The mythology of masquerading animals, or, bestiality

The mythology of masquerading animals, or, bestialityCULTURES THROUGHOUT THE WORLD REPRESENT OUR DECEPTIVE relationships with animals as masquerades, which operate in both directions: in our rituals, humans often masquerade as animals, but in our myths we imagine that animals masquerade as humans. The most intense version of this universal theme is the tale of the bestial deception, the masquerade of an animal as a human in the most intimate of all relationships. What do the myths of bestial masquerade tell us about the ways in which humans have fantasized about their relationships with animals?


You wake up in the morning and discover that you have been in bed all night with an animal (or a god in the form of an animal): that is the fantasy that underlies both the folktales and the literary retellings of those tales about figures sometimes called "animal lovers." (Unfortunately, this term is often spelt with a hyphen, which produces a potential confusion with animal-lovers, people who are fond of stray cats and dogs. It is easier to distinguish animal husbands--as the Frog Princes are usually called--from those who engage in animal-husbandry. Of course, the partner of an animal lover is, in a most literal sense, even a bestial sense, an animal-lover.) Freud's Family Romance (in which the child's parents turn out to be other, better people than his apparent parents) often involves animals, for the changeling child may be raised by or among animals, so that the animal is a maternal surrogate, like a wet nurse, impersonating a mother; or the child may be sent out to be killed, whereupon the compassionate killer relents and kills an animal instead, taking back its heart (or tongue) as proof of the murder, so that the animal is a sacrificial surrogate, impersonating the sacrificial victim. The Family Romance presents two complementary animal paradigms: often, lowly animals are assimilated to the lower class people who adopt a royal child; as animals are below humans, so lower classes are regarded as naturally below higher classes. But, on the other hand, animals may be assimilated to gods and be regarded as the high parents of children who appear to be lower--merely mortal.

Even in folktales that lack an explicit religious agenda, the union of a human and an animal has theological implications. Midas Dekkers has suggested that the myth of Leda impregnated by Zeus as a swan is the source of the myth of Mary impregnated by God: "Christ was born of a virgin and a dove; Christianity too is founded on bestiality.... Bestiality is present at the very cradle of Christianity. Bestial tendencies can be discerned not only in the Christ child himself, but in the gathering assembled round the crib" (Dekkers, 1994: 9-10). The assembled animals are evidence not so much of the bestial parentage of the Christ child but of his place in the mythology of the Family Romance. For Jesus, following the pattern of the birth of the hero already established by Oedipus, Romulus and Remus, and many others (and later continued in Tarzan and Mowgli), is taken from his noble parents (in this case, God) and nurtured by animals before being raised by parents of lower birth (Dundes, 1990). Like all the children of Leda and her swan, Jesus "is at the same time the product of bestiality (man x animal) and of theogamy (god x man).... Human beings are, so to speak, marrying both beneath and above their station" (Dekkers, 1994: 10).

The donkey has special meaning in Christian mythology, as Gerard Kornelis van het Reve argued in 1966-1997:

Whether God is a Lamb with bloodily pierced feet or a
one year-old, mousey grey donkey, which allows itself to
be possessed by me at length three times in succession in its
Secret Opening, what difference does it make as long as He
takes away the sins of the world, and has pity on us all? ... I
shall put bandages around His hooves, so that I shall not
receive too many grazes when He thrashes about at the
moment of orgasm (cited in Dekkers, 1994: 127-28).

Here we may be reminded of Apuleius's famous pornographic novel of the man who turned into a golden ass. The Dutch parliament may well have suspected the lecherous spirit of Apuleius, rather than the devout spirit of Saint Francis, hovering over this argument, for it accused van het Reve of sacrilege.


Van het Reve's image of the donkey incorporates an important symbol, the wounded foot, in particular the wounded foot of the equine. The horse is one of the most evocative of mythological species, straddling the boundary between the wild and the tame (O'Flaherty, 1981, chap. 6). Mutilated feet are a central theme in European tales of equine masquerades to which the association of witches with horses adds another dimension, for abnormal feet were regarded as "a recurrent sign of contrariness, and, in women, of deviancy" (Warner, 1995: 121). Here is an example of such a story:

[A Czech farmhand went) where the witches were having
their feast.... Now, when he came there, the farmer's wife
knew him, and, to hide herself from him, she turned herself
into a white horse. But he did not lose sight of the horse. He
mounted it and went to the smith with it, and told him to
shoe it. Next day the woman had four horseshoes on, two
on her hands and two on her feet. And she had to stay like
that always! (Baudis, 1917: 191-92).

Thus, the men in the story (and telling the story) impose culture on the women: if it is a horse, it cannot be a wild horse but must be controlled through its feet, like Cinderella in her impractical glass shoes.

Why does the foot, particularly the mutilated foot, play such an important role in mythologies of the sexual masquerade of animals throughout the world? Feet function as signs that allow a particular individual to be recognized. Moreover, they are signs not merely of individual identity and class identity but of the identity of the species as a whole. In Hindu mythology, one identifying sign of mortals is that their feet touch the ground, while the gods float ever so slightly above it, like hovercraft (1)--just as Jesus walked on the water. Magic animals, on the other hand, cannot always walk on water: "A hunter formed an alliance with a beaver woman who requested that he build her a bridge to prevent her feet from touching water. He neglected one spot and she reproached him for his carelessness: I only asked thee to help me dry-footed over the waters. Thou didst cruelly neglect this. Now I must remain forever with my people" (Lang, 1885: 76-80). But why should feet that touch the ground be a sign of mortality? Perhaps, because it is the point of the body where we are earthbound. As Marina Warner has put it, "Feet are ascribed telltale marks of identity and origin, perhaps through the literal-minded wordplay of the imagination, since they are the lowest part of the body and in touch with earth as opposed to the heavens" (Warner, 1995: 115). We continue to speak of feet of clay as a metaphor for the weak spot, the mortal spot. The heel of Eve is bruised by the serpent (that sloughs its skin in immortality) as she is banished from Eden for her transgression--a transgression that resulted in her mortality, and in ours. In this context, we may recall the mutilation of the feet of Jesus on the cross--and note that in medieval texts Jesus is sometimes referred to as the hunted stag whose hoof is stained with blood.

The mutilated foot may function as a synecdoche for the mortality of the human body as a whole. We speak of the Achilles' heel and point to our own Achilles' tendons as the sign of our mortality, the place where Achilles was held when he was dipped into the waters that made the rest of him immortal, the place where he remained vulnerable and through which death entered him. (As anyone over 50 will testify, we might more properly refer to our fatal weakness as the Achilles knee: who ever had arthroscopic surgery on a heel?) Like Achilles, the incarnate Hindu god Krsna is killed when a hunter named, surely significantly, "Old-age" mistakes him for an animal and shoots him in the foot (Mahabharata, Book 16).

Carlo Ginzburg, following the lead of Claude Levi-Strauss (1963), offers a magnificent survey of the literature on people distinguished by extraordinarily large or otherwise deformed feet, ending with the "devil's goose foot, equine hoof, or lameness" (Ginzburg, 1991: 258). Lameness, here listed as an afterthought among distinguishing marks, provides the key to the meaning of the feet in these myths, as Ginzburg notes with reference to "Achilles--son of a goddess with some equine characteristics, like Thetis, raised by the centaur Chiron." He goes on to spell out some of these meanings.