So engrained is the trope of the animal in the West that animal truisms are seared into our shared cultural memory: the Boy Who Cried Wolf, the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, The Grannie-Masking Wolf of Red Riding Hood fame, the proverbial Fox in the Hen House, Chicken Little, Foxy Lady, Sly like a Fox, Mary’s Little Lamb, Lassie, Bambi, the Cheshire cat… to say nothing of Puss in Boots, the Dog That Won’t Hunt, Eating Crow, the Golden Egg Laying Goose, the Baby Bringing Stork, the Early Worm Catching Bird, Pop Goes the Weasel, Three Blind Mice, the Three Little Pigs, and the Little Piggy who cried ‘Wee, Wee Wee’ all the way home. Animals have often served as potent metaphors, argues philosopher Max Black (1962:40-2; Blier 1987:206), because they force new forms of interaction and engagement delimited vis-à-vis long standing assumptions. These assumptions challenge credibility (are foxes any more sly than wolves, dogs, or cats?). Related assumptions also reify enduring perceptions of animal-human complements that individually and together heighten the attendant potency of animal symbolism.
Cary Wolfe’s Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and the Posthumanist Theory (2003) offers a provocative look into the role of animals in human thought and action. Addressing subjects such as animal sacrifice and debates about animal-human difference (the human potential evinced by the use of hands and fingers, for example),Wolfe also investigates larger symbolic systems and practices involving animals. Wolfe’s 2003 anthology (Zoontologies:the Question of the Animal) similarly takes up the boundaries between the animal and human worlds, addressing an array of ethical and philosophical questions posed therein. These are framed around core theoretical engagements (Heidegger, Freud, Lacan, Derrida, Deleuze, and Lyotard among others) as well as questions of interest to the arts. The latter range from Western visual artists (William Wegman and Joseph Beuys) to popular culture (Jurassic Park and Monty Roberts, the “horse whisperer”). One could easily add to this interest not only recent humanities explorations addressing evolution such as the Gottschall and Wilson anthology, The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (Rethinking Theory, 2005) but also recent explorations in the field of Environmental Anthropology (Dove and Carpenter, eds., 2007). The co-joining of popular appeal and attendant religious uproar as related to animal portrayals in recent animated films is also striking. Among the recent examples are Avatar (2009) and Happy Feet (2006) (the latter a striking complement to attempts to turn a group of “gay” penguins in a Berlin zoo “straight”). Interesting too arenews stories highlighting of the “split” of the “gay” male penguin pair in New York Central Park’s zoo — as well as accounts of Boston’s female swan couple, Romeo and Juliet, whose very names reveal the central role anthropomorphism assumes in our dealings with the animals around us.
Theory as Trap
When Alfred Gell writes of art as a trap (“Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps”-1996), he addresses issues of human-animal engagement (the primacy of prey, the thrill of capture) as well as the enduring dialectic between the ordinary (the animal trap) and the richly articulated (works of art), here heightened by the provocative idiom of animal-human encounter within the context of visual engagement.
Similar issues of human and animal cross currency come into play in various disciplinary and theoretical perspectives. One key early scholar whose work focused on animals in part is Mary Douglas (1957, 1970, 2002) whose writings pointed to core questions of taxonomy (animals seen to transcend “standard” classificatory boundaries) along with issues of pollution and taboo (forbidden animals). In 1982 as a young faculty member at Northwestern University, I co-taught a course with Douglas entitled “Art and Culture.” One of the studies she addressed in class in considerable detail was R. Blumer’s 1967 essay “Why is the Cassowary not a Bird,” a work she republished in her 1973 anthology Rules and Meanings: the Anthropology of Everyday knowledge.” As Blumer argues in this article (1973:167), among the Karam (Schrader Mountains, New Guinea), the reasons why these large emu-like birds are not classed as “birds” has “…no simple, single answer to it apart from the very general statement, ‘The cassowary is not a bird because it enjoys a unique relationship in Karam thought to man.”[i] Oceanic art scholar Douglas Newton would take up complementary portrayals of these unique birds in art shortly thereafter: “Why is the Cassowary a Canoe Prow? (1973).”
