meat, and the ot-
ter offered fish. Finally, the Brahman came to the hare, who directed
him to gather wood and start a fire. When the fire was blazing, the
hare hopped in, for he had resolved to offer his own body as food. The
flames, however, would not burn. The Brahman revealed that he was
truly a god. Then he squeezed a mountain to make ink, and he drew
an image of the hare in the moon.
The Chinese see a hare with a mortar and pestle, grinding the
elixir of life, in the moon, an idea inspired by the reproductive pow-
ers of the animal. This vision comes from the story of Chang-O, the
beautiful wife of the famous archer King Ho-Yi. The Queen Mother of
Heaven once gave Ho-Yi a pill containing the elixir of immortality at
a festivity. The king had drunk much wine and wished to sleep before
swallowing the pill, so he entrusted it to Chang-O. She swallowed the
pill, immediately felt very light, and soon discovered that she had the
gift of flight. On awakening, Ho-Yi asked for the pill, and Chang-O
flew away to the moon. One day she coughed up the pill, which im-
mediately changed into a white hare. Chang-O demanded that the

136 Hare and Rabbit

The fable of “The
Tortoise and the
Hare,” as illustrated
by J. J. Grandville.

hare restore the elixir, and she gave the rabbit a mortar and pestle to
grind it. But since she was now subject to the ravages of age, Chang-
O turned into a three-legged toad as she looked on and waited for the
hare to finish.
A story in the third book of the Hindu-Persian Panchatantra may
affectionately poke fun at the association between the leporids and
the moon, though it also shows the rabbit (in some versions, a hare)
in the familiar role of trickster. A herd of elephants discovered the par-
adisial Lake of the Moon, and in their eagerness to drink, they
crushed many rabbits to death. A rabbit named Victory went the next
day to the king of the elephants, saying he was an envoy of the moon
and protected by the laws of diplomacy. He rebuked the king and his
herd for killing rabbits, who were under the protection of the moon,
and he spoke so eloquently that the monarch wished to find the moon
and beg forgiveness. Victory led the king to a place where the full
moon shone brilliantly in the water of the lake. When the elephant
tried to bow down before it, his trunk touched the water, breaking the
image into thousands of pieces. At that Victory said, “Woe, woe to
you, O King! You have doubly enraged the moon.” The elephant then
promised never to return, and the rabbits once again had the lake to
themselves (Ryder, pp. 308–315).
In the fables of Aesop, the hare is also a trickster, though, like
most other tricksters, he often becomes a victim of his own cleverness.
Perhaps the most famous fable of all is “The Tortoise and the Hare.”
The hare had mocked the slowness of a tortoise, which then chal-

Hare and Rabbit 137

lenged him to a race. The hare agreed, and as the race began, he
spurted ahead and gained a big lead. Supremely confident, the hare
dawdled, rested, and played until the slow but steady tortoise over-
took him to claim victory.
Julius Caesar stated that the hare was sacred to the early Britons.
According to the Roman historian Dio Cassius, Queen Boudicca, who
led the Britons in revolt against Roman rule, would release a hare
from the folds of her dress before each campaign. The direction in
which the hare ran would be used to predict the outcome of the bat-
tle. The Easter Bunny, originally a hare, was probably a sacrificial an-
imal offered to the gods at the start of spring. Closely associated with
the Easter Bunny are colored eggs, which hark back to pre-Christian
celebrations of spring in Slavic lands. At one time eggs may have ac-
companied the hare not only in games but also in festive meals.
In the European Middle Ages, hares were both familiars and the
guises under which witches ran about at night. One confessed witch,
Isobel Gowdie, told how she had taken the form of a hare when
hounds surprised her. She managed to evade them by running into a
house and hiding long enough to say the rhyme that disenchanted
her, though she still carried a mark on her back where a hound had
nipped at her. In Precious Bane (first published in 1924), a novel by
Mary Webb set in the countryside of early-nineteenth-century Shrop-
shire, the heroine, Prudence Sarn, had a harelip, a slit upper lip like
that of a hare. Her mother thought that the deformity had been
caused by a hare’s running across her path shortly before Prudence
was born. Fellow villagers constantly suspected the young woman of
a connection with the Devil.
All across Africa, the hare is an important trickster figure, and he
often matches his cleverness against the size and strength of a hyena
or a lion. In one Hausa story from Nigeria, the lion had so terrified the
other animals of the forest that they made a deal with him. One ani-
mal would come to the lion and sacrifice itself every day if the king of
beasts would no longer hunt. After a gazelle, an antelope, and many
other animals had given their lives, it was the turn of the hare. The
hare told the lion that he had brought a special present of honey but
that another lion, who was even fiercer, had demanded the gift. When
the king of beasts demanded to know where his challenger was, the
hare pointed to a well. The lion looked into the well, saw his own re-
flection, pounced, and drowned. All animals acclaimed the hare as the
new king of beasts.
Master Rabbit is a trickster well known to several Native Amer-
ican tribes. The Ute tell how Rabbit once became angry because the

138 Hare and Rabbit

sun had burned his back. He tested his skills by killing all the people
and animals that crossed his path until he felt mighty enough to duel
the sun. When he hurled a magic ball at the sun, fire spread all over
the earth, and Rabbit was seared so badly that he began to cry. When
his tears had finally put out the flames, Rabbit realized that killing
could not solve problems. In the lore of the Lenape Indians of the
Northeast, Hare, also called Tschimammus, was one of the twins born
to the earth mother after she had fallen from the clouds. He ascended
to Heaven, and since he was expected to return to earth, Indian con-
verts to Christianity identified Hare with Jesus.
But perhaps the best-known, and certainly the most controversial,
leporid of modern times is Brer Rabbit, from the tales that Joel Chan-
dler Harris put in the mouth of an old black man named Uncle Remus
toward the end of the nineteenth century. Brer Rabbit is as ruthless as
he is clever, and he continually matches wits with larger predators such
as the fox, the wolf, and the bear. His adversaries often end up not only
defeated but cuckolded, roasted, flayed, or otherwise horribly pun-
ished. When Brer Fox has been killed through trickery, Brer Rabbit
gives the unfortunate animal’s head to the wife of Brer Fox as a steak.
The tales are as controversial as they are popular. Perhaps the
most intense debate in the entire study of American folklore is the rel-
ative contributions to these tales of European, African, and Native
American traditions. The aesthetic and cultural debates about the
tales are no less vehement. While some critics admire the cleverness
of Brer Rabbit, others consider him a racist caricature, portraying
blacks as shiftless and amoral. But the Brer Rabbit tales remain, in any
case, an important part of African-American folklore, and those who
find the versions by Harris inaccurate or patronizing may prefer those
of Zora Neale Hurston and others.
The most famous story told by Harris is that of Brer Rabbit and
the Tar Baby. Brer Fox had made a little figure out of tar, left it in the
bushes, and watched until Brer Rabbit came down the road. When the
Tar Baby failed to return his greeting, Brer Rabbit became angry and
struck the figure. His paw stuck to the tar, so Brer Rabbit struck again
and again, until finally all his limbs were bound together by the pitch.
Brer Fox had the culprit completely at his mercy and was trying to
choose the most dreadful punishment, when the clever rabbit begged
not to be thrown in the briar patch. Brer Fox promptly tossed the rab-
bit in the brambles. “Bred and bawn in a briar patch,” shouted Brer
Rabbit as he ran away (Harris, p. 19). Very similar stories are told of
Hare by the Hausa and other tribes in Africa, as well as of Master Rab-
bit by the Apache and other Native Americans.

Hare and Rabbit 139

In the nineteenth century, rabbits and hares became favorite fig-
ures in books for children. Peter Rabbit, created by Beatrix Potter, is
perhaps the most beloved, but just about everybody is also familiar
with the White Rabbit and the March Hare from Lewis Carroll’s Al-
ice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Potter turns the traditional trickery of
leporids in folklore into childish misbehavior, while Carroll turns it
into the insanity, from a child’s point of view, of adults. Far less ap-
pealing yet in some ways closer to folk traditions is Bugs Bunny, a car-
toon character created by Warner Brothers in the 1940s. An amoral
trickster, Bugs outwits the dim-witted hunter Elmer Fudd, who often
ends up falling from a cliff or being run over by a truck. In the 1970s
Richard Adams tried to give greater dignity to rabbits in Watership
Down, his novel about a group of male rabbits who set out to establish
a new warren. Although rabbits and hares are not patriarchal, virtu-
ally all of these popular images are male.
In Playboy Magazine, young girls are referred to as “bunnies.” In
the Playboy clubs, the hostess bunnies wear skimpy costumes with
long ears and white tails, and every issue of the magazine features a
bunny of the month. These practices build on the reputation of rabbits
for being cute and cuddly. The use of fertility symbolism is paradoxi-
cal, however, since the male clientele supposedly wish to remain un-
attached and certainly do not want to have a lot of children. This sug-
gests that the decoupling of sex and reproduction may be far less
complete in contemporary society than people usually acknowledge.

Selected References
Bierhorst, John. Mythology of the Lenape. Tucson: University of Arizona
Press, 1995.
Erdoes, Richard, and Alfonso Ortiz. American Indian Trickster Tales.
New York: Penguin, 1999.
Ezpeleta, Alicia. Rabbits Everywhere. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.
Harris, Joel Chandler. Uncle Remus: His Stories and His Sayings. New
York: A. Appleton, 1928.
Hughes, D. Wyn, ed. Hares. New York: Congdon and Lattès, 1981.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men. New York: HarperPerennial,
Parrinder, Geoffrey. African Mythology. London: Paul Hamlyn, 1973.
Rowland, Beryl. Animals with Human Faces: A Guide to Animal Symbol-
ism. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1973.
Ryder, Arthur W., ed. The Panchatantra. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1964.
Santino, Jack. All around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American
Life. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Sun, Ruth Q. The Asian Animal Zodiac. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1974.
Webb, Mary. Precious Bane. New York: The Modern Library, ca. 1960.

140 Hare and Rabbit

Hart and Hind
O world! Thou wast the forest to this hart;
And this, indeed, O world! The heart of thee.
How like a deer, stricken by many princes,
Dost thou here lie!
—William Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra (act 3, scene 1)

Just as we think of the male lion in terms of his luxurious mane, we

think of the stag in terms of his enormous horns. These also define the
female, the deer, through their absence or, in some species, their rela-
tively small size. Deer and stag each have a distinct mythology and
symbolism, and our language does not even have a common word to
encompass both. Most of the time we use the word “deer” as a plural
to include both male and female, suggesting that the species is pri-
marily feminine. Together, hart and hind represent nothing less than
the primordial division into male and female. Through this symbol-
ism they are also intimately associated with the forests where they
live. They move among the trees silently, blend in perfectly, and have
a way of suddenly appearing—all of which makes deer seem the very
soul of the woods.
One of the earliest possible mythological creatures is a muscular,
bearded human figure known as “Sorcerer,” bearing antlers of a stag
and painted about a millennium before the birth of Christ in the
French cave of Trois Freres. His head is disproportionately large, and
the lines of his body are sharply angular. Perhaps he is doing a sort of
dance. This figure could be either a nature spirit or a shaman who
wears the antlers and mask of a stag. For those who created the im-
age, the two alternatives were perhaps not so far apart since the spirit
of a stag would have possessed a shamanic dancer.
No creature is more quintessentially masculine than the stag,
with its large shoulders, impressive size, athletic stride, and propen-
sity to fight. The doe seems comparably feminine, with its relatively
modest size and delicate stride of cautious steps. Furthermore, does
tend to remain in a herd, suggesting the traditionally feminine role of
women as guardians of the home. Stags, by contrast, tend to be soli-
tary except during the mating season. One may choose to call the con-
trast either archetypal or stereotyped, but it is hard not to think of the
division of roles along lines of gender in human society. Their separa-
tion can almost make deer and stag appear to be distinct species, but
similar things have been said of the differences between men and
The solitary life is why the stag has been associated with many
holy anchorites. Saint Hubert, for example, was once a pleasant but

Hart and Hind 141

shallow courtier at the court of King
Pepin in France. His great passion
was the chase, and he even skipped
the service of Good Friday to hunt
the stag. When he finally came in
sight of the stag, he saw a vision of
the crucifix between its antlers, and
the voice of Christ warned Hubert
that he must either accept God or end
up in Hell. Hubert repented his frivo-
lous ways, became a hermit, and de-
voted himself to God. He is now the
patron of hunters, and a festival in his
honor is still held every year in the
forests of France. Christ also took the
form of a stag in the vision of Saint
Eustace, about whom very similar
tales are told. The anchorite Saint
Giles once sheltered a deer from one
of King Charlemagne’s hunting par-
ties, and an arrow intended for the
stag hit the saint instead. In gratitude,
the deer brought him milk every day,
while the king built a monastery in
Shou Hsing, a
his honor. Saint Cairan, one of Saint Patrick’s followers, had several
Chinese god of
deer among his earliest disciples when he became a missionary in Ire-
longevity, mounted
land. A stag accompanied Saint Cannic, an Irish hermit, and offered
on a stag.
the holy man his antlers as a book stand.
The stag has not only been a common symbol of Christ, the res-
urrected God, but has also represented the entire natural world, sub-
ject to cycles of germination, growth, death, decay, and resurrection.
Deer, like plants but unlike most other animals, clearly reflect the sea-
sons in their appearance. Their fur acquires a richer color in summer.
Even more significant, the males of many species shed their horns
every year. Up through Elizabethan times, it was widely believed that
the sex organs of stags were shed and rejuvenated every summer as
well. Enormous life spans, like those of large trees, were often attrib-
uted to stags. One popular medieval legend concerned a stag that was
given a golden collar by Alexander the Great (Julius Caesar, King
Charlemagne, or King Alfred in other versions). This animal was re-
portedly found hundreds of years later, still fully vigorous, with folds
of skin grown around the gold.

142 Hart and Hind

Tradition grants even greater longevity to deer in Asia. Accord-
ing to Chinese tradition, deer can live at least 2,500 years if never
killed. During the first 2,000 years, the skin of the deer gradually turns
white; its horns turn black in the next five hundred. From that time
on, the deer becomes immortal, yet it may subsist only on clear
streams and lichens in the mountains.
The identification of the stag and the forest was so intimate that
it guided scientific opinion until around the end of the eighteenth cen-
tury. The horns of the stag were, throughout the Middle Ages, under-
stood as the branches of a tree, and the skin covering them as a kind
of bark. Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, a foremost zoologist of the
eighteenth century, theorized that since the stag nibbles so much on
trees, branches eventually grew out of its head.
Its association with the forest is partly responsible for another
important feature of the stag in folklore. While the earth is tradition-
ally perceived as feminine, people generally view trees, with a few ex-
ceptions, as masculine. The ash was sacred to Odin, the oak to Zeus
and Thor. Deer have frequently been depicted around the base of a
tree of life in ancient Mesopotamia and several other regions. Accord-
ing to Norse mythology, stags nibbled at the base of the world tree,
The horns of the stag have been worn by many highly masculine
heroes and gods in folklore and mythology, for example, the Celtic
god Cernunnos. Stags sometimes drew the chariot of Dionysus, the
Roman Bacchus. Neopagans of today celebrate the stag as a symbol of
the male. In European folklore, the sexuality associated with this ani-
mal is fierce and unrestrained yet also completely chaste. Neither fun-
damentally romantic nor promiscuous, it is more the undifferentiated
sexuality of the vegetable realm than the sexuality of either animals or
human beings.
By about the time of Charlemagne, the hunt of the stag was a
sport and thus a privilege of princes and aristocrats forbidden to the
peasantry, often on pain of death or mutilation. It was set apart from
the everyday world by elaborate costumes, vocabularies, and rituals.
A solemn rite reminiscent of Holy Communion followed the slaying
of the stag. The body of the stag was divided among participants,
from the dogs to the horsemen, and the head was finally presented to
the lord of the manor.
A doe traditionally accompanies Artemis, goddess of the hunt
and protector of animals. King Agamemnon, commander of the
Greeks in their assault on Troy, once killed a hind sacred to Artemis
and boasted that he was greater than she in the hunt. The goddess

Hart and Hind 143

sent a calm, forcing the Greek ships to remain in port. An oracle told
the Greeks that there would be wind only when Agamemnon sacri-
ficed his daughter Iphigenia to Artemis. Under pressure from the
other Greek princes, Agamemnon finally complied. When Iphigenia
was led to the altar, Artemis substituted a hind and carried away the
young girl in a cloud to the island of Crimea, where she became a
In his Metamorphoses, Ovid tells how the young hunter Actaeon
once came upon Diana, the Roman form of Artemis, bathing with her
nymphs at a stream. He was so overwhelmed by the sight that he
stood transfixed, until the goddess became aware of him and called
out to him as she splashed water in his face, “Tell people you have
seen me, Diana, naked! Tell them if you can!” Acteon looked into the
water and saw, with horror, that he was being turned into a stag. He
was soon torn apart by his own hounds (book 3, lines 136–250). Some
interpreters believe that Diana here represents Julia, daughter of Em-
peror Augustus, while Acteon represents Ovid himself, who was ban-
ished for witnessing one of Julia’s affairs. The unfortunate hunter may
also be a man who intrudes on women’s mysteries.
The deer was also sacred to many other archaic goddesses, in-
cluding the Mesopotamian Ninhursag, the Egyptian Isis, and the
Greek Aphrodite. The nurturing quality of a hind is shown in the
Greek myth of Telephus, son of Hercules and Auge. His mother, to
conceal her affair, hid the infant Telephus in the temple of the goddess
Athena, which caused a blight. When this was discovered, the infant
was exposed on a mountain to die, but he was saved by a hind that
suckled him.
The Old Testament often celebrates the hind as a symbol of fem-
inine virtue. For example:

Find joy with the wife you married in your youth,

Fair as a hind, graceful as a fawn.
Let hers be the company you keep,
Hers the love that ever holds you captive. (Prov. 5:19)

Psalm 42 begins, “As the doe longs for running streams, so longs my
soul for you, my God.”
Stag and hind share an importance as divine messengers
throughout most of Europe. In countless epics and fairy tales, deer ap-
pear to the hero or heroine and guide him or her through the woods.
The search for the Holy Grail begins as knights of King Arthur follow
a white stag into the woods. According to legend, Louis the Pious, son

144 Hart and Hind

The stag that took
great pride in his
horns found they got
caught in the trees
and prevented his
escape from the
hunters, in this
Aesopian fable
illustrated by J. J.

of Charlemagne, was once so intent on pursuing a stag that he became

separated from his hunting party, fell from his horse while crossing a
stream, and became lost in a vast forest. When his men found him the
next morning, daylight revealed a bush of roses blossoming in the
snow, a miraculous sign that he should build a cathedral in that place.
In Celtic myth deer are guides to the Other World, while in the lore of
Ireland they are also sometimes the cattle of fairies.
In medieval and Renaissance culture, the hunt of deer provided
a frequent metaphor for courtship. Imagery taken from the chase was
used to express the fear, longing, concealment, and tension that are of-
ten part of erotic intrigues. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Curio tried
to divert the melancholy Duke Orsinio:

Curio: Will you go hunt, my lord?

Duke: What, Curio?
Curio: The hart.
Duke: Why, so I do, the noblest that I have.
O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purg’d the air of pestilence!
That instant was I turn’d into a hart,
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E’re since pursue me. (1.1)

Hart and Hind 145

Even more frequently, a woman was viewed as a hunted deer.
The horns of a stag were often used as a symbol of cuckoldry, a con-
stant preoccupation in literature of the age.
But for the more humble social orders, the deer were often bit-
terly resented as a symbol of oppression. In the stories of Robin Hood,
the merry men living in Sherwood Forest constantly defied the Sher-
iff of Nottingham by feasting on the “king’s deer.” When the prohibi-
tions against deer hunting by the peasantry were finally lifted, many
commoners asserted their new freedom by pursuing the chase with
enormous vehemence and cruelty. The British pastor Gilbert White
complained, “Unless he was a hunter, as they affected to call them-
selves, no young person was allowed to be possessed of manhood or
gallantry” (p. 21).
In Bambi: A Life in the Woods (first published in 1928), Felix Salten
protested this indiscriminate hunting in his beloved Vienna Woods. It
tells the story of a young stag named Bambi from his birth in a clear-
ing. He learns the ways of the woods, fights off rivals, and mates with
a hind named Filene. The tale ends with the death of Bambi’s father,
whereupon Bambi goes off by himself to become a guardian of the
forest. In this book, the poacher who killed Bambi’s mother and al-
lowed the deer no rest is a figure of awe and terror. Salten, himself an
avid sportsman, later tried to draw a sharper distinction between the
poacher and the legitimate hunter in a sequel. The enormously popu-
lar movie (first issued in 1942) by Disney Studios that was based on
the book, however, further anthropomorphized Bambi and Filene,
while it made “man,” known only through fires and bullets, seem like
a brutal force of nature.
A close association between deer and the landscape is also found
in the cultures of Native Americans. Several tribes in Mexico and the
American Southwest, including the Aztecs, Zuni, and Hopi, tradition-
ally perform a deer dance to influence the elements and bring bounti-
ful crops. The Yaqui Indians today generally follow a Catholicism that
is heavily influenced by traditional tribal religion, and they have in-
corporated the deer dance into an Easter ritual that is performed every
year. In all of these ceremonies, the chief dancer will wear either the
head of a deer or horns and will imitate the motions of the animal,
which looks cautiously about while moving amid the woods.
With the increasing suburbanization of North America and Eu-
rope, many deer have lost their fear of human beings. White-tailed
deer of North America, which live on browse at the forest’s edge, are
now actually far more common than they were in the time of Colum-
bus. Many suburbanites consider deer “pests” or “overgrown rats”

146 Hart and Hind

and complain that they cause traffic accidents or destroy gardens. Per-
haps it is only in the Far North, where many of the remaining wilder-
nesses may still be found, that the ancient symbolism of the deer (and,
in particular, its relative the moose) as guardians of the woods retains
something of its vividness.
Selected References
Bergman, Charles. Orion’s Legacy: A Cultural History of Man as Hunter.
New York: Dutton, 1996.
Klingender, Francis. Animals in Art and Thought till the End of the
Middle Ages. Trans. Evelyn Antal and John Harthan. Cambridge:
MIT University Press, 1971.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Rolfe Humphries. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1955.
Salten, Felix. Bambi: A Life in the Woods. New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1928.
Sax, Boria. The Frog King: On Legends, Fables, Fairy Tales, and Anecdotes
of Animals. New York: Pace University Press, 1990.
Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night or, What You Will. New York:
Dover, 1966.
Sun, Ruth Q. The Asian Animal Zodiac. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1974.
White, Gilbert. The Natural History of Selborne. New York: Frederick
Warne, ca. 1895.

See Falcon and Hawk

Not the phoenix, not the eagle, but the he’risson [hedgehog], very lowly, low
down, close to the earth.
—Jacques Derrida, “Che cos’ è la poesia?”

The Greek poet Archilochus wrote in the latter seventh century B.C.
that “the fox knows many tricks; the hedgehog knows only one. A
great one” (Atchity, p. 43). Everybody understood that Archilochus
meant the hedgehog’s ability to elude predators by rolling into a ball
so that spikes would be facing in every direction. The broader mean-
ing of the epigram, however, has puzzled readers for millennia. The
poet had fought as a soldier, so perhaps he was thinking of a defen-
sive military formation in which several soldiers with spears stand
back to back in a circle. Perhaps the hedgehog may also have repre-
sented the poet’s native Sparta, where people specialized in war,
while the fox represented more cosmopolitan cities such as Athens. At
any rate, Archilochus clearly considered the defense of the hedgehog
to be at least the equal of the wiles of the fox. The twentieth-century

Hedgehog 147
British philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided thinkers into foxes, distin-
guished by breadth of understanding (Tolstoy, for example), and
hedgehogs, distinguished by depth (Dostoyevski, for example).
Such thinkers were doubtless also fascinated by the singularity
of hedgehogs, which resemble no other animal. They are small, noc-
turnal insectivores that burrow in the earth and, as already noted, are
covered with spines. They sleep beneath the ground for long periods
when food is not plentiful, then eventually reemerge, a characteristic
that made the ancient Egyptians associate the hedgehog with the re-
newal of life. The Egyptians, who constantly had to contend with the
bites of snakes and the stings of scorpions, also admired the resistance
of hedgehogs to poisons. They often carried amulets in the form of a
hedgehog for protection against venomous creatures.
But people have feared as well as admired the powers of this
diminutive animal. In Europe, hedgehogs have often been taken for
companions of witches. In China as well, the hedgehog has had a rep-
utation for necromancy; people believed that it lay concealed near
roads to cast spells on unsuspecting travelers.
Human beings are, like hedgehogs, unique among animals, and
so the strangeness of hedgehogs could make these animals easy for
people to identify with. Aristotle reported in his Historia Animalia
that hedgehogs copulate belly to belly like human beings, since the
spikes make it impossible for the male to mount the female from be-
hind. Aristotle, Pliny, and Aelian reported that hedgehogs can antic-
ipate changes in the direction of wind; accordingly, they block and
open entrances to their burrows. In the Byzantine Empire, people
sometimes attempted to predict the weather by observing the bur-
rows of hedgehogs.
In European fairy tales, the hero is often a simpleton, a child who
at first seems too odd to participate in normal life. A fairy tale, from
the collection of the Brothers Grimm, entitled “Hans My Hedgehog,”
began with a farmer complaining, “I want to have a child, even if it’s
a hedgehog.” Soon his wife gave birth to Hans, human to the waist
and a hedgehog above. Hans’s behavior was as strange as his ap-
pearance. He rode around on a rooster, played the bagpipes, and
tended pigs in a forest. Though scorned and mistreated by people,
Hans eventually managed to marry a beautiful princess and become
fully human (tale no. 108).
The hedgehog often appears as the proverbial underdog who
manages to defeat a seemingly invincible opponent. In another tale
from the Grimms, the hedgehog challenges an arrogant hare to a race.
After a few steps the hedgehog slips beneath the ground. His wife,

148 Hedgehog
however, waits at the finish line, pretending to be her husband, and
claims victory when the hare approaches. The tale concludes with a
moral: “No person, no matter how superior he believes himself,
should ever make fun of another, even if that other person is a hedge-
hog” (tale no. 187).
In an essay entitled “What Is Poetry?” (“Che cos’ è la poesia?”),
contemporary French philosopher Jacques Derrida compared a poem
to a hedgehog that is thrown onto a street and curls up into a ball. In
a similar manner, he maintained, a poem creates a self-contained
world, which, however, exists amid terrible dangers. It may well be
that Derrida, who is often accused of being solipsistic, identified with
the proverbial hedgehog more than he cared to admit.
Once famed for its formidable defense, the hedgehog has now
come to symbolize the vulnerability of nature in a technological
world. Crushed or wounded hedgehogs are a regrettably frequent
sight on European roads. The Prickly Ball Farm in southeast England
near Exeter has established a hospital and a network of volunteers to
care for and rehabilitate these animals.
Selected References
Arnold, Dorothea. An Egyptian Bestiary. New York: Metropolitan
Museum of Art, 1995.
Atchity, Kenneth J., ed. and trans. The Classical Greek Reader. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1996.
Berlin, Isaiah. The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of
History. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
Derrida, Jacques. “Che cos’ è la poesia?” In Points: Interviews,
1974–1994. Trans. Peggy Kampuf et al. Ed. Elizabeth Weber.
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992, pp. 288–300.
Fontenay, Elizabeth de. Le silence des bêtes: La philosophie à l’épreuve de
l’animalité. Paris: Fayard, 1998.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers
Grimm. Trans. Jack Zipes. New York: Bantam Books, 1987.

