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OTHER CREATIONS REDISCOVERING THE

SPIRITUALITY OF ANIMALS

CHRISTOPHER MANRS

H

Ot^er Creations

Digitized by the Internet Archive in

2014

https://archive.org/details/othercreationsreOOmane

Otyer Creations REDISCOVERING

THE SPIRITUALITY OF ANIMALS

Christopher

Manes

Donblebay

NEW YORK

LONDON

SYDNEY

TORONTO

AUCKLAND

PuWis^ed by Doublebay a division of

Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group,

New

1540 Broadway,

Doubiebay

York,

New

Inc.

York 10036

and the portrayal of an anchor with a dolphin are

trademarks of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

Boofe design

by Jennifer

Ann Dabbb

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Manes, Christopher, 1957— Other creations

:

rediscovering the spirituality of animals / by

Christopher Manes.



1st ed.

cm.

p.

Includes bibliographical references and index. 1.

Animals

— Religious aspects—Comparative life.

I.

studies.

Title.

BL325.A6M36

1997

96-40430

291.2'12—dc21

CIP

ISBN 0-385-48365-1 Copyright

©

1997 by Christopher Manes

All Rights Reserved

Printed in the United States of America

May

1997

First Edition

13579

10

8642

2.

Spiritual

To Stanley Douglas, a

teacher

Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

Part 1

I:

.

T^e Book

of

Nature

Bestiary of the Soul 19

2.

Holy, Intelligible Elephants

38 3.

Signifying Animals

59

Part

Animal Parts

II:

4.

Healing 77

5.

Flesh

93 6.

Sacrifice

104

Part

T^e Gospel

III:

of Beasts

Wolf's Embrace

7.

119 8.

The Hobbyhorse

of Jesus

132 9.

Not Naming Bears 147 10.

Vixens 159

1 1

.

Wild and Tame 167

12.

Hellhounds 181

13.

Cave Paintings

Part IV: T^e Soul's Otl^er Kingdom 14. Saintly

Zoology

195 15.

Paragon of Animals 203

16.

Peaceable

Kingdoms

212 Notes

217 Bibliography

229 Index

235

Preface anb Acknowletyments

In writing this book, in casting about for words and physically putting

them on

paper,

I

came

face to face with the issue the

address. Despite the fact that the

work seeks

to

waning years of the twentieth cen-

tury have seen a resurgence in the political power of religion,

we seem

painfully bereft of a vocabulary adequate to express our spiritual beliefs

and longings. Our

no longer seems

to

embrace an inner

texts to texts to texts.

Our

No

doubt

committed

and

but only the references of

many become

good reason.

this has resulted in part

modern

culture,

and dream. To discuss superficial

life,

"spiritual" itself has for

reflection has experienced

stitutions of

alternately scolding

vocabulary in particular creaks

spiritual

and cracks, so that the word suspect, often for

is

and tradition -bound, doctrinaire and clouded.

fainthearted, abstract It

religious discourse

from the long

exile devout,

from the mainstream

official in-

where people actually work and think

spiritual matters in public, except in the

and bland manner, has become a

terrible

most

breach of

eti-

quette, akin to talking loudly about the hazards of flight in an airport

lobby.

No*

all

everyday

cultures suffer equally

life.

When

I

from

was studying

this dissociation of faith

in Iceland, a friend of

from

mine who

-

x helped build the called



told

me

Preface anb Acknowledgments

first

road around the island

this story,

which

is

well

—the "Ring Road"

known among

as

it's

Icelanders.

A

construction crew, following the path flagged by the surveying team,

came upon

The

bulldozer.

mound,

a large

mound

in the landscape

for grading

by

a

night before the crew was scheduled to flatten the

the foreman had a dream.

A figure known to Icelanders as an

alfur (loosely translated as "elf," but a

more august being than the

English word implies) appeared before the

wont

as spirits are

man and

seems the alfur and

in the construction. It

mound,

marked

to

do

in

pleaded for a halt

his family lived in the

Northern

folklore,

and they

needed twenty-four hours to find a suitable new home. The next day

men

the foreman told his crew about the dream, instructing the

hold off on bulldozing the

The men ily

mound

to

honor the

to

alfur' s request.

did just that. After a day's respite to give the alfur fam-

time to move, the project continued as

nothing unusual had

if

happened.

And

nothing happened to the foreman,

disciplined or questioned about his decision.

the stodgiest Lutherans

who was Ask

not in any

way

the Icelanders, even

among them, and many

if

not most say the

foreman did the right thing. Perhaps they remembered the reason took a thousand years to build the Ring Road was a a

common belief that

highway around the island might somehow offend the land

who

it

spirits,

according to tradition have always protected their country.

Now

consider what would have happened

if

the foreman were

working on an American road. Not only would he have probably been fired,

he might have received a strong recommendation to see a psy-

chiatrist.

The

difference here

landers are probably a a

little less

comes not only from temperament little

more

superstitious than

enamored with economic

efficiency

—the

Americans and

—but from language.

Iceland has ancient narratives that explain the existence of

dwelling

spirits,

Ice-

mound

connecting them to the well-being of the nation. This

had tangible meaning

for

an agriculture people living just below the

Preface anb Acknowledgments

x\

Arctic Circle, where every square foot of arable land

up the landscape

ple didn't capriciously tear

is

precious. Peo-

in Iceland, at least not if

they wanted to survive the coming winter. Their vision of their

way of life met

For

us, a

in tales of alfur

modern

Our

skepticism

are concerned, but

is

may do no harm where minor

we have

no more. The

spirits.

in cyberspace, all this is just a

also

texts

charming

folk beliefs

become estranged from our

religious visions, because the living, organic

arose

and

technological giant, standing with one foot in

urban ennui and the other fairy tale.

and land

life

we hold

central

world from which they

sacred, the Torah, the Bible, the

Koran, gave birth to ideas embedded in a landscape of animals, both real

a

and metaphoric, where

lions stalked the

highways of Judea, and

good shepherd evoked sentiments of mysterious divine

ated from that living world, faith, for all its

seems

we should

love. Alien-

hardly wonder that

modern

garrulousness, popular support, and political agitation,

adrift in a culture that lacks the robust spirituality of

women who know

men and

their sacred stories in their hearts.

"In a wonderful and inexpressible way," wrote the medieval phi-

losopher John Scotus Erigena,

question cial,

we

face, in a

"God

is

created in his creatures."

geography increasingly creatureless and

The

artifi-

an environment more and more derivative and mechanical,

how can we

again

embody our

spirituality in the living, organic

is

world

of bird wings, coyote music, and the inexplicable migrations of frogs

under the garden them, which

is

gate.

what

We

this

start, I

am

book attempts

convinced, with stories about to

tell.

Many thanks to David Abram, Jessie Hardin, Mike Roselle, and Dan Rinnan, whose profound conversations over sherry and cups of ale rang in

my

ears as

I

search assistance; to

wrote this book; to Kathy Doerksen, for her

Howard

re-

Sanger, for his encouragement; to Maria

Rodriguez, for her moral support; Tracy Benedict, for her enthusiasm;

and

to Patricia

Van der Leun

for her patient nurturing of ideas.

Introduction

The first metaphor was animal.

— John

A

Saint Bernard, despite

breed of dog or

cat,

its

name,

unwelcome

is

in church.

sheep, bovine, terrapin, or bird, faces this

unspoken prohibition. Nor

Homo

Berger

are

you

The complete absence

Mormon

same

any fauna, except for

likely to find

and burnished wood

sapiens, invited into the marble, brass,

world of a synagogue, mosque, or

Every

temple.

of animals in our places of worship nor-

mally goes without notice, based as the customs of our time. But there

is

it is

on obvious good sense and

something disturbingly symbolic

man on the stairs in man who wasn't there / He

about this fugitive menagerie. Like the missing the

Hugh Mearn

— doggerel

wasn't there again today /

I

"I

met

wish,

I

wish he'd stay away"

appearance of animals in our spiritual cially in light of a

life is

have become, above

part.

Modern mainstream

all else,

exclusively

physically and psychologically

human

is

as if

same

and immaculate temples

coin.

which animals play

religious institutions affairs,

we have

distanced both

built our houses of

to zoophobia, as if reli-

gious devotion and the repudiation of animal sides of the

in

from the burgeoning, unruly world of

living things surrounding us. It as glorious

—the non-

a nagging paradox, espe-

worldwide religious history

such a prominent

worship

a

life

occupied the two

2

There

are,

in southern

Introduction

of course, exceptions.

Some

Europe and Latin America

Catholic dioceses



—mostly

celebrate an annual

still

"blessing of creation," a ritual that throws open the church doors to a

parade of livestock and pets brought before a priest for benediction.

A

few years ago,

I

attended one such blessing ceremony, not in Sao

Paulo or Turin, but

in,

of

all

places, judicious,

neapolis, at the Basilica of St.

October 4 Feast of

St.

Mary. As

it

mostly Lutheran Min-

does every year on the

Francis, the great church resounded not with

the usual solemn cadences of the liturgy, but with the squawking of

cockatoos and the yelping of dachshunds, as children brought their

The

pets to receive a blessing.

incongruity of allowing the living

sounds and colors of animals within a space so meticulously stylized

and turned inward away from the natural world

which was the reason

liar,

time),

and probably the

But

I

real

came

(not having

is

my

irresistibly

pecu-

me

at the

cat with

reason that draws most everybody

else.

as a matter of fact, until the fourteenth century, pets regularly

accompanied

their

owners to church

services, a situation that ulti-

mately attracted the condemnation of religious authorities. Bishop

William of Wykeham,

nuns of Romsey Abbey pets:

"we

presume

strictly forbid

to bring to

contemporary of Chaucer's, rebuked the

a

in

Hampshire

you

.

.

.

that

for their inordinate love of

from henceforth you do not

church any birds, hounds, rabbits or other

lous creatures that are harmful to good discipline."

frivo-

As might be

expected, the rich and powerful did not always abide by these proscriptions.

One

"Lady Audy ever she

.

.

comes

distraught .

nun wrote

has a great abundance of dogs, insomuch that when-

to church, there follow her twelve dogs,

great uproar in church, hindering the terrifying

These

in the eighteenth century that

nuns

in their

who make

a

psalmody, and

them." colorful anomalies, however, only prove the rule about

spirituality in

modern Western

culture.

We

prefer to worship,

seems, not in the richness of physical creation with

its

it

"frivolous crea-

Introduction

what Yeats

tures," but rather in

purely

human

spaces of our

Or do we?

3

called the "artifice of eternity," the

own making.

Enter the church that prudently shuts

may

dog, and there

stand a priest whose very

meaning "the leading

Sanskrit purugava,

door to the

its

comes from the

title

bull in a herd." If

Catholic church, a ciborium and chalice might rest on an the Latin altus, "high"

—an

which animal

sacrifices

were once performed

And

altar,

near the

the Latin "flock."

church

word

is

a

from

allusion to the elevated platforms

on

in pre-Christian times.

pond."

like the

one

for "shepherd")

High above

I

attended as a boy, the pastor (from

might

refer to the parishioners as his

in a stained glass

white dove, symbol of the Holy

window glows

Spirit,

the image of a

one third of Christianity's

New

Testa-

tribe of Judah,

might

sacred Trinity. In an adjoining scene, Jesus, called in the

ment both the Lamb of God and the Lion of the carry a lost sheep

altar,

is

water used for sacred purposes might stand in a

piscina: Latin for "fish If the

it

on

his shoulders

tribute to his role as the divine

back to the fold in metaphorical

Good

Shepherd.

As

the service ends,

the minister asks for God's blessing: from the Anglo-Saxon bledsian, "to consecrate

by sprinkling with blood." Originally, the blood of

a

sacrificed animal.

Or perhaps

a

synagogue

is

celebrating Passover, and the rabbi

rekindles in the imagination of those assembled the ten plagues of

Egypt (including swarms of

frogs, lice, flies,

the angel of death took the firstborn of both for those in

houses with

lintels

and

locusts),

men and

and how

beasts, except

marked with the blood of a lamb with-

out blemish.

And

ultimately, in places of worship everywhere,

knowledge a

common

word "animal" meaning

all

religions ac-

concern for the condition of our souls, and the

itself traces

back to the same Latin root as anima,

"spirit" or "soul."

Try as we might, we cannot bar the doors of religion to the world

4

Introduction

of animals; in a figurative sense they were already inside while the edifice

was being

built.

(And sometimes

in a whimsically literal sense

mice have silenced the mighty organ

too:

Italy, at least

in the Basilica of

twice in recorded history, by gnawing at the reeds.) Like

a hologram, our religious institutions turned one

but humans, the ghost of religion,

San Marco,

human

some

human

concerns,

history.

way show nothing

Turned another, and

long-extinct Palestinian lion leaps out at you. Every

even those that seem consciously to distance themselves from

the world of nature, has not only a

human and

divine history, but a

natural history involving a bestiary of sheep, serpents, cats, wolves,

dragons, and unicorns.

And

modern people

yet,

rarely ask about the

source of this tacit relationship between their spiritual lives and the

animal world, an

affinity so close that

it

mostly remains hidden from

view. Almost, one might say, taboo.

My interest in the connection between animals and religion came out of an unanswerable question most parents sooner or later face: five-year-old daughter's pet rabbit died

pened

to

it.

Like most parents,

ing the mysteries of parents,

I

life

I

felt

and death

to a child.

was

a boy,

and no doubt

first

sort. It

a very similar conversation with his father with him,

generations, perhaps even to that

ancestors

And

so,

like

answered awkwardly that her animal had gone to

had once had

I

moment

my

daughter and

me

were

struck

most

" rabbit

me

later

my father when

I

and so on back countless

of illumination

perceived the grim reality of death.

passed between

hap-

inadequate to the task of explain-

heaven" or "pet heaven" or something of the that

me what

and she ask

my

less a

when our

The words

that

conversation than an

ancient ceremony, one perhaps critical to becoming a fully conscious

human

being.

Upon reflection, I began they die" liturgy

is

to sense that the

merely the

'where do pets go when

tip of a vast interior iceberg

concerning

our spiritual relations with animals. In The Geography of Childhood, naturalist Paul

sion

Nabhan

when he and

tells a

story

from

his

boyhood about an occa-

his friends caught a racerunner lizard, strapped

it

Introduction

to a tile

model

"loss of innocence."

an

a rite of passage,

— and blew the poor rep-

The young Nabhan immediately

in this casual slaughter,

and looking back years

His choice of words

is

Most of us

regretted his part

later,

considered

instructive, as

initiation into another level of

world, a religious stirring. lar, if less

bomb

airplane, attached a cherry

to smithereens.

