January 8, 2016

Mythical B

        For some reason the letter B is particularly richly endowed with mythical creatures.  As I said before, today’s list is in no way intended to be comprehensive; it’s just a handful of the creatures that appealed the most to me.  So, B IS FOR…

baku - a tapir-ish-looking spirit that eats dreams.  You can see a previous post with picture here.  (Japanese)

basilisk - the king of snakes, originally described as being a small snake with a crown-like spot or crest, and so poisonous that if a man on horseback kills it with a spear, the poison runs up the spear and kills the man.  Later the basilisk became increasingly muddled with the cockatrice and acquired legs, and sometimes wings and/or a beak.  It also gained the ability to kill with a stare, and sometimes with the sound of its voice or by breathing fire.  (European)

bunyip - a fearsome water spirit or creature with a terrifying cry and a very wide variety of features.  It has been variously described as being like an enormous starfish, having a head like a dog or crocodile, dark fur, horse tail, flippers, tusks or horns, and a duckbill.  (Australian Aboriginal)

brownie - a small humanoid household spirit or fairy who does jobs around the house and yard in exchange for small gifts of food, especially dairy products, porridge, and honey.  They are seldom seen, preferring to do their chores at night or in secret, and can become offended if spied upon.  A happy brownie is a helpful creature, but an offended brownie can be mischievous or, in worst cases, downright malevolent.  Then it becomes part of a whole tribe of evil sprites, including boggarts, bogles, bogeymen, bugganes, puca, and goblins. (English, with many Celtic variants)

balrog, borogove, and bandersnatch - I’ve put these three together because they were all discovered by modern writers, having been unknown in traditional folklore.  The balrog is a demon of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, huge, composed of fiery smoke and shadow, and often armed with a many-thonged whip.  The borogove and bandersnatch were both discovered by Lewis Carroll in the land through the looking-glass.  The borogove is “a thin, shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round, something like a live mop.”  All we know about the bandersnatch is that it’s frumious.  (English)
        The question with these modern mythological creatures is to what extent they must remain tied to their home territory, and at what point in time or popularity do they become free to wander off into other worlds.  When do they cease being the specific creation of a single author and become common cultural property?  And is it good or bad that they should do so?

        There are also banshee (Irish), basan (Japanese), bigfoot (American), and barnacle goose (European), to mention a few more interesting members of this veritable swarm of B’s!
        I have not yet made my own depiction of a mythical B creature.  Which one do you think would be the most fun to do?

[Pictures: Two species of basilisk (snakier, and just plain goofier), wood block prints from Serpentum, et draconum historiae by Ulisse Aldrovandi, 1640 (Images from Linda Hall Library);
The Murray River Bunyip, drawing by Kurruk, 1848 (Image from Scientific American);
The animals came in one by one (basilisk), wood block print by Ed Emberly from One Wide River to Cross, 1967;
The basilisk and the weasel, copper engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar, mid-seventeenth century (Image from University of Toronto).]

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