Friday, January 27, 2006
The following is a draft for an entry I'm composing for the Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender , to be published by Macmillan next year. Comments welcomed -- it's still pretty rough.
If you found this page via Google, I have the feeling you will be very disappointed.
Animals, sexual symbolism of
Humans have always shared their worlds with other animals, feral and domesticated. As predator, prey, and companion, animals have been made to serve a variety of human purposes: source of food, provider of clothing, assistant in hunting or herding, spectacle and amusement, docile laborer. Some of the earliest human attempts at representational art center around beasts, portrayed in cave paintings as part of vigorous hunt scenes. Every culture has its favored animals, fauna that seem suspended between the human and the diabolical or divine: Egyptians cats, jackals, and beetles; the biblical Leviathan; Cretan bulls; Hindu cows, monkeys, elephants; early Christian fish and lambs; American Indian buffalo or deer; Inuit whales and seals.
The animals that most haunt the imagination are what might be called "intimate aliens": familiar, but at the same time intransigently strange. Even if they seem vaguely anthropomorphic, such beasts remain in the end inhuman, residents of a liminal state that seems only to increase their allure. This intimacy coupled to otherness is typically found in those animals that have within specific cultures been given a sexual charge. Though certain creatures like snakes possess a seemingly universal ability to attract a sexual aura to themselves, whether or not any given animal will be employed as an erotic sign is culturally specific, and depends greatly upon what animals populate a given geography. This expanse is as imaginative as it is physical: dragons and unicorns can co-exist inside such spaces with dogs, horses, serpents, and hares.
As erotic figures animals boast an ancient and enduring history, from stone-age artworks to contemporary internet sites devoted to zoophilia and zoomorphism. During the Bronze Age (1800-500 BCE), for example, some unknown residents of what is now the northern Bohuslän district of Sweden carved illustrations of men, women and fauna into the local rocks. Many of these figures seem to be engaged in fertility rites. One scene depicts a man with an enormous phallus copulating with a cow, a union of human and animal that was likely motivated by a desire to ensure a productive year. Roughly contemporary carvings in Italy depict one man engaged in coitus with a donkey, and another attempting to mate with an elk (Aubrey Burl, Prehistoric Avebury 243). Representations of humans sexually conjoined with beasts make cultural sense in some pastoral societies, where survival depended upon the increase and multiplication of flocks. The mutual dependence of human and herd is underscored by mutual ardor and life-giving union. Depictions of bestiality can also be found among peoples whose way of living was mainly agrarian, since the sexuality of plowing oxen was intimately related at a symbolic level with the sexuality of the farmer guiding them, and to the fecundity of the fields. In both cases the erotic charge of the animal is in some ways utilitarian, motivated by the very human desire to exert control over an unpredictable world.
Yet cultural use-value or attempts at asserting human dominion over indifferent nature cannot be the whole of the story. Because they combine haunting similarity with perturbing difference, proximity with otherness, animals have long been the vehicles through which humans explore their own identities. Through the beast humans fantasize new possibilities, and enact forbidden desires. No wonder, then, that one of the most ancient functions of the animal is as an erotic symbol. In ways both positive and negative, humans have always realized that amatory desire is -- like other bodily drives -- a passion homo sapiens share with other animals. The rooster was a familiar Greek erotic symbol, forming the animal counterpart to the god Priapus. A bronze Corinthian mirror illustrates Eros grasping a cock in front of his crotch, while numerous vase paintings survive on which the active lover in a homosexual tryst holds a rooster, symbol of his victory in love over his partner (Jean-Pierre Darmon, "The Classical Greek Bestiary"131). Classical myth depicts many unions of mortals with animals, though in most cases the beast turns out to be a god in disguise. Zeus impersonates a swan fleeing an eagle to be admitted into Leda's protective embrace. He has his way with her, and their union produces twin progeny. The maiden Europa Zeus seduces while shaped like a bull. In punishment for her husband's offense of admiring a beautiful white bull too much to sacrifice it to Poseidon, queen Pasiphae of Crete is made to fall in love with the animal. Their amorous conjoining is enabled by a special device fashioned by the inventor Daedalus, and the son thereby conceived is the Minotaur. This creature forever suspended between the human and the bestial well embodies the animal as erotic symbol, for no beast can symbolize human sexuality or activate human desire until it has been partially (but only partially) anthropomorphized.
