First Published: September 2012
Revised (substantive): 15 March 2014
The Natural and Cultural History of the Chameleon
I have been collecting historical representations of this intriguing reptile for some time now, ever since I first embellished my curriculum vita with an illustration of a chameleon to symbolize the intense creativity of my work as a communications research & design consultant. Since then, my collection of historical texts and pictures has grown substantially, making the chameleon an appropriate subject for one of She-philosopher.com’s extended studies.
This page serves as the entry point to the eclectic body of archival materials I have assembled about the chameleon, the digital versions of which are physically located in multiple areas of She-philosopher.com (for now, the Library and Gallery). Some of this material was published previously at the website for my communications consultancy, but I have now relocated it at the new She-philosopher.com, where it will be easier to update and expand.
All She-philosopher.com studies are ongoing, open-ended research projects. I will continue to edit the following narrative and add more links as new content becomes available.
B Y W A Y O F I N T R O D U C T I O N
Ancient Europeans ascribed 3 legendary traits to the chameleon:
• that its frequent variations of color are determined by the colors of surrounding objects (it was also widely believed “that the Cameleon takes all colors but white”);
• “that it liveth onely upon ayre, and is sustained by no other” food; and
• that its eyes moved independently, turning “two different ways at one and the same time.”
These unique traits, especially the chameleon’s ability to change its hue, were later incorporated in “the rich literature of devices and emblems,” dating to the 14th century in northern Europe, that drew on “the real or legendary lore of the natural and animal world” (Corbett and Lightbown, The Comely Frontispiece, 10), thus making the classical Latin chamaeleon a name famous and familiar to many who knew nothing else of the animal.
The chameleon pictured in this 17th-century emblem book bears little resemblance to the creature captured in modern photography, and is represented more as an heraldic animal, according to “Mr. Engraver’s fancy.” The phrase is from Robert Hooke, who often complained about the “fanciful” representations of the natural world he encountered in contemporary textbooks. In his lecture delivered to the Royal Society in December 1694, Hooke argued:
... we find that many relations of foreign countries do give us pictures of towns, prospects, people, actions, plants, animals, and the like; and those beget in us ideas of things, as they are there represented. But, if we enquire after the true authors of those representations, for the generality of them, we shall find them to be nothing else but some picture-drawer, or engraver, here at home, who knows no more the truth of the things to be represented, than any other person, that can read the story, could fancy of himself, without that help. Such are all the pictures in the books of Theodore de Brie, concerning the East and West-Indies: such are also the greatest part of the pictures in Sir Thomas Herbert’s travels; and those of Mr. Ogylby’s Asia, Africa, and America; which are copies of the Dutch originals, and are, originally, nothing but Mr. Engraver’s fancy: so that instead of giving us a true idea, they misguide our imagination, and lead us into error, by obtruding upon us the imaginations of a person, possibly, more ignorant than our selves.
(Hooke, “An Instrument of Use to take the Draught, or Picture of any Thing,” ed. Derham, 1726, 294)
There is a tendency to think that scientists such as Robert Hooke — pursuing “mechanical” explanations of the animal world (even of such human faculties as the memory) — lacked visual imagination and had little appreciation for symbolic truths. Such interpretations of Hooke’s work and thought are in error. Like other scientists of his day, Hooke was awed by the divine symbolism he discovered everywhere in nature and in man, and a vocal critic only of ill-conceived or poorly-executed representations when circulated in print and picture. Similar criticisms were voiced by Sir Thomas Browne, who even disapproved of the representation of heraldic animals in the English royal arms:
We are unwilling to question the Royall supporters of England, that is, the approved descriptions of the Lion and the Unicorne; although, if in the Lion the position of the pizell be proper, and that the naturall situation; it will be hard to make out their retrocopulation, or their coupling and pissing backward, according to the determination of Aristotle; All that urine backward do copulate ... clunatim, or aversly, as Lions, Hares, Linxes.
