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date: 19 November 2017

Animals in Folklore

Abstract and Keywords

This essay surveys the representation of animals in folklore from the fables of Aesop to the search for Bigfoot. Unlike most of modern culture, folklore attributes great power, understanding, autonomy, and significance to animals. While folklorists have often found this deeply poetic, they were also made uncomfortable by the suggestion of magic and, to protect their claim to superior rationality, tried to distance themselves from folktales. The English demonized animal helpers in fairy tales, while the French gave these figures human form. The Grimm brothers and other romantics removed fairy tales from the context of everyday life by placing them in a remote realm such as an ancient civilization, a marginal social order, or the enchanted world of childhood. As the naturalistic paradigm, with its implicit anthropocentrism, declines, folk literature provides models for more balanced relationships between animals and human beings.

Keywords: animal studies, Aesop, anthropocentrism, animal helpers, Bigfoot, fairy tale, fable, folklore, Grimm brothers, juniper tree

The Fables of Aesop

Early collectors of folklore and folk literature in the latter eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were enticed, perplexed, and amazed by the way human beings in folktales would interact closely with animals or even with trees and streams. Folklore addresses a longing for intimacy with animals and nature, which runs through contemporary culture. That desire has elsewhere been formulated in very abstract, rhetorical, or indirect ways, but folklore is nearly unique in being able to envision what equality between animals and human beings might actually be like.

That is because anthropocentrism, despite its dominance in Western culture, has seldom prevailed in folklore. This can make the subject attractive to participants in movements such as environmentalism and animal rights, who often aspire to a biocentric or zoocentric orientation. Nevertheless, folklore also often presents us with a world where extreme violence is frequently taken for granted and where life, either animal or human, does not necessarily count for much at all. Without human supremacy, there is also little or no sense of human stewardship, and concepts such as the legal protection of animals hardly even come up.

Many widely disseminated stories probably come ultimately from animal divination, which was universal throughout the ancient world, especially in Greco-Roman civilization. Birds were often accorded prophetic significance, since their behavior reflected the seasons and the weather. In Greece, the appearance of the swallow announced the coming of spring and the time for planting, while cranes and storks marked the arrival of autumn. Toward the end of the Iliad, King Priam of Troy, hoping to obtain the body of Hector his son from Achilles, prays to Zeus to send an omen. Immediately a huge black eagle (possibly a raven) appears, and Priam knows his petition will be successful. In the secularized context of fables, the behavior of birds and other creatures remained a source of important lessons.1

(p. 457) The beast fable is probably the oldest genre of literature that focuses mostly on animals, and it is certainly the most influential. Although we now know the fables of Aesop primarily from books, their dissemination has followed a sort of pattern that we generally associate with oral traditions. They have been passed on informally and have no canonical versions. Individual tellers are entirely free not only to change the wording but also to alter the story or append different morals. The form, social context, and style of Aesopian fables have varied greatly over millennia, but they have never, even temporarily, lost their popularity.

Their tradition actually begins not with the Greek Aesop but with Sumero-Akkadian contest literature and animal proverbs, some of which exist in manuscripts that go back to the early second millennium BCE. The contest literature has given fables the dialectical form, in which two parties such as a hare and a tortoise or a grasshopper and an ant compete for supremacy. The proverbs have given the tradition its linguistic economy. These ancient texts promoted stereotypical concepts of animals that have continued to this day. Already, not long after the start of the second millennium BCE the fox is renowned for cleverness, and the lion is “king of beasts.”2

The beast fable is best known, however, from Greco-Roman models. Fable of Aesop is a generic term for an anecdote, especially one involving animals, written in antiquity. Aesop himself is a legendary character who, according to an anonymous biography from the first century CE or earlier, lived on the Island of Samos in the seventh century BCE. He was a slave, a stutterer, and a hunchback. When his new master brings Aesop home from the slave market, the mistress of the house is terrified at first, since she takes the new purchase for a monster. Aesop gains his freedom for his skill in telling stories and becomes the most trusted councilor of the king. Eventually, however, he declares the revered Oracle at Delphi to be a fraud, and angry villagers throw him off a mountain to his death.3 In the perspective of Greek culture, which idealized the human form, Aesop would have appeared to be half-animal and thus qualified as a mediator between the human and bestial worlds.

Most fables traditionally attributed to Aesop are either later or earlier than their reputed author, and there is little evidence that the storyteller ever existed; however, the stylistic uniformity of the early Greco-Roman fables suggests that they may reflect the personality of a single editor. This might, however, have been not Aesop but Demetrius of Phaleron, a governor of Alexandria at the end of the third century BCE, who compiled a collection of fables that has been lost. However that may be, the two most extensive collections of Aesopian fables that have come down to us are one in Latin by Phaedrus, written in the first century CE, and one in Greek by Babrius, written in the second or early third. Remarkably, both of these authors were, like the legendary Aesop, among the extremely few slaves in ancient Greece and Rome who not only attained their freedom but also passed on their names and legacy to posterity. As Phaedrus, especially, makes very clear, the fable was a sort of secret language, with which especially slaves might evade censorship and comment upon the foibles of the mighty.4 In the anthropocentric world of the Greeks and Romans, this authorship also reflected a sense that slaves were close to being animals and, for that reason, were able to interpret bestial behavior.

