BY JIM MASON
Abstract and Keywords
Our worldview is made of animals. Our views of animals determine how we see nature—the living world, as well as our part in it. Pre-agricultural peoples were intrigued by animals, their behaviors, and powers. In these totemic societies, animals were seen as First Beings, ancestors, and there was a sense of kinship and continuity with the living world.
Domestication upends that and reduces animals from souls and powers to tools and commodities. Agrarian societies invented misothery and other cultural devices to give humans a sense of supremacy and a license to exploit animals and nature. Misothery imposes a negativity in our worldview; we despise too much of the living world—including our own animality, our sexuality, and our bodily functions. This is the root of all alienation.
Keywords: Agrarian, Alienation, Animals, Domestication, Exploitation, Misothery, Worldview
“The basic theriophobic stance is one of disgust at ‘brutish,’ ‘bestial,’ or ‘animalistic’ traits that are suspiciously more frequently predicted of men than of beasts.”(John Rodman, “The Dolphin Papers”1)
“I do not think [the cruelty of wolf killing] comes from some base, atavistic urge, though that may be a part of it. I think it is that we simply do not understand our place in the universe and have not the courage to admit it.”(Barry Holstun Lopez, Of Wolves and Men2)
As Paul Shepard explained it in his 1978 book, Thinking Animals,3 animals empower our speech. Consider these descriptors:
- Jackass, bitch, worm, weasel, dog, pig, rat, turkey, chicken, snake, horse’s ass, leech, shrimp, shark, toad, bird brain—nouns used to insult.
- Mousy, horsey, fishy, crabby, batty, catty, lousy, goosey, mulish, brutish, bestial, sheepish—adjectives for undesirable traits and situations.
- To hog, to dog, to crow, to skunk, to badger, to duck, to bug, to hound, to flounder, to parrot, to grouse—verbs for undesirable behavior.
Joseph Clark lists some 5,000 such expressions in Beastly Folklore.4 John Rodman, Barry Lopez, and many writers have noted how often we use animals in speech meant to demean and disparage.5 In Man and the Natural World, Keith Thomas notes many ways in which animals have been associated with baseness and evil. Satan is depicted with horns and tail—a mixture of beast and man; non-Europeans were “brutish savages” and “filthy animals”; and the poor, the insane, criminals, one’s enemies—all were “beast like.”6
This raises at least a couple of questions: Why are animals so powerful in speech? and Why so much negativity about animals? Another good question is: Is this a problem? We shall see.
A number of writers have noted that our views of animals are the same as our views of nature, or, as I prefer to call it, the living world.7 Animals have always helped us understand the living world because their bodies and behaviors give us a handy way to “see” the vague, formless, chaotic rest of nature. “The terrain, the weather, the land forms, the sky are distressingly continuous and blended.”8 Throughout our evolution as humans, animals have given form, shape, and personality to nature, and, as such, they symbolize nature. True, other things in the world impressed us: dark forests, violent storms, mountains, waterfalls, caves, and other spectacular terrain features. But animals stirred emotions in ways that the rest of the world could not. Anthropologist Pat Shipman writes that we are “more emotionally involved with animals” than plants because we have many things in common.9
Because animals mean the world to us and because they stir such strong feelings, their reduction through domestication and enslavement by the beginner farmers of the ancient Middle East (the Near East to anthropologists) has cut a deep wound in the human psyche and in the Western culture they founded. I emphasize that, for the human mind, not all of nature is out there; there is human nature and nature within as well. We tend to see our wilder passions, such as sexual lust, anger—what Plato called “the wild beast within us”—and our various bodily functions as animalistic, that is, of an animal nature.10 Our vague, shadowy ideas about nature—whether outer or inner—get embodied as animals. Animals give us a way to keep them tangible. As such, animals still are, in Shepard’s words, “a handle for abstractions.”11 Negativity about animals, then, spreads negativity all around—in our worldview, in our views of ourselves.
“Our distant ancestors spent a half a million years admiring the fine points of the old aurochs, the cow’s wild ancestors. … When we took the aurochs into our homes and cow sheds, we deprived the animal of its otherness and double-crossed ourselves.”(Paul Shepard, Thinking Animals12)
It is virtually common knowledge now that the transition from forager to farmer that began 10,000 years ago brought about the greatest psychic and cultural upheaval in the 200,000-year history of our species. It was “the worst mistake in the history of the human race,” wrote popular science writer and University of California, Los Angeles, professor of geography Jared Diamond in his now famous article of the same title in the May 1987 issue of Discover magazine.13 Others believe that the animal side of the agricultural revolution was the much greater force in that upheaval.14 As Shipman puts it, “[T]he process of domesticating an animal is much more intimate, personal, and psychologically powerful than the process of domesticating a plant.”15 Let’s see why.
Consider the world of our distant ancestors, particularly their immediate environments, some tens, even hundreds of thousands of years ago as our brains and minds were developing. They lived out in nature—not separated from the elements and the living world as we are today. They lived on the move, seeking food, and avoiding danger, which gave them extensive knowledge of the plants and animals in their territory. Although we call Homo sapiens “modern humans,” they were nevertheless an extension of a longer, older line of hominids—H. erectus, H. habilis, and so on—who had many more hundreds of thousands of years of essentially the same way of living in and among the other plant and animal life around them. These very old life-ways were already there when Homo evolved, or mutated, into sapiens—people like us having brains and minds with a greater capacity for wondering, dreaming, thinking, and speech.