Writers in ancient Greece and Rome exhibited what seems to be a timeless male penchant to speak of the penis as if it were possessed of an existence and personality distinct from the body to which it was attached. The male member was described variously as a snake, lizard, or bird that follows its own inclinations. (J. N. Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary 29-30). Of these three animals the snake has the most cross-cultural currency as a phallic symbol, probably for reasons of analogy. Animal doppelgängers for the vagina in classical sources are less frequently attested, though porcus [piglet] is one, apparently used in the Roman nursery (Adams 82). The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud described the snake-headed Medusa as figure for the female genitals, but it is unclear if Greek and Roman mythographers saw the same fearful image there. Though Medusa heads are familiar icons on Greek vases and in Roman mosaics, and though the writhing serpents that form her tresses often have an undeniable sexual charge to their undulations, what is significant about the Medusa in both classical literature and art is her stunning beauty, her animal-enabled allure. This attractiveness does not seem all that different from what remains in the mortal love-objects of the gods once the goddesses have transfigured them out of human shape. Io, formerly a priestess of Hera adored by Zeus and later a snow-white heifer, remains radiant in either form.
The playful connections between genitals and animals found in classical sources have a medieval analogue in the fabliaux, short stories that often revolve around sexual or scatological themes. Sex organs could there be described by such animal epithets as "ferret" and "horsy" for the penis, "little hare" for the vagina. Fabliaux are unusual among extant medieval texts for their frank celebration of the erotic. Building on a vocabulary developed by the Church fathers, authors in the Middle Ages more typically employed animals to abject bodiliness. Thus as early as the Life of St Anthony, a desert-dwelling hermit who has renounced sexual relations is haunted in his loneliness by his own lust. This return of sexual desire takes the form in his visions sometimes of women, sometimes of beasts. In Jerome's Life of Saint Hilarion (late fourth century), when the aspiring ascetic is tormented by the onset of puberty, he beats his body back into submission. Hilarion describes his flesh as an ass in need of brutal domestication, articulating a logic that will hold true in much medieval thinking about beasts: animals are carnal, lascivious, and do not hesitate to act upon their lusts; humans are affected by the same desires, but what sets humans – and especially the holiest of humans – apart is their ability to triumph over their own animal-like flesh. Medieval rhetoric connected sexuality with bestiality so often that the connection between lust and animals was a commonplace.
A compendium of allegory and lore called the Physiologus was among the most influential texts on animals to have been bequeathed to the Middle Ages. Composed originally in Greek, perhaps at Alexandria, this widely extant text circulated by the close of the fourth century. Its entries combine science and folklore that derive from Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Jewish, and Indian sources. Early translations of the book into Ethiopian, Syrian, Armenian, and Latin survive; later versions include Old English, Old High German, Icelandic, Flemish, Russian, and Provençal (Curley, Physiologus xvi-xxix). The work remained popular in Europe through the early modern period. The appeal of the Physiologus was in part its transformation of animals and natural phenomena into biblical truths. The owl, for example, figured the Jews, who had refusal to see the light of Christ's truth had doomed them to perpetual night. The Phoenix, reborn from his own ashes, was a type for Jesus, similarly returned from the dead. Several of the animals described are noted for their sexual habits. The female viper, for example, is said to possess a human form from the face to the navel, and a crocodile's body thereafter. Because she does not possess genitals, the viper must have oral sex with her partner (who, we are told, possesses a male's face as well as – we are led to assume – a penis). After drinking the semen of her lover, she castrates and kills him. Because she has no vagina, however, the young vipers engendered through this bizarre mating must rip their way through her belly, ending her life. The entry concludes by describing the viper as – what else? – a figure for the Jews, who cannot think symbolically, but only in literal terms. They practice circumcision on their flesh, for example, rather than seeing this ritual of covenant with God as an act to be undertaken only spiritually (that is, metaphorically). The viper thereby assists in the work of articulating Christian identity by distinguishing it from the Judaism from which it emerged.
