fantasy

Manticore: Man-Eating Hybrid Beast of Legend and Art

As we mentioned on Monday, guest columnist Richard H. Fay will be writing all three of this week’s posts, as he continues to give us his very well-researched take on the odd and the occult.  You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store.  Additionally, the artwork referring to the creatures discussed in this article can be found here.

Artwork by Richard H. Fay

A legendary monster that bore many names (Manticore, Manticora, Mantichora, Manticory, Manticoras, Martikhora, Mantiserra, Memecoleous, Mancomorion, and the Satyral), the fearsome Manticore featured in the lore, bestiaries, and creative works of various lands and cultures, from ancient Asia to medieval Europe, and beyond. However, the Manticore legend first took root in ancient Greece and Persia. A garbled account of man-eating Bengal tigers of India may have been the seed that sprouted all subsequent tales of this strange and ferocious hybrid creature. Despite its dubious origins, the legend of the Manticore persisted and developed over the centuries.

Ctesias, Greek physician to the Persian King Artaxerxes II Mnemon (reigned 404 to 358 BCE), penned what seems to be the first written account of the Manticore. Even though Ctesias never visited India, he wrote that a lion-sized man-faced monstrosity prowled the sub-continent. As preserved in later works by the Roman writer Aelian (c. 170 – c. 235 CE) and the Byzantine scholar Photius (c. 815-897 CE), Ctesias described what he called the Martikhora (derived from the Persian mardkhor, meaning “man-slayer” or “man-eater”) as possessing pale blue eyes, three rows of sharp teeth, savage claws, a cinnabar-coloured pelt, a scorpion’s tail, additional stings on the crown of its head and each side of its tail, and a voice that sounded like a trumpet. Ctesias also claimed that the creature could, to defend itself, shoot regenerating foot-long stingers both forward and backward a considerable distance. One animal alone could withstand those poisoned quills; the thick-skinned elephant had little to fear from the Manticore’s otherwise deadly sting. To hunt such a formidable beast, Indian natives rode upon elephants and attacked their prey with spears or arrows. 

It seems likely that the man-eating Martikhora of Ctesias was based upon tales of the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris). The Romanised Greek Pausanias (c. 110 – c. 180 CE) believed this to be the case, and wrote about his thoughts on the matter in the ninth book of his ten-volume travelogue entitled Description of Greece. In his section on fabulous animals, he suggested that the red-hued pelt described by Ctesias could be explained by a tiger appearing to be a homogeneous red in colour when observed running in full sunlight. Pausanias also put forward the opinion that the more fanciful traits recorded by Ctesias, such as the lethal stingers and three rows of teeth, arose from natives exaggerating the deadly characteristics of a man-eating beast they dreaded. According to what Irish naturalist  Valentine Ball wrote in his 1883 paper “Identification of the Pygmies, the Martikhora, the Griffin, and the Dikarion of Ktesias”, these two traits dismissed by Pausanias as false may have had a basis in fact. Ball argued that the Manticore’s three rows of teeth might have been derived from the tiger’s trilobate molars, while the tail-borne stingers might have been a distorted account of a horny dermal structure he asserted exists at the extremity of a tiger’s tail.

Regardless of the reality behind Ctesias’ account, other ancient writers helped propagate the legend of the Manticore. With the sceptical qualifier of “if we are to  believe Ctesias”, Aristotle described the Martichora of India in his History of Animals of  350 BCE. He included most of the characteristics already mentioned and also said that the beast’s call sounded like a combination of pan-pipes and a trumpet. The Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia of c. 77 CE, displayed little scepticism over the creature’s actual existence when he echoed Ctesias and Aristotle, although he placed the creature in Ethiopia. He added that the triple-rowed teeth fit into each other like a comb. He also claimed to have been informed that  the man-faced monster could mimic human speech.

Inspired by the writings of ancient Greek and Roman naturalists, the compilers of medieval bestiaries included the Manticore among their compendia of beasts, both ordinary and fantastic. 

The exact appearance of the creature varied from work-to-work, although all variations displayed a feline-body with a human face. One 12th century bestiary featured a Manticore wearing a Phyrgian cap. An English bestiary of the early 13th century portrayed its Manticore as possessing a particularly savage countenance and prominent stingers all along its tail. Another mid-late 13th century English bestiary depicted the Manticore with a visage that was merely a rough approximation of a human face. Yet another 13th century bestiary, this one from northern France, portrayed the beast as having a distinctively human head, but no stinging tail. This particular depiction also deviated from the standard reddish coat colour, in this instance (assuming the colour hadn’t faded or altered drastically over time) the illuminator had instead opted for a greyish hue.

