The Ancients, and I speak here of the Greeks of Aristotle’s time, had some very special thoughts about the animal they called “panthera pardus” and which we today call the leopard. Aristotle claimed that the pard could emit a sweet and tantalizing odor, which drew animals to it and on which it preyed. Later Pliny and Plutarch both reiterated this opinion.
Medieval religionists went a little further, as religionists are won’t to do sometimes, and concluded that the pard was an animal of very sweet disposition and that its lifestyle was symbolic of Christ and the Trinity. They stated that after feeding (and they didn’t say on what) the pard would retire to its cave home and sleep for three days. These three days symbolized the three days Christ’s body was in the sepulcher and also symbolized the three bodies of the Holy Trinity. Also after three days sleep the pard was reputed to go to the mouth of its cave, open its mouth and emit its sweet and tantalizing odor. As this permeated the forest all of the animals except one would congregate at the cave to discuss the glory of God. The one exception was the dragon, which was the embodiment of Satan and a mortal enemy of the pard. The dragon on smelling the sweet and tantalizing breath of the pard would retreat even deeper into its cave for irt lived in mortal fear of the pard.
About at this point travel from Europe to Africa picked up and the “sweet breath theory” of pards began to take a few hard licks from travelers returning to Europe from Africa. These travelers reported that they had encountered a number of pards and that there was an extraordinary absence of sweet breath and disposition on the part of the pards and that they never showed any disposition to discuss the glory of God at all but were rather surly and rude.
Of course, as religionists do, the medieval clerics came up with an answer for the travelers. The travelers, they said, had merely approached the wrong animal. They had become confused and approached not a true pard but a Leo-pard, which was the bastard offspring of an errant pard and a lion gone bad. True pards, they maintained, still smelled sweet and had a Christ-like disposition. If they approached a spotted cat and it didn’t smell sweet and want to discuss the glory of God, they were just in contact with a Leo-pard.
Over the course of the next century or so travelers to Africa from Europe still sought the true sweet smelling and Christ-like pard but kept finding the surly and aggressive Leo-pard until they just decided they would call all of those big cats with spots leopards until they got a true Christ-like signal from one. So today they are called leopards but the scientific name for the big cat is Panthera pardus just like it was in Aristotle’s day.
Thanks to “Mammals of the World” by Ernest Walker and “An American Bestiary” by Jack Schaeffer for much of this information.
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