April 16, 2022

P is for Pygmyism (& Gigantism)

         (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.  Be sure to see what all the other A to Z bloggers are offering in their alphabets!)
        Pygmyism (being an extremely small variant) and gigantism (being an extremely large variant) could be considered a sub-category of Extremes, but extremes of size are such a common characteristic of mythical creatures that I thought it merited its own post.  We’ll start with exceptionally small things, what with this being the post for P and all.  A number of folk tales involve a hero given the supposedly impossible task of finding a tiny creature, such as a dog or horse that can fit in a nut shell.  But these don’t seem to be considered a separate kind or species of creature, so we’ll move on.
        The shamir is a tiny worm, living with (or on?) a wood grouse.  Small as it is, it can cut through anything, so King Solomon used the shamir to cut stones and other materials for the building of his temple, as well as in cutting gemstones.  While the legends aren’t entirely clear how a shamir actually cuts things, one account says it was shown the object to be cut, which leads me to believe it must have laser-beam eyes.  It was kept in a little nest of wool in a lead container.
        The smallest creature of all is the gigelorum, so tiny that it lives in the ears of mites.  It was discovered in Scotland.
        But by far the most populous category of magical pygmy creatures is Little People.  All around the world there are legends of tiny humanoids, from the myriad fairies, brownies, pixies, gnomes, etc. of Europe, to the Chaneques of Mexico, the Pukwudgies of the Wampanoag, the Mannegishi of the Cree in Canada, the Menehune of Hawai’i, the kijimuna of Japan, the Jingren of China, and many more.  Although there are of course all sorts of differences in detail, it is very common for tiny people to be particularly mischievous.  Despite that, they may quite often be helpful, as long as their privacy is respected, but they generally do not like to be spied upon.  That may be why so many of them can also turn invisible (flashback to I).  They are often disproportionately strong, and may be skilled builders and crafters, although they are also quite frequently associated with nature (flashback to N).  And they are often understood to be the earliest inhabitants of their lands, living there before normal-sized humans arrived.  So many similarities in stories from all around the world have made many a cryptozoologist go “Hmmm.”  (Although I think another possible explanation of these similar tales is that they’re all told by humans!)
        You can read a prior post here about some of the confusions among different types of European Little People, or revisit brownies, dwarfs, fairies, gnomes, goblins, leprechauns, and pixies.
        You can read a facetious poem about the microscopic microbe, or cast your mind back to the tiny jetin at E, the wokulu at I, the chang nam at M, and the pyrallis at N.  Or perhaps you’ll enjoy my pussy willows.

