In 2018 the city of Toronto wheeled out a solution to its infamous trash panda dilemma. “Trash panda” is the half-affectionate, half-resentful epithet for the raccoon, a chubby creature with a bandit’s mask of black fur around its eyes and an exceptional ability to survive on scraps from the green plastic food waste bins that residents use throughout the city.
While municipal politicians claimed the new design for these bins was “raccoon-proof,” engineered with special handles to prevent the critters from breaking in, Toronto’s raccoons seem to have missed the memo. Instead of keeping the raccoons out, the new design merely challenged them to become more innovative in their methods for extracting people’s trash.
Before long, stories were popping up on social media and news networks about “genius” and “superhuman muscular” creatures. The raccoon seemed to have outwitted humans once again with its determination and ingenuity. One article jokingly suggested that the cleverest thieves must be “armed with diagrams and spreadsheets,” spreading their knowledge throughout the raccoon community.
Of course, the raccoons were just being raccoons, looking for food in their urban habitat, but the people who live alongside them can’t help but grant them “human” characteristics and motivations.
The fables and fairy tales we grow up with, as much as any nature documentary, influence our perspectives on the animal world.
Toronto isn’t the only city whose streets are shared with creatures that the human inhabitants begin (begrudgingly) to see as neighbors: partly beloved, partly vilified, entirely personified. Toronto has its raccoons, New York its rats and London its foxes. There are an estimated 10,000 foxes living within the sprawling reaches of London, and they can be spotted everywhere from the steps of Downing Street to the suburbs.
Although London foxes receive even more vitriol as a wildlife menace than Toronto’s raccoons, and though they might not have a cute moniker like “trash panda,” there is no shortage of media reports that describe their activities like any other person getting on with life in the big city. An article in Metro describes them enjoying recreational activities like ‘“bouncing on a makeshift trampoline or sunbathing on a roof.”
A Bloomsbury resident refers to a pair who were “such polite neighbors that they used our dog toilet area for its intended purpose,” and the Internet delights in tales of foxes living “rent-free” in skyscrapers, mugging walkers for their snacks and stealing entire collections of shoes. Some city-dwellers wish these daring denizens were quieter—too much loud sex at night—but such a complaint could apply equally to human neighbors as to those of a furrier nature.
Sometimes loved, sometimes hated, animals are often assigned human attributes, whether it’s disregard for one’s neighbors or innovation in urban exploration. Perhaps it is an attempt to understand another way of being, to imagine a city or the world or ourselves through the eyes of other creatures. Whatever its motivation, this habit has a long history, one that began centuries before the invention of TikTok or memes of trash pandas eating pizza.
Humans love to tell stories about animals, and across cultures we imbue them with the same qualities we admire or abhor in ourselves. I grew up hearing stories about the loyal dog, the eager beaver, the wise owl, the wily fox and the busy bee. Perhaps you are more familiar with the antics of Anansi, the trickster spider, or tales of the jolly but mischievous tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog).
Some animals are inextricably tied to certain stories and legends, like the tortoise who wins the race against the hare at its slow and steady pace, the wolf who consumes grandmothers and foolish pigs, or the serpent who deceives unsuspecting humans. The fables and fairy tales we grow up with, as much as any nature documentary, influence our perspectives on the animal world.
Even the multitude of stories about “real” animals is not enough to satisfy our imaginations. Our personal libraries include numerous fantastic, mythical creatures, drawn from the stories we are told as children and the media we consume as adults: legends about the phoenix who burns and rises from its ashes, fire-breathing dragons who guard treasure hoards, monsters who lurk in the deepest and darkest of places, and many more. These mythical creatures, too, take on human traits in stories about love, hate, greed and desire.
But where do these associations come from? Humans’ obsession with real and mythical creatures is nothing new: it stretches to antiquity and beyond. In ancient Greece Homer wrote about the fire-breathing chimera, in Persian mythology we had the simurgh, a giant bird, and during the medieval period, books of animal lore were bestsellers.
These illustrated books, known as bestiaries, contained descriptions and allegorical tales of the various creatures to be found across the medieval world. Some ideas from medieval bestiaries have stayed with us: the lion is still the king of beasts and a white dove still symbolizes peace. But other animal associations may be less familiar. In the medieval period, for instance, one might see Jesus in a panther or Satan in a whale. Medieval bestiaries often highlighted lessons in morality through analogies that have gradually become obscure. Be long-sighted like the industrious ant. Take shelter in God’s shadow like the dove in the peridexion tree. Remember that through penitence even a sinner can shed past deeds as a snake can shed its skin.
