Of Animals and Men

Doug Fontaine is a writer, ployglot, and generally talkative otter. This is his second article for [adjective][species]. Read more at his SoFurry account.

If you’re looking for some furry smut story, then you’re definitely barking up the wrong tree here. But don’t be a scaredy-cat; muster up your courage and be as brave as a lion. Reading something informative can be as stimulating as a story with furs breeding like rabbits. Whether you’re as sly as a fox or as strong as an ox, you might have noticed a prevailing presence of animal related idioms in the English language. Okay, no more monkey business; let’s explore animals in our cultures throughout history.

Disregarding my previously ill-managed animal puns, we have already been exposed to stories with big bad wolves, cunning foxes, and a little mole who knew it was none of his business (a German children’s story about a mole who wanted to find out who pooped on his head… [Ref 1]) at an early age. These anecdotes were used to teach us about moral conduct, the consequences of our actions, and not to build houses out of straws or sticks. Mainly deriving from well-known German folklore and authors such as the Grimm brothers, many fables incorporate animals as symbolic representations of different concepts.

The wolf more commonly sighted during 17th and 18th century Europe is portrayed as evil, dangerous, and even gluttonous, as this “beast” posed a real threat to small villages and its agricultural farming based lifestyles. Between the years of 1764 and 1767, “La bête du Gévaudan” (The Beast of Gévaudan) [Ref 2] plagued the central French province. Not only had this wolf-like creature killed numerous precious cattle and other domesticated animals, but its most distinct ‘achievement’ at that time was the frequently reported human casualties.

In contrast, sheep and lambs are viewed as pure and innocent. They are thus connected to ideas of childhood, they are nurtured and raised by farmers like children. The Wolf and the Sheep, Three Little Pigs, and The Wolf and the Seven Goats all imply the hazards of interacting with strangers – “stranger danger”. Using this as a point of reference, we can zoomorphize our children as farm animals, frolicking around carefree and unaware of the danger that lurks behind every corner.

However, Animal Farm by George Orwell suggests that both adults and children alike are animals characterised by our respective social classes, where horses and donkeys symbolise the middle-working class whereas pigs represent different Russian communist politicians during and after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Civil servants like police officers are portrayed as dogs, loyal and true to their master – the law.

Of course, the main goal of this socio-political satire was to criticise Joseph Stalin (in a very ingenious way). Orwell certainly did not purposefully publish Animal Farm to support and encourage anthropomorphic literature.

The personification of animals has more complexity than merely bestowing upon them human characteristics such as speech, clothes, complex ideas and emotions, and silly hats. T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats depicts the group of domesticated felines with their own ‘non-human’ features. In the very first poem “The Naming of Cats”, the American-born poet specifically underlines that “no human research can discover” [Ref 3] the intricacy of a kitten’s name. This theme of cats having their own feline social and cultural structure opens up to new window through which we can view animals and anthropomorphism.

Needless to say, we are extremely fascinated of our own conventions and behaviour, to the point where we project human idiosyncrasies onto our furry critters. We have created entirely foreign yet understandably similar mannerisms for felines (Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats – T.S. Eliot or Felidae – Akif Pirincçi) and canines. Plague Dogs by Richard Adams paints the story of two feral canine protagonists. By introducing their own lingo, expressions, and turns of phrase difficult for us humans to understand, Richard Adams presents a separate canine language/culture independent from ours.

From ancient Greek fables to 20th century ground-breaking literature, there is no doubt that relating our own problems, concepts, and interactions with those of animals have played a key role in sculpting cultures around the world.

One of the most famous civilisations which feature anthropomorphised creatures is Ancient Egypt. A flourishing culture, around 3000 years BC, has repeatedly shown humanoid Gods with animal heads in their mythology. Naturally the wolf, a predominantly Nordic canine, was replaced with the jackal (different species, same symbolic connotation). Sekhem Em Pet [Ref 4] (commonly known as Anubis), God of the Dead is shown on many sculptures and drawings as having the head of such an African canine. Cats weren’t necessarily deities but worshippers in ancient Egyptian times were nonetheless plentiful. They were used as pest control, killing mice and other vermin that would potentially harm crops and spread diseases. These domesticated felines were regarded as a good omen as many mummified cats were later found in tombs, suggesting that they played a large role in the afterlife of many ancient Egyptians. Whether animals helped us during our daily lives or guided us through the afterlife, we are accustomed to relating them to our culture and existence.

Both in Egyptian mythology and Native American tribal culture, birds and insects were more likely to have been given spiritual meaning than their Eurasian counterparts. Birds of prey, such as the falcon or the eagle, are regarded as divine messengers or even as divinities themselves. Bees or other pollinating insects foreshadow progress for example.

Native American totems include animals [Ref 5] which are not mentioned in other mythologies at all. Of course, contrasting biomes contain a variety of different species. The American otter for example represents joyfulness, playfulness, and helpfulness, whereas the brown bear is seen as a totem of introspection, dreams, and will-power. As the indigenous Americans possessed a rich nomadic culture, there was no need for farming animals (with the exception of horses). Thus the wolf adopted a more spiritual undertone than the ferocious gluttonous beast this canine is described in Europe. We can clearly see how one animal might be viewed differently depending on our lifestyle.