        Gigantism is far more prevalent even than pygmyism, probably for the simple reason that bigger monsters make bigger challenges for our heroes.  We can start, however, with humanoids.  The naming convention is simpler: in English most giant humanoids are simply called giants, regardless of any specific details.  Once again, cultures all around the world have tales of giants, and the common threads here are that giants are, more often than not, vicious, uncivilized, and anthropophagus (flashback to A).
        Another popular class of giant creature is birds of prey.  The most famous is the roc, but similar monstrous birds include the ziz of Jewish folkore, the ngani-vatu of Fiji, and the p’eng of China, among others, as well as the thunderbird introduced at N.  All these birds are large enough that their wings darken the sky.  The nok hussadee of the Himmapan Forest is an enormous bird with the added interest of having the head of an elephant (flashback to C)!
        Then there are the sea monsters.  The timingila is the “whale eater” in Sanskrit texts, and although we don’t know much about what it looks like, we know it’s big.  The Tumi-Ra’I-Fuena of Tahitian mythology is like a spotted octopus whose tentacles can reach every corner of Earth and even heaven.  Previously-mentioned mega-giant sea creatures include Jörmungandr, the serpent large enough to circle the world, and leviathan, the largest sea creature of all in Jewish-Christian-Islamic traditions.
        In the northern seas of China there is a race of giant crabs called daxie, that are over 300 miles (1000 li, 500km) in size.  The kraken, these days generally considered an enormous cephalopod, is not quite as big, but is certainly large enough to strike terror into the hearts of sailors.  Sea serpents are, of course, giant-sized, as are the aspidochelone and all the other island-impersonating beasts you can revisit here.
        On land, the largest creature you could possibly encounter is the behemoth, which we know is a force of chaos and enormous strength, but that he eats grass like an ox.
        But really, any creature blown up to excessive size becomes a monster.  This is especially noticeable with creatures that we don’t really like much even when they’re small.  Giant spiders are the stuff of nightmares, including Shelob and her brood (introduced at D), and the Japanese tsuchigumo.  Don’t forget the giant skeleton gashadokuro, and Japan also has some dreadful giant rats.
        A giant mouse called Ugjuknarpak terrorized the people in its neighborhood in Alaska.  It caught people in its prehensile tale and ate them (flashback to A), but was eventually dispatched  and seems to have been the only one of its kind (flashback to O).
        Don’t think humans have lost our taste for extremely large creatures in modern times, either.  Babe is a giant (and blue) ox, appearing in lumberjack tales around 150 years ago, King Kong is a giant gorilla appearing in a movie in 1933,  the ROUS’s (Rodents of Unusual Size) appeared in a novel by William Goldman in 1973 adapted to a movie in 1987, and Clifford is a giant (and red) dog first appearing in books by Norman Bridwell in 1963, but popular in television up to the present.
        And then there’s the gallinipper, an American mosquito big enough to suck all the blood out of a person in a single gulp.
        The moral of these creatures is that we’ve just about figured out how to deal with animals at the sizes in which we normally encounter them, and we get completely thrown off when they come at us in an unexpected size.  A Pro Tip for photographers is to bring both macro and fisheye lenses in your kit, just to be sure you’ll be able to capture the perfect shot of any creature you may happen to spot.
        If you could have a pet of unusual size, would you rather it be extra big or extra small?

[Pictures: Smallest Dog, illustration by G.P. Jacomb Hood from The Blue Fairy Book, 1930 (Image from Internet Archive);
Little People (Garden Apartments) rubber block print by AEGN, 2017;
Giant (The Giant and the Boy), wood engraving by Dale DeArmond, c 1994 (Image from daledearmond.com);
Nok Hussadee, sculpture from funeral of Princess Petcharat, 2012 (Image from Wikimedia Commons)
Daxie, illustration by Siyu Chen from Fantastic Creatures of the Mountains and Seas, 2015;
Sea serpent, wood block print from Historiae animalium by Conrad Gesner, 1551 (Image from Hathi Trust);
Tsuchigumo, brush painting from Bakemonozukushie scroll, before 1868 (Image from Internet Archive);
Gallinipper (Panic Caused by a Mosquito in Piccadilly Circus), illustration from The Strand Magazine, 1909 (Image from Hathi Trust);
Behemoth and Leviathan, engraving by William Blake from the Book of Job, 1825 (Image from The Met).]


Melanie Atherton Allen said...

Giant birds! I always get excited when I see particularly big birds, because I always hope they will turn out to be very big indeed. Then again, I also have a recurring nightmare in which I am watching a fairly large bird in the sky... and then it begins a dive towards me... and it keeps coming, and looking bigger and bigger as it comes... and I realize that it is like an apocalyptically big bird, and that it was originally flying much, much higher than I thought it was, and that I am about to be bird-food.

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

Living in the ears of mites. LOL.

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

Joy Weese Moll said...

I like your assessment that the worldwide phenomenon of little people might just be that we humans like to make up stories about them.

Some of those giant creatures are terrifying, so I think I would opt for small over large, if one were to show up in my life.

Kristin said...

I once saw a giant bird when I was traveling on a train. Other passengers saw it too. Really! It followed us for a while and then went off. When I reached my destination I looked for newspaper stories of giant birds. I found nothing.

If I had to have a pet, I would choose a tiny friendly one. Easier to feed and travel with.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Melanie, I can sympathize with both the fascination and the nightmare -- and I think you're right in the spirit of a lot of storytellers throughout history who seem to have felt those same pulls, too.'

Joy and Kristin, it is undoubtedly true that small would be a lot easier to deal with.
Kristin, tell us more: did it look like a super big eagle, or similar sort of bird of prey? How big do you think it was? Are we talking 5 foot wingspan, or 10 feet, or 15 feet...?