Myth and the Erotic
Women, Men, and Flowers
There are few if any stronger imaginative connections than that between women and flowers. Women are compared to flowers, identified with flowers, turned into flowers, made from flowers, and pictured gathering flowers. This last innocent sounding activity is a peculiarly dangerous one, as we shall see. Why this association? There has always been a strong sexual undercurrent to such imagery, and though it is hard to be sure exactly how well our remote ancestors understood the whole business of pollination, they at least saw a strong analogy between the attraction of flowers with their scent and beauty for both insects and humans, and the same sort of attraction by women for men. They saw the vaginal significance of flowers, whether or not they had a clear cause and effect understanding of the whole process.
As we will see later, the primary vaginal flower is the rose, and though raising flowers is commonly thought of as a female activity, rose growers are predominantly men. Of course rose givers also tend to be men. However, all flowers, whether the explicitly sexual rose or the modest violet, are vaginal in implication. When the young Oscar Wilde goes about wearling a lily, he is hinting at a sexual ambiguity which was fashionable at the time, as long as it did not become explicit. (Unfortunately for Wilde, his sexuality was later discussed explicitly, and the cult of aesthetic homosexuality came to an abrupt end.)
If the flower is a vaginal image, then we should expect very few flower myths about males, although there are actually several. One is the classical story of Echo and Narcissus. This story has a more literary quality than is typical of myth. Narcissus was a youth much desired by all women and many men, but disdainfully refused all of them, including the nymph Echo. The goddess Nemisis, in response to a prayer by a rejected lover, cursed him with the fate that he would love none but his own reflection. Seeing his image one day in a pool, he remained in rapt admiration of it until he died. The narcissus flower first sprang up where he laid. I was inclined to think this myth was created by the Roman poet Ovid, since the best known version is in his Metamorphosis, but as it turns out, it is much older.
William Waterhouse. 1903 Echo and Narcissus.
Question for consideration: Why a male Narcissus instead of a female one, as one might
expect? Does it make a difference? How?
Women do not merely change to flowers, however: in at least one case, there is a woman constructed of flowers. In the Welsh Mabinogion, a Medieval collection of stories, the most significant part is a section called the "Four Branches", which is made up of very ancient Celtic material, most of it pre-Christian. In the Fourth Branch, Arionrod, and ancient Celtic goddess, refuses to acknowledge her son, to give him name, arms, or a wife. Math the Old, and Gwyddion the magician trick her into giving him name and arms, but cannot give him a wife. Therefore they make him a wife of flowers, flowers of the oak, of the broom, and of the meadowsweet. She is the most beautiful of women, but later she takes a lover, and conspires with him to murder her husband. Whether or not her flower nature is a part of her unfaithfulness, the story does not say.
Read the Fourth Branch at www.maginogi.net/translations.htm (It is not particularly long, though the story is very condensed, and thus covers a lot of material.)
Aside from Narcissus, there are several other males associated with flowers. One is Hyacinthus, who attracts Zeus and Apollo sexually, in addition to numerous female admirers. He is killed by accident when he is hit in the head by a discus thrown by Apollo, and even the god could not save him from dying, or restore him to life. The flower bearing his name sprang up where he died. This sounds like a relatively trivial story, but there was a major festival in honor of Hyacinthus, implying that this story is one variant of a larger religious pattern, especially considering that there are parallel stories.
Males associated with flowers take on the passive role of sex-objects, often for both males and females. In fact, Thamyris, who fell for Hyacinthus was said to be the first man to fall in love with males rather than females. Another male sex object in Greek tradition, also associated with a flower is Adonis, a beautiful youth loved by Venus. In spite of the goddess' warnings, he goes boar hunting and is gored to death. The goddess' grief was reinacted yearly in ritual lamentations by Greek women. This story is obviously a seasonal myth, and a close parallel to the two stories above. As we might expect by now, a flower, the anemone, springs up from the bloody ground.
Woman as flower, as opposed to being manufactured from them, is most often a rose, either metaphorically or literally. This is, however, a very big topic in itself. Go to the link below, "A Gift of Roses," for a discussion of this theme.
Not only can women be seen as flowers, but flowers can also be women--the Little Prince's rose, for example, as quoted in the essay on roses. Here is another example:
Give way, an ye be ravished by the sun,
And hang the head whenas the act is done.
Spread as he spreads, wax less as he does wane,
And as he shuts, close up to maids again.
Marigolds may be sexual as humans are, but also have the enviable ability to renew their virginity at the end of the day.
Herrick is the most pagan of English poets, surprising since he is also an Anglican priest. His longest, and most mythic poem, "Corinna's Going A-Maying" is a celebration of May Day, a pagan fertility holiday. In this poem, which celebrates the coming of spring and sexual awakening, not only do streets turn to fields and woods with their decorations of leaves and blossoms, but the fields turn to streets with their crowds of young lovers. Corinna herself is transformed to vegitation: "Rise, and put on your foliage, and be seen/ To come forth, like the springtime fresh and green."
