NARRATOR (Clive Russell): When you see a small round mirror and a feline together in the medieval bestiary you are in the realm of the tiger. Tigers were easily distracted by their own reflection, so hunters made sure they carried small mirrors to keep the beasts occupied while they escaped.
Here are the tiger’s characteristics again.
Tigers of the medieval bestiary were considered speedy creatures; so swift that the name “tiger” was thought to be taken from the ancient word for arrow, and the mighty, naturally fast-running Tigris river in Mesopotamia. Tigers weren’t explicitly tied to a Christian story, but their vulnerabilities were recounted in bestiaries.
Hunters i know that their horses can’t out-run tigers, so they use small, circular mirrors to trick them. When hunters steal a tiger cub, they throw out a mirror. The mother tiger, mistaking the reflection for her cub, clutches the mirror. She licks it, as if to tend to her infant, and the hunter is able to flee. Sometimes you see the hunter holding a second mirror in case the mother figures out the ploy and resumes the chase. Later popular interpretations of these scenes linked the tiger’s enchantment with its own image to ideas about the dangers of vanity and what you’d miss if you cherished your image too long.
Actual tigers come from regions of Asia and the near east. But would Europeans of the Middle Ages have seen them? Probably not, so medieval artists were free to be inventive. Bestiary artists played with colorful variations of the animal. Tigers could be orange, gray, or white, and they could also be bright blue or any combination of hues. They could also be spotted. One thing they almost never were, surprisingly enough, was striped!