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Ashmole Bestiary
MS. Ashmole 1511, F78v
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
Online Manuscript:

Beast Literature: other sources

Although Reynard the Fox remains in the collective memory of Europeans and is transformed into a rabbit in the Tales of Uncle Remus, beasts enter different narratives and stem from other sources.

The Physiologus

Since we have introduced Bestiaries, I must also reveal some of these other sources. Writers of Bestiaries find their main source in the Physiologus, an anonymous Greek–language text, probably written in the second century CE. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “The Physiologus consists of 48 sections, each dealing with one creature, plant, or stone and each linked to a biblical text.” Among animals featured in the Physiologus, many are borrowed from India, which attests, once again, to the universality of ‘stories.’

Zoomorphic and Theriomorphic animals

  • Mythological animals.  In an earlier blog, I quoted Machiavelli who wished his prince were like the Centaur, half human, half beast. Greek mythologies’ Centaur is half horse and belongs to Greek Mythology as does the Minotaur, the son of Pasiphaë and a bull. The Satyrs are also part human. In Roman mythology, Satyrs are part goat. In this category, we also find animals that combine the features of many animals. Cerberus is a three-headed dog, used by J. K. RowlingPegasus is a winged horse. So mythologies are very rich source of animal figures.
  • Mythical animals.[i] Bestiaries also incorporate mythical animals, such as the Unicorn and the Dragon. As for the Griffin and the Phœnix (see Herodotus), they straddle the mythical (i.e. legendary and symbolic) and the mythological.  Mythologies are aetiological texts. They tell about origins.
  • http://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/translat/1r.hti.
  • The dragon and the Unicorn are very popular in Western best literature, but they also appear in Eastern mythologies. In India, the Unicorn is a mythological animal and if Western dragons are feared, Oriental dragons are friendly. In children’s literature, the Unicorn literally missed the boat, Noak’s Ark.

Allegories or Animals as Symbols

These animals are not necessarily humans in disguise, but they can be used to represent humans. In Richard de Fournival‘s (1201-1260) courtly Bestiaire d’amour, an allegorical text, animals are used to symbolize women. Richard de Fournival was also the composer of love songs. These animals may also be used as emblems and in heraldry (blazons, coats of arms, etc.).

Le Blason de Saint-Lô

Historians and Naturalists

Finally, content is taken from historians and naturalists.

  • Aristotle (384 BCE – 322 BCE) wrote a History of Animals, De animalium. Herodotus (c. 484 BCE – c. 425 BCE) is the first historian, and he includes animals in his Histories.  For instance, he describes the hippopotamus, the crocodile and the phœnix.
  • Pliny the Elder or Gaius Plinius Secundus (23 BCE – 25 August 79 BCE) wrote a Natural History. Pliny the Elder died on 25 August 79 CE, trying to rescue a friend when Mount Vesuvius erupted.
  • Claudius Alienus, (ca. 175 – ca. 235  CE) a Roman author, wrote De Natura Animalium (in 17 books) and Historia.  On the Characteristics of Animals (De Natura Animalium) is still available, in 3 volumes.[ii]

Among historians and naturalists, not all have seen the animals they depict. They simply use descriptions given to them by travellers. For instance, in Greece, the monoceros is the Unicorn, not a rhinoceros. The existence of an animal having one horn had been reported to historians and from this report emerged the Unicorn. Similarly, Herodotus described the Phœnix and he made it ‘real.’  Yet, the Phœnix is as imaginary an animal, as the Chimera.

The Chimera

In modern literature, Latin American authors often introduce imaginary creatures into contexts that may be fictional, but not imaginary.  An example of “magical realism” is Jorge Luis Borges’s (24 August 1899 – 14 June 1986) El libro de los seres imaginarios, (The Book of Imaginary Beings), 1957J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is also deemed “magical realism.”

Bestiaries originate in many traditions and often feature imaginary or fantastical animals.  But later these animals will be found in high fantasy works, such as J. R. R. Tolkien’s above-mentioned Lord of the Rings. As well, these animals will also be found in  J.K. Rowling‘s extremely popular Harry Potter series.We have a Harry Potter and the Order of the Phœnix (2003). However, I am looking a little too far in the future.

In short, animals are everywhere, telling what might otherwise have remained, or would remain, unsaid and when they inhabit mythologies, they also serve to give us a past. But there is more to tell…

[i] “Ælian.” Encyclopædia Britannica.
Encyclopædia Britannica Online
. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2011.
Web. 29 Oct. 2011. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/7081/Aelian>.

[ii] In certain cultures, mythical animals are mythological animals.

img9131The Antelope
The Ashmole Bestiary
© Micheline Walker
29 October 2011