Metaphors of Animality in Western Culture Ideologies
by Effie Heotis

Mankind used to recognize itself as being an integral part of nature, and nature as an integral part of itself. Animals have always taken a predominant place in humans’ lives. Early cave paintings and legends attest to the human-animal connection. When primitive man first drew animals on walls of cave dwellings, the aim was not aesthetic, it was a practical mean—a blueprint designed as a rite intended to help in the pursuit of the animal (Storr, 1972). The bones of animals and various representations of animals have been buried with humans in pre-historic graves suggesting a human belief or desire of their connection with them even after life (Robinson, 1995; Serpell, 1996). Not only were animals hunted, they were revered, if not worshiped.

Animals have metaphorically dominated the skies by representing signs of the zodiac and are featured as main characters in myths, legends and folk stories across cultures. Americans practically permeate their environments, and particularly their children’s worlds with animal imagery and experiences (Serpell, 1999). Unfortunately, as humans, we often disregard our lineage to animals, and regard our species distinctly separate if not superior to other the family members of the animal kingdom. Despite that humans have always shared the landscapes of this planet globally, animals today are not seen as intricately tied to humans and the vice versa can also be stated. Anthropocentric attitudes are believed to be part of the central problematic concept used to draw attention to a systematic bias in traditional Western attitudes of the nonhuman animal world (Andersen & Hendersen, 2005; Naess, 1973).

Animals and their images are powerful in the human mind as they give form to human instincts (Jung, 1964). Humans’ everyday belief systems are engrained with ideological concepts of childhood that equate to or are associated with children and the animal nature of human beings, or animality, at least only during an earlier period in life. Delineating such ideologies can reflect upon both historical and contemporary Western culture’s value systems and judgments about the human-animal association, animality and the socially prescribed distance from these two (Varga, 2009). Myer’s work (1999) points out such assumptions by exploring the symbolic association of both children and animals, and of childhood animality. Furthermore, historical discourses found in the West associate animality with immaturity and idealize transcendence of this state.

Western culture has been prone to distinguish humanity and animality in more dichotomous, non-relative and fixed ways. More recently, researchers in the areas of history, literature, anthropology, animal studies, and psychology also have studied these comparisons. Jung suggested that no individual is born a blank slate. Although this notion has been widely suggested and recognized in the instinctual behavioural patterns of animals, when it is applied to humans it incites strong opposition (Hannah, 1976). Myer’s research (1999) of three historical discourses in the West which suggested that ideologies are based on the tenet that humans and animals are sharply distinguished and human development is transcendence of the animal body and animality, provides insight when considering previous assumptions. Reviewing the three interwoven historical discourses in relation to animals and humans might lead to a deeper level of understanding of where Western thinking is absolute on separating aspects of humanity and animality (Myers, 1998).

Nevertheless, identification with animals has been seen as marginally important in human development and in the process of maturation in Western culture’s ideologies and symbolic universe (Myers, 1999). This rejection of the human-animal association can be criticized for its rigidly imposed influence on investigating the roles and values of nonhuman animals in human development. More critical discussions are necessary to examine how these assumptions evaluate the theoretical original animal-like condition from human development standpoints. Research examining the human-animal association as an integral element in both Western culture’s metaphorical and symbolic universe is limited. Investigation of these associations may provide new avenues of insight with respect to ideologies, human development and psychology. In addition, an exploration of humanity and animality and the associations between the two might refresh our evaluations of humans’ associations to animals and nature at large.

Jung’s theoretical groundwork, which points to the natural, instinctual and even positive connection between humans, animals and animality with respect to human development, may suggest an alternative view compared with past assumptions found in Western discourses. In addition, Jung’s conceptualizations and paradigms of mankind suggest that mankind’s origins include the deepest layers of “primeval ancestors” and “animal ancestors” in general, among other natural elements (Hanna, 1976). In Jung’s (1964) viewpoint, the original animal-like state is not only in primitive societies valued as an instinctual, primal and powerful force, but it is a foundation of the natural and primal expressive process of humans. In contrast to other assumptions found in historical Western discourse, this formulation can be based on recognizing humans’ metaphorical relationship with animals or their “animal being” or “animal soul” (p. 263) as an integral part of the human mind, body, and psyche.

