The balls of the beaver

Perdre pour gaigner - to lose to win …

For many centuries healing qualities were ascribed to the testicles of the beaver, giving rise to a rich tradition of illustrations, focussing on the moment that the beaver gnaws off its own testicles to thwart the hunter. It sacrifices its balls to survive, because a castrated beaver is of no use to the hunter.
The story is told - and illustrated - in, for instance, medieval bestiaries and early modern fable and emblem collections.
Here is an example from Les fable d’Esope Phrygien, mises en Ryme Françoise (Lyon, Jean de Tournes & Guillaume Gazeau, 1549)


A much earlier example - with an animal not readily identifiable as a beaver - is found in the Bestiary that is part of the British Library manuscript Royal 12 C XIX


The theme of the self-castrating beaver has many layers, of which the one about the exudate castoreum that beavers use to mark their territory, is only one, while the potential to link the theme to ideas about celibacy and abstinence was not lost on theologians and other authors of moralizing texts.

Obviously, this is very specific theme, and as far as I know it is unique to the beaver. Iconclass does not contain the self-castration of a beaver as a ready-made concept. So, tagging the subject with existing Iconclass concepts will always lead to some loss of specific information. It is therefore interesting to see how far we are stretching the scope of concepts we already have.

The first concept we have is: 25F26(BEAVER)(+3211) rodents: beaver (+ sexual organs of a male animal)
Castrating animals may not have been a theme in visual sources except when it happens to beavers but it would be easy to expand the Iconclass schedules here with the concept “removing the sexual organs of a male animal

Applying 33C71 castration to a beaver means that we are stretching the scope of the concept, as all concepts in Iconclass category 3 deal with humans. However, if we apply this “human” concept to the beaver, it will group his story with that of the galli, the self-castrated eunuch priests of the Phrygian goddess Cybele, here from a manuscript of Augustine’s City of God.


The fact that the galli operated themselves suggests that we should also extend the scope of 33C71 castration by adding e.g. 33C712 self-castration (33C711 already exists; it means “castrated person”).
The moral and religious dimension of the act can be regarded as a specific instance of the concepts in category 11Q31 mortification of the senses ~ ascetic life, where we also find 11Q312 abstinence from carnal desires ~ ascetic life and e.g. flagellation. Extreme forms of penitence by those who have given in to their carnal desires could be in this category. If we tagged the beaver scene with it, it would be retrieved together with the story of the “Burgundian pilgrim Girart” who “fist coper son membre” after having seduced a lady (as told in Gautier de Coinsi’s Miracles de Nôtre Dame)