When we regard a certain animal as an embodiment of some value (lion for courage, donkey for pessimism, bull for stubborn), we participate in the creation of an effigy. The animal becomes a something that we can castigate in place of, or alongside, the “real thing.”
Cats, for example, have been cast infamously in the role of witches’ familiars—as embodiments of supernatural evil—for which they have been condemned alongside their mistresses. “Women were frequently drowned…especially adulteresses and witches,” records C.V. Roman, a doctor in Philadelphia writing in 1916 about the 16th century, “being generally put in a bag along with a cat or a snake, and cast into a pond.” In Chambers’s Encyclopedia of 1870, it is recorded that in Saxony, “a woman convicted of child-murder, was sewn up in a sack, along with a cat, a dog, and a snake, and thus drowned, in 1734.” This is probably an illustration of the kind of practice that The Atheneum (in 1829) described as drowning “unfortunate persons…in a sack with obscene animals.”
What makes an animal obscene? Or, rather, why do we make certain animals obscene?