Few studies have investigated psychological theories that set standards of optimal maturation and psychological adjustment with respect to the association of humans and animals. Examining how past ways of thinking influence current perceptions might provide more insight on how these perceptions perpetuate deeper patterns of cultural beliefs and ideologies with respect to the human-animal association (Anderson & Henderson, 2005; DeMello, 2012; Meyer, 1999; Varga 2009) . This paper explores though an analysis the association of humans and animals as an element in Western culture’s ideologies. In addition, in aiming to extend discussion on this topic, this paper will include review of Myer’s research of three historical discourses, in addition to Jung’s research as the comparative fourth discourse associating humans and animals with respect to human development and ideologies rooted in Western thought. Such research may provoke more thought and introduce new ways in approaching how we investigating the structural nature of the human-animal association.

Animal Paradigms in the West

Definitions under the entry “animal” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary include: “a living thing that is not a human or a plant; a person who behaves in a wild, aggressive, or unpleasant way; of or relating to animals; coming from the bodies of animals; of or relating to the body and not to the mind; one of the lower animals as distinguished from human beings; a human being considered chiefly as physical or nonrational (nature).”

The word “human” is defined by the same sources as: “a bipedal primate mammal; of relating to, or characteristic of humans.” Synonyms of animal are entered as: “… beast, beastie, brute, creature, carnal, corporal, corporeal, material, somatic.” Synonyms for human are listed as “earthborn, mortal, natural.” All these point to aspects of humans’ inner nature, and their natural, instinctual lives, which are often rejected or at least troubling due to everyday beliefs, ideologies, and socialization (Borstelmann, 1983; Hirschman & Sanders, 1997). Terms such as the discussed are also indicative of Western culture’s urgency to distinguish humanity and animality more absolutely (Myers, 1999).

The first discourse involves a tendency in Western culture to evaluate paradigms of socialized and the unsocialized as dichotomous: civilized is good, natural is bad. Thus, in these metaphors animals serve as examples of conditions, of being and conduct (Varga, 1999). Animal metaphors such as “act like an animal,” “primitive state,” and “brutish behaviour” provide not only clear examples, but also imagery, assigning authoritative prescriptions embedded in this dichotomy. Bodily states, primitive expressions, lack of self-control and antisocial impulses concern Western thinkers. Freud’s work in The Interpretation of Dreams suggests that the id’s infantile, selfish and passionate impulses, express themselves in dreams, where they may be represented by “wild beasts” (p. 445). Moreover, animals appear in dreams as an influence to affront:

The chimpanzee cuddled up to her, which was very disgusting. This dream achieved its purpose by an extremely simple device: it took a figure of speech literally and gave an exact representation of its wording. “Monkey,” and animals’ names in general, are used as invectives; and the situation in the dream meant neither more nor less than “hurling invectives.” (p. 441)

Humans’ and animals’ basic functions, such as eating, excreting, moving, copulating, being born, giving birth, dying and so forth are assigned with rules that are attached to any social code or cultural system (Tapper, 1988). In Western culture, conduct posed by animality can be seen as threatening to man and civilized society and is often dealt with by suppressing, taming through therapy, or using it as a “bad example.” Social constructionist theory provides perspective for regarding animal behaviours as potentially threatening to models involving socially acceptable or “proper” conduct, thought, or sense of self (Berger & Luckmann, 1966, Myers, 1998).

Myer’s metaphor of the “untamed child” demonstrates the high value placed on the outcomes of proper socialization in discourses found in the West (Meyers, 1999). Moreover, animals, animality, and nature wilderness are portrayals of threat, danger or examples of bad conduct (Varga, 2009). Western metaphors in beastliness represent basic human nature which has long occurred in literature, political and psychological theory. This theme can be found throughout secular, Christian, social and psychoanalytical models as well. One may only have to think about this relation and the early church to understand this sentiment. Animals, nature in general and overt pagan themes were taboo to early Christianity, and yet ironically, there were sacred and worshipped animals such as the lamb, the dove and the fish.

