Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: folklore, latin, literature, lizards, reptiles, science, top ten
One of my secret, silly passions in life is the history of biology, and from that rich and varied history, one of my favorite parts is the medieval bestiary. For those of you who have never seen one, a bestiary was a richly illustrated textbook somewhere between Animal Planet and Sunday School. Illustrations of animals would be accompanied by text that described, in greater or lesser detail, their natural history, and what religious lessons could be drawn from these animals and their lives: Pelicans, for example, said to feed their young on their own blood, represented the incredible mercy and self-sacrifice of Christ, while serpents, of any kind, generally represented the devil.
Now, medieval bestiaries were written by monks, who very rarely got into the fresh air, and while they might have been fairly familiar with the habits of common barnyard dogs and cats, they had to take a little license and a lot of faith when describing animals they had never seen; like crocodiles, elephants and giraffes. Understandably, they didn’t always get things right: while we might, today, associate the giraffe with the fabulous camelopard, it’s a far cry from its description today, and no one has yet found a living unicorn or (my personal favorite) bonnacon.
That being said, sometimes natural history has a way of sneaking back on you and asserting itself in the strangest of medieval legends. Take the following passage from Isidore of Seville (my very rough translation follows, and better classicists than me are invited to tell me that I have failed).
Amphisbaena dicta, eo quod duo capita habeat, unum in loco suo, alterum in cauda, currens ex utroque capite, tractu corporis circulato. Haec sola serpentium frigori se committit […] Cuius oculi lucent veluti lucernae.
Etymologies, Book 12
It is said of the Amphisbaena that it is a serpent with two heads, one in its proper place, the other on the tail. It can run in the direction of either head, moving its body in a circular motion. This is the only snake able to live in the cold. His eyes shine like lamps.
Like I said, I’m no classicist, and the translation is a pretty rough one. (I know enough to get the gist of a text, not enough to stake my life on knowing what it says.) But, what’s interesting is that there’s a real-life beast called an amphisbaenian, named after the mythological monster.
And while they don’t look exactly like their medieval counterparts, they are more similar than you might think. We’re going to take a look at one particularly unique member of the group. So, by all means, read on to find out more. Continue reading
So, Richard Dawkins has proposed a project, aimed at school-aged children, to determine whether or not fairy tales and fantasy literature are ‘harmful’ to children, because they have an “insidious affect on rationality.” Dawkins admits to being a fan of science fiction (after all, he was good friends with Douglas Adams, and even married Doctor Who’s Romana) as a tool for inspiring imagination among its readers, and admits to being a fan of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. And given his overt concern with science education for children and the insidious effects of religion and irrationality in the religious right, it’s not surprising that he wants to root out irrationality where ever it pokes out its dirty head. His Dark Materials plays directly into his agenda, with its message of undermining authority and putting self-discovery ahead of superstition, and, on the outside, his argument that teaching children that frogs can turn into princes is dangerous to a rational understanding of the world seems to make some sense.
But when we look closer his argument falls apart. Since when is it the business of a fairy tale to teach rationality? And since when has The Princess and the Pea been taught as Gospel truth? The Harry Potter phenomenon may have spread across the world in a fire of wizardry and magic, but these are books that are placed firmly in the ‘Fiction’ section, and I doubt very seriously that there is a large, violent cohort of Harry Potter believers who insist that Hogwarts is a real place, and that all Slytherins have an inherent capacity for evil. Mary Sue self insertions into fanfiction may be irritating, but they lie purely within the realm of imaginary constructs, not real life. The words ‘Avada Kedavra’ are not expected to have an effect in the real world, and there are few, if any adults who teach their children that they can fly on brooms, if they overcome their Muggle side. Dawkins is campaigning against fiction which is clearly marketed, sold, branded and taught as such, and if a reading of fiction has a negative effect on rationality, we would expect it to come as much from science fiction as from fantasy — after all, who wouldn’t love to be swept off in the TARDIS to explore unknown space and time?
Worse yet, the argument against fairy tales is an argument against the fundamentals of culture, humanity, history and identity. Fairy tales, mythology and folklore hold a place of importance for us, and are found across all of the cultures of the globe. It is true that some religious myths explain how things came to be — things which are, in many ways, better addressed by scientific explanations and methods — but that is not their primary function. Fairy tales, like all stories, teach the value of imagination, of other worlds and other ways of being, and give us the resources, archetypes and perspectives to define not only who we are, but also who we ought to be. Fairy tales transmit culture, give us a sense of history, culture and place, and define the norms and ethics that make us who we are. When Abraham bargained with his god to save the citizens of Sodom, he wasn’t just a man — he was an archetype and an example, a symbol of a person’s duty to challenge even his god in the face of deeply troubling and unethical acts. The Little Mermaid was more than a love story — it was an example of ultimate sacrifice and making hard ethical choices in the face of impossible odds. With these stories, people can frame and define themselves, using their framework to determine who they want to be. Fairy tales aren’t just about imagination or rationality. They’re about ethics, self-definition and identity, and give us the tools to forge our minds and our choices from an early age, based on an understanding of what was important to our parents and society and what is important to ourselves.
“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
These archetypes develop and re-emerge in every generation, and the stories that we tell our children today change through time. Disney’s Mulan (while plagued by problems of Orientalism, misrepresentation of Chinese culture and problematic portrayals of women’s romantic and emotional passivity) certainly presents a different side to women and their strength than do the rape romances of the middle ages. We certainly need to choose our archetypes carefully, and the current sterility of children’s fairy tale exposure is a worrying phenomenon. But this does not mean that fairy tales are without value. Suggesting that any fiction which does not present scientific rationality as the be-all and end-all of human existence lacks value is a dangerous precedent, and leads us to a world where the only self-definition children are allowed is that which is strictly confined by the borders of reason. Love, ethics and identity often transcend reason, and should not be devalued for it.