Early humans would have been intrigued by the animals around them—by the sounds, movements, body shapes, and behaviors strikingly similar to their own. They watched animals walk, run, eat, hide, climb, have sex, fight, play, sleep, urinate, defecate, give birth, care for their young, and die. They saw that animals had eyes, ears, hair, blood, teeth, and other organs, just like theirs. And they noted that some animals had impressive size, speed, strength, and appearance, and engaged in behaviors that humans did not. For early modern humans—I call them primal peoples—animals were the most fascinating and awesome things in the world. They were wonderful for the flowering human mind and culture. It is no wonder, however, that the earliest art, painted 32,000 years ago on cave walls, is mostly animal figures. “Being like us and yet different,” writes biologist Paul Shepard, these animal images “manifest that invisible otherness” that so intrigued primal humans.16 This, the longest part of our evolution, the era of the development of the human mind and culture before agriculture, was when animals were First Beings in their primal people’s creation stories, when they regarded animals as totems, tribal ancestors, Animal Masters, and souls. This long era was “the way of the animal powers,” in the words of mythologist Joseph Campbell.17
The Middle East was the epicenter of the domestication of large herd animals—sheep, goats, cattle, horses, and camels. Their domesticators grew into societies that extended—not often kindly—their influence far and wide.18 As Alfred Crosby says in Ecological Imperialism, “The most important contrast between the Sumerians and their heirs, on the one hand, and the rest of humanity, on the other, involves the matter of livestock.”19 The species and their variations are few, “but they are enormous from the sociological point of view,” according to German sociologist and zoologist Richard Lewinsohn.20 The herder societies—pastoralists to anthropologists—have some traits in common. They were obsessed with their animals, for the herd was the source of their livelihood and of their pride, tribal identity, and wealth. The herders’ ideologies and values serve to build up and maintain the herd (wealth). Paul Shepard lists these characteristics: “[a]ggressive hostility to outsiders, the armed family, feuding and raiding in a male-centered hierarchical organization, the substitution of war for hunting, elaborate arts of sacrifice, monomaniacal pride and suspicion.”21 Sociologists Jean Lenski and Gerhard Lenski list a few more: “marked social inequality … hereditary slavery … raiding and warfare … [and] military advantage over their less mobile agrarian neighbors.”22
But these are the characteristics of fully developed herder societies into the historical period. One has only to read about the empires of Alexander the Great, the Romans, and Genghis Khan to understand how the tactics and ruthlessness of horse-mounted, herd-driving warriors enabled them to control so much territory, and, it should be emphasized, to shape so much of world history. Our task is to examine how they came to be this way.
When hunters and foragers came to control herds of animals, their movements, breeding, and food supply, they needed some way to resolve their very old views of animals as awesome First Beings and souls of the world. They needed to move from the worldview of The Way of the Animal Powers to the new realities of an agrarian way of life based on exploiting animals—one in which people would come to control every aspect of animals’ lives. In the Middle East, where exploitation of domestic animals was key to wealth-building, agrarian societies invented new ideologies to reconfigure views of animals. In these, the essential message was to reduce and debase animals and nature and to elevate human beings over them. The effect, spiritually speaking, was to turn the world upside down. Before domestication, the powerful, mythic beings, the supernaturals, were animals, and primal people held them in awe; after domestication, the supernaturals, the gods, became more human-like, and people held animals in contempt. The agrarians’ god might be a living Sumerian or Assyrian king, or it might be Zeus, Jupiter, Aphrodite, Venus, Artemis, Diana, or any of the other human-shaped gods of Greek and Roman polytheism, or it might be the superman Yahweh, God, or Allah of Middle Eastern monotheism. At any rate, animal-using agrarians stripped animals of their souls and power and put them in what they perceived to be their proper place: in the service of humankind.
The reconfiguring of animals to lower status was done through art, myth, ritual, and, of course, religion. As the Old Testament tells us, the Hebrews were hostile to idol-worship and its “heathen” festivals. As the sociologists Jean and Gerhard Lenski have shown, the Hebrew herders of cattle, sheep, and goats, like other pastoralists, worshipped a new, all- powerful god, that is, God—a sort of superman, set up a new order of life, a hierarchy of being with God and men at the top. By giving human beings dominion over all of his creation, God gave humans a broader license to exploit, kill, and eat animals. The Western creation story in Genesis shows how God (actually the Hebrew writers) wrestled a couple of times with the violent aspect of dominion over animals before he made the license to eat meat explicit to Noah after the Great Flood. Even then, the license came with a great many restrictions—the dietary laws spelled out in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Restrictions notwithstanding, the grant of dominion made animal slaughter and meat more accessible to growing populations of people settled in villages and cities.
The length and complexity of the dietary rules point to the emotional and psychic turmoil stirred up by this ideological shift. Because the stripping away of the remains of the very old animal powers and souls was deeply unsettling, it had to be done with the trappings of religion. Through these dietary rules, the Hebrews, to their credit, carried out their license to kill with ritual reminders of the gravity of their dominion over nature. The borrowers of their theology were a bit more cavalier about slaughtering and meat-eating. They adopted dominion but without the inconvenient dietary laws. After this point, animals were meat on the hoof—agricultural commodities along with the other products of the harvest.
