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Medieval Beasts: The Weasel

27 Sep

There are many ways to tell a story, and there are many ways that medieval bestiaries used animals to these means. Herodotus collected anecdotes from travelers and used his knowledge to entertain others. The mythical attributes of salamanders were Pliny and Aristotle’s attempts to understand nature. These kinds of stories use myth to talk about nature. But it goes backwards too. Nature to reinforce belief.

Galanthis, of Greek myth, suffers from a common problem. She angered a goddess, Hera (who always seems to be angry at someone) by assisting in the birth of Heracles. A number of minor goddesses were actively trying to block the birth through magic, but Galanthis tricked them by rushing into the room and falsely declaring the delivery a success. This startled the goddesses so much that they stopped casting their spells. For tricking a diety, Galanthis was cursed to take the form of the weasel. And if that wasn’t enough, she was further cursed to only be able to give birth through her ears.

This myth is interesting to me since, unlike the secretions of the salamander, it has no basis in fact, but yet persisted well into the seventeenth century. Many venerated bestiaries were quoted saying that the animal conceived through the mouth and birthed through the ears (or vice versa), including Isidore and The Aberdeen Bestiary. Throughout European history the ancient Greeks were envisioned as the pinnacle of civilization. A golden period to match the dark ages. This weird hand-me-down belief signifies that medieval European reverence.

Well, that’s the big story, but I can’t resist giving a few more facts to entertain you all. For one thing, the word weasel derives from the Anglo-Saxon weatsop, which means ‘vicious animal’. And, according to many, they were quite vicious and cunning. Poisonous too. There is a story of a weasel taking revenge on a kite that ate one of it’s babies by playing dead and luring the bird into a trap. When the predator came to investigate, the weasel sprang back to life, stinging the bird to death and getting it’s revenge. More myths can be found here, including their connection to Christ, their hatred of basilisks, and even their ability to revive the dead.

Sources: perseus.tufts.edu, wiki: weasel, wiki: Edward Topsell, all-about-ferrets.com,

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3 Comments

Posted by on September 27, 2011 in History, Natural History

 

Tags: , , ,

3 responses to “Medieval Beasts: The Weasel

  1. Becoming herself

    September 28, 2011 at 11:50 pm

    Fascinating, as always. Thank you.

    Bestiaries are very interesting; the source of the saying ‘lick into shape’, I believe, as it was thought that bears gave birth to shapeless lumps which had to be ‘licked into shape’ by their mothers in order to become an actual baby bear.

     
    • theglyptodon

      September 28, 2011 at 11:57 pm

      Really? Oh man, I’ve got to look this up.

       
  2. Ian

    September 29, 2011 at 3:37 am

    Their hatred of basilisks recalls the mongoose hunting snakes. It might be interesting to trace the game of telephone that led to this one.

     

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