(p. 458) We all know some fables of Aesop from childhood, such as “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Grasshopper and the Ant,” and “The Boy who Cried Wolf,” so examples of the genre seem almost superfluous. So that we do not take the literary conventions of the fable for granted, however, let us look at one titled “The Lion, the Ass, and the Fox” (in many other editions, “The Lion’s Share”):

The lion, the ass, and the fox, having made an agreement together, went off hunting for game. When they had taken plenty of game, the lion asked the ass to divide the spoils between them. The ass divided the food into three equal parts and invited the lion to choose his portion. The lion became enraged, pounced on the ass, and devoured him.

Then the lion asked the fox to divide the spoils. The fox took all that they had accumulated and gathered it into one large heap, retaining only the tiniest morsel for himself. Then he invited the lion to choose.

The lion then said: “Well, my good fellow, who taught you to divide so well? You are excellent at it.”

The fox replied: “I learned this technique from the ass’s misfortune.”

Moral: This fable shows that we learn from the misfortunes of others.5

Blumenberg proposes that the animals in Aesop’s fables were a reversion of the anthropomorphic gods (e.g., Athena or Hera) to their original forms as animals, which parodied the frivolity of the deities’ endless leisure and mocked their pretense of heroism.6 The fable quoted seems to allude to the Greek practice of taking most of the meat from sacrifices for human consumption while leaving mostly bone and gristle for the deities, a practice that would be called into question in times of crisis, when the gods seemed to be demanding more. The fable may even satirize a passage in Hesiod’s Theogony, where the cunning Prometheus (represented by the fox) tricks Zeus (the lion) into picking the lesser of two piles from a sacrificed ox, thus bringing a terrible punishment on humankind (the ass).7

Just beneath the placid surface of these tales, we can sense a terrifying and far more primeval world, which is pervaded by extreme violence and magic. They are filled with the sort of animal sages and tricksters that, despite being deprived of their more numinous qualities, resemble those found in zoomorphic mythologies from Africa to the Americas. Much like the Brothers Grimm in the nineteenth century and Disney Studios in the twentieth, Aesop (whether he was one person or many) imposes a façade of bourgeois order and rationality on preternatural materials. One might even say that Aesop represents an ancient “Disneyfication” of myth.

The Tradition of the Beast Fable

The motif of a fox judged by a lion echoes a Mesopotamian tale known as “The Fable of the Fox” in which animal proverbs and contest literature of the sort that gave rise (p. 459) to Aesopian tradition were first brought together in a continuous narrative. We know this story only from fragments of a large tablet found in the library of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal at Nineveh and dating from the seventh century BCE. In it, a fox and wolf form an alliance, but then a terrible drought occurs; the wolf accuses the fox of bringing on the catastrophe, and the lion sits in judgment. Much of the narrative has been lost, and we do not know exactly how the trial goes, except that the fox is ultimately vindicated and a downpour of rain begins.8

This tale migrated east to Persia and India where it provides a frame for the Panchatantra, attributed to Vishnu Sharma written down in the second or third century CE, in which two jackals (formerly the wolf and fox) are courtiers to the lion king. One is loyal, while the other is deceitful and stirs up trouble; they use numerous tales to explain their councils to the king, some of which have analogs in the fables of Aesop. In addition, the Panchatantra incorporated tales from a collection of fables originally written in Pali around the fourth century BCE, known as the Jakatas, reportedly told by the Buddha himself about experiences from his previous lives in human and animal forms. The Panchatantra migrated back toward the west and was loosely translated by Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa in the twelfth century CE as Khalila wa Dimna. This work, in turn, was soon loosely translated into Greek, Latin, and several Western languages and evolved into the European cycle of Reynard the Fox.9

Fables in the tradition of Aesop continued to thrive in large part because they could be adapted to a vast number of purposes. In Europe, fables in the Aesopian tradition were given Christian morals by an author known as Physiologus, probably Didymus of Alexandria, in the second century CE, and later in bestiaries of the High Middle Ages. As the Roman Empire became increasingly Christianized, Avianus wrote a collection of animal fables in the fourth century CE to help preserve traditional pagan culture. In the latter twelfth or early thirteenth century, Berechiah ha-Nakdan used fables to illustrate Jewish moral and religious lessons. At roughly the same time Marie de France and others adapted the fables to tell of life in a feudal court, with its pageantry, power struggles, and amorous ideals. Many Aesopian fables also found their way into works of popular science such as The History of Four-Footed Beasts, Serpents, and Insects, by Topsell and Moffet, published in mid-seventeenth-century England.10 In the latter seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, distinguished authors such as Jean de Lafontaine (France), Ivan Krylov (Russia), and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (Germany) gave the fable unprecedented prestige. However, with the growing emphasis on individual authorship, it becomes far more a genre of literature than of folklore, so we must look elsewhere for tales of animals that reflect ongoing oral traditions.

The fables of Aesop have never been confined to anthologies but regularly entered political rhetoric, scientific writings, and discussions of every conceivable kind. It is possible to view the beast fable not only as a folkloric and literary genre but also as a distinctive perspective on animals and their relationship to human beings. The previously quoted fable, like most, is anthropomorphic in that the characters speak and enter into agreements in the manner of men and women. Illustrators of Aesopian fables generally portray animals, so far as possible, as wearing clothes and walking upright.

(p. 460) Nevertheless, the anthropomorphism in the tales has distinct limits. Unlike people, the animals in fable are not individuals but simply play roles according to their species. Millennia before Darwin or Herbert Spencer, the fables show the sort of philosophy that we know as social Darwinism. The characters live in a world where the governing rule is, “Eat or be eaten.” The fables may illustrate morals, but they tend to conflate virtue with victory or at least survival. Defeat almost never has anything tragic, heroic, nobly unselfish, or otherwise redeeming about it, as it often does in myths. The same one-dimensional quality that adapts the characters in beast fables to serve as bearers of intellectual lessons also deprives them of pathos. When the ass is eaten by the lion, we are not likely to spend much time in lamentation.

