Weird Uses of Weasels

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 39.16

“There are two kinds of weasels: one is wild and the two differ in size. The Greeks call this one ictis. The gall of both is useful against asps, but poisonous to others. The other weasel, however, wanders in our homes and, as Cicero explains, moves its young on a daily basis and changes its nest, chasing snakes. Its meat, preserved in salt is given in a weight of one denarius and mixed in three cyathi of liquid to those who have been bitten. Otherwise, its stomach is stuffed with coriander and, once dried, drunk with wine. A weasel kitten is even better for this than the weasel itself.”

XVI. Mustelarum duo genera, alterum silvestre; distant magnitudine, Graeci vocant ictidas. harum fel contra aspidas dicitur efficax, cetero venenum. haec autem quae in domibus nostris oberrat et catulos suos, ut auctor est Cicero, cottidie transfert mutatque sedem, serpentes persequitur. ex ea inveterata sale denarii pondus in cyathis tribus datur percussis aut ventriculus coriandro fartus inveteratusque et in vino potus, et catulus mustelae etiam efficacius.

Related image
Aberdeen Book of Kells ,Folio 23v 


Cicero Is Wrong About Puppies

My sister-in-law got a puppy this weekend. Of course, this means I went home and started looking at what Greeks and Romans say about puppies. (I have done this before, but, wait, there’s more!) Let me tell you, it starts objectionable and gets gruesome.

Cicero, De natura deorum, 2.13

“Therefore, it is that same Chrysippos, who, by furnishing images, teaches that everything is better in its perfect and mature form, that a horse is better than a foal, a dog better than a puppy, a man better than a boy, etc. He also shows that what is best in the whole world ought to be found in that same perfect and complete creature and that there is, moreover, nothing more perfect in the whole world, nothing better than virtue. Because of this, virtue is a fundamental element of the world. Now, the nature of a human being is not perfect, but virtue may still emerge in a person.”

Bene igitur idem Chrysippus, qui similitudines adiungens omnia in perfectis et maturis docet esse meliora, ut in equo quam in eculeo, in cane quam in catulo, in viro quam in puero; item quod in omni mundo optimum sit id in perfecto aliquo atque absoluto esse debere; est autem nihil mundo perfectius, nihil virtute melius; igitur mundi est propria virtus. Nec vero hominis natura perfecta est, et efficitur tamen in homine virtus

But, perhaps we should be forgiving of dear Tully’s inability to recognize the perfection of nature in a puppy’s cuteness. Roman approaches to dogs present some interesting challenges to modern readers:

Pliny, Natural History 29.14

“I have mentioned the glory earned by geese when the incursion of the Gauls onto the Capitoline hill was uncovered. For the very same reason, dogs hang in an annual punishment between the temple of Juventas and that of Summanus, crucified while still alive on a cross of elder wood.

The traditions of our ancestors demand that many things be said about this animal. They used to believe that puppies who were still nursing were such pure food for appeasing the gods that they even used to offer them in place of sacrificial victims. The divine rite of Genita Mana is performed with a puppy and at dinners for the gods even today puppy-meat is set out on the table.

The plays of Plautus provide a good indication that puppy meat was a proper dish in special banquets. It was also believed that nothing was a better remedy for poisonous arrows than puppy’s blood and this creature also seems to have shown human beings the use of emetics…”

XIV. De anserum honore quem meruere Gallorum in Capitolium ascensu deprehenso diximus. eadem de causa supplicia annua canes pendunt inter aedem Iuventatis et Summani vivi in furca sabucea armo fixi. sed plura de hoc animali dici cogunt priscorum mores. catulos lactentes adeo puros existimabant ad cibum ut etiam placandis numinibus hostiarum vice uterentur iis. Genitae Manae catulo res divina fit et in cenis deum etiamnunc ponitur catulina. aditialibus quidem epulis celebrem fuisse Plauti fabulae indicio sunt. sanguine canino contra toxica nihil praestantius putatur, vomitiones quoque hoc animal monstrasse homini videtur, et alios usus ex eo mire laudatos referemus suis locis. nunc ad statutum ordinem pergemus.

Image found here

Sex and Death of Vipers: An Allegory?

Aelian, On the Nature of Animals  1.24

“The male viper has sex with the female after he wraps himself around her. She tolerates her husband and doesn’t feel one bit of grief about it. But when they are at the end of their sexual activity, the bride repays her mate with devious affection for this intercourse: for, as she lays astride his neck, she bites it off with his head.

So, while he dies from sex, she gets pregnant. But instead of bearing eggs, she has live offspring and they immediately exhibit the worst part of their nature. They eventually eat through their mother’s womb and emerge, avenging the death of their father. What, oh dear tragedians, are your Oresteses and Alkmaiones in comparison to this?”

