Sex and Magic: Tapir anthropomorphism – Charlotte Jennings

– the third in a series of guest-posts by students of Animal Geography at UC – Berkeley

Alice and the Dodo in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a classic story with many anthropomorphic characters. The Dodo is the leader of the playful Caucus Race in which characters run in patterns of any shape to get dry, and everyone wins. The Race and its candidates, with such lack of clarity and decisiveness, is satire on the political caucus system. Original illustration is by John Tenniel.

Alice and the Dodo in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a classic story with anthropomorphic characters. The Dodo is the confused and indecisive political leader of the playful Caucus Race where everyone wins – a satire on the political caucus system. Original illustration is by John Tenniel.

Wiley foxes and wise owls, deceptive snakes, and elephants with impeccable memory…

We all attribute human-like qualities onto animals. This phenomenon, called anthropomorphism, has deep roots in our perceptions of nature and the cosmos. Every society does it.

Perhaps you see a compassionate soul when you look into your dog’s chocolately-brown eyes, or an autonomous freethinker in your cat. But have you ever related a wild animal to your favourite sexual taboo?

Dreams, dinner, disease, and demons

There are three tapir species in the Americas. They are large rainforest mammals hunted by many indigenous peoples.

Amazonian and Amerindian folklore render tapirs as possessing human spirits and existing as powerful sex-symbols [1].

Tapirs are depicted as “oversexed demons [2] as well as “trickster-like” figures [1] with uncontrollable passion. Their sex is ambiguous – gender association varies by community – but tapirs are commonly portrayed as masculine “seducers of women” [1].

Perhaps the sizeable genitalia of the male tapir are anthropomorphized. Thus the animal is constructed as a wildly sexualised creature [3].

Lowland tapir species adult and juvenile. Illustrated by Stephen Nash. Source: www.tapirback.com

Lowland tapir species adult and juvenile. Illustrated by Stephen Nash. Source: http://www.tapirback.com

This mythic relationship between tapirs and humans surfaces in shamanistic dream interpretation and folklore. Besides sex, the topics most often associated with tapirs are hunting, food, and illness.

Among the Kagwahiv people of Brazil, a shaman’s dream of sexual organs forecasts the capture of a tapir because the tapir is an adulterer in mythology [4].

A story of the Peruvian Ashaninka people involves a woman who seduced a prominent local man and then transformed into a tapir. The man became ill and died soon after, and the myth evolved into a lesson about the consequences of indiscriminate sex [2].

A female Ashaninka shaman from the Peruvian Amazon. Source: http://vi.sualize.us

A female Ashaninka shaman from the Peruvian Amazon. Source: http://vi.sualize.us

Tukanoan shamans in Colombia ask ill patients about their dreams and what they have eaten. Patients’ dreams of threatening fauna, such as a giant tapir, are believed to reveal the disease as a consequence of over-hunting or broken food taboos [5].

Food is equated with sex: hunting and cooking are linked to mating by their association with pheromones and scent. Visions of tapirs signify the ill patient’s taboo sexual fantasies or disregard for the Tukanoan exogamic traditions [5].

A Nicaraguan Rama Indian narrative recounts the tale of a woman who runs away from her husband to live with a tapir, and together they produce a son. The loyal paramour provided sustenance for the woman until he was slain by her jealous husband. In this story, food and eating are again construed as a metaphor for copulation; the tapir is the only being that can truly satisfy the woman [6].

Who can resist this face? Source: www.irishmirror.ie

Who can resist this face? Source: http://www.irishmirror.ie

Plump, drooling, jungle beast: It’s what’s on the ‘inside’ that counts

For many from cultures with other perspectives, it may seem strange to associate a plump, drooling, jungle beast with human desire and sexuality.

During sex, however, humans are most like animals. It should come as no surprise that sexual behaviors are imposed onto animals in some societies.

Further, Amerindian and Amazonian shamanistic cultures generally consider animals as physically different but spiritually equal to humans. The souls of the spirit world embody and freely transform between humans, plants, and animals. These beliefs are derived from dominant animism ideology that shapes Amazonian indigenous philosophy and cosmology [2].

The Warao people of Venezuela and Guyana are known to avoid hunting big game species, such as tapirs, because they are considered “people of the forest with blood like humans” [7].

Tapir illustration. Source: www.luciekacrova.cz

Tapirs anthropomorphised, the monster of love – representing the human condition. Source: http://www.luciekacrova.cz

The unconditional human condition

The tapir exemplifies “the nature/culture gestalt” [3], transcending the natural world into the realm of the human condition. Though it is but one organism among thousands that humans anthropomorphize.