Read "Corinna's Going A-Maying" at www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/Herrick/corinna.htm
Botticelli. Detail from "Primavera"--Spring personified.
Aside from their other connections with flowers, there are many stories, mythic and otherwise, about girls gathering flowers. We do not have to discuss this theme in depth here, since it is largely dealt with in the essay on roses, and will come up again in the next unit.
One of the best known flower-gatherers is Little Red Riding Hood. She is warned by her mother not to stray off the path, but is tempted to do so to gather flowers by the big, bad wolf. The results are dire. Gathering flowers is metaphoric for sexual exploration, always a dangerous activity, and it tends to lead to rape or seduction. A more explicit example is that of Pershephone. Persephone, young and virginal daughter of Demeter, the Grain Mother, is picking flowers one day in the company of the daughters of Ocean. She sees a peculiarly large and beautiful purple narcissus, but when she goes to pull it, a chasm opens up beneath her, and Pluto/Hades/Dis, god of the underworld gallops up in a chariot pulled by large black horses, and carries her off. She is eventually discovered by her mother, and brought back to the world, but at the price of spending half of every year in the underworld with Pluto, as is the case with the very ancient story of Inanna and Tamuz. It is possible, even though our sources are much more recent, that the mother/daughter pattern is the older, and that the effeminate flower men we have been discussing are a reflection of religion in transition from female oriented to male.
The oldest known variant of this story is that of Inanna and Dumuzi, or Tammuz from ancient Sumaria. Inanna is a love goddess, culture goddess, and warrior goddess. She makes a trip to the underworld and is trapped there, and only escapes with the help of one of the gods, and at that still has to provide a replacement to go to Kur, the land of the dead. She makes Tammuz her substitute, perhaps because he was not sufficiently grief stricken by her loss. She later relents, and Tammuz is allowed to return to earth for half the year, making his story another seasonal myth, like the ones above, and like the story of Persephone. It was suggested in an earlier unit that Venus was originally a Near-Eastern fertility goddess, and that view is strengthened by the fact that Inanna in her later incarnation as Ishtar loved Adonis, a later incarnation of Tammuz. A further connection is the fact that the planet Venus is sacred to Inanna, just as it is to the goddess Venus. Considering that our Sumerian material is well over a thousand years older than the Greek stories, we see a very strong religious and mythic continuity.
Venus either fondling Adonis, or perhaps trying to persuade him to be careful while hunting. She looks pretty persuasive, but not as voluptuous as in Titian's version below.
Another related divinity imported early into Greek culture and religion was the Phrygian goddess Cybele, the Great Mother. The Greeks identified her with Rhea, wife of Chronos, and mother of Zeus, Hera, and the rest of the first generation gods. Like the other goddesses in this unit, she is a fertility goddess. Under rather involved circumstances, Attis, grandson of the Great Mother, is exposed in infancy (left to die, or be picked up by some passerby). He is rescued and raised by shepherds, and finally discovered by his grandmother Cybele, who falls in love with him. He, however, is in love with someone else, and Cybele, jealous, drives him to madness. He runs wild into the mountains, and at the foot of a giant pine castrates and kills himself. Violets spring from his blood, putting him clearly in the same tradition as the other flower men we have been discussing. Zeus and Cybele together bring him back to life. His death and resurrection are celebrated by three days of mourning and lamentation, followed by an extatic celebration of his rebirth. Cybele's priests, and even some of her devotees castrated themselves in honor of the goddess and of Attis. The idea of castrated priests in a fertility religion may seem odd, but it is typical of myth to combine opposites. Effeminate and cross dressing priests are well known elsewhere in fertility religion, including rites for the Vanir in Norse/Germanic religion. At the other end of the spectrum the worship of Ishtar in many places involved temple prostitution. Temple, or ritual prostitution as a part of fertility religion has in fact, been known in many parts of the world.