24. Ὁ ἔχις περιπλακεὶς τῇ θηλείᾳ μίγνυται· ἡ δὲ ἀνέχεται τοῦ νυμφίου καὶ λυπεῖ οὐδὲ ἕν. ὅταν δὲ πρὸς τῷ τέλει τῶν ἀφροδισίων ὦσι, πονηρὰν ὑπὲρ τῆς ὁμιλίας τὴν φιλοφροσύνην ἐκτίνει ἡ νύμφη τῷ γαμέτῃ· ἐμφῦσα γὰρ αὐτοῦ τῷ τραχήλῳ, διακόπτει αὐτὸν αὐτῇ κεφαλῇ· καὶ ὁ μὲν τέθνηκεν, ἡ δὲ ἔγκαρπον ἔχει τὴν μίξιν καὶ κύει. τίκτει δὲ οὐκ ᾠά, ἀλλὰ βρέφη, καὶ ἔστιν ἐνεργὰ ἤδη <κατὰ>τὴν αὑτῶν φύσιν τὴν κακίστην. διεσθίει γοῦν τὴν μητρῴαν νηδύν, καὶ πρόεισι πάραυτατιμωροῦντα τῷ πατρί. τί οὖν οἱ Ὀρέσται καὶ οἱ Ἀλκμαίωνες πρὸς ταῦτα, ὦ τραγῳδοὶ φίλοι;

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 3630, Folio 93r

The Hyena’s Alternating Gender

Aelian, History of Animals 1.25

“if you should at any time see the male Hyena, the next time you see the same animal it will be female. If you see the female first, then later you will see the male. They have the aspects of sex in common: they marry and are married and they alternate their nature every year. Therefore, this animal has demonstrated the antique nature of Kaineus and Teiresias not with wild tales but with the fact themselves.”

Τὴν ὕαιναν τῆτες μὲν ἄρρενα εἰ θεάσαιο, τὴν αὐτὴν ἐς νέωτα ὄψει θῆλυν· εἰ δὲ θῆλυν νῦν, μετὰ ταῦτα ἄρρενα· κοινωνοῦσί τε ἀφροδίτης ἑκατέρας, καὶ γαμοῦσί τε καὶ γαμοῦνται, ἀνὰ ἔτος πᾶν ἀμείβουσαι τὸ γένος. οὐκοῦν τὸν Καινέα καὶ τὸν Τειρεσίαν ἀρχαίους ἀπέδειξε τὸ ζῷον τοῦτο οὐ κόμποις ἀλλὰ τοῖς ἔργοις αὐτοῖς.


An explanation:

A Nameless Animal Who Counts?

Aelian, History of Animals 4.53

“Eudemos says that while the animals have no reason they do have a natural ability in arithmetic even though it is not taught. He adds as proof of this that one of those animals from Libya. He does not provide it with a name, but here are the things he says.

He claims that whatever it hunts, it separates into eleven portions and eats ten of them, leaving the eleventh. (why it does this and for whom and with what plan is worthy of examination). This is a kind of first-fruit sacrifice or tithe, you might say. Therefore, it is right to be surprised at this self-taught wisdom: for the animal without reason knows the counts of one and two and the subsequent numbers. Just compare how many lessons are required for a human being, how many punishments they need, so one might learn these things well and correctly, or, how often one does not learn.”

Εἶναι δὲ ἄλογα μὲν ζῷα, φυσικὴν δὲ ἔχειν ἀριθμητικὴν μὴ διδαχθέντα Εὔδημός φησι, καὶ ἐπάγει μαρτύριον ἐκεῖνο τῶν ἐν τῇ Λιβύῃ ζῴων. τὸ δὲ ὄνομα οὐ λέγει· ἃ δὲ λέγει, ταῦτά ἐστιν. ὅ τι ἂν θηράσῃ, ποιεῖν μοίρας ἕνδεκα, καὶ τὰς μὲν δέκα σιτεῖσθαι, τὴν δὲ ἑνδεκάτην ἀπολείπειν (ὅτῳ δὲ καὶ ἀντὶ τοῦ καὶ ἐννοίᾳ τίνι σκοπεῖν ἄξιον) ἀπαρχήν γέ τινα ἢ δεκάτην, ὡς ἂν εἴποις. οὐκοῦν ἐκπλαγῆναι δίκαιον τὴν αὐτοδίδακτον σοφίαν <τήνδε>2· τὴν γάρ τοι μονάδα καὶ δυάδα καὶ τοὺς ἑξῆς ἀριθμοὺς ζῷον οἶδεν ἄλογον· ἀνθρώπῳ δὲ δεῖ πόσων μὲν τῶν μαθημάτων, πόσων δὲ τῶν πληγῶν, ἵνα ἢ μάθῃ ταῦτα εὖ καὶ καλῶς ἢ πολλάκις μὴ μάθῃ;

This is a Jaculus. It has nothing to do with this post.

Loyal Hounds for the Charcoal Man

Aelian, History of Animals 1.8

“A certain man named Nikias once went too far in front of his hunting party without knowing it and fell into a charcoal-burner’s furnace. His hounds who witnessed this event did not abandon him but first they lingered there whining around the kiln and howling.

Eventually, they dragged some people who were passing near to the accident by gently and bravely biting the edge of their clothes as if the dogs were summoning the people to be their master’s rescuers. One person, who witnessed what was happening, suspected the accident and followed them. He discovered Nikias burned completely in the furnace and figured out what had happened from his remains.”

