I am writing a paper about Art Spiegelman's Maus, specifically the metaphor that Spiegelman creates by depicting his obviously quite human characters with the heads of various animals, or a couple times animal masks. The metaphor is used at times to bestialize/animalize the acts of the Nazis and, in some cases, to show the arbitrary nature of the classes/groups/divisions they and others applied to human beings.

I considered "chremamorphism," but this describes the attribution of the characteristics of an object to, or the objectification of, a human. I also considered "animalize" and "bestialize," but those describe some of the effects that can be produced by Spiegelman's metaphor, not the metaphor itself - in many scenes in the book, the characters are extremely human, and I think that the negative or degrading connotations of these words makes them inappropriate for this use. Nor do "anthropomorphism" or "personification" fit, because Spiegelman is not applying human characteristics to animals but the other way around. None of the words that I can think of quite fit.

What is a word that accurately describes Art Spiegelman's depiction of obviously human characters as having animal body parts or wearing animal masks in the comic book Maus?


2 Answers 2


You can probably get some mileage out of 'zoomorphism':

  1. Use of animal forms in symbolism, literature, or graphic representation.

The primary sense is, however,

  1. Attribution of animal characteristics or qualities to a god.

(From zoomorphism. (n.d.) American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. (2011). Retrieved September 24 2015 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/zoomorphism.)

  • 1
    I think that's a perfect description. Actually, come to think of it, the metaphor used to depict characters in Maus is extremely similar to the graphic metaphors that the ancient Egyptians used to depict many of their deities - it was understood that the depiction of deities with animal heads was symbolic, and that none of them actually had the heads of hawks, crocodiles, or dung beetles.
    – Matt
    Sep 24, 2015 at 19:00
  • Or Mr Orwell's Animal Farm.
    – bib
    Sep 24, 2015 at 19:06
  • @bib I believe Animal Farm uses personification, which is the opposite of what the OP is asking.
    – Mike
    Sep 25, 2015 at 1:58
  • 1
    As in "JEL's profile picture was appositely zoomorphic" :)
    – Ergwun
    Sep 25, 2015 at 4:10

Theriomorphism, an alternative to "zoomorphism", is defined as the shaping of something or someone (often a divinity) in the form of an animal.

From Greek: "thērion" (diminutive of thēr, i.e. wild beast) and "morphe" (form, shape).

If you prefer a more understandable word, one may say animalisation that is a depiction in the form of an animal.

  • Hm. Not exactly what I was looking for, but the use of this word to describe the metaphor does help to embody an interesting different perspective on it - the characters' similarity in behavior to the animals they are depicted as.
    – Matt
    Sep 24, 2015 at 19:04
  • @MatthewBrown - What do you think of "animalisation" ?
    – Graffito
    Sep 24, 2015 at 19:06
  • Not really. When I said that, I was thinking that theriomorphism implied kind of an animal/human duality - that a theriomorphic individual would be a person/deity with an animalistic side, but who was not animalistic or animalized overall, or was primarily human/deity with a potential for having animalistic qualities at times.
    – Matt
    Sep 24, 2015 at 19:29
  • @MatthewBrown: actually, I think "theriomorphic" and "zoomorphic" are both synonyms. The root in the latter might be more widely recognizable to people who don't know Greek though.
    – herisson
    Sep 24, 2015 at 22:24

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