His gaze, forever blocked by bars,
is so exhausted it takes in nothing else.
All that exists for him are a thousand
Beyond the thousand bars, no world.
The strong, supple pacing
moves in narrowing circles.
It is a dance at whose centre
a great will is imprisoned.
Now and again the veil over his pupils
silently lifts. An image enters,
pierces the numbness,
and dies away in his heart.
The Panther (subtitled: In Jardin des Plantes, Paris) is a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke written on 6 November 1902. It describes a captured panther behind bars, as it was exhibited in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. It is one of Rilke’s most famous poems.
This poem made me feel quite emotional for some reason.
I’m drawn to the image of the panther, its strength, its prowess, its power. I’m also drawn to the ‘bars’ Rilke talks about which reminds me of actual bars on a person’s window such as that found in prisons or immigration removal detention centres. The bars could also be seen to be invisible but existing nevertheless — bars that surround us all in everyday lives (our golden hand-cuffs).
When the poem is read from the perspective of the panther, we are able to feel the panther’s imprisonment and the endless helplessness that he feels within the cage he has been locked. The empty void that lies beyond the cage is emphasized along with the stagnancy of the beast. Rilke writes, “a mighty will stands paralyzed”, indicating the great abilities of the panther but his utter inability to escape the environment into which he has been placed. I see it from the point of view of a person who is in prison feeling trapped, occasionally pacing the square metres of his confinement and thinking about his situation in life. Sometimes, a memory or a thought akin to that of the ‘panther’ will flood his brain and stab his heart. The memory or thought is almost like a curse, a cruel joke.
There is pronounced sadness and loss in this poem. For me it talks about the world we live in, the artificiality that exists in our day to day; that which is fake. In many ways we are all chained and locked in behind the bars of social collective agreed upon self-conditioning, stripped clean of the wild and free spirit that we were born with. There is also the “sheeple-effect” i.e. where one follows blindly the current trends, like sheep, without questioning or worse still, without thinking.
There are many “sheeples” in London. But also many panthers.
So in essence, this panther can be seen to represent us.
This is why for some the depth of feeling brought about by Rilke’s poem is not only for caged animals (a reason why I hate zoos), but for all us, in our own ‘imprisonment’. Very little is truly ‘lived’ anymore. In so many ways we are like Sisyphus, condemned forever to pushing his rock up the hill. Like the panther, what desires to live and run free, has now been chained and controlled behind the ‘thousand bars’ akin to the thousand closed doors, the thousand disappointments in life.
During Medieval times, the panther typifies Christ, who stays in the cave for three days, emerging from the darkness with a sweet breath.
The ancient Greeks believed the panther was one of the favoured mounts of the god Dionysus.
The Native Americans regard the panther as the Protector of the universe. It is interesting that Rilke selected this powerful totem, the panther at the Paris Zoo, for his object of contemplation.
A Panther is a creature out of ancient myth that resembles a big cat with a multicoloured hide. Under medieval belief after feasting the panther will sleep in a cave for a total of three days. After this period ends, the panther roars, in the process emiting a sweet smelling odour. This odour draws in any creatures who smell it (the dragon being the only creature immune) and the cycle begins again. The ancient Greeks believed the panther was one of the favoured mounts of the god Dionysus. In Germany, the panther is often depicted in heraldry as a creature with four horns, cow’s ears and a fiery red tongue. The coat-of-arms of the city of Cres, Croatia shows a panther with a fiery tongue. This form is known as the Panther Incensed with flames coming from its mouth and ears, representing the panther’s sweet odour.
