Animals, Sexual Symbolism of

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender. Editor: Fedwa Malti-Douglas. Volume 1. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 

Humans have always shared their world with other animals, both feral and domesticated. As predator, prey, and companion, animals have served a variety of purposes: source of food, provider of clothing, assistant in hunting and herding, source of spectacle and amusement, and docile laborer. Some of the earliest human attempts at representational art center on beasts, which are portrayed in cave paintings in vigorous hunt scenes. Every culture has its favored animals, fauna that seem suspended between the human and the diabolical or divine: Egyptian cats, jackals, and beetles; the biblical Leviathan; Cretan bulls; Hindu cows, monkeys, and elephants; early Christian fish and lambs; American Indian buffalo and deer; and Inuit whales and seals.

The animals that haunt the imagination most are what might be called intimate aliens: undeniably familiar but intransigently strange. Even if they seem vaguely anthropomorphic, such beasts remain inhuman, residents of a liminal or in-between state that only increases their allure. This combination of intimacy and otherness typically is found in animals that have been given a sexual charge in specific cultures. Although certain creatures, such as snakes, have a seemingly universal aura of lasciviousness, whether a particular animal will be employed as a sexual sign is culturally specific and depends greatly on the animals that populate a particular geography. This expanse is as imaginative as it is physical: Dragons and unicorns can coexist in such spaces with dogs, horses, serpents, and hares.

As erotic figures animals have an ancient and enduring history, from Stone Age artwork to contemporary Internet sites devoted to zoophilia, zoomorphism, and furries (fans of anthropomorphic animals in contemporary media). During the Bronze Age (1800-500 BCE), for example, unknown residents of what is now the northern Bohuslän district of Sweden carved illustrations of men, women, and fauna into the local rocks. Many of those figures seem to be engaged in fertility rites. One scene depicts a man with an enormous phallus copulating with a cow, a union of human and animal that probably was motivated by a desire to ensure a productive year. Roughly contemporary carvings in Italy depict one man engaged in coitus with a donkey and another attempting to mate with an elk.

Representations of humans sexually conjoined with animals make cultural sense in pastoral societies in which survival depends on the increase and multiplication of flocks. The mutual dependence of human and herd is underscored by mutual ardor and life-giving union. Depictions of bestiality also can be found among peoples whose way of life was mainly agrarian, because the sexuality of plowing oxen was intimately related on a symbolic level with the sexuality of the farmer guiding them and the fecundity of the fields. In both cases the erotic charge of the animal is in some ways utilitarian, motivated by the human desire to exert control over an unpredictable world.

However, cultural use value and attempts at asserting human dominion over nature cannot be the whole story. Because they combine haunting similarity with perturbing difference and proximity with otherness, animals have long been the vehicles through which humans explore their own identities. Through the beast, humans fantasize of new possibilities and enact forbidden desires. Thus, it is not surprising that one of the most ancient functions of the animal is as an erotic symbol. In ways both positive and negative humans have always realized that amatory desire is, like other bodily drives, a passion Homo sapiens shares with other animals.

Animal Imagery in the Classical World

The rooster was a familiar ancient Greek erotic symbol, forming the animal counterpart to the god Priapus. A bronze Corinthian mirror illustrates Eros grasping the bird in front of his crotch, and there are numerous vase paintings on which the active lover in a homosexual tryst holds a cock, the symbol of his victory in love over his partner. Classical myth depicts many unions of mortals with animals, though in most cases the beast turns out to be a god in disguise. Zeus impersonates a swan fleeing an eagle to be admitted into Leda’s protective embrace. He has his way with her, and their union produces twin progeny. Zeus seduces the maiden Europa while shaped like a bull. In punishment for her husband’s offense of admiring a beautiful white bull too much to sacrifice it to Poseidon, Queen Pasiphae of Crete is made to fall in love with the animal. Their amorous conjoining is enabled by a special device fashioned by the inventor Daedalus, and the son of their union is the Minotaur. This creature forever suspended between the human and the bestial embodies the animal as erotic symbol, for no beast can symbolize human sexuality or activate human desire until it has been partially (but only partially) anthropomorphized.