Up until now, we have spoken of figurative meanings and metaphors concerning animals. Their ominous presence in our literature, our mythology, and our cultures prevails throughout history. But we as humans have shared this world with thousands of different creatures, and have incorporated them into our daily existence to the extent that they are essential for our survival. Take care of the living beings (whether animal or human) around you, for you never know how much an impact they have in our lives.

***

References
1. Holzwarth, W. and Erlbruch, W. (2014). The Story of the Little Mole Who Went in Search of Whodunit. [online] Goodreads.
2. Unknownexplorers.com, (2014). Unknown Explorers – Beast of Gevaudan. [online]
3. Eliot, T.S. (1952). Complete poems and plays. 1st ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace, p.209 line 23
4. Marvunapp.com, (2012). Anubis (Egyptian god). [online]
5. Legendsofamerica.com, (2011). Native American Totems and Their Meanings. [online]

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3 thoughts on “Of Animals and Men

  1. I imagine that if a writer were to attempt an exposition of animal symbolism in human culture through history, the result could require several books, something like my copies of Joseph Campbell’s four-book series on world mythology, “The Masks of God”. The shortest of these four, in paperback version, is about 500 pages. (If you want to read the brief version of it all I recommend Campbell’s “Transformations of Myth Through Time”.)

    As writers, we must always discern what is and is not relevant to the story we are trying to tell. At the very beginning of our writing we must choose a theme, a thesis, that is broad enough to include what we want to discuss, while also being narrow enough that we can fit our message within the constraint of time and space of the publication. Within the theme of an essay, one may choose few, or many, topics, and then illustrate those topics with examples and details. These examples and details, “illustrations- in-words”, much like visual art illustrations, must point back to the original idea. They must not divert the reader’s attention away from the original theme. Final statements in an essay should be supported by the narrative preceding it and not introduce another theme.

    Expository writing, that is, writing that explains a subject, is an important skill for any educated citizen of the world. All young Furry writers, even those writing mostly or solely fiction, would be wise to learn this skill as best they can. I do not now know what the most common college/university texts are for this subject. In my day I had “Writing With A Purpose” McCrimmon Seventh Edition, and I still have this book. I’m sure used copies of this and others like it can be found for reasonable prices and are a valuable reference to have at hand.

    Doug, you have some good ideas in your essay and I hope you will continue to develop them. Personally I think the wolf theme can provide for you much material and would be interesting to many readers. I don’t know anything (more than what you wrote) about the Beast of Gevaudan, so you could expound on that. There is the story of the origin of Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of Rome, raised by the she-wolf. Perhaps much lesser known is the story of Saint Francis of Assisi and the wolf of Gubbio, see http://www.americancatholic.org/Features/Francis/stories.asp The extermination of wolves in Europe is actually a fairly recent condition so we might ask why and how that happened. What was, or is, the relationship of the Scandinavian Suomi people with the wolf? Are there any wolves featured in European films over the years? And so on and so forth…

    And if you get around to writing about otters, this saint had several animal stories associated with him and had a very special otter. http://orthodoxwiki.org/Kevin_of_Glendalough

    Finally, here’s an interesting story about the so-called fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm: http://www.neh.gov/humanities/2015/marchapril/feature/how-the-grimm-brothers-saved-the-fairy-tale

    1. I would love to read a compendium exploring animal imagery and symbolism throughout history. That general topic has been one of the surprise highlights of [adjective][species] over the years, for me personally. I haven’t really written on the topic, but others have, and I’ve really enjoyed reading their work.

      I’ve also been pointed towards others who informally collect examples of animal imagery elsewhere, on venues like Tumblr and Livejournal. It ties in with the furry experience for me, and it’s nice to think that my own relationship with the animal world is something that has been experienced, in one way or another, for a very very long time.

    2. Hey ShiningRiver! Thanks a lot for taking the time to read and to comment on the article.

      This article meant to point out the idea that animals and animal symbolism are embedded not only in literature and the arts but also in our cultures, master narrative, religions, and maybe even day-to-day lifestyle. I really wanted the piece to quickly touch upon a lot of different concepts without having gone deeper into specifics in order to merely peek the readers interest and hopefully curiosity.
      As you’ve pointed out, there are so many aspects I could have gone deeper into. Maybe focusing more on Asian cultures and their views on for example foxes, I would have had written a longer and maybe even a more detailed version of what is now published. Funnily enough, vulpines are typically portrayed as one’s inner sexual desires and sexuality. I guess the fandom shares that concept with Chinese/Japanese mythology, but I digress.

      I intended the article to be a quick reminder of how humans, though physically removed from “nature” and the symbiosis of “the grand balance”, are still very much influenced by interacting with each other metaphorically, artistically, and linguistically with animal symbolism.

      In retrospect, it would have been a wiser choice to focus on one animal, such as the wolf, and expand and elaborate that idea further with more in-depth research. But alas, [a][s] is stuck with this train wreck of an article :p

      Thanks again for the feedback! I really appreciate the links you’ve posted in your comment, and I had a look at them. They really helped me with broadening my view and understanding on animal literature.

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