Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Here There be Grotesques

Last year I acquired a number of wonderful books at Word on the Street while getting blisters on my shoulders from hauling my loot around the pavilions of that street fete.

In a moment of over-generous abberation I gave many away for Xmas to my SCA children, including some of a set on Medieval Manuscripts co-published by the British Library and the University of Toronto Press.
One I kept though was Monsters and Grotesques by Alixe Bovey.

It seems that stories of monstrous races and "other animals" written about by Pliny and Solinus and assorted Greeks were a smash hit in an Anglo-Saxon text called Wonders of the East when it circulated in both Latin and Old English sometime around 970-1150.

Among these charming aliens and beasts were:
(1) dog-headed men called cynocephali,
(2) men with heads in their chests called blemmyae
(3) polyglot man-eaters called donestre,
(4) odd-eared giants called panotii, and
(5)the now-familiar griffins, sphinxes, dragons, cyclopes, etc.

Illustrated inventives - embellished, distorted - immediately abounded, and these marvels soon appeared in some surprising places, yoked to deep theological soul-searching and promotional dogma in psalters and bibles.

These strange and wonderous creatures also graced the pages of popular Alexandrian romances, copies of Universal History, travelogues such as John de Mandeville's and popular Bestiaries.

The comparisons with Science Fiction and Fantasy worlds and creatures is both striking and amusing.
And I'm sure that pulpits on occasion fulminate or extrapolate against it all.
Space and alternate universes replace distant, unknown lands.
Klingons and other peculiar differentials populate the Odyssey of Kirk, Picard and Janeway.
Eternal journeys of the imagination.
There is no "final frontier."


Sela Carsen said...

When you say polyglot, do you mean they could speak multiple languages or they had multiple tongues? The mind boggles.

Bernita said...

I believe Ms. Bovey means either multiple mouths or composite figures from diverse sources, sans epiglotal stops, naturally.

James Goodman said...

It just goes to show you...where there's a mind, there's an imagination.

I've never read the Bovey book. I'll have to check that out.

Bernita said...

Has lots of illustrations from various manuscripts, James.
Neat softcover.
ISBN 0-8020-8512-1

Savannah Jordan said...

The only true frontier left is self discovery.

Erik Ivan James said...

I heard or read somewhere a long time ago that; if it can be imagined, it can be created.

I wonder which we do as writers; create the imagination or imagine the creation? Maybe both.

Bernita said...

Imaginations need to be fed.

Robyn said...

My kids would be in heaven with that book. They love fantasy, and they both write and illustrate their own comic books. Many of the beasts you mentioned abound in Japanese Anime.

Bernita said...

Robyn, they "decorate margins, twist into letter forms, and squeeze into the spaces at the end of lines of text."
She continues "Grotesques in Gothic manuscripts can be playful, satrical, crude, violent, elegant and overtly sexual...and sometimes startlingly subversive."
I think they would love it.

Anonymous said...

Who knew! It really is true, when it is said, "There's nothing new under the sun!"

I don't think I ever pondered when fantasy on that level developed. I guess other than griffins, gargoyles and that type of monster, I thought it was all relatively new!

Hey....there's no thingy for me to sign in my name....Blogger sucks!

Bonnie Calhoun

Bernita said...

Blogger still won't let me post "pichures",Bonnie, but so far I haven't had to re-post the blog today to eliminate the white screen.

Tsavo Leone said...

Your mention of dog-headed men, and the name attributed to them (cyanocephali, which I believe literally meads 'dog headed') reminded me of research I've been doing lately concerning certain myths and folklore.

What I've found very interesting is that the majority of Old World cultures have their own distinct ideas concerning the vampire and/or the werewolf. In turn, these notions also appear in Eastern folklore but are given a noticeably different slant. Still further afield, the Pacific Islanders have their own versions of these same myths and folklore. Indeed, even the indigenous South Americans talk of shape-shifters who become animals and of creatures that drink blood.

Given the isolation of these communities, and the similarity of some of their folklore, might it not be inconceivable that there is a kernal of truth to their tales, obscured and/or lost through time?

It may also be worth bearing in mind that some of the entries made in medieval bestiaries related to legitimate creatures, albeit with the facts and specific details having been distorted...

(Men of science were no better - has anyone else ever seen the original idea of what an iguanadon was supposed to look like?)

Sandra Ruttan said...

Here here Savannah!

Man, a few days with blogger woes and look at all the good stuff I've missed...

Entertaining and educational as always, Bernita.

Savannah Jordan said...


The coinciding myths have fascinated me for years.


Thank you. Glad you agree. :)

Bernita said...

Ms. Bovey makes that very point, Tsavo - that some perectly natural creatures would seem like monsters at first contact.
I don't know whether this similarity points to a reality behind the lore, or simply a similarity in the forms of fear the imagination creates.

Thank you, Sandra. Fascinating, the stuff that's out there.

alexandra said...

Quantum string theory... Bernita, who woulda thunk?

Bernita said...

bosonic + superstring = heterotic = supersymmetry?
I do not understand quantum physics.

Carla said...

Well, there is a theory floating around that the vampire myth may have had its origin in people with porphyria, who are dreadfully anaemic and who could theoretically get relief by drinking blood. I doubt there's any evidence for it. A few cultures drink the blood of domestic animals, don't they? I can think of the Mongols on the steppes who are supposed to have drunk mare's blood as part of their diet (I don't know if it's true). One could imagine a culture like that extending the idea to a myth about creatures that drink human blood.
Also remember reading somewhere that magic mushrooms, ergot and a few other hallucinogens used by shamans often produce fantastic hallucinations of men changing into animal shapes and back again, which might underlie the shape-shifting/were-creature myth. Plus lots of cultures are supposed to have beliefs that wearing the skin of an animal (or collecting the heads of one's enemies) imbues you with some of their spirit - so it might be thought that a man who killed a wolf and wore its skin could take on part of the wolf's spirit and you have another possible were-creature origin.
Fascinating speculation :-)

Bernita said...

Seems to me I rerad somewhere in a venerable Enclopaedia Britannica that blood itself, in sufficient amounts, was a hallucinogin - which is another twist to "blood rites".