Writers in ancient Greece and Rome exhibited what seems to be a timeless male penchant to speak of the penis as if it has an existence and personality distinct from the body to which it is attached. The male member was described variously as a snake, a lizard, or a bird that follows its own inclinations (Adams 1982). Of these three animals the snake has the most cross-cultural currency as a phallic symbol, probably by reason of analogy. Animal doppelgangers of the vagina in classical sources appear less frequently, though porcus (the piglet) apparently was used in Roman nurseries (Adams 1982). The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) described the snake-headed Medusa as a representation of the female genitals, but it is unclear if Greek and Roman mythographers saw the same fearful image there. Although Medusa heads are familiar icons on Greek vases and in Roman mosaics and although the writhing serpents that form her tresses have an undeniable sexual charge to their undulations, what is significant about the Medusa in classical literature and art is her stunning beauty, her animal-enabled allure. This attractiveness does not seem different from what remains in the mortal love objects of the gods once the goddesses have transfigured them out of human shape. Io, formerly a priestess of Hera adored by Zeus and later a snow-white heifer, is radiant in either form.

Animal Imagery in the Middle Ages

The playful connections between genitals and animals found in classical sources have a medieval analogue in the fabliaux, short stories with sexual or scatological themes. Sex organs are described with animal epithets such as “ferret” and “horsy” for the penis and “little hare” for the vagina. Fabliaux are unusual among extant medieval texts for their frank celebration of the erotic.

Building on a vocabulary developed by the Church Fathers, authors in the Middle Ages more typically employed animals to underscore the necessity of human mastery over the flesh. Thus in the Life of Saint Anthony, a desert-dwelling hermit who has renounced sexual relations is haunted in his solitude by his lust. In his visions this return of sexual desire takes the form sometimes of women and sometimes of beasts, making clear another enduring twinning: The female body frequently is coded as more animalistic than the male. In Saint Jerome’s Life of Saint Hilarion (late fourth century), when the aspiring ascetic is tormented by the onset of puberty, he beats his body into submission. Hilarion describes his flesh as an ass in need of brutal domestication, articulating a logic that will hold true in much medieval thinking about beasts: Animals are carnal and lascivious and do not hesitate to act on their lusts; humans are affected by the same desires, but what sets humans—especially the holiest humans—apart is their ability to triumph over their animal-like bodies. Medieval rhetoric linked sexuality to bestiality so often that the connection between lust and animals was commonplace.

A compendium of allegory and lore called the Physiologus was among the most influential texts on animals to have been bequeathed to the Middle Ages. Composed originally in Greek, perhaps at Alexandria, this widely extant text was circulated by the end of the fourth century. Its entries combine science and folklore deriving from Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Jewish, and Indian sources. Early translations of the book into Ethiopian, Syrian, Armenian, and Latin survive; later versions include Old English, Old High German, Icelandic, Flemish, Russian, and Provençal (Physiologus, preface). The work remained popular in Europe through the early modern period.

The appeal of the Physiologus lay in part in its transformation of animals and natural phenomena into biblical truths. The owl, for example, represented the Jews, whose refusal to see the light of Christ’s truth doomed them to perpetual night. The Phoenix, reborn from his own ashes, was a type for Jesus, who similarly returned from the dead. Several of the animals described in the Physiologus are noted for their sexual habits. The female viper, for example, is said to possess a human form from the face to the navel and a crocodile’s body thereafter. Because she does not possess genitals, the viper must have oral sex with her partner (which, it is mentioned, has a male’s face as well as—one is led to assume—a penis). After drinking the semen of her lover, she castrates and kills him. Because she has no vagina, however, the young vipers engendered through this mating must rip their way through her belly, ending her life. The entry concludes by describing the viper as a figure for the Jews, who cannot think symbolically but only in literal terms. Jews practice circumcision on their flesh, for example, rather than seeing this ritual of covenant with God as an act to be undertaken only spiritually (that is, metaphorically). The viper thereby assists in articulating Christian identity by distinguishing it from the Judaism from which it emerged.

The weasel also is said to copulate orally, though she gives birth through her ears (right for boys, left for girls). Weasels, it is pointed out, are a symbol of those who allow wicked sayings to enter their minds and engender sin. The beautiful unicorn cannot be captured by hunters, but if a chaste maiden offers her lap, he is happy to lay his head there; lest the image become suggestive, the reader is told immediately that the unicorn is Christ, the virgin is Mary, and there is (by implication) nothing sexual about this strange equine’s ardor for placing his long horn in maidenly laps.

