Animal Magic

Course Description and Syllabus

In this course, we will consider the impact of animals on the human imagination. Our focus will be animals in art, myth, lore and legend, and the way humans have portrayed, depicted, envisioned, and invented them. Our starting point will be early Egyptian crocodile cults; we will then consider animals in the zodiac, totemic beasts in African folklore and Native American trickster myths. Pliny the Elder’s Natural History will serve as our guide to the imaginary animals of antiquity, tales of human-animal transformation, and the animal avatars and familiars of medieval witchcraft.

The Rochester and Aberdeen Bestiaries will help us understand how exotic and unknown creatures were imagined by those who had never seen them. From the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we will study Edward Topsell’s The History of Four-Booted Beasts and Serpents, the animal anecdotes of Montaigne, The Bestiarium of Aloys Zotl, and Oliver Goldsmith’s A History of the Earth and Animated Nature. We will reflect on the Victorian popularity of private menageries, fashions in pet-keeping, the exhibition of animals as curiosities, and the trade in animals and their products. In addition to myths, stories and fables, we will also consider animal symbolism in poetry, cinema, décor and dreams.

Our imaginative relationship with animals is messy and intersubjective, full of dangerously transformative potential. In this course, we will discover how our relationship with animals can expand our conceptual boundaries, enlarging the possibilities encompassed by the state of being human. Readings include essays and stories by Frank Hamel, Saki, Marina Warner, Angela Carter, Terri Windling, Jack Zipes, Maria Tatar, Alison Lurie, and others.

Week One:  Introduction to the Course 
Bestiaries and Early Depictions of Animals
Medieval Bestiary Blog (Animals in the Middle Ages);
Where the Wild Things Are: The Medieval Bestiary;
The Aberdeen Bestiary.
Presentation: The Hyena.

Week Two: Animal Familiars 
Familiars and Powerpoint
For this week, read: Fred Bush, “Pyewacket: Names Familiar and Unfamiliar,” Strange Horizons, 17 February 2003. Frank Hamel, “Familiars,” from Human Animals (University Books, 1915).

Week Three: Animal Brides and Bridegrooms
Arne-Thompson Folk Tale Type Folk Index
For this week, read: Terri Windling, “Married to Magic: Animal Brides and Bridegrooms in Folklore and Fantasy,” Journal of the Mythic Arts. Marina Warner, Animals in Fairy tales.

Week Four: Animal Illustrators For this week, consider four groups of post-bestiary animal illustrators.
(1) Historical illustrations by artists who had not seen the animals they depicted,
(2) Early scientists who were illustrating from life,
(3) Victorian horse and dog painters.
(4) Illustrators who depict animals in a whimsical way, often for children’s books.

Durer, Rhinoceros (1515); George Stubbs (1724-1806); Edmund Topsell, History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents (1658); Aloys Zotl, Bestarium (1880s); Goldsmith, Animated Nature (1825); Buffon and de Sevre, Quadrupeds (1754). Beatrix Potter.

Week Five:  Movie (Donkeyskin by Jacques Demy, 1970)
For this week, read: Donkeyskin, by Charles Perrault; Read: Donkeyskin, by Charles Perrault; also “Donkeyskin, Deerskin, Allerleirauh, The Reality of the Fairy Tale,” by Helen Pilinovsky, Journal of the Mythic Arts.

Week Six: Two Animal Stories
For this week, read Saki, “Sredni Vashtar” (1910) and Patricia Highsmith, “The Terrapin” (1970).

Week Seven: The History of Pets
For this week, read: Mikita Brottman, from The Great Grisby.
Angus Trumble, “O Uommibatto” How the Pre-Raphaelites Became Obsessed with the Wombat, Public Domain Review, January 2019

Week Nine: Taxidermy and Dioramas
“Ravishing Beasts by Rachel Poliquin,” interview by Eric Frank, “Constructed Reality: The Diorama as Art” by Diane Fox, and “Taxidermy Chic” interview by Giovanni Aloi, all from Antennae 6

Week Ten: Animals Nobody Loves
For this week, read: “Rat,” from Ronald Rood, Animals Nobody Loves, New England Press, 1971.

Week Eleven: Learning From Nature
E is for Elephant: Jungle Animals in Late Nineteenth-Century British Picture Books,”
Alix Heintzman, Environmental History, Vol. 19, No. 3 (July 2014), pp. 553-563
Learning From Animals: Natural History for Children,” Harriet Ritvo, The Threepenny Review, No. 21 (Spring, 1985), pp. 4-6

Week Twelve: Creatures of Paradise
Fallen Angels: Birds of Paradise in Early Modern Europe,” Public Domain Review April 2018. Bernd Brunner, “Bringing the Ocean Home,” Public Domain Review June 2018.

Paper Questions:

  • Write a paper comparing the way animals were approached by indigenous cultures to the way we tend to approach them today. How is our modern approach an improvement, and how is it an impoverishment?
  • Write a paper analyzing the various animals mentioned in the Bible. Which, to you, seem to be the most important Biblical accounts of animals, and why?
  • Analyze the role of animals in religion, and religious acculturation.
  • Compare and contrast the literal and symbolic approaches to the study of one particular animal, explaining which to you seems more significant, and why. Give examples from your own experience.
  • Write about your own relationship with animals, including those that appear in your dreams.
  • Write a paper outlining some of the complex and tangled connections between animals and witchcraft and the occult.
  • Write a paper that analyzes the role of animals in a work of literature, poetry, music, or film.
  • Why do you think that certain animals have come to represent all that is distasteful and abject in humanity? Give examples.
  • Describe a particular animal (either one individual creature, or a species) that has been especially inspirational to you in your life and work. How did this bond begin, and how did you come to realize its importance?

The Uncanny