A Cultural History of Animals, Anatomy, and Physiology

Honors Colloquium

Neil Greenberg, Instructor

Cultural Biology:  A survey of alternative perceptions and the manifest and latent meanings of animals and other biological topics in folklore, mythology, religion, and the arts.  Source material will be gathered from systematic zoology, anatomy, and physiology, anthropology, mythology and religion, psychiatry and medicine.

“These things never were…

and always are”






WEEK 1.   MYTHOLOGY and BIOLOGY.  Is there a biology of mythology?  Do myths serve an adaptive need?  The importance of alternative perceptions.  Was mythology the science of 2000 BC?  Symbolism; Mythopoiesis.  The Nature of evidence, validity, alternate explanations: The Basilisk . The Iguanodon of the Ishtar Gate.   (Campbell, The Masks of God:  Creative Mythology, Chap. 1, Primitive Mythology, Chap. 1;   White, TH, The Bestiary, Capricorn, 1960; Rowland, B. Animals with Human Faces.  U. Tenn. Press. 1973).  Review the organization of THE ABERDEEN BESTIARY 


A myth is, of course, not a fairy story. It is the presentation of facts belonging to one category in the idioms appropriate to another.

To explode a myth is accordingly not to deny the facts but to re-allocate them.

(Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (1949) introduction)


WEEK 2.   ETHNOZOOLOGY. Humans and animals have a long shared history that includes how animals have inspired fear, reverence, respect, contempt or provided food, shelter, and companionship.  These relations are explored by ethnozoology, a sub-field of anthropology.


The University of Minnesota at Mankato’s e-museum has nice e-displays of ethnobotany and ethnozoology, with links to resources.  A selection of dracophily (dragon-loving) at Suzanne Iles’s  site.  Visit the, and other animaux fabuleux at the Institut Virtuel de Cryptozoologie.  Support for beliefs: Fossils; There are many reasons for hoaxes –from playfulness to maliciousness to greed for money or attention: Hoaxes and Hypotheses


WEEK 3.   INVERTEBRATES.  (Clausen, LW, Insect Fact and Folklore, Macmillan, 1954; Abbott, RT, Kingdom of the Seashell, Crown, 1972).    A fine website   Cultural entomology presented by BugBios, devoted to the “shameless promotion of insect appreciation,” including such diverse topics as:  Native American insect mythology, Chinese cricket culture, and  insects in psychiatry.


WEEK 4.   FISH AND AMPHIBIANS.  (Selected Readings, Freud, Totem and Taboo).  The fish in science, art, and imagination.  Mermaids?


WEEK 5.   REPTILES.  Fear and loathing in the Garden of Eden or “The real Gnostic heresy.”  (Greenberg, N. 1971.  The transformation of the Serpent.  Minnesota Review. 11(1):66-74.; Morris, R. & D. Morris, Men and Snakes, McGraw Hill, 1965).  Visit the dragons at the Institut Virtuel de Cryptozoologie.  Visit Crocodile Lore  and  The Transformation of the Serpent


WEEK 6.   BIRDS.  Messengers from Heaven.  (Armstrong, EA, 1959, The Folklore of Birds, Dover).


WEEK 7.   MAMMALS. (Van Vechten, C. The Tiger in the House, Knopf, 1936; Morris, R and D., Men and Apes, McGraw Hill, 1966). 


CATS.  Although Rogers makes no such claim, her comprehensive study is an example of the kind of interdisciplinary collaboration fostered by the relatively new field of anthrozoology. In exploring the appearances of the cat in human arts, Rogers demonstrates the deep influence of a specific animal on the human mind and spirit and the equally deep impact of human art and attitude on the animal. Human attitudes toward the cat are reflected, changed and/or reinforced  by the animal’s depiction in the arts.  Cats [Katharine M. Rogers. The Cat and the Human Imagination: Feline Images from Bast to Garfield. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. 222 pp. Bibliography and index. $29.95, ISBN 0-472-10826-3. ]



WEEK 8.   HUMANS. (Rudofsky, B. The Unfashionable Human Body, Doubleday, 1971; Scientific American Offprint #639 “Homo monstrosus”).