Allen F. Roberts similarly has explored an array of issues concerning animal identity and representation in African art (1995), addressing among other questions why so few animal species became the subjects of African visual and performative engagement, and offering an answer that is as poignant as it is simple: namely, some animals are “good to think” with.[ii] Whether as a frame for larger philosophical engagement or as political tropes framed around African creation myths, royal divination icons, religion, and healing arts (see also Blier 1990-1, 1995, 2004), animals serve as a striking idiom through which human values and broader theoretical engagement are grounded. Some animals, such as elephants (Ross 1995), are particularly provocative subjects of both thought and art.
Theories, like animals (and of course humans), have lives. Theories can be said to die not only when scholars prove them “wrong” but also offer viable alternatives. Hence the Lévi-Straussian Structuralism of Douglas and others of her generation was eventually superceded by Post-Modernism (Post-Structuralism), Neo-Evolutionism, or Environmental perspectives, among these the explorations of Cary Wolfe, or Gottschall and Wilson (2005 ), or Dove and Carpenter (2007). British artist and African art connoisseur Leon Underwood published a short illustrated poetry book entitled Animalia, or Fibs About Beasts, Engraved on Wood and Ensnared in Verse (1926). I bring the work into play here, not only because its title is reflected in my own, but also because in many ways the issues he raises are germane. Theories, like objects (and art works, artifacts, or persons) ensnare us with provocative “fibs” (partial views, unique vantages, half truths). In some ways, the primacy of theory lies not only in issues of universality (science) but also its “art” value (perspectives that press one to think about things in a new way). Theories, like animals, matter, in my view, not necessarily only because they are “right” or “wrong” but also because of the challenge they pose to us to think about (and through) things in a new way. The death blow to a given theoretical frame often can be sensed when everyone finally “gets it.” At the risk of pushback, I wonder how much it matters if a given theory is “right” or “wrong” as long as it is something “good to think with,” a frame (trap, ensnarement, vantage, partial view) that elicits new insight, even if it may have been proved outdated or false.
Localities: Place/Time Trap
Many portrayals of animals in African art (masks among other forms) are notable in part for their striking elements of anthromorphism, among these earrings (on Bamana Chiwara masks), royal regalia (Ife terracotta sculptures), performative elements (Dogon monkey maskers as pick pockets), and roles in human-deity communication (divination – hornbills, spiders, crocodiles, and pale foxes, to name but a few). This is true not least in Ife, the ancient capital of the Yoruba in southwestern Nigeria. In this important center, one comes across numerous animal species on sale in the local animal market near the Ogun Mogun temple complex in front of the palace. One can find here not only domestic animals for sale but also an array of wild animals – some of which are sold alive (chameleons, snails and certain birds), others sold as parts – the skin of leopards, crocodile teeth, the meat and/or horns of varied antelope species among these. I visitedthis market on numerous occasions and observedthe sale of these animals in this setting near the main temple of Ife’s hunting god, Ogun. Knowing the importance of diverse plant and zoological species in Ifa divination and other contexts, as well as the enduring significance of related beliefs in this center, makes clear the iconic complexity of animal portrayals in ancient Ife art. Local knowledge (place, time, social frame) is critical to our understanding of these works (Geertz 1985).
The corpus of ancient Ife animal sculpture offers a rich template from which to examine similar concerns. Here too, there are also notable differences in how animals (even within the same species) are portrayed. Some are identified with regalia fit for kings. Others are secured with cord leads suggesting imminent sacrifice, offerings which in some respects complement human ritual deaths. In the end what is especially remarkable in these animal personifications is their primacy in the early art corpus and the remarkable detailing with which they are rendered, attributes which also conform with some Ife canons on human portrayal as well. In some ways, portrayals of animals are among of the most complex and interesting artistic exemplars because of expectations and the fact that models are not always readily available.
