The power of legend

I was thinking this weekend about the repetition of stories. There was some discussion on twitter about whether or not the history of the conservation movement is the same thing as the history of the environmental movement (which came up in the context of an article in the New Yorker, “Environmentalism’s racist history”). While I can sympathise with the desire to make a distinction, I think it matters more how the histories are invoked by people as foundation legends. As humans reflect on themselves, they tell stories to make sense of the world. It seems to me that there is a tendency for people today to judge the past by whether the story turned out to be ‘true’ or not, rather than on what the story did for the people of the past (or people of the present, for that matter). Yet even untrue stories may hold truths of a kind.

The legend of the beaver is a case in point. One of the most influential encyclopaedic natural history texts ever written was penned by Pliny the Elder (AD23-79) during the last two years of his life. Book VIII is dedicated to terrestrial animals, with Chapter 47 dealing with beavers and other amphibious animals. He begins with the later oft-repeated legend of the beaver’s testicles:

The beavers of the Euxine, when they are closely pressed by danger, themselves cut off the same part [the testes], as they know that it is for this that they are pursued. The substance is called castoreum by the physicians.

A stuffed beaver showing off his massive teeth at the Skogsmuseum in Lycksele, Sweden. Photo by D Jørgensen.
A stuffed beaver showing off his massive teeth at the Skogsmuseum in Lycksele, Sweden. Photo by D Jørgensen.

This legend became the standard story about beavers until the early modern period. You might just chalk up Pliny’s story to the uninformed ancient Romans, but few have thought about the context of this story in the Natural History. Immediately after the section about biting off the testicles Pliny goes on for several sentences about the beaver’s teeth and how dangerous they could be because of their bite. When read together, the story about the beaver biting off his testicles becomes a tale about the danger of the animal’s sharp teeth. The teeth, not the castoreum, are the point of the story. And for anyone who has seen beaver teeth, they can understand Pliny’s obsession with the teeth.

Pliny in fact had information contradicting the testicle-biting tale. In Book XXXII, Chapter 13, Pliny takes up the uses of castoreum within a broader discussion of medicines extracted from amphibious animals. In this chapter he writes:

Sextius, a most careful enquirer into the nature and history of medicinal substances, assures us that it is not the truth that this animal, when on the point of being taken, bites off its testes: he informs us, also, that these substances are small, tightly knit, and attached to the back-bone, and that it is impossible to remove them without taking the animal’s life.

Sextius clearly knew his castoreum. He even rightly noted that true castoreum is contained in two pouches attached by a single ligament – so anything else is false. Pliny’s use of Sextius as expert testimony reveals that Pliny was not oblivious to castoreum’s true source. In this section on medicine, Pliny may have been trying to be as accurate possible in order to have people avoid being duped by false castoreum, but in the section on animals, the key attribute of each animal was in focus.

Beaver chase. British Library, Harley MS 4751 fol. 97.  Image in public domain, provided by BL.
Beaver chase. British Library, Harley MS 4751 fol. 97. Image in public domain, provided by BL.

I’ve also read medieval bestiaries chided for their ‘silly’ stories of beaver behaviour, but these too have a purpose. In the bestiaries such as the Aberdeen Bestiary, the beaver is pursued by hunters, so he bites off his testicles and throws them to the hunter who then calls off the chase. Every image of the beaver shows some part of this story. Sometimes, there is even a beaver who has been a previous victim who lays on his back to prove to the hunter that he no longer has the precious jewels. The legend repeated over a thousand years before in Pliny was clearly still alive and kicking in the late Middle Ages.

But we have to remember that these texts were not just natural histories, but also moral histories. Immediately following the explanation of the beaver’s tactics, the application to a good Christian life is drawn:

Thus every man who heeds God’s commandment and wishes to live chastely should cut off all his vices and shameless acts, and cast them from him into the face of the devil.

So stories aren’t always what they seem. The person telling the story has a goal in mind. A legend or myth holds truth as well. If we analyse those stories we can find out what the people of the past valued—what they thought was important about their world.

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