Why fictional hedgehogs steal apples

Spoilers: in real life, hedgehogs never run off with apples stuck to their spikes. But in pop culture in Slavic countries, they’re often shown carrying apples or other fruit on their quills. Here, at Christmas market in Poland, a herd of hedgies each  has a single red apple placed on their backs.

From the Christmas Market on Rynek, Wroclaw, Poland.

It’s not just in Poland. In the beloved Czech cartoon, featuring a mole named Krtek, one of his friends is a hedgehog. In a 1970 episode, the hedgehog is seen carrying an assortment of fruit on his back.

From the 1970 cartoon, Krtek and the Hedgehog.

It’s easy to see why those adorably grumpy, prickly little animals are a favorite. Wild hedgehogs are common in Europe, and while they’re shy, they’re easy to spot in springtime.

But the more I saw this motif— from ads, cartoons, decorations inside schools— I got really curious. Did this image come from somewhere, or have some basis in fact? Images of hedgehogs are understandable. But why ones carrying fruit? Is this a behavior that those spiky little critters actually do?

Translation: Hedgehog with an apple. Have you seen him?

In a word: no. Hedgehogs don’t carry any food on their quills, sorry. The only video I could find of a hedgehog carrying fruit is clearly staged. The apple even rolls right off of his back. One the of comments, in Russian, even reads “why have you stuck berries and an apple on a hedgehog you bastard.” 

But, then, while doing some research, I found more hedgehogs carrying fruit. Medieval books called bestiaries abound with these cute and spiky animals… carrying fruit stuck to their quills.

Hedgehog with grapes on its quills, Book of Hours, France, Paris, ca. 1420-1425. The Morgan Library & Museum

But why? If hedgehogs don’t actually do this, why has this adorable myth persisted for centuries? I decided to try to find out.

Since Bestiaries are books that tell Christian morals through stories of animals, I started there— with the Bible. Here’s the passage describing Babylon, from the Septuagint, an early Greek translation of the Bible:

“But wild animals will rest there,
and the houses will be filled with noise;
there sirens will rest,
and there demons will dance.
Donkey—centaurs will dwell there,
and hedgehogs will build nests in their houses…”

Huh. Hedgehogs in Babylon, hanging out with demons, sirens and centaurs. While this could be a translation quirk, I wanted to know if there were other ancient mentions of hedgies— especially the misbehaving kind that would hang out with sirens.

I managed to find where the apples bit comes from. According to Pliny the Elder, “Hedgehogs also lay up food for the winter; rolling themselves on apples as they lie on the ground, they pierce one with their quills…” Pliny was a Roman author and philosopher.

Hedgehog number 5, in the Queen Mary Psalter(14th century): London, British Library, MS Royal 2 B VII, f. 97v.

So that might explain why medieval hedgehogs are shown carrying around impaled fruit.  (Here’s a cute collection of medieval hedgehogs from bestiaries to peruse.) 

But what I find even more interesting is what this habit is supposed to mean: the hedgehogs aren’t being cute, but doing the work of the devil. That’s right. They’re thieves— adorable little thieves. A British Library blog talking about the history of literary hedgehogs says: “The bestiary writers allegorized this as a warning of the clever stratagems of the devil in stealing man’s spiritual fruits.”

Props to discarding images for this one: rotfling hedgehogs, Bestiary, England 13th century, British Library, Royal 12 F XIII, fol. 45r

In bestiaries, hedgehogs steal grapes, figs and apples. The moral lesson? Don’t neglect your work, or someone might common along and steal the fruits of your labor. Like a hedgehog.

So, that explains why fictional hedgehogs run around with fruit on their quills: the mistake of a Roman writer made it into 13th century books, which likely kept the motif popular across centuries.

Apple juice ad from Lviv, Ukraine.

I find a wonderful sense of irony that the popular image of hedgehogs carrying apples is actually an allegory that hedgies are symbols of the devil— and that this image is popular in a very Catholic country.

But really, how could anyone think these little animals are evil— even red-eyed albino ones?

Albino hedgehog from a pet shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that I was lucky enough to hold.

Wanna read more? Of course you do! Here’s some citations and links:

Hassig, Debra. (January 01, 1991). Beauty in the beasts: A study of medieval aesthetics.Res, 19901991, 137-161.

How to Be a Hedgehog: http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2014/10/how-to-be-a-hedgehog.html

The Distinguished Pedigree of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle: (referenced in my post) http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/12/the-distinguished-pedigree-of-mrs-tiggy-winkle.html?_ga=2.103367875.2147395708.1533918495-936576760.1533918495

The Hardworking, Homemaking Hedgehog: http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/the-hardworking-homemaking-hedgehog/

General info about hedgehog history: https://www.hedgehogcentral.com/myths.shtml

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