BOOKS: Animal Life In Nature, Myth, & Dreams

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2005:

Animal Life In Nature, Myth, & Dreams
by Elizabeth Caspari, with Ken Robbins
Chiron Publications (400 Linden Ave., Wilmette, IL 60091), 2003.
318 pages, hardcover. $29.95

Animal Life In Nature, Myth, & Dreams might best be
described as a field guide to human fantasy. Author Elizabeth
Caspari, 78, has spent a lifetime comparing and contrasting the
creatures of myth and dream with their living counterparts, and in
this opus attempts to explain why animals symbolize whatever they do
in different cultures. Her emphasis is on the erotic, perhaps
because this is what humans most invent myths and dream about.
In China, for example, “In folktales the fox lives for a
thousand years and becomes a master of seduction, with no fewer than
nine big, long bushy tails. Stories tell how a fox may seduce a
woman during the night. As the woman reaches orgasm and the fox does
not, the animal builds up power until eventually he gains the
ability to shape-shift into human form.”
But why does he want to? Perhaps because a female fox is “a
true femme fatale who brings doom to her lovers.”

Indeed, many a male fox –and coyote–has sacrificed his
life to decoy human and canine hunters away from his mate and young.
Some animals have largely unsuspected erotic dimensions.
“Frog images appearing in dreams often have nearly explicit
sexual implications,” Caspari points out, “a projection of
sexuality, spontaneity, and quickness to joy. Not surprisingly,
in a sexually repressed society, frogs and toads are considered
archetypally repulsive and loathsome.”
Caspari goes on to discuss frog-and-princess stories. The
skeptical reader might take time out to examine the paintings of
Hierony-mous Bosch. Nothing Caspari says would have been any news to
Caspari also explores animal imagery in relationship to
warfare. Geese were apparently associated with militarism, for
instance, long before the Nazis made a fetish of goosestepping.
Most animals, though they might be brave of necessity, have
little use for human-style organized mass murder, and make their
dislike of it plain.
“In Welsh mythology,” Caspari tells us, “an enchanted human
in the form of the sow Henwen gave birth to the Great Cat, a
terrible creature who could eat nine score warriors.”
Where is he now?
A personal lament is that Caspari apparently did not realize
that the Asian/African jackal and the American coyote are such close
cousins as to be, for all practical purposes, the same animal. Her
entries for each are extensive, detailed, and highly informative,
but I would have liked to see Caspari compare and contract the
mythological role of the jackal, most often as a harbinger of death,
with the role of the coyote, as a trickster, and express her ideas
about why there is such a difference.
My own theory is that the mythical view of jackals formed in
regions of relatively high human population density, where jackals
scavenged the remains of people killed in plagues and wars. The
prevailing view of coyotes formed in the sparsely inhabited U.S.
west. There, coyotes had relatively little chance to scavenge dead
humans, but have long outwitted hunters, trappers, and herders.
Neither the Old World nor the New World view of the
jackal/coyote appreciates the extent to which these animals help
humans as nature’s animal control officers, eating every other
mammal whom people consider a nuisance, biting humans not even a
ten-thousandth as often as domestic dogs. The few jackals and
coyotes in my dreams are a benign and blessed presence.

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