Interpreted by J.B.Waskul

Pervasive Anthropomorphic Culture

Anthropomorphism is defined as the ascription of human attributes to non-human beings. The tendency of this psychological bonding between man and animal can be seen all the way from our earliest pictorial records to the present mass media. It can hardly be considered a phenomenon due to the fact that it can be seen as a reoccurring theme in all cultures on a global scale. In fact one is hard pressed to find its absence anywhere that humanity makes contact with the animal kingdom.


Part I - The Hunt


Presently interpreted as sympathetic magic; most of the known prehistoric cave paintings are of animals. As defined by James George Frazer, sympathetic magic "...proceeds upon the notion that things which have once been conjoined must remain ever afterwards, even when quite disserved from each other, in such a sympathetic relation that what ever is done to the one must similarly affect the other." Therefore while in a trance-like state, the hunter captures the image of the animal and spiritually connects with his prey.


Dating from the Upper Paleolithic Period (17,000-15,000 Y.B.P.), cave paintings have been a source of debate ever since their discovery in 1879 near Santander in Northern Spain. At first thought to be forgeries, later findings at Font-de-Gaume in Dordogne, France in 1901. It wasn't until 1940 that the most extensive and elaborate collection of paintings was found in Lascaux, France. The exact meaning of these representations of bison, horses, reindeer, and even the occasional wooly rhino is still open for conjecture. But through comparative analysis with current cultures that still share the belief system of their ancestor's who created rock paintings (such as the Ju/'hoansi of Nambia and Botswana), There can be seen a symbolic communion between hunter and prey. 



The Sorcerer - sketched by Breuil.
Of particular interest in the case of prehistoric anthropomorphism is the painting of "The Sorcerer" in the cave of Les Trois Frères, in the foothils of the Pyrénées in France. The cave is thought to be part of a male rite of passage for an upper Paleolithic Hunter Gatherer society. Originally the main chamber could only be entered by crawling through a long dark passage (50 to 75 yards) after which the initiate comes into a large chamber where he encounters a large anthropomrphic painting. He has the body of a lion and the placement of the genitalia at the rear is feline, the legs are of a man, the eyes are of an owl or pssibly a lion, and has the antlers of a stag. As observed by Joseph Campbell, "Does he represent a deity, or does he represent a shaman? There has been an argument on this, but it doesn't make any difference whatsoever. Because the shaman in this becomes the deity." This is a mythology, where one must ask the question: does animal become the man or does man become the animal?
For the most part, civilization has become psychologically detached from the foodchain, i.e. a sausage is not a pig, a steak is not a cow, and most certainly a chicken nugget has very little to do with a chicken. It is a logical conclusion as to where these things come from, but the processes of their production is generally unknown and unappreciated.


 However, among the hunters of the world, one must go into the land of his prey and personally violate the space of another living creature. The total immersion of the hunters physical, mental and emotional being goes into the stalking, killing and butchering of a creature that will sustain himself and his family. Even modern man marvels at the sight of animals in the wild and only the most calloused of hunters could remain unmoved by the majestic creatures whose lives they take. The blood, the look of fear in the animal's eyes, the cries of pain and empty silence after it takes its last breath, the pungent smells emitted from the disemboweling ... Sight, sound, smells, feel, and finally taste: these are the source of sympathetic magic. To know your prey and become one with it.


Under the traumatic circumstances of taking a life, it is not surprising that in many cultures the hunter ritually apologizes to the newly slain animal and thanks it for its sacrifice. The Inuit, Native Americans, the bushmen of the Kalahri and the Aboriginal people of Australia have some form of ritual apology.


This practice of animal sympathy is still common today in many formal religions albeit in somewhat different form: the giving of thanks or saying grace before a meal amongst the Christians. A rabbi's inspection and blessing is required to make it kosher for the Jews. For the Moslems there must be just treatment and a painless slaughter of an animal to make it halal.


Part II - Domestication


By the time domestication arises (10,000 Y.B.P. with the dog) a significant change takes place as well in the human psyche toward the animal kingdom. Depending upon the nature of the relationship, humans will quite often try to talk or communicate with an animal as if it were a person, trying to coax them into a desired behavior and cursing them when they don't follow directions. Some animals receive names from their human counterpart; symbolically acknowledging their "pet" as an individual personality. 


