Animal and Eve: How representations of wolves and sheep are used to construct human identities

This post is a paper which was presented at the workshop Humanimals: Examining Histories and Productions of Animal-Human Relationships (Oslo, September 26-27 2013).

Photos by the author.


Abstract

The questions of the nature of the wolf, sheep, and humans, are methodologically problematic for two different reasons: Humans’ nature because we are the topic to be investigated; the wolf’s and the sheep’s nature because we are not wolves nor sheep. However, what we think about what it is like to be a wolf or a sheep actually says a great deal about what it means, for us, to be human.

Wolves and sheep are among the animals that have been the most significant in terms of cultural impact. The animal representations involving these two animals – which are often perceived as being in fundamental opposition to each other – are countless; only a few examples can be mentioned in this paper. These include wolf-derived names from Adolf Hitler to Varg Vikernes, words and expressions (“lone wolf terrorist”), fairy tales and Bible stories, and canine or ovine appearances in a number of contemporary TV series and movies. Whereas the werewolf is conceptually a wolfman, the hilarious 2006 movie Black Sheep introduced the weresheep (and thus the sheepman).

In popular culture, the wolf symbolizes evil, bottomless hunger, and raw sexuality. The fact that in old Norse “vargr” (cf. the Swedish varg), the word for wolf, meant “outlaw”, and was also used in the sense of “murderer”, “slayer”, is telling of the way we routinely attribute human characteristics to wolves, and vice versa. To some extent the same can be said about the sheep, which traditionally symbolizes that which is to be protected, flock animals, and stupidity.

This paper will draw on semiotics, philosophy, and Human-Animal Studies at large. 

Introduction

I have arranged the present paper in three sections, starting out with the perspective of philosophy, continuing with that of semiotics, and concluding with that of Human-Animal Studies – where the latter, of course, is an interdisciplinary scholarly perspective which can be said to envelop the former two more specialized fields of inquiry.

Philosophy: Animal nature and human nature

Overall, matters of “the animal” have all too often been relegated to the domain of ethics. As crucial as ethics is, this field is incapable of summing up all there is to say, in philosophy, about animals. Jeremy Bentham’s famous statement (1970 [1789]: 17.283) that ”the question is not, Can they reason? Nor, Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?” points to both the relevance and the limitation of an ethical perspective on animals. It points to the relevance of an ethical perspective, because it really does matter (to animals as “moral patients” [a derogatory term] and to us as moral agents) that animals – or some animals, scientifically speaking – are capable of suffering, and of enjoyment. And it points to the limitation of an ethical perspective, because Bentham hints that animals have other capabilities too (sic). Though he states that these do not matter as much as the capability of suffering, this is not to imply that non-ethical inquiries concerned with cognition (as we call it today), communicative skills etc. do not matter in general – since Bentham’s claim was stated in the context of philosophical ethics. For other areas of philosophy, then, how animals are like, and how they experience and act out their lives, might really matter even so. And as will be detailed in Tønnessen and Beever, forthcoming, the perspective of sentience, promoted by Bentham and Peter Singer (2002), might be all too narrow for a scientifically informed animal/environmental ethics.

Animals matter in terms of ontology as well. They are an important part of the world conceived of as nature, and greatly expand the realm of ways of being in the world beyond human ways of being. This is trivially true – and yet this truism has been neglected by most philosophers. In terms of philosophy of life, many animals are possible companions (in a wide sense of that world), and truly acknowledging their existence (sic) can help us humans feel less alone in the world. Furthermore, in terms of epistemology, animals represent different ways of knowing the world. Human knowing is excellent, but even better if (and only fulfilled if) informed by various instances of animal knowing. This last, epistemological point is somewhat controversial, since a common argument against pro-animal philosophers and the like has been that we cannot really know how, if at all, animals experience things. That is simply not the case – the claim that animals experience the world the way that is appropriate to their kind (i.e., according to the physiology of their species etc.) is well established scientifically, and is on a more general level supported by the Umwelt theory of Jakob von Uexküll (1956 [1934/1940]; 2010). At this point we plainly see how important epistemological claims are as support for ethical claims – without the epistemological element, ethical claims about animal suffering can easily be disregarded.

The problems of animal epistemology, ontology and ethics are as we have seen intertwined. In “I, wolf: The ecology of existence” (Tønnessen 2011), I tried to take a wolf’s perspective in pondering upon its subjectivity. Identification with animals and with nature can be a powerful tool in reworking our conscious selves (Næss 1985). But the question of how accurately we see the world of animals when we try to “see through their eyes”, remains. Nevertheless, I hold that the catchphrase ‘I, wolf’ does somehow correspond to an aspect of wolf reality in existential terms: The wolf is an I, a subject, who has its own, wolf-like, subjective first-person perspective on what it does and on what it experiences. 

Semiotics: The cultural semiotic of wolves and sheep

The following is taken from a work in progress (Tønnessen, forthcoming).

Wolves and sheep are among the animals that have been the most significant in terms of cultural impact. The animal representations involving these two animals – which are often perceived as being in fundamental opposition to each other – are countless; only a few examples can be mentioned in this paper.