As for the Unicorne, if it have the head of a Deere, and the tayle of a Boare, as Vartomannus describeth it, how agreeable it is in this picture every eye may discerne: if it be made bisulcous or cloven footed, it agreeth unto the description of Vartomannus, but scarce of any other; and Aristotle supposeth that such as devide the hoofe doe double the horne; they being both of the same nature, and admitting division together. And lastly, if the horne have this situation, and be so forwardly affixed, as is described, it will not be easily conceived, how it can feed from the ground, and therefore we observe that Nature in other cornigerous animals, hath placed the hornes higher and reclining, as in Bucks; in some inverted upwards, as in the Rhinoceros, the Indian Asse, and the Unicornous Beetles; and thus have some affirmed it is seated in this animall.
(Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, 1646, 261)
Like Hooke, Browne was especially concerned when a design distorted the “symbolicall sence,” as happened with the crude pictures of chameleons in the emblem books.
Many more [false pictures] there are whereof our pen shall take no notice, nor shall we urge their enquiry; we shall not enlarge with what incongruity, and how dissenting from the pieces of Antiquity, the pictures of their gods and goddesses are described, and how hereby their symbolicall sence is lost, although herein it were not hard to be informed from Phornutus, Fulgentius, and Albricus. Whether Hercules be more properly described strangling then tearing the Lion, as Victorius hath disputed, nor how the characters and figures of the Signes and Planets be now perverted, as Salmasius hath learnedly declared: We will dispence with Beares with long tayles, such as are described in the figures of heaven; We shall tolerate flying Horses, black Swans, Hydrae’s, Centaur’s, Harpies, and Satyres; for these are monstrosities, rarities, or else Poeticall fancies, whose shadowed moralities requite their substantiall falsities: wherein indeed we must not deny a liberty, nor is the hand of the Painter more restrainable then the pen of the Poet; but where the real works of Nature, or veritable acts of story are to be described, digressions are aberrations; and Art being but the Imitator or secondary representor, it must not vary from the verity of the example, or describe things otherwise then they truly are or have beene: for hereby introducing false Idea’s of things, it perverts and deformed the face and symmetrie of truth.
(Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, 1646, 262)
Little about the traditional emblematic portrait of the chameleon conveyed the “symbolicall sence” of the reptile’s legendary ability to change color with every object, as depicted in the classical maxim attributed to Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus — “not onely the most excellent of the Philosophers, but also the most ancient” (Baldwin, Treatise, 16) — and popularized by the printer, William Baldwin (d. in or before 1563), in his best-selling collection of classical and humanistic adages and sententiae, A Treatise of Morall Phylosophie, Contaynyng the Sayinges of the Wyse (1st edn., 1547; reissued 24 times by 1620, with several more editions printed through 1651).
Like as a Camelion hath all colors save white, so hath a flatterer all points save honestie.
(Baldwin, A Treatise of Morall Philosophie, 1635?, 127)
The playwright and pamphleteer, Thomas Dekker (c.1572–1632), also painted a more vivid picture when he characterized the politician as a chameleon in his satire on city life at the turn of the century:
... the Politick Bankrupt is a Harpy that lookes smoothly, a Hyena that enchants subtilly, a Mermaid that sings sweetly, and a Cameleon, that can put himselfe into all colours. Sometimes hee’s a Puritane, he sweares by nothing but Indeede, or rather does not sweare at all, and wrapping his crafty Serpents body in the cloake of Religion, he does those acts that would become none but a Divell. Sometimes hee’s a Protestant, and deales justly with all men, till he see his time, but in the end he turnes Turke. Because you shall beleeve me, I will give you his length by the Scale, and Anatomize his body from head to foote. Heere it is....
(Dekker, The Seven Deadly Sinnes of London, 1606, 4)
Dekker’s source for his animal metaphors was not visual, but verbal — most likely the natural history of Conrad Gesner’s Icones animalium quadrupedum (Zurich: C. Froschouwer, 1553), which he cites in his prefatory epistle to the reader:
... Conradus Gesner never writ of the nature of such strange beasts as you are: for where as we call you Lectores, Readers, you turne your selves into Lictores, Executioners, & tormenters.
