Beasts of the Otherworld

Halloween has traditionally been the night where souls come back from the dead for one night, bringing messages for the living. When we think of communicating with some kind of world beyond the natural, outside of Halloween, we tend to imagine spooky seances and ouija boards, mediums channeling dead spirits. But different cultures have found many different ways of bringing the realm of the living and the supernatural together in more powerful way on a continual basis.

A white-faced witch meeting a black-faced witch with a great beast (woodcut). Thomas Potts, The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancashire (1613).

The mediums for such connections have, almost invariably, been animals, but these can happen in myriad ways. Close to home, so many of the monsters and supernatural frights that people dress up as at halloween have some kind of animal embodiment: satyrs, unicorns, werewolves, vampires, maenads. They have been the portals to communication with deities as sacrificial lambs; devil’s guises and witches’ familiars; forms in which straying gods have seduced human females; or guards of the realms of the dead, like the multiply-headed dog, Cerberus, of Greek Mythology.

The Rape of Europa, Gillis Coignet (undated)

There are many examples from anthropological studies. The culture of the Lele people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, is centred around a cult of pangolin magic, where these scaly beasts are mediators that connect the natural and supernatural worlds. The animal’s chimerical nature, with the body and scales of a fish, but legs that climb trees, makes it into a monstrous beast that crosses the boundaries between terrestrial and aquatic, and, unlike other animals that run away from hunters, it offers itself to be taken, even walking into settlements. The Lele see humans who bear twins as choseln by spirits to mediate between human and animal realms, and the pangolins, bearing only one offspring at a time, is seen as the human-like animal mediator for the same purpose.


These resonances of boundary-crossing human-animal mirroring are also seen in tribal societies in New Guinea. Many have a deep and close relationship with the various spescies of birds of paradise that they hunt, embellish themselves with and mimic in tribal dances. Men dress up in incredibly elaborate costumes constructed from bird of paradise plumes that they have hunted or traded with other tribes, and perform dances at sing sings that mimic the very mating dances that the male birds themselves perform to attract female birds. The histories of the tribes and the birds are mythogically entwined, with the spirits of people move between human and avian bodies: the birds’ presence provides a symbolic link between the tribal past and present, spiritual and physical existence.


The idea of the ‘spirit animal’, a creature that somehow embodies the human soul, crystallising something innate and intangibe is widespread. One of the most recent iterations is in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Every person is accompanied by an animal ‘daemon’ that embodies their soul, the part of them beyond the corporeal. These daemons shift and change with mood in youth, gradually becoming fixed as that person matures. Separating a person from their daemon is akin to creating a zombie, ripping out the essence of a person, removing their humanity.

Why do animals play this role? What is it about animals and the connections that we can fore with them, mentally or physically, that allows us to access a realm beyond what we can see? That the human soul should have animal embodiment in Pullman’s series seems paradoxical, but at the same time is intuitively sound somehow. The adulterated quotation from Claude Levi-Strauss, that ‘animals are good to think with’ is a very familiar one. The mis-quotation perhaps does better than the original to convey the sybolic role of animals: we have used them as moral and psychological receptacles of ourselves for a very long time, while simultaneously creating abrupt distinctions between the human and animal.

This dichotomy is telling: we identify with animals and yet distinguish ourselves from them, above them. They represent things we recognise and things we might fear to recognise. Perhaps they connect us with the darker, less civilised elements of ourselves that allow us to perceive the intangible, intuitive things beyond the ordinary realities we inhabit. In any case, a cat costume is always a safe bet for a last minute Halloween party.


The Witches Rout (Lo Stregozzo), by Marcantonio Raimondi and Agostino Veneziano, engraving – National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo




Tamach rose


© Natalie Lawrence: The Manticore 2018

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