This agrarian view of animals as soulless, lowly beings helped the growing commerce in wool, hides, and meat to expand in direct proportion to the growth of cities, trade, and specialization in the labor force. It enabled animal husbandry—the deliberate control of animal breeding—to produce more useful breeds and traits. It paved the way for herd-keeping to become the industry arguably the most vital to the success of early Middle Eastern—eventually Western—civilization.
There was a great need to reduce animals from spirit powers to slave commodities, and it took a lot to pull it off: It required the formulation of a great many negative ideas about animals and nature into ideologies that make up the foundations of Western culture. Unfortunately, these ideologies poison our worldview—that is, both our view of ourselves and our relationship to the living world.
“On a Saturday afternoon in Texas a few years ago, three men on horseback rode down a female red wolf and threw a lasso over her neck. When she gripped the rope with her teeth to keep the noose from closing, they dragged her around the prairie until they’d broken her teeth out. Then, while two of them stretched the animal between their horses with ropes, the third man beat her to death with a pair of fence pliers. The wolf was taken around to a few bars in a pickup and finally thrown in a roadside ditch.”(Barry Holstun Lopez, Of Wolves and Men23)
I have coined the word misothery (miz OTH uh ree; rhymes with misogyny) to name a body of ideas that we need to discuss. It comes from two Greek words, one meaning “hatred” or “contempt,” the other meaning “animal.” Literally, then, the word means hatred and contempt for animals. And, since views of animals determine views of nature in general, it can mean hatred and contempt for nature—especially its animal-like aspects.
I decided to create the word misothery because I could find no word in the English language that adequately expressed the full range of hate, contempt, loathing, disgust, fear, and all the other negative views and feelings that humans have about other animals. There is only theriophobia, as discussed in John Rodman’s “The Dolphin Papers” and quoted earlier.24 Theriophobia seems inadequate because it literally means “fear of animals,” as in arachnophobia, fear of spiders, or acrophobia, fear of heights, or agoraphobia, fear of fear. There is much more negativity about animals and nature than simple fear. I thought of the word misogyny, a reasonably common word for an attitude of hatred and contempt toward women. The similarity of the two words reflects the similarity of the two sets of attitudes and ideas. In both cases, the ideas reduce the power, status, and dignity of an Other. Misogyny reduces female power/status/dignity, thus supporting male supremacy and control of women in the system we call patriarchy. Misothery reduces the power/status/dignity of animals and nature thus supporting human supremacy and control over animals and the living world in a system we might call dominion. Just as agrarian society invented beliefs to reduce women, it also invented beliefs or ideologies about animals that reduced them in their worldview. These beliefs served to replace the awe and respect humans had for animals with contempt and loathing.
To understand how misothery might have taken shape centuries ago in the Middle East, let us consider recent societies in transition from foraging to farming. The Thai, the Nuer, and the Balinese cultures are intermediate between totemic and domestic: the Thai keep their domesticated buffalo and oxen under them—literally—in pens under their houses built on stilts. For them, the dog, a food scavenger and a nonworker, is held in very low, or negative, regard. To the Thai, the dog is a “low-life.” They regard monkeys as degenerate human beings and, according to Shepard, “the most feared and awful are the creatures of the remotest forest and wildest places.”25 The Thai show two characteristic elements of misothery: contempt for animals under human control, and fear or hatred of those beyond their control.
The Nuer are African herders of cattle for whom life is all about access to grazing land and water and the power to keep that access. “Their society is a denatured totemic clan ship in which that parallel of the animal and man has ceased to be a key to human order and is instead an echo.”26 There is no detachment about cattle, their chosen creatures, with whom they are very nearly obsessed. Cattle are the means of life, the source of song and affection. And, in the classification of cattle horns and colorings, there is a schematic ordering of humans and nature. For the Nuer, the rest of the world exists apart, “physically separated by the space necessary to keep hoofed animals.”27 As cattle-keeping forces them to live in opposition to predators and other wild animals, they have little regard for the rest of nature. “The wild is external, accidental, inessential,” says Shepard, while cattle are everything. The opposition of wild and domestic brings about a jarring alteration in worldview. Wild nature comes to represent everything “outside”—including other peoples and other animals. As a result, Shepard says, the Nuer are “truculent, aloof, isolationist and aggressive.”28
The Balinese are another society in transition from totemic to domestic culture. Here the animal domesticated is small—the red jungle fowl, from whom our breeds of chickens are derived. Yet the fowl’s reduction by domestication brings sharp changes in a people’s view of animals and nature. The Balinese obsession is with cockfighting, which probably began as a ritual to resolve the animal powers left over from totemism. In the jungles, wild male birds fought to maintain turf, families, and flocks; but in the villages today, their domesticated descendants fight to provide entertainment for gamblers and onlookers.
The Balinese case shows us how a society, in undoing the older way of the animal powers, can replace it with some negative ideas about humanity as well as animals and nature. The cockfight began as a ritual, became a tradition, and evolved into a game or sport. Today, the Balinese use the cockfight to stand in for aggression and competition among villages.29 Scholars have uncovered numerous links between cockfighting and a male world of aggression and violence.30 The human owner whose cock loses a cockfight, Shepard says, “literally tears his bird to pieces and gives it to the owner of the winning bird, who eats it.”31
Animals, even small ones, fighting to the death over and over for public wagering and “sport” may appear to provide a “civilized” outlet for social conflicts, but this also provides a negative model for nature, both wild and human. Shepard notes that the Balinese “see animality as that which is reprehensible in man,” and, predictably, Balinese demons have animal shapes.32 For them, the cockfight acknowledges the dark side of humanity and, less consciously, of nature. The cockfight may keep Balinese villagers from warring with each other, but it feeds negativity about animals and the living world.