5

as children probably

involved the birth of a

it

a

suggests

understanding the

gruesome, introductions to the sanctities of

through animals, whether

it

it

and death

life

litter

had simi-

of puppies

or the loss of a pet rabbit.

The concern and dent of culture. slight

We

affection children have for animals

live in a

is

no

acci-

world awash with sensations, from the

buzzing of a gnat to the lashing downpour of monsoons. Most

of nature's operations remain hidden to us, beyond the limit of our senses, unless

augmented by technology. Ultraviolet rays

fall

invisibly

before our eyes; radio waves from distant galaxies constantly break

over us without ruffling a sleeve; the shrieks of bats nightly

and do not

human eardrum.

stir a

musical instrument, the

and

we have

a

the air

Nonetheless, like a finely crafted

human body

is

attuned to the natural world,

specifically to the presence of animals.

legacy

fill

As our common

biological

thousand generations of intimate communion with

the animal kingdom, with the eerie magic of howling wolves, the crazy

of swallows, the terrible rush of some unseen carnivore.

flights

very capacity to perceive the world and ourselves in

all

Our

their sensual

complexity was influenced through a constant dialogue with other

forms of It

life.

should come as no surprise, then, that some of the most promi-

nent thinkers in Christian theology

Calvin

—have

seriously

And, moreover,

a

considered

St.

Augustine, Boethius,

my

/Elfric,

daughter's very question.

few of them have even come down on the side of

evasive parents like myself.

monk and



St.

Francis of Assisi, the twelfth -century

patron saint of animals (and the saint honored

at St.

Mary's

blessing of creation), preached the gospel to swallows, wolves, and

other creatures out of concern for their souls. His love for God's ere-

6

Introduction

ation

went so deep that he once refused

robe,

admonishing

creature of

his

God and

to put out the fire

burning his

concerned fellow monks that the flame was a

should not be harmed. Francis for one had no

trouble believing that animals had souls as valuable to

God

as his

own.

The important ter,

As

thing

is

not whether

or

I,

St.

Francis for that mat-

reached the correct conclusion about the nature of animal souls. I

say, the question

None

absurd.

an ordinary sense unanswerable,

to an afterlife.

much

soul,

When

less

whether crocodiles can look

speaking about

faith,

the realm of proof, but of personal experience.

we

argue over whether

God

Common

same questions about all

to the

concedes. left

liberal missionary.

jackals,

who

to India,

The

mon-

older

man

and so on down the animal

younger evangelist's approbation. Until he reaches

wasps. "No, no, this

be

more

for-

sense leads

has provided a heavenly mansion for

keys. Yes, says the younger,

kingdom,

not

are simply not in

us away from the two missionaries in Forster's Passage

asks the

if

of us can provide convincing evidence that our next-

door neighbor has a

ward

in

is

is

going too

far," the

young missionary

"We must exclude someone from our

gathering, or

finally

we

shall

with nothing."

Straining at a wasp's soul,

we may,

like Forster's missionaries,

overlook the more interesting riddle that hovers before us: the fact that animals raise spiritual

the moral

among

life,

and the

themes

afterlife,

philosophers and saints.

religious history

for us,

about the nature of the soul,

not only

The

among

schoolchildren but

pervasive presence of animals in

and thought says something

in its

own

right about

the architecture of our spiritual sense, quite distinct from the various

conclusions people might reach.

What would human

spirituality

be without animals?

The

portrays Satan as a snake, a dragon, a roaring lion, a beast.

tempers the ity

steel

Bible

Yahweh

of Daniel's faith in a lion's den. Historical Christian-

populated heaven and

hell

with zoomorphic forms, and produced

a rich medieval literature called bestiaries,

which interpreted the

Introduction

The

fauna of the world in spiritual terms.

teem with stone

Temple

Jews and early Christians practiced religious perspective, Jesus'

money changers from

the

who

chants fice,

great cathedrals of

and other symbolic animal

eagles, stags,

Until the destruction of the

7

in

Europe

statuary.

Jerusalem in 70 A.D., both animal

ritual

most revolutionary

From

sacrifices.

act,

a

the expulsion of

the Temple, was also directed at the mer-

sold the doves, sheep, and oxen required for blood sacri-

an act that struck

at the heart

of Jewish religious law.

One

can

imagine, as he turned over tables and the birdcages burst open on the

ground, that in his wake a flock of liberated birds rose to the heavens



a

symbol of this new

Our

spiritual

faith

embodied

in their

animal forms.

vocabulary contains a menagerie of real and imag-

ined beasts, though

we

rarely consciously take notice of the imagery.

So deeply woven are animals into many of our sacred texts and myths that the religious significance

would come unraveled without them.

Probably no document better embodies the Judeo- Christian understanding of the relationship between

Twenty -third Psalm, for is

its

my

God and humanity

I

the

instantly recognizable to people of every creed

fusion of simple pastoralism and profound theology:

shepherd;

as

shall not

want. But

if

we

The Lord

take out the references to

animals and animal husbandry, and replace them with synonyms

from modern

culture, the

famous

first lines

become hollow

shells of

The

relation-

doctrine:

The Lord I shall

is

my

[leader, protector, guide];

not want.

He

[gives

me food]

He

[gives

me

drink]

.

.

.

Obviously, the change here

is

more than

ship between a shepherd and his flock

is at

stylistic.

the heart of the psalm's

8

meaning, and

it

Introduction

and unique experience. As

arises out of a real

sacred metaphor in the Judeo- Christian worldview,

quately be replaced with

modern

we can

flows a profound religious sensibility

For a pastoral people

like the ancient

flocks over the landscape at

wandering through possibility of

Psalm, the sheep

God's a

still

and

direction,

cannot ade-

this experience

barely reconstruct today.

Hebrews, the drifting of

some point suggested humanity's

lost,

their

spiritual

world of ours, with the constant

this inexplicable

becoming

From

equivalents.

it

a central

from God. In the Twenty-third

straying

wander, but through faith they move under

this

dependence

is

transformed from

ecstatically

weakness into divinely inspired power. In a very tangible sense, then,

much of Western

theology rides on

the back of a small domesticated ruminant that cannot fend for

(The point bles in

is

coincidentally highlighted

by the

Europe were written on parchment,

knows what course traditions

Christianity

would have crept

been forced to wait

would have

into

its

fact that the first Bi-

that

is,

taken,

Who

sheepskin.

what now

lost oral

had the church fathers

doctrine,

until the rise of the

itself.

paper industry in the twelfth

century before they could get adequate stationery to write the Bible

down?) In The Great Code: The

Bible

invites us to see the Bible as a vast,

"metaphor of

its

is

Northrop Frye

Literature,

complex symbolic

text in

which

not an incidental ornament of Biblical language, but one

controlling

modes of thought."

question arises for believers about

bygone world

to a

and

If

Frye

how we

is

right, a

fundamental

relate to these references

as a foundation of religious faith.

Most modern

much

Christians and Jews have never even touched a living sheep,

seen a shepherd, a profession

less

societies.

as if

we

all

but extinct in modern industrial

The metaphor may be almost

realize that

The natural

we have no

dead, but

we

equivalent to replace

still

seek

it

out,

it.

history of religion overflowed the Bible and for centu-

ries invigorated the spiritual

imagination of popular culture.

It

would

only be a slight exaggeration to say that the conversion of England to Christianity in the early

Middle Ages was due

in large part to a

com-

Introduction

mon

house sparrow.

began

glish soil,

him

to

When

Paulinus, one of the

prove the correctness of this new

Human

room warmed by

night, the

when

on

life

be likened to a situation where a king

first

bishops on En-

pagan king Eadwin challenged

his evangelizing, the

with a story about a bird.

snows,

g

is

a bright

Paulinus responded

faith.

earth, said the bishop, can

on

sitting in his hall

fire,

while outside

a winter's

rains

it

and

suddenly:

in flies a sparrow,

which

through one door, and

exits

through the

is

But that

only a

little

hall,

comes

in

through the other. Lo, during the

within, he isn't touched

time the bird lasts

flutters

by the storms of winter.

while, a twinkling of an eye, before he

soon returns to winter from winter. Just so this

life

of

man

appears only for a short time; what went before and what follows,

Lif

is

we know

laena



not.

"life is

transitory" (literally, "loaned")

Anglo-Saxons expressed the lesson of Paulinus* the sparrow through the hall so impressed

of the

first

story.

Eadwin



is

The

that he

how

the

flight

of

become one

English converts to Christianity (given the times, virtually

assuring his subjects would do the same), and Christian England eventually changed the course of Northern European religious history. It's

hard to imagine that any medieval Englishman familiar with

this tale could see a sparrow's flight across a field

ing this loaned

not just the

life

soil.

and the importance of cultivating

We, however,

Not only Judaism and the world of animals to

about a

woman

his spiritual

life,

see just a bird.

Christianity, but also Islam turned toward

embody some

cially in the mystical Sufi tradition.

stories is

without contemplat-

at a well

of

One

and

its

central teachings, espe-

of the most beautiful Sufi

a thirsty dog:

io

Introduction

woman who was

The Prophet

told of a

transgressor.

While proceeding

in the desert, she

by which was standing a dog, panting with

well

by

considered to be a

abandoned her work, made

pity, she

a rope of her head -covering to

God

his mecraj [Journey of ascent] he

with the whole paradise of Eden

for the dog.

The Prophet

saw at

thirst.

a

Moved

a bucket of her shoe

draw water

blessed her in both His worlds.

came upon

For

this

said that

her, radiant as the

and

on

moon,

her disposal.

In another story, the Sufi teacher al-Shibli appeared to a friend of his in a

dream

before God,

after his death. Al-Shibli related that

God

forgave his sins and asked

why. The

Sufi pointed to his

grimages.

God

in the lanes of

answered:

if

when he came

he knew the reason

good works, prayers,

fastings,

and

pil-

"Do you remember when you were walking

Baghdad and you found

made weak by

a small cat

the

cold creeping from wall to wall because of the great cold, and out of pity

you took

it

inside a fur

you were wearing so

as to

from the pains of the cold? Because of the mercy you

protect

it

showed

that cat

A

and put

it

I

have had mercy on you."

number of medieval

theme of redemption

Christian narratives develop a similar

for a sinner

or other outcast. But by using a this Islamic tradition

who shows mercy

dog or

to a beggar, leper,

a cat as the object of

makes an even more

sympathy,

radical point: spiritual re-

wards await those who bestow kindness on any part of creation,

human and nonhuman

alike.

This deep sense of reverence for God's

creation could not be expressed

if

the stories only involved

human

actors.

Similar parades of spiritual fauna appear in

all

the major religions

of the world. Classical paganism revolved around animal images and

animal

sacrifice.

The

ancient Egyptians not only

mals divine, but organized their

rituals in

deemed many

ani-

almost an obsessive manner

to care for the remains of dead beasts. Various ancient Egyptian burial

u

Introduction

have yielded over a million mummified carcasses of

sites

and other creatures,

after

rection anticipated

by

with the

their

Romans

pious, the early

sacrifice of

by making the gods in the slaughter

thousands of years

still

waiting for the resur-

devout embalmers. While certainly

less

sealed almost every important business deal

an animal, presumably to discourage swindling a party to the agreement.

Pagan Greece engaged

and burning of large numbers of

religious festivals,

cats, ibises,

cattle at

now

a practice that gave us the

important

familiar

word

"holocaust," to burn whole. Finally, at the prehistoric heart of

both ancient and modern

insti-

tutional religions lies the practice of animism, humanity's oldest reli-

gious worldview. Animistic cultures see animals as inspirited beings that can be invoked for

and

wisdom, success, insight

do harm. Traveling back

to

in life's mysteries,

to the source of humanity's attempts

we

to articulate spiritual sentiments,

find ourselves in the caves of

Lascaux or Altimara, places Joseph Campbell called "the landscape of the soul," gazing not at portrayals of white-robed deities, but at the

images of giant Ice Age beasts.

On nal

life

a

more

experiential level,

it is

for a people totally cut off

swimming up white-water

difficult to

imagine a rich

inter-

from the creative energy of salmon

rivers, tigers

night, geese filling the air with their

gions and denominations have their

hunting in the forests of the

nomadic music. Different

own

reli-

distinct theological views of

these expressions of natural diversity. But putting doctrine aside, no

one can doubt that our special

way

spiritual imaginations as a

to the shapes, sounds,

This doesn't mean animistic special claim

than

we

are.

whole respond

and behaviors of

tribes or

living creatures.

premodern Europeans have

a

on being kinder or more responsible toward animals

The

facts in

many

us, these societies place their

cases indicate the contrary.

we

our minds toward an abstract and inert realm of

and machines.

But unlike

moral and religious existence in a uni-

verse oriented toward other living things, while

texts,

in a

increasingly turn

human

artifacts,

12

The

Introduction

existence of an ancient link between religion and animals

begs the question of

how our

spiritual lives

have been influenced by

the urbanization of the world and the violent exclusion of nature from

our culture. There

no longer

a

is

widespread sense that mainstream religions are

and that society

satisfying people's spiritual needs,

whole has fostered a culture of disbelief

knowledge and technology. This

in its exaltation of secular

religious drift has

many

causes.

one among them remains largely ignored: the continuing central

metaphors that breathe

life

as a

But

loss of the

into faith, as our mechanized, do-

mesticated, and digital culture increasingly distances daily

life

from

animate nature. If

you want

to see a society without living

tual convictions, just read the

much

seem not

so

believe in

God and

York Times.

but worships of profit.

itual lives

Our

tribe.

all

our religiosity

we somehow cannot

at a rate that

would shame the

society talks about Judeo- Christian ethics,

at the shrine

The

religious values

numbers than any

practice their faith in greater

from murdering one another

most warlike

Our

for its spiri-

discarded as disembodied, inorganic. Americans

other Western nation, but for refrain

New

metaphors

of market

economy and

the endless pursuit

disjunct between our religious institutions and our spir-

many

has caused

people to look elsewhere for a

medium

to

express their spirituality. Perhaps for this reason, pets and wildlife (rare

though face-to-face contacts with undomesticated animals have

become) seem more than ever to have attracted to themselves connotations. In researching this book, persons. Virtually

all

of

them

have spoken with dozens of

talked with conviction and gratitude

about particular animals that somehow not articulate

I

spiritual

—often

in a

—struck an inner chord with them.

manner they canHere

is

a typical

example:

"Chela was an orange-white cat with white whiskers and golden eyes.

