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Wonder-Beasts

From the book Wonder Beasts

"Ancient travelers to Egypt, India, Ethiopia, Arabia, and Scythia returned to their own countries with tales of actual creatures so marvelous they seemed to come from dreams. Because no one back home had ever seen these animals, travelers compared the beasts to animals that were more familiar.

"Herodotus, the first major Western historian, described the Egyptian 'river horse' as a four-legged animal as big as an ox, with cloven hoofs like an ox, the mane and tail of a horse, and a voice like a horse's whinny. Another early writer, Ctesias, said the blood-red, man-eating manticore of India was as big as a lion, had a face, ears, and eyes like a man, had three rows of teeth, a long stinging tail like a scorpion, and a voice like a panpipe. One of the best-known mixed animals of ancient times was the camelopard. Some thought the spotted, long-necked creature was the offspring of a camel and a leopard. It was brown with white spots, had a neck like a horse, feet and legs like an ox, and a head like a camel.

"Today, we know the river horse as a hippopotamus and the camelopard as a giraffe. (The giraffe still carries the scientific name Giraffa camelopardis, and its starry counterpart is the Camelopardalis constellation.) The manticore was mostly imaginary, but was later identified with the Bengal tiger. No matter how real the animal is to the teller, the description of it will sound fantastic to the person who has never seen it." - Joe Nigg, Wonder Beasts (1995). Excerpts.

From Pliny the Elder's writings

The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) wrote a large work called Natural History nearly two thousand years ago. The material that follows is from the book, which was an authority on scientific matters through the Middle Ages:

Fabulous Birds

I look upon the birds as fabulous which are called "pegasi," and are said to have a horse's head; as also the griffons, with long ears and a hooked beak. The former are said to be natives of Scythia, the latter of Aethiopia. The same is my opinion, also, as to the tragopan; many writers, however, assert that it is larger than the eagle, has curved horns on the temples, and a plumage of iron colour, with the exception of the head, which is purple.

Nor yet do the sirens obtain any greater credit with me, although Dinon, the father of Clearchus, a celebrated writer, asserts that they exist in India, and that they charm men by their song, and, having first lulled them to sleep, tear them to pieces.

The person, however, who may think fit to believe in these tales, may probably not refuse to believe also that dragons licked the ears of Melampodes, and bestowed upon him the power of understanding the language of birds; as also what Democritus says, when he gives the names of certain birds, by the mixture of whose blood a serpent is produced, the person who eats of which will be able to understand the language of birds; as well as the statements which the same writer makes relative to one bird in particular, known as the "galerita," . . . [From Pliny's Natural History, Book 10, Chap. 70.]

The Animal Catoblepas

Among the Hesperian Æthiopians is the fountain of Nigris, by many, supposed to be the head of the Nile . . . Near this fountain, there is found a wild beast, which is called the catoblepas [from katablepô, "to look downwards"]; an animal of moderate size, and in other respects sluggish in the movement of the rest of its limbs; its head is remarkably heavy, and it only carries it with the greatest difficulty, being always bent down towards the earth. Were it not for this circumstance, it would prove the destruction of the human race; for all who behold its eyes, fall dead upon the spot. [Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book 7, Chapter 32.]

A Cock that Once Spoke

We find it stated in the Roman Annals, that in the consulship of M. Lepidus and Q. Catulus a dung-hill cock spoke, at the farm-house of Galerius; the only occasion, in fact, that I know of. [From Pliny's Natural History, Book 10, Chap. 25.]

The Phoenix

Aethiopia and India produce birds of diversified plumage, and such as quite surpass all description. In the front rank of these is the phoenix, that famous bird of Arabia; though I am not quite sure that its existence is not all a fable. It is said that there is only one in existence in the whole world, and that that one has not been seen very often. We are told that this bird is of the size of an eagle and has a brilliant golden plumage around the neck, while the rest of the body is of a purple colour; except the tail, which is azure, with long feathers intermingled of a roseate hue; the throat is adorned with a crest, and the head with a tuft of feathers.

The first Roman who described this bird, and who has done so with the greatest exactness, was the senator Manilius, so famous for his learning; which he owed, too, to the instructions of no teacher. He tells us that no person has ever seen this bird eat, that in Arabia it is looked upon as sacred to the sun, that it lives five hundred and forty years, that when it becomes old it builds a nest of cassia and sprigs of incense, which it fills with perfumes, and then lays its body down upon them to die; that from its bones and marrow there springs at first a sort of small worm, which in time changes into a little bird: that the first thing that it does is to perform the obsequies of its predecessor, and to carry the nest entire to the city of the Sun near Panchaia, and there deposit it upon the altar of that divinity.

