Animals of the past

I was planning on including some information about extinction but time has run away with me and it’s almost time to move on to plants and humans.  But first, I want to briefly poke a paw into the bestiary.  The popular medieval text which compiled information about so many species that were thought to exist.

They are beautiful books which include images and text about animals, plants and even rocks.  As well as accurate observations, they included fanciful suggestions and content reach the bestiary second, third… tenth hand through travellers, storytellers, explorers etc.  The earliest known bestiaries date back to ancient Greece but they had their heyday in the middle ages and I’m using a copy from the 12th century which was later translated from Latin to English.  These medieval versions drew on earlier documents and thus fictional, or semi-fictional, accounts were amplified, as were the middle ages version of the typo.

However, it is argued that the reality of these creatures did not matter so much as the text provided moral lessons and  religious teachings.  St Augustine apparently even said that it didn’t matter so much if the animals existed, what was important was that people knew what they meant.  In this sense, the bestiary feels more like a symbolic dictionary of sorts.

This was a time when it was believed that everything on earth had a rational purpose, that it was put there with the creator’s intent.  As such, everything meant something.  All the plants and animals around you were messages from the divine.  Even their names were meaningful, and the bestiaries do use names to extract ideas about the species.

“The name wolf (lupus) comes from the Greeks, who call the animal lukos, this word also indicates the morals of wolves which rapaciously kill whatever they encounter and always desire blood.  Some say lupus is from leo-pos because like the lion the wolf has its strength in it’s feet.”


– Isidore of Seville, 7th century bestiary

It was a book which, on the whole, revered the wonders that God had created and praised their abilities.  Animals were also created to teach humans lessons; the pelican, like Christ, was said to revive her dead young with her own blood.  Some animals show how you should care for your children, others how you should care for your elders.  Some show the importance of staying within the safety of the church.

Some animals may have been made up in response to the belief that all land animals had an equivalent in the sea.  As such, even though there may be no evidence for them, the idea of mermaids and mermen made sense.  And why not, given that the bestiaries also included unicorns and manticores (portrayed in a number of ways, including as a beast with a man’s face, a lion’s body, and the stinger of a scorpion).

Whilst it is easy to mock the creators of these fascinating texts, I bet they wouldn’t believe some of the things we know to be true today, fish which change sex for example.

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Narwhal

Unicorn: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck

Whale: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck

Whale: Animal Dreaming

People tend to either not know much about narwhals or think they are mythical.  They are real, they are found in Arctic waters and are a medium sized toothed whale with an 8 foot long spiral horn which is actually a tooth.  The name narwhal means corpse whale in old norse, apparently they look a lot like dead bodies…

The reason we don’t know much about them is because they have adapted to survive in cold, dark, deep places and inhabit a mysterious place.  They thrive in an environment that is very different to that which most of us live in.  Because of this it has taken a long time to get to know them, although I do think it’s worth the effort.  I feel a little like a narwhal in that respect, it takes time for me to let people see me and get to know me and uncover the many layers of me.

They live in the tiny crevices between ice sheets and from there, they dive deep for the food.  They have a collapsible rib cage which is why they don’t get crushed when they dive so deeply but as they are mammals, they must return to the surface to breathe.  They inhabit different levels of the sea, familiar with each layer and able to glide between them with ease.  When we think of the metaphor of the sea as our emotional world, we can see that the narwhal is a emotional master, not afraid of its feelings and embracing all that makes them them.

As I mentioned previously, their tusks were sold as unicorn horns and at one stage were worth more than gold.  In general, it is the male who has the tusk although occasionally a female will and occasionally a narwhal will have two tusks.  The tusk is actually a tooth and despite being incredibly strong, they are also fairly flexible – they can bend a foot or so in each direction!  There are mixed views about the purpose of the tusk but they do engage in “tusking” where they rub them against another narwhals tusk.  This has been considered an act of aggression but is possibly more likely to be a bonding activity.  It has also been suggested that they are a sign of sexual prowess and/or a way of attracting mates, like the peacocks feathers.  Another possibility is that is is a way of declaring social status and maintaining social order.  As I said, we don’t know a lot about the narwhal but there is research ongoing.

Regardless of the purpose of the tusk, it is an impressive adornment.  However, I find it sad that they were valued because they were thought to be unicorn horns.  As such, I get themes of being overlooked, misunderstood, invalidated and being unseen from this creature.

Unfortunately we may not have time to get to know them properly and to value them for who they are.  Compared to other arctic mammals, they aren’t very adaptable and thus climate change is likely to hit them hardest.  They have a limited diet and live in a narrow ice dependent habitat which puts them at risk of extinction.

Unicorn: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck

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Unicorns are the spirit world’s horse, untameable like the zebra, and admired by many.  They are often portrayed as white which ties to their link of purity and virginal women.  They are elusive and powerful, fierce and admired.

We see unicorns in a number of cultures, including mention of it in ancient myths from India and China.  An ancient Greek writer tells of a creature with a white body, purple head, blue eyes and a long horn which was red at the tip, black in the middle and white at the bottom.  Although it seems odd to us today, this is probably a reference to a rhinoceros.

The bible mentions a horned creature called the re’em which some translations refer to as a unicorn.  There are a lot of articles online which discuss this and look at what the re’em really is but for our purpose, a look at the symbolism is perhaps more useful.  The unicorn is considered to be a symbol for Christ, the child of the virgin Mary as well as a symbol of virginity itself.  At the same time, the horn is considered to be a phallus but this makes more sense when we look at placement.  Instead of a penis which would be used to procreate, the unicorn is seen to have a horn which instead is used to connect with spirit, a symbol of spiritual connectedness.  The unicorn transcends sexuality and all the Christian connotations that come with it.  This idea is also visible in the use of unicorn amulets as a symbol of fertility and sexuality and the idea that the wearer would increase their sex appeal; something which seems at odds with the unicorn as “personification” of virginity…  This is a subject for another day but for a religion which likes to control sex, they do seem quite obsessed with it…

Unicorns have a spiral horn projecting from their forehead and this horn is said to have a number of magical properties including the ability to purify poison.  Their horns were considered highly valuable and there was a profitable trade in them, although most were narwhal horns.  The horn could also purify water and make it holy so that other animals could drink it.  This was one of the reasons why there was a lot of prestige attached to hunting them although it was said that only a virgin could capture them.

The horn is obviously a key aspect of this creature and it has been said that all their mighty strength lies in it.  We have touched on the horn as a link to the spirits and gods and this echoes the ideas we have seen with other horned animals.  The spiralled aspect of the horn is important to some people.  It is often depicted as two “threads” entwined around each other and in these images, one thread could represent the mundane and one the spiritual, one the inner self and one the outer consciousness, one earth and one heaven and so on.  As such, the unicorn horn then represents the interactions between these two “worlds” and link the tangible world to the spiritual one.  Thus the unicorn becomes a vehicle for us to reach the gods.