Somehow, Christianity grew famous for ruling that animals have no souls. Therefore, in 1899, Mary Elster thoughtfully declared, “I have not for many years identified myself with any church, chiefly because I do not know of any church which looks upon the animal world … as included in its mission of ‘goodwill on earth.’ˮ If this was church orthodoxy as Elster knew it, then the leaders of the churches she knew must have overlooked a lot of other Christians. For example, they must have ignored the works or legends of Anthony, Basil, Isaac the Syrian, Columba, Godric, Yvain, Francis, Bonaventure, Hildegard of Bingen, Albert Magnus, Meister Eckhart, Albrecht Dürer, Jakob Boehme, Anne Finch, John Milton, William Blake, John Austin, Jeremy Bentham, or Henry David Thoreau. They must have forgotten Rome’s bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostham, who preached “Surely we ought to show [all animals] great kindness and gentleness … above all because they are of the same origin as ourselves.ˮ Would that statement offend anti-Darwinist Christians? Though Augustine sometimes lambasted reverence for animals, he was capable of defending the sanctity of flies: “Though the crown were of an undying luster, I would not permit a fly to be killed to gain me a victory.ˮ John Wesley felt it obvious that animals have souls. The Mormon prophet Joseph Smith felt confident that his followers could convert all creatures to peace and love. If only they would “become harmless before brute creation” and “lose their vicious dispositions and cease to destroy an animal race, [then] the lion and the lamb can dwell together, and the suckling child can play with the serpent safely.” It was strikingly optimistic. More recent Christian teachers such as Albert Schweitzer, Thomas Berry or Matthew Fox proclaimed nature’s holiness without trying to convert the animals.
So the notion that Christianity regards the beasts as ungodly doesn’t exactly stack up if we count the dissenting voices. Numerous saints and fathers of the faith sounded almost like Native American elders in urging people to learn spirituality from the animals. Tertullian (around 200 CE) urged his North African flock to “imitate, if you can, the hive of the bee, the hill of the ant, the web of the spider, the thread of the silkworm.ˮ St. Jerome implored, “Make a hive for bees … Watch the creatures and learn how to run a monastery and control a Kingdom!” Such teachings drew directly on certain passages of the Bible, such “Go to the ant, O sluggard, consider her ways and be wise” (Proverbs 6: 6). All of the above-mentioned teachers happen to be insects. And the virtues taught by church fathers often resembled the socialism of worker ants, who hold all things in common. This was an ideal that seemed spiritual for monks and church patriarchs. It appeared anti-religious only if applied in the marketplace. It took several centuries before Christian teachers begin contradicting the church fathers concerning insects. For example, the Flemish Jesuit Cornelius a Lapide (1567–1637) revealed that “lice, flies, maggots and the like were not created directly by God but by spontaneous generation, as lice from sweat.ˮ And Father Lapide had a certain claim to orthodoxy, despite the Genesis account that God made all creatures.
Even bats appeared in an early Christian book of beasts, the Physiologus, as creatures offering lessons in brotherhood. Bats roosted together in thick clusters, showing dutiful affection “difficult to find in man.ˮ Saint Bernadino preached sweetly: “Look at the pigs who have so much compassion for each other that when one of them squeals the other will run to help … ˮ It certainly beat the human record of merciless warfare in fourteenth-century Europe. “And you children who steal baby swallows,ˮ Bernadino continued, “What do other swallows do? They all gather together and try to help the fledgling.” This certainly applies to my experience with chickens, who attacked and drove me from the yard when I tried to hack their friend’s head off for my dinner. “Man,ˮ Bernadino concluded, “is more evil than the birds.ˮ And then there’s Saint Francis, reportedly preaching to birds with tender affection and receiving obvious signs of birdly love in return. St. Francis invented the Christmas menagerie, where all the animals come to kneel before the baby Jesus. Some people think it’s the most beautiful image Christian civilization ever produced.