According to Sir James Frazer (The Golden Bough. Both this and the passage below are from Ch. xxxiv.) the worship of Cybele was brought to Rome in 204 B.C. while Hannibal with his elephants was ravaging Roman territory and menacing the city. According to the Sibylline Books, a Roman prophetic work of great antiquity, "the foreign invader would be driven from Italy if the great Oriental goddess were brought to Rome. Accordingly ambassadors were dispatched to her sacred city Pessinus in Phrygia. The small black stone which embodied the mighty divinity was entrusted to them and conveyed to Italy." The black stone was very likely a meteorite, for the ancients placed great store by stones that fell from the sky. Apparently the importation was a great success, for the next season produced bumper crops, and Hannibal was driven from Italy. Here is Frazer's account of the rites of Cybele:
Certainly the Romans were familiar with the Galli, the emasculated priests of Attis, before the close of the Republic. These unsexed beings, in their Oriental costume, with little images suspended on their breasts, appear to have been a familiar sight in the streets of Rome, which they traversed in procession, carrying the image of the goddess and chanting their hymns to the music of cymbals and tamborines, flutes and horns, while the people, impressed by the fantastic show and moved by the wild strains, flung alms to them in abundance, and buried the image and its bearers under showers of roses. . . . On the twenty-second day of March, a piue-tree was cut in the woods and brought into the sanctuary of Cybele, where it was entrusted to a guild of Tree-bearers. The trunk was swathed like a corpse with wollen bands and decked with wreaths of violets, for violets were sad to have sprung from the blood of Attis, as roses and anemones from the blood of Adonis; and the effigy of a young man, doubtless Attis himself, was tied to the middle of the stem. On the second day of the festival, the twenty-third of March, the chief ceremony seems to have been a blowing of trumpets. The third day . . . was known as the Day of Blood: the Archigallus or high-priest drew blood from his arms and presented it as an offering. Nor was he alone in making this bloody sacrifice. Stirred by the wild barbaric music of clashing symbals, rumbling drums, droning horns, and screaming flutes, the inferior clergy whirled about in the dance with waggling heads and streaming hair, until rapt into a frenzy of excitement and insensible to pain, they gashed their bodies with potsherds or slashed them with knives in order to besplatter the the altar and the sacred tree with their flowing blood. The ghastly rite probably formed part of the mourning for Attis and may have been intended to strengthen him for the resurrection. . . . Further, we may conjecture . . . that it was on the same Day of Blood and for the same purpose that the novices sacrificed their virility. Wrought up to the highest pitch of religious excitement they dashed the severed portions of themselves against the image of the cruel goddess. These broken instruments of fertility were afterwards reverently wrapt up and buried in the earth, or in subterranean chambers sacred to Cybele, where, like the offering of blood, they may have been deemed instrumental in recalling Attis to life and hastening the general resurrection of nature
Cybele riding a lion, her sacred beast. She looks pretty good for a grandmother. In ancient statues she is usually clothed, and either seated on a chair or in a chariot pulled by lions.
There are, of course, numerous stories of women, usually virgins, being transformed to flowers or other plant life. The story of Daphne's transformation to a laurel to escape the attentions of Apollo is probably the best known. If the earth is the Great Mother, then the vegitation is her offspring--originally, probably her daughter, as in the case of Demeter and Persephone. However, the whole Mediterranean area was making a major religous shift from matriarchal to patriarchal, which may explain the widespread mother-son pattern, and the often passive and effeminate nature of the male divinity.
Bernini. "Pluto and Persephone." As an erotic picture, this one might not be politically correct, but its erotic nature is made clear by the lovingly tactile quality shown in the detail below.
Read: "The Girl with a Rose on her Forehead" at
Questions: What exactly does the rose on the girl's forehead mean?
What is the significance of the cherry in her hair?
Is her relationship at the end with her uncle/father also incestuous?
Read: "Rappaccini's Daughter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Write a 1,200 word essay on this story in relation to the material in this unit, and the essay "Eve and the Apple."
Myth and the Erotic
Wolves, Werewolves and the Beast Within
With this unit we are back on what might seem like familiar territory, having already considered other human-animal combinations such as centaurs, mermaids, seal-men, fox and swan women; however there is a special dynamism to our relationship with the wolf. No creature inspires a more primal thrill of fear than the wolf, whether seen or merely heard. And yet the wolf has meant several very different things in different contexts. In fable and folktale the wolf is almost inevitably the always hungry devourer. In popular culture the wolf is associated with predatory sex. To the Vikings a wolf was primarily an outlaw and outcast, and an eater of the dead. But it was also more. Devouring wolves pursued the sun and moon across the sky, and will some day catch and devour them. The Fenris wolf was one of the great enemies of gods and men, on an equal footing with such other monstrous beings as the Midgard serpent whose body circles the whole earth. The god Odin is accompanied by two wolves. Wolves are pack animals, but the Vikings tended to think of them as solitary, for to be made an outlaw was "to be made a wolf." And even today we use the term "lone wolf."
And yet, in spite of our instinctive fear of the wolf, we also identify with him. We do not tend to imagine becoming a centaur or a selkie or a swan-maiden--one either is, or one is not--but a werewolf is something we can become, something that we have lurking in us already. We recognize the wolf as a kindred spirit, though a wild and dangerous one. We see dogs and wolves as alternate versions of the same being, one wild and hostile to mankind, the other domestic and a helper and protector. In card 13 of the major arcana of the Tarot deck, we see the two of them together.
