Animal Magnetism: The Enduring Allure of the Bestiary

A runaway best seller in the Middle Ages, bestiaries catalogued and described animals (including the well-known siren, unicorn, and leontophone) and turned them into metaphors of religious doctrine and belief. Over the centuries, the idea of the bestiary has proven itself to be as riveting as the gaze of a cat. The emblem book, 17th century natural histories, and children's literature all owe a debt to this enduring literary form.

See for yourself why a good animal story and great art always fascinates readers.

The exhibition was curated by Elizabeth Kirk, Associate Librarian for Information Resources, and was on display in the Class of 1965 Galleries from January 6 to February 28, 2010.

Animal Magnetism

You may download a small, 8x10 version of the poster: AnimalMagnetism (1.9 MB) You may also download a handlist of the items in this exhibition: AnimalMagnetism.

Materials Included in the Exhibition

Case 1. A Star is Born: How the Unicorn Entered the Christian Imagination

The unicorn is found in Mesopotamian, ancient Asian, and classical texts, so it was not unfamiliar to ancient readers. How it entered the medieval Christian imagination is, however, an interesting moment in the history of translation.

In the 3rd century BCE, a group of wealthy Jews living in Alexandria, Egypt funded a translation of the Hebrew Tanakh, or entire Old Testament, into Greek, the most widely spoken and read language of the day. The resulting translation, called the Septuagint (“The Seventy”, for the number of scholars traditionally thought to have prepared the text), is a landmark translation of the Hebrew Bible and a basis for later Christian translations. It is, however, not without its oddities. In the Hebrew text from which it was prepared, Psalm 22:22 mentions an animal called a re’em, or wild ox (“Deliver me from a lion’s mouth; from the horns of wild oxen rescue me.”) The Septuagint translator, unfamiliar with the Hebrew name, rendered it into Greek as monokerós, or unicorn (“Save me from the lion’s mouth; and regard my lowliness from the horns of the unicorns.”) Early Christian writers, including Origen and the author of the Physiologus, assumed the translation to be accurate and added the unicorn to their pantheon of beasts. Physiologus manuscripts in many variants fanned out across Europe over the next several hundred years. The unicorn had clearly arrived. Today’s Jewish and Christian Bibles have returned to the earlier Hebrew “wild ox”.

  1. Francis J. Carmody, translator. Physiologus, The Very Ancient Book of Beasts, Plants, and Stones. San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1953. Presses D344p
    1. A modern English verse edition by a well-known Physiologus scholar, from the Latin Y translation (4th-5th century).
  2. Theobaldus. Physiologus de naturis duodecim animalium. Leipzig: Conrad Kachelofen, 1493. Incunabula 126
  3. Theobaldus. Physiologus Theobaldi Episcopi de naturis duodecim animalium, the Latin Text. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964. Presses S759Th
    1. Modern English translation by Willis Barnstone. Woodcuts and lithographs by Rudy Pozzatti.
  4. A Medieval Bestiary. Boston: David Godine, 1971. Presses G555me 
    1. Modern English translation by T. J. Elliott, with wood engravings by Gillian Taylor, of the Middle English version of Theobaldus, demonstrating the wide reach of the original.
  5. Richard de Fournival. Master Richard’s Bestiary of Love and Response. Northampton: Pennyroyal Press, 1985. Presses P372Ric
    1. Modern translation by Jeannette Beer with engravings by Barry Moser. Cleric, surgeon, translator, and bibliomane, Richard wrote his bestiary in the mid 13th century, about thirty years after the completion of the Roman de la Rose, and in French. Richard’s work is remarkable for his appropriation of the bestiary material to create a work of courtly love rich in erotic casuistics, classical and contemporary literary allusions, and reflective of the ironic style for which the courtly love genre was renown.  


Case 2. Physiologus, or The Interpreter of Nature

The Physiologus is the source of medieval Western European bestiaries. It was widely translated and freely adapted, and all later bestiaries spring from it (the very name bestiary derives from the index title in the Latin translation of the Physiologus). These works, in their many variations, became the most widely read and owned texts in western Europe after the Psalter and the Apocalypse.