Certain beasts play big parts in the Christian drama. There’s the Easter bunny, whose role in the world’s rebirth is so timeless that the silly rabbit’s relation to Jesus doesn’t even matter. Doves are messengers of peace and the holy spirit, who in the church’s early centuries were sometimes literally trusted to select the next pope. If, in the hall of deliberation, a dove alighted on the head of an unsuspecting cleric, then he was the man of God’s choice. In medieval Christian symbolism, the peacock’s many “eyes” represented the all-seeing eyes of God. This image was supposed to comfort the faithful, but later it became an image suggesting surveillance by the Inquisition. Sheep have long been creatures of faith, who trust the good shepherd to save them. According to St. Francis, (but not Pope Benedict XVI), sheep flocked to worship the baby Jesus. Therefore, in the catacomb paintings of ancient Rome and the Victorian paintings that hung in my Sunday School classroom, Jesus cradled innocent lambs in his arms. And speaking of lambs or goats, the early Christians generally deplored the religious practice of sacrificing animals. In his Apolgeticus, Tertullian (ca. 160–228 CE) lashed out at people of other religions for the filth, blood, and smoke of their stinking animal holocausts. This was in accord with one type of biblical tradition. Because while the Bible recorded numerous priestly commands that violations of the holy law must be paid for in animal sacrifices, in the Talmud we read “It is forbidden, according to the law of Torah, to inflict pain upon any living creature, even if it is ownerless.ˮ
Across Europe, old pagan myths of sacred animals were sucked into the Christian drama of salvation by popular demand. The old festival of Candlemas, on about February 2, was originally the time when bears emerged from hibernation after six weeks of darkest winter. A medieval manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford portrays bears bearing up the sarcophagus of Christ as he is called to rise and renew the earth. In Romanian legend, the Devil came and challenged man to fight, but man said that Satan must first defeat his old uncle who lived in a cave. The Devil went to the cave and found that the uncle was a bear. The bear soundly thrashed Satan, so he doesn’t dare bother people again. The theme of kindly Christianized bears appears in Saint Bonaventure’s Life of Saint Francis, where we hear of the monk Florentius and his devoted bear:
“A bear appeared, and bowing his head to the ground and showing nothing hostile in his behavior, clearly gave it to be understood that he had come to serve the man of God. Florentius acquired great affection for the obliging beast and of his simplicity often called him ‘brother.’ The story of this pet, as of so many, has a sad ending, for jealous monks belonging to another monastery slaughtered the kindly creature.”
As for wolves, we may assume that the church consistently viewed them as hounds of hell. But St. Ailbe is the patron saint of wolves, and a wolf protected Saint Elmond’s grave. St. Francis, of course, converted an attacking wolf to nonviolence. The wolf, renamed Fra Lupo, or Brother Wolf, bowed and offered his paw in submission, on the condition that people gave him food in the future.
In the period before about 310 CE, when Christians were often thrown to the lions for various crimes of civil disobedience, we have many tales of lions or bears refusing to attack saintly Christians. The spectators in the stadiums were greatly disappointed to see these beasts meekly licking the Christians’ hands. So it reportedly happened, as in the book of Daniel, for those too faithful to be martyred. But it seems this didn’t happen often, and it’s never been advisable as a show of faith. In 2006, a man visiting the Kiev zoo announced, “God will save me if he exists!ˮ before jumping into the lions’ enclosure and being killed within seconds.
Islam is commonly held to sanction all the pre-Islamic prejudices that endure to this day in the Middle East. And probably the revulsion toward pigs and dogs was shared by Muhammad as an Arab man of his day. Muhammad reportedly said that dogs are filthy and shouldn’t be let in the house. Some took this as a call to drive the curs away, while others just kept their pet dogs in the yard. Many modern Arabs keep hunting dogs, which they pamper and admire. Clearly, in Muslims’ minds, some animals are more sacred than others. Doves are messengers from God, who used to whisper in Muhammad’s ear. Goats are admitted to Muslim heaven due to their connection with Abraham. The goats, it seems, let themselves be sacrificed to spare their master’s son.