WEEK 9.   ANATOMY.  Bones, fashion, and ritual deformation; organs; hands; head and face. The Brain.  (Halstead, B and Middleton, J, Bare Bones, Toronto, 1973; Liggit, T, The Human Face, Stein and Day, 1974; S. Kern, Anatomy and Destiny, Bobbs- Merrill Co., 1975; Polhemus, T (ed.) The Body Reader:  Social Aspects of The Human Body, Pantheon Books, 1978).  The Breast  What is INSIDE THE SKULL HOUSE?


WEEK 10.   PHYSIOLOGY.  Menstruation, sharing the secret of the snake-god; sex, birth, development, death.  (Readings in cultural anthropology).  Disease and superstition.  Miraculous cures and faith healing.  (Readings in anthropology and psychosomatic medicine).  Blood


WEEK 11.  BEHAVIOR: INPUT. Perceptions, pathways from stimulus to action, doors of consciousness.  Light and Vision, Chemical Stimuli and Olfaction


WEEK 12.  BEHAVIOR.  Alternate states of consciousness; dreams, visions and hallucinations, madness.  The psychopathology of science and religion. Mass aberrations. (Selected readings)


WEEK 13.  FABULOUS CREATURES.  Many of the most fabulous creatures are compound organisms,  Chimeras : organisms that are composed of parts of multiple animals.  Many mythological animals embody multiple traits including those of the human — for example The Centaur The Mermaid, the Unicorn, the Dragon,


“Is there anything truer than truth?  Yes, Legend.”  (Kazantzakis)


MYTHOLOGY represents a “alternative belief system.”   It is one not based on the recently traditional Western “scientific” methods involving “objective” consensual validity and falsifiability (disprovability).  Myths are thus not regarded as sufficiently validated to invite high levels of confidence by those committed to the view that we can (and should) establish progressively more valid and verifiable views of reality). The phenomena myths are based on do not meet repeated tests of “correspondence” (with the “real” world) and “coherence” (with the body of knowledge into which new observations or findings are received).   In general myths may be VERY COHERENT, but correspondence to the real world is at best, fragmentary.  Such alternative views, however, often tap into tacit knowledge which –despite their subjective origins– are often externalized in ways that are nevertheless valid and illuminate the human condition.  In some way, mythology is a systematic map of human consciousness.


The behavioral patterns –art, fiction, myth–that such  perceptions are involved with are virtually universal among humans and are  important if not crucial elements in our cultural lives.  The aspects of the  “real world that engender such perceptions are, however, often lost in a  mass of symbolic transformations, coincidental interactions with nature at a  crucial moment, congenital predispositions, or ecological circumstances.   While our subject matter consists of observations, interpretations, and  beliefs that are less than objective, our approach to them and the behavior  that underlies them is ethological in that we will simultaneously consider  (1) developmental and experiential, (2) ecological, (3) evolutionary, and  (4) physiological aspects of each topic.  Such an approach is most  likely to confer a unifying, guiding insight to our survey.  Although  mythologies and the cultures in which they are embedded reflect behavioral  patterns, and we are likely to encounter profound (possibly insurmountable)  difficulties in being objective about ourselves, this approach to behavior  is the least vulnerable to distortion in practice.


Our review of each topic will proceed by first forging a guiding  paradigm from ethology, anthropology, mythology and religion; and then  examining selected examples from all areas of zoological concern in the  light of the paradigm.








Christian Legends and Symbols page provides

“The Bestiary”

“Medieval Bestiaries and the Birth of Zoology,” by Aura Beckhöfer-Fialho —  at The Antlion Pit:

Christopher Siren (UNH) has a Myths & Legends page with a good subdivision on CREATURES

Modern Myths: Rob Gendron’s page on   “Caminalcules, snouters and other unusual creatures

Animals on Ancient Coins

Cryptozoology Resources

cryptozoology sites


Center for Fortean Zoology


Strange Science’s “Goof Gallery

Institut Virtuel de Cryptozoologie

Contemporary Animal-Related Spirituality


University of Minnesota’s ETHNOZOOLOGY display





Yahoo’s collection of

Myths of Animals and Plants






Gallery of Gods



Myths collated by Dandolf



Fantastic Zoology

A Graphical interpretation of JL Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings — a good summary of many of the themes and motifs

Myths and Rituals: A general Theory

by Clyde Kluckhohn


note: if PDF does not open directly, right click and “save Target” to a computer drive and open from there


read Robin Meadows (2006) essay, “The Unicorn, The Mermaid, and The Centaur in ZooGoer – the Magazine of the National Zoo