In my review I am examining the following categories:

  • Translations, etymology
  • Word frequency
  • Expressions
  • Names
  • Place names
  • Other names
  • Naming wolves
  • Folklore
  • Literature
  •    Religious imagery
  •    Fairytales
  •    Short stories
  •    Novels
  •    Other genres
  • Songs
  • Movies
  • Television
  • Plays etc.
  • Advertising
  • Public display
  •    Mounted animals
  •    Zoo animals

As this simple overview suggests, the range of animal representations is so vast that it is hard to truly get an overview over the cultural impact of our human representations of wolves and sheep. In this paper I will restrict myself to presenting some examples of wolf-derived names and selected Biblical religious imagery of sheep.

Wolf-derived names (in selection)

People whose names draw on the wolf include musician/convicted murderer Varg Vikernes, the Kiowa chief Lone Wolf, the Cheyenne war leader Little Wolf, the Cheyenne chief Wolf Robe, the authors Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) and Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), posthumanist Cary Wolfe, Stephen Wolfram, the creator of the search engine Wolfram|Alpha, and Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). Adolf (cf. the English Adolph, the Italian and Spanish Adolfo etc.) derives from the Old High German Athalwolf, composed of athal or adal (“noble”) and wolf, and means “noble wolf”. Other (in)famous persons named Adolf include the king Adolf of Nassau (1255-1298) and various kings of Sweden, a number of European dukes and princes, three saints (Spanish, German and Ugandan), Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962) and philosophical anthropologist Adolf Portmann.

A common given name is Wolfgang, as in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, or Wolfgang Wolf, a German coach and former soccer player. Wolfgang is derived from Old High German wulf and gang, meaning “path”. Further given names for males derived from the word wolf in combination with some other word are Alf (pet form of Adolf), Bertolf/Bertulf, Ingolf, Ralf/Ralph (“wise wolf”), Randal/Randall, Randolph, Raul/Raúl (“wise wolf”), Rolf and Rudolph (cf. Rudolf etc., and pet forms including Rudi and Rudy – “famous wolf”), and Ulrick (“wolf power”). Further female forms include the Basque Otsana and the Scandinavian Ylva (both meaning “she-wolf”), the Swedish Ulva and the English Ralphina. 

Sheep in Biblical imagery (in selection)

The sheep and the lamb play a decisive role in Christian imagery. In John 10:11, where Jesus presents himself as the good shepherd, he later walks in the temple courts of Jerusalem during the Hanukkah festival, and is challenged to speak plainly about whether or not he is the Messiah (John 10:25-28).

   Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I

   do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe

   because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know

   them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall

   never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

In the Christian context, Jesus is not only likened to a shepherd, but also to a lamb. The Latin term Agnus Dei, lamb of God, refers to Jesus Christ in his role as a global paschal lamb, offering – sacrificing – himself for the sake of humanity. In Christian iconography, Jesus is sometimes depicted as a lamb – occasionally as a bleeding lamb. In English-speaking liturgy, there are several variations over a theme such as this one: “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us”.

Human-Animal Studies: Animal representations and how they co-shape human identity

As stated in the abstract of this paper, the questions of the nature of the wolf, sheep, and humans, are methodologically problematic for two different reasons: Humans’ nature because we are the topic to be investigated; the wolf’s and the sheep’s nature because we are not wolves nor sheep. However, what we think about what it is like to be a wolf or a sheep actually says a great deal about what it means, for us, to be human. In Tønnessen and Tüür, forthcoming, we put it this way:

   Whether the animal is constructed as the radical other or someone with whom we can

   relate and feel kinship, describing animals in popular culture is often – if not always – a way

   to indirectly describe ourselves. Our identity as humans is intimately tied to that of the

   animals, whether these two are identified or defined in opposition. Whether ‘man’ (i.e. our

   subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens) represents itself as animal or non-animal, über-animal or

   “out of this world”, an immanent creature which is part of nature or a transcendent being

   incomparable to the rest of the living, reflection on animal representations is, in the

   context of human understanding, ultimately self-reflection. 


References

Bentham, Jeremy 1970 [1789]. Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. London: Methuen.

Næss, Arne 1985. Identification as a source of deep ecological attitudes. In: Michael Tobias (ed.): Deep Ecology. San Diego: Avant Books, 256–270.

Singer, Peter 2002. Animal Liberation. First published 1975. New York: Ecco, Harper Collins Publishers.

Tønnessen, Morten, 2011. I, Wolf: The Ecology of Existence. Pp. 315-333 in Johannes Servan and Ane Faugstad Aarø (eds.): Environment, Embodiment and Gender, Bergen: Hermes Text.

Tønnessen, Morten, forthcoming. The Cultural Semiotic of Wolves and Sheep. Signs.

Tønnessen, Morten and Jonathan Beever, forthcoming. Beyond sentience: Biosemiotics as foundation for animal and environmental ethics. In John Hadley and Elisa Aaltola (eds): Animal meta-ethics: New directions in animal philosophy.

Tønnessen, Morten and Kadri Tüür, forthcoming. The semiotics of animal representations: Introduction. In Kadri Tüür and Morten Tønnessen (eds), The Semiotics of Animal Representations. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi.

Uexküll, Jakob von 1956 [1934/1940]. Streifzüge durch die Umwelten von Tieren und Menschen: Ein Bilderbuch unsichtbarer Welten. Bedeutungslehre. Hamburg: Rowohlt.

Uexküll, Jakob von 2010: A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans with a Theory of Meaning. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press [translation of Uexküll 1956 [1934-1940] by J.D. O’Neil].

 

  • Written by Morten Tønnessen

Morten Tønnessen is Associate professor at University of Stavanger (Department of health studies) and Chair of Minding Animals Norway. Academic blog: http://utopianrealism.blogspot.no/

 

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