Several days before the end of my first research trip to Ife, capital of the Yoruba in southwestern Nigeria, I learned that not far from the city there lived a mudfish, some five feet in length and residing in a spring and adjacent brook which was part of a local healing shrine. Years earlier an Ife acquaintance had been treated successfully here for a painful ear infection and fever. I decided to visit this amazing mudfish that purportedly would come out of the water and onto land for food treats. Like others of the lungfish species, the mudfish possesses ancillary lungs that enable it to survive out of water for weeks and months at a time. After accessing this shrine on foot via a long winding dirt track, I interviewed the priest healer in charge and learned something of the temple’s history. A devotee of Mami Wata (a water goddess linked to European and west Asian trade, who brings material and other benefits to believers) from the Urhobo in the Niger Delta area to the south, the priest had moved to the Ife area in his youth. From him I purchased a small bag of the mudfish’s favorite cookies and waited expectantly at the edge of the spring as he tossed the crumpled cookies on the water surface while offering prayers intended for the ears of this remarkable being. Soon the spring’s surface began to shimmer with tiny bubbles and myriad mudfish and other aquatic denizens gulped down the proffered sweets. Alas, the giant mudfish, already satiated from a healing ceremony before my arrival, chose not to come to land. What little I did discern of this fish nonetheless reinforced the uniqueness of the species and why such animals figure so prominently in early Ife art.
A particularly striking thirteenth to fourteenth century C.E. terra cotta mudfish depiction historically was housed in the city’s Omitoto shrine in Ilorin quarter — under the supervision of Ife’s powerful Chief Obaloran, head of the Ilode ward where the Obatala temple is located. The terra cotta mudfish long associated with his family is known locally as Orisa Ito. During the annual Odun Ose festival dedicated to Omitoto, held every year in October at the beginning of the dry season and related harvest-New Years activities, the sculpture (which most likely dates to the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century) was carried during the related rituals by a ritual specialist dressed in plantain leaves. While the exact origins of this procession are not clear, the term odun refers to year, and ose identifies the traditional five day Yoruba market week, underscoring the likely importance of this event (and the mudfish referent) with the cycle of time, and specifically the yearly transition from dry season to rainy season. The mudfish, with its unusual ability to estivate (that is, to survive for months in a hibernation-like state in dried spring or river beds using its ancillary lungs), seemingly comes “back to life” after rains again fill its resident pool or river bed with water. As such this animal is a particularly apt referent to the cycle of seasonal transition. Omitoto, who is also identified (Fasogun n.d.1) as having “carried igba-iwa to Ile-Ife,” was a central figure in the earth’s beginnings at Ife.[iii] This same igba-iwa vessel is said to have held the necessary Ife offerings conveyed to the heavens each year in exchange for well-being and plenty (Fabunmi (1985:194). The identity of the mudfish at once with the earth’s creation, and with rituals which preserved life more generally, also is in keeping with the mudfish’s unique identity with seasonal transition — not only the beginning of the dry season, but also the arrival of the rains. Indeed this unusual fish is said by some to vomit water at this time into the dried river beds and springs, thus assuring their renewal to meet the needs of local inhabitants.
Mudfish are among a group of unusual animal species that figure centrally in the corpus of ancient arts from Ife and other Yoruba centers. A variant of these mudfish forms is conveyed through the image of a human form with outward extending fish or snake-form legs or feet. This is a form that in Benin royal art has come to be identified with both the ruler Oba Ohen (who was paralyzed) and with Olokun, god of the sea. The striking bi-morphism of these “fish” — as denizens of both water and land — provides them with unique symbolic potency, in relationship to (among other things) ideas of autochthony.