With each new domesticated species a sort of hierarchy begins to emerge:


In western cultures the dog has proven itself useful in a wide variety of functions. Dogs have served as trackers, hunters, guards, shepherd and even as transportation, via dogsled. It is one of the few creatures allowed to roam freely about the masters' house and/or property.  It is customary to give them names and not unusual to treat the dog as a member of its human family. Owners commonly "play" with their dogs through games of Tug of War and Fetch. It is not uncommon for a dog to share meals with its masters (through table-scraps) and in some cases it is even allowed to sleep in their master's bed. Funerary practices involving dogs can go as far as burial plots in a pet cemetery (for the wealthier pet owners) or a simple cremation; both carrying some degree of mourning in the days that follow.


Originally domesticated in Egypt 8,000 Y.B.P.; the cat shares many of the same privileges as the dog including freedom to roam its master's property and sleeping in the master's bed. They also are given names and are treated as members of their human family. Play consists of challenging the cat's reflexes by seeing if it can catch a piece of string or some other such toy if it dangled in front of the cat. The cat's primary function has been that of pest control, attacking small rodents, birds and insects with equal enthusiasm. Being solitary hunters they lack the pack mentality of dogs and are therefore not as easily trained. In death, the funerary practices vary are similar to the dogs.


Unlike cats and dogs, the horse is not treated like a member of the family. Due to its sheer size it can not be allowed to roam the house and a separate space must be provided for their quarters. They do however get a name, but are treated more like luxury vehicles. That is not to say that their owners lack affection for their horses. Indeed a skilled rider and a well-trained horse virtually merge into a single being. With the horse lending its strength and speed to its master they have gone into battle, tilled the fields and explored new territories. Since its domestication 6,000 years ago in Ukraine, the horse has proven itself as an excellent form of transport up until the early part of the 20th century where it has been rendered obsolete in favor of the automobile. The funerary practices for the horse are similar to cats and dogs. Only under extreme circumstances are they eaten.


Beasts of burden such as Donkey, Ox, Camels, and Llamas may or may not get names. The impersonal nature of the master/animal relationship is placed upon function. They are valued strictly on the work they do and little more. Although they may lack the speed and elegance of a horse, each of these creatures is extremely useful in specific environments. They are most commonly used in third world countries. Being that their food quality is rather poor they are seldom eaten. It is unlikely these animals will receive any special funerary treatment upon their death.


Sheep, goats, cows and pigs rarely get names because they may sooner or later end up on the dinner table. They are valued for the products they provide whether it is meat, wool, milk or leather. Upon the death of these animals, whatever is left after they have been stripped of meat or any other "useful" items is typically treated as garbage and disposed of accordingly.


Chicken, turkey, ducks, geese, rabbits and all small game are classified as fowl. They are primarily valued for their meat. In contrast to the larger mammal resources for meat, which takes years to mature, fowl tend to reach maturity and become a viable meat source in slightly more than one year. They are also valued for their feathers, down and fur. Their remains are also treated as garbage once they have been processed.


An exception to the treatment of your basic farm animal has to do with the scale of the operation. The smaller the farm the more sympathy there will be for the animals. For example, the farmer that has had a only one cow that he has been milking faithfully for twenty years dies, he may be somewhat loath to eat "Ol' Bessy" and bury her instead of eating the animal. Likewise a farmer's child may "adopt" a pig or chicken as a pet and therefore spare it from slaughter.


Outside the genre of domesticated animals is the exotic pet. Exotic pets are primarily curiosities; toys created by nature that are appreciated for how different they are from us. Fish, birds, snakes, rodents, tarantulas, scorpions, alligators, lizards... Virtually any animal may become a pet. Invariably, the longer the owner has a pet the greater possibility that some degree of emotional attachment will be made. If anyone becomes an owner of one of these exotic creatures and wishes to keep them alive for more than a few weeks, they must learn a great deal about the animals native environments and behavioral patterns. In most cases, the animal is kept in the home but contained in an artificial environment that must be constantly maintained by the owner. With the eventual breakdown of the environment or the creature coming to the end of its life cycle, its death is met with some remorse by the owner who will determine the appropriate disposal of the corpse i.e., burial, throw it in the garbage or flush it down the toilet.


With ownership comes a bond of responsibility between man and beast. Food, shelter and care must be provided creating a symbiosis. Owners do recognize "personalities" within their animals. Whether these characteristics are emotional projections or are intuitive understandings is open for debate. Whatever the case, centuries of such close association has created a mythology of human qualities ascribed to these creatures, the dog is loyal, the cat is finicky and aloof, the donkey is stubborn, the ox is dumb, etc.