The same Manilius states also, that the revolution of the great year is completed with the life of this bird, and that then a new cycle comes round again with the same characteristics as the former one, in the seasons and the appearance of the stars; and he says that this begins about mid-day of the day on which the sun enters the sign of Aries. He also tells us that when he wrote to the above effect, in the consulship of P. Licinius and Cneius Cornelius, it was the two hundred and fifteenth year of the said revolution. Cornelius Valerianus says that the phoenix took its flight from Arabia into Egypt in the consulship of Q. Plautius and Sextus Papinius. This bird was brought to Rome in the censorship of the Emperor Claudius, being the the year from the building of the City, 800, and it was exposed to public view in the Comitium. This fact is attested by the public Annals, but there is no one that doubts that it was a fictitious phoenix only.

[This section is from Pliny's Natural History, Book 10, Chap. 2.]

Contents


Wonder-beasts, mythical beasts, Literature  

Cherry, John, ed. Mythical Beasts. London: British Museum, 1995. ⍽▢⍽ Imagined beasts are a source of fascination and enjoyment to some. These beasts appear in many forms or art - in tales (literature), sculptures, tapestry, manuscripts and paintings, heraldic devices and the logos of modern companies. Some are part animals and part humans, some are fancied animals, while others are a blend of different animals, like the griffin. As a group they have come to stand for a wide range of meanings - some good and kind, some bad and violent. Through changing cultures they have provided inspiration for writers and artists. Mythical beasts, half-human creatures or otherwise, have retained their appeal through the ages.

EB: Encyclopædia Britannica, ie, Britannica Online.

Godfrey, Linda S., ed. Lake and Sea Monsters. New York: Chelsea House, 2008. ⍽▢⍽ About sea serpents, Kraken, Nessie, merfolk and more.

Godfrey, Linda S., ed. Mythical Creatures. New York: Chelsea House, 2009. ⍽▢⍽ About famous beasts of fable and legend and tales that have kept them famous for thousands of years by now.

Guerber, Hélè Adeline. Myths of the Norsemen: From the Eddas and Sagas. London: George G. Harrap and Co. 1908. ⍽▢⍽ Enjoyable, easy to read, and highly inaccurate. - Let us call it fictional.

Lehner, Ernst and Johanna. Big Book of Dragons, Monsters, and Other Mythical Creatures. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004.

Lock, Deborah, sen. ed. Children's Book of Mythical Beasts and Magical Monsters: An Introduction to Fascinating Myths and legends from Around the World. New York: DK Publishing, 2011. ⍽▢⍽ Here are adventures of heroes and monsters from the world of myths. Such fantastical tales educate and fascinate by telling of wondrous feats of heroics and bad deeds and wickeness of others. The book does not go into much depth, and is geared towards kids/teenagers. There are good visuals, including examples of art.

Nigg, Joe. Wonder Beasts: Tales and Lore of the Phoenix, the Griffin, the Unicorn, and the Dragon. Englewood, Colorado: Libraries, 1995. ⍽▢⍽ Here are tales of mythical beasts, offering primary sources. The appealing book is focusing on the phoenix, the griffin, the unicorn, and the dragon. Dr Nigg's collection is a fine resource.

Pliny the Elder. Natural History: A Selection. Translated by John Healy. London: Penguin, 1991. ⍽▢⍽ Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) was a Roman author. His massive work ranges from astronomy to art and from geography to zoology. He mingles detailed observations with wild speculation. The result is a fascinating Roman view of the world from the first century CE. Pliny himself died while investigating the volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompeii in AD 79. His work proved very influential right until the Renaissance. — Professor John F. Healy at the University of London represents a modern, positive approach to Pliny. Healy has made a fascinating and varied selection from the Natural History for this clear, modern translation. In his introduction, he discusses the book and its sources topic by topic. This edition also includes a full index and notes. It is a good place to start.

Pliny the Elder. The Natural History. Trs. John Bostock and H. T. Riley. London: Taylor and Francis, 1855. ⍽▢⍽ Pliny the Elder's Natural History is a great sourcebook. It contains some 20,000 purported facts and facts. Its 37 books cover very many sides to the ancient world. So Pliny is one of the finest aids to understand ancient Greece and Rome. The whole text is online.

Sax, Boria. The Mythical Zoo: An Encyclopedia of Animals in the World Myth, Legend, and Literature. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2001.

Shepard, Odell. The Lore of the Unicorn: Myths and Legends. London: Allen and Unwin, 1930. Reprint: Senate Books, London, 1996. On-line. ⍽▢⍽ This is a learned, informed book about the myth of the unicorn throughout centuries. Some of the true stories in it may call forth a laugh or three too.

South, Malcolm, ed. Mythical and Fabulous Creatures: A Source Book and Research Guide. New York: Greenwood, 1987. ⍽▢⍽ Here is a scholarly treatment of dragons, the phoenix, giants, fairies, Medusa, the Sphinx - twenty imaginary beings in all. South discusses their symbolism and lore, and how it is expressed through visual art, literature, or film. . . . The text comes with good book references.

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