Anthropomorphism was defined in my post on Vaux-le-Vicomte. Moreover, Milo Winter’s illustrations for “The North Wind and the Sun” provide examples of elements disguised as human beings. Fabulist Jean de La Fontaine used anthropomorphism: animals, elements, vegetation, mountains. In some fables, he featured humans and who were viewed as morally inferior to animals. The Man and the Snake (The Man and the Adder or L’Homme et la Couleuvre [X.i or X.1]) is an example of the use of an inferior human being in a fable. Fables featuring human beings are called lybistic.
In 1997, in his review of Marc Fumaroli‘s Le Poète et le Roi, Jean de La Fontaine en son temps,” Charles Rosen wrote that “[w]ith La Fontaine’s Fables, we do not have to burrow far under the surface to recognize a discreet opposition to the grandeur of style and the servile obedience wanted by the court, an opposition never openly expressed but manifest on every page.” (The New York Review of Books, “The Fabulous La Fontaine,” 18 December 1997.)[i] Fables feature speaking animals, but readers know that animals do not speak. Therein lies the wizardry of beast fables.
By and large, anthropomorphic animals always play the same role. The lion has been king for millennia, just as the fox has been cunning since antiquity and the wolf, hungry. These animals therefore resemble the stock-characters of the commedia dell’arte and they are used to depict society. The most famous anthropomorphic animal is the fox named Reynard.Centaur Diosphos Painter, white-ground lekythos (500 BC) Photo credit: Wikipedia
Zoomorphism: Hybrid creatures
However, many legendary or mythical animals are not humans in disguise, but they may belong to a mythology, in which case they have lineage and ancestors. Usually, mythologies tell a story that explains origins. They are etiological. In children’s literature, etiological narratives are called “pourquoi” stories. Rudyard Kipling‘s Just So Stories (1902) are “pourquoi” narratives. However, some legendary creatures, such as the phoenix, appear to straddle both categories, the mythical and the mythological. The distinguishing factor could be the degree of symbolic value bestowed on a zoomorphic animal, i.e. the more symbolic the animal, the more mythical. He stands alone.
1) In Zoomorphism, there are animals or creatures who
- combine the features of humans and those of an animal and live in
- myths and mythologies.
Well-known animals that combine human and animal features are centaurs and the Minotaur. Centaurs have the torso of a man or a woman, but their lower body is that of a horse. As for the Minotaur, he is the son of Pasiphaë and a bull. He is therefore a hybrid animal that is kept in a labyrinth built by Daedalus. The Minotaur is slain by Theseus who finds his way through the labyrinth using Ariadne thread. Theseus also slays a centaur.
2) Other Zoomorphic Beasts
- combine the features of several animals and are
The dragon, the griffin, and the unicorn are zoomorphic animals combining the features of many animals. They are legendary or mythical animals, rather than mythological beasts. However, both the griffin and the phoenix do belong to certain mythologies. It may be legitimate to separate the dragon, the griffin, the phoenix and the unicorn from other zoomorphic animals in that all four are likely to appear as symbols, but so do other legendary animals. The phoenix, who rises from his own ashes, is a symbol of rebirth. The unicorn appears in the Bible, but he is not listed in Donald Ray Schwartz’s Noah’s Ark, the Hebrew Bible.[ii] The Western unicorn cannot be captured by a person other than a virgin. He is therefore emblematic of chaste love. In children’s literature, he is often described as an animal who missed the boat: Noah’s Ark. (See Unicorn, Wikipedia.)
There are Medieval love bestiaries, such as Richard de Fournival‘s Bestiaire d’amour (ms 12469 Bibliothèque nationale de France). In this bestiary, animals are used allegorically. In fact, animals inhabiting medieval bestiaries are allegorical figures and they are usually the same from author to author. They are as described by Pliny the Elder (23CE – August 25, 79CE), Isidore of Seville, etc. or as described in the 2nd century CE Physiologus. (See Physiologus, Wikipedia.) However, the unicorn and the griffin are often featured on coats of arms, shields, helmets. In other words, these animals are used as blazons in heraldry. (See Zoomorphism, Wikipedia.)
- The dragon‘s characteristics change from culture to culture. He is feared in the West, but not in China.
- The griffin, shown at the top of this post, a lion mostly, with the head of an eagle, is a guardian. In antiquity, he was a symbol of divine power and a guardian of the divine.
- The unicorn has one horn and plays various roles from culture to culture. In Western culture, he is, as mentioned above, “emblematic of chaste love and faithful marriage.”
- Given that he rises from his own ashes, the phoenix is a symbol of rebirth and very popular.
Other Zoomorphic Animals
Other relatively well-known zoomorphic animals, combining animal features only, are Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology, or Cerberus/Kerberos, the three-headed dog who guards the entrance to the underworld. In The Tale of Cupid and Psyche, Psyche is told how to avoid him, which enables her to fetch beauty from Persephone without dying. Locksmiths and businesses that provide alarm systems are often name their store or company Cerberus/Kerberos.
High Fantasy Literary Works and other Literary Works
The phoenix appears in J. K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003), in which we also find the griffin Albus Dumbledore. As well, the Harry Potter series features Cerberus/Kerberos. The griffin, however, had been used previously. For instance, he appears in Dante Alighieri‘s (c. 1265–1321) Divine Comedy and in John Milton‘s Paradise Lost. In C. S. Lewis‘ popular Chronicles of Narnia, we find a centaur.
Therianthropic animals are listed among zoomorphic creatures. There are therianthropic beings in fairy tales, which is usually the result of a curse. Enchantment is central to fairy tales. But shapeshifting animals bring to mind the werewolf (le loup-garou), a lycanthrope, rather than fairy tales. At this point, we pause as we are about to return to the idea of metamorphosis.
The above show, among other factors, to what extent humans see commonality with animals, but not as in Darwinism. Mythical and mythological animals may be up to no good, but they are not mutating._________________________ [i] Marc Fumaroli, Le Poète et le Roi, Jean de La Fontaine en son siècle (Éditions de Fallois, 1997). [ii] Donald Ray Schwartz, Noah’s Ark, an Annotated Encyclopedia of every Animal Species in the Hebrew Bible (Jason Aron Inc.: Northvale, New Jersey, Jerusalem, 2000). The Unicorn Photo credit: Wikipedia Camille Saint-Saëns (9 October 1835 – 16 December 1921) Le Carnaval des animaux The Yale, The Bern Physiologus © Micheline Walker August 25, 2013 WordPress