We can see misothery in the making by looking at some of the mythologies of ancient Middle Eastern societies in the struggles to resolve the old animal powers into an agrarian worldview. One of the most revealing is from Mesopotamia—the Gilgamesh epic, the national epic of the Babylonian Semites, which was written down in about 2000 BCE. Gilgamesh was a god/king of the first dynasty in Uruk, Sumeria, and a great cultural hero to the Babylonians. Since the written form of the epic is the end product of a very old tale handed down orally, it reveals how some of the myths from the “old days” were modified to construct the agrarian worldview.
Gilgamesh is described as a strong ruler through a personal history of acts of war and rape: he is “a hero of unbridled aggression and sexual appetite (he leaves ‘no son to his father,’ ‘no virgin to her lover’).”33 Outraged by his tyranny, the gods create a wild beast/man named Enkidu to bring the terrible king under control. Enkidu is hairy like an animal, his hair “sprouts like grain” and looks like a woman’s. He “eats grass with the gazelles,” drinks with them … and delights in his heart with them. He lives in open country. He is the scourge of hunters, filling their pits, foiling their traps, and in general protecting all animals from the harmful intentions of Gilgamesh’s people.34
Enkidu represents the older, totemic order in which humans lived in harmony with animals and nature. Gilgamesh represents the new order, based on aggression and control of women, animals, and nature. The transition from old to new is symbolized in Enkidu himself, who leaves his animality behind and becomes a hero, a god/man, and a friend of Gilgamesh. In this part of the legend, misogyny is so thoroughly interwoven with misothery that it is hard to tell one from the other. It does illustrate, though, how wild nature is symbolized by both animals and women: A hunter persuades a temple prostitute to take Enkidu away from his animal life in nature and over to civilization. Enkidu lies with the woman for six days, and “she treated him, the savage, to a woman’s task.”35 Afterward, Enkidu finds that his wild animal friends are afraid of him, for “he now has wisdom, broader understanding.”36 The prostitute takes Enkidu, now civilized through sex, to Gilgamesh and the two men become friends. Together they raid and rule, challenging and putting down the goddesses and their temples and destroying their sacred forest —nature.
We should note the woman’s role is taming nature, which is symbolized by the wild beast/man Enkidu. The story seems to credit women, subtly and indirectly, with the invention of agriculture. Did women domesticate nature and bring civilization? Perhaps Enkidu symbolizes that very old, very persistent idea. But here that idea is twisted with the misogynist notion that sex is “a woman’s task” and that whether by rape, deceit, seduction, or hire, it tames a man.
The misothery here is subtle, but we see it in Enkidu’s taming and becoming a civilized man. We are given the idea that he is made better by this conversion. The implication is that animal life and nature, although depicted as peaceful here, are beneath human civilization. The implication is that Enkidu, the animal, is improved by a woman so that he will be useful in Gilgamesh’s agrarian civilization.
In some ancient Middle Eastern art, we can see graphic evidence of animal reduction and misothery in the making. In Mesopotamian art, there are scenes of animal processions, animals fighting, and of men fighting animals in temples, murals, pottery, and sculpture. These scenes show up in great numbers on the famous Mesopotamian cylinder seals. In the days before writing, these small, carved, stone cylinders were rolled over pieces of clay for use as a kind of trademark to seal containers of wine or grain. Thousands of these cylinder seals exist and, according to Klingender, they “provide a continuous record of the changing fashions in Mesopotamian art for almost three thousand years, from the middle of the fourth millennium to the collapse of the Persian Empire in the fourth century B.C.”37 After writing appeared in about 3200 BCE, the cylinders continued to be used as signatures on writers’ clay tablets.
In the earliest protoliterate stage, known as the Uruk period, the prevailing themes, according to Francis Klingender, were “serenely pastoral, in marked contrast to the later subjects of Mesopotamian art.”38 Here the main theme was the sacred temple herd kept by the king or priests, and it shows that the animals—though domesticated—were still regarded with remnants of the older, pre-agrarian sense of the animal powers. The animals, cattle or sheep, are depicted in peaceful processions, usually in natural settings. These are docile domestic animals, moving in single file to the fields. These “animal file” scenes evoke bucolic feelings of the calm and order of an early-stage agrarian city-state, when animals were perhaps not yet fully private property to be traded or coveted as spoils of war. In later times, a second major grouping of scenes appears on the cylinder seals. In these “beast-hero” scenes, the animals are reared up, usually in confrontation, as on heraldic coats of arms. On some, a pair of heroes—possibly Gilgamesh and Enkidu—grapple with bulls or other beasts. On others, “a hero may grapple simultaneously with a beast on either side, thus forming a triad representing a kind of fighting antithesis to the tree-of-life,”39 and then a third major theme appears, this one “consists of a continuous frieze of fighting creatures, usually lions and other beasts of prey attacking cattle, with herdsmen defending their flocks.”40 These themes, Klingender says, continue in the heraldic art of the Middle Ages in Europe. The whole feeling is one of dangerous animals, of violence, of conflict with animals and nature, and man’s drive to conquer nature in the mature agrarian nation-state.
