BMCR 2020.11.13

Animal kingdom of heaven: anthropozoological aspects in the late antique world

, Animal kingdom of heaven: anthropozoological aspects in the late antique world. Millennium-Studien zu Kultur und Geschichte des ersten Jahrtausends n. Chr., 80. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. Pp. 161. ISBN 9783110601596. €79,95.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The relation between animals and humans is an issue that has been prompting debates and philosophical inquiries since ancient times. Concern about our treatment of animals has been present throughout the history of western thought, but it became prominent especially with a new wave of critical thinking about interspecies relations in the 1970s. Since the discipline of Animal Studies was born, it has extended to countless fields of knowledge, including Classical Studies, where fundamental research has been conducted concerning the status of animals in written sources, iconography, and archaeology.

Animal Kingdom of Heaven is contextualized within this area of study, but focuses on Christian discourse on animals in the late antique period. The volume is a result of an international workshop held at the University of Konstanz in 2013. It consists of seven chapters (including the introduction), of which two are written in Italian, two in German, and three in English. In the introduction, Schaaf, the editor, explains the need for research on human-animal relations that focuses solely on the late antique era, since it remains rather understudied, especially when compared to other periods of antiquity. This work aims to contribute to the knowledge about religious discourse on animals in emergent Christianity from an interdisciplinary and multifaceted point of view. Schaaf also offers a list of references on general studies of animals in antiquity, which could be helpful for readers who need an introduction to the topic, since it contains many of the essential works within this research area.

Roberta Franchi’s chapter explores how certain animals acquire various religious meanings in early Christian texts, as they represent different attitudes towards the Church. As she states, the metaphorical interpretations of these animals serve as a way of analyzing and reflecting on the complexity of human nature and conduct. They are viewed as symbols that acquire a polysemic character, since one species can have diverse meanings while different animals can share the same symbolism. Franchi points to an interesting shift of the traditional barriers of civilization vs. nature, as the anthropological paradigm is expanded through this symbolic and religious interpretation of humankind and animals. She then examines the construction of the image of heretics through the species that are associated with them (such as rams, vultures, or dogs, amongst others). In contrast, Christians are represented by sheep, herons, and lambs. Franchi explains the context of each animal symbolism, referencing their textual and sometimes iconographic coordinates, while also offering insight about their meaning within the historical context of the metaphors. The chapter is a useful and well documented source for the study of heretics and animal symbology in Christian literature, and it is also a good choice as the first one of the book, since it serves as an introductory study of a broad selection of animals, some of which are mentioned again by the other authors.

Adding to Franchi’s explanation of the symbolism of the dragon, Daniel Ogden’s contribution focuses on episodes from early hagiography that show how these animals are represented as directly linked to the devil and pagan faith. He also points to how the dragon, which originally had a serpentine form, gradually assimilated to the figure of the demon and acquired its wings. As they are a representation of the devil, dragons cannot be killed (apart from some written sources that the author mentions briefly), but they can be expelled from a community through the power of Christian faith. Ogden describes how saints can do this: by physically taming the dragon, exorcism, or confining it to an underground abyss. Victory is possible thanks to the strength of the faith of the contender, and it is also connected to the Christianization of the community that is saved from the dragon. The chapter also explores a motif that is sometimes present along with the dragon, which is the revivification of its most recent boy victim. This work serves well as an approach to dragon-imagery in Christian hagiography, offering a global overview based on pertinent sources and with an accessible style.

Horst Schneider’s chapter is about the allegorical interpretation of animals and other natural elements in the Physiologus, an anonymous text of the second or third century AD that can be considered an heir to the ancient traditions of natural history, although in a Christian context. Schneider describes the typical structure of the passages of the Physiologus, while also mentioning some that do not follow this pattern. He too wonders about the intent of the author and proposes that it is to replace the well-established traditional pagan naturalistic interpretations with Christian allegories. In a historical moment where Christians were being persecuted and the educational programs were based on pagan knowledge, the Physiologus could be a way to counteract and expand their own cosmological vision. Schneider also traces the literary and artistic reception of the Physiologus in later periods. It could be suggested that perhaps too much detail is offered about the formal structure of the work, while the space could have been spent on further expanding upon the interesting points that Schneider makes.