Besides its frequent presence in bestiaries, the Manticore also made appearances in medieval sculpture and even, on rare occasions, medieval and Tudor heraldry. The Manticore carvings found in some medieval churches stood as symbols of the weeping prophet Jeremiah. The late medieval Lord Hastings adopted a tusked Manticore (or mantyger) as his heraldic badge. The Tudor-era Lord Fitzwalter had, for his badge, a purple-hued Manticore. At times, the head of the heraldic Manticore would be adorned with spiral horns.

Over time, the Manticore became associated with other fabulous creatures and served as inspiration for other legendary monsters. In the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, the heraldic Manticore helped shape the imagery of the female-faced chimaeric creature that stood as a symbol of the sin of fraud in “grotteschi” (grotesque decorative elements) and some Mannerist paintings. Edward Topsell, in his 1607 work The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes, copied the description of a Manticore as given by Ctesias, but then equated the man-faced beast with the badger-headed cloven-hoofed Leucrocota and the hyena. In Spanish lore, the Manticore transformed into a kind of werewolf that kidnapped and preyed upon children. Tales of the Manticore told by sixteenth century missionaries to the New World may have formed the basis for the Cigouave, a human-faced feline-bodied beast, of Haitian Vodou tradition.

As the ages progressed, the Manticore of art and popular culture gained additional attributes. Along with the spiral horns added by heraldic artists, others tacked on scales, udders or dragon’s wings. A scaly Manticore sporting horns, udders, and wings featured in a 17th century bestiary. In modern times, a bat-winged Manticore has numbered among the monsters that adventuring characters may encounter in the fantasy realms of a certain well-known role-playing game. The Manticore in Gustave Flaubert’s 1874 work The Temptation of St. Anthony spoke of possessing screw-like claws and the ability to spew plague.

Interestingly enough, although it seems likely that distorted tales of man-eating tigers served as the basis for the man-faced scorpion-tailed stinger-flinging Manticore of ancient natural histories and medieval bestiaries, the legend lives on. In Indonesia, some villagers today tell tales of a man-eating Manticore that prowls the jungle and kills its human prey with a single bite or scratch. It just goes to show that the Manticore has endured, in human imagination if not necessarily in reality.

Sources

Aelian (1958). On the nature of animals 4.21. (A.F. Scholfield, Trans.). Attalus. (Original work written c. 200 CE) http://www.attalus.org/translate/animals4.html

Aristotle (1910). The history of animals. 2.1. (D. Thompson, Trans.). The Internet Classics Archive. (Original work written 350 BCE) http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/history_anim.2.ii.html

Badke, D. (ed.). (2011, January 15). Manticore: gallery. The medieval bestiary. http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beastgallery177.htm

Ball, V. (1883). “Identification of the pygmies, the martikhora, the griffin, and the dikarion of Ktesias”. The Academy, XXIII, 277. https://books.google.com/books?id=oEZRAQAAMAAJ

Curran, B. (2016). The carnival of dark dreams. WyrdHarvest Press. https://books.google.com/books?id=KzNnDwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

Flaubert, G, (2016). The temptation of St. Anthony. (L. Hearn, Trans.). (Original work written 1874). http://www.gutenberg.org/files/52225/52225-h/52225-h.htm

Gygax, G., & Arneson, D. (1981). Dungeons & Dragons fantasy adventure game expert rulebook. TSR Hobbies.

Heraldic badge of William Lord Hastings [ink drawing]. Wikimedia Commons. (Originally drawn c.1466-70) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Hastings,_1st_Baron_Hastings.jpeg

Lehner, E. & Lehner, J. (2004). Big book of dragons, monsters, and other mythical creatures.  Dover Publications.

Manticore. (2020, March 2). Wikipedia. Retrieved March 3, 2020 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manticore

Matthews, J., & Matthews, C. (2005). The element encyclopedia of magical creatures. HarperElement.

Pausanias (2018). Description of Greece (English). 9.21.4-9.21.5. Perseus under PhiloLogic. (Original work written c. 150 CE) http://perseus.uchicago.edu/

Photius (2017). Photius’ excerpt of Ctesias’ Indica. (J.H. Freese, Trans.). Livius. (Original work written  c.850 CE) https://www.livius.org/sources/content/ctesias-overview-of-the-works/photius-excerpt-of-ctesias-indica/

Pliny the Elder (1855). The natural history 8.30 & 45. (J. Bostock & H.T. Riley, Trans.). Perseus Digital Library. (Original work written 77 CE). http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0137%3Abook%3D8%3Achapter%3D30

Rose, C. (2000). Giants, monsters, and dragons: an encyclopedia of folklore, legend, and myth. W. W. Norton & Company.

