Monday, October 29, 2007

Bestiary Creatures

So far on this blog, you've learned about witches, werewolves, and nastly little gnomes, to name a few. Today, I'm here to tell you about otherworldly creatures that appeared in books long before the first paranormal romance ever hit the shelves. Except for the Bible, bestiaries were pretty much considered the best sellers of the Middle Ages (for the few who could afford them and the fewer still who could actually read them). They were illuminated manuscripts (not illustrated, mind you, but i-lu-min-at-ed, meaning "to decorate with gold or silver or brilliant colors or often elaborate designs or miniature pictures in an effort to enlighten spiritually or intellectually"). Written and illuminated (there’s that word again) by monks, they describe every creature thought to exist in the medieval world. Some were real and some were not so real. Or were they? After all, satyrs, dragons and unicorns are specifically mentioned in the Bible, so they must exist--or at least have existed at one time--right? Most bestiaries start with the lion, which makes sense considering he is the king of beasts and the medieval symbol of Christ. However, since everyone over the age of one knows what a lion is, I’m going to skip over the well-known creatures still roaming the Earth and enlighten you on a few of the more fascinating beasties not often shown on the Animal Planet . . .

The Amphisbaena
This serpent has the interesting characteristic of having two heads, one at each end of its body. Sometimes the amphisbaena is described as having a worm-like body, while at other times it is more dragon-like, with clawed legs and wings. To pursue its victims, it will place one head into the mouth of the other and roll across the ground like a hoop. Cool, huh?

The Basilisk
Often called the crested snake, this creature is the offspring of an unfertilized egg from an old rooster hatched by a toad or frog. It has the head, forelegs and wings of a rooster, with the tail of a snake. Its fiery breath is so deadly, it will lay waste to the land for miles around, and one glance of the beast is fatal. But if you happen to have a mirror handy, you’re in luck. One look at its own reflection will cause the basilisk to drop dead, too.

The Bonnacon
This creature has the head and body of a bull and the mane of a horse, with horns that curl in on themselves making them pretty much useless if the animal needs to defend itself. But never fear, the bonnacon has a secret weapon--and it’s a real doozy. When pursued, it will discharge the entire contents of its lower bowels in an enormous and revolting fart of wet dung. If the sickening stench doesn’t keep its attackers at bay, the heat of the mess is extremely combustible and will set fire to everything around it. Projectile flaming poo . . . sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

The Dragon
Sometimes called firedrakes, these well-known winged creatures often live in mountain caves, love to hoard treasure, and breathe fire on anyone who tries to steal it. They also tend to think virgins tied to stakes make a tasty snack.

The Griffin or Gryphon
This creature has the head, wings and forelegs of an eagle, with the rear legs and tail of a lion. It’s enormous and strong, said to be able to carry off a horse and rider in its claws. It finds humans particularly tasty, but has a distinct dislike of horses for some reason. Like the dragon, the griffin has a compulsion to hoard treasure and precious stones. Combining the elements of the king of beasts and the king of the skies, the griffin is often considered a symbol of valor.

The Hippocampus
With a horse’s head and a fish tail, these stallions and mares of the sea inhabit the waters from Norway to Brittany. Always secretive creatures, they avoid humans and graze peacefully on the grasses growing on the ocean floor.

The Kraken
This squid-like beast can spend 1,000 years sleeping in the depths of the sea, but when it wakes up, watch out! It’s so large, when it comes to the surface, the kraken can be mistaken for an island. The most feared of all sea-dwelling creatures, it can crush a ship with its powerful tentacles, dragging every man aboard down to a watery grave.

The Manticore
Blood red in color, this creature has the face of a man and the body of a lion. It has a triple row of teeth and a long, scorpion-like tail with spines that can shoot out in all directions. Its voice is described as that of a reed pipe or trumpet. It is extremely powerful and can leap over any obstacle. Unfortunately, it has taste for human flesh. Seeing as the word manticore comes from an old Persian word for “man-eater,” that kinda makes sense.

Mermaids and Sirens
Believe it or not, mermaids started out with a bad rap, viewed as symbols of vanity and prostitution. They also weren’t very attractive having been described as being part woman, part bird, complete with bird’s feet and talons. Definitely not the cute version of Ariel we all know and love. The image we’ve come to associate with the mermaid of today didn’t come about until the 12th century, when writer Philip de Thaun first mentioned their fish’s tail. Some mermaids can play the harp, but all are believed to have mesmerizing voices, capable of luring a man willingly to his death on some jagged, rocky shore.