She and

I

were closest companions for thirteen

years.

We were

my home with her either draped over my shoulder or stretched out across my back. After I had

completely bonded.

I

would walk around

Introduction

to

13

have her put to sleep because of her severe

her final year,

"One

I

had many very lucid dreams about Chela.

of the most memorable:

was

feeling without Chela.

over

my heart,

and

it

had

arthritic condition in

I

was

But then

I

sad, thinking of

knew

where there was an envelope.

a picture of

Chela

in

it.

lost

I

to reach into a pocket

pulled out the envelope

I

But when

how

I

went

to take the

photo

out of the envelope, instead she walked right out of the envelope, big

and

vital as ever!

As

if

to say, 'Don't

mourn me;

I

am

right here with

you/ "Then, a couple nights in a colorful,

woodsy, and meadowlike

with me. She takes animals of is

all

me

that

not too dissimilar to

Depending on

profound visions or true.

But whatever

visiting

many

this,

their

to

all

which if

I

of them!

shall

Chela

where many

front of the clearing

up onto the platform and speaks

me

heartfelt spiritual experience

would guess

am

She can communicate

At the

sorts are relaxing together.

animals there, introducing

ory.

area.

I

to this large, spacious clearing,

a small platform. She goes

I

another dream:

later

It

was

to the

a wonderful,

never forget."

not most people have had experiences

ones important enough to stick in the

mem-

background, people might explain them as

idle fancies.

We have no way of judging which is

their status, the fact

remains that animals seem

mysteriously to haunt our houses of worship, our sense of the super-

dreams of paradise, our visions of

natural, our

riddle

we can

The Bible

That presents

is

as old as religion itself.

that within the

first

Everyone familiar with the

couple pages of Genesis, two ver-

sions of the creation narrative are recounted. In Genesis

animal

and declares

life

Genesis

2,

a

explore.

riddle

knows

hell.

it

good, with

Adam

1,

God makes

and Eve created

later.

In

animals come into existence almost as a kind of after-

thought in God's search to find an appropriate mate for an already created

Adam,

alone and separated from the rest of creation in his

garden paradise. For modern biblical scholarship, this seeming contradiction

shows that Genesis

as

we have

it

was the work of an

editor

Introduction

14

who brought

God's perspective, and the other seen from Adam's.

sion taking

Whatever

together two separate creation stories, perhaps one ver-

its literary

history, the contrast

Bible offers us a choice right from the

embedded

selves

in the living animal

man

as if the

we can

see our-

world as participants in the ourselves as unique and

odds with other living things,

isolated beings at

wilderness,

start: either

we can view

larger unfolding of creation, or

It is

is startling.

civilization versus the

against the elements, art over nature.

Needless to say, modern culture chose the

latter. It is a

tribute to

the enduring vitality of the Bible that after several thousand years the story

still

confronts us with this fundamental spiritual decision, even

as our culture

We do

would probably prefer

to avoid the

not appear to have that luxury.

The

whole

issue.

naturalist E.

O. Wil-

son has theorized that humans have a fundamental interest in and attraction to other animals that

human

the core of

is at

identity.

son's "biophilia thesis" argues that bred in our bones interact with the living things ination, tion.

and

creativity

around

us,

it

a

need to

and that our thinking, imag-

become impoverished without

Following this argument,

is

Wil-

may be

that

we

this participa-

are creatures with

brains destined to create the religious visions that govern our lives,

while those visions, vast and mysterious as they

are,

emerge from the

simple play of children chasing dragonflies near a pond. the

first

religions

The

fact that

were apparently religions of the hunt confirms that

the biophilia thesis describes something fundamental about the spirituality of animals.

In his groundbreaking book on totemism, Claude Levi-Strauss

described the

mirror for

way

human

in

which the world of animals provides a model and

self- definition

and

self- reflection

phrase "Animals are good for thinking."

nomic importance of animals. Even

We

are

with the evocative

all

aware of the eco-

in this technological age,

much

if

not most of the food, clothing, and fuels (such as petroleum) that sustain our talism,

way of life come from fauna. With

most enlightened people have

the rise of environmen-

also recognized the ecological

Introduction

The animal

significance of animals. tific

15

rights

movement and new

research showing the deep-seated similarities between

many even broken

and other primates have

for

superiority arrogated to

Homo

sapiens.

humans

the barrier of moral

But the metaphysical impor-

may be

tance of animals, the idea that they

scien-

significant not just to our

physical existence, but to our spiritual well-being and the cultivation

of our humanity, that possibility has eluded serious discussion.

This book attempts to explore the implications of Levi-Strauss' epigram that animals are good for thinking, taking "thinking"

to in-

clude the quest for spiritual growth and wisdom. For millennia, ani-

mals were

and

gradually,

of humanity's religious beliefs, and only

at the center

recently,

have they vanished from view, becoming the

"marginal creatures of childhood, nightmare and dream." 9 Animals

become

of flesh and blood have

invisible or absent in our society,

reduced to geometrical shapes bought in supermarkets for food, or the two-dimensional images transmitted via wildlife documentaries

and nature magazines. But unlike so many corporeal animals, our spiritual

fauna has not completely

left

the scene.

We still have a besti-

ary of our own, hidden in the underbrush or at the margins of our

popular and religious culture, anxious to appear every time a

monster movie, speculate on the

ethical

life,

we watch

recite a psalm, or an-

swer our children's questions about the meaning of death. So important are animals to our spiritual lives that

we do

not merely use animal

imagery to embody religious themes; rather, we discover

spiritual val-

ues through animals.

When

Paulinus told the story of the winter sparrow in the

he wanted to emphasize of the soul after death.

same imagery by

how unknown and

He

slightly

could have

made

precarious seems the fate a different point with the

changing the perspective.

in his stronghold, the king sees a bird fly in

out again. In that instant, he realizes

how

hall,

Warm and

secure

from the dark and back

the glow of his hearth forms

only a small circle of the visible, which gradually fades into the vaster, invisible,

unknown world

outside.

The swallow may be

just an ani-

Introduction

16

mal, driven by muscle and instinct, but

king has to what if

he follows

its

lies

beyond

movement,

his

home.

it is

And

if

also the only link the

he pays close attention,

listens carefully to its voice, notes its form,

the bird might provide clues to the nature of that vaster realm before flitting

If

back into the darkness again forever.

only for a

little

while, let's turn our gaze

fortable hearth of religious culture as

we know

away from the comit,

and

like Paulinus'

nobleman, peer out toward the dark where the shadowy forms of birds

and beasts gather round

us, as if

about to speak.

PART ONE f

Tlbe of

r

Book

Nature

CHAPTER ONE

Bestiary of The wild

deer,

Keeps the

wand'ring here

Human

Soul

tl?e

& there,

Soul from Care.

—William Blake

"I

am Mr.

Ed!" Think about the theological problems raised by these

words.

Almost every Sunday night during the mother and open

I

would watch

a talking

my

early 1960s,

grand-

palomino named Mr. Ed swing

his stable doors onto our black-and-white

TV screen,

sing those

words, and go on to solve the problems of his befuddled, stammering

owner, Wilbur Post. Not only did Mr.

and seemingly his

a higher

name suggested

called Ed, but

Ed

talk,

he had better diction

IQthan any of the humans around him. Even

a universal order turned

Mr. Ed; while

his

on

its

head: he wasn't

nominal master was just plain

Wilbur. I

think

my

grandmother enjoyed the show so much because she

grew up taking care of plow horses on her family's farm back rope. This cially

was before mechanized

agriculture,

when

in

Eu-

people, espe-

country people, depended on the muscle power of big animals

them than we do today

and therefore

felt closer to

barren

In the lustrous

cities.

California's

our zoologically

new manmade landscapes

of Southern

Kennedy-era suburbia, The Mr. Ed Show was about

close to animal

My

in

husbandry

as

my

grandmother could hope

as

to get.

grandmother's farming background roused her every

now

20

T^e Boo^

Nature

of

and again to point out some mistaken

detail of

equine grooming or

behavior that appeared in the show. Strangely, however, her criticisms

never included Mr. Ed's ability to speak, as voices were the

pended her (whose

norm

disbelief

lyrics are

steeds with contrabass

Like most viewers, she sus-

and accepted the premise of the theme song

probably better known to most Americans than the

National Anthem): of course, the

in Central Europe.

if

name

"No one can of the horse

But why could Mr. Ed

talk to a horse, of course. / Unless,

is

the famous Mr. Ed."

Leaving aside the technical magic of

talk?

dubbing and the mastication of peanut butter Mr. Ed's

him

to keep his

gab.

He

mouth moving,

the

trainer fed

show never explained

his gift of

apparently wasn't supposed to be a freak of nature, like some

equestrian Teenage

Mutant Ninja

Often

Turtle.

Mr. Ed got

as not,

Wilbur out of trouble through some piece of inside information wheedled from another horse (usually

mount),

who was

less articulate.

filly

or a police

apparently just as clever as the star 01 the show,

In Mr. Ed's world,

beings with more sense than the

was the conceit played out puns about horse

some love-smitten

horses were intelligent, rational

all

humans

sitting in the saddles.

That

in episode after episode, along with endless

sense.

Like most good jokes,

it

an animal's point of view

was hardly

is

original.

an ancient

To

see society

The Parliament of Fowls,

Animal Farm.

it

in

George Orwell over half a millennium

as did

It is

from

literary device for gaining

distance and apparent objectivity about ourselves. Chaucer used

later in

if

the basis of the tenth-century Arabic text

The Island of the Animals (which ends with the surprisingly egalitarian note that

"Man

is

accountable to his

treats all animals, just as

his fellow

work

human

here,

he

is

for the

way

in

which he

accountable for his behaviour towards

beings"). But

much more

than a literary trope

is at

something more fundamental and strange. In addition to

Mr. Ed, our culture has created from comic

Maker

a

whole universe of talking animals,

strips to cartoons to television

and pull-string teddy

bears.

From our

shows, fairy

tales, novels,

imaginations have sprung sen-

Bestiary of

11

Soul

t(;e

timental purple dinosaurs, wisecracking rabbits, cereal-selling tigers, lisping house cats, slang -ridden terrapins, bashful lambs, dogs with

drawls and speech impediments, good-old-boy roosters, eagles that philosophize, pigs trying to be sheepdogs, and

We

French accents.

amorous skunks with

have surrounded ourselves with a conversational

menagerie.

Not only

that, this

menagerie has a cultural resonance that goes

beyond mere fantasy and

Most

play. Talking animals are important to us.

readers can probably identify the zoological figures

luded to with an adjective or two.

If

I

made

I

just al-

a similar sketch of a

dozen

writers or political leaders, only a savant might get the references.

Mr. Ed himself comes from

His

a long lineage of talking equines.

immediate predecessor was Francis the talking mule, who appeared in seven highly profitable

movies by Universal, though

double counting since the create

Mr. Ed.

A

films' director,

talking horse

is

this

seems

like

Arthur Lubin, went on

central to

Animal Farm

to

as the alle-

gorical voice of the long-suffering, easily led Russian proletariat. In

the last part of Gulliver's Travels (the part of the book your high school teacher probably didn't have you read because of ingly dark misanthropy), Swift lets the equestrian

Houyhnhnms

look

down

their

disturb-

its

and highly

thoroughbred noses



literally

rational



cultural pretensions of eighteenth-century Europeans. In the

distant recesses of

ing to the

whom

Roman

priests

European

history,

some Germanic

the

at

more

tribes, accord-

historian Tacitus, kept sacred white horses, with

purported to converse in order to obtain knowledge of

the future.

Mr. Ed's pedigree even reaches back history's first ass.

to the Bible, to recorded

and most unlikely spokesman of animal

rights:

Balaam's

In one of the most enigmatic and dreamlike passages in the

Testament, Balaam ously worships

High"



is

—apparently

a

Moabite soothsayer who incongru-

Yahweh and "knew

the knowledge of the

bribed by the hapless King of

the Israelite

army advancing on

Old

his

Moab

Most

to place a curse

on

kingdom. Balaam departs on

his

22 donkey toward

T^e Book

Nature

of

a place of sacrifice, but

Yahweh sends an

angel to

block his path:

And when

the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she

fell

down

under Balaam; and Balaam's anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a

And

staff.

the Lord opened the

What

unto Balaam, smitten

me

kill

I

I

done unto

thee, that

and she said thou hast

said unto the ass, Because thou hast

would there were

a

sword

mine hand,

in

for

mocked

now would

I

thee.

And

the ass said unto Balaam,

which thou hast ridden ever since I

ass,

these three times?

And Balaam me:

have

mouth of the

ever

wont

to

do so unto thee?

I

Am not

I

thine ass,

was thine unto

And

he

said,

upon

this day?

was

Nay. [Numbers

22:27-30]

Besides the wonderful

pun of the

last line

(which appears only in

the English translation), perhaps the oddest thing about this passage is

Balaam's reaction to his newly articulate beast of burden. Except

for the serpent in the

Garden of Eden,

this is the

only instance in the

Bible of an animal speaking. Yet, not taken aback in the slightest,

Balaam enters

into a conversation with his beast of burden, even con-

ceding the justice of

its

complaints, which seem to be

against the mistreatment of animals

cri

de coeur

by humans everywhere. The

angel, finally manifesting itself to Balaam, even criticizes the sooth-

sayer for getting upset with his mount, pointing out that he

have perished effect of the

who

at the angel's

drama

is

to

hand had the

ass not shied away.

who

The

emphasize the moral stature of the animal,

ironically not only has deeper spiritual vision than the

diviner, but

would

also bests

him

in

an argument about

ethics.

famous

Bestiary of t^e Sou(

23

Balaam became one of the most frequently maligned the Bible, though the reason

is

villains in

unclear. After the incident with his

donkey, he listened to God's commandment, and

much to the chagrin

of the Moabite king, actually blessed the Israelites instead of cursing

them. ing

A millennium or so later,

enough

to fashion

employed Mr. Ed iniquity: the

for

dumb

of the prophet"

it

it

Peter found the incident interest-

into a serious moral point, just as

comic

effect:

man's voice forbad the madness

Peter 2:16). Peter saw

(II

Hollywood

"But [Balaam] was rebuked for his

ass speaking with

truth, the exact nature of

but

St.

some spark of

spiritual

which we do not quite understand today,

was important enough

for

him

to include a talking equine in

Christianity's sacred text as a voice of morality.

