Doug Fontaine is a writer, ployglot, and generally talkative otter. This is his second article for [adjective][species]. Read more at his SoFurry account.
If you’re looking for some furry smut story, then you’re definitely barking up the wrong tree here. But don’t be a scaredy-cat; muster up your courage and be as brave as a lion. Reading something informative can be as stimulating as a story with furs breeding like rabbits. Whether you’re as sly as a fox or as strong as an ox, you might have noticed a prevailing presence of animal related idioms in the English language. Okay, no more monkey business; let’s explore animals in our cultures throughout history.
Disregarding my previously ill-managed animal puns, we have already been exposed to stories with big bad wolves, cunning foxes, and a little mole who knew it was none of his business (a German children’s story about a mole who wanted to find out who pooped on his head… [Ref 1]) at an early age. These anecdotes were used to teach us about moral conduct, the consequences of our actions, and not to build houses out of straws or sticks. Mainly deriving from well-known German folklore and authors such as the Grimm brothers, many fables incorporate animals as symbolic representations of different concepts.
The wolf more commonly sighted during 17th and 18th century Europe is portrayed as evil, dangerous, and even gluttonous, as this “beast” posed a real threat to small villages and its agricultural farming based lifestyles. Between the years of 1764 and 1767, “La bête du Gévaudan” (The Beast of Gévaudan) [Ref 2] plagued the central French province. Not only had this wolf-like creature killed numerous precious cattle and other domesticated animals, but its most distinct ‘achievement’ at that time was the frequently reported human casualties.
In contrast, sheep and lambs are viewed as pure and innocent. They are thus connected to ideas of childhood, they are nurtured and raised by farmers like children. The Wolf and the Sheep, Three Little Pigs, and The Wolf and the Seven Goats all imply the hazards of interacting with strangers – “stranger danger”. Using this as a point of reference, we can zoomorphize our children as farm animals, frolicking around carefree and unaware of the danger that lurks behind every corner.
However, Animal Farm by George Orwell suggests that both adults and children alike are animals characterised by our respective social classes, where horses and donkeys symbolise the middle-working class whereas pigs represent different Russian communist politicians during and after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Civil servants like police officers are portrayed as dogs, loyal and true to their master – the law.
Of course, the main goal of this socio-political satire was to criticise Joseph Stalin (in a very ingenious way). Orwell certainly did not purposefully publish Animal Farm to support and encourage anthropomorphic literature.
The personification of animals has more complexity than merely bestowing upon them human characteristics such as speech, clothes, complex ideas and emotions, and silly hats. T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats depicts the group of domesticated felines with their own ‘non-human’ features. In the very first poem “The Naming of Cats”, the American-born poet specifically underlines that “no human research can discover” [Ref 3] the intricacy of a kitten’s name. This theme of cats having their own feline social and cultural structure opens up to new window through which we can view animals and anthropomorphism.
Needless to say, we are extremely fascinated of our own conventions and behaviour, to the point where we project human idiosyncrasies onto our furry critters. We have created entirely foreign yet understandably similar mannerisms for felines (Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats – T.S. Eliot or Felidae – Akif Pirincçi) and canines. Plague Dogs by Richard Adams paints the story of two feral canine protagonists. By introducing their own lingo, expressions, and turns of phrase difficult for us humans to understand, Richard Adams presents a separate canine language/culture independent from ours.
From ancient Greek fables to 20th century ground-breaking literature, there is no doubt that relating our own problems, concepts, and interactions with those of animals have played a key role in sculpting cultures around the world.
One of the most famous civilisations which feature anthropomorphised creatures is Ancient Egypt. A flourishing culture, around 3000 years BC, has repeatedly shown humanoid Gods with animal heads in their mythology. Naturally the wolf, a predominantly Nordic canine, was replaced with the jackal (different species, same symbolic connotation). Sekhem Em Pet [Ref 4] (commonly known as Anubis), God of the Dead is shown on many sculptures and drawings as having the head of such an African canine. Cats weren’t necessarily deities but worshippers in ancient Egyptian times were nonetheless plentiful. They were used as pest control, killing mice and other vermin that would potentially harm crops and spread diseases. These domesticated felines were regarded as a good omen as many mummified cats were later found in tombs, suggesting that they played a large role in the afterlife of many ancient Egyptians. Whether animals helped us during our daily lives or guided us through the afterlife, we are accustomed to relating them to our culture and existence.
Both in Egyptian mythology and Native American tribal culture, birds and insects were more likely to have been given spiritual meaning than their Eurasian counterparts. Birds of prey, such as the falcon or the eagle, are regarded as divine messengers or even as divinities themselves. Bees or other pollinating insects foreshadow progress for example.
Native American totems include animals [Ref 5] which are not mentioned in other mythologies at all. Of course, contrasting biomes contain a variety of different species. The American otter for example represents joyfulness, playfulness, and helpfulness, whereas the brown bear is seen as a totem of introspection, dreams, and will-power. As the indigenous Americans possessed a rich nomadic culture, there was no need for farming animals (with the exception of horses). Thus the wolf adopted a more spiritual undertone than the ferocious gluttonous beast this canine is described in Europe. We can clearly see how one animal might be viewed differently depending on our lifestyle.
Up until now, we have spoken of figurative meanings and metaphors concerning animals. Their ominous presence in our literature, our mythology, and our cultures prevails throughout history. But we as humans have shared this world with thousands of different creatures, and have incorporated them into our daily existence to the extent that they are essential for our survival. Take care of the living beings (whether animal or human) around you, for you never know how much an impact they have in our lives.
1. Holzwarth, W. and Erlbruch, W. (2014). The Story of the Little Mole Who Went in Search of Whodunit. [online] Goodreads.
2. Unknownexplorers.com, (2014). Unknown Explorers - Beast of Gevaudan. [online]
3. Eliot, T.S. (1952). Complete poems and plays. 1st ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace, p.209 line 23
4. Marvunapp.com, (2012). Anubis (Egyptian god). [online]
5. Legendsofamerica.com, (2011). Native American Totems and Their Meanings. [online]