The collection of tales that is probably closest to the spirit of the original beast fables of any since at least the Roman Empire is Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, a collection of tales told by African Americans in Georgia, written down in dialect by Joel Chandler Harris and first published in 1880. As a frame for the stories, Harris has an old black man known as Uncle Remus telling stories to a little white boy. The central character in most of the tales is Brer Rabbit, who constantly matches wits with other animals such as Brer Fox, Bear, Mr. Buzzard, and Terrapin. Uncle Remus is gentle and wise after a fashion, but he becomes stern and dismissive whenever he is asked about more than he is ready to tell.

Uncle Remus shares enslavement with such legendary fabulists as Aesop, Babrius, Phaedrus, and Scheherazade, narrator of Arabian Nights Entertainments. In the 1960s through the 1970s, as Black Nationalist movements rose to prominence in the United States, black militants often condemned Uncle Remus as an “Uncle Tom,” a servile Negro who upheld the practices of a racist society. They viewed Brer Rabbit, by contrast, as a black rebel, who had been deprived by the narrator of his proper dignity. The stories, however, are far too farcical and outrageous for such heavy-handed, political moralizing. Like most other tales of tricksters, they are essentially models of how people should not, though often do, behave. Status as a slave does not necessarily reduce all of life to questions of rebellion or submission. It does, nevertheless, at times provide a vantage point from which one can observe the human zoo as well as the bestial society with special clarity.

By far the most famous of the Brer Rabbit tales is known as “The Wonderful Tar Baby Story.” In it, Brer Fox makes a doll out of tar and leaves it by the side of the road where Brer Rabbit will pass. When the doll does not respond to his repeated greetings, Brer Rabbit becomes infuriated and starts to pummel it. With every blow, the rabbit finds himself more firmly enmeshed in bonds of tar. Brer Fox comes along and captures him and then tries to torment his captive by threatening to kill him in all sorts of horrible ways, including roasting, hanging, and drowning. Brer Rabbit pleads with his captor, saying that he is willing to accept any of these fates as long as Brer Fox does not throw him in the briar patch. Brer Fox does just that, and Brer Rabbit, who actually is completely at home in the briar patch, escapes.11

There is a lively debate about the origins of the Brer Rabbit stories. Some scholars believe that Brer Rabbit is primarily a figure brought over with the slave trade, a version (p. 461) of a trickster such as Anansi the Spider (West Africa) or Hare (East Africa). Some of the tales are derived from European stories of Reynard the Fox. But, while individual stories may have different points of origin, the major protagonist and the essential inspiration of the series is probably Native American. Brer Rabbit could be a version of Mishaboz or Nanabozho, the trickster hare in many tales of the Algonquin Indians who were at times enslaved and assimilated into African American culture. The story of the tar baby has elsewhere been recorded only among Native Americans where it is known in a few versions.12

The Fairy Tales of Grimm

One way to think of the fairy tale is as a partial return of the fable to its pre-Aesopian, mythical roots. As the fable had been a favorite genre of the European Enlightenment, the fairy tale became the favorite of European Romanticism. While the plots of fables had been reduced to their barest essentials, fairy tales often had long, meandering stories with unexpected turns and digressions. While fables generally ended in morals, fairy tales often eluded every attempt at interpretation. Magical aspects of the fable had been largely confined to conventions such as having animals speak like people and were obscured by a façade of rationality. With their far greater narrative and thematic complexity, fairy tales were unabashedly magical.

The resemblance between the two forms is notable as well. Both, as already mentioned, are filled with talking animals and often even grant speech to trees or streams. While their actual origins are far more complex, both forms have usually been attributed largely to marginalized social groups. In the case of fables, the reputed authors were slaves, while fairy tales were ascribed to peasants and, to a very large extent, women.13 But most significantly, both forms, especially the fairy tale, are not anthropocentric, despite having been developed in highly anthropocentric societies.

At least since the Brothers Grimm made fairy tales a subject of serious study, readers have found them both extremely beautiful and unaccountably strange. Since they owed very little to either Christianity or science, fairy tales also did not seem to belong to modern civilization. The tales had to be placed in some other realm in which their odd perspective, enjoyed from a distance, could not interfere with duty or reason. In the first edition of their tales, this realm was the archaic myths of Germany where the Grimms believed fairy tales had originated as well as of the peasant farms and villages where they had allegedly been preserved. In later editions, as they adapted the tales to a juvenile public, the realm became the enchanted world of childhood. Two centuries of intense study still have not dissipated this perplexity, and recently Jack Zipes argued that fairy tales were a resurgence of Greco-Roman religion, in which the old deities had taken other forms.14

But the occasional references to motifs from old mythologies were likely to have been inserted by highly educated storytellers who provided the Grimm brothers with (p. 462) tales. More significantly, derivation from old myths cannot explain the zoocentric and animistic nature of these tales. The paganism of the Greeks and Romans was not less anthropocentric than Christianity. Both religions featured deities in human form arranged in a hierarchical bureaucracy. Fairy tales are full of mysterious powers, often associated with animals, but they do not have any pantheon.

