Theater of Cruelty

The animals in our world of fables and symbols

Animals, people, myths and power. A long and diverse life together
Forfatter: Kjetil Bevanger
Forlag: Solum Bokvennen, (Norge)
NATURAL / How the world has looked from the animals' point of view – how mammals, reptiles, insects, birds and fish have reacted to us – has been absent from our imaginary world. When nature seemed threatening, it had to be fought.


Once upon a time there was a wild boar. In Berlin. One fine summer evening it poked its head up from the bushes in the park. "Lion!!" – shouted a shaken police constable. The warnings spread like fire through dry savannah in the Zehlendorf neighbourhood. For days the wild animal was everywhere – on people's lips, over garden fences, in the newspapers. Just not in flesh and blood. Experts took a closer look at the photo the constable had taken. And snap, snap, snout – the king of the animals was out.

It is not a fairy tale. These are Berlin fun facts from June XNUMX. All hearts rejoiced – finally some real fun. Admittedly, the anecdote also describes our alienation from nature. In our story about the animals it is always about US – how we have fought nature's species, used and abused them, inserted them into our world of fables and symbols. How mammals, reptiles, insects, birds and fish have reacted to us, how the world looked from their side, was absent in our imaginary world.

In 1931, Chinese authorities banned literature in which animals were portrayed as our equals.

Thus, it is also logical that Kjetil Bevanger's book Animals, people, myths and power stands as a detailed encyclopedia, where the animal/human relationship on our planet is totally dominated by humans.

Animal symbolism

In a time when nature religions dominated, the nature outside us was something frightening and unpredictable. It therefore had to be offered offerings – animals – to the gods. Later, mummification of animals became common. Not always as offerings. According to Bevanger, archaeological finds have, among other things, documented that at the end of the 1800th century, 19 tonnes of mummified cats were transported to England and sold as fertiliser.

Myths and stories spread and became the basis of cultures. In our latitudes, Norse mythology was the arena for people, gods and animals. Animal symbolism grew into a veritable omen doctrine. "Among birds, the magpie was one of the most dangerous as it preferred human hair to build nests from. If one did not die from it, it would in any case lead to headaches, insanity or hair loss," writes Bevanger. Wild birds and animals have been associated with, for example, epilepsy, but on the other hand they have also been useful medicine. The sex drive could be stimulated by using bones from toads or frogs together with a magic formula.

Animal cruelty is closely linked to medical treatment. Bear bile has been known as medicine in Asia for 3000 years, as a remedy for jaundice, frostbite and eczema. Bears have "in many places" been kept in captivity in small cages for the purpose of bile production. Production involved draining the bile from the living animal, a very painful process. Another medication consisted of a decoction from a live calf, which was used to wash clean cancer sores.


A decisive shift occurred with agriculture around 10 years ago. Now we got animals in two different categories: farm animals and wild animals. The first were our friends and helpers, the others our enemies and competitors. With Christianity, this was reinforced. The message was clear: When nature seemed threatening, it had to be fought. We should consider ourselves rulers over the animals. Bevanger quotes the Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas: "The life of animals and plants is not maintained for their own sake, but for that of man. It doesn't matter how people behave towards animals, because God has put everything in man's power."

The anti-wolf lobbyists' attempt to get rid of the wolf is against Norwegian and international law.

This power was moreover, in line with the theses of Christianity in general, male-dominated. And it was heavily equipped with notions of 'heresy', often in combination with alleged magic and sexual drives. This view most often caused the women to suffer – for over 300 years they had to be careful not to be burned at the stake. In Thessaly, it is said that women could transform into animals and fly through the air. This was further connected with the mythology of therianthropy, a phenomenon that has been firmly established since Homer's time, nearly 3000 years ago. The werewolf is an example of the animal/human idea, which has existed since pre-Christian times. The phenomenon initially described a state of mind and specific behaviour.

From Aesop's Fables.

Myth and Fact

Bevanger gives us astrology as an example of how mythical approaches have managed to develop into "science".

Over the course of a year, the sun will move along an imaginary circle – the zodiac. It contains animal names: ram, bull, crayfish, lion, scorpion, capricorn, fish. Monsters, monsters, giants and trolls, on the other hand, mostly stay within the realm of fantasy. In the author's words: "Good storytellers have never let themselves be inhibited by a low level of truth." And often it was about man's heroic struggle against the animals. The dinosaurs are among those who are said to have inspired the stories about sea serpents and dragons. They were called horror lizards. In Norway, we are particularly fond of trolls, wonderfully illustrated through Theodor The tickles drawings. But trolls were frowned upon by the church and portrayed as enemies of God. In other words, they were diabolical. It is quoted from Norway's first national law of 1274–1276: "It is strictly forbidden to have contact with trolls. Violation can result in the law's strictest punishment."

Bevanger believes that "our gut feeling and our instincts generally forbid us to mistreat animals". This claim stands in contrast to reality today. With a world population of 8 billion, the human-animal relationship has become extremely acute. Livestock and humans make up 96 percent of the world's mammals. Wild mammals make up the rest – 4 percent. Bevanger reasonably does not refer to Asians' "gut feeling". In 1931, the Chinese authorities banned literature in which animals were portrayed as our equals, and the Chinese do not even pretend to care about the well-being of animals – just think of the notorious wet markets, where animals are kept and sold in abhorrent conditions.

Animal welfare

But here at home? Predators divides minds to a particularly large extent. In Sami culture, the bear was sacred, while otherwise it was eventually hunted and fought by all means. The anti-wolf lobbyists' attempt to get rid of the wolf is against Norwegian and international law. And what about pets? With us, they – including exotic species that do not belong in Norway – can be bought by anyone and treated beyond any knowledge of animal welfare. Dog owners are happy with their four-legged best friends, even if they have been bred to have health problems, for example with breathing.

Humans' increasing eradication of habitats that both animals and humans depend on does not speak for the superior intelligence of the human species. But the imagination remains at a high level. There even lions are roaming the parks of Berlin.

Ranveig Eckhoff
Ranveig Eckhoff
Eckhoff is a regular reviewer for Ny Tid.

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