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  • Animalish
  • Vilmos Voigt (bio)
Owl. Desmond Morris. Reaktion Books. 24 pages; paper, $19.95.

In my country "animal," more precisely, in adjective form, "animalish," means "very, excellent." One can say it both in a positive and a negative way.

The elegant book of Desmond Morris was published by Reaktion Books in the smaller MacBook size series called "Animal." The series editor is Jonathan Burt—and indeed it was an excellent idea to give several animals an overcoat-pocket book of their own. Not only cat and horse, but crow and tortoise, giraffe and elephant, and even cockroach and flea will be described in separate volumes. The volumes are written from different backgrounds; still their tendency is the same: to enhance culture historical essays concerning different species of animals.

If we ask ourselves how many important animals will deserve to be treated in a separate book from the point of view of culture history—perhaps the number twelve will be the first correct guess. Dog, cat, horse, cattle, pig, lion, a bird, a fish, perhaps bear, wolf, or fox, even the bee should belong to that club. But if we read the list of Reaktion Books volumes, we ought to realize soon, how many more animals are inseparable ingredients in our culture: as for nutrition, source of energy, subject of admiration or fear, and simply as decorative pets or symbols in coats of arms.

Each book in the series looks the same: they include smooth essay texts, many impressive black-and-white and colour illustrations, good references, selected bibliography, and a thematic index. Owl has furthermore a biologically very careful "classification of owls" (not less than 198 species and from all over the world) and finally a list of websites and associations taking care of the owls.

As for selecting the author, Desmond Morris was simply the best possible choice. He is today the well-known media sensitive British biologist and ethologist. There are ten short chapters in the book. The introduction tells us about the intention of the author: what complexity in cultural acceptance of the owls he wants to show. There is no final chapter or summary in the book, yet the same tendency marks the whole text. Strongly historical (and, of course, strongly biological) chapters start with the prehistoric owls and end with once Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

Owls have fascinated throughout human history. They are often mentioned, depicted, described. Ever child will easily recognize a picture of an owl. However, as Morris argues on the first page of the book, nowadays people never see a living owl. They do not have any personal and biological owl knowledge, only written or illustrated owl lore.

Owls in nature have existed for at least 60 million years. Owls in human culture have been represented for at least 30,000 years. It was generally known among archaeologists and art historians that in Aurignacien rock art, there are fairly exact pictures of owls. Still it was a nice surprise that on December 18, 1994 at Chauvet Cave in France explorers have found a large underground dome with abundant illustrations of animals: bison, dear, horses, rhinos, mammoths, etc. And there is engraved on the wall a thirteen inch tall owl figure in "actual size," so accurately that we can tell her/his identification as a typical Bubo virginianus (great horned owl). It is fortunate that in the cave there are pictures of other animals too, who never lived in caves, nor were associated with the underworld. Thus we could exclude the rapid fantasy of seeing in that rock art owl portrait a cultic object of the powers of the night.

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Morris does not offer a simple answer to the problem. So we have to leave the Stone Age and follow him further, towards the ancient civilizations: Babylon, Egypt, then Greece and Rome. Greece was the first culture in Europe that became truly "obsessed" with owls. On coins and pottery we invariably find their images, which have influenced the later European culture. Everybody knows that the owl was the bird of goddess Athena, name-giving patron of Athens. And...


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