Two unusual birds share similar visual and symbolic potency in ancient Yoruba art. The first is the Pennant Wing Nightjar, a small owl-like bird species that migrates to this area during the rainy season, where it mates, during which time senior males grow long wing streamers double the normal size, that ripple in the air in flight, in a manner suggestive of snakes and or lightning. These birds figure in several ancient Yoruba area art works (a Janus terracotta man-bird figure from Ife and several bronzes from the Niger River area to the east that seem to be linked to this center). In both cases they appear to be identified with the ancient Ife thunder god, Oramfe. There is a somewhat complementary bird, the African Paradise Flycatcher (okin in Yoruba). Both birds are notable for their bi-morphism and for their rarity and distinctiveness, suggesting a possible conceptual link between them. During pairing season, senior males of the African Paradise Flycatcher species grow long tail streamers double the normal seventeen-inch length of their tail feathers. These streamers, which ripple as the birds fly, are incorporated into royal Ife and Yoruba crowns.
Both avian species suggest the importance of both anomaly and change in the animal world as a reference to ritual and political primacy. These three animal species all have unique local primacy (and symbolic power), yet all three appear to have early foreign roots, most likely in ancient Greek, Coptic, and Early Medieval European idioms of fish legged Sirens (the early source for Mami Wata here it appears[iv]) and snake winged Harpies (see below) as also do early Gorgon motifs in this area– human heads with snakes emerging from the nostrils or ears). These motifspoint to notable visual and iconic similarities with, among others, twelfth to early fourteenth works from pilgrimage sites in Great Britain and France. Most likely complementary formsenteredinto the area of central Nigeria around the same time as part of richly colored Coptic textile forms from Egypt from this era.Arriving here perhaps around the same time were early forms of Nubian jewelry (see below), works that also appear to have left its imprint on one of the thirteenth to fourteenth century fragments from Ife, a ram head pectoral from the site of Oke Eso.
Since the ram, like the mudfish and bi-morphic birds, is so closely integrated into the fabric of Yoruba belief, does it really matter where these motifs originally came from, when they arrived, or how? Or to the contrary, since all symbolic forms ultimately are delimited locally (their meanings, contexts, qualities of empowerment specific to place and time) — one wonders whether these local perspectives necessarily carry more symbolic or theoretical weight than others that are in play.
Blier, Suzanne Preston
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- 1990 “King Glele of Danhomé: Divination Portraits of a Lion King and Man of Iron (Part I),” African Arts 23.4: 42-53, 93-94.
- 1991 “King Glele of Danhomé: Dynasty and Destiny (Part II),” African Art 24.1: 44-55, 101-103.
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- Forthcoming. Past Presence: Ife Art in Yoruba History.
- 1967 “Why is the Cassowary Not a Bird? A Problem of Zoological Taxonomy Among the Karam of the New Guinea Highlands” in Man, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Mar., 1967), pp. 5-25. Republished in “Why the Cassowary is not a Bird” in Mary Douglas Rules and Meanings: the Anthropology of Everyday knowledge” (1973: pp 167 ff)
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[i] See also Gillison 1997:174-5. Related issues extend back to Durkheim and Mauss (Primitive Classification – 1902) and forward to the works of George Lakoff (1987) and Timothy Ingold (1988) that touch on cognitive issues and related metaphors. I thank Parker Shipton for reminding me of these sources and for other insights into this piece.
[ii] This idea extending back to Claude Lévi-Strauss among others.
[iii] Perhaps in part for this reason, Fabunmi suggests (1969:.5) that Omitoto-Ose “…held a very important office in…government [performing her role] with great credit.” He adds: “Some Ife historians say that she had no issue but she adopted Obaloran as a son and brought him from his home in Iloran to her own home at Ilode where the present Chief Obaloran still lives.” Fasogun however identifies (n.d.1) Omitoto as one of the original thirteen chief-priests of Ife (Chapter-Op), suggesting that this chieftaincy only later was taken on by Obaloran.
[iv] A later era diffusion of the “siren” motif in southern Nigeria has been advanced by Henry J. Drewal, whose Education Ph.D. (Teachers’ College, Columbia) rather than more standard academic degree program (Art History or Anthropology for example) seems to a more comparative rather than a more historical or theoretical vantage.