Thursday, December 15, 2016

Fantastic Beasts, Medeival Style!

I was going to write a post about fairy tales and folklore in connection to Harry Potter because of that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie.  That movie came out weeks ago, though.  So, the bloom is kind of off the rose.

I know, let’s take a look at the original book of fantastic beasts: the medieval bestiary.  That’s kind of connected.  I know that it’s not quite fairy tale related, but bestiaries hail from times when people still seemed to believe in dragons, unicorns and mermaids.  So, it’s kind of close.
A leopard.
For those that don’t know, bestiaries were books that described animals as the world at the time knew them but also attributed to them philosophical teachings.  This is largely stemming from the way the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) believed that the natural world was laid out by God as a way to teach human beings how to act.  Now, it would be difficult to seek out reprintings of all these various sources by different authors ranging from such various authors as Isidore of Seville, Pliny the Elder and even Aesop (who is pre-medeival) among others.  Luckily, the website has done most of the work for us.

Now, as I’ve said before, these are old books.  They’re from a time when scientific observation wasn’t so precise and sometimes wasn’t even a priority (heck, some of them are from a time when alchemy was still considered a legitimate science).  So, these books aren’t really as interesting for what they got right as what they got wrong.

Let’s look at some choice selections:

Let’s see.  Pliny the Elder had this to say about bears: “Newborn cubs are a shapeless lump of white flesh with no eyes or hair, though the claws are visible.  The mother bear gradually licks her cubs into proper shape, and keeps them warm by hugging them to her breast and lying on them, just as birds do with their eggs.”

And about the Boa, Isidore of Seville says “The boa is an emense snake from Italy.  It pursues heards of cattle and oxen, and attaching to their udders kills them by sucking the milk; it is thus called boas from the killing of oxen (boa).”

Apes (meaning all non-human primates in this sense), according to Aesop always give birth to twins.  One the mother loves and holds in her arms, the other she hates and must cling to her back.  Though, according to Aesop, the mother has a tendency of smothering the baby it carries in its arms while the hated child survives.

There is a whole lot said about lions.  According to Herodotus, the lioness can only give birth once because the claws of the lion cub are so sharp even in utero that it damages the womb even before it’s born.  Pliny the Elder refutes this but also says that lion cubs are born as lumps of flesh the size of weasels (much like he said about bears).  He also says that their breath is a severe poison.  A number of the scholars claimed the lion used its tail as a sort of brush to erase its tracks.

There's a lot more.  If you're interested, click over to
A bear, licking her cub into shape.
Even the entries about mythical beasts seem a little off.  Pliny the Elder again said “India produces the largest elephants as well as the largest dragons, which are perpetually at war with the elephants.”  Did I miss a whole bunch of legends about elephants fighting dragons because that sounds awesome!

The interesting thing about all this is how a lack of knowledge combined with hearsay and creative license resulted in descriptions of real animals that made them sound like mythical beasts.  Snakes that drink milk!  Apes that hate their children!  Hedgehogs carrying away grapes on their quills!  Bears that have cubs made of play-doh!

Now you may think this sounds strange and preposterous.  Imagine treating real, live animals as if they were mythical creatures.  But, um . . . have you seen the way our modern culture treats dinosaurs?

No one living has ever seen a dinosaur.  Yet, ever since humanity discovered that they had once existed we’ve been fascinated with them and we’ve built stories around them.

We’ve created worlds where they still live.  We’ve made them into monsters that chase humans.  We’ve had heroes ride on them as mounts.  We’ve made them soft and kid-friendly (I may have to apologize for linking to that song).  We’ve even turned them into aliens before.  But we’ve always taken liberties with them because we’ve always known less than we’ve imagined.  The dinosaur has become the dragon of the post-industrial age.  That’s probably why science encountered such a push back when they asked the world to consider dinosaurs in a new way. 

In the not too distant past, scientists suggested the possibility that dinosaurs were a step in between the evolution of reptiles and the evolution of birds.  This meant that in all possibility, dinosaurs could have been covered in feathers.  New discoveries have shown that these scientists have been on the ball.  But our modern culture still has trouble imagining feathered dinosaurs.  The idea that our modern mythical beasts resemble dragons less than they resemble Foghorn Leghorn still throws people.  Granted, it doesn’t help that our culture doesn’t respect birds much except as poultry dinners and creatures gifted with the power of flight (dinosaurs are neither edible nor could fly.  Thus, they have an uphill battle ahead of them).
A rather feathery dinosaur.
Now, as I said before, this whole post may seem a bit off topic (though, I suppose a lot of this could be seen as “lore”).  But I think it could also serve as a reminder to keep our perspective as we chase old stories.  The longer ago these stories were written down, the more we’ll have to deal with the misconceptions of those writers from long ago.  Not just social misconceptions about race, religion and sex but even misconceptions about the natural world around them.  Heck, I just finished reading Basile’s The Tale of Tales and one story involved a dolphin giving someone a scale off his back (dolphins are not fish and do not have scales) and another alluded to people who were bitten by tarantulas being driven to dance to music until the poison was sweated out (pretty sure that isn’t true).  But the old stories are still worth a look, even if we aren’t willing to accept everything they tell us.


  1. Replies
    1. Medieval art wasn't always so representative of real life. In this case, I believe we're supposed to be viewing the bear's face from the side.

  2. And how many of our rock solid beliefs about what we think we know now will be dispelled in the future.