See Cock and Hen

Heron, Ibis, Crane, and Stork

Whither, midst falling dew,
While glow the heavens with the last steps of day
Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue
Thy solitary way?

Vainly the fowler’s eye

Might Mark thy distant flight to do thee wrong

Heron, Ibis, Crane, and Stork 149

As, darkly seen against the crimson sky,
Thy figure floats along.

Seek’st thou the plashy brink

Of weedy lake, or marge of river wide,
Or where the rocking billows rise and sing
On the chafed ocean side?
—William Cullen Bryant, “To a Waterfowl”

Long-legged wading birds that thrive in wetlands are noted for their
watchfulness and their ability to stand still for long periods as they
search for prey. They have been almost universally regarded as be-
nign, in part because they attack only snakes and other small reptiles.
The Egyptians, like other peoples of the ancient world, saw cosmic
patterns reflected in the behavior of animals, and the head of a bird
hovering over water could suggest heavenly bodies above the earth.
Accordingly, Egyptians identified the heron with the sun, the ibis
with the moon. When the birds rose and flew out of sight, it could
have appeared that they had gone to the divine spheres.
According to one Egyptian creation myth, when the cosmic egg
broke open, the sun god Ra flew out in the form of the Bennu bird.
This avian landed on the Benben Stone, an obelisk representing a ray
of the sun, created from the fire at dawn on a tree in the city of He-
liopolis. The Bennu bird was depicted in paintings and hieroglyphics
as a crane, sometimes with features of a falcon as well. In The Egypt-
ian Book of the Dead, a guide to the next world written around the mid-
dle of the second millennium B.C., the Bennu bird was described as
“keeper of the book of things which are and of things which shall be”
(Budge, chap. 17).
The Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt and identified the
Bennu bird as a phoenix, which had plumage of red and gold. This
bird, he reported Egyptian priests as saying, lived in Arabia and came
to Egypt only once in five hundred years when its father had died.
Then the phoenix encased his father in an egg made of myrrh, which
he brought to the temple of the sun in Heliopolis for burial. Accord-
ing to Horapollo, when a phoenix was about to die, it cast itself to the
ground, creating a fire from which a new phoenix would be born. Ac-
cording to other writers of antiquity, including Pliny the Elder and
Claudian, the Phoenix (capitalized since there is only one) immolates
itself. The most detailed description came from Lactantius, an early
Christian author, who wrote that a phoenix lived only on dew and
summoned each new day with a melodious song. After a life of a
thousand years, this phoenix built its own funeral pyre from aromatic
spices in Arabia. It immolated itself, but the ashes congealed with the

150 Heron, Ibis, Crane, and Stork

In this Aesopian fable, retold by La Fontaine and illustrated by J. J. Grandville, Zeus sends a crane to be king of
the frogs. The story could well be of Egyptian origin.

moisture of its body to form an egg from which the magical bird
would be reborn. The reborn bird would take the remains of its for-
mer body to be buried in the temple of the sun. In medieval bestiaries
the phoenix became a symbol of resurrection and of Christ.
The legend of the phoenix moved north to Russia, where it be-
came the “firebird,” and east to China, where it became the “feng-
huang,” always growing more splendid as it blended with indigenous
tales. The Chinese phoenix came to represent the empress and was a
favorite motif on porcelain and embroidery. It is, of course, in every
respect a long way from the heron of Egypt, with its simple plumage,
to these elaborate creations, but the phoenix always retained its basic
form and association with the sun.
The ibis of Egypt could easily represent the moon because of the
bright white of its plumage and, perhaps, the gentle curve of its bill.
It was associated with the moon god Thoth, who was also the scribe
of the gods and the inventor of the sciences. In The Egyptian Book of the

Heron, Ibis, Crane, and Stork 151

Dead, Thoth was portrayed with the body of a man and the head of an
ibis as he wrote down the judgments of the gods at the weighing of a
soul. He had no mother or father but had created himself, and in some
cosmologies he laid the cosmic egg (something also attributed to the
sky god Geb) at the beginning of the world.
The crane sometimes assumed the symbolism of both the heron
and the ibis. What has distinguished cranes, above all, has been their
mating dances, in which males bow, leap, and turn suddenly to im-
press their prospective mates. The vigor of their movements could
easily suggest a war dance, and this must have contributed to the leg-
end, first found in Homer’s writings, that every winter the cranes mi-
grate to a distant country and do battle with tiny men known as pyg-
mies. After slaying the monstrous Minotaur, Theseus, the legendary
founder of Athenian civilization, performed a “crane dance” together
with the youths who had accompanied him, and the dance was reen-
acted every year to commemorate their deliverance. The rhythmic
steps imitated not only cranes but also the twisting and contortions of
a man walking through the passages of the labyrinth that housed the
Medieval bestiaries later described flocks of cranes in martial
terms, as flying in military formations, for example, with command-
ers shouting orders and reproving laggards. At night, sentries were
sent to keep watch so that the cranes would not be ambushed. The an-
imated call of a crane could even rouse people to new activity. Hesiod
wrote in Works and Days that the cries of the crane meant that the time
for the winter rains had arrived and the farmers should begin to plow.
In China and Japan, however, cranes are symbols of peace, and
they are believed to live a thousand years or longer. As monogamous
birds, they are, together with mandarin ducks, also symbols of conju-
gal fidelity. Cranes have often been depicted beside elderly couples
against a background of aged pines.
The popular Japanese tale usually called “The Crane Wife” has
many similarities with the swan maiden tales of northern Europe. A
young man named Karoku rescued a crane from a trap, and the bird
immediately flew away. That evening a lovely young woman came to
his house for shelter, and the two soon married. Since Karoku did not
have much money, his wife would periodically lock herself in a cabi-
net, asking him never to intrude. After three days she would emerge
with rolls of cloth splendidly woven of crane feathers, which fetched
a high price at the market. One day, however, Karoku was overcome
with curiosity and opened the cabinet door before his wife had fin-
ished her work, only to find that she had become a crane and plucked

152 Heron, Ibis, Crane, and Stork

her own feathers for the cloth. Unable to remain after her secret had
been revealed, the bird sadly flew off to rejoin her flock. According to
some scholars, the crane-wife may originally have been a manifesta-
tion of Ameratsu, the Japanese goddess of the sun and the patron of
Storks, which have been frequently conflated with cranes, have
little fear of humankind and often nest in chimneys or in abandoned
buildings. The Greeks and Romans took them as models of parental
love and filial piety. Aelian, for example, reported that when no other
food was available, parent storks would disgorge what they had eaten
to feed their young. When they reached old age, storks would not die
but would cross the ocean to islands where they would assume the
form of human beings. This, according to Aelian, must be because the
gods desired “there if nowhere else to uphold a human model of
piety . . . ” (book 3, section 23). Also praised for familial devotion was
the pelican, said to feed its young with its own blood, which became
a symbol of Christ during the Middle Ages.
The Muslims later also considered storks holy birds, since they
made a pilgrimage to Mecca once a year. To have a stork nest on your
land has traditionally been a sign of good luck, and to kill one invited
disaster. In their collection of German legends, the Grimm brothers
wrote that when Attila was besieging the city of Aquileia, the Romans
had held out valiantly, and so the Huns were considering moving on.
One day Attila saw storks carrying their young from the city to the
countryside. “Behold,” he said to his followers, “these birds can fore-
see the future. They are forsaking the city, which will soon be sub-
dued, and the house, which will soon collapse.” The invaders redou-
bled their efforts and destroyed Aquileia so completely that hardly a
trace of it remained (vol. 2, legend no. 382).
In northern Europe, a stork flying over a house has traditionally
been an omen that an infant will be born there soon. The idea that
storks bring babies goes back very far but was popularized by a story
entitled “The Storks,” written by Hans Christian Andersen in the mid-
nineteenth century. Unborn children lay dreaming inside a pond in
Egypt as they waited for the storks to bring them to families. Those
people who made fun of storks and other animals received infants
who had died, but those who protected other creatures were given
living sisters and brothers.
When animals become rare, the legends about them are usually
transmuted into symbol and allegory, and that is what has happened
with the stork. The image is certainly not what Andersen had in mind,
but today a bundled-up infant hanging from the beak of a stork in

Heron, Ibis, Crane, and Stork 153

flight often represents birth. People have sometimes regarded the idea
that storks bring babies as a means of concealing from children the re-
alities of sex and reproduction. Perhaps it has been used that way in
modern times, when, for the first time, many people had sufficient
privacy to be able to shelter their children. The legend, however, re-
flects an ancient conception of fertility as not simply offspring but the
ability of the earth to constantly generate new life.
Selected References
Adams, Robert J., trans. “The Crane Wife.” In Folktales of Japan.
Ed. Keigo Seki. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973,
pp. 77–80.
Aelian. On Animals (3 vols.). Trans. A. F. Scholfield. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1972.
Andersen, Hans Christian. “The Storks.” In Fairy Tales and Stories.
Trans. H. W. Dulcken. New York: Hurst, ca. 1900, pp. 115–119.
Budge, E. A. Wallis, trans. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Papyrus of
Ani. New York: Dover, 1967 (1895).
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. The German Legends of the Brothers Grimm
(2 vols.). Ed. and trans. Donald Ward. Philadelphia: Institute for the
Study of Human Issues, 1981.
Herodotus. Herodotus (4 vols.). Trans. A. D. Godley. New York: G. P.
Putnam’s Sons, 1926.
Horapollo. The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo. Trans. George Boas. Prince-
ton: Princeton UP, 1993.
Ions, Veronica. Egyptian Mythology. New York: Peter Bedrick Books,
Miller, Alan L. “The Swan Maiden Revisited: Religious Significance
of ‘Divine Wife’ Folktales with Special Reference to Japan.” Asian
Folklore Studies 46 (1987): 55–86.
Nigg, Joseph, ed. The Book of Fabulous Beasts: A Treasury of Writings
from Ancient Times to the Present. New York: Oxford University
Press, 1999.
Pollard, John. Birds in Greek Life and Myth. New York: Thames and
Hudson, 1977.
White, T. H., trans. The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from a Latin
Bestiary of the Twelfth Century. New York: Dover, 1984.

See Hart and Hind

So he lies beneath the lotus,
And hides among the reeds in the swamps.
The leaves of the lotus give him shade,
And the willows by the stream shelter him.

154 Hind
Should the river overflow on him, why should he worry?
A Jordan could pour down his throat without his caring.
—Job 40:21–23

For most of history, people outside of central and southern Africa

have known the hippopotamus mostly through vague rumors and a
few Roman mosaics. A conception of the animal, however, had been
firmly implanted in the collective imagination through the words spo-
ken by Yahweh in the Bible:

Now think of Behemoth;

He eats greenstuff like the ox.
But what strength he has in his loins,
what power in his stomach muscles!
His tail is as stiff as a cedar,
The sinews of his thighs are tightly knit.
His vertebrae are bronze tubing,
His bones are hard as hammered iron.
His is the masterpiece of all God’s work. . . . (Job 40:15–19)

The identity of Behemoth remains a matter of perennial debate, and

tradition has sometimes made the creature an elephant, a rhinoceros,
or even a crocodile. The passage went on to describe Behemoth as liv-
ing beneath the lotus, something that best fits the hippo. When the
book was written, the Hebrews, living in Mesopotamia, probably had
little or no contact with any of those animals, and they may well have
confused the various creatures already. An engraving of Behemoth by

Illustration of a
hippopotamus from
a nineteenth-
century book of
natural history.

Hippopotamus 155
the British poet William Blake gave the monster features of both hip-
popotamus and elephant, an idea that may be close in spirit to the bib-
lical inspiration.
For those in more intimate contact with the hippopotamus, the
animal has seemed almost as awe inspiring but less forbidding. For all
their bulk and power, hippos can move with surprising agility and
even a sort of grace. The Egyptian goddess Tawaret was generally de-
picted with the head of a hippopotamus and the body of a pregnant
woman. Her image was found on several amulets and symbolized the
fierceness of maternal love. The Egyptians, however, regarded the
hippo with ambivalence, perhaps because it would often trample
crops. The villainous god Set took the form of a red hippopotamus in
his unsuccessful battle with the god Horus for control of Egypt.
In many places in Africa, people have venerated a hippopota-
mus goddess who resembled Tawaret. The Ronga of southern
Mozambique told of a woman who gave her son to a hippopotamus
goddess for protection. The deity raised the boy beneath the river yet
brought him up every evening to be suckled by his mother.
In the middle of the seventeenth century, British clergyman Ed-
ward Topsell wrote that the hippopotamus, or “sea-horse,” was “a
most ugly and filthy beast, so called because in his voice and mane he
resembleth a horse, but in his head an ox or a calf, in the residue of his
body a swine . . . ” (vol. 1, p. 256). Though he had little trouble ac-
cepting the existence of such creatures as the unicorn or satyr, Topsell
was skeptical about that of the hippo.
In 1849 a hippo named Obaysch, the first hippopotamus seen in
Europe since Roman times, was brought to the London Zoo, where he
promptly generated a craze known as hippomania. Thousands of
people lined up to see him every Saturday, newspapers chronicled
every detail of his life, and there was even a dance named the Hip-
popotamus Polka. People have continued to be fascinated by the sur-
prising agility of these enormous animals, and the film Fantasia, re-
leased in the 1950s by Disney Studios, features hippos dressed as
ballerinas. Whether the creators of the film were aware of it or not,
these animals were not entirely unlike the hippopotamus goddess of
ancient Egypt.

Selected References
Knappert, Jan. African Mythology: An Encyclopedia of Myth and Legend.
London: Diamond Books, 1995.
Root, Nina J. “Victorian England’s Hippomania: From the Nile to the
Thames they loved Obaysch.” Natural History (February 1993):

156 Hippopotamus
Topsell, Edward, and Thomas Muffet. The History of Four-Footed Beasts
and Serpents and Insects (3 vols.). New York: Da Capo, 1967 (facsim-
ile of 1658 edition).

Are you the one who makes the horse so brave
And covers his neck with flowing hair?
Do you make him leap like a grasshopper?
His proud neighing spreads terror far and wide.
Exultantly he paws the soil of the valley,
And prances eagerly to meet the clash of arms.
—Job 39:19–21

The experience of riding a horse may be the closest thing to union

with an animal that people have ever known. The rider may deter-
mine the direction; the horse sets the rhythm. The rider rises and falls
in a sort of trance as landscape passes beneath. The union of animal
and man is commemorated in myths of the centaur, human to the
waist and equine beneath.
For the most part, centaurs were dominated by animal instincts.
Perhaps the fierce horsemen of the Eurasian steppes, glimpsed from a
distance by people who did not yet know how to ride, inspired the leg-
ends of centaurs. The drinking and lechery of centaurs were notorious.
Centaurs were invited to the marriage feast of Pirithous, king of the Lap-
iths, and Hippodamia, where they became drunk and tried to carry off
the bride. The Lapiths finally defeated them in a ferocious battle, which
is usually interpreted as the triumph of civilization over barbarism. The
story was a favorite subject of painters during the Renaissance.
There are several colorful myths about the origin of centaurs. Ac-
cording to one, it all began as Ixion, king of Lapithea, was invited to
Mount Olympus to dine with Zeus. He tried to seduce Hera, the wife
of his host, but made love only to a cloud. From that union the cen-
taurs were born. The tale is, perhaps, about the power of imagination,
which centaurs have symbolized ever since. The story, however, does
not have a happy ending. Zeus fastened Ixion to a fiery wheel that re-
volved endlessly in Hades.
Apollonius of Rhodes wrote that the deity Cronos was once hav-
ing an affair with Philyra, daughter of Oceanus, when his consort
Rhea surprised him. Cronos leaped out of bed, changed himself into
a stallion, and galloped off. Philyra wandered away in shame but later
gave birth to Chiron. Among centaurs, only Chiron had a reputation
for great wisdom. His students included the warrior Achilles and the
physician Asclepius.

Horse 157
Sometimes the wildness of centaurs proved more powerful than
civilization. Ovid told the story of Canus, a young girl who made love
to the god of the sea. When the deity promised to grant any wish she
might have, she asked to become a man so that she might take part in
battle. The god granted her request, but fearing for her safety, he
added the gift of invulnerability to any weapon made of metal. Canus
proved invincible in battle until he encountered a band of centaurs.
Not having learned to melt metal, they killed Canus with their prim-
itive weapons such as rocks and sticks.
In the mythology of northern Europe, the giant horse Svadilfari
was a sort of centaur. The Norse gods once commissioned the giant
Fafnir to build the walls of their city, Asgard. If he could finish the work
by spring, he would receive the goddess Freya in marriage, together
with the sun and the moon; if not, he would forfeit all pay. Svadilfari
helped the giant by not only drawing the stones but also setting them
into place. Loki, the god of fire, changed himself into a mare. Svadilfari
ran after Loki, so the wall remained unfinished. From the union of
Svadilfari and Loki, the eight-legged steed Sleipner was born, on which
the god Odin journeyed through the sky and to the realm of the dead.
In the time of Homer, horses drew chariots but did not yet carry
riders. After the Trojan War had dragged on for ten years, the Greeks
pretended to sail away, leaving behind on the shore a giant horse
made of wood. The Trojans, thinking the horse an offering to the gods,
took it inside the city walls. The Greeks, who had only temporarily
withdrawn to a nearby island, had concealed warriors inside the
wooden image. When night came, they slipped out and opened the
city gates for the invaders. Apollodorus wrote that Helen of Troy had
walked around the horse imitating the voices of the wives of men in-
side. One of the men wished to call out in reply, but Odysseus
clamped his hand over the soldier’s mouth. Perhaps this incident
records an imperfectly remembered rite of fertility, an offering to a
horse deity that eventually granted victory to the Greeks.
For all their practical use to human beings, horses represent above
all the power of imagination. They have been found in graves, from the
Ukraine and Scandinavia to China, buried to carry their masters in the
world to come. Shamans, especially in the Arctic Circle, have sacrificed
horses to accompany them on ecstatic journeys to other worlds. Apollo,
the Roman god of the sun, rode across the sky in a chariot drawn by
horses; so did the Persian Mithras. Perhaps the most popular symbol of
transcendence is Pegasus, a horse with wings, which sprang from a
drop of blood of the monster Medusa after she was decapitated.
Though primarily vegetarian, horses have always been closely

158 Horse
associated with war. Plutarch, in “Of Isis and Osiris,” told an Egypt-
ian legend of how Osiris, god of the dead, once instructed his son Ho-
rus. The father asked what animal would be most useful in battle, and
Horus replied that it was the horse. Osiris asked why his son had not
picked the lion, to which Horus replied, “A lion might indeed be very
serviceable to one that needed help, but a horse would best serve to
cut off and disperse a flying enemy.” On hearing this, Osiris realized
that his son was ready to become a warrior (vol. 4, p. 76).
Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, was another deity associated
with horses. He moistened a stone with his semen (that is, the foam of
a wave), thus fertilizing the earth, and out leaped the horse Scyphius.
Creatures with the head of a horse, the body of a serpent, and the tail
of a fish drew Poseidon’s chariot. Horses rise and fall like waves as
they gallop along, while their manes look like foam. In a herd, they
move to the rhythm of flowing water. When Poseidon and Athena, the
goddess of wisdom, were competing to be patron of the largest city in
Attica, the immortals decided that the role would go to whoever gave
the greatest gift. The deity of the sea struck the ground with his trident
and made a horse spring forth. Athena, however, created an olive tree,
and her gift was judged finer, so the city was named Athens after her.
The contest records a conflict between the nomadic life, in which the
horse is absolutely central, and the settled life of agriculturalists.
One Greek myth recounts the fate of King Diomedes of Thrace,
who fed strangers to his land to his mares. The eighth labor of Hercules
was to capture the man-eating monsters. After a terrible struggle, he
killed Diomedes and fed the lifeless body to the horses. The tale shows
the fear that horses inspired at a time when they were not yet fully do-
mesticated and might still be seen roaming in the wild. The Romans
knew horses only as domestic animals, but they admired the way the
animals remained spirited even in the service of human beings.
In the latter fourth century A.D., the Greek mercenary Xenophon
wrote the earliest book on horsemanship that has come down to us.
He approached horses without awe but with a remarkable concern
and respect. The horse, he understood, was the soldier’s companion
in battle and shared his hardships. Much of Xenophon’s treatise was
devoted to detailed descriptions of such matters as how to place the
halter about the neck of a horse. Xenophon’s foremost rule was never
to deal with a horse thoughtlessly or in a fit of passion.
The Roman emperor Caligula talked of naming his favorite
horse Incitatus as consul. The Romans adopted the Celtic horse-god-
dess Epona. She was even displayed on Roman coins, riding sidesad-
dle upon a mare. The Romans would race two chariots, each drawn

Horse 159
by two horses, at the festival of Mars in the middle of October. The
finest of the horses, the one that drew the winning chariot on the in-
side of the track, would be sacrificed to Mars. The head and tail of the
horse would then be cut off and decorated. Sometimes the head
would be affixed to the house of a prominent farmer or other citizen.
The horse was also the only animal to set apart an entire social
stratum—that of equestrians, or horsemen in Rome, the class that
eventually became the knights of the European Middle Ages. This
was a class of warriors, for riding was a privilege generally reserved
for officers in the Roman army. Finally, however, superior horseman-
ship enabled barbarian tribes to conquer Rome. In contrast to the Ro-
mans, who made riding a privilege of class, the invaders had entire
mounted armies. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, writ-
ing in the fourth century A.D., described the Huns as primitive, bestial
people who were almost one with their horses; they would not dis-
mount even to eat or sleep. Until the two world wars, battles were
usually won or lost by gallant cavalry charges.
The biblical prophet Elijah ascended to Heaven in a fiery chariot
drawn by horses (2 Kings 2:11). The horse is also a figure of the Chi-
nese zodiac. The last incarnation of Vishnu, when he comes to bring
salvation to the world, is to be the horse Kalki. Mohammed rode a
horse named Al-Borak from Mecca to Medina and up to Heaven. Al-
Borak, who was generally painted with the face of a woman, could
predict danger and see the dead.
The terrifying Russian witch Baba Yaga was probably originally
a horse-goddess. She lived in the depths of the woods in a house on
chicken legs, surrounded by a fence made of human bones topped
with skulls. She ate people like chickens, but the heroes in fairy tales
often risked death by visiting her in search of help through magic or
sage advice. Baba Yaga had a herd of mares, which were her daugh-
ters, and sometimes Baba Yaga herself became a mare. In the story of
“Maria Morevna,” recorded by Aleksandr Afanas’ev, Prince Ivan
went to Baba Yaga and asked for a horse fast enough to escape
Koschei, the spirit of death, who had stolen his bride. Ivan obtained
this by tending the horses of Baba Yaga with the help of friendly ani-
mals for three days. With the help of the horse from Baba Yaga, Prince
Ivan rescued his bride. His beloved, Maria Morevna, was a spirit of
vegetation who had to spend part of the year in the underworld,
much like the Greek deity Persephone. Koschei was a ruler of the un-
derworld, similar to the Greek Hades or the Roman Pluto. Baba Yaga,
though far less benevolent, has some of the traits of Persephone’s
mother, Demeter, who was also the mistress of horses.