The

religious quality of talking equines has declined over the

years, turning

from divine spokesmen

com

The

premises.

into sideshow

draws and

sit-

dressage of allegedly sentient horses through re-

cent history mostly involves the performance of tricks, from the dice-

counting of Morocco, a steed famous enough to be mentioned by

Shakespeare (and supposedly burned craft along

tion Silver, Trigger, to

Rome

for witch-

with his apparently very loyal owner), to the complex

arithmetic of the^in de siecle

seemed

at the stake in

and

wonder pony Clever Hans

a host of other

— not

to

men-

cowboy movie horses who

understand their master's every word. Nonetheless, the

reason for Peter's or our interest in reports from the distant past,

such as Balaam's verbal duel with his donkey,

lies in

the fact that the

problems they pose remain, in an exemplary manner, the same we face today.

The

vast parade of wordy animals stretching back through

our history suggests

we feel compelled nal,

that, in the

products of our imagination

to portray animals as being like us: conscious, ratio-

and possessing what can only be

know

their existence

is

own. In our everyday (though we cannot a response), but

at least,

called a soul,

even though we

mysteriously and silently different from our lives,

resist

we may never

expect animals to speak

speaking to them as

when we dream

or play or

tell

if

they could articulate

stories that

go beyond

24 mundane rear

up

It is

as if

from

Book

Macy

like

beasts

we thought we knew

our inner creative

level,

with animal

the

Nature

parade balloons into fantastic, unexpected forms.

on some deep

among

of

dumb

existence, suddenly the

a kinship

then

Tl^e

life, if

not

among

lives

drew strength

the beasts of the flesh,

more engaging fauna of the imagination.

So pervasive

is

this

we

animal colloquy that

implications. But

rarely

even think

about

its

and

times dangerous debate about the religious significance of ani-

at

it

represents the lingering echo of an old

mals.

John Scotus Erigena learned firsthand

just

how

dangerous. Per-

haps the most learned European in the ninth century A.D., and the first

rigorous philosopher of the Middle Ages, the Celtic cleric was

supposedly beaten to death by his

own

—the

apparently became enraged

when he proposed

medieval philosophical aside



God and man,

of physical creation, including

The

beasts."

but in

all

elegant phrase that

summed up

God

is

some two

"dumb

his philosophy: "In a

created in his creatures."

with simple homicide, Pope Honorius

officially

technicalities of

that the divine spark dwelt not only in

wonderful and inexpressible way satisfied

They

students in the year 847.

condemn John's major work, On

III

Not

took the trouble to

the Division of Nature,

centuries after the philosopher's death.

Both Boethius and

St.

Augustine, the two most popular philoso-

phers in the Middle Ages, concede that the soul, as the anima, as a life force, is

possessed by animals. Boethius talks enigmatically about

a "world -soul" that permeates creation. In a passage in his Confessions,

Augustine alludes obliquely to some kind of connection be-

tween human

spirituality

kinship with creation: spirit

of every

animals and

them."

He

"Thy whole

man by

lifeless

and animals, between praising creation speaks

the words that his

matter by the

mouth

mouth of

those

Thy

God and

praise

directs to

who

look

—the

Thee,

upon

even says about the nature of divinity that "animals great

and small see

it,"

but cannot learn about

it

through study and reason.

Bestiary of

Ultimately (and

it

tl?e

Soul

25

seems almost grudgingly) both these thinkers go

we know

along with the predominate teaching of the church as today, that only

humans have an immortal,

can understand, participate

in,

rational soul or

mind

it

that

or reject God's eternal plan for re-

demption.

The Anglo-Saxon soul

is

a rational,

clerics

Alcuin and

intellectual entity that distinguishes

beasts, but they did not suffer

was

/Elfric also insisted that the

on

particularly vociferous

from Augustine's misgivings.

commentaries or translations of church assertions are not particularly cogent.

/Elfric in

nal

is

soulless

and does not

is

in his

even where such

sawulleas and on helle

suffer in hell"), declared

one of his homilies, apparently unwilling to share even

damnation with such "lower"

Anglo-Saxon

them

dozen times

authorities,

"Hund

life

forms.

compelled time and again to mention his

/Elfric

this point, interjecting the assertion

that animals are "sawulleas" (soulless) at least a

ne |3rowad" ("A dog

man from

fact that /Elfric felt

this indicates at least

flock did indeed expect their pets

in the afterlife.

some of

might accompany

For better or for worse.

Curiously, six hundred years lar rhetoric

The

eter-

later,

Descartes began using a simi-

about "thoughtless brutes," fused with the new imagery

of animals as machines, for a totally different purpose.

The French

philosopher was less interested in humanity's spiritual preeminence in the plan of

of animals.

redemption than he was

Some

justification

in justifying the scientific study

was necessary,

since for

him study

equaled vivisection, experimentation on living creatures, often in an

unspeakably cruel manner.

Animals were a "problem" God's creation

for medieval religion.

as a possible distraction

ultimate truth resided.

St.

Churchmen saw

from God's word, where

Bernard, founder of the twelfth -century

monastery of Clairvaux, wrote the following diatribe against therio-

morphic decorations on the facades of Romanesque churches, making the animal/book distinction:

T^e Book

2.6

What

is

of

Nature

the meaning of those absurd monstrosities, that

astounding amorphous plethora of form, that formal opulence of

monks

shapelessness standing in front of the eyes of studious the cloisters?

What

.

.

There we can

.

conversely, a serpent's

see

many

many heads on tail,

Those

are those obscene apes doing there?

savage lions? those centaurs and half-men?

The

in

striped tigers?

bodies with one head and,

a single body, here a

quadruped with

over there a fish with a quadruped's

Over

tail.

there a beast, horse in front and goat behind, and again, a horned

beast with a horse's rump. Everywhere

amazing profusion of learn

is

such a rich and

different shapes, that

one would sooner

from the statues than from books, sooner spend the whole

day doing that alone rather than contemplate the

commandments

of God.

Against this current of spiritual zoophobia waded Assisi, the twelfth-century

creator of Francis the

monk and

St.

Francis of

patron saint of animals (did the

mule come up with the name

as

an homage to

the saint?). Called by one historian an "animistic revolutionary,"

Francis expressed the belief that God's spirit dwells in

not just in the descendants of

Adam

all

St.

of nature,

and Eve. His views reached

vaguely heterodox heights in his famous "Sermon to the Birds,"

which begins with

my

brothers,

Francis,

say the life is

you have

"God

Church least.

this strikingly egalitarian invocation:

a great obligation to praise

smiled on

authorities

all

birds,

your Creator." For

creatures equally."

were never comfortable with

As one medieval

that he did not

"Oh,

end up

St.

Francis.

To

scholar noted, the prime miracle of his at the stake. St.

Bonaventure

tried to

suppress Francis' "doctrine" of animal souls, but the patron saint of

animals was too popular

among

the laity for a theologian even of

Bonaventure's stature to censor the saint's teachings. In addition to his

famous sermons

to animals, Francis also urged the

church to lend

Bestiary of

its

tl?e

ly

Soul

authority in preserving the natural world, something unheard of at

the time, by petitioning songbirds.

The

Rome

to

outlaw the capture and

killing of

petition failed, not surprisingly: the pontiff at the time

was the very same Pope Honorius who denounced John Scotus

Eri-

gena.

The

have a rich history in the

spiritual ambiguities of animals

Judeo-Christian tradition, a history often neglected both by those

who condemn Western

attitudes

those

who

"The

Historical Roots of

toward the nonhuman world, and by

extol them. In 1967, the publication of a short essay called

crystallized a critical

Our

Ecological Crisis" by

view of the Bible among

Lynn White,

many

Jr.,

thinkers inter-

ested in the relationship between religion and nature. According to

White, a historian and medievalist, our alienation from nature stems

from the core theological teachings of Judaism and Christianity derived from Genesis, where

minion of

all

mainstream

Age

Yahweh seems

other living things.

to give

White dug

Adam

and Eve do-

the trenches for the

battle over the usefulness of Judeo-Christian ethics in the

of Ecology.

But even assuming White's conclusion

is

true, rather

ing anything that actually appears in the Bible, failure to tage.

ponder the nuances and

it

than indict-

identifies a historical

possibilities of

our religious heri-

T)ne response to the malaise accurately identified by White has

been the growth of the "creation theology" movement, an attempt to restore a Christian vision of humanity's responsibility to

pation in the rest of creation. Fr. directly, stating that

Thomas

and

partici-

Berry confronts the issue

one of the most disturbing

facts

he had to con-

tend with as a modern Catholic was the ease with which Christianity has been used to support ideologies that exploited and depreciated the natural world. creation theology,

The

best -known and

Matthew Fox,

Bible from patristic writers the

fall

calls

most

prolific

on believers

who have emphasized

to

advocate of

redeem the

original sin

and

of nature, and to explore the meaning of God's original bless-

ing on humanity and the rest of creation. In a mild reprise of the

T^e Book

28

unpleasantries visited

of

Nature

upon John Scotus

Erigena, ecclesiastical au-

censured Fox in 1988 for his alleged misreadings of church

thorities

literature.

we

If

reveal a

take

up Fox's

deep sense of

challenge, spiritual

we

find that the Bible does indeed

mystery about animals, belying the

later tradition of yfilfric's soulless fauna.

For example, the story of the

Flood makes Noah and his family the protagonists, but the narrative focuses on the fate of creation.

Many

if

not most cultures have myths

about a calamitous deluge that sweeps away a corrupt world.

We need

look no further than Ovid's Metamorphoses for the same motif. But

only the biblical version centers the story on the building of an ark

and the preservation of the animal kingdom (curiously plants

are

completely omitted in Noah's elaborate attempt to preserve the world's biological heritage).

Yahweh fashioned

that

a

And when

the waters recede,

rainbow as a token of

his

we

are told

promise never to

send another flood to devastate the world, a promise made not only to

Noah, but

earth."

to "every living creature of all flesh that

Unspoken

a condition that

is

is

upon the

the idea that the animals understand the promise,

would seem necessary

for this covenant to

have any

meaning.

The

story of the Flood suggests not only an intense metaphysical

concern for

dumb firm

nonhuman

life,

but a belief that animals are more than

beasts. If Balaam's conversation with his

this,

Moses

then the

receives

commandments

mores.

If

One

given to Moses do. In Exodus,

from Yahweh not only the Ten Commandments, but

scores of lesser laws never engraved cial

donkey does not con-

on

tablets,

mostly relating to so-

of these laws involves a homicidal ox:

an ox gore a

man

or a

woman,

be surely stoned, and his of the ox shall be quit

that they die: then the ox shall

flesh shall not

[i.e.,

be eaten: but the owner

excused]. [Exodus 21:28]

Bestiary of the Soul

The

passage can be rationalized, as

29

has, to

it

mean nothing more

than that a dangerous animal should be destroyed, and should not be eaten since

it

was not slaughtered

some obscure

that

superstition involving

that the ancient

is

The

possibility also exists

demon

possession

is

at

work

most obvious interpretation of

here. Nonetheless, the clearest,

dictate

for food.

Hebrews believed animals were

this

legally

and

morally responsible for their actions. Strikingly similar mandates garding oxen that gore appear in the

Laws

cal version

all

derived from a

common

source. Yet only the bibli-

imposes capital punishment on the offending bovine. The

The

other codes only require monetary compensation.

biblical

seems to be only a special case of God's instruction to Noah sis

the

of Eshnunna; in fact so similar are these three bodies of law that

may have

they

Code of Hammurabi and

re-

in

law

Gene-

9:5-6 requiring capital punishment for the shedding of man's

The

biblical treatment of the

ox that gores seemingly points a

finger of culpability at the animal,

and culpability requires under-

blood.

standing, consciousness, or whatever term people use

from time

to

time as descriptions for the soul.

The

Bible even gives direct expression to

doubts about the

preeminence of humans over animals. The writer of Ecclesi-

spiritual

astes thunders against the arrogance of ality

its

men who denigrate the

spiritu-

of nature:

I

that

said in

mine heart concerning the

God might

estate of the sons of

men,

manifest them, and that they might see that they

themselves are beasts.

For that which befalleth the sons of

men

befalleth beasts;

even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have

all

one breath; so that a

preeminence above a beast; All go unto one place; again.

man

hath no

for all is vanity.

all

are of the dust

and

all

turn to dust

T^e Boo^

30

of

Nature

Who knoweth the spirit of man that spirit

downward

of the beast that goeth

goeth upward, and the

to the earth?

[Ecclesiastes 3:18-21]

This

last

which has

question could be properly asked today of our culture,

lost the sense

of mystery about animal existence in the

gross accumulation of zoological data.

But despite Francis' passion, Augustine's qualms, and the glim-

mer of animal

White was

spirituality that teases the careful reader of the Bible,

correct to this extent: historical Christianity did indeed

come down on unexplored this out,

the side of /Elfric and his soulless hound.

level,

some

however, our culture remains unconvinced. To bear

we merely have

complimenting

his dog.

where animals appear

cultural terra incognita as important,

on the Saturday morning cartoons or

to turn

listen to a respectable citizen

And just

On

why

has

it

But what

is

this

as speaking subjects?

remained neglected

for so long?

In his comprehensive study of shamanism, the French anthropologist

Mircea Eliade

writes: "All over the

of animals, especially of birds,

is

world learning the language

equivalent to knowing the secrets of

nature and hence to being able to prophesy."

can reveal the future

is,

The

reason animals

he argues, "because they are thought to be

receptacles for the souls of the dead or epiphanies of the gods." Eliade

further suggests that in

many

primal traditions, communication with

animals derives from a "paradisal syndrome," a belief that in a mythical

dreamtime, when the basic patterns of the universe, such as male/

female, light/dark,

etc.,

were forged, "man lived

mals and understood their speech." recount an era

when

all

Many

forms.

peace with ani-

Native American myths

when humans and animals could

humans had animal

at

Among

interchange forms, or the Alsea of western

Oregon, for instance, there was a belief that the world was formerly peopled by the present animals and birds in

human

shape, and vari-

-

Bestiary? of t^e Soul

31

ous groups of people were transformed into animals. Kalapuya myth speaks of a time

when humans gave

formed into them. In

a

birth to animals or were trans-

Bororo (Brazil) myth about the cultural hero

human and

Meri, during dreamtime,

animals changed form promis-

cuously, so that Meri visits the house of a man,

him

heron, while the birds that assault

legend of Prometheus,

are actually

at least as reinterpreted

sumes the divine transformation of animals ing to the witty fabulist explains

humans but

why some

into

who

is

actually a

men. The Greek

by Aesop,

also as-

men, which accord-

people have the forms of

the irrational souls of beasts.

