April 29, 2022

Y is for Yonder

         (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.)
        One characteristic shared by many magical, mythical creatures is that they don’t live around here.  Rather, they tend to live yonder, in some far-away, strange and exotic country where most of us have never been.  Of course, what counts as “yonder” is entirely dependent on where you are, so for medieval Europeans most of the craziest creatures lived in Africa or India, with some in the far north, or central and eastern Asia.  Meanwhile, however, the Chinese were placing many of their magical creatures far to the west in central Asia or even Europe, or to the south in India.  In tropical South America and Africa, yonder might be deep in the jungles, or at the tops of mountains.
        Among the faraway creatures described in medieval European bestiaries and travellers’ tales you can revisit the yale (Ethiopia), and the vegetable lamb (Central Asia).  The barnacle goose (from far-away Ireland) is a goose that begins its life cycle growing from a tree.  When it's ready, its shell cracks open and the bird drops out into the water below and can swim or fly away.  Plus, in this year’s A to Z we’ve already seen the manticore (India) at A, the gold-digging ant (India or Ethiopia) at H, the parandrus (Arctic, Central Eurasia, or Ethiopia!) at I, and the griffin (northern Eurasia or India) at C, F, H, and J!  All of these strange and exotic creatures were believed to live yonder.
        Persian bestiaries describe the sanajah, which is to be found away yonder in Tibet.  The sanajah has a deadly gaze, except that if you come up to the fierce beast with your eyes shut so that it sees you first, it will be the one to drop dead!
        They also tell of the anqa, a bird known to live in remote, strange, desolate lands far to the west.  She is sometimes described as having a long neck, human face, and eight wings (making her eligible for both C and X), and she eats nothing but elephants and large fish.  However, she was so often conflated with the simurgh (see C and K) that it’s become a little hard to tease out what other characteristics might be her own.
        The almiraj is a one-horned golden hare that lives on an island in the Indian ocean, which is far yonder from the courts of Iran, where the accounts were written.  It has a trait suitable to M, that all creatures who look upon it instantly flee.  (By the way, for a little taste of Words of the Month, almiraj is of course an Anglicization of the Arabic name, and a redundant one at that, since the al- prefix just means “the.”  However, this is not uncommon in translation  and borrowing of words, so that’s what we call it.  The same thing has occurred in the English words alcoholalgebra (flashback to X), and alchemy, all borrowed from Arabic.)
        The Han Dynasty Classic of Mountains and Seas describes creatures that can be found in all directions, away yonder beyond the seas and the Great Wastelands.  These include a number of creatures that have already appeared in this alphabet, such as the Jingren (at P), the jiutou niao (at V), and the bingfeng (at X).  In the Western Lands Beyond the Seas lives the chenghuang, like a long-tailed white fox with spikes on its back.  Anyone who succeeds in riding this beast will live at least a thousand years.
        Beyond the Southern Wastelands is the chuti, which looks like a two-headed yak (flashback to X) with long spiralling horns - at least that’s according to the translation I have, but the pictures of it don’t seem to have horns at all, so I don’t know what to tell you.
        All manner of creatures are encountered by heroes who leave home, from the firebird (introduced at G), the sirens (introduced at E), and Sinbad’s roc (introduced at P),  to all the creatures of Oz (introduced at S) and the Himmapan Forest (at C and E).
        The moral of these stories is that the creatures are always greener - I mean, more magical - on the other side of the fence.  But a Pro Tip for explorers is that you cannot assume there will never be any monsters or magic nearby.  Bogies, for example, are always local monsters, to be found right there in your nearest river, lake, or swamp.  All manner of shapeshifting trickster beasts (seen at T) can tease and torment you on your road home, and will o’ the wisps (introduced at G) may lead you astray even when you think you know the way.  Besides, never forget that your back yard is someone else’s yonder (and vice versa)!  Still, if you really want to encounter amazing magical creatures, your best course of action is to set off to seek your fortune in faraway lands… yonder.
        Which magical faraway creature do you most wish lived nearby?

[Pictures: Yale, rubber reduction print by AEGN, 2018;
Barnacle Goose, illumination from bestiary, 1175-1225 (Image from British Library);
, illumination from Wonders of Creation by al-Qazwini, early 15th c (Image from Smithsonian);
Almiraj, illumination from Wonders of Creation by al-Qazwini, 1565 (Image from Bibliotheque Bordeaux);
Chenhuang, 2 versions - wood block print from Shan Hai Jing, 1667-1722 (Image from Smithsonian),

- detail of wood block print from  Shan Hai Jing, 1628-1644 (Image from Harvard Library);

Roc (Great Bird), illumination from Wonders of Creation by al-Qazwini, c1760 (Image from Library of Congress).]


Deborah Weber said...

I love "yonder" as your Y word! So many creatures, I hardly know which one to choose. I am partial to the vegetable lamb - who isn't? But I think I'd really like to see almiraj. I'd have to find a way to stay put though, so I'd have to work that out first.

J Lenni Dorner said...

Really excellent post. I love your theme.

Sue Bursztynski said...

“Yonder” certainly works for me and makes a lot of sense. We tend to hear about weird beasties which are always seen by others, and never by anyone we know or anyone who has actually been there!

That is a very grumpy looking hare and with a horn as well, no wonder people flee from it!

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

Dragons, definitely dragons :-)

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

Jayashree Srivatsan said...

The almiraj seems like the cousin of a unicorn ... i may have loved to have centaurs and phoenix birds around

Anstice Brown said...

I'd love to live near the firebird. The pictures and descriptions make it seem so beautiful and I like the symbolism.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

I enjoy hearing all your choices for creatures to live nearby. I think I'd probably have to pick something relatively small and not dangerous (sorry Ronel!)
Sue, you're right, that almiraj looks very frowny.