If you think back five years to the beginning of May, you may recall news reports heralding the arrival of a creature of seemingly apocalyptic importance to the US: the murder hornet. Reports of the hornets has been eclipsed both by the realization that they are less bothersome than realized and by nationwide protests about the systemic racism, contractual brokenness, and murder of black people in our country. As a moment of distraction from the nightmare of reality, allow me to introduce you to another strange and oddly religious creature: the sex weasel.
The unusual sex life of weasels is an ancient obsession. Even though they were kept as household pets by the ancient Greeks, they were seen by some as morally suspect. In the book of Deuteronomy (traditionally ascribed to Moses), we learn that the weasel is an “unclean” creature (Lev. 11:29). If you’re wondering what the weasels ever did to earn this title, a little-known early Christian text called the Epistle of Barnabas explains that the weasel engages in some “wicked” and “impure” sexual behavior. The author, who pretends to be the traveling companion of Paul, writes “[Moses] has rightly detested the weasel. For he means, “You will not be like those whom we hear commit wickedness with the mouth, on account of their uncleanness; nor will you be joined to those impure women who commit iniquity with the mouth. For this animal conceives by the mouth.”
In less old-timey terms: weasels conceive via oral sex and we should try to avoid that.
“Wait, what?” you think. Except, it wasn’t only early Christians who thought this. In antiquity, there was a fairly widespread belief that weasels were impregnated through their ears and gave birth through their mouths. Practically speaking, the origins of this story may lie in the fact that weasels (like many other mammals) carried their young around in their mouths. In Greek mythology weasels are tied to Galanthis, the servant or friend (depending on the myth) of Heracles’s mother, Alcmene. Galanthis tricks the gods in order to allow Alcmene to give birth and, as punishment, is turned into a weasel.
Some later Christian sources have weasels conceiving through the mouth and giving birth through the ear. There are even some fairly explicit depictions of this in a medieval psalter (books of psalms) that was owned by royalty. Who doesn’t love a little animal erotica with their prayers? The reason for the reversal is, as Maurizio Bettini has argued, because the Virgin Mary was believed by many early Christians to have conceived through the ear. No one wanted there to be an association between the Virgin Mary and a somewhat aggressive household pet.
The Epistle of Barnabas’s use of this idea, however, is obviously about regulating private morality. The implicit threat for those who thought they were “getting away something” by practicing oral sex is that not only can they get pregnant, but that everyone will know about their deviant behavior should they, like the weasels, deliver through their mouths. Barnabas doesn’t only care about oral sex. Pedophiles, he says, get orifices all over their body like rabbits. And those who are “adulterers” or “perverts” switch sex every year “like the hyena.” The point is this: what you do in private is going to become embarrassingly public. You can’t conceal your sexual behavior from your neighbors.
While rabbits and hyenas deserve their own stories, the sex life of the weasel continues through medieval period in the form of bestiaries; compendia of information about all kinds of real and mythical creatures. In these the weasel is not just a reproductively distinctive mammal, it’s also the mortal enemy of the basilisk (shout out to the Harry Potter fans, if there are any left). From the ancient world all the way into the present the tenacity of the weasel meant that it was considered the only creature whose bite could kill the basilisk. The basilisk would, according to many sources, also kill the weasel but God created the weasel for this particular purpose.
The unofficial label “sex weasel” was coined by Dr. Chelsea Nichols, an art historian who has written about weasels in Renaissance art on her fantastically addictive site The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things. “In the 16th century, weasels were a catch-all category for many of the furry, long-bodied carnivorous creatures in the mustelid family, such as ermine, sables, martens, ferrets, stoats and mink. These creatures often appear in Renaissance portraits of high-ranking noblewomen and represent a fascinating language of sexual symbolism.” Their association with sex and conception made them a meaningful accessory in portraits of young brides or married women in general. Posing with a weasel pelt, scarf, or purse was considered a kind of good luck.
According to Nichols, some believed that the skin of a weasel “could help ease childbirth.” Correspondence between members of the Medici family, she writes, suggests that some women sent analgesic weasel accessories to their daughters before they gave birth. Others embraced the symbolic association between the conception of Jesus (via sound and the ear) and the assumed reproductive practices of the weasel. For those far removed from the interpretation of the Epistle of Barnabas conceiving through the ear or mouth was considered chaste. One bejeweled marten head in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore that Nichols cites includes a dove (a well-known biblical image for the Holy Spirit) on the creature’s snout. Items like these would have had quasi-magical amuletic powers that protected the owner from harm in childbirth and helped guarantee their fertility.
White weasels, in particular, were associated with chastity because legend maintained that they would surrender themselves to hunters rather than ruining their pelts during a chase. Leonardo Da Vinci’s portrait of a ‘Lady with an Ermine’ (ca. 1490), Nichols says, shows Cecilia Gallerani, the pregnant mistress of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, somewhat ironically posed with a live ermine in her lap. The muscular white weasel was actually a stand in for the Duke himself who belonged to the Order of the Ermine, a renaissance-era society of knights. The most famous portrait, however, is of Queen Elizabeth I of England, the Virgin Queen, who, as Nichols notes, was shown in many portraits with a small white ermine as a symbol of her purity and virginity.
In 1400 years, the weasel went from being a sexually deviant phallic shaped ancient pet to symbol of virginity, the Holy Spirit, and protector of women in childbirth: it’s quite the moral glow up.