160 Horse
A similar myth may be the origin of the famous English story of
Lady Godiva. Lord Leofric had taxed people beyond what they could
bear. His wife, Godiva, spoke in their defense, and he agreed to re-
duce his taxes if she would ride naked through the streets. She did so,
covered only with her long hair. The people turned away except for
one Tom, who peeped and was struck blind. Leofric, in shame, re-
voked all taxes except those on horses. The horse was also sacred to
Freya, the Norse goddess of love. An image of the goddess was drawn
through the streets in spring. Like both Persephone and Maria
Morevna, Godiva here was a personification of vegetable life. Leofric
was a spirit of winter, while Peeping Tom may originally have been a
human sacrifice that accompanied the rites of Freya.
Horses had often been associated with fertility even before do-
mestication, and so, as the story of Lady Godiva illustrates, the inti-
macy of horse and rider seemed to have a sexual side. People worried
that grooms might mate with horses, producing who-knows-what
dreadful progeny, and such unnatural unions were often punishable
by death in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Since horses were
most closely associated with masculine power, women had to be espe-
cially careful. Modesty required that they not place their legs around
the animal. Sir Thomas More had a ribald as well as saintly side. Once
he rebuked his daughter, who did not wish to ride sidesaddle as befit-
ting a lady, by saying, “Well, my girl, no one can deny that you are
ready for a husband, since your legs can straddle so large a horse”
(Smith, pp. 151–152). In William Shakespeare’s Othello, when the
young Venetian girl Desdemona has eloped with the Moor Othello, the
villainous Iago says to her father, “You’ll have your daughter covered
with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll
have coursers for cousins . . . ” (1.1). Enemies of the Russian empress
Catherine spread rumors, which circulate to this day, that she copu-
lated with her horses. The horse was often considered a disguise for
the Devil or a companion for a witch.
The sexuality of horses was sacralized in the figure of the uni-
corn. This fantastic animal had, in the course of a long intricate his-
tory, taken on features of the ass, rhinoceros, narwhal, goat, and many
other creatures. In medieval Europe the unicorn was thought of pri-
marily as a horse with a single horn. That protuberance, clearly phal-
lic, seemed to absorb and transform all that was disturbing in equine
sexuality, leaving the animal divinely chaste. According to legend, the
unicorn could not be caught by force, but it would come to a young
girl and lay its horn in her lap. Then it might be captured without dif-
ficulty. This story reflected archaic mythology of the sacred hunt, as

Horse 161
the young girl came to symbolize Mary and the unicorn to symbolize
Christ. The capture and slaying of the unicorn became an allegorical
crucifixion acted out not with malice but with solemnity in the tapes-
tries and paintings of the Middle Ages. Nobody has entirely recon-
structed the meaning of this elaborate parable, but it seems to be
about domestication. Our sexuality, like the unicorn, may not be over-
come through force of discipline, yet, like the unicorn, it can be tamed.
Archaic beliefs about horses show up frequently in European
fairy tales. In “Faithful John” by the Grimm brothers (tale no. 6),
ravens tell the servant that a horse will trot up to the young king and
take him up into the sky forever. The king may be saved only if some-
body jumps on the horse and shoots it quickly. This probably alludes
to an archaic horse sacrifice that accompanied many shamanic jour-
neys. In another Grimm’s tale, “The Goose Girl” (no. 89), a princess
speaks to the head of a beloved horse that has been sacrificed. The an-
imal offers sympathy but no sage advice, showing that the old magic
will not work in the modern world.
Many Catholic saints are patrons of horses, no doubt a legacy of
pagan times. One is Saint Éloi, who was a blacksmith to the Frankish
kings. Once, he was asked to shoe a horse possessed by the Devil. He
blessed the animal, took off its legs, placed shoes on its feet, and then
returned the limbs to their rightful places. Another patron of horses is
Saint Stephen, the Church’s first martyr. On his feast day, December
26, parishioners in Poland shower their priests with oats as a gift from
their horses.
But horses, like most animals that had once been sacred, were of-
ten demonized in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. The long as-
sociation of horses with the poles of fertility and death did not always
make them beloved; neither did their association with goddesses and
with death. Horses became familiars of witches and, at times, even a
disguise for the Devil. One example is from The Quest of the Holy Grail,
an anonymous medieval romance from Britain in the early thirteenth
century. Sir Perceval, the holy fool of Arthurian legend, found himself
alone by a vast forest. A woman appeared mysteriously and offered
him a horse in exchange for his service, and Perceval accepted with de-
light. She went for a moment into the depths of the woods and returned
leading an enormous black horse. Perceval could not look on the horse
without fear, but he mounted it and galloped on until the trees ended
and a wide river crossed the path. No bridge was to be seen, yet the
horse continued onward. Unable to stop, Perceval made the sign of the
cross. At that instant the horse threw him to the ground and plunged
into the river. Perceval heard howling and shrieking, as flames rose

162 Horse
from the water. The woman and the horse had both been devils.
Jonathan Swift, in the fourth book of his novel Gulliver’s Travels
(1726), tells of being left by pirates on an island ruled by civilized
horses. The horses are extremely clean and gracious, and their society
is ruled entirely by reason. They practice agriculture, for which they
have domesticated cattle. They call themselves “houhynhnms.”
Alongside them live hairy creatures known as “yahoos,” that is, hu-
man beings. The yahoos swing from trees and love to wallow in filth.
The houhynhnms cannot believe it when the hero tells them of his na-
tive England, where horses are bridled and people are free.
The equestrian or knightly tradition lasted longest on the Amer-
ican continents, where there was plenty of open space and large herds
of feral horses roamed the plains, in the United States and Argentina,
for example. In stories of the American old West, wandering cowboys
were a bit like the knights-errant of the European Middle Ages, mov-
ing from one town to the next in search of fortune and adventure.
Even today, some police departments use horses, which are more ma-
neuverable than motorized vehicles. But the role of horses in battle
was steadily reduced as the world industrialized, and horses came to
be associated more with recreation than with work.
They also became more closely associated with women than
with men. The novel Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, first published in
1876, started a tradition of horse stories primarily for young girls. The
book is a fictive autobiography of a stallion that draws carriages,
starting with his childhood in open meadows, going through his ad-
ventures with several masters, and ending with a pleasant retirement
on a farm. Horses now represent a gentle aspect of male sexuality,
which contrasts with the brutal masculinity that is so often celebrated
in the mass media of today.
The horse may be less empathetic than the dog and less mysteri-
ous than the cat, but it has probably done more to form human soci-
ety than either canines or felines. Today, however, horses are becom-
ing nostalgic reminders of our past. Horses are still a common means
of transportation in remote areas where there are few roads. Their ma-
neuverability still makes them helpful to police, and they have been
trained to enter apartments and walk up stairs. But urban horses are
rare enough to make many bystanders stare in surprise and admira-
tion whenever they appear in public.
The horse race is now a gathering point for many who seem in
some way to have been bypassed by the modern world, from aristo-
crats to the Mafia. Though horses are far slower and less powerful than
our motors today, the horse still provides the ultimate model for our lo-

Horse 163
comotives, automobiles, and rocket ships—for anything that is fast and
sleek. Today, the word “horsepower” is still used to denote a unit of
force in motors. The metaphor of the Trojan Horse is more widely used
than perhaps any other image from the ancient world. It can refer to just
about anything, from internal subversion in a government to a com-
puter virus. In the late 1970s a nuclear power company was called Tro-
jan and had a horse as its logo. Demonstrators against nuclear power in
California built a large wooden horse. As they paraded it around, out
popped a person dressed as the Grim Reaper with his scythe.
Selected References
Afanas’ev, Aleksandr, ed. Russian Fairy Tales. Trans. Norbert Guter-
man. New York: Pantheon, 1973.
Clutton-Brock, Juliet. Horse Power: A History of the Horse and the Donkey
in Human Societies. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Dent, Anthony. The Horse: Through Fifty Centuries of Civilization. New
York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1974.
Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1974.
Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers
Grimm. Trans. Jack Zipes. New York: Bantam Books, 1987.
Hyland, Ann. Equus: The Horse in the Roman World. New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1990.
———. The Medieval Warhorse from Byzantium to the Crusades.
Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books, 1994.
Matarasso, Pauline Maud, trans. The Quest of the Holy Grail. New York:
Penguin, 1969.
Plutarch. Plutarch’s Morals (4 vols.). Trans. Robert Midgley et al.
London: Thomas Bradyll, 1704.
Sewell, Anna. Black Beauty. New York: Dover, 1999.
Shakespeare, William. Othello the Moor of Venice. New York: Dover,
Smith, Lacey Baldwin. Fools, Martyrs, Traitors: The Story of Martyrdom
in the Western World. New York: Knopf, 1997.
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. New York: Penguin, 1996.

See Ostrich, Hummingbird, Parrot, and Peacock

I will neither yield to the song of the siren nor the voice of the hyena. . . .
—George Chapman, Eastward Ho (act 5, scene 1)

If hyenas are “laughing,” what is the joke? Maybe it is our efforts to

put everything into neat categories. As intermediate creatures some-
where between felines and canines, hyenas have always filled people

164 Hummingbird
with consternation. Legends also make their gender indeterminate,
and this has some basis in observation. In contrast to the pattern
found in most animals, the female hyenas tend to be a bit larger than
the males. More remarkable, the females have a bulge of skin that re-
sembles a male sex organ. The Greco-Roman author Aelian claimed
that the hyena changed its sex every year. According to Aelian, the
hyena could send the power of sleep with a mere touch of its left paw.
The shadow of a hyena cast against the full moon reduced dogs to si-
lence, so they could be carried off without resistance. The hyena imi-
tated the human voice so as to lure dogs and even men to their doom.
In seventeenth-century England, Edward Topsell reported a rumor
that hyenas could be impregnated by the wind.
From Africa to Europe, the hyena has usually been considered
treacherous, stupid, and cowardly. One possible reason is that hyenas
occupy roughly the same habitats in Africa as lions, and they often live
by scavenging. Lions are symbols of kingship, making hyenas seem
like venial courtiers. According to medieval European bestiaries, the
hyena (sometimes called the “yena”) lived in tombs and devoured
dead bodies. Bestiaries also reported that the hyena had a stone in its
head. When this was taken out and placed under the tongue of a per-
son, it would enable the man or woman to see the future.
One rare legend makes the hyena not only gentle but also moth-
erly. Saint Macarius of Alexandria lived as a hermit in the desert, where
his skill in healing was known even to the animals. One day a mother
hyena came to him bearing her baby in her mouth. Saint Macarius
picked up the infant, looked it over, and realized that it was stricken
with blindness. He made the cross over the baby hyena’s eyes, where-
upon the baby immediately went to its mother’s breast and began to
suck. Later, in gratitude, the mother hyena brought Saint Macarius the
skin of a freshly killed sheep. Saint Macarius, troubled by the mother’s
having killed the sheep, refused to accept the gift. The mother bowed
her head and begged him. Finally the holy man agreed, but only if the
mother would promise henceforth not to hurt the poor by taking their
sheep and to take only meat that was already dead. When the mother
assented, he took the sheepskin and slept upon it until his death.
In the twentieth century, other maligned animals such as wolves
have been redeemed, but the reputation of the hyena has changed lit-
tle. In the 1994 Disney film The Lion King, the evil lion who wishes to
claim the throne aligns himself with the hyenas. The makers of the
film wished to be ecologically sensitive and to avoid condemning any
animal, so they usually made the hyena leaders more goofy than ma-
lign. Nevertheless, the hyenas advancing in step against the lions

Hyena 165
seemed like Nazi soldiers. Several naturalists, perhaps beginning
with Saint Macarius, have pleaded with the public without success to
redeem the reputation of the hyena.
Selected References
Aelian. On Animals (3 vols.). Trans. A. F. Scholfield. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1972.
Glickman, Stephen. “The Spotted Hyena from Aristotle to the Lion
King: Reputation Is Everything.” Social Research 62, 3 (fall 1995):
Topsell, Edward, and Thomas Muffet. The History of Four-Footed Beasts
and Serpents and Insects. New York: Da Capo, 1967 (facsimile of 1658
Waddell, Helen, trans. Beasts and Saints. Grand Rapids, MI: William B.
Eerdmans, 1996.
White, T. H., trans. The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from a Latin
Bestiary of the Twelfth Century. New York: Dover, 1984.

166 Hyena
See Heron, Ibis, Crane, and Stork

See Fox, Jackal, and Coyote

See Ass, Mule, and Camel

See Lion, Tiger, Panther, and Jaguar

See Seagull, Albatross, and Other Seabirds

See Nightingale, Cuckoo, Lark, and Other Musical Birds

See Lion, Tiger, Panther, and Jaguar

Lion, Tiger, Panther, and Jaguar

For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the cherub cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
—Christopher Smart, “My Cat Jeoffrey”

The big cats are all notable for their ability to fight and kill, yet in leg-
end they are as various as our feelings about power. Lions are social
animals that live in prides, in which the females do most of the hunt-
ing. They live on open plains, though their once vast range is now re-
duced to the savannas of Africa. Lions are often followed by scav-
engers, from vultures to hyenas, which has given rise to the idea that
they are kings attended by a court. The male has an enormous head
and a luxuriant mane, which suggests the sun sending forth rays.
Tigers, by contrast, are usually solitary, and they are found in the jun-
gles of Asia and the forbidding hillsides of Siberia. They are the only
large mammals that will occasionally attack human beings, a feature
that can make them seem like either bandits or simply untamed forces
of nature. Panthers, which are almost identical to leopards except for
the color of their skin, are smaller than either lions or tigers, and they
rely more on stealth and speed in hunting. They are able to climb
trees, where they can hide meat from scavengers and go unnoticed
themselves while they observe their surroundings, and from where
they can pounce suddenly upon their prey. Panthers and leopards are
solitary, nocturnal hunters, often associated with chthonic realms.
Even in Paleolithic times, the great cats seem to have had a spe-
cial religious significance, and they were given a place of honor among

the cave paintings of Lascaux in a cavern known as the Chamber of Fe-
lines. At the dawn of urban civilization, people thought of these ani-
mals as primarily feminine. Our words “female” and “feline” both ul-
timately come from the Latin “felare,” meaning “to suck.” Several
figurines of women, possibly goddesses, accompanied by great cats
have been found at Çatal Hüyük in Turkey, the earliest known walled
In early pantheons, the great cats are most closely associated with
feminine deities. Among the foremost of these was the Egyptian
Hathor, who was the goddess of love, dance, and feminine arts but was
also capable of great fury. When men rebelled against the sun god Ra,
she attacked them as a lioness and soon developed an insatiable thirst
for blood. When Ra himself was satisfied that the rebellion had been de-
feated, she continued to kill, and the gods feared that she would de-
stroy all of humankind. They left out vats of red wine, and mistaking
the liquor for blood, she drank it, fell asleep, and finally awakened with
her anger appeased. Hathor in her incarnation as a furious avenger was
known as Sekmet and was depicted with the body of a woman and the
head of a lioness. The Babylonian goddess Ishtar, in her capacity as a
deity of war, was depicted standing upon a lion. Lions were harnessed
to the chariot of Cybele, the Syrian goddess who was adopted by the
Romans as a mother-goddess, their “Magna Mater.”
Male lions, however, are just as common as lionesses in the vi-
sual arts of the ancient world. Both the Egyptians and Mesopotamians
placed stone lions as guardians on each side of the doorways to tem-
ples and palaces, a practice that eventually spread eastward all the
way to China. In Sumero-Babylonian animal proverbs, which are
among the very earliest literary works to have survived, the lion had
already been recognized as the king of beasts. This motif soon became
one of the most widely established literary conventions and can be
found in the fables attributed to the Greek Aesop. The lion often ap-
pears as a figure of brute power that terrorizes other animals, and the
sly fox in one fable observes that many tracks lead into the lion’s cave
but none lead out. The lion is not always dominant, however, and in
another fable is beaten by the ass and other animals it once tormented.
In African legends as well, the majestic lion frequently falls victim to
weaker but cleverer creatures such as the hare. The motif of a lion as
monarch has been used in the Hindu-Persian Panchatantra, the me-
dieval European stories of Renard the Fox, the Narnia stories by C. S.
Lewis, and countless other works throughout the world.
To kill a lion was a supreme achievement for a warrior in the an-
cient world, and kings of Egypt and Mesopotamia frequently had

174 Lion, Tiger, Panther, and Jaguar

Illustration by Julius Schnorr Carolsfeld from the mid-nineteenth century to the story of Daniel, who was
thrown to the lions but remained unharmed.

themselves depicted hunting lions. Many heroes of the ancient world,

including Gilgamesh, Hercules, and Samson, were conventionally de-
picted wearing the skin of a lion. The Greco-Roman fable attributed to
Babrius told of how a lion and a man were once traveling together
when they passed a sculpture of a hero strangling the king of beasts.
The man pointed to it as proof of human superiority, to which the lion
replied that if lions had done the carving, “You would see many men
victims of lions” (Perry, p. 479). Even the Hebrews, who generally de-
spised predators, could not help feeling some admiration for these an-
imals. The lion became a symbol of the biblical Judah and later of
Saint Mark the Evangelist and even of Christ himself.
Romans imported vast numbers of lions for their gladiatorial
games, where the animals represented the emperor as they devoured
criminals before a raucous audience. Since lions do not readily attack
human beings, the animals were starved or specially trained for the

Lion, Tiger, Panther, and Jaguar 175

job. One popular story that may have had a historical basis tells of a
runaway slave named Androcles who had been recaptured and placed
in the arena with a lion. Instead of devouring him, the lion licked his
feet. A leopard was immediately let loose, but the lion killed it. The em-
peror Drusus ordered the slave to come forward and asked why the
lion had spared him. Androcles told how, after extreme mistreatment,
he had escaped his master and taken refuge in a cave. The lion had
come to Androcles and held up a bloodstained paw, from which the
fugitive pulled out a thorn. From that time on the lion had fed him,
bringing part of every kill. Moved by the story, Drusus granted both
Androcles and the lion their freedom. The circuses relied on theatrics al-
most as much as they did on blood, and this incident could have been
staged. The Romans did have remarkable skill in training lions. Ac-
cording to Pliny, Mark Anthony harnessed lions to his chariot and rode
around with a courtesan, an event that shocked his contemporaries and
may have contributed to his eventual downfall. The emperor Caracalla
later had a pet lion that sat by his table, slept in his bedroom, and even
was kissed by him in public. At any rate, Saint Jerome, who lived as a
hermit in a cave, was later reputed to have tamed a lion in the same
way as Androcles, and a lion was traditionally painted at his feet.
In heraldry, the lion has always represented royalty and is often
depicted wearing a crown. This symbolism was even adopted in ar-
eas that had been free of lions since Paleolithic times, such as China
and western Europe. Precisely because actual lions were unknown
outside a few royal menageries, it was easy to stylize these animals
into symbols. King Richard I, known as the Lion-Hearted for his
courage in battle, chose three golden lions against a red background
for the coat of arms of England. The English lion and the Scottish uni-
corn now flank the heraldic emblem of Great Britain.
Eventually the lion became so deeply associated with the insti-
tution of kingship that it was next to impossible for most Europeans
to think of the animal in any other context. Monarchists liked to imag-
ine the lion as dignified to the point of blandness, and they excused
the predatory nature of the beast by saying it would kill only as much
as it needed to eat. In the modern era, however, democratically in-
clined people often stigmatized lions as vicious.
The nineteenth-century French Romantic Eugène Delacroix was
one of the very few who tried to imagine the animal behind the icon,
though he may have celebrated the lion’s ferocity too exclusively in
his paintings of bloody battles between lions and Arabs. In the same
era, the lion tamer became a feature of any large circus. He would be
a burly man, often wearing leopard-skin trunks, who, by cracking a

176 Lion, Tiger, Panther, and Jaguar

The lion king
surrounded by
obsequious courtiers
in an illustration
from the mid-
nineteenth century
by J. J. Grandville.

whip, would compel lions or other big cats to obey him. The specta-
cle dramatized the ability of humanity to control nature, as well as the
dominance of men over women.
The tiger was a more unequivocally romantic beast and has al-
ways been admired almost as a powerful natural force, as one might
admire a storm or volcano. Malaysian myths tell of a city that tigers
have built entirely from human skin, bones, hair, and other body
parts. The Hindu Kali, goddess of time, who wears a necklace of
skulls and holds a sword of destruction in one of her many hands, has
often been portrayed riding upright upon a tiger. In his aspect as a de-
stroyer, the god Siva wears the skin of a tiger. We should remember,
however, that the annihilating power of these figures was viewed less
as evil than as simply part of the cosmic cycle.
In China the tiger, ruler of the earth, has often been paired with
the dragon, ruler of the sky, as the greatest primordial powers. The
dragon creates clouds, while the breath of the tiger becomes wind,
and together they bring rain. The tiger is associated with autumn,
since it resembles that season in its violence and destruction. The
tiger, rather than the lion, is called “king of beasts” in Asia (Sun, p. 57).
It is the third sign of the Chinese zodiac and is often depicted with
wings. Patriarchs of Taoism have been represented riding upon tigers,
signifying their ability to live in harmony with the elements.
The tiger entered Western imagination as Alexander the Great in-
vaded India. The god Dionysus, who was sometimes identified with

Lion, Tiger, Panther, and Jaguar 177

Alexander, occasionally was shown in a chariot pulled by tigers, espe-
cially crossing the Tigris River on the way to India. The Romans, who
were attracted to exoticism as much as they were to violence, may have
had tigers in their circuses. Pliny the Elder reported how people ac-
complished the seemingly impossible task of capturing tiger cubs. The
captor would steal several cubs, jump on a fast horse, and race away.
When the tigress would start to overtake him, he would drop one cub,
forcing the tigress to pause and take it back to her lair. She would then
start off again after the captor, and this cycle might be repeated several
times until at last the man would reach his ship with a single cub. This
story was frequently repeated in medieval bestiaries but with an addi-
tional twist. The horseman steals only one cub, but he throws glass
balls to the tigress, and she mistakes her reflection for a cub.
Medieval depictions of Eden usually included the lion but al-
most never the tiger. The tiger was also too unequivocally frightening
to be used in heraldry, but it again entered Western awareness when
India became part of the British Empire. Thomas Bewick wrote to-
ward the end of the eighteenth century that the tiger “fears neither the
sight nor the opposition of man . . . and it is even said to prefer human
flesh to that of any other animal” (p. 206). For the British colonists and
many of their Indian supporters, extermination of tigers became a
humanitarian mission, and many boasted of killing hundreds. Mean-
while, the most intense opposition to British rule in southern India
came from Tipu Sultan, who believed that it was “better to live two
days as a tiger than two hundred years as a sheep” (Courtney, p. 48).
He sat on a tiger throne, had the stripes of a tiger placed on the uni-
forms of his soldiers, and emulated a tiger’s reputed cruelty.
It was at this time that William Blake wrote “The Tyger,” perhaps
the most famous animal poem of the modern era, which began:

Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright

In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

Tales of the cruelty of Tipu Sultan, which were filtering back to En-
gland, probably influenced Blake, and he might have seen the tigers

178 Lion, Tiger, Panther, and Jaguar

on display in the menagerie at the Tower of London. The illustration
that Blake painted to accompany the poem, however, shows far more
affection than awe. It is clearly a domestic housecat, though perhaps
he intended to show how every pussycat has a tiger inside.
The beauty and terror that are inextricably blended in the tiger
are expressed in the parable called “The Lady and the Tiger,” which
anonymously passes through our culture like a legend—everybody
has heard it, yet hardly anybody knows from where it has come. It was
actually first published by Frank Stockton in the Century Magazine of
1882. The king had decreed that justice for a serious crime was to be
decided by a test in which the accused would be placed in a large arena
and, before spectators, forced to choose between two doors. Behind
one door would be a tiger that would rip him apart with its claws. Be-
hind the other would be a lady, carefully chosen as a match for him
and whom he would have to marry. The king heard that his daughter
and a common man were in love, and he ordered the young man sent
to the arena to be judged by providence. The princess found out what
lay behind the doors and made a secret signal to her lover. The story
ended with the famous question: “Which came out of the opened
door—the lady or the tiger?” (Weinberger, p. 45). Victorians were ob-
sessed by this sort of choice: bourgeois domesticity or unadulterated
passion? But the beautiful lady, as Sigmund Freud recognized, is really
an aspect of the tiger, and marriage to her is a sort of annihilation.
In the twentieth century the tiger took over many symbolic val-
ues previously associated with the lion. In his poem “Geronition,” T.
S. Eliot used the tiger as a symbol of Christ. Advertisers have con-
stantly exploited the primitive energy associated with the tiger. Esso
Petroleum, for example, has since the mid-1960s advertised gasoline
with the slogan “Put a tiger in your tank!” (Courtney, p. 64). Symbolic
importance in human culture, however, often makes animals more
vulnerable in the wild, since it means that people will be more drawn
to hunt them for folk remedies or sport. The Caspian tiger became ex-
tinct in the 1970s and the Javan tiger a decade later, while the few sur-
viving species continue to hold on very precariously.
In the legends of Africans, who had direct experience with both
lions and leopards, the lion may often have been the ruler of animals,
but the leopard generally inspired greater awe. The black color of the
panther enables it to blend into forests, while the spots of the leopard
suggest innumerable eyes. The legendary ancestor of the kings of Da-
homey and other African lands is a leopard that came out of a river to
lie with a woman, and the ferocity of the beast explained its penchant
for war. The biblical prophet Jeremiah, frustrated by the inability of

Lion, Tiger, Panther, and Jaguar 179

the Hebrews to put aside their wicked ways, asked, “Can . . . the leop-
ard change his spots?” (13:23).
The leopard or panther was sacred to Osiris, god of the dead, in
ancient Egypt. The Greeks identified Osiris with Dionysus, and the
priests of both gods wore the skins of a panther. Panthers generally
drew the chariot of Dionysus, and they were sometimes depicted in his
entourage. Both of these deities, in turn, often came to be identified
with Jesus, and writers of the Middle Ages often praised the panther.
Medieval bestiaries told how other animals would follow the panther
drawn by the sweetness of its breath. Only the dragon would flee and
take refuge in a cave, much as the Devil would run in fear from Christ.
With the end of the Middle Ages, however, many people strove
to cleanse Christianity of pagan elements, and the panther, so impor-
tant in pre-Christian religions, was consequently condemned for vi-
ciousness. At the beginning of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the narrator en-
counters three predators in a dark wood: a panther, a she-wolf, and a
lion. The panther is the first to threaten him, but he is saved from the
beasts by the intercession of the poet Virgil.
In the early twentieth century, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke
lamented the loss of primeval wildness in his poem “The Panther.” It
describes a panther pacing ritualistically in a zoo, where it can see lit-
tle besides bars, and concludes:

From time to time, the curtain of the pupils

is raised without a sound. . . . An image flows inside
and ripples through the stillness of his limbs
to enter in his heart and disappear. (trans. Boria Sax)

The iconographic use of the panther in recent times has veered be-
tween anger and nostalgia. A militant African-American group that
supported armed revolution in the 1960s and 1970s was known as the
Black Panthers.
Perhaps the most mysterious big cat of all is the jaguar, which is
native to Latin America. The motif of the jaguar appears so often in the
arts of early Native American communities that historians of religion
believe it may have been the master of animals or even the supreme
god. In tribes in Bolivia at least until very recent times, to kill a jaguar
with a wooden spear has been a test of manhood used in the initiation
of a warrior. Shamans are believed to be able to turn themselves into
jaguars. During an eclipse, people howl to scare the jaguar that is try-
ing to devour the sun. The cult of the jaguar may well be felt more vis-
cerally precisely because it has never, as far as anybody knows today,

180 Lion, Tiger, Panther, and Jaguar

been systematized into a formal mythology. In historically recent
times, however, machines have increasingly taken over the symbolism
of animals, and for most people today the “jaguar” is a luxury car.
Selected References
Auguet, Roland. Cruelty and Civilization: The Roman Games. New York:
Barnes and Noble, 1972.
Bewick, Thomas. A General History of Quadrupeds. Leicester: Winward,
1980 (1790).
Blake, William. “The Tyger.” In The Oxford Book of Animal Poems. Ed.
Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1992.
Courlander, Harold. A Treasury of African Folklore: The Oral Literature,
Traditions, Myths, Legends, Epics, Tales, Recollections, Wisdom, Sayings,
and Humor of Africa. New York: Marlowe, 1996.
Courtney, Nicholas. The Tiger: Symbol of Freedom. New York: Quartet
Books, 1980.
Johnson, Buffie. Lady of the Beasts: Ancient Images of the Goddess and Her
Sacred Animals. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981.
London, H. Stanford, et al. The Queen’s Beasts: An Account with New
Drawings of the Heraldic Animals Which Stood at the Entrance to
Westminster Abbey on the Occasion of the Coronation of Her Majesty
Queen Elizabeth II. London: Newman Neame, 1953.
Osborne, Harold. South American Mythology. New York: Hamlyn, 1975.
Perry, Ben Edwin, ed. and trans. Babrius and Phaedrus. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1990.
Pliny. Natural History (10 vols.). Trans. H. Rackham, W. H. S. Jones,
et al. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. “Der Panther.” Deutsche Geidchte: Von den
Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart. Ed. Beno von Weise. Düsseldorf:
August Bebel Verlag, 1956, p. 566.
Rybot, Doris. It Began Before Noah. London: Michael Joseph, 1972.
Schrader, J. L. A Medieval Bestiary. New York: Metropolitan Museum of
Art, 1986.
Sun, Ruth Q. The Asian Animal Zodiac. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1974.
Weinberger, Eliot. “Paper Tiger.” In Works on Paper, 1980–1986. New
York: New Directions, 1986, pp. 44–57.