In this inspirited universe of animism, the shaman's office solve problems in the physical world (sickness, lack of game,

by leaving

attacks)

body and sojourning

to

enemy

to the invisible realm of

where the root causes of worldly problems can be changed. To

spirits

that

his

is

end

animal

a

shaman must seek the help of guiding

The "animal

spirits.

spirits,

almost always

language" spoken by shamans, Eliade

only a variant of "spirit language," the language of magic,

suggests,

is

religion,

mythology.

The

role of

shamanism may help explain Ba-

laam's curious reaction to his talking beast of burden. Instead of being startled

by the

match with to

fall

it.

creature's ability to speak,

Later, in

into a trance

shamans

Numbers, we

learn that

gets into a shouting

Balaam has the

ability

and see future events unfold. Perhaps Balaam,

in primal societies

conversing with

Balaam

spirit

all

like

over the world, grew so accustomed to

animals while in these altered states that his

donkey's outburst struck him as impudent, but not especially unusual.

The

shamanistic world of speaking, numinous animals described

by Eliade

exists against the

animism. Animism view, but at

world

its

—humans,

such as stones,

is

core

as

backdrop of the religious worldview of

complex and

lies

difficult to define as

the perception that

all

our world

the phenomenal

animals, plants, and even nonbiological entities,

rivers,

and cultural

artifacts



is

alive in the sense of

yi

being inspirited. Not only

with articulate and

and

interact with

Diamond

at

Book

Tf?e

is

the

of

Nature

nonhuman world

alive,

but

it is

filled

times intelligible subjects, able to communicate

humans

for

good or

ill.

Ojibwa Indians summarizes the

Jenness' study of the

threads of kinship that exist in an animistic worldview: "Not only

men, but animals, bodies, souls, beings, even attributes."

trees, rocks,

and water

and shadows. They if

they have

From an

all

all

have a

are tripartite, possessing life like

the

life

in

human

been gifted with different powers and

animistic perspective the world

is

filled

with

communicating, constantly interacting. This has

spirits constantly

both good and bad consequences, generating the possibility of prophecy and mystical knowledge (the "language of birds" mentioned by Eliade), but also the necessity to propitiate injured spirits, to defend

against spiritual attack, to erect taboos against entities too spiritually

charged to be handled

Knud Rassmussen

safely. In his

quotes one of the native informants he interviewed

on the dangers of living

The

study of Iglulik (Eskimo) society,

greatest peril of

an animistic world:

in

life lies

in the fact that

entirely of souls. All the creatures that all

those that

for ourselves,

we have have

to strike

souls, like

we have

down and we

human to

food consists

kill

destroy to

and

make

eat,

clothes

have, souls that do not perish

with the body, and which must therefore be propitiated

lest

they

should revenge themselves on us for taking away their bodies.

As

this angst

"Hund and

its

is

about

killing

animals suggests, /Elfric's statement that

sawulleas" contradicts the very heart of animistic culture

practices.

The strong in

feeling that animal spirits

some

tribal cultures that

The Tsimshian- speaking

must be it

treated with respect

dominates their myth of

tribes of the Pacific

is

so

origins.

Northwest believed

in

Bestiary of t^e Soul

33

an earthly paradise called Temlaham, which

men

an end when

in

one version came to

treated with irreverence the bones of the salmon.

In another version,

Temlaham was

caused by the

of mountain goats

spirits

devastated by an earthquake,

whom men

had hunted and

devoured without paying due respect.

Our most powerful blame

narrative of origins, Genesis, also places the

for the ruination of paradise

human and

on some discord between the

animal worlds. Yahweh creates a vegetarian Eden, without

predation, without animal death, but the serpent,

any beast of the

later theologians identify the serpent

with the

reason and the genes for cunning.

The

infernal spirit, but

on the

flesh

Ophidia: "Because thou has done

and above every beast of the dust shalt thou eat else

it

may

be,

all

this,

field,

real animal,

fact

Satan

is,

God

tioned in Genesis, and the curse that

some

than

animals,

Genesis presents the creature as a

devil,

subtil

among humans,

field," disrupts the relations

and heaven. Although

"more

endowed with

isn't

pronounces

even men-

falls

not on

and blood animal of the order thou

art

upon thy

cursed above

all cattle,

belly shalt thou go,

the days of thy life" (Genesis 3:14).

God's curse against the serpent

is first

and

Whatever

and foremost

zoological, not metaphysical.

Our tives

inability to feel the connection

and

real

snakes in the landscape, as surely the Genesis writers

did, describes our cultural

modern the

life.

West

to

My

dilemma

in

harmonizing

spirituality

grandmother's generation was probably the

grow up

close to large domestic

plumes of white breath from hungry

between our religious narra-

with

last in

and wild animals. The

a horse's snout in winter, the grunts of

livestock, the smell of

sheep wet with

dew

—these palpable

experiences vividly impressed the presence of animals onto

consciousness since the earliest times.

The muscle power

human

of horses,

the herding instinct of dogs, the fecundity of hares were the source

of well-being and the

common

vocabulary of our culture. Industrial

economy, however, not only had no use animals,

it

for the physical

power of

humanized the landscape and drove fauna away from our

T^e Boo^

34

become

daily lives until they have

of

Nature

for the

most part mere two-dimen-

We

images viewed on televised nature shows.

sional

my

kinship

grandmother

with animals, and with

felt

have

it

lost the

the reference

points to our religious metaphors. And, perhaps, to the root of truly

deep religious experiences.

The images most

of us feel comfortable with involve a

commercialized landscape whose angles and pre-

ized, rationalized,

dictability leave little space for spiritual discovery, except

mourned by

doleful insight

human-

spiritual integrity has

two

writers for the past

become

perhaps the

centuries, that

difficult, if

not impossible, in the waste-

on reason has

also diminished the quality

land of mechanized culture.

Our

culture's reliance

of our relationships with the animal kingdom.

The

application of rea-

son has succeeded tremendously in building a materially prosperous

but

society,

nonhuman

the quality

from the

has also impoverished our frame of reference to the

world. Since Aristotle's time, animals have been defined

West

in the

it

as creatures that lack rational thought. This, in fact,

many

philosophers fixed upon to distinguish humanity

rest of the biological world.

denounce

[i.e.

lacks] discourse of reason /

longer." People have

known from

ours, transfixed

seem

means

far

solidity.

been so

Western

society, "the

isn't exactly true.

it,

But

to a culture like

uncounted voices of nature are dumb."

The

animistic welter of faunal spirits society

and

its

are not, of course, an animistic culture,

for a long time.

it

unlike the experience of primal cul-

removed from our technological

We

do.

that animals have nothing of value to teach

a Tuscarora Indian put

This

Would have mourn'd

by the power of reason and the material progress

brings, this trait

tures, in

to

the earliest times that animals do

way humans

not measure out their lives the

As

Hamlet uses the comparison

his mother's hasty remarriage to his uncle, decrying that "a

beast that wants

us.

was

But that does not mean we

may

machine-like

and have not

live in a

philosoph-

ically

pure present, cut off from the anxieties and ecstasies that ani-

mism

exerted over

human

society for

uncounted

ages. Expelled

from

Bestiary of t^e Soul

35

the rarefied atmosphere of theology, pushed to the margin by an in-

economy, the

dustrial

we have toward animals

spiritual sensibilities

have gone underground. Into popular culture, into the names of sports teams

and rock bands, into

There may be economic or baseball

team

represent

named done,

its

is

art, literature, film,

aesthetic reasons

called the Tigers,

football team, or

why Miami

why Minnesota

for the almost extinct Canis lupus.

modern people

favor zoological

names

and

why

toys.

the Detroit

chose a dolphin to

has a basketball club

But when for the

all is

said

same reason

and

tribal

people select a totem animal: to capture the animal's spiritual force.

This

is

pure magic, whether we acknowledge

can explain the animal appellations of so fact that the world's

it

or not.

many

most famous rock group

Nothing

sports teams, or the

is

the Beatles (not to

mention the Turtles, the Animals, the Monkees, and so political parties take

else

on), or that

animal mascots, or the number of automobile

makes christened with such names

as

Mustang, Cougar, Jaguar, or

Bronco.

We

experience the persistence of animal spirituality every day.

Children in our culture universally talk to stuffed animals and puppets without being considered mentally deranged. In fact,

age

them to do

so with fairy tales,

we encour-

which almost always involve talking

animals, or people turned into animals, or beasts with magical powers.

Respectable citizens shout curses spite the technological

at flies that

land in their soup. De-

world we inhabit, our deeper convictions about

the meanings of animals take on such simple, familiar forms as a rabbit's foot kept in a glove

hung over

compartment of

a door.

The animism observable

in the earliest sources of Western culture

has ceased to be a living belief, overwhelmed later

by modern zoology.

deeply ingrained in the the almost twitch.

a car, or a horseshoe

literal

The

first

by monotheism and

Still,

the spiritual force of animals seems

human

psyche, lingering on as a "reflex," in

sense that

when

a snake

is

killed its tail continues to

animals of our cultural and religious past

—the redemp-

T^e Boo^

36

luminous doves

tive scapegoats, diabolical wolves,

making

gle about,

humans,

their presence

as if driven

by the

now

standing of nature,

Nature

of

—continue

to wrig-

known, and influencing the world of

irrepressible spirit of

alien to our intellectual

an

life.

earlier

under-

Alien, but not

entirely outcast.

While we could dismiss the our

lives as

persistence of animistic themes in

nothing more than a religious curio, an

sophisticated times, too

much

artifact

of less

of our religious and cultural imagery

is

dedicated to speaking, teaching animals for such an easy explanation.

Myths may to

make

take

many

forms, but one clear mythological function

is

understandable, or at least coherent, by explaining appar-

life

ent contradictions.

Our many images and

about sentient ani-

stories

mals, while perhaps not rising to the level of full-blown myths,

seem

to play a similar role.

At the core of our

two contradictory views of

society struggle

animals, and of nature in general.

On

the surface level, an unlikely

union of religious doctrine and modern zoology has reduced animals to

mere

biological data, /Elfric's soulless

cal brute,

dog and Descartes' mechani-

obediently and insensibly following

a future of genetic manipulation

the official view of animals

we

modern humanity

into

and factory farms. This represents

hear in most universities, churches, and

other institutions. But underneath this thin layer of language flows a deep, ancient, sometimes disturbing tradition that shimmers with the

imagery of

spirit animals.

tory have never

Modern

These animals of dreamtime and deep

his-

left us.

society as

we know

it,

with

its

dependence on reason and

the manipulation of the natural world, probably could not function

under the

full force

Iglulik informant, souls,

of the animistic tradition.

we

like

If,

Rassmussen's

consciously acknowledge that animals have

our technological way of life and

its

treatment of animals would

suddenly become indefensible and obscene. But we also apparently cannot function without the energy of animism. culture,

and so we

direct

it

It

into areas that can be

wells

up

into our

managed, into

fie-

Bestiary of

and

tions

fairy tales,

where

real

never have to be discussed. as spiritual forces, plies.

To do

tl?e

Soul

37

questions about the nature of animals

We

satisfy

our need to envision animals

without having to confront what that vision im-

so, to talk

about the central role animals play

in

our

exploration of religious meaning, might break the spell of material

progress that justifies

Zoology

much

vs. St. Francis.

of what

we

The one

call

modernity.

directs our practical lives, the

other kindles our mythic sensibilities, the dreamtime understanding that

makes day-to-day existence meaningful. But

in us to

keep pace with the explosion of

spiritual lives to avoid

past and

becoming

trivialized

from the breathing world around

are required.

The

scientific

research; acquiring

knowledge, for our

and dissociated from the us,

work and dedication

study of biology proceeds through diligent

knowledge of what animals mean

understanding of the world demands no task. It

scientific

for the St. Francis

has simply been neglected.

less effort.

to our religious

This

is

not a

new

CHAPTER TWO

Holy,

elephants

Intelligible

And

perhaps just as

image and

God made man

likeness, so also did he

in his

make

own the

remaining creatures after certain other heavenly images as a

likeness.

— Origen

Eusebius Hieronymus



better

and church father

great theologian

cramped study, engrossed on

known

to the



sits

in his writing.

world as

St.

Jerome, the

toward the back of his

Presumably he

is

working

his Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate (from the Latin

vulgaris,

meaning

"in

common

would serve

use"), a version that

as

Christendom's central text for over a thousand years and give us such

famous expressions

est."

As he

monks

seated

and "consumatus

as "paternoster,"

translates the verses, the saint also dictates to three

around him, apparently emphasizing each sacred word with a thrust of his extended index finger.

But

this

momentous event

in religious history

(which actually

took over twenty-five years to complete), this big bang in the formulation of the West's spiritual language,

strange

drama taking

in front of

carefully

him

place in the foreground. There

a lion.

removing

seems almost incidental

The monk

a thorn

This scene appears

from the

in St.

Jerome

The

representation of

St.

monk, and

holds a pair of tweezers and

is

lion's right forepaw. in

His Study, a fifteenth -century

painting by the Spanish painter Nicolas Frances. original.

sits a

to the

The theme

Jerome working on

is

hardly

his translation

of the Bible in the presence of his tame lion (and various other ani-

Ho(\); Intelligible 'Elegants

39

mals, including doves, dogs, peacocks, parrots, deer, and cats)

is

one

of the most frequently depicted images in the Middle Ages and the

The

Renaissance.

only unconventional element involves the fact that

monk removes

an anonymous

the thorn; in virtually every other

painting on this topic, Jerome himself does the honors.

The

story behind this

One day

this.

a lion

odd mixture of piety and

wandered

into St. Jerome's study in Palestine

(given the date, approximately 400 A.D.,

wild lion to walk the Holy

The monks

He

Land

fairy tale goes like

it

might have been the

before the population went extinct).

scattered in terror; St. Jerome, however, kept his calm.

noticed the lion was limping from a thorn in

structed the clerics to

ward

it

last

remove

became Jerome's

it.

The

faithful

monks. This legend traces back

to

lion

was attended

companion and an

paw, and

its

earlier story

to,

and

in-

after-

a servant of the

about

St.

