Since the beginning of time, every culture on earth has utilised animal imagery to find meaning. From shamanism and totemism to the classical myths of the Greco-Roman period, humans have used animals as a kind of mirror, reflecting qualities and abilities we can no longer find within ourselves. In fact, the idea of human moral supremacy was only formally written down by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, and it’s unfortunate that this viewpoint has dominated western belief for the last 700 years. The spread of pet-keeping may have something to do with the decline of anthropocentrism; or perhaps the rise of the Abrahamic religions mean we are no longer comfortable thinking of ourselves as little more than beasts. But, whether we like it or not, that is exactly what we are.
In mythology, animal symbolism has been used in many different ways to explore this, piecing images together in order to instruct and entertain. The Minotaur, the result of Queen Pasiphaë mating with a bull, is a not so subtle warning as to the dangers of female sexuality, just as the werewolf has been a symbol of male lust in the European imagination. The same can be said for Pasiphaë’s magical sister Circe, who could literally turn the men who jilted her into any number of untamed beasts. But therianthropy – the act of physically becoming an animal – is not always seen as a negative thing. The Egyptian gods, for example, were all able to assume their bestial form at will, and these same animals were worshipped and even mummified as a way to honour their divinity.
But what these myths have in common is that the animal always says something about the human it relates to. Pigs were sacrificed by the Eleusinian priestesses because they were seen as a symbol of death, devouring everything in their path; Zeus appeared to Leda as a swan to reflect her own innocence and virginity; and the Nemean lion, the first of Heracles’ twelve labours, is an obvious metaphor for the hero’s strength and nobility.
In Beast Wagon, animals are used in much the same way. Although established as the central characters in the comic, it soon becomes apparent that the humans are actually the focus of the story, each of them using the animals as a means to explore their own inherent fears and desires. Archie and Mildred both defile the beasts in order to gain power, whilst Jaleesa uses King as a way to activate her own animus. But Patrick is an exception to this rule, following a conventional mythological narrative on his journey towards enlightenment. With the help of Sherman the turtle, Patrick – like Inanna and Osiris, Dionysus and Persephone – descends into the underworld of his own psyche. When he returns, Patrick is able to see the human characters for what they really are; the line between human and animal is indefinite. This, it seems, is the driving message of the comic, that denying one’s bestial nature is a sure way to prevent achieving self-actualisation.
It is also interesting to note that each of the central characters have only one animal that they interact with. Mildred and Kokobo are both mirrors of each other; both are physically strong and capable but feel powerless in their respective positions. Andrew and Agatha, both sharing the names of Catholic saints, are the tragic heroes of the comic, constantly exploited and undermined by those they find themselves in service to. Patrick and Sherman are the most unlikely of pairings, but even they have a lot in common. As a turtle, Sherman is able to traverse land and sea, the mythological realms of logic and emotion; the same qualities it takes Patrick to become a successful commercial writer. Similarly, Patrick has a tendency to hide away in a shell of his own self-loathing, a tendency he becomes more and more aware of as the story progresses. It would also be possible to interpret Archie’s killing and consumption of Sherman as a symbol for Patrick’s transformation. With the death of his spirit guide, Patrick is finally able to acquire Sherman’s abilities for himself.
Of course, a mythological reading of Beast Wagon is only one possible interpretation. There are also many religious images scattered through the series, and it wouldn’t be too difficult to read the story as a criticism of organised religion. The lion – referred to as King, Messiah and Aslan throughout the text – is the most obvious Biblical allusion, heralded as a saviour when he arrives at Whipsnarl Zoo. By the end of Issue #4, King is nothing more than a symbol of apostasy. Drugged, sedated and removed from his natural habitat, King’s narrative echoes the perversion of the Christian gospels over time, taken out of context in order to suit those in power. The proselytising monkeys, in this case, can be seen as religious extremists, converting those around them to their own destructive brand of faith.
Although Beast Wagon is ambiguous enough to allow for multiple readings, it clearly draws inspiration from many differing world mythologies – from those of the Greeks and the Romans, to the Abrahamic religions still practised today. When considering the animals within the text, these metaphors perform their function of speaking to the psyches of the human characters, and in turn, to the human readers as well. In this way, the comic itself acts as a kind of totem or spirit guide, forcing the reader to question their own primitive hopes, fears and desires. We are not asked to feel for any one particular character, nor are we required to be taken in by the superficial aspects of the comic; but, by recognising the myths and metaphors inherent in the story, to see directly to its core.
This essay (an edited version of a longer piece) was originally published in Beast Wagon Tales, available here: http://www.changelingstudios.com/