My view is that fairy tales were in no way anachronistic, but they revealed a facet of European and world culture that was radically at odds with the way that members of the intelligentsia of the time wished to view themselves and their history. Fairy tales represented a contemporary perspective that was opposed to highly systematized varieties of paganism, Christianity, and deism. The magical characters in fairy tales are not so much deities as local and household spirits such as brownies (Scotland), hobs (England), kobolds (Germany), elves (Northern Europe), trolls (Scandinavia), lars (Rome), domovoi (Eastern Europe), kami (Japan), jinni (Arabia), spirit animals (Plains Indians), and many others. Such spirits are able to inspire belief alongside a great many universal religions such as Greco-Roman paganism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, although, or because, they are seldom very profoundly integrated into a religious context. They are at times conflated with such figures as goddesses, saints, demons, or bodhisattvas, but they generally belong more to folklore than to religion.

The prominence of these figures remained one of the defining features of fairy tales. According to Vladimir Propp’s study, The Morphology of the Fairy Tale, the Helper/Donor, which so often took on zoomorphic form, is the fourth of seven essential roles in Russian, and perhaps all, fairy tales.15 In the earliest version of “Cinderella,” from the ninth century CE in China, the protagonist is assisted not by a fairy godmother but by a talking fish.16 But the often zoocentric nature of such helpers was hard for members of the European intelligentsia to accept. Animal helpers were demonized by the English and anthropomorphized by the French, while the Germans dealt with their discomfort by displacing the tales, and their origin, into remote and exotic realms.

The attribution of fairy tales to people who either lived in ancient times or were low in the social hierarchy was a way to disclaim responsibility for material that, though lyrical and entertaining, seemed irrational and bizarre. Serfdom, a status at least close to slavery, was not abolished in the kingdom of Hesse, the native country of the Grimm Brothers, until 1811, when their collection of fairy tales was already well under way. In viewing their stories as the voice of the peasantry, the brothers were, therefore, placing them in a long tradition of storytelling slaves, which as we have seen now extends from Aesop to Uncle Remus.

The Mother of All Tales

In 1811, Jacob Grimm wrote and distributed a call directed to “all friends of German poetry and history,” in which he called on readers to supply sources of fairy tales. The (p. 463) one tale that he upheld as a model was “The Juniper Tree,” which would finally be tale #22 in the seventh and final (1857) edition of the Grimms’s collection. The highly accomplished painter Philipp Otto Runge freely recorded the tale in dialect from an oral account by a peasant nursemaid, probably in the vicinity of Hamburg. The tale had been published a few years before Jacob’s flyer in an antiquarian journal and immediately created a sensation among early admirers of folklore.17

“The Juniper Tree” begins about 2,000 years ago, as a beautiful young wife is peeling an apple beside a juniper tree. The blade slips, she cuts her finger, and drops of blood fall in the snow. She wishes for a child as red as blood and as white as snow and then goes inside to her home. Nine months later, she bears a son and dies in childbirth and then is buried at her request under the juniper tree.

After a time of mourning, her husband remarries and has a daughter, Marlene, with his second wife. The new mistress of the house hates her husband’s son; one day as the son is reaching for an apple in a chest, she severs his head. She then chops up his body and makes a stew of it that she feeds to her husband, who devours it ecstatically. When he has finished, Marlene (who mistakenly thinks she killed her brother) wraps up the bones in a silk handkerchief and buries them under the juniper tree. The tree begins to stir and a mist rises from it, and then a flame. A bird emerges from the flame and flies into the sky, gloriously singing:

  • My mother, she slew me,
  • My father, he ate me,
  • My sister, Marlene,
  • Gathered my bones,
  • Tied them in silk,
  • For the juniper tree.
  • Tweet, tweet, what a fine bird am I!

A smith gives the bird a gold chain for his song, a shoemaker gives it a pair of red shoes, and millers give it a millstone, all of which the bird carries away in its talons. He flies back to his home, still singing, and gives the shoes to his sister and the gold chain to his father. Finally, he drops the millstone on the head of the wife, killing her. The bird seems to be consumed in flames, but when he vanishes the boy has reappeared. Together with his father and sister, he goes into the house to eat.18

Claudine Farbe-Vassus in her book The Singular Beast provides an important key to reconstructing the original context of the tale, when she points out that in many traditional European tales, pigs and people, especially young boys, are close to being interchangeable. In the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, these include the famous “Hansel and Gretel” (#15), which much resembles “The Juniper Tree,” where the wicked witch keeps Hansel in a cage and endeavors to fatten him up like a pig for slaughter.19 It also includes “The Children Who Played Butcher,” published in the first edition of their tales but left out of subsequent ones because its violence, was, even for the Grimms, too extreme. In it, a father demonstrates to his children how to slaughter a pig, and they then practice on one another.

(p. 464) In traditional European peasant culture, domestic pigs were fed scraps from the household table, were allowed to run almost freely, and at times mated with their wild counterparts. They would be cared for primarily by females who might develop a special bond with them. Eventually, however, after all the family members had gathered to pay their last respects, a pig would be ritually slaughtered at the time of the winter solstice or slightly later. The slaughter would be performed carefully by a trained specialist who was highly respected in the village and would perform the work in such a way as both to avoid causing unnecessary pain and to properly prepare the body for dismemberment. This would be followed by a grand feast of “St. Pig” lasting throughout the night, during which the animal would be consumed. The meal was accompanied by games, songs, dances, farces, and wearing of masks. The remains of the pig would then be disposed of according to rituals that varied from place to place. Sometimes a leg would be offered to Saint Anthony, the patron of pigs.20

At least in its original inspiration, “The Juniper Tree” is about the young Marlene, who is the only character in the tale with a name, coming to terms with the slaughter of a pig she has nourished. For the Brothers Grimm, as for almost all pioneers in the collection of folklore, the peasantry belonged to nature and thus was not to be individualized, so they did not much concern themselves with the cultural context in which tales were told. There were aspects of peasant culture that they probably would not have been able to comprehend, at least not without relinquishing their idealization of “the people.”