Gerasi-

mus, and ultimately perhaps to Aesop's well-known fable about a slave

who removes

kind deed by

a thorn

from the paw of a

lion,

repays the

later sparing his life.

A rich religious

symbolism surrounds

this narrative. In

Christian iconography, the lion symbolized those

world to a

who

life

who

retire

medieval

from the

of religious contemplation, and hence secondarily

Christ, as well as those

who

are spiritually vigilant

—from the ancient

yarn that lions sleep with their eyes open. In addition, the crippled lion typifies the spiritually

human

race,

by the church,

marred by

original sin

and redeemed

just as the church father St.

Jerome heals

the king of the beasts physically. Finally, the lion's submission to the

holy ours,

man

points to the victory of the faithful over this carnal world of

and on a more

visceral level, given the

bloody history of lions

and Christians, victory over pagan Rome. So

much

for official

symbolism. Very often, however, a society's

core beliefs express themselves not in

its

great public

declarations, but rather in quiet asides. Marginalia

monuments and

—the comments,

observations, questions, even misunderstandings, found in the margins of texts

and works of

art

—might say

in a whisper

what many

T^e Book

40 people

This

feel privately,

is

of

Nature

but for whatever reason do not express publicly.

true of Frances' painting.

While the work

is

more

or less conventional, the catalogue de-

scription of the painting observes that the piece to collect blood

from the

lion for use as ink

Although the catalogue claims

this

monk

a

by Jerome and

comment about

exists.

about

his scribes.

remarkable interpretation

cording to legend," in fact no such legend offhand, almost whimsical

shows

"ac-

is

Nonetheless, the

using lion's blood as ink

stumbles onto a deeper interpretation of the artwork and the fable of Jerome's see the

lion. It

prompts us

to look at the painting with

image of the West's central sacred

new

eyes and

and written

text translated

out not with scholarly ink, but with the very lifeblood of a wild beast.

Suddenly, the stodgy theme of St. Jerome laboring in his study bleary-

eyed and smelling of lamp the

way

oil

bursts into a profound metaphor about

meaning depends upon the animal world, and we

religious

are invited to contemplate

how and why

this transubstantiation

from

wildlife to sacred text should take place.

To

much

find that out,

like Jerome's,

we have

to visit another study,

but never depicted in any work of

probably very art or

memori-

alized as the site of saintly tales. Conceivably this other study

situated just it

down

was somewhere

anonymous

the street from Jerome's, though in Egypt,

as the

puts pen to paper

"We

begin

—perhaps first

at

the very

moment Jerome

though probably a century or so of

likely

probably Alexandria. There, a monk, as

one that plucked the thorn from the

translation of Genesis, writes:

more than

was

all

lion's

paw,

begins his

earlier

—and

by speaking of the Lion, the king of

all

the beasts ..."

These words come from the

Physiologus, a

work

that parallels Je-

rome's Bible in influencing our language about spiritual matters. In fact,

the creator of the Jerome-lion legend that inspired Frances'

may have

in turn

been moved by the symbolism implicit in

passage of the Physiologus:

"The second nature of

work

this very

the lion

is

that,

although he has fallen asleep, his eyes keep watch for him, for they

Holy, InteffigiWe Elephants

remain open." Over the next millennium,

41

book generated

this little

dozens of imitations, in virtually every European language Arabic, Syrian, Armenian, and Ethiopian), generally aries,"

(as well as

known

as "besti-

which catalogued and commented upon the animal world. The

Physiologus and

its

progeny quietly worked

their

way

into every aspect

of Western civilization, including the writings of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, as well as the artists

(Da

symbolism of

Vinci, for instance, compiled his

his readings

Even today,

and observations, which in

trace

own

not the very wording,

first

still

all

Renaissance

based on

bestiary,

back to the Physiologus).

our thoroughly technological culture,

moral or religious matters, we often if

virtually

when we

discuss

follow the kind of thinking,

explored in the Physiologus.

It is

one of

the great ironies of history that during the last thousand years only a

handful of scholars and graduate students have read this remarkable

work, and most of them probably cannot remember what the

means

(I'll

title

get to that).

This excerpt, discussing the hedgehog, gives some sense of the approach the Physiologus takes toward animals:

The hedgehog does as he

not quite have the appearance of a ball

of quills. Physiologus said of the hedgehog that he

is full

climbs up to the grape on the vines and then throws berries (that

is,

the grapes) onto the ground.

down

Then he

rolls

himself over on them, fastening the fruit of the vine to his

and

carries

And

it

off to his

you,

young and discards the plucked

O Christian,

refrain

the

quills,

stalk.

from busying yourself about

everything and stand watch over your spiritual vineyard from

which you stock your of

God

spiritual cellar.

Make

a cache in the halls

the King, in the holy tribunal of Christ, and you will

receive eternal

life.

Do

not

let

concern for this world and the

pleasure of temporal goods preoccupy you, for then the prickly devil, scattering all

your

spiritual fruits, will pierce

them with

T^e Boo^

42 his quills

become this

and make you food

bare,

you

scripture of the

In such a

Nature

Your soul

for the beasts.

empty and barren

will cry out,

of

like a tendril

"My own vineyard

I

without

will

fruit.

After

have not kept," as the

Song of Songs bears witness.

way have you allowed

the most wicked spirit to

climb up to your place, and he has scattered your abstinence.

Thus he

has deceived you with barbs of death in order to divide

your plunder among hostile powers. Rightly, therefore, did Physiologus compare the ways of animals to spiritual matters.

At quaint,

first if

blush, this kind of writing strikes

not archaic.

mundi tradition with

It its

appears to

readers as

within the medieval contemptus

harsh denunciation of this world in favor of a

The

happier future in the next. ful,

fall

modern

description of the hedgehog

fanci-

is

apparently based not on observation but on some folk belief or

the misguided written accounts of Pliny, the reality,

spear

Roman

hedgehogs are insectivores that do not

them on

"naturalist." In

eat grapes,

much

less

Elsewhere in the work, the author strikes

their quills.

unpleasantly dogmatic notes with attacks on "heresies" and Judaism.

But granting

all this,

the important thing about the

work

understanding animals, not the particular conclusion

it

is its

way of

reaches.

In comparing "the ways of animals to spiritual matters," the author of the Physiologus

is

doing nothing

less

than discovering that

animals have meaning, and in particular spiritual meaning.

We rarely

think about this issue nowadays, since animals have become so marginalized in our culture, reduced for the

most part

to resources or

ornaments of one type or another. But the discovery of spiritual truths in the qualities

and behaviors of animals must have struck

scholar as a great adventure, a

Holy Grail found

a medieval

in every leap of a

deer or flight of a swallow. In discussing the hedgehog, and other animals that appear in the book, the author ally inaccurate) description

of an animal and

its

first

all

the

gives a (gener-

behavior, and then

Ho($

weaves from these qualities a animal

is

twofold. There

and touch and the animal text);

is

Efej^dHts

Inteffijjifcfe

is

43

spiritual interpretation.

the actual physical animal that

But through the use of our

hear.

For him every

also "intelligible" (intelligibilis

is

we can

see

spiritual imagination,

the Latin

word

in the

has meanings important to us as moral beings, which go be-

it

yond what we can descry with our

five senses.

Christian philosophers, such as

may have had

Augustine (who conceivably

St.

the Physiologus in mind), eventually worked out elabo-

rate theories for this kind of allegorical interpretation, called exegeses.

An

hedgehog would designate the physical hedgehog

exegesis of the

as the litter a (or literal meaning); the

moral lesson

it

embodies about

the care of the soul as the moralis (or moral meaning); the connection

between the hedgehog and the devil the typos

and the animal's mystical meaning, which obliges to reveal

world has

its

as the anagogue.

it,

invisible things of

God may

this earth (invisibilia

lated ars,

it).

Dei ex

God

only knows unless he

This way of understanding the

and

roots in Platonism

(or allegorical meaning);

St.

Paul's statement that the

be known through the visible things of visibilibus intelligantur, as

Dionysius Areopagiticus, one of the

Jerome trans-

earliest Christian schol-

expressed this sentiment in the phrase Spiritualia sub metaphoris

realium^ "Spiritual things under the

the tenth-century Anglo-Saxon

all

in

"I tell you, the

The

real things."

Thus,

work The Prose Solomon and Saturn

— request makes no our way of categorizing nature — and confidently

can demand, "Tell sense at

metaphor of

me which

bird

is

best"

a

that

reply:

dove

is

best;

it

signifies the

author of the Physiologus

of exegesis than he

is

in the

is less

happy

Holy Ghost."

interested in the terminology

task of interpreting animals.

Hedgehogs, he discovers, those "prickly devils," give us insights into the character of worldly temptations. So do partridges, foxes, keys,

w ild T

asses, dragons, whales, all of

which represent the

mondevil

(though surprisingly snakes do not). Aspects of Christ's character can

be found in an unlikely menagerie of panthers, nixes, snakes, elephants, oysters,

lions, pelicans,

and unicorns. Lessons

phoe-

for righteous

44

Tl^e

Book

of

Nature

living appear in the observations of antelopes, swordfish, eagles,

and

lizards. It

difficult to

is

must have

felt as

capture the intellectual excitement the author

he began to perceive this world of meaning in the

animals around him. Classical civilization, especially under Aris-

had taken the

totle's influence,

first

zoological classification of animal

tentative steps toward an accurate

life.

In contrast, the author of the

Physiologus set out in a different direction: to give a moral

of animals.

He

was, in

some

taxonomy

sense, the medieval Christian equivalent

of shaman, invoking animals to explore the world of the divine as eagerly as

we send out

spacecraft to explore other planets. Signifi-

cantly, he rarely refers to the animals he interprets as "it," but rather

"he" or "she," treating them as persons, not just zoological data.

The

result

was

a rich, textured

view of the animal world, one we

can hardly imagine today. Children in the

city

where

I

live

enjoy

chasing lizards probably with the same zeal as juveniles did along the

whitewashed walls of second -century Alexandria. But when the author of the Physiologus

saw

a lizard basking

left his

study to attend morning prayers and

on a sun-drenched

sacred meanings opened

up

wall, a

to him, a landscape

whole landscape of

no longer

visible to

us:

There this

is

a beast called the sun-lizard, that

animal grows old, he

eyes.

No

blind.

is

is,

the sun-eel.

hampered by [weakening

When

of] his

two

longer being able to perceive the sunlight, he goes

What

Moved by

does he do?

his

good nature, he finds a

wall facing east, enters a crack in the wall, and gazes eastward.

His eyes are then opened by the eastern sun and made new again.

And see that,

you,

when

O man,

if

you have the clothing of the old man,

the eyes of your heart are clouded, you seek out

the intelligible eastern sun is

"the east" in Jeremiah.

who

As

is

Jesus Christ and whose

the Apostle says,

"He

is

name

the sun of

a

Ho($

Intelligible

;

justice."

and

for

He

will

open

you the

for

you the old clothing

Redemption,

Elephants

will

that lies near the heart of

He must

modern

defies

at

from

felt

an

It is

all

this

from

a

one of many examples

the profound from the simple, an ability

religious thinking.

affinity

scientific attitudes

monk

sented the

him

have

all



understanding

small reptile creeping over a garden wall. elicit

of your heart,

intelligible eyes

become new.

divinity, spiritual

of the author's ability to

45

and respect toward the creature that toward animals, for the

lizard repre-

himself in an allegorical drama taking place around

any given moment. At one point, apparently sensing resistance

a skeptical reader, he

been spoken about

even says as much: "These things have

and weak

irrational animals

behave so prudently that none of them be clever and wise." For

all

is

reptiles since they

foolish but

all

are

found to

his lack of accurate zoological knowledge,

the author had nothing but goodwill toward even the most unpleasant

and seemingly

The

insignificant fauna.

They became

author's zoological blunders are legendary.

butt of jokes by commentators of a

more

scientific,

the

empirical age, and

even some of the author's contemporaries questioned his more dubious assertions, such as the story that dead pelican chicks are resurrected

by

their parents,

who

pierce their

fledglings with life-giving blood.

The

own

sides

and drench the

author clearly spent

little

time

observing real animals (except doves, which have three separate detailed entries in the work),

and folk

tales to

but rather he patched together legends

support his spiritual lessons. Nonetheless, what the

author's menagerie lacks in zoological accuracy,

it

makes up

for in

His discussion of elephants



spiritual

complexity and depth.

mammal

he evidently never saw in person

—proceeds without ever

deviating into anything factual about the

pachyderm (except the

loyalty elephants often less, it is a

show

to sick or injured comrades).

Nonethe-

tour de force of Christian exegesis, taking us through the

46

drama of

Tl^e

original sin, the

and the

carnation,

Good

Boo^

Nature

of

Samaritan, the mystery of divine in-

Old Testament

fulfillment of the

New,

in the

all

compressed into a single anecdote about elephants and a tricky hunter:

This

up

to get

The

the nature of the elephant:

is

But how can he

again.

if

he should

he wanted

if

which he

against

to.

is

him

accustomed to

there

tree,

same time. The elephant then comes

unable

to sleep lying

the hunter

rest,

elephant comes and rests against the the

is

Shortly before the beast arrives at the tree

capture the animal cuts partly through the

at

he

since he rests against a tree?

fall

elephant has no knee joints enabling

down

fall,

a great elephant

who

tree.

wishes to

When the

both tree and beast

cries out

unable to

is

who

fall

and immediately lift

the

Then

first.

they both cry out, and twelve other elephants arrive, and not

even they can out,

the one

lift

and suddenly

Adam

great elephant

and Eve

.

.

.

lifts

and

And

comes

(that

him up

the

the priest did not

lift

But the holy,

up the one is,

fallen

cry

puts his trunk

.

by not pleasing

is,

lift

them. Indeed, even as

among

who

thieves.

Nor

is

greater than

raises us

did

him

up the one wounded by

all

is,

the

Lord Jesus

the rest, he was

humbled himself and

to death," in order to raise

Samaritan

a great elephant

elephant (that

small in comparison. "For he

intelligible

all

the chorus of prophets) raise

intelligible

Christ) did so. Although he

became obedient

who

God and

up, even as the Levite failed to raise

made

.

to virtue (that

Law) and does not

the twelve elephants (that

thieves.