Rosen, B. (2008). The mythical creatures bible. Octopus Publishing Group. 

Rothery, G. (1994). Concise encyclopedia of heraldry. Senate. (Original work published 1915)

Topsell, E. (1607). The historie of foure-footed beastes. Printed by William Iaggard. https://archive.org/details/b3033469x/page/n9/mode/2up

Zell-Ravenheart, O., & DeKirk, A. (2007). A wizard’s bestiary. New Page Books.

Merfolk: Sea People of Folklore and Legend

As we mentioned on Monday, guest columnist Richard H. Fay will be writing all three of this week’s posts, as he continues to give us his very well-researched take on the odd and the occult.  You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store.  Additionally, the artwork referring to the creatures discussed in this article can be found here.

Artwork by Richard H. Fay

Featured in the lore of many human cultures, merfolk were said to be people of the sea, although some resided in freshwater. In their most usual form, these beings appeared humanoid from the waist up and pisciform from the waist down. However, some chronicles and tales presented variations from this standard. At times hostile, at other times helpful, merfolk interacted with land-dwellers in various ways. Certain stories even spoke of marriages between merfolk and mortals, unions that could produce lines of human descendants. With potential links to ancient gods, goddesses, and monsters, merfolk have been a fixture of human legends for ages, but some accounts suggest that they are more than mere creatures of legend. Surprisingly enough, various historical records describe actual encounters with these aquatic entities, According to some reports, such encounters have even persisted to the present day.

The origins of merfolk lore might be as murky and difficult to plumb as the ocean depths themselves, but possible precursors to the merfolk of later chronicles and tales may be found in ancient myths and legends. Oannes, god of wisdom who granted the ancient Babylonians the gift of culture, appeared as a human-fish hybrid (Sykes & Kendall, 1993). The Philistine god Dagon and the Syrian goddess Atargatis were also depicted as prototypical merfolk (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). Mythographer Robert Graves traced a connection between mermaids and sea-born goddesses Aphrodite and Marian (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). The Greek scholars Nicholas Polites and Stilpon Kyriakides argued that the mermaid of modern Greek lore, the gorgona, shares features with the siren of Classical Greek myth (Simpson, 1987). Notwithstanding the fact that medieval authors did conflate the sailor-luring siren of ancient lore with the northern mermaid, Classical depictions portrayed the siren not as half-woman, half-fish, but as a monster that possessed a woman’s head and torso atop a bird’s body (Rose, 2000).

Although the true nature of alleged links between ancient gods and merfolk of later times may be doubtful, there is no doubt that such beings feature in folklore and legends around the world, from Ireland to New Ireland, New Guinea. The usually peaceful Irish merfolk known as merrows wore magical red caps that allowed them to shape-shift and travel back-and-forth between their undersea realm and dry land (Rose, 1996). The Manx mermaid ben varrey exhibited two conflicting natures, one a benevolent finder of treasure, the other a malevolent enchanter of men (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). The handsome Danish merman havmand treated those mortals he encountered with kindliness, while his female counterpart havfrue could be either helpful or harmful (Rose, 1996). Like the sirens of ancient myth, the alluring Swedish mermaids called sjörå entranced boatmen at sea and destroyed both mortals and their vessels (Marriott, 2006). The cannibalistic mermaids of Portuguese tales went one step further and devoured those lured into their watery abode (Marriott, 2006). The far more benevolent ningyo of Japanese lore brought peace and dispelled bad luck (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). Clad in cowrie-shell jewelry, the bonito maidens of the Solomon Islands acted as caretakers of both bonito fish and lost ivory fishing hooks (Rose, 1996). The singing ri of New Ireland tradition resided among the mangroves and along the strand (Rose, 2000). On the east coast of Canada, the halfway people of Micmac legends alerted courteous fishermen of impending storms (Rose, 2000).

Merfolk through the ages and across the globe have traditionally appeared as humanoids with fishy tails, exemplified by the beautiful-but-deadly comb-and-mirror-wielding sea maiden of the English folk song “The Mermaid” (Briggs, 1978), but there are variations to this tradition. The 1st century author Pliny described mermaids as being completely scaly head-to-tail (Rosen, 2008). The medieval Irish Annals of the Four Masters told of a truly monstrous mermaid said to have measured a whopping 160 feet long (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). Another oversized mercreature featured in a report made to Bishop Pontoppidan of Bergen in 1719 that described a human-faced seal-like beast 28 feet long (Rose, 2000). Male merrows appeared downright hideous in aspect, possessing green-coloured hair, teeth, and skin, pointed red noses, and piggy eyes (Rose, 2000). On occasion, the Danish havmand was said to have had blue skin (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). Instead of looking like a human woman from the waist up, the Japanese ningyo could appear as a huge fish with a woman’s head (Rose, 2000).

