I am not particularly fond of classifications. Most classifications are dry, arbitrary and based purely on conjecture. I always laugh when I see a fictitious, spoof classification of animals, proposed by Jorge Luis Borges, one of the most brilliant and imaginative writers of the last century. In one of his short stories, he wrote that in a certain Chinese encyclopaedia animals are classified as follows:
1. those that belong to the Emperor,
2. embalmed ones,
3. those that are trained,
4. suckling pigs,
6. fabulous ones,
7. stray dogs,
8. those included in the present classification,
9. those that tremble as if they were mad,
10. innumerable ones,
11. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
13. those that have just broken a flower vase,
14. those that from a long way off look like flies.
It is particularly ironic that Borges, himself a Virgo, which sign often thrives on classifications, was able to parody this predilection.
I thought about Borges today when I visited an exhibition in Zurich Landesmuseum dedicated to animals and mythical creatures from antiquity to the modern age. Let me just say that the exhibition is brilliant. First of all, it is visually stunning, the artifacts have been carefully selected from a number of museums and the Virgoan classificatory maniacs have eased off and given room to storytellers. The descriptions are colourful and appealing, devoid of scholarly dryness and stiffness. There were a lot of children, who were mostly mesmerized. It was a wonderful exhibition precisely because it succeeded in enchanting children, whose souls naturally inhabit the mythical Neverland. I particularly loved that the hall was so dimly lit, which created a magical, unreal atmosphere. Symbols are, after all, the creatures of twilight.
I was immediately captivated by the first inscription I saw on the entrance to the exhibition hall:
Sly is the snake, potent is the bull, powerful is the eagle, and courageous is the lion: for thousands of years animals have served as a mirror for our desires and fears.
I did not learn any new facts about animal symbolism today but that is completely beside the point. Instead, I spent three magical hours feeling like a child again. I was glad to be able to see the two symbols that are the most significant and the most striking to me, exuding enormous numinous power: the winged lion and the griffin. I think each of us is fascinated by a different animal symbol (or a hybrid symbol) that resonates with something deeply hidden in their psyche.
The winged lion of Venice