The Physiologus, like much early Christian writing, stresses the value of chastity and the dangers of desire. One of its animals is notable for its complete absence of amorous feeling. The elephant and his wife symbolize Adam and Eve, who before the snake led them into temptation never desired each other and had no knowledge of coitus. Elephants, Physiologus asserts, mate only out of necessity and even then would not be able to copulate without the use of the aphrodisiac mandrake root. Elephants thus are the purest of animals and an inspiration to abstinence.

It is hard not to wonder whether the eroticism of animals such as vipers, weasels, and unicorns can be displaced so easily through allegorization. Surely one of the appeals of the Physiologus is its narration of fellatio, hermaphroditism, and homosexuality among beasts even as it transforms those stories into tidy Christian morals.

Thus, the fascinating story of the hyena is repeated almost obsessively in most medieval bestiaries. A creature of two natures, this desert-dwelling animal sometimes acts the part of a male and sometimes that of a female. According to Clement of Alexandria (died c. 215) and many later writers, the lewd hyena possesses the sexual organs of both sexes and employs them promiscuously (Boswell 1980). The hyena may simply, as the Latin Physiologus asserts, be a figure for the inconstant Jews, who once worshipped the true God but have turned away. Perhaps the double-gendered beast is simply a representation of the synagogue, metaphorically an unclean animal. However, perhaps the hyena as an erotic animal grants something not otherwise available within circumscriptive systems of allegory and abnegation: a figure through which can be dreamed potentialities and desires that otherwise are not easy to express.

Sexuality brings humans outside themselves; it is the surrender to a loss of individuality. Animals as erotic symbols in the Middle Ages often represent the anxieties that accompany such potential loss, but they also convey a certain inventiveness, a certain promise of possibilities beyond the limits of the merely human.

The twelfth-century writer Marie de France knew this liberating potential of the animal. In a narrative poem she called Yonec, the heroine is imprisoned for seven lonely years by an elderly husband whom she cannot love. After she has declared wistfully that she wishes that the world depicted in romances were true, a regal hawk flutters into her room and transforms itself into a knight. The hawk was considered an aristocratic bird, as revered as the warhorse and the greyhound; it makes a perfect animal counterpart to the lady’s new love, mixing hints of danger (it is, after all, a raptor) and desire (the bird is meant to be adored; the use of spikes by the lady’s husband to kill the hawk is the ultimate proof of his exclusion from the story’s erotic world).

The ethnographer and apologist for the English invasion of Ireland, Gerald of Wales, another twelfth-century author, employed animals as sexual symbols in a way that bears little resemblance to the aesthetic pleasure attached to the hawk in Yonec. Eager to depict the Irish as a degenerate people in need of English civilization, Gerald wrote that bestiality was their favorite vice. The sin was practiced most often, he asserted in the History and Topography of Ireland, against cattle. This was particularly insulting because the Irish were a society that reckoned wealth and status not according to money as in England but according to the number of cows a person owned. Gerald sexualizes this bond between the Irish and their culturally revered beasts, insisting that through coitus with their livestock the Irish had engendered numerous man-animal hybrids, Hibernian Minotaurs. A cleric who had much at stake in maintaining the supremacy of a celibate identity, Gerald also wrote of a woman who had sex with a lion and another who lay with a goat. So great was his distaste for the subject that he illustrated the bestial encounters in prurient detail. The goat and the lion serve as sexual symbols for Gerald, but rejected ones; in both cases, so do the women, as well as the Irish. All are part of a world denied to him, a world he defined himself against, and therefore a world to be denounced as never having been desirable anyway.

The Implications of Animal Imagery

Rock carvings of couplings with oxen, queer Greek roosters, Pasiphae’s longing for the white bull, Gerald’s fantasies about Irish sexual practices, and King Kong’s love for a beautiful visitor to his lonely island all have this in common: When an animal serves as an erotic symbol, it erodes the boundary between species, sometimes through joyful commingling, sometimes accompanied by horror mixed with fascination. As intimate aliens, animals embody a very human ambivalence. Because the encounter with the erotic is an encounter with the other, interspecies ardor reminds people of the inhuman within and the human without. Animals as sexual symbols suggest the insufficiency of using other animals as creatures to define humanity against and the inability of humans to control completely the meanings of the animal world. By bringing people out of their proper, individualized identities, by bringing embodiment to its limit, they offer a glimpse of a less anthropocentric and thus more unpredictable world.