The weasel is similarly said to copulate orally, though she gives birth through her ears (right for the boys, left for girls). Weasels, we are told, are a figure for those who allow wicked sayings to enter their minds and engender sin. The beautiful unicorn cannot be captured by hunters, but should a chaste maiden offer her lap he is happy to lay his head there; lest the image become suggestive, however, we are immediately told that the unicorn is Christ, the virgin is Mary, and there is (by implication) nothing sexual about this strange equine's ardor for placing his long horn in maidenly laps. The Physiologus, like much early Christian writing, stresses the value of chastity and the dangers of desire. One of its animals is even most notable for its complete absence of amorous feeling. The elephant and his wife symbolize Adam and Eve, who before the snake led them into temptation never desired each other and possessed no knowledge of coitus. Elephants, Physiologus asserts, mate only out of necessity, and even then would not be able to copulate without the use of an aphrodisiac, mandrake root. Elephants are in this way the purest of animals and an inspiration to abstinence.
Yet it is hard not to wonder if the eroticism of animals like the viper, weasel, and unicorn can be displaced so easily through allegorization. Surely one of the appeals of the Physiologus is its narration of fellatio, hermaphroditism, and homosexuality among beasts -- even as it transforms these stories into tidy Christian morals. Thus the fascinating story of the hyena, repeated almost obsessively in most medieval bestiaries. A creature of two natures, this desert-dwelling animal sometimes acts the part of a male and sometimes that of a female. According to Clement of Alexandria (d. ca. 215) and many later writers, the lewd hyena possesses the sexual organs of both genders and employs them promiscuously (Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality 356). The hyena may simply, as the Latin Physiologus asserts, be a figure for the inconstant Jews, who once worshiped the true God but have now turned away. Perhaps the double-gendered beast is likewise simply a representation of the synagogue, metaphorically an unclean animal. But perhaps also the hyena as erotic animal grants something not otherwise available within circumscriptive systems of allegory and abnegation: a figure through which can be dreamt potentialities and desires not otherwise easy to express. Sexuality is what brings humans outside of themselves; it is the surrender to a loss of individuality. Animals as erotic symbols in the Middle Ages often represent the anxieties that accompany such potential loss, but they also convey a certain inventiveness, a certain promise of possibilities beyond the small limits of the merely human.
The twelfth-century writer Marie de France knew this libratory potential of the animal well. In a narrative poem she called Yonec, the heroine is imprisoned for seven lonely years by an elderly husband whom she cannot love. After wistfully declaring that she wishes the world as depicted in romances were true, a regal hawk flutters into her room, and transforms itself into a knight. The hawk was an aristocratic bird, as revered as the warhorse and the greyhound; it makes a perfect animal counterpart to the lady's new love, mixing as it does hints of danger (the hawk is, after all, a raptor) and desire (the bird is meant to be adored; the use of spikes by the lady's husband to kill the hawk is the ultimate proof of his exclusion from the story's erotic world). The ethnographer and apologist for the English invasion of Ireland Gerald of Wales, another twelfth-century author, employed animals as sexual symbols in a way that bears little resemblance to the sheer aesthetic pleasure attached to the hawk in Yonec. Eager to depict the Irish as a degenerate people in need of the English imprint of civilization, Gerald wrote that bestiality was their favorite vice. The sin was practiced most often, he asserted in the History and Topography of Ireland, against cattle – a particularly low blow for Gerald to have launched, considering that the Irish were at this time a society that reckoned wealth and status not according to a monetary economy as in England but rather according to the number of cows possessed. Gerald sexualizes this bond between the Irish and their culturally revered beasts, insisting that through coitus with their livestock Irishmen had engendered numerous man-animal hybrids, Hibernian minotaurs. A cleric who had much at stake in maintaining the supremacy of a celibate identity, Gerald also wrote of a woman who had sex with a lion and another who lay with a goat. So great was his distaste for the subject that he even illustrated the bestial encounters in prurient detail. The goat and the lion serve as sexual symbols for Gerald, but rejected ones; then again in both cases so do the women. All four are part of a world denied to him, and therefore to be denounced as not desirable anyway.
Rock carvings of couplings with oxen, Greek roosters, Pasiphae's ardor for the white bull, Gerald's fantasies about indigenous Irish sexual practice all have this in common: when the animal serves as an erotic symbol, it erodes the boundary between species, sometimes through joyful commingling, sometimes accompanied by horror mixed with fascination. As intimate aliens, animals embody a very human ambivalence. Because the encounter with the erotic is the encounter with the other, they remind us of the inhuman within and of the human without. They suggest the insufficiency of using other animals as creatures to define humanity against and of the insufficiency of humans to control completely the meanings of the animal world. By bringing us out of our own proper, individualized identities, by bringing embodiment to its limit, they open a glimpse of a less anthroprocentric and thereby more unpredictable world.