(Dekker, The Seven Deadly Sinnes of London, 1606, “Reader,” n. pag.)
Other classical lore associated with the chameleon was popularized by Shakespeare. At the end of Act II, Scene 1 of the romantic comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona, written c.1590–1, the character of Speed, described in the Dramatis Personae as “a clownish servant to Valentine,” likens his love-sick master to the chameleon who feeds upon nothing but air, and himself to a man of character and substance:
Speed. Ay, but hearken Sir; tho’ the Cameleon love can feed on the air, I am one that am nourish’d by my victuals; and would fain have meat: oh be not like your mistress; be moved, be moved.
(Shakespeare, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 1734, 21)
And in Act III, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s most influential tragedy, Hamlet compares himself to the chameleon who feeds upon nothing but air:
King. How fares our cosin Hamlet?
Ham. Excellent yfaith,
Of the Camelions dish, I eate the ayre,
Promiscram’d, you cannot feede Capons so.
(Shakespeare, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, 1604, H1r)
The classical lore was deployed by other fertile wits, who turned the changeling chameleon into a symbol of “Cunning and Deceit,” associating the reptile with such human archetypes as the accommodating lover:
As love will.
As the camelion is, so must the lover bee,
And oft his colour change, lyke that whereon hee standes,
His lovers will his will, her bidding his comaunds,
And altred from himself right altred as is shee.
Com’ Amor vuole.
Come il cameleonte è variante
Conforme del’ obietto al vario lume:
Cosi l’amante à voglia del suo Nume
Si dee cangiar, & obedir costante.
(from Richard Verstegan’s Eng. trans. of Otto van Veen’s Amorum Emblemata, published at Antwerp in 1608, p. 62)
and the blow-hard professional:
... Plinie saith, the Camelaeon hath verie great lunges, but nothing els within her bodie, so (saith hee) there be some, that beside their bosting & swelling ostentation, have nothing to be found in them: these are a kind of men, that (I hope) you will not care for, if they will needs meddle with you, allow them but time, and their owne course will confound themselves ....
(William Goodrus, epistle “To his verie loving frend, and worthie Brother in the Art of Chirurgerie, John Banester,” 4; prefaced to John Banister’s An Antidotarie Chyrurgicall, Containing Great Varietie and Choice of All Sorts of Medicines that Commonly Fal into the Chyrurgions Use ..., printed at London in 1589)
So opined the surgeon William Goodrus, in 1589, about the medical professionals of his day who were vociferous critics of Banister’s vernacular “publique writings” because they “fill this flourishing Land with most cunning Chirurgions” (Goodrus, Epistle, 2).
And new coinages appeared, recorded in dictionaries such as Thomas Blount’s Glossographia, or, A Dictionary, Interpreting ... Hard Words (1656), which introduced the “new Dialects” of the trades (e.g., cooks, vintners, tailors, shoemakers, haberdashers, seamstresses, lawyers, doctors, druggists), arts, and sciences to a female readership:
[This work] is chiefly intended for the more-knowing Women, and less-knowing Men; or indeed for all such of the unlearned, who can but finde in an Alphabet, the word they understand not; yet I think I may modestly say, the best of Schollers may in some part or other be obliged by it....
(Blount, Glossographia, 1656, “To the Reader,” A5v)
Among the many neologisms documented by Blount was the verb
Camelionize, to live by the Aire, or in the fire, or change colour, as the Camelion is said to do.
