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Hedgehogs in Myth and Legend


Although a new animal to North Americans, hedgehogs are nothing new to those in the Old World. It is there that tales about hedgehogs first made there way into literature. Strange tales and myths about hedgehogs are nothing new either. In fact, they have been around for thousands of years. For a clearer picture of these tales and how they began, we need to look far back into the historical documents of the past.

Way back in the first century, Pliny the Elder, in his Historia Naturalis, related the story of how hedgehogs would climb apple trees, knock the fruit down, and would then roll upon the apples, thereby impaling them on the spines so that they could carry them off to their burrows. Not only do hedgehogs not climb trees, but they also do not store food in their burrows. These well documented facts are of little value to the scientists who, in their efforts to prove Pliny right, have tried to duplicate this truly remarkable feat. They have, of course, never succeeded.

Curiously, this particular myth was furthered by Charles Darwin:
"HEDGEHOGS. As in the August and September numbers, you have published an account of hedgehogs apparently carrying away pears and crabs sticking on their spines, you may think the following statement worth insertion as a further corroboration. I have received this account in a letter dated August 5,1867, from Mr. Swinhoe at Amoy: "Mr. Gisbert, the Spanish Consul at Amoy, informs me that when he was an engineer on the roads in Spain some years ago, he was fond of shooting and roaming about the country. He states that in the Sierra Morena, a strawberry-tree (Arbutus unedo?) was very abundant, and bore large quantities of red, fruit-like, fine, large, red strawberries. These gave quite a glow to the woods. The district in the mountain chain he refers to, is on the divisional line between the provinces of Seville and Badajos. Under these trees hedgehogs occurred innumerable, and fed on the fruit, which the Spaniards call Madrône [sic - MADROÑO]. Mr. Gisbert has often seen an Erizo (hedgehog) trotting along with at least a dozen of these strawberries sticking on its spines. He supposes that the hedgehogs were carrying the fruit to their holes to eat in quiet and security, and that to procure them they must have rolled themselves on the fruit which was scattered in great abundance all over the ground beneath the trees." Charles Darwin .

hedgehogs rolling upon the apples

Aristotle also wrote of the hedgehog, and like Pliny, did nothing more than add to the list of tales when he spoke of the Echinus (hedgehog) that moved from one wall to another according to the direction of the wind. Albertus Magnus, a Dominican scholar of the thirteenth century, furthered Aristotle's "observations" with the following: "The hedgehog, which lives in its lair in the ground, indicates when storms of wind are coming. It makes three or four exits to its lair or dwelling and when it senses that the wind is going to blow from a certain direction, it closes the corresponding hole."

He also stated that hedgehogs have not one, but two anal passages through which its waste matter passes, and that they mate in an upright position on account of the sharpness of its prickles. Considering the level of inaccuracy in what he wrote, it makes one wonder if poor Albert had ever actually seen hedgehogs, let alone studied them! Even the Romans had hedgehog myths. Here in North America, where we have no indigenous species of hedgehog, we celebrate Groundhog Day. Did you know that the hedgehog was originally the forecaster of spring for the Romans? If during hibernation, he (the hedgehog) looks out of his den on 2nd February and and sees his shadow it means there is a clear moon and six more weeks of winter so he returns to his burrow. To this day, groundhogs Punxsutawney Phil and Wiarton Willie battle it out to see who is the better weather forecaster, but little do they or their handlers know that the original prognosticator of spring was a hedgehog! Using the hedgehog as a barometer likely causes the animal no harm, but other fallacies have caused our little critters no end of trouble. In medieval Britain, farmers believed that hedgehogs stole milk from cows during the night. In 1566, the Elizabethan parliament put a three pence bounty on the head of every hapless hedgehog that could be caught and killed. Even some of the parish church's got in on the act and offered bounties of their own. Thousands were slaughtered as a result, yet no one even to this day has been able to verify this unlikely theory.

Nonetheless, the poor hedgehog was much maligned in Britain for many centuries as a result of these and other stories. The Irish knew the hedgehog as the graineeogs, ugly ones, or witches in animal form (Stocker, 1987). Shakespeare did little to further the cause of hedgehogs. In A Midsummer Nights Dream (Act 2, Scene 3) he grouped hedgehogs with other nasty and vile creatures:

You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, not be seen;
Newts and blindworms, do no wrong;
Come not near our Fairy Queen.
In King Richard III, Shakespeare shows the hedgehog to be an animal that has no regard for others. In Act 1, Scene 2, Anne says to Richard:
Dost grant me hedgehog? Then, God grant me too
Thou mayst be damned for that wicked deed!
O, he was gentle, mild and virtuous.

Further attacks were launched when they were next accused of being accomplished egg thieves. While it is true that hedgehogs will on occasion eat eggs, most of these have already been cracked. In fact, it appears that hedgehogs are physically unable to crack open a chicken egg. Still, thousands more were hunted down and killed as a result of this myth - a practice that is still carried out to this very day!

In eastern Africa, the native home of our domestic pets, the skin or spines of the White Bellied hedgehog is regarded as a fertility charm. If a hedgehogs skin is placed on seed in advance of planting, good harvests are believed to result (Reeve, 1994). They are eaten both in Africa and in parts of England and Europe. The most common method for cooking hedgehog is to roll them in clay, bake them in a fire and then remove the hardened clay, taking the spines with it. At one time, it was believed that eating hedgehogs would cure the sick of all sorts of ailments including leprosy, colic, boils, stones and poor vision. A translation of writings from the mid-fourteenth century by Konrad of Megenberg, includes the following passage.
...the flesh of the hedgehog is wholesome for the stomach and strengthens the same. Likewise it hath a power of drying and relieving the stomach. It deals with the water of dropsy and is of great help to such as are inclined to the sickness called elephantiasis.

The gypsies of Europe still eat hedgehogs as a cure for poisoning and, perhaps even, for removing evil spells.

It appears that the only places where hedgehogs are afforded any level of protection is in China, where they are considered sacred, and in most of Europe, where it is illegal to catch, kill, or confine them. Those caught face stiff fines or imprisonment. Great Britain is slowly catching up, with recently introduced legislation that is designed to protect hedgehogs from human predation.

So, as you can clearly see, there has been (and still is) no shortage of fallacies when it comes to our prickly little friends. When one looks back at how long some of these fanciful notions have been around, it is easy to see that they will continue to be with us for some time yet. Foretold is forewarned goes the saying and nothing could be closer to the truth than this when it comes to defending our hedgehogs. So, the next time someone tells you that hedgehogs have a poisonous bite, just remember that this and other hedgehog myths have been passed down from generation to generation for countless centuries.

HEDGEHOGS written by Nigel Reeve, published by T & AD Poyser Ltd,
THE COMPLETE HEDGEHOG written by Les Stocker, published by Chatto
& Windus Ltd, 1987

Bas-Relief carving of a hedgehog

Click Here for more information on this unusual bas-relief carving

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