"The Moon." Ryder-Waite Tarot deck.
Dominating this scene we have the moon, the source of fertility, rebirth, and transformation. Below it is a path, the path of life, leading off into the far distance, but rising into mountains. In the foreground is a pool, from which a crustacean is emerging. Pools of water tend to represent the depths of the unconscious, and the shellfish a not fully individualized mind. On either side, baying at or howling to the moon are the two sides of our human self, the civilized and the wild. We are a parallel to the dog; or domesticated side dominates, but the other is still present within us, and at some unexpected moment may appear:
Even a man who's pure at heart,
And says his prayers by night
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms,
And the autumn moon is bright.
This famous verse from the 1941 Wolf Man movie, but used frequently since, sums it up well. One my become a vampire only if attacked by a vampire, and a vampire cannot even enter a house unless once invited. There is no escape from our wolf-nature, however, because it is already within us. The fact that the verse is a product of film rather than of folk tradition means less than some have suggested. Hollywood, being popular entertainment, often catches the spirit of the collective mind extremely well, especially if it treats the same theme over and over in similar films. Thus a Hollywood tradtion may be as archetypal as an ancient one.
There are memorable scenes in Wolf Man, and it has influenced all werewolf films since. It is not merely a monster film; it makes some effort at being a romantic one as well. (The werewolf can only be killed by a silver bullet fired by the one who truly loves him. This is not an ancient tradition, but certainly a romantic one.) Lon Chaney Jr., however, is not a particularly romantic figure, and the grotesque looking wolfman is also not sexually inspiring. The hero, though does engage the audience's sympathy, and the inevitablilty of his fate does at least toy with the tragic emotions of pity and fear.
There is, however, erotic potential in the werewolf theme, for the same powerful and primal drives that inspire blood lust can also inspire the other kind of lust. In The Howling (1981) that potential is finally realized. This film builds suspense in a very deliberate way, so that those viewers who look for non-stop blood and dismemberment are likely to be disappointed.
Here is part of the story. Karen White, popular LA newswoman involves herself in the capture of a notorious serial Eddie Quist. In doing so she experiences something so traumatizing that she suffers from selective amnesia. On the advice of a pyschiatrist she and her husband Bill go to an isolated retreat. We soon learn that the psychiatrist as well as nearly everyone else there are werewolves. Karen is frightened by howling in the nearby woods at night, and a hunting party goes out to investigate, but bring back only a rabbit which they take to the cabin of a woman named Marsha for her to cook. Marsha is not only good looking, but is sultry and sexy, the very image of primal lust. She goes for Bill, and seduces him by the campfire in a very hot sex scene during which both slowly transform into wolves. The werewolf has traditionally been an almost exclusively male image, like the selkie and the centaur, but it obviously does have potential for females as well.
The limp, dead rabbit in Marsha's hands somehow suggests and foreshadows her predatory, violent, and sexual nature. This is a sexual quality more often associated with males, and D. H. Lawrence does something very similar with a dead rabbit and a male as predator (predator not only in relation to the rabbit, but to the woman as well) in his poem "Love on the Farm." Read this poem at www.web-books.com/Classics/Poetry/.../Lawrence/Love.htm
This, however, is more than we get from the ancients. Their werewolves have little of either the romantic or the erotic. The oldest werewolf story we have is a myth from ancient Greece, specifically from Arcadia, the most backward and rural part of Greece. Arcadia is mountainous and without a seacoast, and sheepherding has always been the major part of the economy. Arcadian religion tended toward the primative and to center largely around fertility, though more the fertility of animals than of plants. The goat-god Pan is associated with Arcadia. Other gods are Zeus Lykaios and Apollo Lykeios, meaning Wolf-Zeus and Wolf-Apollo. Whether these were originally Zeus and Apollo, or whether they were more local gods that became identified with them is not known. Both, however, seem to have been protectors of herds from wolves, as well as themselves having a wolf nature, and were also worshipped in their wolf identity in other parts of Greece. The most famous early werewolf, however, was Lycaon, an early Arcadian king who secretly served Zeus human flesh at a meal, and was punished by being turned into a wolf.
Zeus transforming Lycaon to a wolf
Lycaon was said to be the son of King Pelasgia of Arcadia. "Pelasgians" was the term the Greeks used for the pre-Greek inhabitants of Greece, and so the implication is that the story of King Lycaon is very old, and probably originally belonged to a different pattern of belief.