For all their extravagant magic, the tales of Grimm present us with a world that is highly structured and in which different spheres are generally very clearly marked off from one another—evil from good, nature from culture, animals from people, earth from heaven, women from men, and commoners from royalty. One may move back and forth between these kingdoms, yet the boundaries separating them remain unambiguous. This is why many characters in their fairy tales often shape-shift between human and animal identities, but hybrid beings such as centaurs or mermaids are very rare. This ambiguity of the pig, poised between the realms of animals and human beings, would have seemed very strange to the Grimms and their colleagues. The rituals surrounding a pig’s slaughter, had they known of these practices, might have seemed barbaric, in rather the way Voodoo and Santeria appear to many people today.

Animals in Contemporary Folklore

In the late eighteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, folklorists generally assumed that oral traditions were gradually dying out as society became increasingly more rational and that legends had to be recorded before they disappeared forever. Scholars felt the need to search for those legends and traditions in remote outposts far removed from urban civilization, where folkways were relatively uncontaminated by popular and literary culture. Today, that perspective is becoming difficult to even imagine. With the Internet, there does not seem to be any need to seek out folklore, since it is (p. 465) all around us. That ubiquity, however, creates new difficulties, as it is increasingly hard to differentiate folklore from other activities such as literature, popular culture, and science. We no longer consider the “folk” to be nearly unlettered people in exotic places, but simply everyone, academics very much included.

An Aesopic tradition continues in urban legends, anecdotes passed on without exact attribution but usually told in such a zestful but earnest tone that listeners seldom think to doubt their veracity. These stories are short and almost plausible, generally have an unexpected twist at the end, and address secret fears. In one, a hunter shoots down a huge deer and then lays his expensive, high-powered rifle across the antlers to be photographed with the trophy. The deer suddenly gets up, still carrying the rifle, and runs away into the woods with it. Folklorist Jan Brunvand calls this type of tale “the animal’s revenge.”21 The stag is an extremely old symbol of Christ, and this story, for all its modern setting, could almost be a medieval allegory of death, resurrection, and divine retribution.

The mythic dimension is more overt in the story of the six to eight ravens kept on the grounds of the Tower of London, ostensibly because of an old legend that “Britain will fall” if they leave. They are said to have lived at the Tower since ancient times but were actually imported only in the 1880s to serve as props for tales of Gothic horror told to tourists. The legend dates from World War II, when the ravens were used to warn the British of approaching bombs and planes, and the experience of shared peril bonded them to the people of London. Like myths and legends of antiquity, this has been displaced from history into the indefinite past, essentially the “Once upon a time …” of fairy tales.22

The rhetoric and methods of science contribute mightily to the dissemination of folklore. Technologically sophisticated devices such as video cameras that operate under water or pick up infrared images constantly show unexplained flickers and outlines, which can suggest the presence of an ape-man, a mermaid, or a dragon. As people do more tests, these mysteries accumulate, and speculations are quickly spread via the Internet. However, this phenomenon is actually not unprecedented. The rise of early modern science during the Renaissance also produced a big upsurge in sightings of mermaids and other mythological creatures from antiquity.

This paradoxical symbiosis of science and folklore is perhaps best exemplified by a recent increase in animal divination. This acquired renewed popularity when Paul the Octopus of the Oberhausen Zoo in Germany became an international celebrity by successfully predicting the outcomes of all seven games of the German team plus the final in the World Cup football (i.e., soccer) games in 2010. The method of prediction was carefully designed according to methods used by scientific researchers to eliminate bias. Before each game, Paul was placed before two jars of mussels, one with the logo for each of the opposing teams, and his selection of a jar was taken as the prediction of an eventual winner. Statisticians calculated that the probability of the correct predictions being due to chance was miniscule. No other animal has since equaled Paul’s success in prophesy, but many people are now experimenting with the use of octopuses, elephants, pythons, cows, otters, goats and other animals to predict the outcomes of sporting events.

(p. 466) In the United States and Canada, there are now thousands of contemporary reports of sightings of Bigfoot, an ape-like creature often estimated to be at least eight or nine feet tall, as well as scores, perhaps hundreds, of audio recordings, films, and snapshots that people claim are of the monster. The accounts come from a wide variety of observers including scientists. So why are we studying Bigfoot as a legend rather than as natural history? If Bigfeet existed, it is hardly conceivable that they could have eluded intensive searches over several decades, even centuries. For all the investigations, nobody has ever displayed a live Bigfoot, a dead Bigfoot, or a skeleton of a Bigfoot. Out of all the photographs and videos that supposedly show Bigfeet, there is probably not a single one that is clear, focused, and complete.