The Peryton
Often depicted as a winged stag, the peryton is thought to originally be from the lost continent of Atlantis. The unique thing about this creature is that when the sun strikes it, it does not cast its own shadow, but instead casts the shadow of a man, believed to be the spirit of a traveler who had perished far from the shores of home. Unfortunately, the only way the peryton can free itself and get its own shadow back is by killing another man and wallowing in his blood. After completing this gruesome ritual, a peryton's shadow will become its own once again, and it is free to fly away and live the rest of its life in peace.

The Phoenix
A solitary bird-like creature, there is only one in the world at any given time. It can live anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years. When it senses its time of death is near, it will build itself a funeral pyre and use the sun’s rays to set itself on fire. Once the old bird is completely consumed by the flames, a new phoenix will rise from its ashes, a symbol of resurrection, regeneration and renewal.

Half-beast, half-man, these creatures stand upright and usually have bearded faces and horns. The lower part of their bodies resembles that of a goat and they are usually cloven-footed and sport a horse’s tail. They live in the woods and mountains, like to drink wine and play the reed pipe. They are lewd and lusty and love women, but beware . . . considered the rogues of the mythological world, they tend to be the love ‘em and leave ‘em type.

Sometimes thought of as the male version of a mermaid, these sons of Triton are men with fish-like tails, sharp teeth and webbed fingers. They spend much of their time carousing, riding the waves, and blowing on their conch shell trumpets. They have the ability to change their tails into legs so they can go on land and live among humans if they want to--probably so they can party it up on land, too.

The Unicorn
Most people are familiar with the unicorn, probably the favorite of all bestiary creatures. But did you know the unicorn doesn’t just come in white? It’s been said the unicorn can be blue in color, and sometimes even have a purple head. The famous horn sprouting out of the middle of its head can be white, green, striped, or graduating from white to black, with a red tip--and is believed to be the source of its magical powers. The only way to capture a unicorn is by laying a trap with a young virgin. Evidently, the unicorn likes to lie down and take naps using a maiden’s untainted lap as a cushiony pillow.

The Wyvern
A cousin of the dragon, this creature only has two legs while the dragon has four. It has a barbed tail and a snake-like head with fangs.

The Yale and Catoblepas
Also called the eale, is a large, bull-like creature with tusks of a wild boar, the jaw and beard of a goat, and the tail of an elephant. They can be black, brown, gray or beige to green with red spots. The most interesting thing about the yale is its horns, which are long and flexible and can move independently. These horns can be straight or curved curved, and sometimes point sideways or downwards. When attacked, its horns will point in different directions in order to protect and defend itself. The yale is sometimes confused with the catoblepas, a similar looking creature that can kill with a single glance and has venomous breath so poisonous when other animals encounter it they are overcome by convulsions and die.

So, there you have some of the fascinating creatures found within the pages of a bestiary -- the things that went bump in the night in the Middle Ages. So what’s your favorite one? While I’m kinda partial to dragons right now since my current hero is part one, I find myself oddly intrigued by the flaming poo farting bonnacon. *G*


Baynes, Pauline. Questionable Creatures: A Bestiary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2006.
Hunt, Jonathan. Bestiary: An Illuminated Alphabet of Medieval Beasts. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1998.

Images from various online sites and bestiaries, including:
Aberdeen Bestiary, 12th century
Harley Bestiary, 1230-1240
Bestiarius or The Bestiary of Anne Walsh, 15th century


  1. Definitely the poo farter. I guess it should come as no surprise bathroom humor was as prevalent in the "olden days" as it is now.

  2. Okay, I have to be unoriginal. I like the unicorns. I didn't know they came in different colors though.

    What a great list! And there are so many. I think I knew five :) Someone is going to look at this list and see story ideas.


  3. Oh, I just skimmed the surface. Those medieval folk had a ton of strange beasties running around the countryside. And they say us writers have wild imaginations. Makes you wonder what kind of wine those monks were drinking while they created those beautiful illuminated manuscripts. *G*

  4. What a comprehensive list! Super! Now I know who to ask when I need info. on certain unusual beasties.

  5. I love the illuminations you found to accompany your explanations! Great job!

  6. Enjoyed this, but I hope I don't have a nightmare about beasts in the night!-debralee

  7. This is a great list! While, um, intrigued by the bonnacon, my faves are pretty traditonal. Dragons, griffins (Griffin is also a family name, which is cool), and the phoenix. Seriously, this is an excellent reference. Thanks!