Alternatively, with respect to the Western query, the socialized and the asocial is evaluated in an opposite manner: natural is good, civilized is bad. The second discourse, referred to as the “child of nature” by Meyer (1999), is associated with animal tendencies, in that at least for a while, it exists somewhat apart from the fallen world of civilized adults, and thus is innocent, educational and superior (Grier, 1999; Thorslev, 1972).

One of the first idealized concepts of the noble savage appeared in Dryden’s play, “The Conquest of Granada” in 1672 (Thompson, 2006). Eighteenth century writer Rousseau’s theme of the noble savage refers to the romanticized concept of uncivilized man, thereby affirming the basic tenet of man’s innate goodness, preserved when not exposed to the corrupting influences of civilization. Rousseau also makes an ideological argument that advancements made by man removes him further from his primitive, more innocent state, resulting in the continuing state of unhappiness (Rousseau, 1986). Reflective of this view point we see writers in the modernist movement such as T.S. Eliot (2000) express a dominant theme in which stresses the role of technology and industrialization contributing to the degradation of humanity, and the downfall of Western civilization.

The third discourse, referred to by Myer as “childhood animality,” consists of a stage paralleling recapitulation theory and two additional elements: a literal equivalence between children and animals and an appraisement of connection between children and animals at a particular phase of earlier development (Myers, 1999). This argument emerged around the turn of the century in light of theoretical evolutionary enthusiasm in which germinated a variety of evolutionary schools of thought during that time. Hall’s child study movement agreed that these two ideas were connected. He also agreed with the position that repetition in evolutionary development continues after birth and the child is re-enacting cultural epochs. Hall’s promotion of child study as a science laid the groundwork for the field of developmental psychology (Arnett & Cravens, 2006).

This conception of “the animality child” also served in satisfying social concerns of this period, in which were based on the recognition that rural and community-centered existence was rapidly declining and moving towards an industrial way of life. An idealized and practical vision of children raised alongside animals was maintained among Victorian middle class families, thus animals were given a pedagogic role in which was perceived as critical in childhood and beneficial for society (Grier, 1999). Freud (1918) argued that continued or abnormal attachment to animals, however, indicated a weakness of ego functions.

As discussed so far, all three discourses use animals as metaphors for qualities that are natural in humans, and children are observed to have a larger share of such qualities. Regardless of the expected outcome of these theoretical discussions, when viewed together they illustrate an animal to human transformation in ideologies as theories in human development move from an animalistic state toward a distinctively human one (Meyers, 1999).

The Humanity, Animality and Pathology Tripartite

The metaphoric closeness of the child, the animal, and the body, which are all conceived as asocial or anti-social at root, is very strong in Freudian psychoanalytic tradition. Psychoanalysis recognizes and assumes human-animal nature, but its conception of the animal being is asocial. Freud’s Totem and Taboo observed children’s affinity to animals, however, an equation is drawn of children and their primal state to that of animals’ state:

Children show no trace of the arrogance which urges modem adult civilized men to draw a hard-and-fast line between their own nature and that of all other animals…Uninhibited as they are in the avowal of their bodily needs, they no doubt feel themselves more akin to animals than to their elders, who may well be a puzzle to them. (pp. 126-7)

Freud’s writings propose a tripartite equation between the psychological development of primitives (the earliest human societies which practiced totemism), savages (of contemporary human societies living “substandard” civilized conditions), and neurotic patients (particularly children). The following passage illustrates this equation:

If this equation is anything more than a misleading trick of chance, it must enable us to throw a light upon the origin of totemism in the inconceivably remote past. In other words, it would enable us to make it probable that the totemic system—like little Hans’s animal phobia and little Arpád’s poultry perversion—was a product of the conditions involved in the Oedipus complex. (p. 193)


“Psychoanalysis has revealed that the totem animal is in reality a substitute for the father; and this tallies with the contradictory fact that, though the killing of the animal is as a rule forbidden, yet its killing is a festive occasion—with the fact that it is killed and yet mourned. The ambivalent emotional attitude, which to this day characterizes the father-complex in our children and which often persists into adult-life, seems to extend to the totem animal in its capacity as substitute for the father. (p. 202)

Western thought is deeply rooted in the concept of rationality, in the practical and critical sense, as a means to maturity. Rationality is often conceived in a way that divides it from the animal being, assigned to particular stages in life, and presumed as dichotomous (yes/no). In addition, fundamental human development theories have mostly fixed on the view that development occurs in a linear direction or in progressive stages. Also concerning theories of human development, there is a tendency to view stages as age-linked, assuming that if an individual does not pass through a stage at an appropriate age, then subsequent development is asymmetrical (Gardner, 1983).