According to the story, King Lycaon served Zeus human flesh, attempting somehow by this means to test Zeus' divinity or, in other version, served him human flesh, not knowing that it was Zeus, or in yet other versions he offended Zeus by performing human sacrifice. According to tradition Lycaon also had a large number of sons, ranging from twenty to fifty. In some verysions of the story they two are transformed into wolves. His daughter Callisto becomes one of Zeus' lovers. Callisto was probably an important goddess, at least locally, since becoming one of Zeus' lovers is a common way of connecting a local cult to the Olympian religion.
Another werewolf story from the ancient world is equally lacking in erotic content, this one from Roman fiction rather than from Greek myth. In Petronius' Satyricon (late 1st century A.D.), a wealthy freed man and friend of Trimalcio tells of a werewolf encounter from his early adulthood. At the time he is still a slave, and also lover to a tavernkeeper's wife. Hearing of the tavernkeeper's death, he is very eager to visit her. He inlists a soldier to keep him company as far as the fifth milestone. As in so many werewolf stories, the moon is full and bright when they stop in a graveyard, a deserted area beyond the city walls, where the soldier goes off among the stones to defecate, leaving the narrator alone and very nervous. He goes in search of the soldier and sees him standing naked with his clothing in a heap on the ground. The soldier pisses in a circle around the clothing, and they turn to stone, and he into a wolf. He started to howl, then ran off toward the woods. When the narrator finally arrives at his lover's house, he learns that there has been a wolf attack on the flock, and that the wolf had been wounded in the neck. When the narrator arrives home, the soldier is lying in bed with a wound in his neck, and being tended by a doctor.
Being fiction rather than myth, this story is simpler and more coherent than that of Lycaon, and contains a number of typical elements. The wound that remains after the transformation back to humanity, and identifies the wounded person as a shapeshifter, is very common in folklore and fiction. Also, though our werewolf nature may be already present, it requires a trigger. Some of the most common are a curse (as in the case of Lycaon), being bitten by a werewolf, putting on a wolf skin, or the effect of the full moon, as in this and many other werewolf stories.
There is a sexual element in this story--the narrator's hope to consummate an adulterous affair, but nearly everything in the Satyricon has a sexual element, this less than much else. For us, the sexual significance of such stories is the freeing of our passionate and spontaneous animal nature. This does not seem to be as much a value for the ancients, who seem more afraid of, and less attracted by the animal side. The difference is probably 2,000 years of Christianity, with its emphasis on repression and control; we are probably far more in need of rediscovering our animal nature than our ancient ancestors were.
The association between the full moon and transformation to a werewolf is so pervasive in films, that we could be tempted to think of it as a Hollywood invention. However, it is not. The moon, because it goes through phases, has always been associated with transformation. We might argue that the full moon in the story from Petronius was merely a device of the story to make the transformation visible to the narrator, but in the Norse Volsunga Saga it is explicitly stated that Sigurd and Sinfjotli cannot leave their wolf form until the moon changes. This story also contains another standard element--they become werewolves by donning wolf skins. Some scholars have argued that this feature is evidence that the whole werewolf motif is an element of shamanism. Taking an an animal identity for various purposes is a shamanic activity, and in many cases it is done by putting on an animal skin. However, the shaman-like quality of becoming a werewolf does not prove that it either is or derives from shamanism.
The Norse identify the wolf with the outlaw, and in this story Sigmund and Sinfjotli are living as outlaws when they find the wolfskins and put them on. Thus, the skins as much identify as transform their natures. Whether they become more explicitly sexual as werewolves the story does not say, but they do become more impulsively violent. Once they don the wolfskins, they part company with an agreement to attack no more than seven men single-handedly. Sinfjotli violates the agreement by attacking and killing eleven men. Sigmund flys into a wolfish rage:
Then Sigmund rushed at him so hard that he staggered and fell, and Sigmund bit him in the throat. Now that day they might not come out of their wolf-skins: but Sigmund lays the other on his back, and bears him home to the house, and cursed the wolf-gears and gave them to the trolls. Now on a day he saw where two weasels went, and how that one bit the other in the throat, and then ran straightway into the thicket, and took up a leaf and laid it on the wound, and thereon his fellow sprang up quite and clean whole; so Sigmund went out and saw a raven flying with a blade of that same herb to him; so he took it and drew it over Sinfjotli's hurt, and he straightway sprang up as whole as though he had never been hurt. Thereafter they went home to their earth-house, and abode there till the time came for them to put off the wolf-shapes; then they burnt them up with fire . . . (Volsunga Saga, Wm. Morris trans. Ch. 8)
The god Odin is the founder and patron of the Volsung family, and so it is an indication of Odin's favor that his sacred bird brings the herb of renewal. Many details of this story are surprisingly similar to a Cretan myth from 2,000 or so years earlier, but that subject is discussed on the "Cretan Myth" page of the Meadhall website.