The cylinder seals illustrate Mesopotamia’s changing view of animals and nature. In the process, “detachment was achieved” when the lifelike, naturalistic animals of the early period are shown distorted and stylized in later periods.41 “This probably reflects the taste of the barbarians who invaded Mesopotamia,” according to Klingender.42 These “barbarians” would have been horse-mounted, herding tribes—the Kurgans, Aryans, or their equivalents—who sprang from the pastoral peoples of Central Asia and the northern Middle East. In the third and fourth millennia BCE, they raided to the south in waves, leaving their mark on Mesopotamia, its art, and, apparently, its view of nature.43 Klingender describes the emerging view of animals and nature after the introduction of horse warfare and cattle breeding, when Sumeria was wealthy and powerful, “To emphasize his victory, the hero may hold the beast [at once a real predator and a symbol of wild nature] upside down. … Intersecting rampant animals, twin bodies joined to one head, human torsos mounted on lions instead of legs, and other hold devices served to introduce further variety into the entanglements of fighting heroes, beasts and monsters, presented upon tightly packed friezes.”44 Gradually, a theme emerged “more appropriate to the idea of embattled force,” he says. By about 2300 BCE, the period of the first all-Mesopotamian empire founded by Sargon of Akkad, “the animals themselves finally assumed those attitudes of force and violence frozen into immobility, which have served ever since, through later Mesopotamian and Assyrian art down to medieval heraldry, to symbolize military virtues of strength and aggression.45
These expressions in art reflected a deeper psychic/cultural process: the reduction of animals from animated, ensouled, kindred beings in nature to frozen symbols of human power over nature. Once they were believed to embody the spirits and powers of the living world; hereafter, they would be mere sign carriers for the human spirit and its power over that world. In Mesopotamia, says Lord Kenneth Clark, “the sense of kinship with animals has been superseded by an over-awed recognition of their strength, which can be used to symbolize the terrible power of the king.”46 And in these scenes, the king, we should note, symbolized the wealth and power of agrarian society and its complete mastery over plants, animals, and the land—all of living nature.
According to Klingender, the animal art of later civilizations in Western Asia shows the influence of Mesopotamian themes. He notes that figures of rampant, fighting beasts appear on a gigantic scale in Hittite palaces and temples. More of the same are at Assyrian sites and later still, at Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon and in the palaces of Persian kings at Suza and Persepolis. “Their influence on the other great styles is no less remarkable: they contributed decisive elements to the arts of early Greece, the later Roman empire, Sassanid Persia, Byzantium, the Muslim world and medieval Europe.”47
We know that art reflects a society’s deepest ideas about the world, so the widespread popularity of these styles also tells us something about the spread of Middle Eastern agrarian culture. Obviously, its ideas about the order of humans, animals, and nature had appeal far and wide wherever domestication had begun. And the Mesopotamians, with some help from the hordes of horse-warriors to the north, furnished the graphics—one might say the propaganda—that conveyed this new order.
“Animals whom we have made our slaves, we do not like to consider our equal.”(Charles Darwin48)
“[Belief in human superiority] is prominent in western Judeo-Christian philosophies, and we use it to justify exploiting other species for our own benefit.”(Donald R. Griffin, The Question of Animal Awareness49)
Agrarian society invented some cultural devices to assist in the demotion of animals from powers and kindred beings to lowly beings and slaves. While hunters knew a great deal about animal character and behavior, they didn’t interact with an individual animal closely enough or long enough to become emotionally attached. Only at the moment of killing did the hunter exercise control over an animal. Until then, the animal remained an independent, respected being with a life of his own. The domestic animal, on the other hand, lived a life of dependence on her farmer. Day after day, the farmer fed her, led her to water, milked her, and steered the plow behind her. Without emotional barriers, the farmer would become personally attached to his cow, and working, driving, whipping, and slaughtering her would amount to a gross betrayal of trust, causing feelings of guilt and remorse. Farmers, according to University of Pennsylvania professor James Serpell, “learned to cope with this dilemma using a variety of essentially dishonest techniques.”50 It is indicative of domestication’s impact on our worldview that these extend to wild animals and the entire living world. Serpell identifies four devices: detachment, concealment, misrepresentation, and shifting the blame.
Konrad Lorenz illustrates detachment in his book Man Meets Dog. “Today for breakfast I ate some fried bread and sausage. Both the sausage and the lard that the bread was fried in came from a pig that I used to know as a dear little piglet. Once that stage was over, to save my conscience from conflict, I meticulously avoided any further acquaintance with that pig.”51 Rather than give up pork and lard, Lorenz chose to give up closeness to pigs. Multiply this emotional transaction thousands of times over thousands of years and we can understand why agrarian culture views animals impersonally and indifferently. Detachment is complete in today’s corporate factory farms, where the day-to-day care of animals is left to machines controlled by electronic sensors.
Concealment aids detachment by hiding stockyards, slaughterhouses, dog pounds, and the other places where the uses of animals turn ugly. There is concealment in numbers. With thousands in crowded mechanized buildings, there is no opportunity for familiarity with any particular animal. There is concealment in language used to ease humanity’s conscience: beef, steak, pork, ham, and veal have for centuries concealed the dismemberment of animals for their muscle tissue. The flesh from chickens, ducks, or geese merits no euphemism (poultry refers to a class of birds not a kind of meat) because these animals are small and, as birds, more remote in degree of kinship, size, and similarity.