See Snake, Lizard, and Related Animals

See Grasshopper, Locust, Cricket, Cicada, and Mantis

See Fly, Louse, and Flea

Louse 181
See Grasshopper, Locust, Cricket, Cicada, and Mantis

See Salmon and Carp

See Ape and Monkey

See Butterfly and Moth

See Rat and Mouse

See Ass, Mule, and Camel

See Starfish, Clam, Octopus, and Other Creatures of the Sea Floor

See Ape and Monkey

Ostrich, Hummingbird, Parrot, and Peacock

Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless,
peacocks and lilies for instance.
—John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice

The brilliant plumage of some birds, like the singing of others, tends
to be a means by which the males attempt to attract females. From the
point of view of contemporary human culture, this may seem para-
doxical, since human beings today tend to place more emphasis on
feminine than masculine appearance. It is primarily women who
wear the brilliant plumage of birds, whether on hats or in jewelry, but
this has not always been the case. Among Native Americans, for ex-
ample, male warriors have usually worn the most opulent feathers.
Perhaps, however, the association of women with plumage does
go back to ancient times, specifically to Egypt. Maat, the goddess of
cosmic harmony, was one of the few deities who were generally de-
picted in fully human form, and she wore a large ostrich feather in her
hair. Though styles of dress and appearance are notoriously fickle, she
still appears elegant, dignified, and remarkably contemporary about
three millennia after the paintings were executed. When souls were to
be judged in the next world, to decide whether the person would join
the immortals or be devoured by demons, the heart of the deceased
would be weighed against Maat, who was sometimes represented by
an ostrich feather.
Nevertheless, the fashionable plumes often received more re-
spect than the birds they came from, which were often described in

Adam and Eve by
Albrecht Dürer
(1504). The first
man and woman are
living peacefully
among the animals
before the Fall, when
the cat does not even
seem to notice the
rat in front of it.
Note especially the
parrot on a sprig in
the hand of Adam,
probably a branch
from the Tree of Life,
which the first man
will carry with him
when exiled from
Paradise. (Metro-
politan Museum of
Art, Fletcher Fund,

very bizarre ways. Ancient writers such as Pliny and Aelian main-
tained the ostrich was able to eat and digest virtually anything, even
stones. Pliny added that the bird buried its head in the sand to evade
danger, an idea that has by no means disappeared today. According to
medieval bestiaries, the ostrich could divine when to lay eggs by
watching the stars. !Kung Bushmen accord the eggs of an ostrich su-
pernatural power, since they are so hard that no animal’s jaws can
break them. In Europe these were often taken for the eggs of a griffin
and placed in royal treasuries. Sometimes the “griffin eggs” were
made into goblets in the belief that they would change color when
touched by poison.
The hummingbird has been admired not only for its bright, iri-
descent colors but also for its speed. It is able to hover in one place,

186 Ostrich, Hummingbird, Parrot, and Peacock

switch direction instantly, and fly backward, possessing the sort of
maneuverability valued by military commanders. Despite, or partly
because of, its diminutive size, this bird was an attribute of the Aztec
god of war, Huitzilopochtli, whose headdress was made of hum-
mingbird feathers. The Mayan deity Quetzalcoatl, in his incarnation
as a serpent, also had plumes of a hummingbird. Battle seems to be al-
most universally associated with eroticism, and plumes of the hum-
mingbird have also been frequently used in love charms.
The parrot of myth and legend is generally a peaceful bird but
one that seems almost too splendid for this world. In the Hindu-Per-
sian Panchatantra, the god Indra kept a parrot of extraordinary beauty
and intelligence named Blossom. One day as the parrot was sitting in
the palm of its master’s hand, Yama, lord of the underworld, ap-
peared. Blossom was terrified, and the deities begged Yama to spare
the parrot. The dark figure replied that that was not under his control,
so the gods took their petition to Death himself. On beholding the vis-
age of the Grim Reaper, the parrot perished in terror.
The ancient Egyptians kept rose-ringed parakeets in cages as
pets, but the real popularity of parrots in the Mediterranean area
dates from the time of Alexander the Great, who brought back previ-
ously unknown varieties from India. They attained new popularity
with the vast expansion of maritime trade at the end of the Middle
Ages. Much of this exploration was motivated by a longing to find a
place of primal innocence, perhaps even the original Eden. In an en-
graving of 1504 entitled Adam and Eve, the German artist Albrecht
Dürer depicted a parrot perched on a sprig from the Tree of Life, held
by Adam as he speaks with Eve in Paradise.
For people in the Northern Hemisphere, the visual splendor of
parrots has always seemed to be heightened by their exoticism and re-
markable ability to mimic the human voice. According to medieval
legend, a parrot had announced the coming of the Virgin Mary, and
artists often painted exotic birds beside her and the infant Jesus. One
cardinal during the Renaissance reportedly paid a hundred gold
pieces for a parrot that could clearly recite the entire Apostles’ Creed.
On the other hand, some people view innocence as an invitation to
corruption; rough mariners enjoyed teaching parrots obscenities. The
commerce in parrots was from the start a rather shady business, in
which theft and smuggling were common, and it now threatens to
drive many of the remaining species of parrots to extinction.
Perhaps the most opulent bird of all, the peacock is originally
from India but was imported to the Mediterranean world in very early
times. The spreading tail of the peacock is an ancient symbol of the sun,

Ostrich, Hummingbird, Parrot, and Peacock 187

the feathers standing for rays of light.
The peacock was sacred to Zeus and,
most especially, to his wife, Hera. Ac-
cording to one myth, after changing
the maiden Io into a heifer as punish-
ment for her affair with Zeus, Hera
sent the hundred-eyed giant Argos to
watch over her. Taking the form of a
woodpecker, Zeus signaled the loca-
tion of Argos to Hermes, who then
killed the monster. Hera took the eyes
of Argos and, as a memorial, placed
them in the tail of a peacock. The
story is a bit ironic, since the peacock
spreads its tail as part of a mating
dance. The eyes, then, are a warning
to young ladies not to trust the macho
posturing of men.
The peacock, however, became
The parrot, with its
ever more a symbol of splendor over the centuries. It was the mount
brilliant plumage,
of Karrtikeya, the Hindu god of war, as well as the mount of Brahma
has often been
and his wife, Sarasvati. The kings of Persia sat on a peacock throne,
associated with
and Chinese emperors from the Ming dynasty forward bestowed pea-
royalty, as in this
print by J. J.
cock feathers as a sign of favor. Aristocratic gardens throughout Eura-
Grandville. sia, which were meant to be a re-creation of Paradise, had peacocks
strolling about the grass. In Christianity, the peacock became a sym-
bol of the Resurrection, as well as of the all-seeing eye of the Church.
In the modern period, however, as governments became democratic
and people increasingly distrusted royalty, the peacock became a
symbol of vanity. Finally, as advertisers revived the abandoned
heraldic symbols of an earlier era, the peacock was used to represent
the wonders of color in film and television.
Selected References
Cogger, Harold G., et al, eds. Encyclopedia of Animals. San Francisco:
Fog City Press, 1993.
Eisler, Colin. Dürer’s Animals. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institu-
tion Press, 1991.
Ryder, Arthur. The Panchatantra. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

188 Ostrich, Hummingbird, Parrot, and Peacock

Now the wasted brands do glow,
Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,
Puts the wretch, that lies in woe,
In remembrance of a shroud.
—William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (act 5, scene 1)

Anybody who has come across the eyes of an owl shining alone in the
night will have no trouble understanding why owls have always been
associated with the dead. Especially in colder regions of the Northern
Hemisphere, owls are often at least partly white, and their feathers
eerily reflect the moonlight. Not only does the owl look like an ap-
parition, but its call is usually a drawn-out, wavering note that easily
suggests the muffled voice of a spirit. Owls are attracted to places of
burial by the smell of decaying flesh, and they could easily have been
taken for the spirits of the deceased. These birds also have exception-
ally fine sight at night, and in total darkness they can navigate by
hearing or, with some species, even by echolocation. The ability of
owls in flight to locate mice far below still sometimes impresses re-
searchers as almost supernatural. The ancient Egyptians represented
part of the soul, called the “ba,” as a bird with a human head, and pic-
tures of it in The Egyptian Book of the Dead somewhat resemble an owl.
In mythology and literature, death is intimately associated with wis-
dom, and the owl is an ancient symbol of both.
With most varieties of owls, the female is a bit larger than the
male, which may partially explain why owls often symbolize
primeval feminine power. In the Sumerian poem “The Huluppu
Tree,” the goddess Lilith made her home in the hollow of a tree until
the hero Gilgamesh cut the tree down to make a throne for Inanna, the
Queen of Heaven. Owls often nest in such places, and Lilith, who be-
came a demon in Hebrew tradition, is referred to as a “screech owl”
in Isaiah (24:14). Babylonian reliefs from the early second millennium
showed a goddess-demon, probably Lilith, with the claws and wings
of an owl, sometimes with owls at her side. Ever since, owls have
been the frequent companions of sorceresses and goddesses. Athena,
the Greek goddess of wisdom and war, is also closely associated with
the owl. Homer refers to her as “owl eyed,” and the earliest depictions
represent her as a woman with the head of an owl. She was later por-
trayed holding an owl aloft in one hand. The Latin word for owl,
“strix,” is the origin of “striga,” or “witch.” In The Golden Ass by Lu-
cius Apuleius, written in first-century Rome, a witch flies off at night
in the form of an owl.
The owl is a loner among birds, a figure of both awe and revul-

Owl 189
sion. In one tale from the Hindu-Per-
sian Panchatantra, the birds were so
impressed by the owl’s venerable de-
meanor that they elected him king.
During the day, when the owl was
asleep, the crow mocked the choice,
saying the owl was repulsive with
his hooked nose and huge eyes. The
birds rescinded their decision, but an
enmity between owl and crow has
remained to this day.
In the Middle Ages the owl of-
ten represented the Jews, for, like
them, the bird was said to have
“scorned the light.” Writers of antiq-
uity, including Pliny the Elder and
Aelian, had observed that other birds
mobbed the owl when it appeared
during the day. This idea was used
later in Christian Europe as a justifi-
Sepa, a Chthonic cation for attacks on Jews who ventured beyond their ghetto.
God of Egypt
For Odo of Cheriton, a clergyman writing in Kent during the
Associated with the
early thirteenth century, the owl represented the rich and powerful
who abuse their position. In his fable “The Rose and the Birds,” he
told how the birds came upon a rose and decided that it should go to
the most beautiful bird. They then debated whether this should be the
dove, the parrot, or the peacock but had come to no decision when
they went to sleep. The owl stole the rose during the night, so the
other birds banished him from their presence, and they still attack
him if he shows himself by day. “And what will happen on judgement
day?” Odo continued. “Doubtless all the angels . . . and just souls
will—with screams and tortures—set upon such an owl” (p. 151). It is
a conclusion that anticipates the peasants’ revolts and other revolu-
tionary movements that would start to become more common toward
the end of the Middle Ages.
The aristocrats, who could be contemptuous of the masses, oc-
casionally took the solitary nature of the owl as evidence of its supe-
riority to other birds. A shield from Hungary at the end of the fif-
teenth century, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York,
shows an owl, perched above the coat of arms of a noble family, say-
ing, “Though I am hated by all the birds, I nevertheless enjoy that”
(Schrader, p. 38).

190 Owl
At the same time, the image of the various birds ganging up on
the owl clearly suggested the persecution of Christ. The full ambiva-
lence that people felt toward the owl was expressed in a Middle En-
glish poem from the early twelfth century entitled The Owl and the
Nightingale, which presented a heated debate on many subjects be-
tween the nocturnal bird of prey and the beloved songbird. When the
nightingale accused the owl of filthy habits, the latter replied that it
cleaned the churches and other buildings of mice. When the nightin-
gale taunted the owl by saying that men used its dead body as a scare-
crow, the owl replied that it was proud to be of service after death.
The image of the stuffed owl, however, suggested a crucifix, which
was also a sort of scarecrow set up to keep demons away. The owl
boasted of being able to foresee the future and warn people of im-
pending disaster. No judgment was rendered in the poem, but most
readers think the owl got the better of its adversary. Medieval artists
sometimes placed a cross above the head of an owl to indicate that it
represented the Savior.
The idea that the cry of an owl prophesies death is found in a re-
markable range of cultures from the Greeks and Romans to the Chero-
kee Indians. For the Navaho, the owl was a form taken by ghosts. For
the Kiowa, it was a favored form of magicians after death. The Pueblo
Indians would not enter a house where owl feathers or the body of an
owl was displayed. For the Aztecs, an owl symbolized the god of the
underworld, Techlotl. In the Aztec rites of human sacrifice, the heart
of the victim was placed in a stone container decorated with an owl.
Among several West African tribes such as the Yoruba, the owl is of-
ten a form taken by evil magicians, and simply to see or hear an owl
can bring ill luck. For the Chinese, the great horned owl was the most
powerful symbol of death.
In the modern period, however, life expectancy expanded dra-
matically, and people were no longer so constantly reminded of their
mortality. In consequence, literature began to emphasize the reputa-
tion of the owl for wisdom, not necessarily somber, rather than for
death. Since the nineteenth century the “wise old owl” is probably
most familiar as a figure in books for children. In the film Bambi by
Disney Studios (1942), an owl is even shown benevolently instructing
baby rabbits and other creatures of the forest.
In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories, wizards communicate by
sending letters by owl. Harry, a budding young wizard who is learn-
ing magic at Hogwarts School, has an owl named Hedwig who keeps
him company during lonely evenings. When not working as his mes-
senger, she flies freely in and out of Harry’s room, sometimes bring-

Owl 191
ing back dead mice, and affectionately nibbles on his ear.
Nevertheless, the fear that owls traditionally aroused has by no
means vanished entirely. In the late twentieth century, a proposal to
control the population of rats by importing owls was raised several
times in New York City. The idea never got very far, in part because
the call and eyes of an owl during dark urban nights have proved too
upsetting to people.
Selected References
Medlin, Faith. Centuries of Owls in Art and the Written Word. Norwalk,
CT: Silvermine Publishers, 1968.
Odo of Cheriton. The Fables of Odo of Cheriton. Trans. John C. Jacobs.
New York: Syracuse University Press, 1985.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York:
Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Books, 1998.
Ryder, Arthur W., ed. The Panchatantra. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1964.
Schrader, J. L. A Medieval Bestiary. New York: Metropolitan Museum of
Art, 1986.
Stone, Brian, trans. The Owl and the Nightingale/Cleanness/St. Erkenwald.
2nd ed. New York: Penguin, 1988.
Weinstein, Krystyna. The Owl in Art, Myth, and Legend. New York:
Crescent Books, 1985.
Wolkstein, Diane, and Samuel Noah Kramer. Inanna: Queen of Heaven
and Earth. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.

192 Owl
See Lion, Tiger, Panther, and Jaguar

See Ostrich, Hummingbird, Parrot, and Peacock

See Ostrich, Hummingbird, Parrot, and Peacock

See Heron, Ibis, Crane, and Stork

See Seagull, Albatross, and Other Seabirds

See Heron, Ibis, Crane, and Stork

I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us
as equal.
—Attributed to Winston Churchill

Human attitudes toward pigs may cover an enormous range, but they
are consistent in one respect. We almost always perceive pigs as being
very close to the earth. Perhaps this is in part because they root up the
ground. They are indispensable in looking for truffles in southern
France, since their ability to smell things beneath the soil exceeds that
of even dogs. They also sometimes take baths in mud to escape the
heat. If we see earth as a prison of the spirit, we are likely to hate pigs;
if we long for contact with the earth, we may love them. For better or

Woodcut by Hans
Weiditz (Augsburg,
1531) showing a
monk placing the
papal crown on
a pig.

worse, they represent the joys and limitations of the flesh. The pig is
holy, yet perfectly at home in Hell. The pig is gentle, yet harbors such
wildness that even devils are terrified. The pig is revered, hated, loved,
feared, admired, exploited, laughed at, and regarded as a friend. It is
as if the pig were the entire animal kingdom in a single form.
The ambivalence was already present in the earliest civilizations.
Pigs have large litters, which helped to make them a symbol of fertil-
ity. Ancient Egyptian women who wished to have children sometimes
wore amulets depicting a sow and piglets. Pigs would also assist in
agriculture by turning over the soil so it could be more easily plowed.
Nut, the beloved Egyptian goddess of the sky, was sometimes de-
picted as a pig. Nevertheless, Set, the evil brother who kills the god
Osiris, was also sometimes given porcine form. He is a very early im-
age of the Devil. Traditional devils in medieval times and even today
have the pointed ears and tusks of a boar.
Herodotus wrote that pigs were normally considered so unclean
in Egypt that swineherds were banned from temples. Should an
Egyptian accidentally touch a pig, he would immediately rush to a
river and jump in, not even bothering to undress. Nevertheless, revul-
sion alternated with reverence. Osiris, the god of the dead, was associ-
ated with pigs. At his yearly festival, swine were sacrificed during the
night of a full moon. On the next day everyone would eat pork, which
was otherwise strictly forbidden. Those who were too poor to afford a
pig would form one of dough, which they would then sacrifice.
In India, the bloodthirsty goddess Kali was represented as a
black sow, perpetually giving birth and eating her offspring in an end-
less cycle. The Ramayana, an ancient Hindu epic, recorded how the

194 Pig
earth once began to sink into the waters of oblivion. The god Brahma
took the form of a boar and raised the world up on his tusks.
In Rome and Greece, Demeter, the gentle goddess of agriculture,
was also associated with pigs. On the other hand, the Babylonian
Tammuz, an agricultural deity, was, like the Greek Adonis, killed by
boars while hunting. In the ancient world, boars were often feared not
only for their fierceness but also for the damage they could do to
crops by eating and tearing up fields. When heroes—such as Melea-
ger, Theseus, and Hercules—did manage to kill boars, they often
gained great renown.
In Homer’s Odyssey, the sorceress Circe changed the crew of
Odysseus into pigs for one year, after which Odysseus forced her to
return them to their original form. She symbolized any temptress who
inspires men to behave in a bestial way. Nearly a millennium after the
age of Homer, Plutarch wrote a delightful satire entitled “On the Use
of Reason by So-called ‘Irrational’ Animals.” In Plutarch’s version, at
the request of Odysseus, Circe agreed to change the pigs back into
men, but only if they themselves wanted to change. She called on a
pig named Gryllus to speak for the crew. When Odysseus said that
human beings showed greater courage than animals, Gryllus re-
minded him of the Crommyum sow who, without even the use of
weapons, almost defeated the hero Theseus. When Odysseus said that
humans showed greater reason, Gryllus gave many examples of ani-
mal intelligence; pigs, for example, went to riverbeds and ate crabs to
cure their illnesses. The debate ended abruptly and the manuscript
may never have been finished, but Odysseus was so completely
beaten that it is very hard to imagine a recovery.
The pig can seem very “human” in body as well as mind. The in-
ternal organs of a pig are remarkably similar to those of a human be-
ing. This feature helped make pigs a favorite animal for sacrifice to
the gods, since the sacrificial victim was generally a symbolic substi-
tute for a human being. Whenever the Roman State entered a contract,
a pig would be taken to the temple of Jupiter. As he slit the animal’s
throat with a sacred sickle, the priest would say, “If the Roman peo-
ple injure this pact, may Jupiter smite them as I smite this pig”
(Lewinsohn, p. 102).
In Norse mythology, the god Frey rode in a chariot drawn by the
boar Gollinborsti, whose name means “golden tusks.” The boar’s
head, traditionally served in England at Christmastime, was origi-
nally a sacrifice to Frey. The boar Saehrimnir was killed every evening
and served to the heroes in Valhalla, to be reborn the next day. In a
similar way, pigs in Celtic legend were the food of the gods in other-

Pig 195
Illustration of
various pigs from a
book of natural

worldly feasts. The pigs of Manannán, the Irish god of the sea, would
reappear after being eaten.
For the Hebrews, however, pigs were not merely “unclean”; they
were the most repulsive of animals. Perhaps it was because pigs were
carriers of the disease trichinosis, but just about every domesticated
animal was a carrier of some disease. Another possible reason was
that pigs had been associated with so many pagan mother-goddesses,
divinities the Hebrews abhorred. It could also be because pigs would
eat just about anything, while the Hebrews were very fastidious about
their food.
For the most part, Christians initially shared the Hebrew view of
pigs as unclean. Matthew told us not to “cast pearls before swine”
(7:6). In Mark, when Jesus cast out demons from a madman, they en-
tered a herd of swine, which then ran out into the sea and were

196 Pig
drowned (5:1–20). It was rare in medieval times for animals to be de-
picted as living on after death, but Dante in his Inferno described pigs
as living in filth in the third level of Hell. Peasant culture of Chris-
tianity, however, sought to distance itself from Judaism and partially
sacralized the pig. Throughout much of Europe, peasant families
raised pigs with special intimacy. Pigs were fed scraps from the table
and treated as pets. When the time finally came for a pig to be slaugh-
tered, it was done ceremoniously; the whole family would be present.
The bones and inedible parts of the pig would later be ritually buried,
in expectation of resurrection.
A pig, usually immaculate, was often painted alongside the her-
mit Saint Anthony. An Italian tale from the Mediterranean islands, re-
told by Italo Calvino, described a time when all fire was in Hell so no
hearths warmed families in winter. People, shivering so badly that
they could barely speak, appealed to Saint Anthony for help. The holy
man went down to the very gate of Hell and knocked with his staff. At
his side, as always, was his faithful pig. A devil opened the door a
crack, looked out, and said, “Get out of here! We know you. You’re a
saint. Only sinners are allowed in Hell!” The pig would not take no for
an answer and forced open the door. The pig knocked down the devil,
scattered a pile of pitchforks, and raised so much hell in Hell that the
devils were terrified. “Come in and get your pig!” shouted the devils
to Saint Anthony. The saint walked in and touched the pig lightly with
his staff. The animal became completely calm. “Now get out of here,
both of you, and don’t ever come back again!” shouted the devils.
Without a word or even a grunt, Saint Anthony and his pig walked
away. What the devils didn’t know was that Saint Anthony was carry-
ing a spark of fire concealed within his staff. As soon as Saint Anthony
and his pig reached earth, the holy man swung the staff above his head
so that sparks flew in all directions. And so, thanks to Saint Anthony
and his pig, people could tell stories in comfort around the fireplace
while the ground was covered with snow (vol. 2, pp. 673–676).
The boar is the last cycle of the Chinese zodiac, and those who
are born in the year of the boar are said to be courageous but stub-
born. The domestic pig in Asia shared a reputation with its Western
counterparts for appetite and earthy charm. The sixteenth-century
Chinese epic Journey to the West told of a monk who undertook a pil-
grimage from China to India to bring back Buddhist scriptures and
save China from chaos. The animals that accompanied him included
a monkey, a horse, a sea monster, and Old Hog, a pig that subdued
demons with his rake. Old Hog may have been a formidable fighter,
but laziness or appetite easily overcame him. As a reward for his good