Werewolves are often associated with serial killers. Eddie Quist in The Howling was presented as fairly typical of the modern concept of what a serial killer is. Sigmund and Sinfjotli, though at this point in the story they live by killing and robbing travelers, do not quite fit our image of serial killers. The killing is mostly practical in intent rather than an end in itself, and it is a phase of their lives that end once they have achieved revenge on King Siggier. In fact, "serial killer" is an exclusively modern concept. The concept is modern, but not the fact. Such behavior, sometimes combined with cannibalism, could only be seen as nonhuman both by society at large and by the perpetrator. The behavior of such beings seemed to suggest a transformation into something nonhuman--typically into a wolf. The psycho-sexual motivation behind most serial killers was no recognized, though evidence of it is normally present.
One of the best known historical werewolves Was Peter Stubbe, executed in Germany in 1589. Nearly all of our information comes from an English translation of a single pamphlet, since som many records were destroyed in the chaotic politics of the Reformation. According to his confession, Peter Stubbe's transformation was caused by a belt given him by the devil, though he seems to have killed in both human and wolf form. He was convicted of killing at least sixteen humans, nearly all women and children, and an indefinite number of livestock. The charge also includes cannibalism, rape of some of the victims, and incest with his daughter, as well as the murder and cannibalism of his child by her. He also had a mistress, and claimed to have slept nightly with a succubus provided by the devil as well. We are understandibly skeptical about confessions obtained under torture or the threat of torture, but the fact that so much of the confession fits with details familiar from more modern serial killer cases lends it some credibility. The daughter and mistress were implicated in some of the crimes as well, and executed along with Stubbe.
Here is a description from the pamphlet of the werewolf. It is rather reminiscent of the wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood:" ". . . he was straight transformed into the likeness of a greedy deuouring Woolf, strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkled like vnto brandes of fire, a mouth great and wide, with most sharpe and cruell teeth, A huge body and mighty pawes." For the text of the whole pamphlet, go to
The many accounts of werewolves and cannibalism from Germany and central Europe during the Renaissance are no doubt partly a result of the religious fervor and widespread persecution aroused by the Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, but a part of it may also be the result of the endless wars and famines of the period. Cannibalism, though one of the strongest of human taboos, is often less powerful than hunger, as many well-documented examples, both ancient and modern, have shown.
A particularly lurid and famous example of cannibalism, though without a werewolf theme, is that of Sawney Beane. According to this story the robbery, murder, and cannibalism carried on by Sawney Beane and his extended family of forty-eight men, women, and children continued over a period of many years. But at last an intended victim escaped and led the king and his men to the vicinity of the attack. There the bloodhounds discovered the scent in a tidal cave. The whole extended family was captured, and summarily executed. This is an extremely well known story, and seems verified by the specific nature of the details and the matter-of-fact nature of the narration. Even the specific number forty-eight seems to lend authenticity. There is disagreement, however, over the time of these events, and a total lack of any contemporary accounts. Besides, it seems impossible that so large a number could inhabit even an isolated cave undetected over so long a period while supporting themselves exclusively by cannibalism and murder. (The estimated number of victims is around a thousand, only one of which escaped to tell the tale.) More likely we have wandered into the realm of myth and archetype. Cave-dwelling cannibals are as old as Homer's Odyssey, and probably much older, and as recent as Michael Crichton's The 13th Warrior. Perhaps they represent a racial memory from before history. Or perhaps not--such speculation is interesting, but seldom very productive. For the whole lively account of Sawney Beane and his cannibal family, go to usersites.horrorfind.com/home/horror/.../library/beane.html
A much better documented monster, and one closer to the werewolf tradition is the Beast of Gevaudan. Both the geography and time period of this creature is well established--south-central France, and the mid-18th century. This is one of the most mysterious of such cases, as well as one of the best documented. The number of victims was over sixty, perhaps as many as a hundred, and in several cases the creature was driven off before killing its victim, so that there were numerous descriptions of its appearance and behavior. In some reported attacks there may have been a man present, suggesting the possibility of a trained animal, and suspicion has fallen on the man who claimed credit for finally killing the beast. Speculation continues to the present about what the beast was, since in many respects its appearance and behavior does not sound wolf-like. There have been suggestions of a hybrid animal, or of an Asian hyena. The subject has inspired several books and movies, probably including the Haitian novel The Beast of the Haitian Hills, by Pierre and Philippe Marcelin, in which an unscrupulous Voodoo priest trains a large vicious dog to play the role of a supernatural monster, and the more famous Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles. For more on this famous creature, see: www.qsl.net/w5www/gevaudan.html or any of numerous other sites.