Misrepresentation distorts the facts about animals so that their sufferings and deaths seem necessary or deserved. Most of it is unconscious, residing in the negative, hateful ideas about animals that we have inherited. We grow up on these in art, literature, and film, and they thoroughly color our attitudes about animals and nature. If animals inspire fear and loathing, it becomes morally easier to control, use, and kill them. Indeed, these become moral imperatives. And the nearer an animal comes to be perceived as posing an actual threat to human welfare, as are rats and wolves, the more intense the misrepresentation. In our literature, these animals in particular are misrepresented as blood thirsty, ravenous beasts snarling at the gates of civilization, cruelly intent on bursting through to ravage innocent humanity. This idea of animal evil is a very handy tool for agrarian society—so much so that it is kept sharpened and accessible through Western folklore.52 The most obvious example is the legend of the werewolf, which fed generations of Europeans with a morally righteous hatred for the “beast of waste and desolation,” the wolf. Bloodthirsty, vicious, cruel, oversexed, and lover of evil, our stereotypes of wolves misrepresented real wolf behavior. Such views have motivated centuries of cattle and sheep herders to exterminate wolves in both Europe and North America, and they have very nearly succeeded.
Blame-shifting is a leftover from the old rituals of hunting and animal sacrifice, which shifted blame for the killing to ancestors or the gods. As part of the ritual animal sacrifice in ancient Babylonia, the priests actually bent down to the ear of the slaughter victim to whisper, “[T]his deed was done by all the gods; I did not do it.”53 Holy men did the dirty work, and ever since, the division of labor has helped shift, or diffuse, the blame. For centuries, agrarian society has relegated the bloody work and the moral and emotional burdens of killing animals to butchers and slaughterhouse workers who have been regarded as “odious, merciless, pitiless, cruel, rude, grim, stern, bloody, and greasy.”54 We debase them to make the killing seem somehow inevitable or natural because they are the sort of persons who, by their very nature, are killers. This device allows the meat eater to think the killings will go on in spite of me, so I am not responsible.
Today, responsibility for the killing of animals for food is completely diffused by the corporate bureaucracies that have taken over animal agriculture. One firm, or a division of it, may specialize in breeding animals, another in caring for young animals, and another in feeding them to market weight. Other business entities transport them to stockyards and auctions, where still others buy them and take them to the slaughterhouse. And dozens of others—packers, processors, and supermarket chains—reduce the carcasses to bloodless, shrink-wrapped packages that offer the consumer no clue as to their animal origins. The buck is passed around so many times—or so far down the vertically integrated corporate chain—that no individual or firm feels any responsibility for the reduction of a living being to packaged flesh.
These distancing devices are essential elements of misothery in keeping animal exploitation from being emotionally and morally disturbing. They aided agrarian society in constructing a worldview that abolished the old sense of kinship and placed a vast gulf be tween humans and the rest of the living world. In the process, we have, Serpell writes, erected “a defensive screen of lies, myths, distortions, and evasions, the sole purpose of which has been to reconcile or nullify the conflict between economic self-interest, on the one hand, and sympathy and affection on the other.”55
“From the Hun and Scythian horsemen, Mediterranean goat- and ass-keepers, Semitic cattle-breeders, Persian shepherds, and Arabian camel-lovers, from them and other animal-keepers the Western world obtained its premises of a world view.”(Paul Shepard, Thinking Animals56)
“A kind of madness arises from the prevailing nature-conquering, nature-hating and self- and world-denial.”(Paul Shepard and Daniel McKinley, The Subversive Science57)
The greatest harm caused by misothery, I emphasize, is the immense, ongoing toll in animal suffering and death. But as the inheritors of agrarian culture’s misothery and beliefs in human supremacy and human exceptionalism, people need to be shown how this harms the human species as well. The harm is a worldview in which we despise too much of the living world—including our animality and ourselves. Misothery makes us comfortable with intensive animal exploitation, but it maintains ruthlessness and detachment in our culture. What could be a more loving, whole human spirit is maimed; what could be a greater sense of kinship, of belonging in the world, is cut off. Consequently, our feeling for the living world is numbed, or worse, entirely negative. We feel disenchanted, dispirited, disillusioned. Our deepest feeling for this life is malaise, so we long for the next. Our deepest feeling for the living world is horror, so we strive to destroy it.
The agrarian culture makes us despise and try to control the animal within us. By this I mean our animality, which is several things. One is the simple, biological fact that we are animals—primates, to be precise. If this causes amusement or discomfort, then I have made my point: We don’t like to think of ourselves as animals or even as closely related to animals. Our animality also includes the body, its natural cycles and functions. These tend to remind us of our closeness to animals, so we control, hide, and deny them.
In European society, Keith Thomas says, morals, religion, polite education, “civility,” and refinement were all “intended to raise men above animals.”58 An influential textbook on civility by Erasmus, says Thomas, “made differentiation from animals the very essence of good table manners, more so even than differentiation from ‘rustics.’”59 Because all of the bodily functions had undesirable animal associations, “some commentators thought that it was physical modesty, even more than reason, which distinguished men from beasts.”60 Thomas tells of Cotton Mather, the New England puritan preacher who wrote in his diary about an incident in which he was urinating (“emptying the cistern of nature”) at a wall. At the same moment, a dog came along, hoisted his leg and peed near him. Mather wrote, “What mean and vile things are the children of men … . How much do our natural necessities abase us, and place us … on the same level with the very dogs!”61 Mather wrote that, from then on, whenever nature called to “debase me into the condition of the beast,”62 he would “make it an opportunity of shaping in my mind some holy, noble, divine thought” and to practice “thoughts of piety wherein I may differ from the brutes.”63
Thomas gives many examples of European society’s negativity about human animality. All bodily impulses were regarded “as ‘animal’ ones, needing to be subdued,” and “lust in particular, was synonymous with the animal condition.”64 Words like “brute,” “bestial,” and “beastly” had much stronger sexual connotations than they do today. In bestiaries and emblem books, the moral textbooks of the Middle Ages, animals mostly symbolize lasciviousness or sexual infidelity.