Pig 197
services, he was finally made not a Buddha but Janitor of the Altars,
and he had the pleasant task of eating scraps left after celebrations.
Aristocratic families of medieval Europe took their animal sym-
bolism far less from Christianity than from warrior religions of their pa-
gan past. The nobles admired boars for their military virtues, and boars
were among the most popular animals in heraldry. When hunted, boars
charge and fight to the end no matter how many dogs and men they
face. Social position in medieval times was indicated by which animals
one was allowed to hunt. As a noble animal, the boar was second only
to the stag in status, and it presented an even greater test of a hunter’s
skill and bravery. Metaphors for love were often drawn from hunting.
In the late medieval British romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the
wife of his host tried to seduce Gawain several times. Once, when
Gawain resolutely rejected her seductions, he was implicitly compared
to a boar confronting a hunting party directly and without fear.
Meanwhile, the Jews retained their traditional abhorrence of the
pig. The Old Testament told how the Greek emperor Antiochus
Epiphanes tried to force Jews to eat pork, which helped set off the fu-
rious revolt of Judas Maccabeus (2 Macc. 7:1–2). Much later, the Span-
ish Inquisition tested Jews who claimed to have converted to Chris-
tianity by requiring them to eat the flesh of pigs.
For those outside the Jewish community, however, it often
seemed that the Jewish avoidance of pork could be attributed only to
worship of the pig. During the first century A.D., Petronius Arbiter
wrote in a poetic fragment, “The Jew may worship his pig-god” (pp.
424–425). For many Christians, the Jewish avoidance of pork ap-
peared to be something like a taboo against cannibalism. In numerous
popular stories, Jews were turned into pigs. A chronicle of wonders
published in Binzwangen, Germany, in 1575 reported that a Jewish
woman gave birth to two piglets. At the end of the Middle Ages in Eu-
rope, a popular anti-Semitic motif was “the Jew’s sow,” an enormous
pig suckling Jewish men.
The fact that pigs foraged freely in woods and were even al-
lowed to enter homes made them particularly vulnerable during ani-
mal trials at the end of the Middle Ages. Prosecutors sometimes al-
leged that pigs had an infernal smell, showing their association with
the Devil. Their grunts and squeals, which seemed disrespectful to the
courts, made things even worse. Plenty of pigs were convicted, and
some acquitted, in courts throughout Europe for such offenses as eat-
ing their own young or having sex with human beings. Those found
guilty were usually either hanged or burned alive.
Since domestic pigs were allowed to roam relatively freely until

198 Pig
around the start of the modern era,
they would often interbreed with
wild boars. Until the nineteenth cen-
tury, they still had gray hair and
tusks. It is only in recent times that
what we usually think of when we
think of pigs—pink, hairless, and
very fat—has been created from al-
bino varieties. The physical change
brought many modifications in both
the use and the symbolism of pigs.
They became an image of those
spoiled by the comforts and privi-
leges of civilization.
In Berlin during the 1920s, there
were several riots by veterans, work-
ing men, Nazis, and Communists.
The police who were summoned to
put down the violence were called “pigs.” In Nazi Germany, Minister Domestic pigs are
of Agriculture R. Walter Darré wished to proclaim the pig the central generally looked on

animal of the Aryan people, but other Nazis identified pigs with Jews. with affection in
books for children,
Student rebels throughout much of the world took up this epithet
in part because of
again in the 1960s, using it to taunt both politicians and law-enforce-
their dependence
ment officers. In 1968, protesters at the Democratic convention in
and vulnerability.
Chicago held a mock convention and nominated a pig for president.
This illustration
In his novella Animal Farm, first published in 1946, George Or- from the early
well used the modern farm as an allegory for the totalitarian state. twentieth century
Pigs, as the most intelligent of animals, led a revolt against the brutal by W. Heath is a
farmer Jones. “All animals are equal,” the pigs proclaimed, but they good example.
later added, “some are more equal than others” (p. 123). A Berkshire
boar named Napoleon drove out his porcine rivals, learned to walk on
two legs, and exploited the other animals as much as human beings
had ever done.
Such a depiction of pigs may be excellent literature, but it is still
rather ungracious. Pigs are among the most useful of animals to hu-
man beings. Just about every part of the body of a pig is used; pud-
ding is made from the blood of pigs, and sausages are wrapped in the
intestines; the leather of a pig’s skin is highly prized. The ability of
pigs to digest almost anything and convert it into edible material
makes them especially helpful to farmers. For the most part, pigs re-
ceive remarkably little gratitude; they are often kept in cramped,
filthy conditions until the time of slaughter arrives.

Pig 199
Pigs are still among the most beloved figures in books and
movies for children. These include Wilbur (from E. B. White’s Char-
lotte’s Web), Porky Pig, and Babe, all gentle figures who show little of
either the valor or the filthy habits traditionally associated with
swine. Miss Piggy, the biggest star of The Muppet Show, is a modern
heir to ancient porcine goddesses such as Nut. She has starred in fea-
ture films, written a popular book on fashion, and been featured on
posters and calendars. Miss Piggy is forever flirting. She may act vain
and clumsy, but you had better not laugh at her too openly. She has
the superhuman strength and fierceness of her porcine ancestors,
which so impressed people in ancient times.
Selected References
Calvino, Italo. Fiabe Italiano: Raccolte e transcitte da Italo Calivino
(2 vols.). Milan: Oscar Mondadori, 1986.
Caras, Roger A. A Perfect Harmony: The Intertwining Lives of Animals
and Humans throughout History. New York: Simon and Schuster,
Digard, Jean-Pierre. L’homme et les animaux domestiques. Paris: Fayard,
Fabre-Vassas, Claudine. The Singular Beast: Jews, Christians, and the Pig.
Trans. Carol Volk. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
Herodotus. Herodotus (4 vols.). Trans. A. D. Godley. New York: G. P.
Putnam’s Sons, 1926.
Lewinsohn, Richard. Animals, Men, and Myths: An Informative and
Entertaining History of Man and the Animals around Him. New York:
Harper and Brothers, 1954.
Nissenson, Marilyn, and Susan Jones. The Ubiquitous Pig. New York:
Harry N. Abrams, 1996.
Orwell, George. Animal Farm. New York: Harcourt, Brace and
Janovich/Signet Classics, 1946.
Petronius Arbiter. Petronius/ Sececa, Apocolocyntosis. Trans. Michael
Heseltine, W. H. D. Rouse, E. H. Warmington. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1997.
Sax, Boria. Animals in the Third Reich: Pets, Scapegoats, and the Holocaust.
New York: Continuum, 2000.
Wu Ch’eng-en. Journey to the West (4 vols.). Trans. Anthony C. Yu.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

See Dove and Pigeon

See Beaver, Porcupine, Badger, and Miscellaneous Rodents

200 Pigeon
See Hare and Rabbit

Rat and Mouse

Rats! They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women’s chats
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.
—Robert Browning, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”

For the most part, rodents and people may be rivals and enemies, yet
the two have a paradoxical intimacy, a bit like a married couple who
cannot live in harmony yet find it impossible to separate. Rats and
mice can adapt to a vast range of environments, and they are quite ca-
pable of living without human beings. Nevertheless, they thrive par-
ticularly in urban settings, where humans inadvertently provide them
with great quantities of food and enclosures for shelter. As carriers of
plague, rodents have killed untold millions of people in the course of
human history. Even today, all our technologies cannot prevent rats
and mice from devouring about a quarter of the grain grown for hu-
man consumption. In the West, rats often appear in nightmares, and
they can inspire revulsion and terror. Nevertheless, their ability to
survive earns grudging respect and admiration from people. In the
Orient, rats are associated above all with prosperity, since they gather
wherever food is plentiful. A Japanese proverb goes, “Getting rich is
to invite the rat” (Sun, p. 29).

Most of folklore up through at least the Renaissance distin-
guishes only loosely between rats and mice. In Greek and Latin both
kinds of animals were generally designated by the word “mus,” which
is the origin of our word “mouse.” The word “rat” comes originally
from the Vulgar Latin “rattus,” a term that probably originated in the
Middle Ages. Like they have done with other pairs of closely related
animals— lions and tigers, for example—people have polarized these
rodents as opposites, so in the West the mouse has become beloved
while the rat has become despised. In ancient manuscripts people
usually tend to translate the word “mus” according to whether the ro-
dents in question seem large and aggressive, like rats, or small and
passive, like mice.
It was not until the nineteenth century that new techniques of
construction enabled people to make buildings ratproof, and before
then rodents were found in every structure, from the barn to the royal
palace. This produced a sort of intimacy with rats and mice, which
must have softened the anger at the damage that they did. Rodents
surely spoiled many meals and even destroyed homes, so it is re-
markable that they were not often demonized in the ancient world.
People might have seen rats and mice only occasionally, but they
could hear them all the time, especially when falling asleep at night.
They could not help but wonder, often with a certain sympathy, what
transpired in the secret society on the other side of holes in the wall.
One early attempt to imagine this is the fable known as “The
Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” included by the Roman poet
Horace in his Satire II. It tells how a country mouse once received a
city mouse in his humble hole, offering him a few scraps of bacon and
remains of vegetables. The city mouse would hardly deign to touch
such fare. He explained to his rural companion that since life was
short, he should make the most of it by spending his time amid more
pleasant surroundings. A short while later the country mouse ac-
cepted an invitation to dinner from the city mouse. The host brought
in course after course of fine dainties left over from a banquet the
evening before. The guest was rejoicing in his good fortune, when all
of a sudden somebody started banging on the doors and the entire
house trembled at the barking of two ferocious hounds. The terrified
country mouse took his leave, saying he would rather live in peace
than risk his life for sumptuous delights. The fable, a classic expres-
sion of the contrast between the city slicker and the country bumpkin,
has been constantly retold, often set in contemporary urban centers
such as New York or London.
People have been continually amazed at the ability of rodents to

202 Rat and Mouse

get to food no matter how carefully it seemed to be locked up. Up
through the nineteenth century and even today, they have tried to ex-
plain this with countless anecdotes in which admiration for the inge-
nuity of rodents almost always seems to cancel any resentment of
them as pests. Many authors, for example, told how one mouse or rat
would lie on its back and hold an egg in its paws in order to be
dragged like a sled by colleagues. Others would tell how mice stood
on one another’s shoulders to form a living ladder in order to reach
food on a table. Many authors even maintained that rodents had cus-
toms such as burying their dead.
But no affection for rats could ever overcome the practical ne-
cessity of keeping the rodent population under control. The Egyptians
sometimes depicted mice with affection, but they also kept mon-
gooses and cats in their homes to catch rodents. The eternal rivalry be-
tween cat and mouse became a favorite theme of storytellers, from
Aesop and his fables to the producers of the “Tom and Jerry” car-
toons in America during the twentieth century. In one popular fable
from the Middle Ages, the mice met in council to decide what they
should do about the cat. They agreed that the greatest danger from the
cat lay in the silence of its approach. One mouse proposed that a bell
be tied around the neck of the cat to warn them of its approach. The
members of the council applauded until an old mouse got up and
asked, “Who will bell the cat?”
Herodotus tells of an Egyptian king named Sethos who had once
alienated the warrior class by claiming the soldiers’ ancestral lands.
When the Assyrian Sanacharib invaded Egypt, the warriors refused to
support the king, who was also a priest of the sun god Ra. Sethos en-
tered the inner sanctuary of Ra’s temple, prayed, and wept until he
fell asleep. The god appeared to him in a dream and told him not to
worry. He should gather whatever soldiers he could, even if they
were only merchants or artisans, and go forth to face the enemy. The
two armies were encamped opposite each other. On the night before
the battle, a swarm of field mice entered the camp of the Assyrians.
They devoured the bowstrings and quivers of the enemy, leaving
them weaponless. A statue of Sethos was later erected in the temple of
Ra. In his hand, the king held a mouse. The inscription read, “Look on
me, and fear the gods” (book 2, section 141).
Since the lion is a symbol of kingship, it seems possible that that
story may be the ultimate origin of the Aesopian fable “The Lion and
the Mouse,” which was retold by the Roman freedman Phaedrus and
many others. A lion had caught a mouse, which begged to be let go,
saying it might someday return the favor. The lion was so amused at

Rat and Mouse 203

the idea that so tiny a creature could ever help the king of beasts that
he magnanimously lifted his paw and spared the mouse. A while later
hunters caught the lion in a trap. The mouse passed by and, seeing its
friend struggling haplessly, gnawed the ropes and set the lion free.
The Japanese tell a story about the medieval painter Sesshu, who
was once tied up during his childhood as punishment for idling away
his time with art. He drew pictures of rats by moving his feet in the
sand. The pictures were so vivid that the rats came to life and gnawed
at his bonds. A modern rendering of this theme is Edgar Allan Poe’s
famous story “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Rats had tormented a man
who had been tied up in a dungeon by the Inquisition, but they ulti-
mately liberated him by gnawing away his bonds.
All of the stories of liberation by rats or mice may also refer to
the emancipation of the soul at death. Because of their preference for
human dwellings, rodents have often been taken for the souls of the
departed. Because of their association with the next world, they are
often credited with clairvoyance. Throughout the world, rats leaving
a home or ship is a sign of impending ruin. In another Greco-Roman
fable traditionally attributed to Aesop, a farmer once noticed that a
mountain was rumbling, rocks were tumbling down, and dust was
spewing from its summit. He decided that the mountain was in labor,
and he called his companions to see what it might give birth to. As
they gazed on in fear and wonder, a tiny mouse finally emerged and
came running down the slope. The story may well have originally re-
ferred to the emergence of the soul from the body. Sometimes a rodent
also represents the separable soul, which can run about while a per-
son is in a trance or asleep. In the Walpurgis Night episode in the first
part of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, the protagonist dances
with a young witch at a nocturnal revel, but he is horrified when a rat
leaps out of her mouth and runs away.
This idea of rodents as the souls of human beings seems to un-
derlie the mysterious tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, which was
recorded in several versions during the Middle Ages. In 1284 the town
of Hamelin in Germany became infested with rats, and the village
council hired a brightly dressed piper to get rid of them. He played a
mysterious tune that made the rats follow him, and he led them into
the Weser River to drown. The Piper disappeared for a while, but he
returned on Saint John’s Day to demand payment. When the village
refused to pay what the Piper wanted, he began to play his pipe
again, and this time the children followed him. A mountain opened
up to receive the procession and closed after it, so the children were
never seen again. The Grimm brothers made the story famous in their

204 Rat and Mouse

collection of German legends, and Robert Browning, Goethe, and oth-
ers have retold it. Various scholars have traced the tale back to the
bubonic plague, to the Children’s Crusade of the Middle Ages, or to a
migration southward to Bohemia. In any case, the image of the Piper
with the children or rats greatly resembles medieval representations
of Death leading the departed in a dance.
There is also at least a very strong association between rodents
and the dead in the legend of Bishop Hatto of Mainz, Germany. There
was a famine, but Hatto continued to dine in luxury and refused to
lower the prices on his ample store of grain. Finally, weary of hearing
the starving people complain, he invited all who lacked bread to as-
semble in a huge barn. Then, instead of offering the people food, he
set the barn on fire and burned them to death. Next morning the
bishop rose and saw that rats had eaten his portrait. A servant in-
formed him that rats had eaten everything in the granary. He looked
out over his lands to see a huge army of rats descending on the palace.
In terror, the bishop fled to an island in the Rhine and locked himself
up in a structure known today as the Mouse Tower. The rats followed,
gnawed through the door, and finally ate the villain alive.
The perspective on rats in East Asia is far more unequivocally
positive. As legend has it, when the Buddha was near death all the an-
imals came to pay their last respects. The ox was leading the way, and
the rat hitched a ride upon its back. As they reached the pavilion
where the Buddha lay, the rat jumped down, raced ahead, and arrived
before the other animals. As a reward for piety, the Buddha granted
the rat the first position in the Chinese zodiac.
Daikoku, the Buddhist god of wealth, is often depicted holding
a large bale of rice that is being nibbled at by rats. These rodents serve
him as messengers. The amazing fertility of rodents makes them sym-
bolic of the way money can increase through good business, though
even Daikoku has sometimes had to guard his store from rats.
In the Middle Ages, rats were sometimes familiars of witches or
forms in which sorcerers ran about at night. It was not, however, un-
til some centuries after the worst episodes of the bubonic plague that
we start to see intense expressions of aversion and disgust for rats, as
people gradually began to suspect their connection with disease. The
reputation of rats took a drastic turn for the worse at the end of the
nineteenth century, when the French missionary Paul Louis Simmond
discovered that bubonic plague had been caused by a bacillus that
was found on fleas carried by rats. This meant that, without being
identified, rats had been responsible for the deaths of millions of peo-
ple, more than were killed in all the wars throughout human history.

Rat and Mouse 205

Bubonic plague may have been around since the advent of hu-
mankind, but the first probable reference to it is in the Bible. In the
early eleventh century B.C., the Philistines had defeated the Hebrews
and taken the Ark of the Covenant. “The hand of Yahweh weighed
heavily on the people of Ashdod [Philistines] and struck terror in
them, afflicting them with tumors” (1 Sam. 5:6). Outbreaks of the
plague gradually became more common and more severe as the
growth of trade increased the density of population during the Ro-
man Empire. The plague of Justinian in A.D. 531–532 killed tens of mil-
lions, depopulating entire towns and perhaps destroying what re-
mained of ancient civilization.
But the most terrible outbreak of all was in 1348–1350, when
bubonic plague destroyed more than one-third of the population of
Europe. The people of Europe then aggravated the plague by killing
cats and dogs, animals that they mistakenly believed had caused the
disease but that actually had helped to keep the population of rats in
check. Literature and the arts seem to have gradually anticipated
medical discoveries about the plague, since over the next several cen-
turies they increasingly depicted rats, especially in packs, as diabolic.
The plague had sometimes been blamed on Jews, and thousands
of them were burned alive in the Middle Ages in consequence. In the
latter nineteenth and twentieth centuries, rats were often used in anti-
Semitic propaganda. Cartoonists made the proverbial “Jewish nose”
appear like the snout of a rat. In the Nazi propaganda film The Eternal
Jew, directed by Fritz Hippler, the migrations of Jews were compared
to the spread of rats across the world. The physician Hans Zinsser,
doubtless thinking of the two world wars, has observed that the con-
flict between the brown rat, indigenous throughout Eurasia, and the
black rat, brought to Western Europe on the boats of crusaders, was a
very close equivalent to armed conflict among human beings. In
George Orwell’s novel 1984, the most dreaded fate for the hero Win-
ston is to be eaten by rats.
But as the rat has been demonized, the mouse, as though in com-
pensation, has generally grown more beloved. In 1928 Walt Disney,
then a struggling entrepreneur, introduced one of the first animated
films, which starred Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie, a captain
who raucously hooted and danced as he steered his ship. As Disney
Studios grew into a giant corporation, Mickey became more subdued
and, in the eyes of his critics, even bland. The Mickey Mouse Club
was founded as part of the television show Walt Disney Presents. It fea-
tured boys and girls wearing large mouse ears, who sang, danced,
and had adventures.

206 Rat and Mouse

But if mice were identified with cute little kids in entertainment,
the relations with actual rodents remained as troubled as ever. The
strong identification of human beings with rodents continues to pro-
duce not only affection and respect but also hatred and exploitation.
In the United States alone, at least 20 million rodents are killed every
year in experiments. In 1988 the first patent ever was issued for an an-
imal other than a microorganism, namely, the “onco-mouse,” which
was genetically engineered to develop cancer so it could be used in re-
search. The scientific findings will, of course, suggest possible cures
for cancer in human beings, but let us hope the exploitative attitudes
are not generalized to people as well.
Selected References
Aesop. The Fables of Aesop. Ed. Joseph Jacobs. New York: Macmillan,
Baring-Gould, Sabine. Curious Myths of the Middle Ages. London:
Longman’s Green, 1892.
Carlson, Rev. Gergory I. “Horace’s and Today’s Town and Country
Mouse.” Bestia 4 (May 1992): 87–112.
Hendrickson, Robert. More Cunning than Man: A Social History of Rats
and Men. New York: Dorset Press, 1983.
Herodotus. Herodotus (4 vols.). Trans. A. D. Godley. New York: G. P.
Putnam’s Sons, 1926.
Sax, Boria. The Parliament of Animals: Legends and Anecdotes, 1775–1900.
New York: Pace University Press, 1990.
Sun, Ruth Q. The Asian Animal Zodiac. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1974.
Zinsser, Hans. Rats, Lice, and History. New York: Macmillan, 1963.

See Crow, Raven, and Other Corvids

See Snake, Lizard, and Related Animals

For an actress to be a success she must have the face of Venus, the brains of
Minerva, the grace of Terpsichore, the memory of Macaulay, the figure of
Juno, and the hide of a rhinoceros.
—Attributed to Ethel Barrymore

Sometimes the legend and symbolism surrounding an animal be-

comes so elaborate that the creature is completely overshadowed, and
that is the case with the rhinoceros. The rhino may not, of itself, be one
of the most central animals in myth or legend; it has rarely been wor-
shipped in temples or appeared in epic poems. Nevertheless, sight-

Rhinoceros 207
Illustration of rhinos
from a nineteenth-
century book of
natural history.

ings of the rhinoceros probably began and sustained the cult of the
unicorn, which eventually incorporated features of the horse, ass,
goat, and narwhal. The irony is perhaps best illustrated in several me-
dieval treasuries of Europe, where the horn of a narwhal was kept as
a relic of a unicorn. Alongside that horn was often that of a rhinoceros,
which was believed to be a claw of a griffin. If we count the unicorn
as a rhinoceros, the rhino becomes one of the most important cult an-
imals in the world.
The lore of the unicorn has a fascinating but very tangled history
from the start, and there are possible depictions of it going back to
cave paintings. The first description, however, comes from the Greek
Ctesias, who was the physician of the king of Persia around the start
of the fourth century B.C. He considered the animal to be a giant wild
ass, and nothing in nature matches his description. What suggests a

208 Rhinoceros
rhinoceros, however, is his mention of the horn’s being used by Indi-
ans as a goblet and an antidote for poison. Rhinoceros horns have
been used for drinking, and folk medicine attributes to them great po-
tency as both a medicine and an aphrodisiac.
The description of a unicorn, or “monoceros,” by Pliny the Elder
in the first century A.D. is more clearly suggestive of a rhinoceros:
“The wildest animal [in India] is the monoceros, whose body is like a
horse but which has the head of a stag, elephant’s feet and a wild
boar’s tail. It utters a deep, growling sound, and a black horn, two cu-
bits long, protrudes from the center of its forehead. It is said that the
animal cannot be captured alive” (book 8, chap. 5). Actual rhinoceri
had appeared in triumphal processions in Rome, and Pliny may have
seen that animal but failed to connect it with the accounts he had
heard from travelers.
From this point on, the lore of the unicorn became ever more
elaborate and romantic in Europe. Medieval people believed that the
unicorn could never be subdued by force yet would lay its head in the
lap of a virgin and allow itself to be captured. The rhinoceros, mean-
while, was usually known only from confused reports by travelers to
exotic lands and, when mentioned at all, usually seemed diabolic by
virtue of its brute power. When Marco Polo saw a Sumatran rhinoc-
eros on his voyage to China, he was able to connect it with the fabled
unicorn. “All in all,” he wrote, “they are nasty creatures, they always
carry their piglike heads to the ground, like to wallow in the mud, and
are not in the least like the unicorns of which our stories speak in Eu-
rope. Can an animal of their race feel at ease in the lap of a virgin?”
(Eisler, p. 269).
One feature of the unicorn, however, which observation did not
seem to contradict was its reputation for near invincibility. Manuel I
of Portugal brought a rhinoceros to Lisbon, the first in Europe since
Roman times, in 1517. As an experiment, the king set the rhinoceros
against an elephant on a street, and the pachyderm sought refuge by
crashing through the iron bars of a large window. Not very long af-
terward, Duke Alessandro de Medici had a rhinoceros engraved on
his armor with the motto “I make war to win” (Eisler, p. 272).
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, people were particu-
larly fascinated by the combination of melancholy and power in the
rhinoceros. The graceful unicorn, known through the accumulation of
lore over the centuries, appeared familiar and even “natural,” but the
rhinoceros often came across as a bizarre freak. The Romanian-French
dramatist Eugene Ionescu, the leading exponent of a school known as
“Theater of the Absurd,” used the perceived strangeness of these an-

Rhinoceros 209
imals in his play Rhinoceros (first performed 1958) to dramatize the ar-
bitrary quality of social mores. The hero of the play is a clerk named
Berenger who gradually discovers that all of his friends and col-
leagues are turning into rhinoceri. He resolves, probably in vain, to re-
main a human being.
There are many other versions of the unicorn throughout Eura-
sia and beyond. The oldest may be the Ky-lin, which emerged from
the Yellow River before the emperor Fu Hsi around the start of the
third millennium B.C. At least in those areas where the rhinoceros is
known, it is usually at least vaguely associated with these legendary
cousins. Today, as many species of rhinoceros approach extinction,
governments struggle, with only limited success, to prevent poachers
from killing the animals for their fabulous horns.
Selected References
Beer, Rüdiger Robert. Unicorn: Myth and Reality. Trans. Charles M.
Stern. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1972.
Eisler, Colin. Dürer’s Animals. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institu-
tion Press, 1991.
Gotfredsen, Lise. The Unicorn. New York: Abbeville Press, 1999.
Ionescu, Eugene. Rhinoceros; The Chairs; The Lesson. New York:
Penguin, 1996.
Pliny. Natural History (10 vols.). Trans. H. Rackham, W. H. S. Jones
et al. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953.
Rybot, Doris. It Began before Noah. London: Michael Joseph, 1972.
Shephard, Odell. The Lore of the Unicorn. New York: The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, 1982.