Part III - Deification to Demonization


Artwork from the earliest Mesopotamian civilizations to the later Ancient Egyptian culture depicts a wide variety of deity figures with both human and animal attributes. The Hindu religion has many deity figures with animal characteristics as well. In addition, it is believed that through reincarnation a spirit that is human in this life may be an animal in the next. The general attitude of these religions is the incorporation of the animal kingdom into human culture and working toward a balance between man and nature.


It is not until the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations that there is a separation between the divine and nature. Although the greater deities have the ability to transform themselves into animals, their primary form is human. It is a theme common to the Norse and Teutonic religions as well. The animal/human beings do exist within their mythology, (centaurs, harpies, satyrs, gorgons, etc.) however, these creatures are typically said to be nature spirits or monsters and are things to be overcome.


The Judeo/Christian faith is places humanity above the animal kingdom. It is a world created by God for man, a realm he now dominates and any creature that threatens this position may be hunted to extinction.


Many of the legends of witches, demons and monsters have their sources in ancient traditions. Their exact origins may always be open for conjecture due to the direct misinformation on behalf of the Catholic Church during the medieval period. The Papal propaganda of this period allowed the church to gain control of large territories and manipulate public opinion to its own political ends.


·        Devils – The belief in devil worship most likely comes from the Roman Mystery Cults. The patron deity of the cult was Bacchus or Dionysus who, according to the mythology, was torn apart and devoured while transformed into a goat. In its earlier form the followers of this cult would bathe in and/or drink the blood of a goat as a part of an all night orgy that reenacted Bacchus’s death. Even after the blood was later replaced with sacramental wine, the goat remained the principle figurehead of this cult. In addition, Dionysus's younger brother Pan was a being that was half man/half goat and had a cult following of his own. The orgies and debauchery surrounding these cults made them easy targets for demonization.


·        Witches – The many legends that stem from witch lore come from the ancient traditions of the druids. The mythology of the witch includes the ability to change themselves or others into animals. In addition witches are said to have “familiars”, which are an animal that the witch has a spiritual connection with.


·        Vampires – Every culture seems to have its own version of the vampire. It is a being with mythical origins in Ancient Greece, European, China, Japan, India, Malaysia, Tibet and South America. The most familiar vampire to western culture has its roots in non-Christian burials in Eastern Europe. According to legend some of the causes of a person becoming a vampire are dying an irregular death, excommunication and improper burial. Among the many supposed powers of the vampire is the ability to change into a bat or wolf.


·        Werewolves – It was during the Middle Ages that most of Europe was cultivated and civilized. With the farming community encroaching on the dwindling European wilderness, competition arose between the human population and the animal kingdom. Wolf attacks on the farmer's livestock and the farmer himself became common place. In France around the time of Charlemagne (768-814 A.D.) special government institutions were created for wolf control. In addition to the frightful attack by a wolf pack there was also the danger of rabies from a wolf bite which would lead to madness and death. Many of the myths surrounding the werewolf come from this time and the centuries that followed.


·        Gargoyles – No cathedral seems compete without at least a sprinkling of these stone monsters upon their façade. Their reason for being there is said to be a reminder that monsters and devils are in the world and waiting for a chance to strike. However, their origins in the church can be traced back as an attack on the worship of pagan gods, also known as idolatry.


It spite of the negative outlook upon the animal side of man's nature, the church was not without its own anthropomorphic references. The preacher or priest is often referred to as "the shepherd guiding his flock."  The four Gospels have animal representations, John (the Eagle), Mark (the Lion), Luke (the Bull) and Matthew (the Angel). The depiction of angels is always with wings. And Jesus was born in a manger with some folk versions of the story saying the animals paid homage to the newborn king with prayer.


Before the arrival of the Europeans, the native Americans developed their own anthropomorphic belief systems. Shamanism was a common practice in the New World and can still be found in many places today.


During the reign of the Mayans there was a reverence for the animal kingdom and societal groups identified with specific animals. The scribes and artists identified with the monkey for its human like qualities, the athletes of the ball courts paid homage to the scarlet macaw and among the royalty the Jaguar was admired for its power and cunning.