In spite of the archetypal fear wolves inspire, wolf attacks have been relatively rare in North America, perhaps because all but the shyest and most elusive wolves were wiped out early in our history. Attacks in India, however, have always been common, and seem to be becoming more frequent, perhaps because both the human and wolf populations are growing, and therefore becoming more competitive. Familiarity, however, has not made the wolf less of a mythic creature even in India, where the peasants often blame wolf attacks on werewolves rather than merely biological ones. Here is an account by a ten year old girl of how a wolf carried off her brother: "As it grabbed Anand, it rose onto two legs until it was tall as a man," she said. "Then it threw him over its shoulder. It was wearing a black coat, and a helmet and goggles." (http://www.wolfsongalaska.org/Wolves_South_Asia_Lore.htm) We ae reminded of another touch of description--"But what big eyes you have!" from "Little Red Riding Hood." The child was actually carried off, but the girl's memory of the event has made it something more, a werewolf story.
Why are we so quick to see the wolf as a kindred being? I'm not sure, though perhaps just as the wolf is the wild version of our friend the dog, the werewolf is the wild version of ourselves. And though not a werewolf, the legendary founder of Rome, Romulus and his brother Remus were nursed by wolves, just as a couple of millennia later the feral child of Kipling's Jungle Book is raised by wolves.
It should be apparent by now that the wolf is for us the archetypal predator. The wolf devours. We have heard less about the wolf as sexual predator--this seems to be an assoication more pervasive in modern times than it was earlier. Of course devouring can be an expression of intimacy, as we learn from Jeffrey Dahmer, or from the wild things in Where the Wild Things Are: "Oh please don't go--we'll eat you up, we love you so."
According to Ernest Hemingway, the term "wolf" was commonly applied to homosexual predators among tramps, and that it was necessary to have a knife and be willing to use it to be safe from them. (Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. New York: Scribners 1964. p. 18.) Only later, according to Hemingway the term was generally applied to men who are sexually agressive toward women. In any case, this was the most frequent meaning of "wolf" throughout the 20th century, though it seems to have become less common by century's end.
But we all still know what a wolf whistle is, and are familiar with cartoons in which a man who is suddenly sexually attracted to a woman is pictured with a wolf's head and long tongue.
Of course the wolf as sexual predator is not an exclusively modern concept--after all, a predator is a predator, whether it is sexual predation or some other kind. The most classic older example is the wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood." On the surface, this story seems to be about devouring rather than sexual predation, but songwriters know better. Go to YouTube and listen to these two songs for the sexual symbolism in the story-- "Little Red Riding Hood" by the Big Bopper (1858), and "Little Red Riding Hood" by Sam the Sham and the Pharaoh's (1966).
In both songs the singer takes the role of the wolf. In the Big Bopper's song he comes across both more comic and more predatory--grandmother's worst nightmare.
Question: Which of these songs do you think is better? Why? Which catches more of the feel of the story?
Many fairy tales deal with issues of maturation and sexual coming of age. Often it is not a smooth course; if it was, we wouldn't have much of a story. Ultimately, however, matters usually resolve themselves in an affirmative way, and the heroine gets married and lives happily ever after. (See "The Goose Girl," for instance.) Little Red Riding Hood is unusual in that there is no resolution in the oldest version, that published by Charles Perrault. In that version there are only four characters--the generations of women, and one very masculine and predatory wolf. The whole story expresses a hostile view of the male sex, and is a warning against males, with no suggestion of any possible peace or compromise, and the story ends with the wolf eating Little Red Riding Hood. This ending is not very satisfying in itself, and besides, it violates our expectations. In the German versions an ending was imported from another story, "The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids." In this story, the mother goat finds the wolf asleep, cuts him open, lets her seven young out (The story doesn't say how this particular goat managed to produce a whole litter.), and sewed the wolf back up. This ending, with a hunter or woodcutter substituted for the mother goat, does little for the psychological dynamic of the story, but it does round it out with the expected happy ending.
Like in other psychologically dynamic fairy tales, "The Goose Girl," for instance, there are elements of the story that do not make a lot of sense, though readers seldom seem to notice--a sure indication that these details are working effectively on some level, even if not on the level of everyday logic. Some readers, even scholarly ones, have complained about the mother sending her daughter out in a forest that she knows is full of wolves, but this is only what most mothers do--send their daughters out in the world with warnings about straying off the path and picking flowers, then hope for the best. What is the alternative? To hover over them for the rest of their lives? There are mothers who do that, but usually not with happy results.
At a literal level, the wolf could just as well eat Little Red Riding Hood on the spot. Perrault apparently notices that, and so provides some nearby woodcutters as an escuse for not eating Red Riding Hood on the spot. There is no logical reason they have to be devoured in a certain order, or even in close sequence. However, we have seen that wandering off the path, and gathering flowers are both metaphor for sexual indescretion. As for the red cloak and hood, most critics who takee a psychological see it a symbolically important. Considering the economy of fairy tales in general with their lack of any detail not somehow relevant to the plot, it is difficult to believe that the the garment is not important. Further, though variants of a story differ on details, the Grimm version, "Little Red Cap," retains this feature, further supporting it's importance. The red cap also appears in the Italian version, though the wolf has been transformed to an ogre.