See Wren and English Robin

See Beaver, Porcupine, Badger, and Miscellaneous Rodents

See Crow, Raven, and Other Corvids

210 Robin
See Snake, Lizard, and Related Animals

Salmon and Carp

Now I am swimmer who dies,
Who runs with rain and moon and salt-wind tide,
River and falls and sweet pebble water.
—Kwakiutl Indians, “Swimmer the Salmon”
(adapted by Gerald Hausman)

Since very archaic times, people have thought of the sea as the womb
from which all life emerges. Fish have symbolized the inexhaustible
fertility of nature, and they have been closely associated with mother-
goddesses such as Tiamat and Atargatis. Fishermen are the last
hunter-gatherers, and in ancient times they were already surrounded
by nostalgia and romance. The first disciples of Jesus were fishers,
and Christ told them, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men”
(Matt. 4:19). The fish was the earliest symbol of Christ, and the Hindu
Vishnu has often been depicted riding upon a fish. But despite their
enormous importance in religion and other aspects of human culture,
fish are remarkably difficult to humanize. The reason may be a com-
bination of their remote, expressionless eyes and their utter silence,
which are such a contrast to the expressive glances and constant
speech of human beings. Even in the animistic world of folklore, a
talking fish is only rarely found, and when a fish does speak, it is usu-
ally in connection with some remarkable event.
The salmon, however, lives according to a remarkably “human”
pattern. It is born in freshwater, migrates to the ocean, and finally re-
turns, sometimes swimming hundreds of miles upstream, to the place
of its birth to spawn. Atlantic salmon may sometimes make the jour-
ney a few times during their lives, but Pacific salmon die after laying
eggs. In their determination to complete their destiny, salmon seem

not only human but also very noble indeed. The entire life of a salmon
may be understood as a sort of quest. It follows the mythic pattern de-
scribed by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, where
the archetypal hero, after many adventures, returns to end his life in
the place of his birth. The way the salmon crosses the boundary be-
tween freshwater and the sea suggests a passage between the realm of
men and that of immortals, and the salmon is a symbol of transcen-
dence in many cultures.
Fish carved on antlers of reindeer have been excavated in Pale-
olithic settlements of Spain and France, and a few of these fish are
clearly recognizable as salmon. According to the Norse Eddas, Loki,
the god of fire, assumed the form of a salmon to hide beneath a wa-
terfall after he had offended the other deities with his taunts. The
salmon is most central in the cultures of the Celts and the Indians of
North America. The salmon of wisdom, which has superhuman
knowledge, appears often in the myths and legends of the Celts. In
the tale “The Marriage of Culhwch and Owlen,” this is the salmon of
Llyn Llyw, one of the oldest animals in the world. When King Arthur
and his knights seek the hunter Mabon, they consult this salmon, who
not only tells them where Mabon is imprisoned but then ferries two
men to the place upon its back.
According to one Irish legend, a giant had once caught the
salmon of wisdom and told the hero Finn MacCumhail to roast it for
him. A blister arose on the salmon, and Finn pressed the burn with his
thumb, which he placed in his mouth to ease the pain. He immedi-
ately was filled with wisdom, and he knew exactly how to defeat the
giant. In other versions of the tale, Finn was asked to roast the salmon
by an old poet named Finnegas.
Several tales place five salmon of wisdom in Connla’s well near
Tipperary. Above the well were nine hazel trees, and their purple nuts
would fall into the well to feed the salmon. The hazelnuts represented
the spirit of poetry, and the sound of their striking the water was said
to be lovelier than any human song. The bellies of the salmon were
purple from the nuts, and their wisdom constantly increased. Only
the salmon could eat the nuts in safety, yet legend has it that the god-
dess Sinend was once so eager for wisdom that she defied a prohibi-
tion and approached too close to the well, whereupon the waters rose
and swallowed her.
A similar tale is told of a young girl named Liban in The Book of
the Dun Cow, from the early Middle Ages. A well overflowed and
formed a lake, and Liban was swept to the bottom with her dog, but
God protected them from the waters. The two stayed there for a year,

212 Salmon and Carp

when Liban saw a salmon and prayed, “O my Lord, I wish I were a
salmon, that I might swim with the others through the clear green
sea!” In that moment she became a salmon from the waist down,
while her dog became an otter, and together they swam about for 300
years. Finally, she allowed herself to be captured by some holy men
and taken to a cloister. She died immediately after being baptized and
was consecrated as one of the holy virgins (Joyce, pp. 68–73).
The return of a salmon to its place of birth has suggested the
coming of Christ, and the transition between Celtic religion and
Christianity was probably eased by the shared symbolism of the fish.
A similar significance was eventually accorded in Celtic areas to eels,
which share with salmon the ability to move between pond and
ocean. The salmon of knowledge could also be the ultimate origin of
the wise fish in such popular fairy tales as the Grimm brothers’
“Fisherman and His Wife,” where it is a flounder, and Alexandr
Afanas’ev’s “Emilya and the Pike.”
The salmon also represents rebirth among Native American
tribes of the Northwest coast such as the Kwakiutl and Haida, al-
though not so much as a unique event but as part of an eternal cycle.
A salmon swimming upstream as it endeavors to elude predators such
as bears represents the individual bravely endeavoring to complete
his or her destiny. Finally, after spawning, the dead salmon are swept
back into the ocean, representing the ultimate union with all of life.
The carp is essentially a freshwater fish, but it also swims up-
stream, sometimes leaping over falls, to spawn. In East Asia, the carp
is a symbol of perseverance, and it is used especially to signify the
scholar who studies hard to pass his or her examinations. According
to ancient legends of China, a carp on reaching its destination would
become a dragon. Because it suggested transcendence, the carp was
also a frequent form for paper kites. The bright scales of a carp re-
semble armor, so the carp was often used as a symbol of samurai war-
riors. Oriental gods and goddesses have often been depicted riding
upon a carp.
The first recorded versions of the enormously popular fairy tale
“Cinderella” came in the early ninth century in China, and the helper
of the young girl—that is, the equivalent of the fairy godmother in the
well-known version by Charles Perrault—was a fish. The young girl
took the fish home from a well, to be kept in a pond. Her wicked step-
mother killed the fish out of spite, but the heroine prayed to its bones,
which would grant her every wish. The kind of fish was not specified,
but, since it was brightly colored and kept as a pet, it certainly appears
to have been a carp.

Salmon and Carp 213

While the cultural importance of the salmon probably derives
largely from its gastronomic value, that of the carp is largely orna-
mental. Carp were introduced to Europe from the Far East in about
the fifteenth century, and they have greatly extended their range
throughout the world with the growth of trade. Salmon, by contrast,
are now everywhere endangered, partly because of excessive fishing
but mostly because of dam construction along their migratory routes.
They are produced for the market in hatcheries, in varieties that are
artificially bred and even genetically engineered. These are sometimes
inadvertently released into the wild, where they interbreed with wild
salmon, often further endangering the original inhabitants of streams.
In terms of contact with human beings, it would seem to be safer for
animals to be beautiful than useful.
Selected References
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1990.
Davis, Courtney, and Dennis O’Neil. Celtic Beasts: Animal Motifs and
Zoomorphic Design in Celtic Art. London: Blandford, 1999.
Glassie, Henry, ed. Irish Folk Tales. New York: Pantheon, 1985.
Grantz, Jeffrey, trans. The Mabinogion. New York: Dorset Press, 1976.
Hausman, Gerald. Meditations with Animals: A Native American
Bestiary. Santa Fe: Bear, 1986.
Jameson, R. D. “Cinderella in China.” In Cinderella: A Casebook.
Ed. Alan Dundes. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988,
pp. 71–97.
Joyce, P. W., ed. Old Celtic Romances: Tales from Irish Mythology. New
York: Devin-Adair, 1962.
Larrington, Caroline, trans. The Poetic Edda. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1996.
Netboy, Anthony. The Salmon: Their Fight for Survival. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1973.
Wentz, W. Y. Evans. The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. London: Colin
Smythe, 1977.

Do not forget Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery: who guided you through this vast and dreadful
wilderness, a land of fiery serpents, scorpions, thirst . . .”
—Deuteronomy 8:14–15

Since the scorpion is found in cracks, crevices, holes, and enclosed

places, it is associated with chthonic powers. Much like a snake, it can
strike unexpectedly. Its sting can be very painful and sometimes
deadly. Though often a symbol of evil, the scorpion can also be an in-
strument of divine retribution.

214 Scorpion
This dual symbolism was al-
ready apparent in ancient Egypt. It
was in the form of a scorpion that the
god Set, evil brother of Osiris, at-
tacked the infant Horus—no doubt
an experience familiar to the ancient
Egyptians since children were partic-
ularly vulnerable to the sting of this
creature. The divine infant was saved
by the medicine of Thoth, god of
knowledge. Selket, a goddess of mar-
riage, fertility, and the underworld,
could, however, also use the power
of the scorpion to fight demonic
powers. She was often depicted with
the body of a scorpion and the head
of a woman, sometimes also as a
scorpion holding an ankh, the Egypt-
ian cross. In addition, she was
painted as a woman with a scorpion
on her head or in her hand, an image
that the Romans eventually began to
use as an allegorical representation
of the African continent.
The Babylonian equivalent of
Selket is the goddess Ishara, who is
associated with love and with moth-
erhood. In her honor, the scorpion
first became a constellation of the zodiac among the Semitic peoples
of Mesopotamia. Scorpion-men frequently appear in the art and liter- from an inlaid
ature of Mesopotamia. They usually have the heads of human beings, harp found in
the wings and talons of birds, a serpent for a penis, and the tail of a excavations of Ur,
scorpion. Sometimes they are associated with Tiamat, the sinister circa 2600 B.C.
mother-goddess, but they are also attendants of the sun god Shamash
and guard his realm against demons. In the epic of Gilgamesh, a scor-
pion-man and scorpion-woman guard the mountain where the sun
According to a Greco-Roman legend, the great hunter Orion
boasted that he would kill all animals. On hearing that, the earth-
mother Gaia sent a scorpion, which bit his heel and killed him. Ascle-
pius (or Ophiuchus), the divine physician, restored Orion to life, but
Zeus would not accept this interference in the process of life and

Scorpion 215
death. The supreme god sent a thun-
derbolt, which killed Orion a second
time. Placed in the zodiac, the scor-
pion and Orion now represent death
and life, whose eternal battle is en-
acted as the sun moves between the
two constellations.
In China the scorpion was one
of the five venomous animals, but
images of it could help keep at bay
demons or illness. In Zoroastrian re-
Selket, a scorpion- ligion, the scorpion was a creation of the power of darkness, or Ahri-
goddess of ancient man. In Mithraic religion, however, the scorpion became one of the
Egypt animal companions of Mithras as he sacrificed a great bull to regen-
erate the world.
In Christianity, the scorpion was often a symbol of the Devil,
waiting in ambush for unsuspecting travelers. Jesus told his follow-
ers, “Yes, I have given you power to tread underfoot serpents and
scorpions . . . ” (Luke 10:19). In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance,
the tempter in Eden was sometimes depicted not as a serpent but as a
creature with the face of a woman and the tail of a scorpion, an image
that goes back to Selket. Some moralists misogynistically compared
the scorpion’s habit of hiding in holes to a woman who would hide
perfidious intent behind a beautiful face.
Selected References
Black, Jeremy, and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons, and Symbols of
Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary. Austin: University
of Texas Press, 1992.
Flores, Nona C. “ ‘Effigies Amicitiae . . . Veritatas Inimicitiae’:
Antifeminism in the Iconography of the Woman-Headed Serpent
in Medieval and Renaissance Art and Literature.” In Animals in the
Middle Ages: A Book of Essays. Ed. Nona C. Flores. New York:
Garland, 1996, pp. 167–196.
Houlihan, Patrick F. The Animal World of the Pharaohs. New York:
Thames and Hudson, 1996.
Staal, Julius D. W. The New Patterns in the Sky: Myths and Legends of the
Stars. Blacksburg, VA: McDonald and Woodward, 1988.

Sea Creatures
See Starfish, Clam, Octopus, and Other Creatures of the Sea Floor

216 Sea Creatures

Seagull, Albatross, and Other Seabirds
At length did cross an Albatross,
Through the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in god’s name.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Mariners traditionally observe seabirds closely, since the behavior of

these creatures can tell them about subtle changes in the weather or
the distance from land. Interpreting the flight and calls of birds, how-
ever, is a fairly intuitive art, and it is still often hard to distinguish rea-
sonable calculation from superstition. The lore of mariners, especially
those from the British Isles, is full of superstitions about seagulls and
related birds.
Three gulls flying overhead together are an omen of death. To
kill an albatross or gull brings bad luck, and the fisherman should im-
mediately release any bird caught in his net. Should a seagull fly
against the window of a sailor’s house while he is away, it is a sign
that the master is in danger. Seagulls are remarkable flyers, able to as-
cend to great heights or hover on the wind. The ability of seagulls and
related birds to glide on currents of the wind while remaining almost
motionless makes them appear as a cross when seen from below, and
so they have sometimes been held in religious regard. These birds fol-
low ships, as though drawn by some kinship with human beings.
Their calls are loud and confident yet also plaintive. Gulls and other
seabirds can also easily appear to be spirits, especially when their
white feathers are seen at night against a dark sky. Sailors from at least
medieval times to the present have believed that gulls, albatrosses,
and stormy petrels were the souls of people drowned at sea.
Ovid told the story of how the impetuous Greek hero Diomed
had wounded the goddess Venus, the Greek Aphrodite, when she ap-
peared in the fields before Troy. Later, as he returned home after vic-
tory, his boat was tossed about by terrible storms. The sailors knew
this was the vengeance of Venus. One hotheaded crewman named Ac-
mon heaped his scorn on the goddess and challenged her to do her
worst. His companions rebuked him, and he tried to answer. The
words would not come, for his voice grew thin, his mouth became a
beak, and his arms were covered with feathers. He first and then his
companions were turned into white birds, gulls and their various rel-
atives. In The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius, a gull flew about the
world to bring back news to Venus.
Ovid also wrote in his Metamorphoses that when Ceyx, king of
Thrace, was preparing to journey by sea to consult an oracle, his wife

Seagull, Albatross, and Other Seabirds 217

Alcyone was seized with foreboding. She pleaded with him to re-
main. She reminded him of the shards of ships washed up on the
shore. When Ceyx insisted on leaving, she begged to accompany him.
That way, she said, should the ship go down in a storm, at least they
would lie together. After a long pause, Ceyx refused, promising to be
home again within two months’ time. The premonitions of Alcyone
proved true, and the ship went down in a terrible storm. Juno, the
goddess of marriage, sent a dream of Ceyx to Alcyone. He appeared
naked and pale, and water flowed through his hair and beard.
Alcyone woke and ran to the sea by the light of dawn. In the distance
she could see a body. As it floated toward her, she slowly recognized
her husband. When Alcyone ran toward him, her feet skimmed over
the surface of the sea. Her arms changed into wings, her nose into a
beak. Ceyx rose from the sea, and they became a pair of birds. Since
that time the winds and sea stay calm for seven days in winter as Al-
cyone broods on her nest on the surface of the waters. Ovid does not
identify the birds, but tradition makes the wife a halcyon, a half-leg-
endary bird mentioned by many authors from Homer on, which
scholars believe was a mythologized kingfisher. The name Ceyx
means “tern,” but Ovid was far more interested in vivid tales than in
ornithology, and he probably thought of both husband and wife sim-
ply as birds of the sea.
The albatross is reportedly able to predict the weather. In Japan
the albatross is a servant of the sea god and, therefore, auspicious. In
the West, however, an albatross following a ship has been considered
a herald of storms. In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Rime of the
Ancient Mariner” (1800), the narrator kills an albatross that accompa-
nies his ship, apparently on a perverse impulse but probably also in
an attempt to evade a tempest. The ship is then stopped by a terrible
calm, and the crew drapes the dead albatross about his shoulders as a
cross. Only when he learns to love his fellow creatures does the bird
fall from his neck.
Selected References
Beck, Horace. Folklore of the Sea. Mystic, CT: Mystic Seaport Museum,
Hole, Christina, E. Radford, and M. A. Radford. The Encyclopedia of
Superstitions. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1996.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Rolfe Humphries. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1955.
Pollard, John. Birds in Greek Life and Myth. New York: Thames and
Hudson, 1977.

218 Seagull, Albatross, and Other Seabirds

Seal and Dolphin
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.
—W. B. Yeats, “Byzantium”

Dolphins and seals are aquatic mammals that seem to have a special
affinity for human beings. Seals spend a good deal of time sunning
themselves on coastal rocks, and they will stare at people in the dis-
tance. They will usually scatter into the water if somebody ap-
proaches, although in heavily populated coasts, they sometimes lose
their fear of human beings. Dolphins are confined to water, but they
follow ships at sea, often leaping into the air. There are many stories,
some probably true, of dolphins rescuing people from drowning. Peo-
ple have long viewed the upturned mouth of the dolphin as fixed in
a perpetual smile.
Mermaids and mermen have been part of myth and legend at
least since ancient times in Babylon, where they were depicted on
walls. Many cryptozoologists believe that the legends about mer-
maids first originated from observation of seals. Others, however, be-
lieve that the objects of observation were manatees, relatives of seals
that appear far less human in form but more human in their locomo-
tion. At any rate, it has not been difficult for sailors to interpret the
gaze of female seals as one of amorous longing. The Selkie, figures of
British and Irish folklore, are seals that slough off their coats to be-
come human and dance together for an evening on the shore. Some-
times a man will manage to steal the skin of a Selkie maiden and win
her as a bride, though she will generally find the skin eventually and
rejoin her tribe. Many families along the northern and western coasts
of Britain and Ireland trace their ancestry to seal people, and people
in some families can even show webbed hands to prove their origin.
Dolphins have been particularly beloved in Greece, where they
were sacred to Poseidon, god of the sea. They often drew Poseidon’s
chariot and accompanied the Nereids and Tritons in his entourage.
Pliny the Elder wrote, “Dolphins are not afraid of humans as some-
thing alien but come to meet vessels at sea and play and leap around
them; they try to race ships and overtake them even when they are in
full sail” (p. 130).
Apollo was known also as Delphinus, or Lord of the Dolphin.
The Homeric hymn “To Pythian Apollo” relates how the god of the
sun was once looking for priests for his temple when he caught sight
of a boat containing pirates from Crete. Apollo changed himself into
the form of a giant dolphin and leaped from the sea into the ship. The
sailors were too frightened to lower their sail, and a wind drove their

Seal and Dolphin 219

A monkey, having
heard the story of
Arion, impersonates
a human being and
rides on the back of
a dolphin in this
Aesopian fable
illustrated by J. J.

ship until it reached the shrine at Delphi. Then Apollo took the form
of a young man and told the pirates that he had brought them to be
keepers of his sanctuary.
The dolphin was also sacred to Dionysus, a sort of shadow im-
age of Apollo, who shared the shrine at Delphi. According to Apol-
lodorus, Ovid, and others, Dionysus once chartered a pirate ship to
the island of Naxos, not far from Crete, which was to be a center of his
worship. The pirates, not realizing Dionysus was a god, sailed past
his destination, planning to sell him as a slave. The mast and the oars
suddenly turned into snakes, the craft filled with ivy, panthers ap-
peared, and the wild music of flutes drove the pirates mad. The men
leaped from the boat in terror and became dolphins.
In part because their leaps are so rhythmic, dolphins are reputed
to be fond of music. Herodotus told a popular story in which Arion, a
peerless musician on the harp, hired a boat to take him to Corinth.
Once they were on the open sea, the sailors decided to kill Arion and
steal his wealth. Arion entreated them to allow him to sing for one last
time on the quarterdeck, after which he promised to end his life. The
sailors, delighted at the opportunity to hear his song, quickly agreed.
When he had finished his song, he jumped from the boat and landed
upon the back of a dolphin, which then took him to his destination.
Christians would later think of Arion as a martyr, while the dolphin
that bore him away became a symbol of Christ the Savior.

220 Seal and Dolphin

The salvation of Arion was commemorated at Corinth with a
bronze statue of a man riding upon a dolphin, and this became a pop-
ular motif in Greco-Roman art. Since very early times, the dolphin has
been a favorite symbol of port cities in heraldry and on coins. Roman
coins since the time of Emperor Titus showed a dolphin, considered
the fastest of animals, entwined around an anchor with the motto
“Festina lente,” or “Make haste slowly” (Hall, p. 19).
The lore of the dolphin belongs mostly to maritime culture, in
which the ways of many nations have always blended. Because they
seem to have such an affinity for human beings, dolphins have often
been carefully watched by sailors, who use their motions to forecast
weather and, occasionally, fortunes in war. In The Tale of the Heike, a
medieval Japanese epic of the war between the mighty Heike and
Genji clans in the late thirteenth century, a school of about two thou-
sand dolphins suddenly appeared before start of the decisive sea bat-
tle of Dan-no-ura. “The Genji will be destroyed if the dolphins stay on
the surface and then turn back; we will be endangered if they dive
and pass us,” an oracle predicted. As soon as the words were out, the
dolphins passed under the Heike boats and the commanders realized
that they were doomed (McCullough, p. 375).
Occasionally, however, people have interpreted the attraction
dolphins appear to feel for human beings as a longing for a tragically
departed love. The sounds of the dolphins as they play become a bit-
tersweet lament. The Indonesians tell a story about a man who once
beat his wife for giving one of his fish to her son. She went down to
the sea to wash off the blood and found herself changed from the
waist down into a dolphin. Her husband later mended his ways, set
out in search of his wife, and finally was transformed into a porpoise,
but the two were never reunited.
With the use of larger, more mechanized ships, traditional mar-
itime culture has declined, and even sailors no longer feel as intimate
with the sea as in earlier eras. There has, however, been a revival of in-
terest in dolphins as people have come to value mental over physical
abilities. Dolphins have long been reputed to rank among the
smartest of animals. Popular writers and a few scientists of the twen-
tieth century have speculated that they might have an oral culture
that rivals in sophistication that of humankind. A few science fiction
writers have even wondered if dolphins might eventually challenge
human supremacy.
But loneliness, far more than intellect, draws us to seals or dol-
phins and, perhaps, makes them interested in us. For all their well-
deserved reputation for drinking, brawling, and whoring, mariners

Seal and Dolphin 221

traditionally led a very austere life most of the time. Almost alone on
the wide sea, any miracle of love could seem possible.
Selected References
Douglas, Norman. Birds and Beasts of the Greek Anthology. New York:
Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith, 1929.
Hall, James. Illustrated Dictionary of Symbols in Eastern and Western Art.
New York: HarperCollins, 1996.
Herodotus. Herodotus (4 vols.). Trans. A. D. Godley. New York: G. P.
Putnam’s Sons, 1926.
Hine, Daryl, trans. The Homeric Hymns and the Battle of the Frogs and the
Mice. New York: Anthenium, 1972.
Johnson, Allison. Islands in the Sound: Wildlife in the Hebrides. London:
Victor Gollancz, 1989.
Knappert, Jan. Pacific Mythology: An Encyclopedia of Myth and Legend.
London: Diamond Books, 1992.
McCullough, Helen Craig, trans. The Tale of the Heike. Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1988.
Pliny the Elder. Natural History: A Selection. Ed. and trans. John F.
Healey. New York: Penguin, 1991.
Sax, Boria. The Serpent and the Swan: The Animal Bride in Folklore and
Literature. Blacksburg, VA: McDonald and Woodward, 1998.

