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Notts Art Collective INSTAR Dig Into the Role Flora and Fauna Have Played in Our Collective Cultural Past

17 May 22 words: INSTAR
illustrations: INSTAR

From modern tales like The Princess and the Frog, through to ancient literature in the form of The Epic of Gilgamesh, humans have been fascinated by the wonders of mythical flora and fauna. Yet our natural world is perhaps more incredible than anything in a fairy tale…

Think back, as far as you can, to your first connections with the natural world. I don't mean the blackbird whose proud syrup song drizzled from the TV aerial outside your bedroom window, nor the riverine ant herds navigating the asphalt savannah, only to depart the above for the underneath, as they trickle between a curbside crack. I mean the creatures from the otherworld, the surreal and unsettling domain of skinwalkers, shapeshifting frogs and werewolves.

When we were children, animals affected us most profoundly when they pounced, flew and slithered from between the pages of a book - and it was here that these characters had the freedom to unfold further into our psyche. It might be a shadowy underwater wake from the passing leviathan, its cold breath wafting our toes, or the twig snap shudder panic from the stalking beast, slinking behind the vanta black curtain of a woodland night, or simply caution for the untrustworthy cunning of the fox and the bloodthirsty intentions of a ravenous wolf. However, when a lot of these tales were established, wolves, bears and lynx were very much a part of our native fauna, and the creatures in these stories opened our eyes to some important natural lore. 

The teachings drawn from the yarns of animal myth and fable unravel into our lives; we learn of risk, adventure and romance, danger and consequence, and probably, most importantly, we also discover alchemy in the narrative of these fantastic creatures. Magic fascinates and tickles our curiosity, in fairy tales and folklore, flying creatures, shapeshifters and resurrection are all enchanting and wondrous powers, yet in reality birds and bats, butterflies and beetles, hibernation and seasonal change are commonplace phenomena. Immortality is a completely rational option for the jellyfish Turritopsis dohrnii. In the case of the desert-dwelling New Mexico whiptail lizard, virgin birth (parthenogenesis) is a routine method of reproduction. It truly is a deliciously weird world that we live in.

The more we stray from the ancient path of sharing stories about wild things, then the further we distance ourselves from nature, its wisdoms and wonders

One of the most beguiling fictional relationships that smudges the margins between animal and human cultures throughout the world is that of the shapeshifter, the bedevilled human caged within the tormented husk of some lowly or hideous beast. Werewolf and Lycan stories have a long and gruesome history. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, a 4,000-year-old poem which is widely considered to be the oldest known surviving work of literature, we witness, arguably, the first appearance of a werewolf. In this tale the hero of the title shuns the advances of the goddess Ishtar after learning that she had turned an amorous shepherd into a wolf, who then meets his demise at the teeth of his own guard dogs. In Navajo folklore those who can deviate between animal and human form are known as skinwalkers, or yee naaldlooshi, meaning, “With it, it goes on all fours.” These are murderous, malevolent witches that, once draped in a pelt, can disguise themselves as that very same creature, often mutating into huge coyotes, wolves or bears hell-bent on mayhem and destruction. 

In European fairy tales, green-eyed spells of entrapment are often cast to hinder or elicit romantic liaisons. The most widely known tale being that of The Frog Prince, one of the many dark and bewitching fables collected by the Brothers Grimm. Here, the frog turns back into a prince only after being touched by the lips of the princess. However, in the oldest version, the transformation only occurs once the princess has thrown the frog against a wall!

One of the most beguiling fictional relationships that smudges the margins between animal and human cultures throughout the world is that of the shapeshifter

Closer to home, in Celtic mythology, shapeshifters appear frequently. For example, there are many stories that feature Selkies - seals who, upon emerging from the surf, remove their pinniped skin to walk the earth as a human. And then there is the Puca, a ghost of Irish folklore, a mischievous white or black furred creature that can change into a wide range of forms, from hares to horses to humans, yet in this final form will always retain some vestige of animal features such as a nose or tail. 

Alternatively, if we are not becoming a beast ourselves, then we are granting the more than human world our peculiar and often flawed human idiosyncrasies. Long after the Grimm and Aesop boom, tales featuring anthropocentric animals have become increasingly commonplace, from the quintessential watercolour tales of Beatrix Potter to the political farmyard banter of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, along with pretty much everything from the Disney staple. It appears that telling stories featuring animal protagonists is vital to our very being. 

The more we stray from the ancient path of sharing stories about wild things, then the further we distance ourselves from nature, its wisdoms and wonders. If we no longer know the tales of the land and its multitude of curious creatures, then we lose our connection to them and our relationship will be forever broken. This is why it is now more important than ever that we keep telling those weird and whimsical stories - and keep those fantastic beasts alive.

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