Once again, we see that the order of the chapters within the book is well planned, since the Physiologus is mentioned recurrently in Claudio Moreschini’s contribution on Gregory the Great’s view of the animal world in his Moralia. As the author states, Gregory is not really drawn to animals because of a sense of sympathy or closeness towards them, but rather because he is interested in their marvelous aspects and their exegetical or didactic potential. Moreschini analyzes Gregory’s view of animals by dividing them into three different categories: fantastical, exotic, and common. In most cases, he traces back previous sources that contain interpretations of these animals and then refers to Gregory’s version and the symbolic value that they attain in his Moralia. The usual way in which animals become symbols is through finding metaphorical similarities between their physical peculiarities and the moral character of those to whom they are compared. In some cases, like the heron, the ostrich, or the snake, the reader will recognize that they have already been mentioned in previous chapters of the book, although Moreschini’s analysis does deepen their understanding by adding new information about their symbolic value and context.

Françoise Lecocq’s chapter studies the evolution of the phoenix bird in Greek and Latin literature and how it eventually became a Christian symbol. The author shows how the phoenix was first associated with Egyptian fauna and aromatic plants, and later with the palm tree (which made sense within both pagan and Christian symbolism). Lecocq explains how this mythological creature gradually moved from fantasized territories and pagan interpretations of resurrection to Christian paradise, adopting new religious connotations. In addition to this, she also references several pieces of Christian iconography of the phoenix, explaining their context and allegorical meaning. Through this general overview of the figure of the phoenix bird, based on detailed analysis of relevant and varied sources, the author shows expertise in the topic, which is also attested in her numerous previous works about the same creature.

Lastly, Diego De Brasi’s contribution focuses on the relationship among humans, animals, and God in Lactantius’ De opificio Dei, a work aiming to prove divine providence that includes zoological information that serves mainly as a rhetorical-argumentative strategy. The author analyzes how, although animals are considered irrational and incapable of knowledge by Lactantius, he grants to them an ability to protect against weather conditions and attacks in various ways, and he establishes some similarities between animals and human beings based on their social behavior and body structure. De Brasi also points to the special place that birds have here, sharing a unique closeness with humans due to some of their perceived physiological attributes. As he explains, this could be related to the pagan view of birds as an intermediary between divinity and humanity, as well as to some biblical passages where they appear as mediators between God and man, but it could also stem from Aristotle’s remarks about birds in his Historia animalium. The author draws interesting conclusions about the purpose of this zoological knowledge in Lactantius’ work and how it is linked to the existence of divine providence.

As a whole, Animal Kingdom of Heaven is a remarkably useful contribution to the study of animal symbolism in Christian literature of late antiquity. It covers both mythological and non-fantastical animals, while their context, role, and function within religious discourse is studied in a deep and rigorous way. The approaches of the collaborating authors are varied, combining philological, historiographical, philosophical, and iconographical methodologies, but all of them are connected by a deep knowledge of religious history and symbology. The result is an enriched interdisciplinary work that conjoins the study of religion and animals and shows the expanding potential of this last discipline.

Authors and titles

Introduction: Ingo Schaaf, Animal Kingdom of Heaven: Anthropozoological Aspects in the Late Antique World
1. Roberta Franchi, «Ecco, io vi mando come agnelli in mezzo ai lupi» (Mt 10,16): eretici e animali nel cristianesimo antico
2. Daniel Ogden, The Function of Dragon Episodes in Early Hagiography
3. Horst Schneider, Tiere in symbolischer Deutung: Der Physiologus
4. Claudio Moreschini, Gregorio Magno e il mondo animale, tra curiositas e simbologia
5. Françoise Lecocq, The Flight of the Phoenix to Paradise in Ancient Literature and Iconography
6. Diego De Brasi, Das Tier, der Mensch und Gott in Laktanzens De opificio Dei