See Snake, Lizard, and Related Animals

Sheep and Goat

I am not certain that anyone who has not spent time with shepherds can
appreciate the intense involvement that exists between the shepherd and his
flocks. The well being of the flock is all, everything else falls by the wayside. All
that is done the whole year long is attuned to the single overriding consideration
of the flock. Man’s fierceness in defending his flocks and his lack of tolerance for
anything he even imagines impinging on them are remarkable. To people who
keep sheep, it almost seems, every other animal on earth could perish and it
would be of no account.
—Roger Caras, A Perfect Harmony

Sheep and goats were, together with the dog, the first animals to be
domesticated by human beings, around the end of the last ice age.
Over the millennia, the symbolism and patterns of behavior these an-
imals inspired have been especially intimately integrated into human
culture. Sheep and goats are perhaps the only animals that have cre-
ated not only an industry but also an entire way of life. Pastoral peo-
ples must traditionally base almost every activity around their flocks,
staying in one place for a time and then migrating when the edible
vegetation is exhausted. Flocks inspire intense protectiveness, and

222 Serpent
they compel herders to constantly view predators such as wolves and
even neighboring people as possible threats. By moving in unison and
following a leader, sheep especially provide a model for understand-
ing human society.
Sheep also provide wool, for clothing and food. They will gen-
erally eat little besides grass, but they may be kept in rough, moun-
tainous areas that are unsuitable for farming. Goats provide less meat,
but they give copious quantities of milk. What is more, they can eat
almost anything that grows, and they are even able to climb trees to
get at their leaves. Domestic herd animals were the earliest currency
and the first measure of wealth, and contemporary expressions such
as the “growth” of investments hark back to those origins. Tending
flocks offered the best peaceful means to financial advancement in the
relatively static societies of the ancient world, so shepherds were per-
haps the first middle class.
The biblical story of Cain and Abel records an early conflict be-
tween nomadic herders and settled agriculturists. Abel the shepherd
offered the firstborn of his flock to God, while Cain the farmer offered
his produce. God looked with favor only on the sacrifice of sheep,
whereupon Cain killed his brother (Gen. 4:1–8), perhaps as a human
sacrifice. Since herding requires a larger area of land than does farm-
ing, growing density of population gradually forced more people to
turn to agriculture. Nevertheless, the vocation of shepherd remained
an honored one in the ancient world, especially among urban dwellers
who felt nostalgic for a simpler past. It offered plenty of opportunity
for solitude and contemplation. In Theogony, the Greek mythologist
Hesiod describes how he first became a poet when the Muses ap-
peared to him as he tended sheep on the slopes of Mount Helicon.
The Egyptian god Amun was often portrayed with the head of a
ram. The Greeks identified Amun with Zeus, who they believed had
taken the form of a ram when the gods fled temporarily to Egypt in
their war against the titans. To commemorate his escape, Zeus later
placed the ram in the zodiac, where it became the constellation Aries.
Zeus was also identified with a domestic herd animal in his own
right. When the goddess Rhea, his mother, hid the infant Zeus on the
island of Crete to escape the wrath of his father Cronos, the fairy goat
Amalthea suckled him. Later one horn of Amalthea broke off, and
Zeus turned it into the cornucopia, or horn of plenty.
Perhaps because sheep and goats seem to integrate themselves
so well into otherwise forbidding landscapes, the Greeks constantly
associated the two animals with flight and hiding. Odysseus, accord-
ing to Homer, hid himself from the cyclops Polyphemus by clinging

Sheep and Goat 223

Illustration by Julius Schnorr Carolsfeld from the mid-nineteenth century showing God looking with favor on
the sacrifice of Abel while Cain looks on in anger.

to the wool on the belly of a sheep. When the children Phrixus and
Helle were in danger of being sacrificed by their wicked stepmother,
a golden lamb sent by Zeus swooped down from the sky to carry
them away on its back. Helle fell into the sea, but Phrixus was taken
to Colchis, where he sacrificed the ram. Its golden fleece was placed
upon a tree and guarded by a dragon until it was stolen by the hero
Jason, assisted by the princess Medea; today it is used to symbolize
the goal of a mystic quest.
The Hebrews were largely a nation of herders, and many patri-
archs of Israel, including Abraham, Moses, Jacob, and David, tended
flocks. Abraham was commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac but
was stopped at the last moment by an angel, who directed him to a
ram struggling in the bushes, which he was to kill instead of the boy
(Gen. 22). This story is usually interpreted as a test of faith, though
some thinkers also see it as a rejection of human sacrifice. At any rate,

224 Sheep and Goat

it illustrates the close identification, almost to the point of being in-
terchangeable, between Israel and a flock. According to Jewish leg-
end, Moses tended flocks for forty years, not allowing a single sheep
to be hurt by wild beasts or lost. As a reward for his care, God made
Moses the leader of Israel.
When Moses had placed a curse on Egypt that the firstborn in
every home would be slain, Yahweh directed that every household
sacrifice a one-year-old male sheep or goat without blemish and
smear some of the blood on the doorposts or lintel, so that Israel
might be spared (Exod. 12). The Jews commemorate this event in
spring at the feast of Passover, during which a lamb is eaten with un-
leavened bread and bitter herbs. The Last Supper of Christ, com-
memorated in the mass, was probably a Passover meal.
The one other herd animal that has had a comparable role in the
religious history of humanity is the scapegoat. In a passage from
Leviticus, Aaron was directed to take two goats, one of which was to
be sacrificed to Yahweh and the other, the scapegoat, driven into the
desert for the demon Azazel (16:7–10). This event probably reflected a
residual paganism among the Hebrews, which was very promptly re-
pudiated. A slightly later passage in Leviticus states that the Hebrews
“must no longer offer their sacrifices to the satyrs [that is, goats and
associated deities] in whose service they once prostituted themselves”
(17:7). The goat consecrated to Azazel has become a symbol of all who
are made to suffer for the sins of the community, for example, Jews in
Nazi Germany.
Both the Old and New Testaments also constantly used
metaphors drawn from herding to speak of religious matters. Psalm
23, known as “The Lord’s Prayer,” begins:

Yahweh is my shepherd
I lack nothing.
In the meadows of green grass he lets me lie.
To the waters of repose he leads me;
There he revives my soul. (1–3)

When John the Baptist first saw Jesus, he exclaimed, “Look, there is
the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). Je-
sus also compared God to a good shepherd (John 10), and the
metaphor is commemorated in a bishop’s crosier, a ceremonial shep-
herd’s crook. In Revelations, the “Lamb” is used as a code word for
Christ, who is to return for a final battle against the forces of evil.
Matthew compared the Last Judgment, in which people are sent to

Sheep and Goat 225

Heaven or Hell, to a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats
The growing antipathy toward goats in the Judeo-Christian tra-
dition came in reaction to their veneration in other cultures of the an-
cient world. The Greek god Dionysus took the form of a goat when
fleeing to Egypt to escape the serpent Typhon. A goat was sacrificed
at the annual festival of Dionysus in a ceremony out of which Greek
tragic drama eventually emerged.
According to some myths, the nature spirit Pan was the off-
spring of the god Hermes and a goat. For the other figures of the
Greek pantheon, he was a sort of country bumpkin. They banished
Pan from Mount Olympus for his ugliness, and so he wandered the
fields and forests. When fleeing from the serpent Typhon, he tried to
turn himself into a fish but was so terrified that he could not complete
the transformation. He is pictured in the zodiac as a goat with the tail
of a fish, the sign Capricorn, and the tale is the origin of the word
panic. Pan himself could inspire terror, the dreadful solitude of remote
places, in any traveler who would disturb his midday sleep. Also
goatlike were the Greco-Roman satyrs, though they had human bod-
ies with only the ears, and sometimes horns, of a goat. They were of-
ten depicted pursuing nymphs, usually without much success, and
they were lecherous enough to mate with animals as well.
The Greek historian Herodotus reported that the Egyptians con-
sidered Pan (that is, their god Khem) the most ancient of their gods.
The historian also wrote that the people in the Egyptian province of
Mendes venerated goats, especially the males, and held goatherds in
great honor. To his revulsion, the people of that town reportedly al-
lowed a woman to publicly mate with a goat. Two magical goats,
which could be sacrificed, eaten, and then resurrected, accompanied
the Norse god Thor. In northern Europe, goats were admired not so
much for their fecundity as for their ability to thrive in severe, moun-
tainous landscapes. In the Middle Ages, however, painters often de-
picted the Devil with the horns of a goat.
In summary, sheep and goats were increasingly used throughout
the ancient world to express various polarities: sheep were generally
thought of as feminine, goats as masculine; sheep were civilized,
goats natural; sheep were Judeo-Christian, goats pagan. This basic
symbolism changed very little throughout the Middle Ages and the
modern world, but the way in which these various qualities were val-
ued varied greatly. In the eighteenth century, bucolic poetry often nos-
talgically celebrated the simple shepherd tending his flock. Among
Romantics of the nineteenth century, who were fascinated by the idea

226 Sheep and Goat

of primeval wildness, the goat-god Pan became by far the most pop-
ular figure in the Greco-Roman pantheon. It was a rather ironic
choice, since goats actually do prodigious damage to forests by nib-
bling at young trees. But, as in so many other contexts from hunting
to exploration, people often seem to celebrate the natural world most
when engaged in destroying it.
By contrast with the West, the Chinese have never made such a
great symbolic distinction between sheep and goats; in fact, the two
are often interchangeable. The goat, with its preference for remote
solitary places, can often represent the anchorite, and the beard of a
male goat resembles the beard often depicted on a Chinese sage. The
half-legendary Huang Ch’u P’ing, who lived in the fourth century
A.D., was a goatherd who decided to withdraw from the world. He
had been meditating for forty years when his brother found him in a
cave. After greeting him, the brother asked what had become of the
goats. Huang Ch’u P’ing pointed to several white stones that lay scat-
tered around the cavern, and he began to touch them, one by one,
with his staff, whereupon each rock jumped up and became a goat.
Sheep were introduced in East Asia later than goats, and in oriental
art the two herd animals have often been pictured grazing together.
The eighth sign of the Chinese zodiac may be depicted as either a goat
or ram.
Selected References
Caras, Roger. A Perfect Harmony: The Intermingling Lives of Animals and
Humans throughout History. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.
Herodotus. Herodotus (4 vols.). Trans. A. D. Godley. New York: G. P.
Putnam’s Sons, 1926.
Hesiod. Theogony/ Works and Days. Trans. M. L. West. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1988.
Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in
Britain. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Sun, Ruth Q. The Asian Animal Zodiac. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1974.

Snake, Lizard, and Related Animals

Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God
had made.
—Genesis 3:1

Snakes can have dozens of young at a time, and so they are often sym-
bols of fertility. They resemble vegetation, especially roots, in their
form and frequently in the green and brown of their skins. The form
of a snake also suggests a river. A point of muscular tension passes
through the body of a snake and drives the animal forward, like a mo-

Snake, Lizard, and Related Animals 227

ment moving along a continuum of days and years. Like time itself, a
snake seems to progress while remaining still. In addition, the body of
a snake resembles those marks with a stylus, brush, or pen that make
up our letters. Ornamental alphabets of the ancient Celts and others
were often composed of intertwined serpents. It could even be that
the tracks of a snake in sand helped to inspire the invention of the al-
phabet. The manner in which snakes curl up in a ball has made peo-
ple associate them with the sun.
According to one legend, Sakyamuni, who later became the
Buddha, was once walking beside a cliff when he looked down and
saw a great dragon renowned for wisdom. Seeking enlightenment,
Sakyamuni asked many questions, and the dragon answered all of
them correctly. Finally, Sakyamuni asked the meaning of life and
death. The dragon replied that it would answer only when its hunger
had been stilled. Sakyamuni promised his body as food, and the
dragon revealed the ultimate truth. Then Sakyamuni hurled himself
into the open jaws of the dragon, which suddenly changed into a lo-
tus flower and carried him back to the precipice. The snake, in this
case a dragon, is an eternal mediator between opposites: good and
evil, creation and destruction, female and male, earth and air, water
and fire, love and fear.
Since the snake does not have exposed sexual organs, it is very
hard to tell the male snakes from the female ones. Serpents often rep-
resent a primeval androgynous state before the separation of male
and female. In the ancient world, however, serpents were associated
with a vast number of goddesses. These include the Greek Athena, the
Mesopotamian Ishtar, the Egyptian Buto, and the Babylonian Tiamat,
a primeval goddess from whose blood the world was created. The
pharaohs of ancient Egypt would wear uraeus on their heads, a pro-
tective image of the goddess Wadjet in the form of a cobra, leaning
back and ready to strike.
As people turned more to patriarchal deities, there was a mas-
sive revolt against the cult of the snake. This is why serpents are so of-
ten destructive in mythologies from very early urban civilizations.
Egyptians believed that the serpent Apep would try to devour the
boat of the sun god Ra, who sailed through the earth every night. Ser-
pents have been killed by just about every major god or hero of the
ancient world and by many heroes in medieval times as well. The
Babylonian Marduk killed the serpent-goddess Tiamat, and Zeus
killed the primeval serpent Typhon. Apollo, the son of Zeus, killed the
serpent Python to gain the shrine at Delphi, formerly sacred to the
goddess Gaia. As an infant in his crib, Hercules killed two serpents.

228 Snake, Lizard, and Related Animals

Drawing of a sea
serpent reportedly
sighted in 1743.

Cadmus, a legendary founder of Greek civilization, killed a serpent

and then planted its teeth, whereupon warriors sprang from the earth
to become the ancestors of the noble families of Thebes. Sigurd, the
Norse hero, killed the dragon Fafner. Saint George—patron of En-
gland, Russia, and Venice—killed a dragon, while Saint Patrick drove
the snakes out of Ireland. Even today in some communities in Texas,
people festively collect rattlesnakes, tease them, and finally kill them
for food during annual rattlesnake roundups.
Images of the snake are often similar in cultures that appear to
have little or no contact with each other. In Aztec mythology, for ex-
ample, there was once a female serpent, the earth mother Coatlicue, in
a primordial sea. The gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca made
Heaven and earth from two parts of her body, an act of creation
strangely reminiscent of the creation myth about the Babylonian ser-
pentine goddess Tiamat. Quetzalcoatl, who vanquished Coatlicue,
also took on ophidian features, and he was depicted as a feathered
serpent of jade. Some of the mythology of serpents may go back to a
time before humanity spread across the world and divided into dif-
ferent cultures.
After expelling Adam and Eve from Eden for eating from the
Tree of Knowledge, Yahweh placed a curse on the serpent, which has
ever since crept upon the ground. But just as the biblical Yahweh does
not seem unequivocally good, so the serpent of Eden does not appear
entirely evil. Both, in fact, are figures that appear to transcend all
earthly categories. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the serpent of
Eden was often painted with a human head, usually that of a woman.
In Paradise Lost, John Milton describes the serpent thus:

Snake, Lizard, and Related Animals 229

Woman to the waist, and fair,
But ended foul in many a scaly fold
Voluminous and vast, a Serpent arme’d
With Mortal sting. (lines 2650–2653)

At times, the serpent is a mirror image of Eve. Even in paintings

where the head of the serpent is bestial, the serpent and Eve often
seem to be exchanging meaningful glances, while Adam simply looks
confused. Eve and the serpent share a feminine wisdom. The serpent
of Eden has also been identified with Lilith, the first wife of Adam,
who was also a Sumerian goddess-demon.
The large, intense eyes of the snake are very mysterious. Pliny
the Elder and countless subsequent writers have reported that snakes
can hypnotize and even kill with a simple gaze. The basilisk, a serpent
with a crown and wings, reportedly had this ability, as did the rat-
tlesnake in the United States. Many authors, from journalists and nov-
elists to serious natural scientists, reported that snakes could draw
birds out of the sky by looking upward and could sometimes even
work their powers of fascination on human beings.
The serpent has frequently been revived and even deified, espe-
cially by the Gnostics and the alchemists. What is feared as “regres-
sion” may also be celebrated as “rejuvenation.” Serpents are ancient
symbols of healing. In the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh, the ser-
pent steals the plant of immortality, then sheds its skin and lives for-
ever. Ancient physicians from Greece to China realized that venom
extracted from certain serpents could be used to cure ailments such as
paralysis. Serpents are associated with the Greek healer Asclepius,
who once raised a man from the dead. The ancient Greek physicians,
or Asclepiadae, had so much confidence in the healing powers of the
serpent that they would sometimes place snakes in the beds of pa-
tients with high fevers. The snakes may have served as a sort of
placebo, and the coolness of the serpents’ flesh could have convinced
the sufferer that he was recovering. The caduceus, a wand with two
serpents entwined around it, was carried by Hygeia, daughter of As-
clepius, and by the god Hermes. Today it remains a symbol of the
medical profession.
The alchemists saw the serpent as an animal that joined all of the
four elements from which the cosmos was formed. Of all animals, ser-
pents are the most intimately associated with the earth. This further
associates them with fire, since that element escapes from the earth in
volcanoes. The red tongue of many serpents, ending in a fork and
flickering in and out, also suggests flame. Dragons, especially in Eu-

230 Snake, Lizard, and Related Animals

ropean traditions, often breathe fire. Furthermore, serpents may also
frequently be found in water, and their rhythmic motion suggests
waves. Many dragons and other serpentine figures are often depicted
with wings.
Among the most popular images among the alchemists was the
ouroboros, a snake with its tail in its mouth, a symbol of primal unity
that goes back to ancient Egypt—at least to the time of The Egyptian
Book of the Dead, written around 1,500 B.C.—and was later taken over
by the esoteric religions of Greece. An analogous figure is the serpent
Mitgard of Norse mythology, which is coiled around the earth. The
Chinese used the V-shaped fangs of a serpent to symbolize the
essence of life, and the upside-down version represented the spirits of
deceased ancestors.
From the point of view of folklore, lizards may generally be re-
garded as snakes, even though most (though not all) lizards have legs.
Because these animals are often found lying in the desert sun, they
have sometimes been associated with contemplative ecstasy. Pliny the
Elder reported that the salamander, a black-and-yellow lizard found
in most of southern Europe, would seek the hottest fire to breed in
and would quench the flames with the coldness of its body. Paracel-
sus, an influential alchemist and physician of the Renaissance, be-
lieved that the salamander was a being of pure fire. The salamander
sitting inside a furnace became a symbol of esoteric knowledge. The
salamander was compared to the three young Hebrews in the book of
Daniel who were thrown into a fiery furnace by the king of Babylon
but were not harmed by the flames (3:22–97) and to Christ descend-
ing into Hell.
Even the Hebrews, who reacted so vehemently against the ar-
chaic cult of the serpent, have occasionally attributed godlike power
to this animal. In the book of Exodus, Moses and Aaron were de-
manding of Pharaoh that the people of Israel be released from
bondage. To demonstrate the power of his god, Aaron threw his staff
down in front of Pharaoh and his court. It immediately turned into a
serpent. At the direction of Pharaoh, the magicians of the court of
Egypt took their staffs and performed the same magical act. Then the
serpent that had been Aaron’s staff swallowed those of the magicians
(7:9–13). Later, on the journey to Canaan, the Hebrews were stricken
by a plague of fiery serpents. Moses directed the people of Israel to
erect a bronze serpent on a standard. All those who looked upon the
brazen serpent were saved from death (Num. 21:4–9). Had these sto-
ries not been sanctioned by scripture, the bronze serpent would prob-
ably have seemed to the Jews like sorcery and idolatry. Among the

Snake, Lizard, and Related Animals 231

most extravagant dragons of all was the one that did battle with Saint
Michael in the biblical Revelation. It had seven heads, each bearing a
crown, and ten horns, and it swept a third of the stars from the sky
with its tail (12: 1–9).
A positive view of the serpent has also frequently been pre-
served in folk culture. During his wanderings after the fall of Troy, Ae-
neas’ father, Anchises, had died. Landing on the coast of Sicily, Aeneas
began the funeral rites by pouring out wine, milk, and the blood of
sacrificial victims. Then he cast flowers upon the funeral mound and
started his oration. He had barely begun to speak when, in the words
of Virgil’s Aeneid, translated by John Dryden:

Scarce had he finished, when, with speckled pride,

A serpent from the tomb began to glide;
His hungry bulk on sev’n high volumes roll’d;
Blue was his breadth of black, but streaked with scaly gold:
Thus riding on his curls, he seem’d to pass
A rolling fire along, and singe the grass.
More various colors thro’ his body run,
Than Iris with her bow imbibes the sun.
Betwixt the rising altars, and around,
The sacred monster shot along the ground;
With harmless play amidst the bowls he pass’s,
And with his lolling tongue assay’d the taste:
Thus fed with holy food, the wondrous guest
Within the hollow tomb retir’d to rest. (book 5)

The snake was the spirit of his father, whom Aeneas would later visit
in Hades. Romans would sometimes feed snakes at household altars.
In Zoological Mythology, Angelo De Gubernatis wrote that the
practice of keeping a snake in the home for good luck survived among
Italian peasants into modern times. The Sythians, who lived by the
Black Sea and were known for their fierceness, traced their ancestry to
the daughter of the Dnieper River, who was a woman above the waist
but whose body ended in a serpent’s tail. Not only the ancient Ro-
mans but many other peoples—for example, Australian Aborigines—
have believed that ancestors return in the form of snakes. Zulu kings
of legend sometimes would return to this world in the form of a pow-
erful snake.
Despite, or because of, the fact that they are not easily distin-
guished by gender, snakes appear highly sexual, and there are many
tales of serpentine paramours. One fable from the Hindu-Persian Pan-

232 Snake, Lizard, and Related Animals

chatantra tells of a Brahman and his wife who had longed for children
but were unable to conceive. One day a voice in the temple promised
the Brahman a son who would surpass all others in both appearance
and character. A short time later his wife did indeed become pregnant,
but she gave birth not to a human being but to a snake. Her friends
advised her to have the monster killed, but she insisted on raising the
snake as her child, keeping him in a large box, bathing him regularly,
and feeding him fine delicacies. At her urging, the Brahman even
arranged for the snake to marry a beautiful girl, the daughter of a
friend. The girl, who had a strong sense of duty, accepted the mar-
riage and took over the care of the reptile. One day, a strange voice
called her in her chamber. At first she thought a strange man had bro-
ken in, but it was her husband, who had climbed out of the snakeskin
and taken on human form. In the morning the Brahman burned the
snakeskin, so his son would not be transformed again, then proudly
introduced the young couple to all the neighbors.
Both snakes and dragons are designated by the same word,
draco, in Latin. We can generally regard dragons as snakes, just as zo-
ologists of the Middle Ages and Renaissance did. Edward Topsell, for
example, wrote in The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents and In-
sects (1657), “There be some Dragons which have wings and no feet,
some again have neither feet nor wings, but are only distinguished
from the common sort of Serpents by the combe growing upon their
heads and the beard under their cheeks” (vol. 2, p. 705). The variety
and range of dragons vastly exceed those of any other mythic animal.
Dragons often have features of other animals, such as the wings of
bats or horns of stags, but these are set upon serpentine forms. Just as
it mediates between the elements, the snake seems to combine fea-
tures of all creatures in its incarnation as the dragon.
The Chinese dragon known as “lung” is among the most color-
ful and extravagant composites. When first born, it appears as a sim-
ple serpent. Over thousands of years of life, it acquires the head of a
camel, the scales of a carp, the horns of a deer, the eyes of a hare, the
tusks of a boar, and the ears of an ox. It also has four short legs with
enormous claws, a mouth with long teeth, and a flowing mane run-
ning down its back. A combination of fire and steam issues from its
nostrils to form the clouds, and so it controls the weather. These drag-
ons are the most beneficent figures of the Chinese zodiac.
In European culture, opposites are generally thought of as mu-
tually exclusive, whereas Asians tend to view them as complemen-
tary. Because of this, Western culture has alternated between admira-
tion and scorn for the serpent, while the Chinese have expressed both

Snake, Lizard, and Related Animals 233

at once. In very archaic times, the serpent was almost universally
revered in China. Into the twentieth century, several temples in south-
ern China have followed the tradition of keeping sacred serpents that
are offered wine and eggs on the altar. Chinese culture gradually be-
gan to distinguish sharply between the snake and the dragon, yet the
two are associated as contraries. The snake represents qualities oppo-
site to those of the dragon in the Chinese zodiac, where its symbolism
is remarkably close to that in the Judeo-Christian tradition; the snake
is as deceitful as the dragon is exuberant.
As the modern period began, people increasingly thought of the
snake as masculine. The traditional eroticism of the snake was origi-
nally considered primarily a feminine attribute, later a male one. The
latter view was sanctioned especially by Freudian psychology, where
people have usually interpreted the snake as phallic. In James Joyce’s
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the hero, Stephen Dedaelus, calls his
sexual organ “the serpent, the most subtle beast of the field” (chap. 3).
Legend usually locates fantastic beasts on the frontier of human
exploration, and the serpent is a good example. With the expansion of
maritime trade at the end of the Middle Ages, the Great Sea Serpent
was second in importance only to the mermaid as a figure in the law
of mariners. Sightings of serpentine creatures were reported every-
where from Loch Ness in Scotland to the coasts of the New World and
were often attested to by persons who had reputations for good judg-
ment and sobriety. The animals were identified with many mytholog-
ical creatures, from the Norse serpent Mitgard to the biblical
Leviathan. While the descriptions differed in their details, they gener-
ally described the serpent as extremely long and as moving with an
undulating motion. On August 21, 1936, for example, newspapers re-
ported that several Newfoundland fishermen had seen a monster that
was at least 200 feet long, had “eyes as big as an enamel saucepan,”
snorted blue vapor from its nostrils, and stirred up such waves that
“for days no boat dared venture out to sea” (O’Neill, pp. 194–195).
The symbolism of the snake has changed far less fundamentally
than has that of other animals such as the dog or horse. It seems to sur-
face whenever people contemplate origins, whether of humanity, of
life, or even of the universe itself. Today, the DNA code that directs the
development of the embryo is sometimes called “the cosmic serpent.”

Selected References
Gubernatis, Angelo De. Zoological Mythology or the Legends of Animals.
Chicago: Singing Tree Press, 1968.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Barnes
and Noble Books, 1999.

234 Snake, Lizard, and Related Animals

Milton, John. Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. New York: Penguin,
Mundkur, Balaji. The Cult of the Serpent: An Interdisciplinary Survey of
Its Manifestations and Origins. Albany: SUNY Press, 1983.
Nott, Charles Stanley. The Flowery Kingdom. New York: Chinese Study
Group of America, 1947.
O’Neill J. P. The Great New England Sea Serpent: An Account of Unknown
Creatures Sighted by Many Respectable Persons between 1638 and the
Present Day. Camden, ME: Down East Books, 1999.
Roob, Alexander. Alchemy and Mysticism. New York: Taschen, 1997.
Rybot, Doris. It Began before Noah. London: Michael Joseph, 1972.
Ryder, Arthur W., ed. The Panchatantra. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1964.
Sax, Boria. The Serpent and the Swan: The Animal Bride in Folklore and
Literature. Blacksburg, VA: McDonald and Woodward, 1998.
Sun, Ruth Q. The Asian Animal Zodiac. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1974.
Topsell, Edward, and Thomas Muffet. The History of Four-Footed Beasts
and Serpents and Insects (3 vols.). New York: Da Capo, 1967 (fac-
simile of 1658 edition).
Virgil. Virgil’s Aeneid. Trans. John Dryden. New York: P. F. Collier and
Son, 1937.