As to Indian myth, which most of the totems are taken from, Panther is feared and respected, and in some is regarded as the Protector of the universe. The Zuni believed that he ancient ones wanted the world to be guarded by those keen of sight and scent. The puma (the greatest of them) was the sentinel of the north (the most important position). The Miwoks believed him to be the ideal hunter, while the Apaches and Hualapais thought her wailing was the omen of death. In Navajo myth a hero was wounded by witch objects shot into his body. Puma extracts them and save his life. They also thought that the Puma benefited them by leaving the better part of the portion of its kill for the people to eat. Conversely the Papago and the later white settlers considered the cougar a flesh eating beast. The Inca hunted many animals in great round-ups where they would hunt the hunter. They found it much easier to catch bear and deer in the rounds-ups then panthers. To many Indian societies it was both a Totem and a source of help for hunting and warfare. In fact the Hopi and Zuni took carved mountain lions when hunting deer in hopes that they would be as good at it as the mountain lion was. In many cultures the puma was often deified for its ability to hunt.
Panther as a Totem
The panther is a very powerful and ancient totem. It is generally associated with a particular species of leopard or jaguar although the cougar is also referred to as panther. As with most of the large cats, the panther is a symbol of ferocity and valor. It embodies aggressiveness and power, but without the solar significance. In the case of the Black Panther, there is definitely a lunar significance. The panther has over 500 voluntary muscles that they can use at will. This reflects a lot about an individual who has such animals as totems. It reflects an ability to do a variety of tasks as he or she wills. It is simply a matter of deciding and putting to use those particular “muscles” – be they physical, mental, psychic, or spiritual. As a whole panthers are loners (solitary) although they do associate with others, they are most comfortable by themselves or within their own marked territory. They are drawn to those individuals who are likewise often solitary.
Of all the panthers, probably the Black Panther has the greatest mysticism associated with it. It is the symbol of the feminine, the dark mother, the dark of the moon. It is the symbol for the life and power of the night. It is a symbol of the feminine energies manifest upon the earth. It is often a symbol of darkness, death, and rebirth from out of it. There still exists in humanity a primitive fear of the dark and of death. The Black Panther helps us to understand the dark and death and the inherent powers of them; and thus by acknowledging them, eliminate our fears and
Nietzsche once said that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.” (I disagree with this but that’s a story for another day). But one can see that it is this same idea that is awakened in the lives of those who open to the power of the panther totem. Those things of childhood and beyond that created suffering and which caused a loss of innate power and creativity are about to be reawakened, confronted and transmuted. The panther marks a new turn in the heroic path of those to whom it comes. It truly reflects more than just coming into one’s own power. Rather it reflects a reclaiming of that which was lost and an intimate connection with the great archetypal force behind it. It gives an ability to go beyond what has been imagined, with opportunity to do so with discipline and control. It is the spirit of imminent rebirth.”
(Ted Andrews, “Animal Speak”: http://www.greatdreams.com/panther.htm)
References for further reading:
Panther: Christian: The panther was said to save people from the dragon or Evil One.
As supposed to have sweet breath, it typified the sweet influence of Christ.
Heraldic: The panther is usually incensed and signifies fierceness;
fury; impetuosity; remorselessness.
— J. C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols,
Thames & Hudson, London, 1978, p. 126
Panther: The panther (or leopard) was a totemic symbol of Dionysis,
whose priests wore panther-skins. Its name in Greek meant “All-beast” referring
to the god as “the All” which was also another beast version of divinity, Pan.
Panthers were much admired in Rome, and were imported from Africa for public
displays and games in the arena.
— Barbara G. Walker, The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects,
HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1988, p. 385
Panther Skin: A symbol signifying the overcoming of the lower desires.
“The iron which is the ceiling of heaven opens itself before Pepi, and he passes
through it with his panther skin upon him, and his staff and whip in his hand.”
— E.A. Wallis Budge, Book of the Dead, Vol. I, p. lxiii.
The higher mind, which is the firmament below the buddhic plane, is receptive
of the consciousness of the purified soul which has overcome the desires,
and actively aspires to that which is above.
— G. A. Gaskell, The Dictionary of All Scriptures and Myth,
Avenel Books, NY, 1981 (original: Julian Press, 1960), p. 559