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Commentary on Emblem 153

The beaver's self-protection is described at 8.47.109 in the Natural History of Pliny (23-79 AD), a principal source for the encyclopedic tradition up through the 17th century:
The beavers of the Black Sea region practise self-amputation of the same organ when beset by danger, as they know that they are hunted for the sake of its secretion, the medical name for which is beaver-oil (castoreum). Apart from this the beaver is an animal with a formidable bite, cutting down trees on the river banks as if with steel; if it gets hold of a man's body it does not relax its bite before the fractured bones are heard grinding together. The beaver has a fish's tale, while the rest of its conformation resembles an otter's; both species are aquatic, and both have fur that is softer than down.
But the source for Alciato's moral reading of the beaver's act seems to be 6.34 in The History of Animals by Claudius Aelianus (c170-230 AD):
The Beaver is an amphibious creature: by day it lives hidden in rivers, but at night it roams the land, feeding itself with anything that it can find. Now it understands the reason why hunters come after it with such eagerness and impetuosity, and it puts down its head and with its teeth cuts off its testicles and throws them in their path, as a prudent man who, falling into the hands of robbers, sacrifices all that he is carrying, to save his life, and forfeits his possessions by way of ransom. If however it has already saved its life by self-castration and is again pursued, then it stands up and reveals that it offers no ground for their eager pursuit, and releases the hunters from all further exertions, for they esteem its flesh less. Often however Beavers with testicles intact, after escaping as far away as possible, have drawn in the coveted part, and with great skill and ingenuity tricked their pursuers, pretending that they no longer possessed what they were keeping in concealment.
The lore worked its way into the fable tradition in both prose and verse. The latter, perhaps somewhat modified from a lost text of Phaedrus, is given as no. 30 in Niccolo Perotti's late 15th century appendix to Phaedrus (Babrius and Phaedrus, ed Ben Edwin Perry, [Loeb Classical Library], p. 413):
The Beaver

Many might live on if they would, to save their lives, make small account of their fortunes.

When the beaver finds himself unable to escape from the dogs they say he bites off and casts aside his own testicles, because he is aware that it is on their account that he is pursued. (The Greeks, who have words for everything and take pride in their extensive vocabulary, call this animal castor, thereby giving it the name of a god.) That there is something godlike that prompts the beaver's act I can't deny; for the hunter, as soon as he has found his medicine, ceases to pursue the animal itself and calls off the dogs.

If men could bring themselves to consent to forfeit their property they would live in safety thereafter; no one would set snares for a naked human body [nudo corpori].

The beaver is the national animal of Canada. Margaret Atwood, the novelist and poet, somewhere says that its ability to castrate itself does in fact make the beaver an appropriate symbol. Normally of course the self-castration is left out of the discussion. We'll let the political commentators work that one out.

Last modified 25 November 1997