Until recently, folklorists, apart from a very few articles in the late 1950s and early 1960s, paid hardly any attention to Bigfoot, probably because the specter is of Native American origin. Until recently, Indian stories were usually considered the province of anthropology rather than folklore. It was widely assumed, if not always explicitly stated, that Europeans represented the dominant culture, so the flow of cultural heritage would be from them to less “civilized” people. Researchers were not prepared to seriously consider the possibility that much Native American folklore had been adopted by Europeans and other non-Native peoples. Legends of Bigfoot originated in tribes of Northern California and can be traced back in oral traditions to about 1850, though the name “Bigfoot” only was used nearly a century later.23 Bigfoot was soon conflated with Sasquatch, a creature in the folklore of Native Americans from the Canadian province of British Columbia,24 and eventually became a blend of several monsters and demons from Indian tribes throughout North America, further combined with Medieval European tales of the wild man.

There are also many reports of the Chupacabra, a monster that resembles a wolf in some accounts and a lizard in others and kills goats and other animals by sucking their blood. This monster was probably first reported in Puerto Rico in the 1990s, from where it quickly spread to Mexico, the Southwestern United States, and most of Latin America. The Mokele-Mbeme, by contrast, has been reported in Central Africa since the nineteenth century. According to descriptions, it closely resembles a dinosaur such as brontosaurus (now called “apatosaurus” by scientists), and rumors of it are still enough to terrify entire villages. Except perhaps for Bigfoot and the Yeti, the most famous folkloric creature is still the Loch Ness monster, but there are similar aquatic creatures reported in many lakes from Scotland to Canada and Australia. Folklore is developing far too quickly for any researcher to keep up with it or for any theorist to sort out its implications.


In examining human-animal relations both on an individual and on a societal level, puzzles, paradoxes, and apparent contradictions are very much the norm. Herzog25 (p. 467) documented many such enigmas: most people who claim to be “vegetarians” eat meat regularly; cockfighting elicits far more indignation than industrial breeding of broiler chickens, even though roosters raised for fighting lead immeasurably better lives; opponents of animals in the laboratory make their case by citing knowledge gained through painful experiments on animals; hoarders keep apartments full of animals under atrocious conditions, convinced that they are providing a service of love; enthusiasts of thoroughbred dogs, in their zeal to improve breeds, create animals who have chronic respiratory problems, are prone to disease, and cannot whelp without human assistance. This list of apparent contradictions seems to go on endlessly and to permeate every sector of society, regardless of gender, class, religion, education, ethnicity, or political affiliation.

But Herzog, except in special cases, does not even seriously attempt to address the question posed in the title of his book, “why it’s so hard to think straight about animals.” Is this inability, with the resulting enigmas, an inevitable part of the human condition? Have people always found their behavior toward animals impossible to explain, at least without continuously confronting new conflicts, problems, and ambiguities? From the perspective of history, anthropology, or folklore, the answer is to these questions is no. The sense of helplessness before the endless paradoxes of human–animal relationships may well be unique to the modern and contemporary West. The difficulty is that prevailing conceptual frameworks do not enable us to think about animals in a coherent way.

The anthropologist Philippe Descola offers an explanation for this perplexity. First of all, he distinguishes four basic paradigms used by different cultures to synthesize their experience: animism, totemism, analogism, and naturalism. He finds the purest examples of totemism among the aborigines of Australia. Animism tends to predominate among the indigenous people of the Americas, though generally in combination with totemism. Western culture of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance—as well as, at least until historically recent times, China and most of East Asia—was primarily that of analogism.26

What we call Western culture today is based, according to Descola, on the paradigm of naturalism. This model divides the cosmos into two realms: culture, a product of human autonomy; and nature, determined by absolute order and necessity. This dualism now pervades not only our science but also our common sense, yet, in the words of Descola, “Viewed from an unprejudiced perspective… .the very existence of nature as an autonomous domain is no more a raw given of experience than are talking animals or kinship ties between men and kangaroos.”27

Because naturalism juxtaposes these two broad realms, creating a long boundary between them, it continually produces hybrids, yet it remains unable to conceptualize these hybrids, and constantly insists on locating them in one realm or another. The boundary between culture and nature has not been constructed in any one consistent or abiding way. Western culture at times perceives women, “savages,” children, early civilizations, and “lower” social classes as living close to this border, although on the “human” side, and occasionally crossing over to the domain of nature. Since we regard (p. 468) animals, especially pets, in some contexts as belonging to culture and in others as products of nature, they are a source of continuous perplexity.

The inability to conceptualize animals within the framework of naturalism led to their demonization, as soon as that paradigm became dominant in the West. In the early modern period, devils were increasingly depicted with the features of many animals, for example, the wings of bats and the faces of dogs. Since the emerging paradigm of the Early Modern period offered no place for them, intelligent or friendly animals seemed, by their very existence, to be a violation of the cosmic order. Particularly in England of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, almost any intimacy with an animal could be accepted as evidence of witchcraft, with the result that fairy tales, which so often feature animal guides and sages, almost died out within English oral traditions.28

In the late twentieth century, the imperative to assign creatures to the domain of either culture or nature has often been carried to nearly unprecedented extremes. Dogs are ever more intimately drawn into the human realm, where they now have their own designer clothes, jewelry, five-star hotels, psychiatrists, spas, television programs, gourmet restaurants, and hospices, while their owners are increasingly referred to as “pet parents.” Meanwhile, especially since the 1970s, food animals are far more objectified than ever before in industrialized farms.

We should remember that the four categories given by Descola—animism, totemism, analogism, and naturalism—refer not to societies but rather to ways of synthesizing experience. Naturalism became the most dominant paradigm in Western culture during the late Renaissance, but it was never the only one. Folklore, in general, has retained the analogist paradigm of the European Renaissance, together with animist and totemist elements, within a society largely governed by naturalism. As the dominance of the naturalistic paradigm begins to decline, we are now seeing these, and perhaps other, paradigms further emerge from the margins, and this is why folklore no longer appears to stand out so starkly from the rest of our civilization.

