Definition of Zoomorphism

Zoomorphism is the device of giving animal-like qualities to anything that is not that animal such as humans, gods, and inanimate objects. Zoomorphism can also include giving the features of one animal to another, such as if a dog were to say “meow” in a cartoon or work of literature. A special class of zoomorphism in which a human is able to shape-shift into an animal is called therianthropy.

The word zoomorphism comes from the Greek words ζωον (zōon), which means “animal,” and μορφη (morphē), which means “shape” or “form.”

Difference Between Zoomorphism and Anthropomorphism

The definition of zoomorphism is, in fact, opposite to that of anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism involves the attribution of human characteristics and qualities to animals or deities, while zoomorphism does the reverse by giving animal qualities to humans.

Common Examples of Zoomorphism

Many superheroes are examples of zoomorphism because their superpower is that of an animal. Here are just a few examples:

  • Spiderman
  • Ant Man
  • Batman
  • Catwoman
  • Black Panther

There are also many common idiomatic phrases in English which are examples of zoomorphism. Here is a short list:

  • She was barking up the wrong tree by questioning him.
  • He was champing at the bit at the beginning of the negotiations.
  • The trade deal ruffled some feathers in the company.

There are also many different common features of everyday life which take on animal characteristics. Here are a few examples of zoomorphism in common things:

  • The feet of bathtubs and tables carved to look like lions’ feet
  • Robotic pets modeled on animals
  • Building and cities created in the form of animals, such as the Elephant Hotel on Coney Island, or the city of Juba in South Sudan meant to be built in the form of a rhinoceros.

Significance of Zoomorphism in Literature

Zoomorphism has held an important place in many different fields such as mythology, folklore, religion, classical literature, and modern genre fiction such as science fiction, fantasy, and comic books. Many gods were represented in animal form in several different religions such as the deity Ganesha, the elephant-headed god in Hinduism, or the Holy Spirit in Christianity represented with a dove. In classical literature, the sphinx played an important role in the play Oedipus the King by Sophocles, as he posed the riddle that Oedipus solved successfully.

Zoomorphism is perhaps most common, though, in simple examples of comparing a person’s features, movements, or characteristics to an animal. This is a popular device in describing a new character so that the reader gets a more complete understanding of the character.

Examples of Zoomorphism in Literature

Example #1

IAGO: Zounds, sir, you are one of those that will not serve God, if the devil bid you. Because we come to do you service and you think we are ruffians, you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse. You’ll have your nephews neigh to you. You’ll have coursers for cousins and gennets for germans.

(Othello by William Shakespeare)

The villain Iago in William Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello does much to disparage Othello’s character. In this excerpt, Iago tries to terrify Othello’s father-in-law by comparing Othello to a horse and, following from this, that the offspring of Othello and Desdemona will actually be animals. Iago’s plays on the racist undertones of the culture, as Othello is darker-skinned than Desdemona and her family.

Example #2

Lord Asriel was a tall man with powerful shoulders, a fierce dark face, and eyes that seemed to flash and glitter with savage laughter. It was a face to be dominated by, or to fight: never a face to patronize or pity. All his movements were large and perfectly balanced, like those of a wild animal, and when he appeared in a room like this, he seemed a wild animal held in a cage too small for it.

(The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman)

In Philip Pullman’s fantasy novel The Golden Compass, the character Lord Asriel is described in the way excerpted above. Lord Asriel’s movements are made to sound like that of a wild animal and, indeed, his character is well-represented by a wild animal in a cage. This makes him sound more savage and more formidable to contend with.

Example #3

It came as an unmistakable indication to me of how low I had sunk the day I noticed, with a pinching of the heart, that I ate like an animal, that this noisy, frantic unchewing wolfing-down of mine was exactly the way Richard Parker ate.

(Life of Pi by Yann Martel)

In Yann Martel’s novel, the main character Pi is shipwrecked and stuck on a boat with a tiger he names Richard Parker. After a long time with just the tiger Pi finds that he becomes more animal-like, eating just as Richard Parker does.

Example #4

For one brief moment, the great black dog reared onto its hind legs and placed its front paws on Harry’s shoulders, but Mrs. Weasley shoved Harry away toward the train door hissing, “For heaven’s sake act more like a dog, Sirius!”
“See you!” Harry called out of the open window as the train began to move, while Ron, Hermione, and Ginny waved beside him. The figures of Tonks, Lupin, Moody, and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley shrank rapidly but the black dog was bounding alongside the window, wagging its tail; blurred people on the platform were laughing to see it chasing the train, and then they turned the corner, and Sirius was gone.

(Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix by J. K. Rowling)

In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, there are several characters who are able to shape-shift into animals (an ability known as therianthropy). In the excerpt above, Harry’s godfather Sirius shape shifts into a dog so as to accompany him unnoticed to the train station. Sirius acts like a dog in some ways, wagging his tail and running along the train. Yet Mrs. Weasley is annoyed that not all of his movements are dog-like because this could give away his disguise.

Example #5

She’s the twelve-year-old, the one who reminded me so of Prim in stature. Up close she looks about ten. She has bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin and stands tilted up on her toes with arms slightly extended to her sides, as if ready to take wing at the slightest sound. It’s impossible not to think of a bird.

(The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)

Suzanne Collins introduces the character of Rue in the way excerpted above. Rue looks “ready to take wing at the slightest sound” and the protagonist Katniss thinks of a bird when looking at her. This characterization of Rue makes her seem much more innocent and fragile than the other competitors in the Hunger Games. The reader is therefore not surprised when Katniss later whens to help and protect Rue.

Test Your Knowledge of Zoomorphism

1. Which of the following statements is the correct zoomorphism definition?
A. The attribution of human characteristics to animals.
B. The ability of an animal to shape-shift into a human.
C. The attribution of animal characteristics to humans.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following superheroes is an example of zoomorphism?
A. Wolverine
B. Superman
C. Thor

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following descriptions of a character in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series contains an example of zoomorphism?


Harry Potter: He was a skinny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who had the pinched, slightly unhealthy look of someone who has grown a lot in a short space of time. His jeans were torn and dirty, his T-shirt baggy and faded, and the soles of his trainers were peeling away from the uppers. Harry Potter’s appearance did not endear him to the neighbors, who were the sort of people who thought scruffiness ought to be punishable by law.


Hagrid: If the motorcycle was huge, it was nothing to the man sitting astride it. He was twice as tall as a normal man and at least five times as wide. He looked simply too big to be allowed, and so wild — long tangles of bushy black hair and beard hid most of his face, he had hands the size of trash can lids, and his feet in their leather boots were like baby dolphins.



Remus Lupin: Remus Lupin stood nearest to him. Though still quite young, Lupin looked tired and rather ill; he had more gray hair than when Harry had said good-bye to him, and his robes were more patched and shabbier than ever. Nevertheless, he was smiling broadly at Harry, who tried to smile back through his shock.

Answer to Question #3 Show