By many accounts, relations between camels and Arabs are generally bad. But Muhammed reportedly treated these beasts with a compassion worthy of St. Francis. When he rode as a refugee into Medina, he trusted his camel to lead him to the house where he would stay. That way the choice was left to God, and nobody could accuse him of favoritism. We have stories that he could understand the camels’ thoughts, and brought their complaints of cruel treatment against their masters. Likewise, in a tenth century Sufi tale, the camels appeal to the King of Spirits against their abuse by human beings:
“‘If you could see us, our Lord and King, with our nostrils pierced through with rings of iron and how they pull us by these rings causing us great pain. If you could see how they lead us in darkness through dry and desolate lands, and how we return lame, our backs raw and aching from the friction of the heavy loads, faint with hunger, at the end of our strength—why, you would cry out: “Where is this compassion which these humans claim to have!?” Look upon us, our lord and King, and judge!’ And the King replied, ‘No life should undergo such abuse. … I feel your sorrow and your loss … It is an outrage against our Creator that these humans treat you so cruelly! Justice will be realized!’”
There’s a whole bestiary of animals who reportedly served the Prophet or previous messengers of God, and these animals were rewarded with admission to heaven. There was Muhammad’s faithful horse Borak, Tobit’s dog, Balaam’s donkey, and the dog Kasmir who guarded the cave of the Seven Sleepers as they fled from persecution. Muhammad was also hidden from his pursuers by spiders who wove webs over the entrance to his hideout, so spiders can’t be all bad. In another popular tale, Muhammad was so considerate of cats that he cut off the edge of his cloak rather than pull it out and disturb a sleeping kitty. When the cat awoke, it bowed to the Prophet in thanks, and Muhammad rewarded it by granting cats the power to always land on all four paws. All these stories, no doubt, are full of historical inaccuracies. But factuality is not the best measure of a religion. If these stories are part of the popular folklore, then they reflect something greater than factuality. They reflect an ancient popular expectation that a true follower of God will love and be loved by the animals. That’s the idealism. And of course over the centuries ideals tend to wilt. Concerning her 1927 journey to Mecca, Winifred Stegar wrote “Don’t ever tell me of love between camel and owner. The camels loathe their drivers, their passengers, and anything connected with them. They snarl and show their filthy black teeth at all and sundry. I have been amongst camels the greater part of my life, have known them from their birth to their death. That animal scorns the human race.ˮ
Coleman, Jon T. (2004) Vicious: Wolves and Men in America. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 148
Grice, Gordon (2010) Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals. The Dial Press, New York, 35
Laytner, Rabbi Annson, and Bridge, Rabbi Dan, translators. (2005) The Animals’ Lawsuit Against Humanity: A Modern Adaption of an Ancient Animal Rights Tale. Fons Vitae, Louisville, KY, 11
Mercatante, Anthony (1999) Zoo of the Gods: The World of Animals in Myth and Legend. Seastone, Berkeley, CA, 142, 152
Preece, Rod (1999) Animals and Nature: Cultural Myths, Cultural Realities. UBCPress, Vancouver, xviii, xx, 32, 46, 129, 132
Quammen, David (2003) Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 277–278
Schaefer, Jack (1975) An American Bestiary. Houghon Mifflin Co., Boston, 103
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Wolfe, Michael (1997) One Thousand Roads to Mecca. Grove Press, New York
Article Written by Brian Griffith
Brian Griffith is an independent historian who’s interested in culture wars and cultural creativity. So far he’s written four books. The Gardens of Their Dreams: Desertification and Culture in World History examines how environmental degradation has affected society across the center of the Old World from ancient times forward. Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story and Different Visions of Love: Partnership and Dominator Cultures in Christian History reflect on the culture wars that have raged within Christianity from the religion’s beginning down to the present. A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization explores the alternative traditions and religions of Chinese women, which offer the world a powerful vision for partnership, health, and spirituality. He lives in a multicultural marriage in the multicultural hub of Toronto.