.

again, they

his wife represent the persons of

they cry out, calling on is,

Then

Immediately, the dragon overthrows them

and makes them strangers God).

is fallen.

a tiny elephant appears

under the great one and

The

who

up onto

up man. He his breast

Physiologus spoke wisely, therefore, of the elephant.

.

.

is

.

the

Hofjfy Inte((igi6(e Elephants

Modern

Christians might find the comparison of Jesus with a

small elephant

More than

47

somewhat uncouth,

if

not downright sacrilegious.

a few medieval religious authorities felt the same: the

confirmed mention of the book in the historical records

is its

first

condem-

nation as a heretical book by a decree of Pope Gelasius in 496 a.d.

This reaction reveals more about our impoverished view of animals than

it

does about the author's

between the

tion

spiritual

and

religiosity. bestial,

siologus specifically intended to

show

We

make

a sharp distinc-

while the author of the Phythat divinity can be

everywhere, even in a lumbering pachyderm.

Our

found

vision stops at the

zoological fact of Elephas; the Physiologus scrutinizes a deeper reality,

transforming the physical animal into a "holy, intelligible elephant."

This

is

the emblematic elephant that appears in

numerous medieval

manuscripts and Renaissance church carvings, signaled by

its fre-

quent association with a hostile dragon.

no coincidence that the work was written

It is

in the early first

millennium, before Christianity had become thoroughly institutionalized,

even before the various writings that would become the modern

Bible had been canonized.

The

author was exploring

rain, trying to discover Christian principles in a

unknown

ter-

world that had up

till

then been interpreted solely through the classical cultures of Greece

and Rome. The

ideals of faith, of loving one's neighbor, of humility,

personal restraint, and peacemaking were just being discovered in the

West. Similar values

may have appeared

in Hellenic

and Roman

form, but they were seen only in terms of civic virtue and social good unrelated to spiritual truths. Christianity had to "discover" a lan-

guage of

spirituality as yet

unknown

to the West.

It

did so through

animals.

This reinterpretation of the animals began cradle of

Western Christianity

—the

in the subterranean

catacombs of Rome, where

paintings depict Juno's peacock as a symbol of resurrection; the dove as the soul; water creatures as the soul's spiritual refreshment; fish as

an acrostic for Christ.

It

and

remains a concern in Byzantine

T^e Boo^

48

human

secondary to

when

times,

Nature

during the Renaissance, where animal motifs become

less so

art,

of

forms, and

it

then sputters out during modern

representational art wanders into a zoological desert, the

human

of animal absence in the face of an all-consuming

art

narcis-

sism.

The

must be read

Physiologus

toward animals, not

as

The

in this context.

examples for a

but rather as a way to discover for the

fully first

Behind every beast he catalogues, there

formed

life?

What

Testament

is

the nature of

in light of the

God?

religious system,

time what his faith meant.

is

a tacit question painfully

What

relevant to a second- or third-century Christian:

moral

author turned

How

constitutes a

do we interpret the Old

New? His answer

in part

is

to direct our

attention to an ant, an elephant, or a lion.

And

so,

Jerome's Bible was indeed written in the blood of a

lion,

the intelligible lion of the Physiologus. In one sense, this view of animals is

older than history

itself.

The

is

radically new. in another,

Physiologus harks back to a sacred

view of animals, an aboriginal belief in a primeval kinship with creatures and the essential continuity its

roots in the Paleolithic period,

ture as alive

among them

when people

all.

Max

all

This belief has

"likely envisaged na-

and responsive, nurturing humankind much

nourishes her baby at her breast," as

we can

it

as a

Oelschlaeger puts

it.

mother

Today

scarcely imagine the vast dimension of connotations a Pleisto-

cene hunter must have sensed overlooking the same Egyptian plain of

our nameless monk, giant Ice

Age

filled

with the crescendos and diminuendos of

beasts.

This sacred view of animals worked into the gus,

its

way down

the millennia

paganism of Greece and Rome. The author of the Physiolo-

however, did not find himself writing in a world where sacred

pagan animals walked the landscape with respect and impunity. In late

Roman

culture,

paganism

as a spiritual force

was moribund, and

animals had become mere objects of sport, slaughtered by the tens of

thousands each year in the gladiatorial games. The Physiologus be-

Hofjfy InteffigiWe Elephants

came

a

49

shepherd of animal meanings not against a "devil-worshiping"

paganism, but against the triumph of Greek rationalism, represented especially in the person of Aristotle.

Aristotle wrote his

own

own

Physiologus of sorts, a masterpiece in

right: his History of Animals

(and related

texts).

The

History

its is

a

remarkable achievement of zoology, giving detailed, generally accurate descriptions of the

anatomy and habits of

several

hundred

mals, from wasps to elephants to whales. Although he obtained

of his information secondhand and

Greek philosopher made

made some

close observations of

ani-

some

notable blunders, the

most of the animals he

wrote about, both alive and dead, and even performed dissections to increase his anatomical knowledge. His pupil, Alexander the Great,

reportedly sent back specimens of exotic fauna from conquered lands,

which must have made Aristotle the curator of the

known

collection in the

century

B.C.,

much

world. Although

it

greatest zoological

was written

of the work stands up to scientific scrutiny even

today. In short, Aristotle's History

is

everything the Physiologus

empirical, objective, systematic, rational, "modern."

reason and observation,

it

books only in quality, not

Here

is

what

the centuries to ally

in the fourth

differs

A

is

not:

milestone of

from contemporary zoological

text-

in kind.

Aristotle says about elephants, almost as

come from

if

surveying

the height of his great intellect to person-

rebuke his future Christian counterpart for his lack of anatomical

knowledge:

The and

elephant settles

bend

its

is

not as some used to assert, but

down; only that

legs

in

on both sides simultaneously, but

goes to sleep.

his legs.

And

it

bends

bends

consequence of its weight

recumbent position on one side or the it

it

its

other,

its

it

legs

cannot

falls into a

and

in this position

hind legs just as a

man bends

Tl?e

50

Book

of

Nature

History has sided with Aristotle and his empiricism about the elephant and the rest of the animal kingdom.

Ages appears

the Middle

As

implied by the name,

to us today as a dark interregnum, an unfor-

tunate trough between the crests of classical rationalism and the Re-

with

naissance

its

justification for this

modern

of

stirrings

view finds

its

Greek scholar Aristarchus, whose

paradigm

The

inquiry.

scientific

in the fortunes of the

brilliant insight

allowed him to

calculate the circumference of the globe in the second century B.C.,

missing the mark by only six percent, by making some simple mea-

surements of the angle of the sun

at

the earth was round was lost in the

who argued

for a flat earth based

Bible, threatening

heresy.

A

midsummer. His discovery dogmatism of medieval

on

that

scholars

their literalist reading of the

anyone who thought otherwise with accusations of

thousand years passed before Aristarchus was vindicated.

Similarly, today, the Physiologus

and the mystical world

it

represented

look at best like a quaint diversion from the real business of culture, as colorful it

seems

to

and useless

mark

as heraldic animals

on a coat of arms. At worst,

a descent into blindness about the zoological reality

Aristotle so painstakingly accumulated. Aristotle even

won

the

war of

definitions.

of the noun physiologus appears in his the

word now conveys

mals,

i.e.

to us:

one

a zoologist or naturalist.

— our anonymous monk "an

who

The Greek

text, basically

equivalent

meaning what

studies the physiology of ani-

The meaning

of the word used by

interpreter of the metaphysical, moral,

and mystical significance of animals and the natural world" been

lost

And

We

from our vocabulary, and even from our yet,

and yet

.

.

logic.

.

say a shrewd person

is

"sly as a fox," without

about the zoological veracity of the statement. In

fact,

even thinking foxes possess

no more cunning than most mammalian predators, and

Western cultures do not

come

as

no

—has

see the fox as particularly clever.

surprise; the phrase has nothing to

foxes in actual landscapes.

It

other, non-

This should

do with observable

has nothing to do with Aristotle's His-

Hofjfy Intelligible Elephants

tory or vulpine behavior.

Rather

it

derives from the Physiologus, prob-

ably indirectly through one of the

"The

fox

We

is

51

many

an entirely deceitful animal

bestiaries

who

it

engendered:

plays tricks."

watch a performance of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's

Dream, and when the the head of an ass,

magically give the countrified Bottom

fairies

we know

rustic's utter foolishness.

the transformation symbolizes the poor

But why? Donkeys are no

less intelligent

than horses or antelopes or ibexes. Again, the bestiary tradition that begins with the Physiologus

even among those

who

is at

work

in

our very Aristotelian heads,

never heard of a bestiary,

much

less

an

"intel-

ligible ass."

Our

oblique devotions to the Physiologus reach monumental

heights in the cinema, especially the monster movie ety's

own

—modern

soci-

version of aboriginal dreamtime. Seemingly under the in-

fluence of an ancient religious legacy, the writers of King

Kong

thought that the obvious thing for the natives to do with their constantly screaming captive,

ian deity.

The

Fay Wray, was

to sacrifice her to their sim-

eventual result was the great ape's death and the birth

of the monster movie genre, with beasts and the havoc they cause. civilization took the

form of the

its

Twenty years

giant,

in a long line of films featuring

moralization about unnatural

mutant ants

spells out (in excruciating detail) the

world when we

split

unknown

the atom.

sophical points in animal guise. finally captures

ardly Lion), her

whose

evil

in

the threat to

Them, the

first

benign creatures grown large and

homicidal through exposure to radiation.

the ants represent the

later,

By

convention, a scientist

moral of the story in an epilogue:

threats

we have

let

loose

upon the

Even The Wizard of Oz makes

When

the

philo-

Wicked Witch of the West

Dorothy and her companions (including the Cow-

henchmen

essence

is

are the unforgettable

winged monkeys,

signaled by their unnatural and disturbing ge-

netics.

Old B movies Jurassic

Park

all

like

Godzilla and remarkable thrillers like Alien or

tend to follow the genre in having a singular moral:

T^e Boo^

52

people (usually scientists) the

wisdom

to

of

who tamper

understand invariably

the reckless and the arrogant.

At

Nature

with powers they do not have let

loose monsters that punish

the end of

Ed Wood's

the Monster, the police chief blathers that the scientist

had "tampered

essence of the genre



inept Bride of

mad, monster-making

God's domain," obtusely summing up the

in

at its best

and worst. The avenging monster

almost always takes the form of an unnatural animal, often a dragon of one kind or another. This structure,

comes not from

if

not the actual imagery,

Aristotle's orderly collection of dissected specimens,

but from the mystically charged wilderness of the Physiologus.

Even with just these few examples, we

are entitled to entertain the

fancy that Kong, Godzilla, the Alien, and a hundred other monstrous zoological shapes crawled out of the Physiologus,

and dragging

their

moral lessons behind them, flung themselves onto the celluloid of the

modern If

creature feature.

he were alive today, the author of the Physiologus might have

written of Jurassic Park:

Velociraptor foolish

is

a type of

dragon that died out long ago. But

men, not understanding God's plan, devised a means

bring the creature back to

life,

and

its

to

strength and cunning,

once held in check by nature, became a threat to children and a battleground of men's greed. reckless

men who

O man,

do not be

like those

use their knowledge to release the power of

the intelligible velociraptor, which

is

the devil himself, tempting

us to put reason and pride above spiritual things. Therefore,

Physiologus spoke well of the velociraptor.

We "read" animals in works of fiction and art not as Aristotelians, but along the lines the Physiologus taught. We only have to go a short way

into Faulkner's story

"The Bear"

to

know

that the bear

is

more

Holy, Inte((igi6(e Elephants

than just a zoological fact in the

text,

one the author invites us to

ursine,

promoter

King Kong

in

we

but rather

is

an "intelligible"

Even before the sappy

interpret.

us the moral of the film that "T'was

tells

beauty killed the beast,"

53

see the screenwriter's allegory at work,

and probably nowadays some additional unintended meanings about the destructive nature of civilization. in

our

own

We

right

Without

realizing

it,

we

are

all

modern physiologuses.

denigrate the medieval period as a time of ignorance and in-

tolerance.

But

it

was

also a time of

deep religious devotion and the

cultivation of values such as altruism, suspicion of materialism,

and

respect for creation that resonate with our culture today. Aristotle and

the

modern

lost

out to our Physiologus.

scientific

age he foreshadowed have in a profound sense

The

herds of meaningful animals found

in the Physiologus never died out,

science

and

its

even under the assault of modern

single-minded description of animal

went underground,

life.

Instead, they

into the very fabric of our culture. For us, despite

the official language of science, animals always have meaning, though the content

may have become

faded and vague, and the distractions

of mechanical culture have diminished their day-to-day importance.

Put more accurately, our culture suffers from a kind of schizophrenia about animals. In the operations of industry and science, Aristotle's

one -dimensional view of animals

chines, to use the Cartesian metaphor,

structure but

reigns.

Animals

are

clockwork creatures with

no souls or meaning beyond the

practical purposes to

which we put them. At the same time, we immediately read the tual significance of the white

agree what that toons, movies,

gious import.

meaning

and

And

is.

whale in Moby Dick, even

We

literature, all

if

spiri-

we cannot

create fictional menageries in car-

embodying

at times, this safe fictional

into our personal reality,

ma-

a

moral and often

reli-

world of animals breaks

much as it did for the Physiologus, sometimes

during moments of solitude and reflection about the natural world,

and sometimes suddenly and without warning. In 1995 a white buffalo was born in Wisconsin to a rancher. This

Tl^e

54

was

Book

Nature

of

from

a rare genetic event, but nothing miraculous

perspective.

Within

them Lakota

a week, however,

hundreds of

many

visitors,

of

Sioux, were flocking to the corral to see the prodigy.

According to Lakota

tradition, six

hundred years ago

The animal was

also appeared to their people.

White Buffalo Calf Woman, who brought and

a zoological

a code of laws to live by.

a white buffalo

form of a

a

spirit called

the people a sacred pipe

White Buffalo Calf

Woman

departed,

but she promised to return, signaling a time of great upheaval to be followed by a period of universal peace and harmony.

The Wisconsin

white buffalo attracted not only Native Americans, but people of

who sometimes brought

backgrounds,

their children to

all

have them

touch the creature and receive a blessing. At one point over two thousand visitors a day came to see the rare

calf.

