4th July 2023
by Ally Louks
Created at:
4th July 2023
Ally Louks
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Linnaeus’ classification of odours in his Clavis Medicinae

The sense of smell is essential to the everyday existence of many species of animal, but the goat’s strong and specific cultural ties to olfaction mark it as unique. It is in indubitable that (particularly male) goats really do have a pungent odour; as David Muir explains, it is ‘male goats that are smelly, announcing to females that they are virile and have wonderful genes to pass on to offspring. The malodorous chemical cocktail originates from their urine and from scent glands near their horns’ (Muir 2015). Thomas Pennant concurs that the he goat has ‘a very strong smell’, but the ‘female is smoother’ (1771, 36)—in coat, but presumably fragrance too. The malodorous goat has come to symbolise base animality, sexuality and, often, moral deviancy, which has seeped into the representation and reputations of those associated with them. The visual and fictional texts drawn upon in this entry develop a tapestry of cultural artefacts that demonstrate the historical alignment of the Occult with the goat, evidencing how the figure of the goat and the olfactory sense have become “scapegoats” for society’s concerns towards the threat of the other throughout history.

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The goat is so intimately related to its odour that one of the seven categories in the first olfactory spectrum, proposed by Linnaeus in his Odores Medicamentorum (1752), was hircine, or ‘goaty’ (Low 2009, 4). Linnaeus’s seven categories were aromatic, fragrant, ambrosial (musk-like), alliaceous (garlic-like), hircine (goat-like), foul, and nauseating (Linnaeus, 1752: 19). He also proposed an additional, associated classification framework in Clavis Medicinae, in which he grouped these seven categories according to whether they were pleasant or unpleasant to experience (Linnaeus 1766, VIII-XXVIII). Linnaeus proposed that hircine odours are ‘libidinal’, while ambrosial odours, hircine’s opposite, must presumably be transcendent and divine, owing to ambrosia’s association in Classical Mythology with the sustenance of the gods. That Linnaeus considered hircine and ambrosial to be an opposing hedonic pair, in which hircine is considered unpleasant and evil-smelling, reflects the cultural associations of goats with malodour, deviant sexuality, and malevolence.

An early iteration of the lustful representation of the goat can be found in the Greek god Pan, a fertility deity who was depicted with the horns, legs and ears of a goat. Though Pan is the god of shepherds and flocks, in Christian doctrine, the goat is a maligned creature: according to Matthew 25:31-41 [NIV], the ‘Son of Man’ (31), ‘will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats’ (32), and the goats will be ‘cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’ (41). This association of goats with the Satanic is taken up in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which Stephen’s nightmares are plagued by goats and malodour: ‘God had allowed him to see the hell reserved for his sins: stinking, bestial, malignant, a hell of lecherous goatish fiends’ (Joyce, 1916: 138). In Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, on the other hand, the eponymous protagonist expresses a strong affinity towards the smell of goats: stating, ‘I wish I smelt like a sheep, or a buck-goat’ (Beckett 1951, 28), which is perhaps motivated by their characteristically agile and virile nature, qualities that are no longer supported by Molloy’s degenerating body.


However, a transition begins to occur in the representation of occult goats in 17th Century Europe as the goat become increasingly associated with the figure of Satan, whom witches were said to worship and fornicate with. Jan Ziarnko’s 1613 illustration depicts twelve different scenes of activities at the Sabbath; among them is an enthroned devil in the form of a goat and a number of flying witches on brooms and a goat (Blécourt 2013, 86). Following this engraving, many artists began to depict goats not only as witch’s companions, but as representative of Satan himself. During a witch trial in 1627, Blankenheim, a woman being interrogated on suspicion of witchcraft said she travelled to the Sabbath ‘on a white goat’, but after being admonished altered her description, “admitting” that she has travelled on ‘a black billy goat’. As Willem de Blécourt states, the witch’s ‘devil could not be white and female’ (Blécourt, 2013: 94), as the cultural association of the goat began to shift away from the demonic feminine and towards the Satanic masculine.