The movements for animal rights/liberation do not truly challenge either the division between nature and culture or the associated belief in human superiority. Instead, they consist mostly of attempts to redraw this division in ways that might appear more rational, more humane, or more stable. Most often, this means displacing a few kinds of animals such as apes or dogs from the domain of nature to that of culture. At times, it may also be a matter of making the separation more of a hierarchic continuum than a relatively abrupt line. All such endeavors, in my opinion, will be rendered futile by the elusive, continually shifting character of the division between nature and culture.

Nevertheless, according to Descola, the supremacy of the naturalistic paradigm is being overturned by its very success, as it increasingly absorbs the natural world that once defined it. As scientists explore the most remote corners of the earth, the recesses of the human mind, and the nuances of social interaction, the human realm will effectively encompass, and thus merge with, the natural one.

If this analysis is correct, the resulting changes are impossible to foretell in any detail. At some risk of oversimplification, we can predict that human beings will see animals less as either a resource or a protectorate than as an assortment of cultures that are very (p. 469) profoundly different from our own. It is hard to envision this, since the change will place in question ideas that are now implicit in our language, including our very concept of humanity and even our notions of life and death. We might be confined to increasingly elusive abstractions, except that folklore can often embody cultural alternatives in ways that are simple, vivid, entertaining, and reassuring enough to be beloved, especially in books of fairy tales, by children.

Further Reading

An inventory of interesting writings on animals in folklore could be virtually endless. This list is confined to works that are either broad in scope, which might serve as an introduction to the subject, or else focus on specific topics discussed in the preceding chapter. The list also contains only works that have not been cited within the endnotes.

Abrahams, Roger D., ed. Afro-American Folktales: Stories from Black Traditions in the New World. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985. (p. 471) Find this resource:

Anonymous. The Arabian Nights Entertainments: Tales of 1001 Nights. Trans. Malcolm C. Lyons. 3 vols. London: Penguin, 2011.Find this resource:

Aftandilian, Dave, Marion W. Copeland, and David Scofield Wilson, eds. What Are Animals to Us? Approaches from Science, Religion, Folklore, Literature, and Art. Knoxville: Univeristy of Tennessee Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Babrius and Phaedrus. Babrius and Phaedrus. Trans. Edwin Ben Perry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univerity Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Bastine, Michael, and Mason Winfield. Iroquois Supernatural: Talking Animals and Medicine People. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions/Bear, 2011.Find this resource:

Beal, Timothy K. Religion and Its Monsters. New York: Routledge, 2002.Find this resource:

Bulliet, Richard W. Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers: The Past and Future of Human–Animal Relationships. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Boia, Lucian. Entre L’ange Et La Bête: Le Mythe De L’homme Différent De L’antiquité À Nos Jours. Paris: Plon, 1995.Find this resource:

Bruchac, Joseph. Native American Animal Stories. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing 1992.Find this resource:

Campbell, Joseph. Historical Atlas of World Mythology. 2 vols. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.Find this resource:

Charbonneau-Lassay, Louis. The Bestiary of Christ. Trans. D. M. Dooling. New York: Parabola Books, 1991.Find this resource:

Delacampagne, Aruabe, and Christian Delacampagne. Here Be Dragons: A Fantastic Bestiary. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Gilmore, David D. Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Trans. Jack Zipes. New York: Bantam Books, 1856/1987.Find this resource:

Gubernatis, Angelo de. Zoological Mythology: Or, the Legends of Animals. 2 vols. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Library, 1872/2009.Find this resource:

Herzog, Harold A., and Shelley L. Calvin. “Animals, Archtypes, and Popular Culture: Tales from the Tabloid Press.” Anthrozoös 5, no. 2 (1992): 77–92.Find this resource:

Marchesini, Roberto, and Karin Anderson. Animal Appeal: Uno Studio Sul Teriomorfismo. Bologna: Hybris, 2001.Find this resource:

Mode, Heinz. Fabulous Beasts and Demons. London: Phaidon, 1975.Find this resource:

Nigg, Joseph, ed. The Book of Fabulous Beasts: A Treasury of Writings from Ancient Times to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Pastoureau, Michael. Les Animaux Célèbres. Paris: Arléa, 2008.Find this resource:

Porter, J. R., and W. M. S Russell. Animals in Folklore. Ipswich, UK: D.S. Brewer, 1978.Find this resource:

Ritvo, Harriet. The Platypus and the Mermaid: And Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Salisbury, Joyce E. The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages. New York: Routledge, 1994.Find this resource:

Sadaune, Samuel. Le Fantastique Au Moyen Âge. Paris: Editions Ouest-France, 2009.Find this resource:

Sax, Boria. The Frog King: Occidental Fables, Fairy Tales, and Anecdotes of Animals. New York: Pace University Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Sax, Boria. The Serpent and the Swan: Animal Brides in Folkore and Literature. Knoxville: McDonald & Woodward/University of Tennnessee Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Shepard, Paul. The Others: How Animals Made Us Human. Washington, DC: Shearwater Books, 1996.Find this resource:

South, Malcolm, ed. Mythical and Fabulous Creatures: A Sourcebook and Research Guide New York: Peter Bedrick, 1988. (p. 472) Find this resource:

Tatar, Maria, ed. The Classic Fairy Tales: Texts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.Find this resource:

Thomas, Keith. Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500–1800. London: Allen Lane, 1983.Find this resource:

Trout, Paul A. Deadly Powers: Animal Predators and the Mythic Imagination. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2011.Find this resource:

Wootton, Anthony. Animal Folklore, Myth and Legend. New York: Blandford Press, 1986.Find this resource:

Zell-Ravenheart, Oberon, and Ash DeKirk. A Wizard’s Bestiary. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books, 2007.Find this resource:

Zipes, Jack David, ed. The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Zipes, Jack. Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. London: Routledge, 2006.Find this resource:


(1.) John Pollard, Birds in Greek Life and Myth (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1977), 14, 116–29; Homer, The Illiad, trans. Peter Jones, D. C. H. Rieu, and E. V. Rieu (New York: Penguin, 2003), book 24.

