Hybrid Creatures – Humans, Animals, Machines, Nature and Weapons

March 18, 2013

Studying cultural artefacts at the Louvre (and elsewhere), i couldn’t help but notice how many alluded to the idea that human powers are intensified when allied with other types of force.

The enigmatic Sphinx

The enigmatic Sphinx (Egypt; Louvre)

Amongst ancient hybrid creatures of human and other animal, the Centaur features heavily, with the head of the human springing forth from the powerful body of the horse. The ability to shoot arrows straight surely signifies a mental as well a hunting or military advantage; and of course it cannot be forgotten that one of the greatest healers of western myth was the wounded Centaur Chiron.

I didn't get any good shots of Centaurs, so here's another Greek hybrid with hooves - let's call it the Satyr of sexual healing ...

I didn’t get any good shots of Centaurs, so here’s another Greek hybrid with hooves – let’s call it the Satyr of sexual healing … (Louvre)

Amongst the annals of such hybridity, however, human powers are also joined by other types of nature spirits – the storm gods emerge fighting from the clouds wielding lightning rods and rumbling thunder, while other celestial deities come bringing gifts of stellar majesty, lunar wisdom, or solar power. These gods and goddesses are hybrids of human and more-than-human, just as more humble creatures like the playful nymph or raucous satyr join parts of the human character together with elements of the world around us, to build bridges between us and the rest of nature.

Human/animal hybrid - for protection of the city gates

Human/animal hybrid – for the protection of Sargon’s city gates (Mesopotamia; Louvre)

Donna Haraway famously protested that she’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess, but where does that leave us now that genetic manipulation can make gods out of scientist-surgeons and new beings out of any combination? (Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake points out some of the horrors of this technology.) Given that the rabid quest for endless profit and control of the earth’s resources is in the hand of monstrous, faceless transnational corporate entities that are proving very difficult to stop, it may be that we could gain from thinking about the kind of world we want to make out of our combined talents. Where is the edge of humanity? In the rest of nature. How do we work with this series of connections, flows, alliances and patterns? By allowing it to flourish in its own right as well as seeking out the most valuable ways that such relationships benefit us and the rest of nature, interdependently.

The power of flight in the famed sculpture of Samothrace

The power of flight in the famed victory sculpture of Samothrace (Louvre)

Relatively stable patterns appear across long cultural periods. Since Prometheus stole fire from Zeus – on behalf of we poor humans – and was horribly punished for his audacity, western ideas about how humanity relates to its environment have worked around that even older idea that we could breathe in the power of the storm, be truly thunderous, wield lightning and its electric energy and transform the world around us. Now this exciting prospect seems to have developed into a hubristic attempt to control all of nature under a new power, a truly dominant form of human culture divorced from the other aspects of nature, the animal and plant spirits that most of humanity throughout most of its history has called kin. Sure we still refer to them in football team mascots and ads for new cars; but the real hybrid creatures at the edge of humanity nowadays are the modern storm gods, who combine the power of lightning with the long arm of techno-man; from the atom bomb to the laser disc, mobile phone to drone bomber.

Doctor Frankenstein sought to 'pour a torrent of light into this dark world' but created a monster instead.(Engraving from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's original version.)

Doctor Frankenstein sought to ‘pour a torrent of light into this dark world’ but created a monster instead. (Engraving from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s original version; image from Wikimedia commons.)

Michel Serres claimed that western history was warfare from start to finish; yet he also saw modern Angels in international flight and the way it brought loved ones together. George Monbiot, on the other hand, saw that very same industry as the one he could not find a low carbon alternative for in Heat. Where does human curiosity and ingenuity – sometimes represented in the hybrid creature, which joins our features and talents with those of other powers – offer exciting new possibilities and when does it represent an enormous, looming threat? Like all good mysteries, this one is open-ended. We will answer it ourselves, if we have not already. It would offer us more hope as a race if the way we respond to our own immense potential takes into account the life of the rest of the earth as well as our own self-involved project of unlimited power. Chiron seeks to heal, not send his  arrows into the sky in the hope of hitting ever new targets; Eros and Thanatos wrestle in our hearts every day – and night.

Weeping angel monument, Old Ship Burying Ground, Hingham, Massachusetts

Weeping angel monument, Old Ship Burying Ground, Hingham, Massachusetts (image from Wikimedia commons)



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