Beaver
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Source: British Library Images Online Copyright Copyright 2004 British Library / Used by permission Manuscript description British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 9r


 

Beaver

Latin name: Castor

Other names: Bievre, Fiber

Hunted for its testicles, it castrates itself to escape from the hunter

 

 
General Attributes

The beaver is hunted for its testicles, which are valued for making medicine. When the beaver sees that it cannot escape from the hunter, it bites off its testicles and throws them to the hunter, who then stops pursuing the beaver. If another hunter chases the beaver, it shows the hunter that it has already lost its testicles and so is spared.


Allegory/Moral

If a man wishes to live chastely he must cut off all his vices and throw them from him into the face of the devil. The devil, seeing that the man has nothing belonging to him, will leave the man alone.


Sources (chronological order)

Aesop's Fables [6th century BCE] (Aesop: The Complete Fables (London, 1998) Temple 153): The beaver, a four-footed animal that lives in pools, knows that he is hunted for his testicles, which are used to cure ailments. When pursued, the beaver runs for some distance, but when he sees he cannot escape, he will bite off his own testicles and throw them to the hunter, and thus escape death.

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 8, 47): Beavers in the region of the Black Sea (Pontici) know that they are hunted for the oil produced by their testicles (castoreum), so when they are in danger from hunters they castrate themselves. The beaver has the tail of a fish, and soft fur on its otter-like body. They have a strong bite, cutting down trees as if with steel, and if they bite a man they will not let go until the bones are heard grinding together.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 2:21): The beavers (castor) is so named from being castrated. Beavers are hunted for their testicles, which are good for medicine; when a hunter comes near they bite off their testicles to save themselves. Beavers are also called Pontic dogs.

Gerald of Wales [12th century CE] (The Journey Through Wales, book 2, chapter 3): The Teivi has another singular particularity, being the only river in Wales, or even in England, which has beavers; in Scotland they are said to be found in one river, but are very scarce. I think it not a useless labour, to insert a few remarks respecting the nature of these animals - the manner in which they bring their materials from the woods to the water, and with what skill they connect them in the construction of their dwellings in the midst of rivers; their means of defence on the eastern and western sides against hunters; and also concerning their fish-like tails. The beavers, in order to construct their castles in the middle of rivers, make use of the animals of their own species instead of carts, who, by a wonderful mode of carnage, convey the timber from the woods to the rivers. Some of them, obeying the dictates of nature, receive on their bellies the logs of wood cut off by their associates, which they hold tight with their feet, and thus with transverse pieces placed in their mouths, are drawn along backwards, with their cargo, by other beavers, who fasten themselves with their teeth to the raft. The moles use a similar artifice in clearing out the dirt from the cavities they form by scraping. In some deep and still corner of the river, the beavers use such skill in the construction of their habitations, that not a drop of water can penetrate, or the force of storms shake them; nor do they fear any violence but that of mankind, nor even that, unless well armed. They entwine the branches of willows with other wood, and different kinds of leaves, to the usual height of the water, and having made within-side a communication from floor to floor, they elevate a kind of stage, or scaffold, from which they may observe and watch the rising of the waters. In the course of time, their habitations bear the appearance of a grove of willow trees, rude and natural without, but artfully constructed within. This animal can remain in or under water at its pleasure, like the frog or seal, who shew, by the smoothness or roughness of their skins, the flux and reflux of the sea. These three animals, therefore, live indifferently under the water, or in the air, and have short legs, broad bodies, stubbed tails, and resemble the mole in their corporal shape. It is worthy of remark, that the beaver has but four teeth, two above, and two below, which being broad and sharp, cut like a carpenter's axe, and as such he uses them. They make excavations and dry hiding places in the banks near their dwellings, and when they hear the stroke of the hunter, who with sharp poles endeavours to penetrate them, they fly as soon as possible to the defence of their castle, having first blown out the water from the entrance of the hole, and rendered it foul and muddy by scraping the earth, in order thus artfully to elude the stratagems of the well-armed hunter, who is watching them from the opposite banks of the river. When the beaver finds he cannot save himself from the pursuit of the dogs who follow him, that he may ransom his body by the sacrifice of a part, he throws away that, which by natural instinct he knows to be the object sought for, and in the sight of the hunter castrates himself, from which circumstance he has gained the name of Castor; and if by chance the dogs should chase an animal which had been previously castrated, he has the sagacity to run to an elevated spot, and there lifting up his leg, shews the hunter that the object of his pursuit is gone. Cicero speaking of them says, "They ransom themselves by that part of the body, for which they are chiefly sought." And Juvenal says, "Qui se Eunuchum ipse facit, cupiens evadere damno Testiculi." And St. Bernard, "Prodit enim castor proprio de corpore velox Reddere quas sequitur hostis avarus opes." Thus, therefore, in order to preserve his skin, which is sought after in the west, and the medicinal part of his body, which is coveted in the east, although he cannot save himself entirely, yet, by a wonderful instinct and sagacity, he endeavours to avoid the stratagems of his pursuers. The beavers have broad, short tails, thick, like the palm of a hand, which they use as a rudder in swimming; and although the rest of their body is hairy, this part, like that of seals, is without hair, and smooth; upon which account, in Germany and the arctic regions, where beavers abound, great and religious persons, in times of fasting, eat the tails of this fish-like animal, as having both the taste and colour of fish. (from the The Itinerary of Archibishop Baldwin through Wales (London, 1908) Everyman edition)

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 18): In Pontus is a manner kind of beasts, that dwelleth now in land and now in water, and maketh houses and dens arrayed with wonder craft in the brinks of rivers and of waters. For these beasts live together in flocks, and love beasts of the same kind, and come together and cut rods and sticks with their teeth, and bring them home to their dens in a wonder wise, for they lay one of them upright on the ground, instead of a sled or of a dray, with his legs and feet reared upward, and lay and load the sticks and wood between his legs and thighs, and draw him home to their dens, and unlade and discharge him there, and make their dwelling places right strong by great subtlety of craft. [Compare the similar account of the badger.] In their houses be two chambers or three distinguished, as it were three cellars, and they dwell in the over place when the water ariseth, and in the nether when the water is away, and each of them hath a certain hole properly made in the cellar, by the which hole he putteth out his tail in the water, for the tail is of fishy kind, it may not without water be long kept without corruption. (Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)


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