(2.) For some discussion of Mesopotamian fables, their history, and their relation to the Aesopian tradition, see Gillian Adams, “The First Children’s Literature. The Case for Sumer,” Children’s Literature Quarterly. 14 (1986) 1–30; E. I. Gordon, “Sumerian Animal Proverbs and Fables: Collection Five,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 12 (1958): 6–21; Samuel Noah Kramer, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971).

(3.) Anonymous, “Life of Aesop,” in Aesop’s Fables: With a Life of Aesop (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1993/ ca. 1st century CE), 7–51.

(4.) For the development of early fables, see Ben Edwin Perry, “Introduction,” in Babrius and Phaedrus, ed. Ben Edwin Perry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), xi–cii; Niklas Holtzberg, The Ancient Fable (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002).

(5.) Aesop, The Complete Fables of Aesop, trans. Oliva Temple and Robert Temple (New York: Penguin, 1998), Fable 209.

(6.) Hans Blumenberg, Work on Myth, trans. Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 132–133.

(7.) Hesiod, Theogony/Works and Days, trans. M. L. West (New York: Oxford University Press, 750 BCE/1988), 19–20.

(8.) W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford: Clarendon, 1960), 186–209, 333–337.

(9.) Anonymous, The Jatakas: Birth Stories of the Bodhisatta, trans. Sarah Shaw (New York: Penguin, 2007); Vishnu Sharma, The Pachatantra, trans. Arthus W. Ryder (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964); Patricia Terry, ed., Renard the Fox: Translated from the Old French (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1983); Ramsay Wood, Kalila and Dimna: Selected Fables of Bidpai (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980). For a discussion of the routes of diffusion of these tales, see Boria Sax, “Bestial Wisdom and Human Tragedy: The Genesis of the Animal Epic,” Anthrozoos 11, no. 3 (1998), 134–141.

(10.) Avianus, The Fables of Avianus, trans. David R. Slavit (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); Didymus of Alexandria Physiologus (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979/150–200); Berechiah ben Natronai ha-Nakdan, Fables of a Jewish Aesop, trans. Moses Hadas (Jaffrey, NH: David R. Godine, 2001); Edward 1and Thomas Moffet, The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents and Insects, 2 vols. (New York: Da Capo, 1658/1967); Marie de France, Isopet I, Isopet II de Paris, Isopet de Chartres. Fables from the Old French: Aesop’s Beasts and Bumpkins, trans. Norman R. Shapiro (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1982).

(11.) Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings (New York: D. Appleton, 1921), chapters II, IV.

(12.) Jay Hansford C. Vest, “From Bobtail to Brer Rabbit: Native American Influences on Uncle Remus,” American Indian Quarterly 24, no. 1 (2000): 19–43.

(13.) For the contribution of women, see Valerie Paradiž, Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales (New York: Basic Books, 2005).

(14.) Jack Zipes, The Irresistable Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 82–84.

(15.) Vladimir Propp, The Morphology of the Folktale, trans. Laurence Scott, 2 ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968), 10.

(16.) R. D. Jameson, “Cinderella in China,” in Cinderella: A Casebook, ed. Alan Dundes (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), 74–77.

(17.) Heinz Rölleke, Die Märchen der Brüder Grimm: Eine Einführung (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2004), 58–66.

(18.) Maria Tatar (ed.), The Annotated Brothers Grimm (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), 208–223.

(19.) Claudine Farbe-Vassas, The Singular Beast: Jews, Christians, and the Pig, trans. Carol Volk (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 90–91.

(20.) Michel Pastoreau, Le Cochon: Histoire d’un cousin mal aimé (Paris: Gallimard, 2009), 60–65.

(21.) Jan Brunvand, The Mexican Pet: More “New” Urban Legends and Some Old Favorites (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986), 24–25.

(22.) Boria Sax, City of Ravens: London, Its Tower, and Its Famous Birds (London: Duckworth-Overlook, 2011–2012).

(23.) Lynwood Carranco, “Three Legends of Northern California,” Western Folklore 22, no. 3 (1963): 183.

(24.) Joshua Blu Buhs, Bigfoot (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 74–89.

(25.) Hal Herzog, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight about Animals (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).

(26.) For a detailed explication of this theory, see Philippe Descola, Par-delá nature et culture (Paris: Gallimard, 2005).

(27.) Philippe Descola, “Constructing Natures: Symboloic Ecology and Social Practice,” in Nature and Society: Anthropological perspectives, ed. Philippe Descola and Gísli Pálsson (New York: Routledge, 1996), 109.

(28.) Boria Sax, “The Magic of Animals: European Witch Trials in the Perspective of Folklore,” Anthrozoös 22, no. 4 (2009): 317–346.