Leave aside the imponderable issue of whether White Buffalo Calf

Woman

has returned to

fulfill

her prophecy in the shape of this

Wisconsin ruminant (only time

particular

will tell).

physical animal has a spiritual resonance for strating a

many

The

point

people,

the

demon-

deep connection between animals and religion even

machine -driven, abstracted

is,

in

our

culture. In fact, the reaction to the white

buffalo suggests a keen thirst for a revival of the organic spirituality

of the Physiologus.

ficulty existing apart

God

from the bestiary

of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel

in our culture

it is

church prohibited this

indicates that abstract religious ideals have dif-

It

day

in

in

is

which they took shape. The

noble and awesome, but even

a late development: prior to the eighth century the all

images of

God

or angels (a taboo sustained to

orthodox Judaism and Islam), so that early Christian

to a great degree the art of

divinity in animal

form

is

symbolic fauna. But the intimation of

as old as religion itself, as primal as the

Paleolithic cave paintings, as favored as

Luke

Ghost descended

dove."

One

person

about her "I

own

moved

I

art is

in a bodily

shape

like a

3:22:

"And

the Holy

interviewed for this book told the following story

religious encounter with an animal:

to

Texas about seven years ago and

it

was

like the

whole

Holy, iHteffigiMe Elephants

world changed. After finishing started

working

work

a joy to

at the local

there.

my

animal

Most of

went beyond the basics of them.

on

high school years, shelter. It

had a

I

I

was both a sorrow and

me

(even the

special understanding that

suppose

body language without ever knowing

to settle

immediately

I

the animals there liked

nasty ones in rabies observation).

their

55

I

it.

knew how

just I

to read

was frequently

called

new, frightened animals in their kennels. Even though

we had many

we had

adoptions,

to euthanize

many

animals a day,

sometimes over a hundred.

"One day a fox

was stuck

thing of it, the

after

EU

I

in

was

I

had worked there

one of our humane dog

like

'Okay, that happens.'

would go and watch him. first

traps.

time

I

saw him up

I

him

I

no one was

but

I'll

try.

He was

afraid,

his fear,

even as he could smell the death of the

huddled

in the

I

put

my face

back of the cage staring

close to the cage so

I

at

me

reason

Lknew

made me

could see him,

slightly dizzy so

the fox was hungry, so

beef out of my sandwich

I

EU

I

I

I left

I

my

"I

hand.

I

current job

room.

I

feel his fear

had a rush of

the room. For

first

piece

The

I

slid

I

had

some

through

other he took

at the shelter for a

I

few years now. The image

memory. One day while driving home

was once again thinking of the fox

looked to the side of the road and there was a sable fox

of the road.

He was

good.

It felt

had quit working

my

the

gave him the chunks of roast

had brought. The

of the fox was always a close

from

felt

I

I

could smell

I

could

him.

the cage, then backed off so he could investigate.

from

there,

... he did not fear me.

of his surroundings, but he didn't fear me, nor adrenaline which

how

can't adequately describe

close,

the fox into

to stay until they could

When

up.

a call that

didn't think any-

They brought

room (where we euthanized animals)

contact a release program to pick

we had

for a while

in the cage. at

the edge

a quick feeling of oneness, like an adrenaline rush,

with the fox."

This woman's experience with a fox had an important significance for her, important

enough

to be

spiritual

remembered and

re-

T^e Book

56

peated, even

if

of

Nature

the exact meaning remains unclear.

probably not uncommon, and

in perfectly

it fits

Her

reaction

is

with the allegorical

world of the Physiologus. The interpretation of animals would not be necessary

if their

meanings were transparently evident.

If this story still

seems too exotic to be an example of mainstream

religious sentiment, then turn to the April 1995 issue of Christianity

Today.

Ducks Taught

my

look at

Lynn N. Austin

contains an article by

It

Me About

Prayer: Their antics

God." The

relationship with

entitled

"What Two

made me

take a closer

article describes

how

the

author adopted a couple abandoned ducklings, and learned through the experience certain spiritual lessons about faith and personal action.

The

art of the Physiologus lingers on,

even

if

frowned upon by

the Aristotles of our culture.

And what written,

if it

and the

had not? What

bestiaries never

lived in unstable times,

when

people's imaginations, and overnight. lier ages,

Human

the Physiologus had never been

if

compiled?

Our anonymous monk

traditional religion

new

sects

and

had

cults rose

knowledge had reached a

level

lost its grip

and

fell

seemingly

unimagined

in ear-

measuring the earth, mapping the procession of the

classifying the natural world in

all its

disciplines out of math, economics,

nomic power

commonly

lay in the

diversity,

and

stars,

and creating orderly

rhetoric. Political

hands of a privileged

on

and eco-

elite. Political

leaders

declared themselves gods, and whole populations were

wiped out by the whim of some autocrat or mentally unbalanced zealot.

In short,

it

was

a time not unlike our own.

Into this world the Physiologus brought his simple interpretations

of animals, declaring that perhaps scientific knowledge and the power it

brings were not as important as

in the face of the teachings

ologus

had

won

not,

wisdom and balance and humility

hidden in the world of nature. The Physi-

the day over Aristotle, at least for a

Western

civilization

would

gous to the detonation of the

first

little

while.

But

if

he

surely have faced a crisis analo-

atomic bomb.

The

explosion of

Hofjp, lHte((i^jf)(e Elephants

scientific

knowledge during the

57

classical period,

or moral restraints, presaged the

without any

political

same kind of threatened apocalypse.

Imagine the petty and cruel emperors of the Middle Ages with can-

nons and grenades. Imagine the Visigoths with firearms, the Huns with steam engines. Obscurantism

is

never a virtue, but as a historical

emphasis of the medieval period tempered the prog-

fact the spiritual

when no

ress of science at a time

insure that scientific discoveries

political institutions existed to help

would be used

wisely.

The

Physiolo-

gus played his part in keeping a balance between the physical and

understanding of the natural world, and through this accom-

spiritual

plishment perhaps helped preserve civilization

We

itself.

need that balance today more than ever. As E. O. Wilson

points out,

"When

very

little is

known about an important

the questions people raise are almost invariably ethical.

subject,

Then

as

knowledge grows, they become more concerned with information and amoral, in other words

more narrowly

intellectual. Finally as

under-

standing becomes sufficiently complete, the questions turn ethical again."

Something

like this

we

animals, except

has happened in our understanding of

are challenged not merely with ethical questions

about their treatment, but by a deeper issue concerning what animals

mean

to

our inner, creative

lives.

Since the scientific revolution

we

have compiled endless volumes of facts about animals. But as a culture,

we have

activities

relegated the interpretation of those facts to marginal

such as

art appreciation

the stories animals have to

and nature writing, while we neglect

tell

us,

that

"animals are good for

thinking."

All of us are within walking distance of

going about ing a

its

web on

some remarkable

species

business totally unnoticed by us; an orb spider weav-

the backyard fence, a crow nesting in a juniper tree, a

snail searching for a

The accumulation

mate among the dead leaves of last

year's garden.

of sheer zoological data cannot substitute for the

cultivation of the Physiologus' art: the search for the significance of

the creatures

we

already know.

T^e Book

58

Every year

in spring

I

hike to

about the Sonoran Desert where

of

Nature

some of the palm oases These

I live.

scattered

are magical places, rare

and remote fragments of paradise, where the

silver

green fronds of

California's only native palm, the elegant Washingtonia filifera, shade secret pools of water

the desert

The

itself.

and preside over

and

if

seems

as vast as

oases attract a host of desert animals: bobcats,

yellow-winged bats, tree ote,

a silence that

Sometimes

frogs, owls.

I

come

across a coy-

I'm very lucky, a mother coyote with pups. The animal

helps sustain the oases by digging "coyote holes" that bring water to the surface, and

it's

easy to see

one oasis to the next, patrolling

them

as local guardians, loping

their disjunct

palindrome by which the animal

is

from

Eden. God's Dog, the

sometimes called by Native

Americans, holds a special place in the mythology of the Southwest.

Coyote

is

not just a species, but a spiritual force, a cosmic personality,

a cultural hero

from dreamtime, who often

by sheer bumbling. He Great

Spirit,

is

benefits those

around him

the comic relief to the seriousness of the

an antishaman trickster

who more

often than not tricks

himself. I

watch the coyote and her pups playing

cannot say that coyote.

because

But I

I

I

in

some bunchgrass.

I

perceive the Coyote of native myth, the intelligible

know

I

experience more than just a specimen of Canis,

keep coming back to see the coyotes again, just as

to the Beatitudes or to the

Tao without ever

I

return

fully grasping their

meaning. Rightly, therefore, did Physiologus to spiritual matters.

compare the ways of animals

CHAPTER THREE

Animals

Signifying

The knowing animals are aware that

we

are not really at

home

our interpreted world.

in

— Rainer Maria

A is for Apple.

B

for Boy.

is

C

is

Rilke

for Cat.

Like an aimless incantation, these simple, childish sentences, and

we know

the ones

down

that follow, have reverberated

from one generation

to the next since almost the very beginning of literacy in our

began the trek

culture. Virtually every person reading this sentence literacy

with these or similar pithy associations between

things in the world, mostly living things. So basic learning the

ABC's

about the boys and

much

less

that

we never imagine

girls, cats

it

might

mysterious history of literacy

meanings animals hold pens

at

all.

and look

at the

mere teaching letters

we

tell

tools,

us anything

letters to life,

common,

often

—and the whole

us a great deal not only about the

let's revisit

alphabet primers (once

and animals

Once we



in

of childhood

for us, but also

For the moment,

tell

soul.

But the obvious things, the things we hold

The ABC's

and

the formula for

and dogs that bring the

about the sublime matters of the

repay closer examination.

is

letters

to

how

religious

meaning hap-

the zero point of our literacy,

known

as abecedaria) not as

but as windows onto a sensibility that sees both

as magical.

look past the instructional purpose of alphabet primers,

can't help but notice the fact that they refer again

and again

to

6o

animal

life.

Elephant;

C

G

is

cats,

of

D

is

for

and so on. Not

all

(or

for Goat;

is

Cow);

Nature

Dog the

(or

Duck);

and every other combination

I

possible.

But on average, in the

ani-

modern

have examined. Not surprisingly, the figure increases the

further back in time

we

go, so that nineteenth-century abecedaria gen-

mention more fauna, especially

erally

for

is

same animals appear

mals make up roughly a third of the nouns employed primers

E

sometimes there are snakes but no dogs, rabbits with

in every primer:

no

Cat

for

T^e Book

Americans

livestock. Until the 1920s,

which meant most

lived in the country than in cities,

dren had regular contacts with farm animals and

up

the vast majority of Americans growing

dren never

see,

much

less

observe

in

wildlife.

urban

at close quarters,

more chil-

Today, with

many

areas,

chil-

any animal larger

than a lapdog. Pointing to the fact that children's primers teem with fauna offers

more than

just an illumination of the banal. Granted, children tend

to like animals,

and

it

follows that books instructing children to read

would include references E.

to things they find familiar

O. Wilson's "biophilia"

thesis



that

humans,

have an inherent, genetic attraction to animal

work

in primers, just as

it

nighttime talk shows. But

The

and

attractive.

especially children, life



is

probably

explains the popularity of animal acts on

we should

not stop there.

relationship between animals

and the alphabet goes much

deeper than the need to accommodate a juvenile attention span. letters

themselves, the marks on the page, point silently beyond

The

etymologies of the

Roman

letters

The

civili-

zation to a forgotten natural history of the alphabet, and of our

gious understanding.

at

we

reli-

use

have for the most part been erased by time, but among those we can identify,

aleph,

many

refer to animals.

meaning "ox."

K

Our letter A

G comes from the Hebrew gimmel,

koph, "monkey."

is

nun, "fish."

F

to an Egyptian hieroglyph of a

is

recites the alphabet, she

basic

skill,

but

at the

derives from the

One

Hebrew

"camel."

N

scholar traces the origin of

horned serpent. Every time a child

may be enduring

same time she

is

the rote memorization of a

also

unknowingly

reiterating

Signifying

the ancient

names of animals

Animals

that

61

became associated with writing

at

the very beginning of literate civilization.

That primal but child's play.

association between animals

The Hebrew

and

literary tradition

letters

was anything

from which we derive

our alphabet embraced a powerful sense of the magical, even divine, nature of

"Much

letters.

of the Kabbalah," writes one scholar, "the

body of Jewish mysticism,

esoteric

centered around the conviction

is

that each of the twenty -two letters of the

Hebrew

aleph-beth

is

a

magic

gateway or guide into an entire sphere of existence." Some Orthodox

Jews to

this

day

name

will not write the

of God, either in

Hebrew

any other language, manifesting an ancient anxiety that the

or

letters

themselves have a potency beyond the spoken words they spell out.

The same

respect toward written characters flowed into Christianity,

embodied

in the

and the

vinity

remarkable comparison Jesus makes between his

first

and Omega,"

it

and

last letters

am Alpha

of the Greek alphabet: "I

says in Revelation, as

if

God

di-

were hidden

in the

vowels and consonants of a child's primer. Unlike his pagan counterparts, the

God

of the Bible

is

just that, a textual divinity,

more

aptly

depicted as holding a pen than brandishing a thunderbolt or sword.

From

Exodus, where the tion

Yahweh speaks

Genesis, where

is

Law

is

the universe into existence, to

carved in stone, to Revelation, where salva-

recorded in a Book of Life, the biblical

God

operates

more

through language and writing than in physical action of the type found, for instance, in Greek mythology. Indeed, one of the most interesting differences

God

that

is literate,

between Yahweh and pagan

while the gods of Greece and

schooled or uninterested in letters altogether.

that

scribes

who

first

would declare our

Nor

is

power

to writing

the fact

Rome seem

un-

of letters

to the early

He-

began to piece together the written symbols civilization.

Judaism alone

supernatural, forces.

is

The naming

meant something important

after animals, therefore,

brew

deities

in

connecting writing with sacred, or

Most Western

when

first

at least

cultures once ascribed magical

introduced to literacy.

The Egyptians

T^e Book

62

of

Nature

considered their writing system so holy that text off old papyruses for reuse, they

making

all

it,

literally

Northern Europe,

developed a runic alphabet for the most part distinct

tribes

classical letters,

whose purpose was almost

Germanic languages, the word "rune" "wisdom." (Wulfias,

"secret," or

they washed the

used beer and drank

their hieroglyphs part of their bodies. In

Germanic from

when

lation of the Bible, uses this

a gift of

originally

meant "mystery,"

in his fourth-century

term

to translate the

in the phrase "the mysteries of the

myth, runes were

entirely magical. In

Kingdom

Gothic trans-

Greek

i±v