A Lexicon of Morality: Before Nature and Magic Went Separate Ways

A review of Gregory McNamee’s translation of On the Nature of Animals (Trinity University Press, 192 pp., July 2011).

By Peter Bebergal

July saw the publication of Claudius Aelian’s On the Nature of Animals translated by Gregory McNamee. Aelian was a Roman teacher whose proficiency in Greek made him famous. Aeilan (ca. 175 – ca. 235) was also a collector of quotations, legends, and lore of the ancient world, and his On the Nature of Animals originally consisted of 17 volumes. McNamee’s version is a slight, one-volume book, intended for a popular audience. Still, its thoughtful curation teaches important lessons about the intersection between magic, natural history, and morality as well as the evolution of superstition toward what was thought to be a more rational form of theology.

We are governed, it was once thought, by a vast and complex system of correspondences. Plato taught that human beings are a microcosm of the cosmos, both containing a system of spheres that govern the motions and, as it were, emotions. It was also thought that the aspects and personalities of the planets correspond to certain plants and animals. Knowledge of these relationships would inform what is commonly called sympathetic magic where “like produces like.” Continue Reading →