The Satanist symbol, adopted during the 20th Century, is an inverted pentagram, most commonly shown with a goat’s head in the centre (Stein 2015, 59). This Sigil of Baphomet is the official insignia of the Church of Satan, appearing on The Satanic Bible in 1969, and it is said to represent ‘carnality and this-worldly materialism’ (Lewis 2014, 417). The figure of Baphomet, a deity also known as the ‘Sabbatic Goat’, has been assimilated into many occult traditions, and is still frequently referenced in contemporary works on witchcraft, suggesting its continued significance. Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) represents many of the associations between goats, Satan and witchcraft through the character of Black Philip, a black billy goat with large horns, who is seen ‘violently copulating with one of the nanny goats’ (screenplay 42), and is later revealed to be Lucifer. Towards the climax of the film, a witch is also seen ‘sucking on the goat’s teat’ (95), which builds on and subverts ideas about the witch’s familiar, a demonic animal, such as a goat or black cat, which was said to suckle on the witch’s teat (stigmata).

The union of witches, goats and malodour has not only been represented visually, but has been recorded in significant literary works, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, in which the witches sing gleefully in chorus, ‘So we race on over hedges and ditches, / the he-goats stink and so do the witches’ (Goethe 1808, 3960-3961). Luis Ricardo Falero later depicts this scene in his painting The Vision of Faust (1878), in which witches, young and old, grip onto a goat’s horns and ears as they fly through a tempestuous sky. Witches, like the malodorous goats they are associated with, are represented in artworks throughout history as promiscuous, appetite-driven creatures, who occupy a peripheral sensory realm in which the senses that agitate for somatic experience are subversively privileged.


Martha Nussbaum argues that the animal exists in opposition to humanity’s perceived ‘pure soulness’, and the aligning of the goat with smell, sexuality and embodied life, while the human represents ‘the intellect and the spirit’ (Nussbaum 2022), is reflective of a pervasive somatophobia. Consequently, any social group associated with goats thus take on these same qualities and are similarly denigrated. Witches, goats and malodour have been represented in tandem in visual art forms for centuries. An etching reproduced in The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic called ‘A Witch and a Cauldron with a Group Scene of the Obscene Kiss’ (1687) by Gottlieb Spitzel depicts a witch stooping to kiss (and thus smell) the anus of a he-goat, which is perched on a raised platform. Elliot Rose describes the scene thus: ‘The worshippers are held to have kissed the hindquarters of the Devil in the form of a goat, that is, either of the actual Devil in propria persona, of an actual goat (possibly sacrificial)’. Rose refers to the obscene kiss as ‘a deliberate act of self-degradation, extorted from the Satanist in imitation (hardly in mockery) of the humility and self-surrender expected of the Christian’ (Rose 1989, 44). This malodorous act captures the characterisation of witchcraft as being preoccupied with, and productive of, foul smelling excreta that the witch is expected to embrace and revel in.

The ‘most influential artwork for the representation of witchcraft’ (Davies 2016, 134) during the 16th Century was a woodcut created in 1510 by the German artist Hans Baldung, commonly called ‘Witches Preparing for the Sabbath Flight’, which depicted a trio of naked witches positioned around a cauldron, with vaporous clouds forming animal shapes above it. Through the smoke a naked witch rides a goat backwards (Davies 2016, 134-135). Baldung was likely inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s engraving, ‘Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat’ (c. 1500), which in turn was inspired by representations of Aphrodite Pandemos, the earthly Venus and goddess of lust and sensual pleasure, who was frequently depicted riding a ram. Versions of the ‘witch on goatback’ scene continued to be produced throughout the next three centuries, prompting Zika to determine the ‘traditional attributes […] of a female witch’ as ‘seething cauldron and goat’ (Zika 2013, 161), two odorous entities.

Figure 2. Hans Baldung, A naked witch flies to the sabbath mounted on a goat, while her companions continue to prepare their drugs. -1545,  process print, image 37.4 x 25.6 cm, Wellcome Library, 40364i.

