April 28, 2022

X is for Variables

         (My A to Z Challenge 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.)
        In the grand tradition of the A to Z Challenge, I have had to get a little creative with X, but this year I am using it in its role as a mathematic variable, and it represents the idea that mythical creatures can have variable numbers of body parts.  Monsters may have X heads, where X can equal not only the standard 1 that is usual among most animals on Earth, but 2 or 7 or 100, or just about any other number.  Changing X is one of the quickest, easiest ways to make a creature magical, and creatures with unusual numbers of body parts are so common in myth that this is another trait for which I couldn’t possibly list them all.  So I’ll just give you a sampling with a bit of variety to it.
        In the classical world there are the 1-eyed cyclops giants, and the all-seeing giant Argus with 100 eyes.  You can revisit the 3-headed guard dog Cerberus and his brother the 2-headed Orthrus (both suitable for O), and we’ve also just seen the X-headed hydra at R, where X may equal 7 or 9, or something else depending on who’s telling the tale.
        Medieval bestiaries feature the 2-headed amphisbaena, which is a sort of 2-legged serpent that carries its two heads not next to each other like Orthrus or a run-of-the-mill 2-headed giant, but one at each end.  China also knew of the bingfeng, a boar with a head on each end amphisbaena-style.  A more recent beast with the same trait is Hugh Lofting’s pushmi-pullyu from 1920, which is of gazelle/chamois/unicorn stock.
        In classical and medieval art you may also encounter the gryllus, which is not so much a single species as a whole variable class of grotesques.  Sometimes X=2 for the gryllus’s faces: one on its head, but the other on its stomach.  Sometimes X=0 for its body: it has none when it takes the form of a head set directly atop a pair of legs.  Although the gryllus may represent the beastly vices, it is also a comic figure (and also often quite chimeric - flashback to C).
        The 3-legged crow called sanzuwu in China and samjogo in Korea lives in the sun (flashback to N) and is often golden or red instead of black.
        In parts of Serbia and Croatia you may encounter the 6-legged bukavac, a demonic monster (flashback to D) with gnarled horns.  It lives in lakes, makes loud noises, and strangles people.
        Another 6-legged monster is the păl-raí-yûk of Alaska.  It behaves like an alligator, lying in wait in the rivers to grab its prey (often human, flashback to A), but it’s covered in fine, dark fur, which grows longest on its feet.  It’s got horns, and the hind legs are longer than the middle and front pairs.
        Sleipnir is the 8-legged horse of the Norse god Odin.  Danish folklore also mentions the helhest, a 3-legged horse.  But whereas Sleipnir is the best horse (and one of a kind - another flashback to O), the helhest is associated with sickness and death.
        In Romanian folklore the role of the villain is often played by a balaur, an X-headed dragon or serpent, where X = 3, or 7, or 12.  Eastern Europe is inhabited by quite a few dragons of various sorts whose heads often number either 7 or multiples of 3.
        Kitsune, the Japanese fox spirits introduced at T, grow more tails the older and more powerful they are.  Some say they can gain extra tails every 100 years, but in any case, the most powerful have 9.  In stories it is most common that X=1, 5, 7, or 9.
        The nasnas of Arab folklore is only half a person: 1 arm, 1 leg, .5 head…  A very similar half-creature is the palesmurt of Russian folklore, which has a tendency to choke people, which seems like it wouldn’t be that easy to do with only one hand.  (At least, I assume.  Not that I’ve ever tried.)
        X can also equal 0 in creatures such as the headless Blemmyes (humanoids with faces in their chests), the faceless noppera-b
ō (a Japanese yōkai, or ghost), and the headless yohualtepoztli introduced at J.
        But perhaps the winner is Kuyuthan, a bull created to hold up the rock that supports the angel that supports the Earth, according to early Islamic mythology.  This monstrous beast has 40,000 eyes, 40,000 noses, 40,000 ears, 40,000 mouths, 40,000 tongues, and 40,000 legs!
        You can see prior posts to learn about the 4-legged calanchi goose, the 1-legged monopod, the 5-legged quintaped, the 4-winged 4-headed beast of Daniel, the 6-legged tarasque, and the jian, a bird which has only 1 eye and 1 wing, so that it takes two to fly.  Plus, already in this alphabet we’ve seen the 9-tailed boyi (introduced at J), 1-eyed Mi-ni-wa-tu (introduced at M), the 6-legged 4-winged feiwei (introduced at N), the 8-headed 8-tailed Yamata no Orochi (introduced at O), and the 9-headed jiutou niao (introduced at V).
        The moral of these creatures is that it’s important to be open-minded and flexible in your judgement of how other beings should look!  A Pro Tip for mathematicians is that a little basic algebra will be of great assistance in your study of unnatural history.
        What do you think: are two heads really better than one?

[Pictures: Cerberus, detail from engraving by Sebald Beham, 1545 (Image from The British Museum);
Amphisbaena, illumination from bestiary, 14th century (Image from Bibliotheque nationale de France);
Bingfeng, wood block print from Shan Hai Jing, 1667-1722 (Image from Smithsonian);
Pushmi-pullyu, illustration from The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting, 1920 (Image from Project Gutenberg);
Sanzuwu, detail from mural in Henan province, c 200 BCE-200CE (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Sleipnir, carved and painted on the Tjängvide image stone, 9-10th century (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Kitsune, color wood block print by Ryūkansai from Kyōka Hyaku Monogatari, 1853;
Noppera-bō, color wood block print by Ryūkansai from Kyōka Hyaku Monogatari, 1853 (Images from The Met);
Gryllus, marginalia from “Luttrell Psalter,” 1325-40,  (Images from British Library),

and “Maastricht Hours,” 1300-1325 (Image from British Library).]


Kristin said...

Unless they get into an argument with each other. The two heads that is.

Rob Z Tobor said...

Yes X is a tricky letter for Monsters, but a good on for Algebra. Although as I get old and knackered one thing I have noticed is monsters are generally bad at Algebra. However there is an old saying that goes . . . . Two Heads are Better than One. .. . . . so maybe a multi headed beast may have an edge with Mathematics.

Not so long to go now on the great journey . . .

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

Cerberus is definitely my favourite!

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

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Yeah, that's always a danger, Kristin!

Rob, I was not aware that monsters are weak at math. Someone needs to get them some remedial education!

Ronel, weighing in with the hot take that THREE heads are better than one! lol