March 18, 2022

B is for Breathing Fire

         (My A to Z theme this year is How to Make a Fantastical Creature, in which I explore 26 traits that are widely shared among the monsters and marvels of fantasy and folklore.  I’ve started early, and it’s still not too late for you to join in the Challenge with your own blog HERE.)
        There are no real-life creatures that breathe fire (although a few come surprisingly close!) so who was the first to imagine a creature that could?  Most likely this strange and marvelous - and scary - thought occurred to multiple people in the history of humanity, since the trait appears in folklore around the world.  Fire is one of the most magical forces humans know, simultaneously beautiful and potentially deadly.  The most famous mythical fire-breathers are dragons, but they are far from the only ones.  
        In classical Greece the chimaera and the Mares of Diomedes (already seen at the letter A) were known to breathe fire, and Persian mythology has fire-breathing horses with asses’ heads called conopenii.
        The basan is a Japanese creature that looks like a rooster but breathes bright red ghost-fire.  Interestingly, its fire may be cold and doesn’t burn.
        The catoblepas is a beast known to the medieval naturalists, which looks like a buffalo but with a shaggy head so heavy that it can’t hold it up.  This is lucky, because according to some authors it breathes fire, while according to others its breath is poisonous (but all agree that its stare is deadly, as well).  So let’s expand today’s category and include all sorts of breath weapons.  
        The French Lebraude (or Souffle, which is an awesome name for a monster!) is a large lizard or salamander which breathes only once per day, but when it exhales its poison, everything around dies instantly.
        The olgoi-khorkhol (or Mongolian death worm) can spit poison or discharge electric shocks.
        The Physeter (or Prister) of the Atlantic Ocean is an enormous sea monster that spouts violent streams of water and steam.
        In Jamaica there are dangerous duppies, which are ghosts or spirits, including Rolling-Calf, which breathes fire, and Three-foot Horse, which breathes poison.
        The modern mythology of Dungeons & Dragons categorizes its dragons into whether they breathe fire, poison, cold, acid, or electricity.

        Or read the previous post on Spring-heeled Jack, who breathed blue flame.

        Finally, I would like to mention the bonnacon, a beast of the medieval bestiaries, which has a lethal weapon it can spray, but not by breathing.  Its weapon comes from the other end.  The bonnacon looks much like an ox, but its horns are so tightly spiralled that the sharp ends don’t stick out to offer it any protection, so instead it sprays caustic, burning dung for a quarter mile behind it.
The moral of breath weapons is, of course, that no one wants to be a dragons’ dentist.  A Pro Tip for knights: try offering hostile dragons an enticing suit of armor packed full of high explosives.
        What's your best dragon-slaying strategy?

[Pictures: Dragon, rubber block print by AEGN, 2010 (sold out);
Basan, wood block print by Takehara Shunsensai, c 1841 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Catoblepas, wood block print from The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes by Edward Topsell, 1607 (Image from Folger Collection);
Physeter, wood block print from Historiae de gentibus septentrionalibus by Olaus Magnus, 1557 (Image from Biodiversity Heritage Library);
Bonnacon, illumination from bestiary, 1201-1225 (Image from Bodleian Libraries).]


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Deborah Weber said...

It's a toss-up whether I like basan (cold ghost fire!) or bonnacon. I'm certainly curious as to what experience led to that reporting. I'm not sure I'd want to slay a dragon, but I think it would be fun to miniaturize one and keep it as a toaster pet.

JadeLi said...

I would try the cliche of "fight fire with fire."

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

No slaying dragons: just offer them books! (Or whatever they hoard. LOL.)

Ronel visiting for the A-Z Challenge My Languishing TBR: B

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

My D&D party adopted a catoblepas once... We called him Stinky. It went great.
Also, German legends even have a king who can breathe fire... :D

The Multicolored Diary

JazzFeathers said...

Well, I never imagined that there are so many mythic creature that breath fires... or do other similar activities.
Great port! :-)

The Old Shelter - Enter the New Woman

Kristin said...

Stay away from the fire breathers is my favorite dragon fighting strategy. It works with all monsters, burn a white candle and stay away.

Susanne Matthews said...

Interesting post. Well done.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Jade and Kristin, interesting tips. I have to agree with Kristin that simply staying away is undoubtedly the best, but if you *must* engage with these beasts, it's good to have a plan!

Zalka, I'm curious whether this fire-breathing king was supposed to be a hero or a villain? And Stinky sounds... fun! lol

Timothy S. Brannan said...

Oh yes. I know I was going to enjoy this.

Timothy S. Brannan
The Other Side | A to Z of Conspiracy Theories

Jayashree Srivatsan said...

I think these must have been influenced by real creatures like eels that can emit electricity or venomous creatures that spew poison. What would happen if a dragon catches a cold, i wonder ?

Visiting from A to Z

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Jayashree, you're definitely right that there's some influence there... But I'd say a heaping dollop of imagination, too! lol

Welcome, Timothy! It'll be fun to see how many of these creatures you already know.