The brawling of a sparrow in the eaves,
The brilliant moon and all the milky sky,
And all the famous harmony of leaves,
Had blotted out man’s image and his cry.
—W. B. Yeats, “The Sorrow of Love”

The sparrow is among the most familiar of animals in both urban and
rural settings. The diminutive size of sparrows has often made them
objects of affection, but their raucous, noisy behavior has hurt their
The Greek poetess Sappho wrote of sparrows drawing the char-
iot of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The sparrow was, however, of-
ten a symbol of profane love, which was sometimes contrasted with
the chaste passion of the dove. The Roman poet Catullus wrote a ten-
der elegy beginning “Mourn ye Graces . . . ” (Lugete, o Veneres . . . ) to
the pet sparrow of his mistress. The author described how the spar-
row would “chirp to his mistress alone” and celebrated the great love
they had for each other, clearly identifying with the bird.
Christ told his apostles, “Can you not buy two sparrows for a
penny? And yet not one falls to the ground without your father know-
ing” (Matt. 10:29). Sparrows became symbols of the apparently incon-
sequential things that are significant in the sight of God.

Sparrow 235
Bede used this symbolism during the early eighth century in his
Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, when a noble said to King
Edwin, “The present life of man, o king, seems to me, in comparison
of that time which is unknown to us, like the flight of a sparrow
through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter . . . ” (book 2,
chap. 13). He went on to compare the sparrow’s flying from the warm
room into the wintry storm with the passage of a soul into eternity.
Christianity, the noble explained, offered promise of certainty in that
precarious journey. The way sparrows nest in almost any enclosed
space, including the corners of barns or porches, has also made them
symbols of domesticity. Folk belief, especially in Britain, often holds
that deceased ancestors may come back as sparrows.
But the sparrows of folklore can also be malignant. One Euro-
pean legend says that when Christ was hiding from his pursuers,
sparrows betrayed him by their chirping. A similar legend says that
when Christ was on the Cross, the swallows tried to prevent his ene-
mies from inflicting further torment by saying, “He is dead,” but the
sparrows replied, “He is alive.”
Its integration into the routines of everyday life made the spar-
row a politically charged theme in the middle of the nineteenth cen-
tury. Sparrows from England were imported and became naturalized
in major cities of the eastern United States. An intense debate raged
for several decades as to whether these birds were harmful to Ameri-
can landscapes. The Great English Sparrow War, as it was known,
closely resembled disputes about whether the United States should
welcome immigrants. In describing the sparrows, their detractors em-
ployed the same sort of rhetoric used to attack foreigners, calling the
birds loud, unclean, and promiscuous. Others found the little crea-
tures a charming addition to urban landscapes.
Selected References
Bede [Beda Vererabilis]. Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation.
Trans. John Stevens et al. New York: Dutton, 1975.
Catullus. “Lugete, o Veneres.” In Catullus, Tibullus, Pervigilim Veneris.
Ed. C. P. Goold. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962,
pp. 4–5.
Hole, Christina, ed. The Encyclopedia of Superstitions. New York: Barnes
and Noble Books, 1961.
Lawrence, Elizabeth Atwood. Hunting the Wren: Transformation of Bird
to Symbol. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997.

236 Sparrow
The Soul, reaching, throwing out for love,
As the spider, from some little promontory, throwing out filament after
filament, tirelessly
out of itself, that one at least may catch and form a link, a bridge, a
—Walt Whitman

The spider is an image of fate in its relentlessness, as well as in its

combination of terror and beauty. The image of a spiderweb gleaming
in the dew suggests the stars against the Milky Way. Furthermore,
spiders certainly have abilities that could move even a goddess to
envy. Even today, engineers have not managed to create a filament
with the same combination of thinness, flexibility, and tensile strength
as that of a spider. The usual manner in which spiders devour their
prey can make anybody shudder. When a fly is caught in a web, the
spider will inject it with digestive juices and go away, returning later
to eat the prey a little at a time. Among certain species, particularly
the garden spiders of southern Europe, the female will devour the
male upon mating, an eerily literal expression of the primal unity of
conception and death. Spiders have not two eyes but eight, enabling
them to see in almost every direction. Nobody can meet, much less
read, the gaze of a spider. Two eyes are so much the rule among ani-
mals from whales to grasshoppers that any other number can impress
people as grotesque. Folklore constantly exaggerates the fearsome at-
tributes of spiders, especially the deadliness of their poisons.
Ovid traced the origin of spiders to the story of Arachne, a
young girl who was so skilled at spinning and weaving that even the
nymphs gazed on her with wonder. She had boasted that her skill ex-
ceeded even that of the goddess Athena. Upon hearing this, the god-
dess took on the shape of an old woman and went to Arachne, warn-
ing her against arrogance. When Arachne refused to retract her boast,
Athena revealed herself and challenged Arachne to a contest in weav-
ing. Even then, Arachne was not intimidated, and she accepted with-
out hesitation. On her loom, Athena wove pictures of mortals who
had dared to measure themselves against the divinities and met their
doom. On her loom, Arachne wove pictures showing the follies of
gods and goddesses, especially in their affairs with mortals. Athena,
on seeing this, became so furious that she began to beat Arachne un-
til the young girl ran away, placed her neck in a noose, and tried to
hang herself. “Live,” said Athena, “but hang forever,” and Arachne
was changed into a spider suspended by a thread (book 4, lines

Spider 237
This tale shows the horrible fate that awaits those who would
challenge the gods and goddesses. But just a moment! Take a good
look at Arachne. She is every spider. Many people think she is creepy,
and many others think she is beautiful. Nobody, however, really
thinks she appears unhappy. Was the punishment of Athena so terri-
ble? After all, Arachne not only eluded death but was able to continue
the work she loved until the end of time.
Animals, gods, and tribal totems are far more ancient than di-
vinities in the form of men and women. I suspect that Arachne, far
from a simple mortal, was a divinity who was more powerful than
even Athena. The spider symbolizes archaic mother-goddesses, the
weavers of fate. This creature is associated with the Egyptian Neith,
the Babylonian Ishtar, and the Germanic Holde. In Greek mythology,
the three fates, to whom even the greatest of the gods and goddesses
are subject in the end, resemble spiders. Perhaps in some lost version
of her story, Arachne simply assumed a human appearance to trick
Athena, and she revealed her true form in victory.
The spider is among the most primordial and powerful divini-
ties in many cultures. For numerous West African tribes, the spider is
a trickster and a culture hero. Among the Hausa, the spider is Gizo.
Among the Ashanti and in Jamaica, he is Anansi. According to the
Ashanti, the animals were once arguing about who was the oldest and
deserved the most respect. Finally, they asked Anansi to be the judge.
First came the guinea fowl, who told of a great fire at the beginning of
the world. She had to stamp it out and her legs are red to this day.
Then the parrot claimed to be the oldest. There were no blacksmiths
when he was created, so he had to beat iron with his beak, and it is
bent to this day. The elephant, rabbit, and porcupine all told stories
from the beginning of the world, showing their great age. Finally,
Anansi told them that he himself was the oldest. He was created be-
fore the earth and had nothing to stand on. When his father died,
there was no earth to bury him, so Anansi had to bury his father in his
head. The animals all bowed to Anansi, acknowledging that he was
the most ancient.
Because spiders are unique, they seem to share something akin
to human alienation from the natural world. Their ability to spin
threads from their bodies is shared only by silkworms and caterpil-
lars, and the intricacy of their webs has no parallel. It may well be that
early hunters were inspired by spiderwebs to create nets and traps. By
preserving food to be eaten later, spiders seem to show a human sort
of foresight. By stunning prey yet not killing it immediately, they also
seem to show a human sort of cruelty.

238 Spider
Illustration of
a spider in a
book of fairy tales.

The spider is a solitary creature, and it has been an aid and inspi-
ration to people who are isolated and pursued. When David was flee-
ing from the soldiers of King Saul and took refuge in a cave, a spider
covered up the entrance with its web. The pursuers thought nobody
could have entered and so passed on. The same story is told of Mo-
hammed when he was hiding from his enemies in Mecca. When Robert
the Bruce of Scotland was hiding from the English in a barn on the is-
land of Rathlin, he looked up and saw a spider try six times to swing
from one rafter to another. “Now shall this spider teach me what I am
to do,” said Robert, “for I also have failed six times.” The spider made

Spider 239
it on the seventh try. Robert returned to Scotland, rallied his men, and
won a great victory over the English at Bannockburn in 1314.
But the asocial character of spiders also contributes to the fear
they inspire. In the Middle Ages spiders were a frequent ingredient in
witches’ brew; they were also familiars of witches. The spider, lying in
wait for its prey, became a common symbol of the Devil. The most
feared of all are the large, hairy spiders known as tarantulas, found in
Latin America, Africa, and southern Europe. In southern Italy during
the Renaissance, there was an epidemic of hysteria about these spi-
ders that was far out of proportion to the danger from their actual
bite. People believed that only continual movement could overcome
the poison of the spider, and thus, to stay alive, a bitten person had to
dance the tarantella.
In cultures of the Far East, spiders are generally disliked because
they hide in corners. Furthermore, as major predators in the world of
small creatures, they seem sinister and almost cannibalistic. The Chi-
nese novel Journey to the West, written by Wu Ch’eng-en in the six-
teenth century, tells how the monk Tripitaka Tang was once captured
by spider-women on his journey from China to India to obtain the
Buddhist scriptures. He stopped at a mansion to ask for a vegetarian
meal and was greeted by four pleasant young women, but the meal
they offered turned out to be human flesh. When the monk tried to
leave, they tied him with strings spun from their navels. Only rescue
by his animal companions prevented him from becoming their meal.
In Japan there are many stories of enormous spiders that haunt
abandoned castles and other ruins. They may take the form of human
beings to fool the unwary. One tale collected by Lafcadio Hearn told
of a samurai who went to spend the night in an old temple that vil-
lagers said was haunted. A priest came in the night and played on a
stringed instrument with skill that seemed more than human. After a
while the priest turned to the samurai and said laughingly, “Did you
think me a goblin? I am only a priest, but I must play my instrument
to keep the goblins away. Would you like to try?” The samurai care-
fully reached out his left hand to touch the instrument, whereupon
the strings changed into a giant spiderweb and the priest became an
enormous spider. The samurai drew his sword with his right hand
and slashed at the goblin, which retreated. The samurai was bound in
the web and could not follow. The next morning villagers came and
freed him, and then they followed the trail of blood and killed the spi-
der (pp. 13–15).
By contrast, for many Native American tribes, including the
Navaho and Hopi, Spider Woman is the creator deity. According to

240 Spider
Navaho legend, a young girl once saw a line of smoke emerging from
a hole in the ground. When she looked closely, she saw Spider
Woman, who invited her to come down and learn to weave. Navaho
women still place a hole in their blankets in memory of the place
where the young girl encountered the goddess.
Similarly powerful but far less beneficent is Iktomi, the major
trickster figure of the Sioux and other Indians of the American Mid-
west. According to the traditions of the Lakota Sioux, he is the creator
of time and the inventor of language. He is, however, also a coward,
a liar, a lecher, and constantly prone to trouble. Undisciplined though
he may be, the Indians still respect his power. An offering of tobacco
to Iktomi can bring success in hunting.
There could hardly be a more enthusiastic arachnophile than
Thomas Muffet, the Englishman who wrote The Theater of Insects in
1658. He observed of the spider:

When she sticks aloft with her feet cast every way, she
exactly represents a painted star. As if nature had ap-
pointed not only to make it round like the heavens,
but with rays like the stars, as if they were alive. The
skin is so soft, smooth, polished and neat, that she so
precedes the softest skin’d maids, and the daintiest
and most beautiful strumpets, and it is so clear that
you may almost see your face in her as in a glass; she
hath fingers that the most gallant virgins desire to
have theirs like to them, long slender, round of exact
feeling, that there is no man, nor any creature that can
compare with her. (vol. 3, pp. 1065–1066)

Spiders may be ruthless toward flies, but, Muffet argues, they have a
vast number of uses for human beings. Not only are their webs good
for binding wounds, but the spiders themselves may be used in many
kinds of medicines.
Of course, not everyone agreed with his judgment. Perhaps the
most famous of the Mother Goose nursery rhymes is a satire that was
probably written about Patience Muffet, the daughter of Thomas:

Little Miss Muffet

Sat on a tuffet [a nonsense word],
Eating her curds and whey;
There came a big spider,
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away. (Baring-Gould, p. 114)

Spider 241
By giving the spider so many feminine virtues, perhaps Thomas Muf-
fet had made her an ironic sort of patron for girls and women.
Jonathan Swift, however, showed us a distinctly masculine spi-
der in his story “The Battle of the Books” (first published in 1697), a
satire on the dispute over which writers were better, those of antiquity
or those of contemporary times: “For upon the highest corner of a
large window there dwelt a certain spider, swollen up to the first
magnitude by the destruction of infinite numbers of flies, whose
spoils lay scattered before the gates of his palace, like human bones
before the cave of some giant. The avenues to his castle were guarded
with turnpikes and palisades, all after the modern way of fortifica-
tion” (p. 381). Because he lived indoors and practiced a sophisticated
form of architecture, this spider became the advocate of the modern
writers, while a wayward bee represented the ancient ones.
Folklore not only makes spiders fearsome but also gives them
protection. It is very widely believed that to kill a spider brings bad
luck. Another English nursery rhyme goes:

If you wish to live and thrive,

Let the spider run alive. (Hillyard, p. 19)

A small black spider found in England is known as the “money spi-

der,” and if it lands on your clothes, that is an omen of wealth. You
must not carelessly brush this spider off, though you are permitted to
toss it over your shoulder. The spider is close to primordial powers
and should be treated with care.
As chthonic figures, spiders are constantly linked with the dead
and the realm beneath the earth. The Massachusetts Puritan Jonathan
Edwards preached in his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry
God” (first published in 1734) that “the God that holds you over the
pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over
a fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked” (p. 57). Spiders may
be our most potent symbol of primeval life, yet they are associated not
with expansive landscapes but with desolate crannies. This paradox
is the basis of a vision by the perverse Svidrigaylov in Fyodor Dos-
toyevski’s novel Crime and Punishment (first published in Russian in
1865–66). Svidrigaylov pictures eternity not as vast but as “a little
room, something like a village bath-house, grimy, and spiders in
every corner . . . ” (p. 305).
A positive image of the spider may be found in the classic chil-
dren’s story Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White, first published in 1952. By
writing messages in her web, Charlotte saves the piglet Wilbur from

242 Spider
slaughter, but her compassion is tempered by acceptance of a natural
order in which life is sustained only through killing. Even Wilbur
must accept that Charlotte and her children live off other insects.
Giant spiders, sometimes created through radioactivity, have be-
come a cliché of horror and science fiction. A popular comic-book
hero today is Spiderman. He climbs buildings and throws out me-
chanical webs. Although Spiderman is usually a hero, his arachnid
identity suggests power, mystery, and a piquant sense of menace. To-
day, the spider has become a symbol of technology, the gatekeeper of
the Internet and the World Wide Web.
Selected References
Baring-Gould, William S. and Ceil. The Annotated Mother Goose. New
York: Bramhall House, 1962.
Courlander, Harold. A Treasury of African Folklore: The Oral Literature,
Traditions, Myths, Legends, Epics, Tales, Recollections, Wisdom, Sayings,
and Humor of Africa. New York: Marlowe and Co., 1996.
Dostoyevski, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Trans. David Magarshak.
New York: Greenwich House, 1982.
Edwards, Jonathan. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In The
Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader. Ed. Wilson H. Kimnach,
Kenneth P. Minkena, and Douglas A. Sweeney. New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1999, pp. 49–65.
Hearn, Lofcadio. Japanese Fairy Tales. Mount Vernon, NY: Peter Pauper
Press, 1936.
Hillyard, Paul. The Book of the Spider: From Arachnophobia to the Love of
Spiders. New York: Random House, 1994.
Mullett, G. M. Spider Woman Stories. Tucson: University of Arizona
Press, 1979.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Rolfe Humphries. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1955.
Swift, Jonathan. “The Battle of the Books.” In The Writings of Jonathan
Swift. Ed. Robert A. Greenberg and William B. Piper. New York:
Norton, 1973, pp. 373–396.
Topsell, Edward, and Thomas Muffet. The History of Four-Footed Beasts
and Serpents and Insects (3 vols.). New York: Da Capo, 1967 (fac-
simile of 1658 edition).
White, E. B. Charlotte’s Web. London: Hamish Hamilton Children’s
Books, 1952.

See Beaver, Porcupine, Badger, and Miscellaneous Rodents

Squirrel 243
See Hart and Hind

Starfish, Clam, Octopus, and Other Creatures

of the Sea Floor
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumber’d and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant fins the slumbering green.
—Alfred Lord Tennyson, “The Kraken”

Though the surface of the earth has long been thoroughly explored,
the floor of the ocean retains, at least for now, most of its ancient mys-
tery. Ancient mythologies anticipated modern science by having life
emerge from deep waters. Tradition makes the ocean a remnant of the
primeval chaos surrounding the land and its kingdoms. The ocean
impressed early people as an endlessly fertile womb from which new
forms of life constantly emerged. The variety of life within the ocean
is far greater than that on land. The structural similarity among most
vertebrates, with their legs and arms, is easy to observe. Many inver-
tebrates from the sea, from octopuses to clams to sea anemones, seem
unlike anything else in the entire world. According to Hesiod in his
Theogony, Aphrodite, the Roman Venus, first emerged from the ocean
when it was fertilized from the sperm of the castrated Uranus.
Aphrodite was sometimes portrayed as floating toward the
shore on the shell of a scallop, after she had been created from the
foaming sea. Shells were later used as baptismal fonts in Christianity,
and they came to be associated with the Virgin Mary, who assumed
many attributes from the pagan goddesses who preceded her. The
starfish is known in Latin as the “Stella Maris,” or “star of the sea,”
and takes its name from the Virgin Mary in her capacity as a guardian
of mariners. In secular culture, it is a positive symbol of the richness
and bounty of the sea. Just as mariners navigated by the stars, starfish
are often shown pointing directions with their arms.
In many cultures, shells have been used as a medium of ex-
change. The money originally used by American Indians of the East-
ern woodlands was wampum, which consisted of strings of shells.
Since the Bank of England did not allow the American Colonies to
coin their own money and European currency was in short supply,

244 Stag
Illustration from mid-nineteenth-century America showing a man assaulted by an octopus.

the Colonists often adopted Indian currency for their own transac-
tions, and in 1761 they even set up a factory in New Jersey to manu-
facture wampum. The clam seems to provide a more vivid symbol in
death than in life, for living clams are often thought of as slimy. On
the other hand, the phrase “happy as a clam” designates a carefree
The octopus, according to contemporary researchers, is excep-
tionally intelligent, and it also shows an emotional expressiveness
that is perhaps (at least from a human point of view) unique among
invertebrates. Not only does it seem to express moods through
changes in color, but also its gestures appear remarkably articulate. As
might be expected, people have been disconcerted as well as charmed
by these signs of internal life. The octopus is a common motif—its
limbs often stylized in curvilinear patterns—on jars and artifacts from
Crete and other early civilizations in the Aegean. In Christian culture,
its practice of squirting black ink to blind other creatures has made the
octopus a symbol of the Devil, while its many arms have sometimes
made it stand for lechery. It is often depicted on top of a treasure chest
from a sunken ship as guardian of the watery depths. Kupe, the leg-

Starfish, Clam, Octopus, and Other Creatures of the Sea Floor 245
endary ancestor of the Maoris, discovered New Zealand while pursu-
ing an octopus in his boat.
Closely related to, and often confused with, the octopus is the
squid, though it does not have the same simplicity of form. The squid
tends to be more aggressive, and in addition to having eight arms like
the octopus, it has two tentacles that are used for seizing prey. The ex-
istence of a giant squid, so large it could pull down boats, was reported
in the sixteenth century by the Swedish naturalist Olaus Magnus and
by many explorers over the next several centuries. The superstitious
mariners scored a remarkable triumph over skeptical scientists when
several enormous squids, one about fifty-five feet long, were washed
ashore on the coast of Norway in the 1870s. This creature may have
been the prototype of many ancient monsters of legend, such as the
Greek Scylla who seized men from the ship of Odysseus.
The ocean mirrors the sky, and many creatures of the watery
depths, such as the octopus and lobster, have sometimes been seen in
constellations. The crab representing the constellation Cancer was
sent by Hera to harass Hercules as he battled the seven-headed Hy-
dra. The hero, brandishing a torch in one hand and a sword in the
other, still managed to crush the crab under his feet. In Japan, crabs
are sometimes said to be the spirits of the Heike warriors who com-
mitted suicide by throwing themselves into the sea after losing the
battle of Dan-no-Ura to the Genji clan.
All of these sea creatures are more or less anomalies, unlike any-
thing else in the natural world. And perhaps we humans are fasci-
nated by them because we ourselves are an anomaly, constantly trou-
bled by our isolation from the rest of nature. Many of these creatures
seem to show a glimmer of the human spirit in a paradoxical way. The
crab, for example, with its zigzag walk, seems to reflect the human
propensity for hesitation. The remains of these creatures are a tangi-
ble link with a mysterious kingdom, and so, in the nineteenth century,
such relics as shells became favorite souvenirs for tourists of coastal
Selected References
Cohen, Daniel. The Encyclopedia of Monsters. New York: Dorset Press,
Gibson, Claire. Signs and Symbols: An Illustrated Guide to Their Meaning.
New York: Barnes and Noble, 1996.
Olalquiaga, Celeste. The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of Kitsch Experi-
ence. New York: Pantheon, 1998.

246 Starfish, Clam, Octopus, and Other Creatures of the Sea Floor
See Heron, Ibis, Crane, and Stork

True hope is swift and flies with swallow’s wings.
—William Shakespeare, Henry V (act 5, scene 2)

The swooping, gliding motion of a swallow as it catches insects in

flight, together with its incessant calls, has sometimes impressed peo-
ple as something resembling signs of mourning. In much of the
world, however, the swallow is also a joyful bird, since its presence
announces the coming of spring. Because the swallow often makes its
nest in crannies of buildings, it has always been on intimate terms
with human beings. In France and other parts of Europe, rural people
have often believed that the nest of a swallow would protect their
homes. For Romans, swallows represented the penates, or household
spirits. Sometimes swallows were believed to be spirits of dead chil-
dren, and people were not permitted to kill them. Swallows are al-
most perpetually in the air, and so medieval people thought they did
not have feet. In part for that reason, they have always been consid-
ered very spiritual.
In the following ancient love poem from Egypt, a young woman
is returning from a visit to her lover:

The voice of the swallow is speaking.

It says:
Day breaks, what is your path?
(The girl answers) Don’t little bird!
Are you scolding me?
I found my lover on his bed,
And my heart was sweet to excess. (Arnold, p. 45)

This poem shows a remarkable resemblance to the “songs of dawn”

by medieval minnesingers and troubadours, in which lovers would
often be awakened by a lark or other bird.
Swallows were often depicted on Egyptian mummies, suggest-
ing they were already associated with resurrection. According to
Plutarch, when Isis had retrieved the coffin of Osiris, she flew about
his body and lamented in the form of a swallow. As Isis often became
identified with Mary, similar tales were eventually told of the mother
of Christ. An Italian legend relates that when Mary stood before the
Cross, the swallows saw her distress. They swooped down and tried

Swallow 247
to comfort her, coming ever closer
until finally they began to touch her
with their feathers. As they turned,
Mary’s tears landed on their breasts
and changed them from black to
white. Swallows have frequently
been portrayed darting about Christ
as he lay on the Cross. According to
Swedish legend, they fanned him
with their wings. For devout Chris-
tians, the appearance of swallows tra-
ditionally suggests the resurrection.
Insects, especially flies, have often
been associated with the Devil, and
swallows, like agents of God, would
relentlessly pursue bugs in flight.
People have always watched for
swallows as a sign that winter was at
an end. A fable recorded by the Hell-
The swallow and enized Roman Babrius told of a young man who saw a swallow,
spider compete thought that spring was coming, and decided to wager his winter
for a fly in this clothes on a throw of the dice. After he had lost, a snowstorm came,
illustration from and he soon saw the swallow lying dead from the cold. “Poor crea-
the mid-nineteenth ture,” he said, “you fooled both yourself and me.” This tale may be
century by J. J. the origin of the famous saying “One swallow does not make a
spring” (Perry, pp. 171, 173).
In part because the trajectories of the birds’ flights resembled
those of bats, many Europeans believed swallows hibernated in caves.
In a famous letter of August 4, 1767, the British pastor and naturalist
Gilbert White made one of his rare mistakes. When a large fragment
of a chalk cliff had fallen one winter in Sussex, England, many swal-
lows reportedly had been found dead in the debris. Though a bit
skeptical of the account, White thought the dead swallows might
have been in hibernation. About six and a half years later, White ob-
served that the first swallows of the year were usually seen near
ponds and that they disappeared in the event of frost. He suggested
that the birds lay dormant through the winter underwater. A few nat-
uralists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries even believed
that swallows sojourned on the moon. In Muslim countries swallows
have traditionally been considered holy, on the ground that they
make a yearly pilgrimage to Mecca. Only in the nineteenth century,
however, were their migratory paths gradually mapped out.

248 Swallow
Selected References
Arnold, Dorothea. An Egyptian Bestiary. New York: Metropolitan
Museum of Art, 1995.
Charbonneau-Lassay, Louis. The Bestiary of Christ. Trans. and ed. D. M.
Dooling. New York: Parabola Books, 1991.
Perry, Ben Edwin, trans. and ed. Babrius and Phaedrus. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1965.
Plutarch. Plutarch’s Morals (4 vols.). Trans. Robert Midgley et al.
London: Thomas Bradyll, 1704.
Steedman, Amy. Legends and Stories from Italy. New York: G. P.
Putnam’s Sons, ca. 1910.
White, Gilbert. The Natural History of Selborne. New York: Frederick
Warne, ca. 1895.

Swan, Goose, and