NARRATOR: Persian culture produced luxurious manuscripts that blended scientific and mythological information about the natural world. They represented animals differently than the bestiaries of Western Europe. These two pages, or “leaves” from about 1300, were cut out of a book. Rebecca Hill is a scholar of Islamic manuscripts:
REBECCA HILL: If we compare their proportions to the bestiaries in Western Europe, we can see that there’s something intended to be realistic here. That they want to represent the animals for what they really are, and how one would see them, without needing to look through the eye of moralizing fables. Not to make certain parts of the animals kind of jump out that are meaningful to human beings, but to represent them for what they actually are.
NARRATOR: Though these books included medical and zoological information, they were also meant to inspire learning with a sense of heightened wonder…
REBECCA HILL: …that there’s something about animals that we’re never going to quite grasp. That there is a majesty in them that even the best scientific knowledge is never really going to contain and restrict. And you can definitely see that with how bordered and how fenced in some of these creatures are, in an attempt to understand them.
NARRATOR: On the leaf with the viper, everything in the image mirrors the creature’s shape: a gnarled tree’s branches, a weathered rock, and blades of grass.
REBECCA HILL: The viper in Persian culture has sort of a dual meaning. One is connected with an evil God named Zahhak. And this is a figure that is usually pictured with two vipers coming out of his shoulders. But the symbolism can really vary from being a token of positive fate, to being a creature that is deemed evil, to being a wise woman. And in fact, in Persian culture, there is a mythological creature … which is sort of a half snake, half woman, that is supposed to teach you wisdom.
NARRATOR: The goat on the other leaf, with its head tilted up looking towards the heavens, has a regal appearance. The mountain goat was considered a protector, a kind of angel. Commentary in the Quran explains that if a mountain goat is seen, it’s a sign that you’ll be safe while traveling. Given the elaborate, decorated elements on this leaf, this type of book was likely produced with a wealthy family or royalty in mind.
REBECCA HILL: So it’s possible one of these animals could have been part of the royal set of … mascots for a particular prince or local ruler.