Passion and white peacocks

July 14, 2009

Readers of seventeenth-century texts will be familiar with the idea of the impact that a mother’s imagination could have on her child, but it is perhaps less well known that some people thought that the passions or imagination could affect animals in the same way.  Agrippa von Nettesheim’s chapter on the impact of the passions in his Three Books of Occult Philosophy (English translation, London, 1651) began with this common example:

So the longing of a woman with Child, doth act upon anothers body, when it Signs the infant in the womb with the mark of the thing longed for. So, many monstrous generations proceed from monstrous imaginations of women with Child (pp.145-6)

He then moved on to discuss other examples, including a recipe for making white peacocks:

So the imaginative powers of Pea-Cocks, and other Birds, whilest they be coupling, impress a colour upon their wings. Whence we produce white Pea-Cocks, by hanging round the places where they couple, with white Clothes. (p.146)

The peacocks see our white clothes and their imaginations imprint the notion of whiteness onto the offspring they conceive. This process is imagined to be like contagion:

For it is manifest that a body may most easily be affected with the vapour of anothers diseased body, which we plainly see in the Plague, and Leprosie. Again, in the vapours of the eyes there is so great a power, that they can bewitch and infect any that are near them, as the Cockatrice, or Basilisk, killing men with their looks. (p.146)

The text goes on to use the images of rays and smells, which are locale-specific, bringing the argument round to a moral point:

Therefore Philosophers advise, that the society of evill, and mischievous men be shunned, for their soul being full of noxious rayes, infects them that are near with a hurtfull Contagion. On the contrary, they advise that the society of good, and fortunate men be endeavoured after, because by their nearness they do us much good. For as the smell of Assa-fetida, or Musk, so of bad something of bad, of good something of good, is derived upon them that are nigh, and sometimes continues a long time. (p.146-7)

The ideas in this text raise a question about the spatial scope of imagination and the passions. How close would one have to be to the coupling peacocks to make them conceive white offspring? The rest of the examples, which tend to focus on visual transmission, suggest that the peacocks would have to see the white-clad experimenters. Thomas Browne also noted that the same point had been used to explain the presence of white animals in snowy regions: ‘many opinion that from aspection of the Snow which lyeth long in Northerne Regions, and high mountaines, Hawkes, Kites, Beares, and other creatures become white’ (Pseudodoxia Epidemica, 1646, p.327).


3 Responses to “Passion and white peacocks”

  1. Kristine said

    Hi Olivia,

    This is a comment to your white peacocks post – I couldn’t get the comment function there to work, I hope you can put it in the right spot for me.

    The idea that what an animal saw during conception influenced the look of its babies is also to be found in the Bible, in the story of Jacob and Laban’s sheep (Genesis 30). Laban promised his son-in-law Jacob that he would be allowed to keep the spotted and striped sheep of the flock he was tending. Jacob put branches of which he had cut the bark to make them spotted and streaked at the sheeps’ watering place, and made sure that the stronger sheep saw these branches when they conceived. His share of the flock was therefore larger and stronger.

    Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi refers to this story, when Ferdinand claims that the livers of women who will wed twice are “more spotted than Laban’s sheep” (1.2). Annotated editions I have seen only explain the spots with reference to Genesis, but I think that since Ferdinand is the speaker, he does not use this comparison merely to evoke the idea of spots, but also refers to it for its sexual connotations.

    A great book on these issues (in humans, but also in animals) is Mary E. Fissel’s Vernacular Bodies: The Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern England (Oxford UP, 2004). I think she mentions Laban’s sheep somewhere, too.

    Thanks for a great post and a wonderful blog!

  2. ofsmith said

    Hi Kristine,

    The spotted sheep are actually mentioned in Agrippa too — it is really fascinating. Thanks so much for such an informative and thoughful comment!


  3. Carnivalesque 52 « Gilbert Mabbott said

    […]  Airs, Waters, Places to be allowed 4s. for counsell on avoiding monstrous […]

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