In the Eye of the Animal

Zoological Imagination in Ancient Christianity

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Patricia Cox Miller
Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , July
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the Eye of the Animal: Zoological Imagination in Ancient Christianity is about imagination – that is to say, how ancient Christian authors imagined animals – and it is also a product of imagination, Patricia Cox Miller’s prodigious one, which juxtaposes theology, philosophy, science, poetry, art, and objects in this wonderfully original study. The book moves beyond the binary that makes western religion either a villain or savior in the drama of human exceptionalism and ecological disaster that defines the anthropocene. Cox Miller does not ignore or justify the heritage of homogenizing, demoting, and demonizing other species left by the creation story’s “dominical Adam” (3). The book’s goal is, rather, to probe “the curious fact that, again and again, ancient Christian texts think both about and with animals, especially in terms of their emotional, ethical, psychological, and behavioral continuities with human beings” (4). The texts that push the paradigm of dominance are frequently the very same ones that give expression to “animal élan” (4), proposes Cox Miller, whose task in this book is to read these texts afresh under the “animal’s gaze” (5).

The chapters do not progress chronologically or deductively but are arranged associatively, each one revealing some new facet of the ancient Christian zoological imagination. A brief introduction surveys the “animal turn” in the academy and the contents of the book. Chapter 1 is a case study in birds. From the bird-headed stick figure of a Paleolithic painting to the herons that fly through Annie Proulx’s Wyoming, birds have long inspired the human imagination, observes Cox Miller, with their keen vision, brilliant feathers, symphony of song, and power of flight. For early Christian writers, the flight of birds evoked the winged soul liberated from the constraints of the material world, while land-bound birds like the peacock, pelican, and hen had numerous Christological meanings. Cranes and storks were models of virtue, and doves symbolized peace, love, and longing.

Chapters 2 and 3 form a pair, both treating the theme of animal “pensivity,” a term Cox Miller borrows from philosopher Jean-Christophe Bailly that points to animals being “worthy of thought” as well as “provocateurs of thought” (11). Cox Miller first sets the anthropocentric stage of early Christian thought, which denied to animals rationality and morality, only to show that the writers responsible for this “anthropodenial” also consistently undermine it. Chapter 2 takes up “zoomorphism,” the perception of humans as animals, found in Origen of Alexandria’s call to mimic the ant’s industry and the bee’s obedience, and Augustine’s emulation of the docile donkey. In the “therotheology” of Gregory of Nyssa and the Physiologus (Chapters 1 and 16), Christ is alternately a hart, panther, and lion. Chapter 3 takes up “anthropomorphism,” the perception of animals as human, especially regarding the ability to speak and to act morally. Referring to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s notions of “brute being” and “strange kinship,” and Plutarch’s and Porphyry’s arguments on behalf of animal reason, Cox Miller looks at the lion in the Acts of Paul who asks to be baptized, the elephant in the Physiologus (Chapter 20) who exercises asceticism, and other creatures of ancient Christian literature who obey human saints, recognize God, or act virtuously.

Chapter 4 goes wild – that is, it explores encounters between wild animals and monks narrated in the literature of desert monascticism. The peaceable kingdom imagined in these desert tales is expanded in chapter 5 to include worms, flies, frogs, and mosquitoes. These tiny creatures reflect the vibrancy and intricacy of God’s creation for writers such as Augustine and Basil of Caesarea, while their stings and croaking reminded writers like Origen of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa of the harmful viewpoints of rival sects or the dangers of worldly desire. Codas cap off each chapter, while the afterword ends on an uplifting note with several ancient Christian authors abandoning anthropocentrism as they revel in the “vibrant materiality” of a paradisal universe. A helpful appendix of ancient Christian and other authors rounds out the offerings.

The book has an exegetical orientation, but not quite in the way one would expect. It gives close readings of the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and ancient Christian and classical writings. But, in addition, the book weaves in modern poets and philosophers such as Henry David Thoreau, Rainer Maria Rilke, Ted Hughes, and Carl Sandburg, as well as approaches from affect theory and new materialism. The book takes materiality seriously, with images of ancient artifacts – a peacock carved onto a sarcophagus, a mosaic of deer drinking from a fountain, a dove-shaped lamp – scattered throughout. The book’s dialogue with ethology, the study of animal behavior, transports animals from the realm of the imaginary to that of the flesh.

Does the book fulfill its mission to know “what the animals are saying and doing” (3)? Of course not, since human beings will always arrive at an epistemological dead end in their efforts to know other species. Cox Miller might have reckoned more with these limits and the problem of “speaking for others” that animal studies inevitably runs into. Her claim in chapter 1, for instance, that Origen’s allegorical exegesis of the birds of Genesis “can be read as relational rather than destructively hierarchical” (18) is not altogether convincing, nor are the claims in chapters 2 and 3 that zoomorphism and anthropomorphism break down the boundary with the animal world rather than simply appropriating animals. She also might have reckoned more with the intersectional dimensions of her texts, especially gender. The relative absence of ancient Jewish authors is another missed opportunity given that ancient Jews possessed a biblical canon that overlaps with the Christian one and could have provided illuminating comparanda.

In the Eye of the Animal takes far more opportunities than it misses, however, in its intertextual, cross-disciplinary wanderings. Given that animal studies is still relatively scarce in the study of ancient religions, this book did not need to be nearly as innovative as it is to make a significant contribution. Toggling back and forth between past and present, Christian and pagan, poetry and theology, and imaginary and real, this genre-bending book will delight scholars and general readers alike.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Beth A. Berkowitz is Ingeborg Rennert Chair of Jewish Studies and Professor of Religion at Barnard College.



Date of Review: 
October 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Patricia Cox Miller is the Bishop W. Earl Ledden Professor of Religion Emerita at Syracuse University. She is author of five books, including The Corporeal Imagination: Signifying the Holy in Late Ancient Christianity, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.


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