Chameleons would be cool creatures even if they didn’t have the ability to mimic the color of their environment. Have you ever felt one walking on you? Little scaly feet, moving extremely sloo-o-o-owly as it finds its next foothold across your shoulders—up your head if need be.
But, really, it’s their magical morphing that we’re fascinated by. In a culture that hinges on the visual, we would obviously be mesmerized by something that can change its appearance so dramatically. It brings to mind racial passing. There’s a sense of not just deception, but really good deception—so good, it’s frightening. Our admiration is intertwined with distrust.
I would like to read Peter Sahlins’ work on chameleons in 19c France, but it’s not available on the usual databases. He does have an article on Louis IV’s royal menageries as a manifestation of the move to a sovereignty based on discipline (being civilized and restrained, requiring self-policing) rather than terror. (I look forward to reading it.)
Here’s a nice 19c photograph from the Library of Nineteenth-Century Photographs.