Νικίας τις τῶν συγκυνηγετούντων ἀπροόπτως παραφερόμενος ἐς ἀνθρακευτῶν κάμινον κατηνέχθη, οἱ δὲ κύνες οἱ σὺν αὐτῷ τοῦτο ἰδόντες οὐκ ἀπέστησαν, ἀλλὰ τὰ μὲν πρῶτα κνυζώμενοι περὶ τὴν κάμινον καὶ ὠρυόμενοι διέτριβον, τὰ δὲ τελευταῖα μονονουχὶ τοὺς παριόντας ἠρέμα καὶ πεφεισμένως κατὰ τῶν ἱματίων δάκνοντες εἶτα εἷλκον ἐπὶ τὸ πάθος, οἷον ἐπικούρους τῷ δεσπότῃ παρακαλοῦντες τοὺς ἀνθρώπους οἱ κύνες. καὶ γοῦν εἷς ὁρῶν τὸ γινόμενον ὑπώπτευσε τὸ συμβάν, καὶ ἠκολούθησε καὶ εὗρε τὸν Νικίαν ἐν τῇ καμίνῳ καταφλεχθέντα, ἐκ τῶν λειψάνων συμβαλὼν τὸ γενόμενον.


Bestial Sexual Morality. Or, How A Camel is Superior to Oedipus

Aelian, History of Animals 4.47

“For the sake of Zeus, allow me to interrogate the tragedians and the storytellers who came before them as to what they had in mind when they pour so great an ignorance on Laios’ son who joined that terrible journey with his mother and on Telephos who, although he did not pursue sex, also laid next to the one who bore him and would have done the same things if a serpent had not interrupted him by divine command. How can these things happen when nature even allows the mindless animals to recognize the nature of this union from simple touch—they do not need special signs or anything from the man who exposed Oedipus on Mt. Cithairon.

The camel, indeed, would certainly never have sex with its own mother. There was a herdsman, who tried to force this, and, by covering up a female as much as possible and hiding all of her except for her genitals, drove the child to its mother. The ignorant animal, thanks to its excitement for sex, did the deed and then understood it. While biting and trampling the man who was responsible for this unnatural union, it killed him terribly by kneeling on top of him. Then it threw him off a cliff.

In this, Oedipus was ignorant in failing to kill himself and just putting out is eyes: for, he did not know that it was possible to escape his troubles by getting rid of himself and not curing his home and family, and as such to try to cure evils which had passed with an incurable evil.”

47. Δότε μοι τοὺς τραγῳδοὺς πρὸς τοῦ πατρῴου Διὸς καὶ πρό γε ἐκείνων τοὺς μυθοποιοὺς ἐρέσθαι τί βουλόμενοι τοσαύτην ἄγνοιαν τοῦ παιδὸς τοῦ Λαΐου καταχέουσι τοῦ συνελθόντος τῇ μητρὶ τὴν δυστυχῆ σύνοδον, καὶ τοῦ Τηλέφου τοῦ μὴ πειραθέντος μὲν τῆς ὁμιλίας, συγκατακλινέντος δὲ τῇ γειναμένῃ καὶ πράξαντος ἂν τὰ αὐτά, εἰ μὴ θείᾳ πομπῇ διεῖρξεν ὁ δράκων· εἴ γε ἡ φύσις τοῖς ἀλόγοις ζῴοις τὴν τοιαύτην μίξιν καὶ ἐκ τοῦ χρωτὸς δίδωσι κατανοῆσαι, καὶ οὐ δεῖται γνωρισμάτων οὐδὲ τοῦ ἐκθέντος ἐς τὸν Κιθαιρῶνα. οὐκ ἂν γοῦν ποτε τῇ τεκούσῃ ὁμιλήσειε κάμηλος. ὁ δέ τοι νομεὺς τῆς ἀγέλης κατακαλύψας τὸν θῆλυν ὡς οἷόν τε ἦν καὶ ἀποκρύψας πάντα πλὴν τῶν ἄρθρων, τὸν παῖδα ἐπάγει τῇ μητρί, καὶ ἐκεῖνος λάθριος ὑπὸ ὁρμῆς τῆς πρὸς μίξιν ἔδρασε τὸ ἔργον καὶ συνῆκε. καὶ τὸν μὲν αἴτιον τῆς ὁμιλίας οἱ τῆς ἐκθέσμου δάκνων καὶ πατῶν καὶ τοῖς γόνασι παίων ἀπέκτεινεν ἀλγεινότατα, ἑαυτὸν δὲ κατεκρήμνισεν. ἀμαθὴς δὲ καὶ κατὰ τοῦτο Οἰδίπους, οὐκ ἀποκτείνας, ἀλλὰ πηρώσας τὴν ὄψιν, καὶ τὴν τῶν κακῶν λύσιν μὴ γνοὺς ἐξὸν ἀπηλλάχθαι καὶ μὴ τῷ οἴκῳ καὶ τῷ γένει καταρώμενον εἶτα μέντοι κακῷ ἀνηκέστῳ ἰᾶσθαι κακὰ τὰ ἤδη παρελθόντα.

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 6838B, Folio 15v