With the deciphering of ancient texts and the analysis of current shamanistic practices, it has been found that the Mayans saw their souls as being composed of two parts. One half is holy and resides in the blood. The other half is the "Wayah" and is the animal companion spirit. Dreams are seen through the eyes of the animal spirit as a "Chanule".  The Wayah is said to dwell in a mountaintop corral and should it escape or be released by a witch, the blood soul will get sick. It is the shaman's job to corral and reconnect the animal spirit through the use of chants and ritual use of a Corral/Bed that his patient must lie in until the Wayah has been recaptured.


To many of the Native American cultures the concept of anthropomorphism so deeply engrained in their cosmology that it would be unimaginable to think that there is a separation between man and animal. As among the Anishnabeg basic concept of existence everything is composed of three parts. The body (wiyo) or outward manifestation, shadow (wdjibbon) or perceptual manifestation, and spirit soul (wdjitchog) or life force that are all part of a reality where all things are equal with no distinction between animate or inanimate objects. In part, this underlying view would account for the many transformations and indistinctions between man and animal in their storytelling traditions.


...After they had talked, Woodpecker said to his wife, "have we nothing to eat? Man-a-boz-ho is hungry."

"No." answered his wife.

Whereupon Woodpecker rose to his feet then flew up to a tamarack tree that grew in the center of the lodge. Then he commenced going up and down turning his head and driving his bill into the trunk. At last he drew out a fat raccoon and dropped it onto the floor. He then drew out seven more. These he dropped also then descended and said: "Man-a-boz-ho, this is all we have to eat. What else can we give you?"

"These will be good," Man-a-boz-ho answered and Woodpecker's wife skinned and roasted the raccoons. After they had eaten and smoked their pipes, Man-a-boz-ho rose to go...


In the example given we see that Woodpecker has not only all the traits of a bird but he is of indistinguishable size, can talk, has use of fire and has a home large enough to grow a tree in its center. The main significance of this excerpt lies not in the physical reality but in the social aspects of hospitality and the responsibilities of the host/guest relationship.


The globalization of the late twentieth century has brought forth two contrasting religious perspectives: the New Age Movement and religious fundamentalism. Where fundamentalism finds it roots in traditional religious structures (Christian and Islamic in particular) and rejects the growing presence of technology and free trade, the New Age belief structure actually seems to embrace the ever increasing homogeneity. Lacking any formal structure the “New Age” ideals try to retro-fit ancient traditions into a modern context. Experimentation with ones own belief structures has creates a mosaic of Celtic, Native American, Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu and just about any spiritual belief system into an individualist religion with no consistent rituals, rules or obligations. Common beliefs in this movement are shamanism, reincarnation and the belief in animal spirit companions.


Part VI - Rebirth of Cultural Icons


Anthropomorphism has proven to be highly adaptable to new media. From the earliest stone carvings and ancient texts to the current 3-D wireframe animated video game character, humanity has maintained the human/animal devoutly through the ages.


Anthropomorphic tales have had a long history and it is anybody's guess just how far they may go back into prehistory they go since many have their origins in a long standing oral tradition. One of the earliest collections of such tales is Aesop's Fabels. Aesop was born to a slave in the sixth century B.C. who earned his freedom through his wit and storytelling prowess. Most of his fables feature animals that come into one conflict or another that has an underlying moral theme. His stories became part of an oral tradition that was not documented until the 1300's by a Turkish monk named Planudes. The fables were later translated in the 1400's by Italian scholars along with works by Homer an Aristotle where they gradually spread throughout Europe. But it wasn't until 1610 that there was a mass publication called Mythologica Aesopica by a Swiss scholar named Isaac Nicholas Nevelet. From that point on Aesop's Fables have been a permanent fixture in western civilization.


The first book published with the name Mother Goose in the title was in 1697 by Charles Perrault. Originally called Tales of Passed Times by Mother Goose the book featured eight stories among which was "Puss in Boots". Although no one knows for sure, the first teller of these stories is thought to be Queen Goosefoot, the mother of Charlemagne, who was known as a famous storyteller. From its inception and with no copyright laws to protect it, Mother Goose has been changed, added to and modified many times over with several translations. Many of the added nursery rhymes and folktales have anthropomorphic themes. i.e. This little Piggy, Baa Baa Black Sheep, Goosey Goosey Gander, etc.


Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were two Prussian brothers who are best known for their publication of Grimms Fairy Tales. After they left law school they traveled the German countryside and collected the tales, which up to that point had only been preserved through an oral tradition. Wilhelm took great pains to use the same words the storytellers used, maintaining the folktale style and character. Their first collection was published in 1812 and proved to be very popular among children. Many of the stories featured many anthropomorphic themes with talking animals and people who had been transformed into animals. Jacob, who was more in the origins of the tales, had done studies on how some of the stories were actually the retelling of ancient Greek and Teutonic myths.