(Blount, Glossographia, 1656, n. pag., “CA”)
Almost a century later, the Supplement (1744) to John Harris’s Lexicon Technicum: or, an Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences Explaining not only the Terms of Art, but the Arts Themselves (1704–10) broadened the meanings for “chameleon” to incorporate Athanasius Kircher’s art of marbling:
CHAMELEON, (Aqueus) a Curiosity performed by Water, in the Musaeum Kircheriano at Rome, where by pouring different Waters into a Phial, the Colours of the whole are altered, and by pouring in others, reduced to their first Appearance: For instance, by putting in two transparent Liquors, the Mixture appears of a gold Colour, which by adding a few Drops of another Sort, the Liquor turns as black as Ink, but recovers its first Transparency, by throwing in a little Water of another Kind, and thereby mixing the whole with some other clear Waters, it looks all (n. pag.) like Milk, and by putting in a few foreign Drops, it grows black again. And thus it seems to imitate the Chameleon, by taking new Colours, and changing them again only by a little Mixture which does not seem to carry any thing of the Effect in its Complexion. KERCHER, MORERI.
(A Supplement to Dr. Harris’s Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, 1744, n. pag., “CHA”)
Chameleon lore recorded in the scientific literature by “the ancients” — Aristotle and Pliny (who took much of his text from Democritus) — continued to be spread through the works of such “modern” authors as the internationally-renowned French surgeon Ambroise Paré and the 16th-century Italian naturalist Ulysses Aldrovandi, and via vernacular translations of learned zoological tomes and bestiaries such as Edward Topsell’s The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes and John Johnstone’s A Description of the Nature of Four-Footed Beasts, while 16th- and 17th-century European travelers to the “new” and “old” worlds of the Americas and the Orient (such as the French naturalist and topographer Petrus Gillius, the French naturalist Pierre Belon, the German physician and naturalist Leonhard Rauwolf) — along with the public and private museums and cabinets of curiosities in which travelers’ collectibles were on display (such as that of the Renaissance magus Giambattista della Porta) — helped stimulate interest within learned and popular culture.
Georg Christoph Stirn was a student of Altdorf, near Nürnberg, whose illustrated MS. account of his travels during 1632–40 describes his passage through Switzerland, France, England, and Holland. On ff. 244–7 of the manuscript is his account of his visit, in July 1638, to John Tradescant’s famous museum in London, where he saw such collectibles as a chameleon, a Native American feather painting, and the deerskin mantle said to belong to the Virginia Algonquian paramount chief, Powhatan.
In the museum of Mr. John Tradescant are the following things: first in the courtyard ther lie two ribs of a whale, also a very ingenious little boat of bark; then in the garden all kinds of foreign plants, which are to be found in a special little book which Mr. Tradescant has had printed about them. In the museum itself we saw a salamander, a chameleon, a pelican, a remora, a lanhado from Africa, a white partridge, a goose which has grown in Scotland on a tree, a flying squirrel, another squirrel like a fish, all kinds of bright coloured birds from India, a number of things changed into stone ... all kinds of shells ... a picture wrought in feathers, a small piece of wood from the cross of Christ, pictures in perspective of Henry IV and Louis XIII of France, who are shown, as in nature, on a polished steel mirror when this is held against the middle of the picture, a little box in which a landscape is seen in perspective ... the robe of the King of Virginia ....
(qtd. in Tradescant’s Rarities, ed. by Arthur MacGregor, 21)
While on his Grand Tour of Europe (November 1643 through October 1646), John Evelyn visited so many galleries of curiosities — almost every nobleman then had one — that towards the end of his stay in Rome,
We now determined to desist from visiting any more curiosities, except what should happen to come in our way, when my companion, Mr. Henshaw, or myself should go to take the air ....