Although bestiaries were popular texts in medieval Europe, many of their tales derive from a far older text from northern Africa known as the Physiologus. The Physiologus (meaning Natural Philosopher) was originally written in Greek by an unknown author, probably someone living in Alexandria during the third century CE. This text in turn is made up of stories whose influences can be traced even further back in time to texts on natural philosophy and religion by ancient Greek and Roman writers.
As the Physiologus further developed over the centuries, its age-old tales were often shaped by contemporary authorities like the third-century geographer and grammarian Solinus, or Ambrose, a fourth-century bishop and theologian. So while the ones of a story might stay the same, the interpretation and moral might shift according to the ideas that pleased the contemporary scribe.
Perhaps the most significant influence on later versions of the Physiologus text came from Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies. In this text, Isidore, a seventh-century Spanish cleric, explains the supposed stories behind animal names: their “etymologies.” Foxes, for instance, which are vulpes in Latin, are so called because they are “shifty on their feet” (volubilis + pes), choosing a twisting path over a straight one. The vulture (Latin vultur) is supposedly named for its “slow flight” (volatus tardus). A bird is an avis because it has no set “path” (via) but travels by means of “pathless” (avia) ways.
Isidore would eventually become canonized after the medieval period, and due to his insatiable desire for the world’s knowledge—and compelling need to record it—he is sometimes called the patron saint of the Internet. (And like “facts” on the Internet, some of Isidore’s etymologies are legit, but you shouldn’t believe everything you read.)
No matter the language or country, era or religion, it seemed that people were hungry for tales of animals and their exploits.
The original forty or so animals in the Greek Physiologus grew to number over a hundred, and the versions of the text itself proliferated, with translations in many languages, especially Latin, the language of learning and the Christian Church. By the ninth or tenth century, these collections of stories—Physiologi—were popular across western Europe. No matter the language or country, era or religion, it seemed that people were hungry for tales of animals and their exploits.
And so the Physiologus remained highly influential for more than a millennium, gathering new material over the centuries. By the time these more extensive, often illustrated compendiums of animal lore reached the medieval period, they had become the books known as bestiaries.
In Europe, the heyday for bestiaries was from around 1000 to 1300. But their tremendous popularity was by no means limited to medieval Europe. Just as European bestiary compilers drew upon animal descriptions from the Physiologus and other ancient Greek texts, so did Muslim writers from Persia. The scholar Ibn Bakhtishu’ wrote the Manafi’al-hayawan (Usefulness of Animals), an illuminated bestiary, in Arabic during the tenth century, and Zakariya al-Qazwini, a physician, astronomer and geographer, composed his own ‘Aja’ib al-makhluqat (Book of the Wonders of Creation) during the thirteenth century. Like those of Christian tradition, Islamic bestiaries contained moralized tales about real and mythical animals, often accompanied by lavish illustrations.
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, most of the development of the bestiary tradition was happening in England. During this period, monastic orders involved in preaching, like the Cistercians, often possessed the most bestiaries. Itinerant preachers needed stories for their sermon-making that would be vivid and memorable, and so they turned to animals and illustrations.
Monastic scribes produced bestiaries to teach proper living and thinking, following the idea that the world’s creatures were created by God for the purpose of instructing humankind. As well as on the road, bestiaries served as teaching tools in schools and monasteries. You can tell they were used in classrooms because of their glosses (translations from a less familiar tongue—usually Latin—into the vernacular), rubrics and other teaching aids.
But some of the lessons in these bestiaries have a dark side. Throughout, there are textual and visual references that were intended to encourage anti-Semitic and misogynist beliefs. They are not always obvious to us today, but their meaning would have been clear to people in medieval England. A story about a siren may seem like a harmless myth, but it was a tale used to demonize women who feel and express sexual desire: the lesson here is that such feelings turn women not only into threats to men but unwomanly “beasts.”
Today, owls are often seen as “wise” because they are associated with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. Yet medieval bestiaries compare the owl’s daytime blindness to the spiritual “blindness” of the Jews, who refuse to accept the “light” of Christianity. One bestiary depicts an owl surrounded by other birds. While we might assume this is meant to portray people flocking to the wisest bird in the room, the medieval illustrator would have intended something much more troubling: many virtuous birds pecking at a blind owl, a tacit endorsement of anti-Semitic violence. Is it a mere coincidence that the popularity of bestiaries with anti-Semitic messaging became significantly less popular (and perhaps less relevant) after the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290? Historians think not.
The owl is just one example of how our perceptions of animals—real or imagined—change over time. Were foxes still wily and bees busy a thousand years ago? No matter what message the scribe hoped to communicate, their words reveal something about the world they lived in and their place within it.
Excerpted and adapted from The Deorhord: An Old English Bestiary by Hana Videen. Copyright © 2024. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press