The Physiologus, whose title describes its anonymous author, “The Naturalist” or “The Interpreter of Nature”, reworks legends springing from Egyptian, Greek, and Latin sources that were common currency in the ancient world. The earliest versions of the Physiologus appear to date from the 3rd century CE. While the legends concerning the animals, plants, and stones found in the Physiologus are not original, what is original is the way in which the author uses these to explain Christian morality and doctrine. The stuff of nature offers the faithful a glimpse of God’s nature and how he interacts with his creation. The natural world corresponds to the divine realm: learning how the natural world works thus leads to an understanding of the work of God. To study the panther therefore is to come to a revelation of the resurrection of Christ. So said Origen, 3rd century Church Father and neo-Platonist, whose theology is clearly reflected in the Physiologus

Thus it is possible for us to mount up from things below to things above, and to perceive and understand from the things we see on earth the things that belong to heaven. [Origen. The Song of Songs: Commentary and Homilies. translated and annotated by R.P. Lawson. New York: Newman Press, 1956, p. 218.]

  1. Andrea Alciato. Emblemata cum commentariis Claudii Minois... Patauij [Padua]:  apud Petrus Paulum Tozzium, 1621. Rare Book PN6349 .A4 1621
    1. Alciato (1492-1550), distinguished humanist and legal scholar, launched a new genre, the emblem book, that combined classical epigrammatic poety forms with themes from the medieval bestiary.  Emblem books proliferated throughout western Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and were didactic, rather than devotional, in nature. Alciato’s Emblematum liber was a best seller in both Reformation and Counter-Reformation countries and remains among the most reprinted books in history. “In Adulatores”, or “On Flatterers”, compares the flatterer who “feeds on the wind of popular approval” with the chameleon, who “is always breathing in and out with open mouth the bodiless air on which it feeds” and takes on the appearance and coloration of those around it.
  2. René de Bruc, marquis de Montplaisir (attributed). Emblemes et devises chrestiennes et morales. 168-? Manuscript Codex 002066
    1. Hatred “devours he who lodges it” as does a serpent that devours the bird that has taken it into its nest.
  3. Helen Seigl. A Little Bestiary: a Portfolio of Eight Wood Block Cuts. Philadelphia: The Print Club, 1961. Presses J268L
    1. Text from Topsell’s Historie of Fovre-Footed Beastes (1607) and Historie of Serpents (1608). Rauner copy signed by the artist.
  4. Edward Topsell. Historie of the Fovre-Footed Beastes... London: Printed by W. Iaggard, 1607. Rare Book QL41 .T66 1607 
    1. Topsell compiled his 1,100 page zoology from Gesner’s Historia animalium  and “all other writers to this present day”. His Historie was meant to be a work of scientific edification and observed truth. The result clearly reflects the transitional period in which Topsell lived, between the prevalence of medieval belief and the establishment of a rigorous scientific method.
    2. Of the cat, wrote Topsell,“Therefore it must be considered what harmes and perils come vnto men by this beast. It is most certaine that the breath and sauour of cats consume the radicall humour and destroy the lungs, and therefore they which keep their cats with them in their beds haue the air corrupted and fall into feuer hectickes and consumptions... they are not onely apt to bring home venomous infection, but to poyson a man with very looking vpon him.”


Case 3. The Modern Bestiary

  1. James Thurber. Fables for Our Times, and Famous Poems. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940. Rare Book PS3539.H94 F3 1940 c.2
  2. Pablo Neruda. Bestiary. Bestiario: A Poem. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965. Translated by Elsa Neuberger with woodcuts by Antonio Frasconi. Presses S759ner
  3. Paul Smyth. The Cardinal Sins: A Bestiary. West Hatfield: Pennyroyal, 1980. With wood engravings by Barry Moser. Presses P372smy
    1. A fine example of turning the idea of the bestiary on its head, having the animals represent sins.
  4. Richard Wilbur (compiler). A Bestiary. New York: Printed at the Spiral Press for Pantheon Books, 1955. Presses S759wi
    1. Illustrations by Alexander Calder; a selection of texts and poems from various authors.
  5. Guillaume Apollinaire.  Bestiary, or The Parade of Orpheus. Boston: David Godine, 1980. With woodcuts by Raoul Dufy; translation by Pepe Karmel. Presses G555ap
    1. The 20th century was a remarkable period of resurgent interest in the bestiary. A number of great poets—and a unique American storyteller—saw the genre through new lenses and made it fresh and original again. Of particular interest is the number of bestiaries produced in collaboration with contemporary artists. Guillaume Apollinaire, poet, art critic, and professional avant-guardiste, is an early example of this trend in his collaboration with the painter and designer Raoul Dufy.