“Human sexual relations with animals, a behaviour known as bestiality, have existed since the dawn of human history in every place and culture in the world.”
– Bestiality and Zoophilia, Edited by Andrea M Beetz and Anthony L Podberscek
Going back over 25,000 years ago, we can find cave paintings and carvings which show sex with animals moving forward, we find 7th century BC cave paintings showing a man’s penis being inserted into vagina/anus of a donkey.
King Hammurabi, who lived between 1955-1913 BC, stated that anyone engaging in bestiality should be killed.
In 13th century BC, the Hittites had rules about which animals you could have sex with and which were forbidden and punishable by death. For comparison, at the time, manslaughter might be punishable by a fine.
In ancient china men were having sex with geese. Just before orgasm, they’d break their necks causing the cloacal sphincter to constrict and spasm and clamp down on their penises. This practice was also present much later in Parisian brothels, but using turkeys.
In ancient Egypt, we find bestiality recorded in hieroglyphics and some rulers had a reputation for animal sex. Despite it being punishable, it’s known that men had sex with cattle and other large, domesticated animals and women had sex with dogs.
“Egyptians are reported to have mastered the art of sexual congress with the crocodile. This was accomplished by turning the creature onto its back, rendering it incapable of resisting penetration. This form of copulation was believed to bring prosperity and restore the potency of men.”
– Hani Miletski
In ancient Greece we find mythology featuring sex between animal and human such as Leda and the swan and the story of Pasiphae who fell in love with a bull – she hid inside a wooden cow and copulated with the bull. Bestiality took place during religious ceremonies and celebrations and we have explicit imagery of men and women having sex with animals. It was believed that bestiality was a cure for nymphomaniacs (as was the case in ancient Egypt) and unusually, bestiality was never punishable by death in ancient Greece.
In Rome, we again find bestiality in mythology and it was widely practised amongst shepherds. Women were known to keep snakes that were trained to coil around their thighs and slide past the lips of their vulva. In keeping with their other awful amusements, they also invented the idea of animals raping women for so called entertainment. At the start of the roman empire, bestiality was only illegal in the case of sodomy but it was later distinguished from sodomy and made punishable by death.
As Christianity grew, the bible and other teachings started to have more influence over societal attitudes. It was taught that man must conquer his beast instinct in order to be closer to god, that sex with animals would upset the natural order of things and that Satan may appear as a beast thus tricking you into sleeping with the devil.
I’d also like to make a note that in the early Christian church, sex with a Jew was considered to be a form of bestiality and was punished accordingly.
Briefly looking at other religious views we find that for Hebrews, sex with animals was a form of worshipping other gods and hence heretic. The human and the animal would be killed. Amongst Hindus, bestiality was common, with portrayals appearing in temples. Sex with an animal was thought to be sex with a god incarnated in the form of an animal. Sex with a scared cow or monkey was said to bring good fortune.
“Tantrism often portrays man as a rabbit, bull, or horse, and the woman as a doe, mare, or female elephant, and among the supernatural powers promised to practitioners of various yogic disciplines are those by which a person could become a beast, so that he could have sex with an animal and thereby experience sex in its totality.”
Under Islamic law, the penalty for bestiality is death and in ancient times, the man and beast would be stoned to death.
Moving back to Christianity, bestiality was a crime against God as opposed to a crime against the animal and the human engaging in it was reducing themselves to the level of beasts. Generally, however, in 6th and 7th century Europe animals were viewed as objects which meant that bestiality was no worse than masturbation, although that in itself was a Christian sin by this point.
In the middle ages, bestiality was widespread and accepted, even thought to be healthy and a cure for many diseases. The Christian church was very concerned about this and the potential for the devil to appear to a man in animal form and hence bestiality could lead to half demon babies. Laws against it became to appear and the role of the animal shifted. They were seen less as an object – and hence a masturbation tool – and more as an active partner, hence the animal was as guilty as the human. At this time in history, animals were put on trial in the same way that humans were and could then be hung for their crimes. Even if not found guilty, you couldn’t use the animal as food because of a belief that bestiality “left something human in the animal”, hence to eat it would run the risk of cannibalism.
In the renaissance era, there was active prosecution of people engaging in sex with animals and the high point of bestiality trials coincided with the high point of the witch hunts.
In the UK in 1533 bestiality became a felony without benefit of clergy and was described as ‘that detestable and abominable vice’, so much so that it was the sin that wouldn’t be named. Committing this atrocious crime was not just breaking the law of the country, but was breaking the law of god and the natural order of things.
“this concern with the human-animal boundary has also been used to explain medieval European’s fear of werewolves and their preoccupation with monsters and mythical beasts.”
– Margo DeMello
This sudden change in attitudes to bestiality came when assumptions about humanity were threatened and the categories of human and animal crept closer and closer. This meant that animals became a threat to the boundary between man and beast and bestiality could obliterate this line altogether. ‘Evidence’ such as the pig-man said to be born in Brussels in 1564 and the pig-faced woman from Holland in the 1600s, showed that sex with animals would create half human, half beast creatures. This would pollute the human species and thus was considered very dangerous.
“In the words of Pare, these monsters embodied God’s attempt to display ‘his immense power… to those which are ignorant of it’… The appearance of a deformed creature… was a warning to humans from the Almighty”
– Erica Fudge
It was because of the concern over procreation that penetration was an important aspect of any trial, without it there was no crime.
The punishment of bestiality wasn’t just a UK movement. Between 1635 and 1778, Sweden executed over 700 people for sex with animals. In Massachusetts in 1642, Thomas Granger was accused of buggery with a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves and a turkey. In 1679, a woman and dog were hanged together for bestiality.
It was also illegal in France but was decriminalised in 1810. Back in England however, in 1821, a law called for the death penalty for sodomy with man or beast. This coupling of homosexuality and bestiality is found echoing through history. In 1861, the sentence was reduced to life in prison. It took until 2002 for this to be reduced to a two year sentence.
There has been a flurry of laws re-criminalising sex with an animal since 2000 but this time round as an animal welfare issue rather than a moral or religiously driven one. The recent law that came into force in Denmark, for example, was passed from pressure by animal rights groups and to discourage animal sex tourism.
I hope it’s now clear that attitudes towards, and perceptions of, bestiality are culturally specific and can’t be removed from beliefs and societal norms. It’s also important to note that how you define humans and nonhuman animals, and the line between them, has to be considered when looking at bestiality. As such, this is a topic I will be considering in one of my upcoming blog posts.