February 6, 2018

Unidentified Monsters

        In all my celebrations of mythical creatures, I always seem to write about the known species with set names and descriptions, but they’re not the only denizens of the imagination.  What about all the weird, unique, anomalous, unidentified critters out there?  Today I have a few to share.
        This first illustration comes from an 1899 translation of Lucian of Samosata’s True History, and it appears under the line “inhospitable folk with strange forms.”  Inhospitable monsters they may be, but they’re really quite charming in their own strange way.  There’s the reverse mermaid, the fierce fellow with lobster claws, the dachshund of the centaur world, and my favorite, the bloke with the head of either a monkfish or a space alien.  He really looks more sheepish than scary.  This is not a block print, but the white on black and the frieze-like composition give it a classic woodcut look.  If these monsters were given species names they could be right at home among the more commonly known mermaids and centaurs.
        This second group of strange creatures comes from a dream of Daniel’s in the Bible.  The King James version describes them as the first being “like a lion, and had eagle’s wings,” the second is “like to a bear” (not so interesting), but the third is “like a leopard, which had upon the back of it four wings of a fowl; the beast also had four heads.”  It’s interesting that Hans Holbein has chosen to give it two bird legs instead of four leopard legs as I would have interpreted it.  I would think this would be the stuff that a Bible illustrator would really enjoy: the parts that are a little more open to creativity and artistic interpretation.  And the fourth monster is even more so, being described merely as “dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth… and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns.”  Holbein’s cloven fore-hoofs, shaggy shoulders, human ears, tusks, and pointy upper lip are all his own invention.  Perhaps being mere allegorical dream-beasts, these monsters don’t belong to mythical species, but wouldn’t it be fun if they did?

[Pictures: Illustration by A. Payne Garnett from Lucian’s Wonderland by St J. Basil Wynne Willson, 1899 (Image from Internet Archive);
Daniel’s vision of the four beasts (Daniel 7), wood block print by Hans Holbein, 15th century (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

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