(Evelyn, entry for 6 May 1645, Diary, ed. Dobson, 1908, 109)
During his seven-month sojourn in Rome, Evelyn visited Kircher’s famous museum in the Jesuits’ College, where he marvelled at “perpetual motions, catoptrics, magnetical experiments, models, and a thousand other crotchets and devices, most of them since published by himself, or his industrious scholar, Schotti.” (Evelyn, entry for 8 November 1644, Diary, ed. Dobson, 1908, 67) Apparently, the Museo’s extensive natural history collection did not impress Evelyn as much as Kircher’s mechanical inventions, since Evelyn neglects to list any animals, vegetables or minerals that he must also have seen there. But three months later, Evelyn reports viewing “male and female” chameleons in a “repository of incomparable rarities” with a natural history theme. Evelyn’s description of “the collection of exotic rarities in the Museum of Ferdinando Imperati, a Neapolitan nobleman, and one of the most observable palaces in the city,” reads:
Amongst the natural herbals most remarkable was the byssus marina and pinna marina; the male and female chamelion; an onocrotalus [pelican]; and extraordinary great crocodile; some of the Orcades anates, held here for a great rarity; likewise a salamander; the male and female manucodiata [bird of paradise], the male having a hollow in the back, in which it is reported the female both lays and hatches her eggs; the mandragoras, of both sexes; papyrus, made of several reeds, and some of silk; tables of the rinds of trees, written with Japonic characters; another of the branches of palm; many Indian fruits; a crystal that had a quantity of uncongealed water within its cavity; a petrified fisher’s net; divers sorts of tarantulas, being a monstrous spider, with lark-like claws, and somewhat bigger.
(Evelyn, entry for 4 February 1645, Diary, ed. Dobson, 1908, 93)
During the 17th century, scientific studies of the chameleon’s exotic anatomy — such as those conducted by Sir Thomas Browne (whose modern theories were contested by Alexander Ross); by Athanasius Kircher; by Fellows of The Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge such as John Wilkins and Jonathan Goddard and Nehemiah Grew and John Ray; by the “Ingenious Philosophers” of the Académie Royale des Sciences at Paris; by early-modern encyclopedists such as Ephraim Chambers; and by the renowned surgeon and medical researcher William Cheselden — undercut received lore (especially the belief that the chameleon fed only upon air), but offered new metaphors to exploit:
... though Orators have lost those pretty subjects to exercise their Eloquence upon, concerning the Wonders of the food, and of the Change of Colours in Cameleons; yet Philosophers doe now meet with new particulars, touching the motion of his Eyes and Tongue, and the manner of altering his Colour according to his passions, which are no less capable to employ their Witt ....
So wrote the Royal Society’s intelligencer, Henry Oldenburg, in 1669. And, indeed, the natural philosopher Margaret Cavendish had already adapted the metaphor for the behavioral and natural sciences in her book, Natures Pictures Drawn by Fancies Pencil to the Life (1st edn., 1656). Here she used the chameleon (and the prism) to explain how oratory moves the passions and to express her theory of nature’s “multiplicity in unity”:
But you Orators (said she) are like those that are skilful in playing on a Flute, or Cornet; where the Ears of the Auditors are the holes; and your Tongues, or Words, as the Fingers, do make the stops; your Breath gives the sound, and your Wit and your Learning, are the Ayres and Musical Ditties that move their Passions, or rather their Passion: for indeed, there is but one Passion in Nature, or at least in an Animal Figure; which Passion changes into several Forms, according to the several subjects or objects it is placed upon; for upon some subjects, it is Love, upon others it is Hate, upon others it is Fear, upon others Anger; and so the like of all the rest of those they call several Passions, which is but one natural Faculty, Property, Quality, or what you will name it, which is the Heart. That these severally alter and (Camelion-like) change, and sometimes seem all one colour, and sometimes of divers colours; or as a Triangular-Glass, which makes a Million of various colours from one light; so doth the Triangular-Heart (from the light of Life) seem to have many Passions ....
(Cavendish, Natures Picture Drawn by Fancies Pencil to the Life, 1671 rev. edn., 632–633)
In 1669, when Oldenburg wrote about the first detailed anatomical description of the chameleon, by Claude Perrault and “the Ingenious Philosophers” of the Académie Royale des Sciences, only 3 species of chameleon had been identified: an Egyptian chameleon, an Arabian chameleon, and a Mexican chameleon.
We are well beyond that now.
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