Besides lust, European society saw many other reminders of human animality. John Stuart Mill stressed cleanliness because its opposite, “more than anything else, renders man bestial.”65 Nakedness, too, was bestial. Men who had unduly long hair were considered bestial. It was bestial, Thomas noted, to work at night because that is the time when, as one period writer said, “beasts run about seeking their prey.”66 It was bestial even to go swimming because it was a form of movement more natural to animals than to humans. And moralists frowned upon people dressing up in animal disguises, for that flirted with crossing the boundaries.
Most despised of all, however, was bestiality, the crime of having sex with an animal, which was a capital offense in some New England colonies and was a felony crime in most states until recently.67 In the Middle Ages, both the human and the animal were executed. It is telling of society’s low regard for animals that the great offense was not the rape of the animal. “The sin,” Thomas says, “was the sin of confusion; it was immoral to mix the categories.”68 As one Stuart-era moralist put it, “[I]t turns man into a very beast, makes a man a member of a brute creature.”69
But try as hard as we might, we are still conscious, albeit at the lower levels, of our own animality. We don’t dwell on it, but we know that some aspects of human nature, our behavior, and body are animal-like. The misothery in our culture, then, produces a schizoid view of ourselves: It exalts some of ourselves while it debases the rest of ourselves. Misothery sets us up for inner conflict. For if human beings are exalted and animals and nature are base, then anything we have in common with other animals is base and something to be despised, controlled, hidden, and denied, such as sexuality.
Misothery in our agrarian culture has straitjacketed human sexuality, shrouding it in shame and self-hatred. Human sexual life is for procreation only. Elaine Pagels traces this ethic to old herd-keeping traditions. For over a millennium before rabbis wrote Genesis, she says, “Jews had taught that the purpose of marriage, and therefore of sexuality, was procreation. Jewish communities had inherited their sexual customs from nomadic [herder] ancestors whose very survival depended upon reproduction, both among their herds of animals and among themselves.”70
The early Christian patriarchs advanced the notion that sex was so generally evil (Satan borrowed the practice “from the irrational animals” to tempt Adam and Eve) that it is best avoided altogether. St. Paul, for example, declared, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.”71 Clement warned married couples, “Not even at night, although in darkness, is it fitting to carry on immodestly or indecently, but with modesty, so that whatever happens, happens in the light of reason … for even that union which is legitimate is still dangerous, except in so far as it is engaged in procreation of children.”72
For Augustine, Adam and Eve’s intercourse “permanently corrupted human nature as well as nature in general.”73 This fits with the larger idea that human original sin corrupted the world. “Nature,” Augustine wrote, “which the first human being harmed, is miserable.”74
Our evolution of mind and culture—our views of the world—were made of animals. The worldview of primal societies saw kinship and continuity with other beings. Domestication and agrarian societies changed all that and brought animals and nature down to inferior things for human exploitation. To do so, they invented a set of ideas—which I have termed misothery—literally hatred of and contempt for animals, animality, and nature. While this attitude toward the living world has raised human status and made industrial-scale exploitation of animals and nature somewhat emotionally comfortable, it has brought unfortunate side effects. We are ashamed of our own animality. Our exploitation, our ever-expanding human numbers and material demands, are causing an unsustainable impact on the living world, and we may be too alienated by misothery to reverse it. To come to terms with nature, to find our place in the living world, we need to come to terms with animals, for animals are fundamental to it all.
(1.) John Rodman, “The Dolphin Papers,” in North American Review 2 (Spring 1974): 20.
(2.) Barry Holstun Lopez, Of Wolves and Men (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978), 196.
(3.) Paul Shepard, Thinking Animals: Animals and the Development of Human Intelligence (New York: Viking Press, 1978).
(4.) Joseph Clark, Beastly Folklore (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1968).
(5.) Rodman, “Dolphin Papers”; Lopez, Wolves; Mary Midgeley, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978); Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us about Human Nature (London: Bloomsbury, 2014). The most thorough exploration of the use of animals to disparage is in Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: A History of the Modern Sensibility (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983).
(6.) Thomas, Man & the Natural World, 42, and, generally, 36–47.
(7.) Shepard, Thinking Animals; Yi-Fu Tuan, Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pets (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984); Thomas, Man & the Natural World.
(8.) Shepard, Thinking Animals, 44.
(9.) Pat Shipman, The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011), 196.
(10.) Thomas, Man & the Natural World, 36.
(11.) Shepard, Thinking Animals, 117.
(12.) Shepard, Thinking Animals, 93.
(13.) Jared Diamond, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” Discover, May 1987.