Two negative consequences emerge from the rigid human-animal nature distinction in cultural history and theories of human development. First, assumptions about valued human qualities separate animals and humans. Animals, seen as unworthy of the attention in a budding community of theories, are incidental or even symbols of regression in development. A trend is set between children and animals in which, at some point, diverges. Thereafter, certain mature human qualities are expected to be reached at certain prescribed points in development. These points omit animals, identification with animals and aspects of animality. Second, there is a rigid and implied dichotomy in the humans’ functioning of mind (or self) and body. Non-duality and unity consciousness is found throughout the teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism, but rarely found in historical Western discourse, especially in schools of thought concerning human development.

Human-Animal Inclusion in Western Ideologies: “Animality” of the Psyche
The three discourses discussed so far illustrate the tendency of Western culture to ignore, if not reject, both the metaphorical and symbolic inclusion of the association of humans and animals, and of animality with respect to humanity and human development. The fourth discourse relates to animality or “animal being,” which can be distinguished from the previously discussed when considering that humans and animals are not as sharply distinguished through the lens of Jungian psychology. In addition, animality is not excluded as transcendence—rather animality, and the “animal being” is tied to human nature and the human psyche in its entirety.

Western science and literature at some point had begun to recognize the significance of humans and their association with animals and nature in general, which included: Durkheim’s, Firth and Fortes’ totemic elements in psychology, Jung’s representations of the shadow self, and Eliot’s human engine.
Totemism, and the study of it, offers discussion on the aspect of the human animal association and animality. Totemism played an active role in the development of 19th and early 20th century theories of socialization, human development and religion. Thinkers such as Durkheim, Levi-Strauss, Evan-Pritchard, Wundt, Freud and Jung concentrated their studies on totemism and several theories emerged.

To Jung, the abundance of animal symbolism among cultures of all eras does not merely emphasize the critical nature of the symbol—it demonstrates the critical role it played for humans to integrate into their lives as instinctual. Animals and animal nature were perceived as neither good or bad, nor synonymous in portraying good or bad qualities in humans, but rather a part of nature. His passages in Man and His Symbols suggest the close association of animals and humans:

The further we go back in time, or the more primitive or close to nature society is, the more literally such titles must be taken. A primitive chief is not only disguised as an animal: when he appears at initiation rites in full animal disguise, he is the animal. (p. 262)

In other words, incorporating animals and their representation such as animal symbolism is natural and instinctual to Jung. Just as animals obey instincts, they have their parallel in human life. Succinctly put in Jung’s terms, “The foundation of human nature is instinct” (p. 265).

Although Jung’s theory posited that a child is animal-like for the first a few years after birth, later in life, adult transcendence can be achieved through the union of the conscious and unconscious contents of the mind, representing the psyche as a whole. Jung’s metaphorical animal being, representative of the shadow self, resides in humanity. The shadow originates from the pre-human, animal past and it must be integrated in the self: “Primitive man must tame the animal in himself and make it his helpful companion; civilized man must make it his friend” (p. 226). His assumptions lie in the criterion that it is necessary for humans to acknowledge and integrate rather than reject their aspects of the shadow in order for a maturation process to occur.

Jung’s statement further illustrates this position: “The Self is often symbolized as an animal, representing our instinctive nature and its connectedness with one’s surroundings” (p. 220). When aspects of the “animal” self are incorporated rather than extinguished, or at least undistinguished, a “re-birth” occurs in which an individual is able return to a state of psychological wholeness and attain a sense of well-being, or better yet, a state of apocatastasis or restoration. Specifically, the acceptance and working with, rather than the distinction between, the animal and the self sets the condition for transcendence.

Contrary to the previously discussed discourses that have suggested that the “threat” to humans lies in animality itself, Jung (1964) suggested that this animality which lives in humans may become dangerous to civilized man if not recognized and integrated in the self and in life. Furthermore, Jung’s analysis of human nature and development includes a more holistic approach, with a broad range of multi-cultural studies to include Eastern and Western religions, archaeology and mythology (Hannah, 1976).

