Medieval bestiaries as well as more “scientific” texts like Isidore of Seville’s early encyclopaedia were filled with monsters both humanlike and bestial. These were not only monsters as we’d term them; the act of defining the natural and the monstrous was a going concern in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Even at the time, there was something preternatural about monsters, something beyond common belief. They dwelt on the edges of God’s creation, filling up the unexplored nooks and crannies of various maps. They were markers of a terrifying unknown and also messengers of hope: when the intelligent monsters at the world’s end converted to Christianity, then so too would the world end and Jesus return to rule a new one.
Of course, monsters are a feature of every culture’s myths and traditions, even if not debated by followers of the scholastic traditions. Many of the “medieval” creatures that make their way into modern fantasy novels featured in ancient civilizations as well. Dragons are well-represented in the world’s stories from Africa to Asia, as are tales of giants and dog-headed men. Neither has faith in the existence of such creatures waned, though they have taken on a pseudoscientific veneer: cryptids like Bigfoot, the yeti, and the Loch Ness monster all sprang up in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, forming legends of their own. The willingness of ancient and medieval scholars to accept monsters is, in fact, far less puzzling than the firm conviction of large chunks of the population in these cryptids: the world really was a mysterious and mostly unexplored place within the narrow scope of geographical and zoological knowledge held by priests and philosophers. Strange bones found in Turkey and tales of griffons in the remote reaches of Ethiopia were just as convincing as stories of rhinos, elephants and gorillas. In fact, there are far more evidence pointing to the historical existence of dragons than of the supposed brontosaurus living in the modern Congo, Mokele Mbebe. But like Mokele Mbebe, dragons didn’t leave behind any bones, only descriptions and legends. Unlike Mokele Mbebe, those stories span several centuries. That weight of “evidence” won’t sway the usual proponent of Nessie, even though sightings of the monster at Loch Ness only date back to the 1930s (medieval Scots would have said it was obviously a kelpie), and even though the form of that evidence for dragons is essentially the same as evidence for Nessie.
That historical connection between modern cryptids and legendary monsters often gets overlooked–to me, it’s the most fascinating part of this phenomenon. Cross-culturally, humans seem to gravitate towards dreaming up the same sorts of monsters, be they large lizards like dragons and leviathans, or human-beast hybrids, or giants or female water creatures like sirens and rusalki. That extends to other preternatural stories of the Middle Ages: getting kidnapped and taken to fairyland becomes a UFO abduction, the magical hippocamp becomes a sea serpent. Then there is the wild man, that uncivilized (and untameable) humanoid covered all over in hair that stands in as a the uncivilized Other. The wild man tradition appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh as Enkidu, in the fairy tale of Iron Hans as a mentor, in Shakespeare as Caliban.[*] Now he appears as the Yeti and Bigfoot, the man-ape of the Himalayas and the Pacific Northwest. The Coast Salish tales of Sasquatch were of giants who could speak and who lived in villages, not of solitary and elusive beasts stalking the forest. The wild, hairy Sasquatch of twentieth-century folklore, carrying all its associations with rugged masculinity, owes decidedly more to those legendary dwellers in the forests of Europe and the Middle-East, as well as the various wild men of Native American traditions who bear similar features. Meanwhile, the mountain-demon of Tibet and Nepal merged in the minds of European explorers with these equally old tales of wild men. Now these disparate monsters of Asia and North America are inextricably linked in western minds.
The monster beliefs of Babylon and Greece still live on in altered form, recast in slightly different shapes yet still bearing many of the same features. The more popular cryptids demonstrate the continued staying power of some ancient and medieval narratives into the present day.
We might say monsters demand for us to believe in them, since these imaginary constructions hold so much real meaning.
[This blog posts owes a considerable amount to having just read Abominable Science (Columbia University Press, 2013). See also Fairy-Tale Science (University of Toronto Press, 2008) for more on the discourse surrounding monsters in the Renaissance.]
[*] And more recently, as the woses in The Lord of the Rings. Alberto Manguel’s The City of Words (House of Anansi Press, 2007) has an excellent discussion of the meaning of the wild man in ancient and medieval literature.