Questions: What is the psychological significance of the wolf's masquerading as the grandmother?
What symbolic or psychological significance does the red cap or hood have for the story?
Gustave Dore. "Little Red Riding Hood." A rather perverse picture, considering the youth of the victim.
One of the most memorable elements of the story is the sequence of observations--"What big eyes you have," and so on. Here is a part of that from Perrault usually left out of modern retellings: "Little Red Riding Hood took off her clothes and got into bed. She was greatly amazed to see how her grandmother looked in her nightclothes, and said to her, 'Grandmother, what big arms you have!'/ 'All the better to hug you with, my dear.'"
Perrault ends the story with a moral, making it as much a fable as a fairy tale. The moral also shows that Perrault is fully conscious of the sexual nature of the story:
Children, especially attractive, well-bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for
if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say "wolf," but there are
various kinds of wolves. There are also those who charming, quiet, polite, unassuming,
complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And
unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.
There are numerous versions of this story from varous parts of Europe. In most, the girl undresses and gets into bed. Only the German versions leave this detail out, and add the hunter or woodcutter who arrives to save the day. Both differences may well go back to the Grimms, who made cosmetic changes in their stories more freely than is generally realized.
Final assignment for this unit: Watch the film "The Company of Wolves," and write a 1,000 word essay on what the ending means, and whether it represents a psychological ajustment and coming of age such as we often do find in fairy tales, though not in other versions of this story.
The belief in an animal nature in humans is ancient and universal. It is an important element in shamansim, and many other patterns of belief. Witches are traditionally said to have familiars--companion animals which were, or are a part of their identity. The Vikings had Berserks (bear-shirts), warriors who would take on the strength and ferocity of bears in battle. Berserks are historical, but we do not know how warriors entered into that state. There are totem animals, both for groups and individuals, which share their natures with their human counterparts. There are multiple terms for such entities, such as "fetches" in English. There is a long shamanistic tradition of faring forth in bird or animal form. There are leopard men in Africa, and as we have already heard, fox, horse, swan, and seal men and women as well as werewolves. What all this means, I am not entirely sure, though I am not going to argue against the validity of something so basic to human experience in all times and places.
The matter becomes stranger and more complex, however, when we have people identifying themselves with comic cartoon animals and stuffed (in the sense of toy, not taxidermy) animals. There is a small, but fairly vocal group, however, who do so. This cannot be a particularly old preoccupation, since cartoon animals only go back to the early 20th century. It is not surprising that some people are interested in cartoon characters, like to draw them, and even to create their own, and no doubt this simple preoccupation is a large part of the "furry" phenomenon. There is an obsessive quality, however, about the development of elaborate and in some cases expensive costumes, the furry gatherings, the many internet sites, and the insistence that one is in some real way that which he is impersonating, and that others acknowledge the reality of that identification. There is even discussion of the "furry lifestyle," suggesting that dressing like an animal, in most cases a cartoon one, can be something beyond a mere hobby.
There are many interests represented on the internet, some of them anti-social and vile by almost any standards, and so it is surprising to find how much hostility there is toward what on the surface of it would seem to be an odd, somewhat silly, but basically harmless obsession. The primary objection seems to be sexual, that some of this subset defend, and even indulge in sex with animals, while others do not actively reject it. Defenders claim that all this is a typical example of press sensationalism, and that as a group they are merely into celebrating cartoon and cartoonish characters. It is undeniable that the press does tend to emphasise what is most extreme and most sensational at the expense of what is most representative. There are enough sexual pictures on the furry sites, however, to give one pause, and there are posted arguments in faver of molesting animals, as well as celebrating sex while wearing animal costumes.
Here as in so many other cases the internet is a mixed blessing. It does allow like-minded people to get together, and if they are a small minority, the whole world can supply enough people to still make it a substantial group. On the other hand, if one is obsessive enough to spend most of his time socializing online with like-minded people, the perverse and abnormal can come to seem generally accepted. Such is the case with people who gather online to celebrate incest, and much else. People who are obsessed with celebrating a comic animal identity in a comic animal costume are not likely to be socially very adept, and many are underemployed. This particular subset is also overwhelmingly both young and male--too many hormones with too little outlet.
Personally, I really do not know what to think of all this. Is the desire to identify with a cartoon animal actually connected at all with other animal identifications throughout human history and cultures? I am not even quite sure what other questions to ask, so I'll leave it as "?"--I supply the question mark at the end, and you supply the answer to whatever question you can find. But first Google "Furries," and see what all you get.