Consequently, Jungian concepts challenge assumptions that marginalize the human and animal association and aspects of animality. Rather than constituting a dual renunciation of self and animal, non-duality states and unity consciousness are key in Jungian precept. Furthermore, symbolic roles of animals as archetypal figures integrated in the self are recognized in providing powerful potential for not only for maturity, but for psychological states of well-being and wholeness. Similar studies might provide further insight regarding the nature of the human-animal body and the human-animal structures of the psyche.

Exploration of the Human-Animal Association

As demonstrated, aspects found in three dominant historical discourses notably distinguish the human and animal association and animality, whereas Jungian principles integrate the animal being, or animality in the process of development and transcendence. With respect to a psychological model for emotional well-being and wholeness, aspects of animality are essential in residing in the human psyche.

At best, discussions in this paper demonstrate the need for a fresher look in regards to our place in evolution and the prescribed distances we have placed between us and animals. The examination and reporting of discourses on the association of humans and animals with respect to human development would certainly help to mobilize an interest among scholars and professionals in relevant fields. Although many thinkers that have influenced ideologies unquestionably go far beyond what is documented in this paper, what has been discussed here only touches on exploring one of the countless avenues scholars have pursued in understanding metaphorical concepts, symbols and conceptualizations.

Medieval thinkers especially were absolute in the status of the human condition and the human states. Copernicus and later Darwin challenged assumptions by demoting mankind from the center of the biological universe. By proposing that humans had evolved from the animal species, the biological uniqueness of humankind had been challenged, and human beings were classified on a continuum scale as one of many species of animals. Freud, Jung and other thinkers’ theories clearly were influenced at least to some degree. Perhaps it is time for us again to begin to search for new perspectives in search of understanding ourselves in relation to the animal kingdom.

Even our everyday and common use of the terms humans and animals as opposed to the more descriptive terms humans and nonhuman animals attests to how we are inclined to minimize this association. These common terms, which stand behind covertly expressed apprehension in the possibility that we are not transcendent of the animal kingdom, can be seen everyday in countless works such as letters, literature, poetry, song lyrics, stories and media creations. Yet, even over a century and a half after Darwin we are inclined to think in black and white terms and to minimize the grey areas.

It is reasonable to imply that we know less about our association with animals and nature at large than we think we do. It is logical to suggest that we should continue to look at the nature in us, and our progressive distance from it. It is also plausible to suggest that we should review assumptions and pre-conceptions based on ideologies of who we are and what we are made of. Jung states this need for openness and further inquiry best:

Yet there is so much that fills me: plants, animals, clouds, day and night, and the eternal in man. The more uncertain I have felt about myself, the more there has grown up in me a feeling of kinship with all things. In fact it seems to me as if that alienation which so long separated me from the world has become transferred into my own inner world, and has revealed to me an unexpected unfamiliarity with myself. (p. 359)

Elsewhere, he noted, “Because they are so closely akin to us and share our unknowingness, I loved all warm-blooded animals who have souls like ourselves and with whom, so I thought, we have an instinctual understanding” (p. 67).

Many members of society who work today in close cooperation with animals and who insist that they feel a close and special kinship with them illustrate how the human-animal boundary is indefinite. Studies may need to reach beyond current boundaries in exploring the role of the mind as well as the body with respect to the human—animal association in order to gain a deep level of understanding. Although it is reasonable to propose more research on the subject matter, unfortunately psychology and sociology as sciences have limited their study of the animal and human association and animality as part of the psyche. This is baffling considering the profusion of animals in our world and the prominence of the human-animal connection in our culture and so many other cultures around the world throughout all time.


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Effie “Euphoria” Heotis, creator of Paths to the Psyche ©, is a Research Consultant, Therapist, Artist, and Instructor. Her birth name is Euphoria, meaning “bearer of well-being” in Greek. Honoring her Greek ancestry, Effie combines expressive healing paths with teachings of Jung.   She holds a Master of Science degree and certification in Marital and Family Therapy, and certification Art Therapy. She has over three decades of combined experience in psychotherapy, research consultation, and expressive healing arts.




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