Why is this tendency to project human-like traits onto non-humans ubiquitous? Some contend that it arises from the human propensity to infer the mental states of others, a necessary skill for which to understand the intentions of peers [8]. It is a by-product of the process that led to human self-awareness and our need to relate to others experientially.

Ecological and cultural heritage at stake for tapir steak

Tapirs are endangered due to habitat loss and over-hunting. If they become extinct, the rainforests will lose not only a keystone species, but also the animal-human-spiritual relationships associated with them. And it is perhaps these fundamental human conceptions and intangible relationships to nature that primarily underlie motivations to care for our environment.

Besides, a world without tapirs is unsatisfying on so many levels!

About the Author - Charlotte Jennings is a PhD candidate in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her evolutionary biogeography research addresses questions related to latitudinal patterns and elevational gradients in biodiversity, though she has tangential interests in conservation, environmental science, anthropology, geography, the intersection of art and science, and education. She lives in Berkeley with her houseplants.  Charlotte is holding a microhylid frog in Papua New Guinea

About the Author – Charlotte Jennings is a PhD candidate in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her evolutionary biogeography research addresses questions related to latitudinal patterns and elevational gradients in biodiversity, though she has tangential interests in conservation, environmental science, anthropology, geography, the intersection of art and science, and education. She lives in Berkeley with her houseplants.
Charlotte is holding a microhylid frog in Papua New Guinea

Bibliography

1. Benson, E.P. Birds and Beasts of Ancient Latin America. University Press of Florida, 1997.

2. Bodley, J.H. Cultural Anthropology: Tribes, States, and the Global System, 5th ed. Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2011.

3. Gade, Daniel W. Nature and Culture in the Andes. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1936.

4. Tedlock, B. “Sharing and Interpreting Dreams in Amerindian Nations”. Dream Cultures: Explorations in the Comparative History of Dreaming. Ed. D. Shulman and G.G. Stroumsa. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

5. Reichel-Dolmatoff, G. Shamanism and Art of the Eastern Tukanoan Indians: Colombian Northwest Amazon. Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1987.

6. Loveland, F.O. “Watch That Pot or the Waksuk Will Eat You Up: An Analysis of Male and Female Roles in Rama Indian Myth.” Sex Roles and Social Change in Native Lower Central American Societies. Ed. C. A. Loveland and F. O. Loveland. The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois,1982.

7. Balick, J., Elisabetsky, E., and S.A. Laird. Medicinal Resources of the Tropical Forests: Biodiversity and Its Importance to Human Health. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

8. Eddy, T.J., Gallup, G.G., and D.J. Povinelli. 1993. Attribution of Cognitive States to Animals: Anthropomorphism in Comparative Perspective. Journal of Social Issues, 49(1): 87-101.

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7 comments
  1. Alyse said:

    Well done, Charlotte!

  2. Tracy Spurgeon said:

    Very interesting. Who knew the tapir was such a sexy beast!

  3. Claude Lévi-Strauss’s famous dictum “animals are good to think with,” comes to mind. Two other observations: The plethora of animal metaphors, similes and folk speech we use suggests that humans may most easily recognize our commonalities with animals with respect to sex (e.g. rabbits, monkeys, elephants, tapirs), eating (like pigs or birds) and defecation (bears, bulls, horses) or what Bakhtin identified as the lower bodily strata. The higher function associations seem to occur less frequently in everyday conversation (loyal dog, wise owl). It’s good that you point out that such symbolic association is not universal. In Catalunya, an owl (mussol) is someone who is slow on the uptake and in India the owl is also dimwitted A second suggestion is is that that tapir’s snout may also be seen as phallic, adding addition symbolic resonance to the tapir as sexual paragon.

    • Thank you for sharing your observations, Brad.

      I have noticed that animal associations or ‘mode of anthropomorphism’ varies with culture/place & are not universal, which makes this subject all the more fascinating to me – how much we can learn about ourselves and our societies by considering common projections of other species? While working on a cassowary geography for Wayne’s course I learned that cassowaries seemingly transcend gender constructs as well as the human-nature dichotomy, with some New Guinea tribes perceiving the giant bird as human and others as the epitome of wild, for example.

      You raise an interesting point about projecting higher vs lower functioning onto other species. Why do you think it is that we less often attribute higher functions onto animals?

      Back to anthropomorphism of sexual traits, can you think of any ways in which people from Western cultures project sexual characteristics onto animals? I tried to think of a popular example to include in this piece but could only think of examples in which humans attribute animal traits onto themselves – the other way around (e.g. reproduce like bunnies).

      – Charlotte

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