Alexander Pushkin was a renowned Russian poet, but due to his outspoken nature, did not always find favor in the royal court. In a similar fashion to the Brothers Grimm collected tales from the Russian countryside; not all of which survived.  In 1824, while under confinement by order of the Tsar, he wrote down five stories that he remembered from his old nurse, Arina Rodionovna Matveyeva. In the same manner as other fairytales, the stories featured many anthropomorphic themes.


Another fairytale author of great renown was Hans Christian Anderson (1805-1875). As with other fairytales his stories include magical transformations and anthropomorphic characters. One of his earliest works: The Ugly Duckling features a main character who feels out of place and later finds himself placed above those who ridiculed him. Such is the nature of most fairy tales, in which a person must suffer until they find their true identity.


As we have seen, anthropomorphism has a long literary heritage that carried its way through history and is still poignant today. The traditional children’s story has its roots in the fairytale and is still big in the publishing business. To list all the children's story books that carry the humanlike animal themes would be nearly impossible but here are a few: The Wizard of Oz series by L. Frank Baum, The Tales of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Suess, Curious George by H.A. Rey, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, and Richard Scarry created many books featuring his Busy Town characters.


At the beginning of the twentieth century new technologies and communication systems took hold in the civilized world and it wasn't long before anthropomorphism found its way into the modernization. The use of animation on the silver screen started in the 1920's but it wasn't till the 1930's that cinema gave birth to animation media giants like Walt Disney and Warner Bros.


It was during the late twenties and early thirties that Walt Disney released his "Silly Symphony" series of animated featurettes through United Artists Pictures. The "Silly Symphony" cartoon always featured anthropomorphic characters.  Mickey Mouse got his start in this era with Steamboat Willy in 1928. Mickey along with Minnie, Donald Duck, Goofy, and many others proved to be very popular with the viewing public and have grown into major institutions, inspiring feature length movies, stores, and theme parks. 


In response to Disney's "Silly Symphony", Warner Bros. came out with "Looney Tunes" in 1930. Following the Disney format, they created many anthropomorphic characters that also had a wide veiwer appeal. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig became the mainstay of many theaters. By 1941 the directing talents of Tex Avery, Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, and Chuck Jones were all trying to outdo one another with new gags. The power of these creative teams is still appreciated today. Bugs Bunny has been nominated for three Oscars, and received one in 1958 for "Knighty Knight, Bugs. From 1945 to 1961, movie theater owners voted him "top animated character". And in 1985 Bugs Bunny was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.


With the coming of television a new outlet for the animated anthropomorphic character was recognized. Two of the most well known pioneers of cartoons for television were William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. Hanna and Barbera met while working for Fred Quimby making Tom and Jerry (also an anthropomorphic theme) cartoons at MGM studios between 1943 and 1953. When MGM shut down their animation studios in 1953 Hanna and Barbera joined forces and created their own production company in 1957. It was 1958 when they released Ruff &Ready and Huckleberry Hound. The success of these cartoons led to the creation of Yogi Bear, Quick Draw McGraw, Augie Doggie & Doggie Daddy, The Jetsons, The Flintstones and Scooby Doo.


Although television also proved an excellent medium for cartoons formerly seem in theaters. New characters were created with every season. Rocky and Bullwinkle, Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Muppets, Pokemon, etc. All drawing upon the ancient tradition of projecting human attributes onto animals.


The mass appeal of anthropomorphic characters in modern society is profound. It has had a long tradition of allowing the spectator to observe situations without becoming involved emotionally through parables and fables. Or they may act as symbols for solidarity that draw people together. i.e. Democratic Donkey, Republican Elephant, American Eagle. The anthropomorphic character is part of the human psyche and is here to stay.




As we have seen, anthropomorphism has taken many forms down through the ages. The underlying reasons for the existence of this cultural universal are many. Our connection to the animal kingdom has provided a vital link to the world through education, entertainment and given spiritual insights into the nature of our being.


Although we may never truly know the mind of the animal, by studying them we have learned a great deal about ourselves. Humanity is limited in its understanding by working with that which is observable and that which is known from within. There is a common bond somewhere, a shared sense of reality that we all struggle to define and a world we all fight to survive in. And if nothing else they have made our journey through time a little less lonely.




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