Feelings and Noses

The brief prosaic emergences of the ‘stinking goat’ figure tend towards the fleeting and referential, but the treatment of the goat as a subject in poetry proves more engaged and thoughtful, frequently testing the validity of the cultural connotations that surround the stinking goat figure. The goat’s odour, supposedly rampant sexuality and religious affinities are all frequently commented upon by poets such as D. H. Lawrence and, later, Ted Hughes, Anne Stevenson and Jo Shapcott. Central to the caprine figures in the poetry of the earlier authors is their unruly desire—be it for sex or supremacy—resulting in the poets’ concomitant contempt towards these goatish subjects. The contemporary female poets, however, are more invested in engaging with the otherness of the goat on its own terms rather than through the myriad cultural associations that have accrued to them. Accordingly, Stevenson and Shapcott’s goats are more realistically represented; their olfactory faculties and their olfactory features are understood as significant contributors to the everyday experiences of the animal, rather than as cultural signifiers. The poets thus offer caprine ‘aromatopias’ (Drobnick 2006, 269) that centre sociability and care in place of hostility and sexual potency.

The goat odour is expounded in Lawrence’s pair of poems, ‘He-Goat’ and ‘She-Goat’ (1923), in which he describes ‘the sullen-stagnating atmosphere’ (‘He’ 42) and ‘acridity of goats’ (‘She’ 6). There are a number of goat-inspired poems in Ted Hughes’ oeuvre that draw on the hircine scent remarked upon by Lawrence, for instance the poacher’s comment that his goat ‘has a kind of fragrance’ (1) in ‘Goat’. Hughes’ tongue in cheek observation in ‘Goat’ that with ‘A few quick flirts of their shameless tails— […] every rose fails’ (3-5) reflects the notion that goats stink of sexuality. Both Lawrence and Hughes ground the goat in its satanic heritage: in his poem ‘He-Goat’, Lawrence declares that ‘A plague out of the Old Testament are goats! / Satan, sitting in their throats’ (9-10), further suggesting that the male goat is engaged in a ‘Fight to be the devil on the tip of the peak’ (109-110), yet the final line of the poem undermines the suitability of this religious attribution, exclaiming ‘But bah, how can he, poor domesticated beast!’ (111). Hughes’ poem ‘Billy Goat’, on the other hand, begins with the claim that ‘The Goat […] is definitely not a religious beast’ (1), but this proclamation is negated later when the narrator suggests that ‘Into the cave, from which Christ's body had flown, / The Goat peered, evil-eyed, with his horns on’ (14-15).

Figure 3. A group of goats, with the billy goat standing on a rock above the nanny goat and the kids. Chalk lithograph by V. J. Adam, Victor, (1801-1866), London, Wellcome Library, 40171i.

In Anne Stevenson’s poem ‘Whose Goat?’ (2006), the narrator finds a female goat stuck in a ‘half-built house’ (2) and describes an encounter in which the goat ‘meets / [her] labrador nostril to nostril, but / they breathe different languages’ (20-22). The narrator also cannot breathe the language of the goat—‘I look my own language deep into the well […] finding the ‘goat's ghost there, / lonely as snow’ (23-27)—and this discrepancy between the respective dialects of dog, goat and human reflects the final stage of Shapcott’s ‘Goat’, which recognises the apparent impermeability of the barriers between species, which comes to be characterised by smell.

In her poem ‘Goat’ (1992), Jo Shapcott channels this olfactory ‘otherness’ through the figure of the goat by having her narrator take on, and take pleasure in, the goat’s unorthodox olfactory signature. Shapcott conceives of her narrator’s body transforming into that of a goat, and through her incorporation of olfactory perception examines other forms of knowing – namely bodily means of comprehension. The social eroticism of Shapcott’s goats diverges from the ‘selfish will and libidinous / desire’ (99-100) of Lawrence’s ‘He-Goat’, which sees him ‘Sniffing forever ahead of him, at the rear of the goats’ (9), as he is dictated by an antithetical, self-serving sexuality. Whilst Lawrence’s male goat has ‘Orgasm after orgasm after orgasm / And he smells so rank’ (80-81) that ‘His nostrils’ are described as ‘turning back, to sniff at even himself’ (54), Shapcott’s poem becomes charged with a breathless, social eroticism as the speaker expresses that the goats ‘lived for the push /of goat muscle and goat bone, the smell of goat fur, / goat breath and goat sex’ (14-16). By celebrating the stench of the goat, which unabashedly announces its presence in the world, Shapcott troubles and expands notions of sensory value by conceiving of a life in which smell becomes a primary mechanism of engaging with the world and with those who occupy it.

Ally Louks
Ally Louks, “Goat,” Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage, accessed April 21, 2024, https://encyclopedia.odeuropa.eu/items/show/15.

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