March 14, 2011

Larger Than Life

Print More

In modern times, humanity has become so self-sufficient in its technological prowess that we forget that humans really are just another type of animal, and that from time immemorial, the fearsome and awful power of the natural world has left a deep and indelible imprint upon our collective psyche. The Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections’ new Animal Legends exhibit, which will run from Mar. 4 to Sept. 30, is a timely reminder of just how deeply the creatures that share our world have shaped our cultures and enriched our literature.

What are these eponymous animal legends? Simply put, they are idealized conceptions of certain aspects of animal nature that societies, both ancient and modern, have seized upon to fulfill some metaphorical, mythical or allegorical function. All societies have them. Even Cornell has one — our famous bear mascot, that symbolizes the school and all it stands for during intercollegiate and varsity sporting events. The exhibit showcases artifacts that tie into thematically distinct, culturally unique representations of some of these legends. The Trojan Horse, for example, is now a universally recognized symbol for an ill-intentioned gift. Godzilla, to take another, seems on the surface to reflect the primal human fear of giant fire-breathing monster lizards obliterating major urban centers, but may more subtly be an indication of a deep-seated Japanese cultural abhorrence to nuclear weapons (since Godzilla was born from the effects of nuclear waste). Others are equally common but less obvious: Mickey Mouse, that beloved icon of Disney, who was in fact intended to be an animated exemplar of American civic-spiritedness to generations of American children;­­ and Donald Duck, his less straight-laced but equally patriotic compatriot. These animal creations serve a superficial purpose of entertainment, but also reflect the intentions of their creators to reflect an underlying sociocultural message.

The exhibit also showcases cultural attitudes from the distant past, but on the other end of the historical spectrum. Christian symbology and mythology are rife with examples of animal motifs. A French devotional book from the 1450s depicts the animal forms of the four Evangelists, symbolizing four aspects of Christ: a human figure for his human nature, an eagle for its exalted position, a winged lion for its status as king and a winged ox for its sacrifice and labor for humanity. The Genesis myth of the flood and the ark was also a popular subject for medieval artists and reflected the prevalent attitudes of the time: the strict hierarchical orderings of the animal kingdom reflecting a similar emphasis on hierarchy in human society, and the artists’ attempts to squeeze every known animal, real or imagined, into the ark, reflecting a literal-minded reading of the Bible that persists to this day in certain corners of the United States.

Then there are examples of the use of animals in heraldry and imperial symbolism, which invest those in power in the essence of the animal that they have adopted as their emblem. In one of the exhibit stands there lays a heraldic role depicting the three heraldic lions of the Kings of England, investing the English throne in the essence of the lion as the strongest of the animals. On the other side of the world, the mythical Chinese dragon was appropriated by members of the Emperor’s court as the official Imperial emblem of the Chinese dynasties from the Han onward. More prosaically, the exhibition also showcases instances of animal friendships, both in literature and the real world; fictional and non-fictional accounts of animals that have, for better or worse, been loyal to their human companions. A 1987 Spanish imprint of Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote features Rocinante, Don Quixote’s faithful but spindly steed, on its cover. Similarly, Odysseus’ hound Argos waited for his master’s return for two decades, refusing to die until Odysseus finally returned from his travails among the islands of the Ionian Sea. Closer to home, E.B. White’s ’21 famous works, notably Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, are featured; their protagonists are animal characters that befriend human ones in order to indirectly instruct them about the bonds of friendship and respect for the beauty of nature.

The exhibition is somewhat unique in that it manages to assemble such a wide-ranging, eclectic collection of rare materials, from so many different time periods and cultures, under the banner of a single unifying theme. It only serves to highlight the universality of the effect that animals have exerted on human culture and arts in all cultures and time periods. It provides a fairly eye-opening perspective on a topic that seems to always exist at the forefront of the cultural products of societies but is yet given short role in popular consciousness. If nothing else, it reminds us of our deep-seated psychological ties with the members of the animal kingdom and teaches us that despite our sapience, it is sometimes good to look back and reflect upon the contributions that these animals have made in the construction of our sociocultural identities.

Original Author: Colin Chan