(14.) Shipman, Animal Connection; David A. Nibert, Animal Oppression and Human Violence: Domesecration, Capitalism and Global Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013); Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Shepard, Thinking Animals. See also Jim Mason, An Unnatural Order: The Roots of Our Destruction of Nature (New York: Lantern Books, 2005), for more information about the role of animal domestication, herding, and husbandry in shaping the Western worldview.
(15.) Shipman, Animal Connection, 197.
(16.) Shepard, Thinking Animals, 31.
(17.) Joseph Campbell, Historical Atlas of World Mythology, vol. 1, The Way of the Animal Powers, part 1, Mythologies of the Primitive Hunters and Gatherers (New York: Harper & Row/Perennial, 1988).
(18.) See, generally, Mason, An Unnatural Order; Nibert, Animal Oppression.
(19.) Crosby, Ecological Imperialism, 23.
(20.) Richard Lewinsohn, Animals, Men and Myths (New York: Harper and Bros., 1954), 68.
(21.) Shepard, Thinking Animals, 154.
(22.) Gerhard Lenski and Jean Lenski, Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982), 224.
(23.) Lopez, Of Wolves and Men, 152.
(24.) Rodman, “Dolphin Papers.”
(25.) Shepard, Thinking Animals, 151.
(26.) Shepard, Thinking Animals, 152.
(27.) Shepard, Thinking Animals, 152.
(28.) Shepard, Thinking Animals, 153.
(29.) Clifford Geertz, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” in The Interpretation of Cultures, ed. Clifford Geertz (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 412–453.
(30.) Linda Kalof, “Animal Blood Sport: A Ritual Display of Masculinity and Sexual Virility,” Sociology of Sport Journal 31 (2014): 438–454.
(31.) Shepard, Thinking Animals, 155.
(32.) Shepard, Thinking Animals, 155.
(33.) Quoted in Andree Collard and Joyce Contrucci, Rape of the Wild: Man’s Violence Against Animals and the Earth (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), 20. For the Gilgamesh epic with commentary, see Stephen Mitchell, Gilgamesh: A New English Version (New York: Simon and Schuster / Free Press, 2004).
(34.) Collard and Contrucci, Rape of the Wild: Man’s Violence Against Animals and the Earth, 20.
(35.) Quoted in Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 132.
(36.) Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy, 132.
(37.) Frances Klingender, Animals in Art and Thought to the End of the Middle Ages (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), 41.
(38.) Klingender, Animals in Art and Thought to the End of the Middle Ages, 40.
(39.) Klingender, Animals in Art and Thought to the End of the Middle Ages, 45.
(40.) Klingender, Animals in Art and Thought to the End of the Middle Ages, 45.
(41.) Klingender, Animals in Art and Thought to the End of the Middle Ages, 46.
(42.) Klingender, Animals in Art and Thought to the End of the Middle Ages, 46.
(43.) Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987); Shepard, Thinking Animals; Nibert, Animal Oppression.
(44.) Klingender, Animals in Art and Thought to the End of the Middle Ages, 47.
(45.) Klingender, Animals in Art and Thought to the End of the Middle Ages, 47.
(46.) Kenneth Clark, Animals and Men: Their Relationship as Reflected in Western Art from Prehistory to the Present Day (New York: Morrow, 1977), 16.
(47.) Klingender, Animals in Art and Thought to the End of the Middle Ages, 48–49.
(48.) Thomas, Man & the Natural World, 36.
(49.) Donald R. Griffin, The Question of Animal Awareness: Evolutionary Continuity of Mental Experience (New York: Rockefeller University Press, 1981), 88.
(50.) James Serpell, In the Company of Animals: A Study of Human-Animal Relationships (London: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 151.
(51.) Konrad Lorenz, Man Meets Dog (London, Methuen, 1954), vii.
(52.) For a review of the representation of animals in folklore, see Boria Sax’s chapter, “Animals in Folklore,” in this volume.
(53.) Serpell, Company of Animals, 168.
(54.) Serpell, Company of Animals, 165.
(55.) Serpell, Company of Animals, 168.
(56.) Shepard, Thinking Animals, 154.
(57.) Paul Shepard and Daniel McKinley, eds. The Subversive Science: Essays Toward an Ecology of Man (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1969), 8.
(58.) Thomas, Man & the Natural World, 37.
(59.) Thomas, Man & the Natural World, 37.
(60.) Thomas, Man & the Natural World, 37.
(61.) Thomas, Man & the Natural World, 38.
(62.) Thomas, Man & the Natural World, 38.
(63.) Thomas, Man & the Natural World, 38.
(64.) Thomas, Man & the Natural World, 38.
(65.) Quoted in Thomas, Man & the Natural World, 38.
(66.) Quoted in Thomas, Man & the Natural World, 39.
(67.) John M. Scheb II, Criminal Law, 7th ed. (Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2014).
(68.) Thomas, Man & the Natural World, 39.
(69.) Thomas, Man & the Natural World, 39.
(70.) Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity (New York: Random House, 1988), 11.
(71.) Susan Griffin, Pornography and Silence: Culture’s Revenge Against Nature (New York: Harper and Row, 1981), 15.
(72.) Pagels, Adam, Eve and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity, 29.
(73.) Pagels, Adam, Eve and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity, 133.
(74.) Pagels, Adam, Eve and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity, 133.
Published in The Oxford Handbook of Animal Studies
Edited by Linda Kalof
Print Publication Date: Mar 2017
Subject: Political Science, Political Theory, Comparative Politics
Online Publication Date: Jul 2015