Panther
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Source: British Library Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts Copyright Copyright 2004 British Library / Used by permission Manuscript description British Library, Harley MS 3244, Folio 37r


 

Panther

Latin name: Panthera

Other names: Love cervere, Pantera, Pantere, Pantiere

A gentle, multicolored beast whose only enemy is the dragon

 

 
General Attributes

The panther is a gentle beast; only the dragon is its enemy. It is a beautiful, multicolored animal; its coat is spotted with white or black disks. After the panther has feasted, it goes into a cave and sleeps for three days. When it wakes up it gives a loud roar, and while it is roaring a sweet odor comes out of its mouth. Any animal that hears the roar follows the sweet smell to reach the panther. Only the dragon stays away, hiding in a hole because it is afraid of the panther. The female panther can only give birth once, because the young in her womb tear at her with their claws, wounding her so that she can no longer conceive.


Allegory/Moral

The panther represents Christ, who drew all mankind to him. The dragon represents the devil, who feared Christ and hid from him. The many colors of the panther symbolizes the many qualities of Christ. After Christ was sated with the mockery and abuse of the Jews, he fell asleep in death and entered the tomb. Descending into hell he bound the dragon. After three days Christ left the tomb and roared out his triumph over death. The sweet breath of the panther that drew all animals to it is a symbol of the words of Christ that draw all to him, Jews and Gentiles alike.


Sources (chronological order)

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 8, 23): Panthers are light-colored but have small spots like eyes. Their wonderful smell attracts all four-footed creatures, but the savagery of their heads frightens the creatures away. Therefore, to catch prey, panthers hide their heads as their smell attracts the prey animals within reach. Some people say that panthers have a mark on their shoulder that resembles a crescent moon. Panthers occur most frequently in Africa and Syria.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 2:8-9): The panther (pantera) takes its name from the Greek word for "all" (pan), because the panther is the friend of all beasts other than the dragon. They are covered with black and white circles that look like eyes. Female panthers can only give birth once, because the cubs, in their eagerness to escape the womb, tear at their mother with their claws so she can no longer conceive.

Philip de Thaun [c. 1121 CE] (Bestiaire) (Early Christian Symbolism in Great Britain and Ireland before the Thirteenth Century (London, 1887) Allen translation): That is a curious beast, / wonderously beautiful, / of every hue / such men tell, / persons of holy spirit, / that Josephs / tunic was / of every tinge / in colours varying, / of which each more bright, / each more exquisite / than other shone / to the sons of men. / Thus this beasts hue, / pale, of every change, / brighter and fairer / wonderously shines; / so that more curious / than every other / yet more unique / and fairer / it exquisitely glistens / ever more excellent. / When the bold animal / rises up / gloriously endowed / on the third day / suddenly from sleep / a sound comes / of voices sweetest, / through the wild beasts mouth; / after the voice / an odour comes out / from the plain / a steam more grateful, / sweeter and stronger / than every perfume, / than blooms of plants / and forest leaves, / nobler than all / earths ornaments.

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 18): Physiologus speaketh of the Panther and saith that he hateth the dragon, and the dragon fleeth him: and when he hath eat enough at full, he hideth him in his den, and sleepeth continually nigh three days, and riseth after three days and crieth, and out of his mouth cometh right good air and savour, and is passing measure sweet: and for the sweetness all beasts follow him. And only the dragon is a-feared when he heareth his voice, and fleeth into a den, and may not suffer the smell thereof; and faileth in himself, and looseth his comfort. For he weeneth that his smell is very venom. All four-footed beasts have liking to behold the divers colours of the panther and tiger, but they are a-feared of the horribleness of their heads, and therefore they hide their heads, and toll the beasts to them with fairness of that other-deal of the body, and take them when they come so tolled, and eat them. (Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)

Middle English Bestiary (British Library Arundel MS 292) [13th century]: Panter is an wilde der, / Is non fairere on werlde her. / He is blac so bro of qual / Mith wite spottes sapen al, / Wit and trendled als a wel. / And itt bicumeth him swithe wel. / Wor-so he wuneth this panter / He fedeth him al mid other der, / Of tho the he wile he nimeth the cul / And fet him wel til he is ful. / In his hole sithen stille / thre dages he slepen wille; / Than after the thridde dai / He riseth and remeth lude so he mai. / Ut of his throte cumeth a smel / Mid his rem forth overal / That overcumeth haliweie / With swetnesse, ic gu seie, / And al that evre smelleth swete, / Be it drie, be it wete. / For the swetnesse off his onde, / Wor-so he walketh o londe, / Wor-so he walked er wor-so he wuneth, / Ilk der the him hereth to him cumeth / And folegeth him up one the wold / For the swetnesse the ic gu have told. / The dragunes one ne stiren nout / Wiles to panter remeth ogt, / Oc daren stille in here pit, / Als so he weren of dede offrigt. / Crist is tokned thurg this der / Wos kinde we haven told gu her. / For he is faier over alle men, / So even-sterre over erthe fen. / Ful wel he taunede his luxe to man / Wan he thurg holi spel him wan; / And longe he lai her in an hole, / Wel him dat he it wulde tholen. / Thre daies slep he al on on / Thanne he ded was in blod and bon, / Up he ros and remede iwis / Of helle pine, of Hevene blis, / And steg to Hevene uvemest, / Ther wuneth with Fader and Holi Gast. / Amonges men a swete smel / He let her of his Holi Spel, / Wor-thurg we mugen folgen him / In to his godcundnesse fin. / And that wirm ure witherwine / Wor so of Godes word is dine, / Ne dar he stiren, ne noman deren, / Ther-wile he lage and luve beren.

Sir John Mandeville [14th century CE] (Travels, chapter 7): And within the palace ... all the walls be covered within of red skins of beasts that men clepe panthers, that be fair beasts and well smelling; so that for the sweet odour of those skins no evil air may enter into the palace. Those skins be as red as blood, and they shine so bright against the sun, that unnethe no man may behold them. And many folk worship those beasts, when they meet them first at morning, for their great virtue and for the good smell that they have. (The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1900) Macmillan edition of 1900)


Illustration

The illustration of the panther story is similar in most manuscripts: animals cluster around a colorful panther, which usually has an open mouth, either roaring or emitting a sweet smell. There is usually a dragon in the picture, cowering or trying to hide in a hole, though in Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25 (f. 3r) the dragon lies comfortably with the other beasts, seemingly not at all distressed. In Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º (f. 3v) the other animals are not present; the panther roars over a dragon half hidden in a cave. The animals gathered around vary from manuscript to manuscript, but usually include a stag. Some of the artists clearly had no idea what a panther looked like; as well as being drawn as a cat-like creature, the panther appears as a donkey (British Library, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 109r) and as a composite creature with horned head, extremely thick neck, and horse's body (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 3630, f. 76r).


Heraldry

In heraldry, the panther is shown with flames coming from its mouth and ears; this is called the "Panther Incensed". The flames represent the sweet odor emitted by the panther. King Henry VI used the panther for his badge, to indicate that "a Kinge should have so many excellent and severall vertues as there are diversities of spottes and most beautifull Coullors in this Beast, and then his People will love and followe him for his vertues as all other Beastes love and follow the Panther for his sweete smell and glorious coullors" (Coll. Arms MS. L. 14, pt 2, f. 380). Other descendants of the House of Lancaster also used the panther.


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