Along with the varying physical descriptions of merfolk, different human cultures expressed different views regarding what merfolk symbolised. In medieval Europe, mermaids represented deceit and were believed to be in league with the Great Deceiver himself, the devil (Rose, 2000). Additionally, the medieval church considered mermaids to be symbols of vanity, lust, and the soul-endangering aspects of femininity and sex (Rosen, 2008). In Tudor times, the word “mermaid” became synonymous with the word “prostitute” (Franklin, 2002). Conversely, the Afro-Brazillian Batuque cult saw their aquatic jamaína and imanja as intermediaries between mortals and angels (Rose, 1996). The Japanese thought of their ningyo as a positive entity, a protector of the land (Matthews & Matthews, 2005).

As has been touched upon above, merfolk in various locales and circumstances sometimes dealt with land-dwelling mortals in a less-than-beneficial, or even outright malevolent, fashion. The otherwise friendly male merrow named Coomara captured the souls of drowned sailors in cages in the mistaken belief that he was performing a good deed sheltering the souls and keeping them warm and dry (Croker, 1882). Mermen of a more baleful nature were believed to conjure terrible storms and sink ships (Rose, 2000). At times, the female of the species also acted in a destructive manner; the subject of the folk song “The Mermaid” sent a ship of doomed souls to the bottom of the ocean (Briggs, 1978). The Norwegian havfine herded the waves and wrecked vessels foolish enough to be caught asea when storms rolled in (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). The Scottish lake-dwelling mermaid encountered by the youthful Laird of Lorntie proved to be a downright bloodthirsty creature that would have feasted on the young laird’s blood had his loyal servant not pulled him from the loch’s waters (Briggs, 1979).

Of course, not all merfolk treated humans poorly; some had favourable and even intimate dealings with humankind. According to Danish lore, a prophesying havfrue foresaw the birth of Christian IV of Denmark (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). In one Scottish story, a young man learned how to cure his ailing love with an infusion of mugwort when a mermaid surfaced and sang of using the herb to prevent the girl’s death by consumption (Briggs, 1978). A mermaid that rose from a Renfrewshire pool as a funeral procession crossed a stream advised the mourners how to use both mugwort and nettle to ward off fatal illness (Briggs, 1978). In the tale “The Old Man of Cury”, a stranded mermaid rescued by an old man granted her saviour the gift of healing (Briggs, 1978). The title mortal of “Lutey and the Mermaid” was rewarded with similar benefits when he aided a mermaid, but found himself lured into her watery abode nine years later (Briggs, 1978). Along with knowledge of healing herbs, rescued mermaids could also warn of impending storms (Rose, 1996). On occasion, female merrows wedded mortal men and gave rise to a line of human descendants who possessed webbed fingers and scaly legs (Briggs, 1979). A mermaid was said to number among the ancestors of the McVeagh clan of Scotland (Franklin, 2002).

Apart from marriages and other relations between merfolk and mortals, some stories told of humans transformed into sea people. According to a popular Greek legend, Alexander the Great’s sister Thessalonike turned into a mermaid when, grief-stricken by the death of her conquering sibling, she attempted suicide by throwing herself into the Aegean Sea (DocumentaryMakedonia, 2013). Lí Ban, the pagan subject of a 12th or 13th century Irish tale, underwent a magical metamorphosis from human woman to mermaid after the majority of her kin were drowned in a flood (Ó hÓgáin, 2006). According to a certain Irish legend, pagan crones became mermaids when Saint Patrick expelled them from the land (Franklin, 2002). In the Samish story of Ko-kwal-alwoot, a maiden became enamoured with a merman who insisted on taking her as his bride and who eventually transformed her into a sea-dweller like himself (Matthews & Matthews, 2005).

Beyond the myths, legends, and folktales about merfolk told over the centuries by many different storytellers around the globe, sailors and fishermen across the ages have reported real-life sightings of fishy-tailed humanoids. Christopher Columbus wrote that he spied three less-than-lovely mermaids off the coast of what is now the Dominican Republic in January 1493 (Salaperäinen, 2016). In 1560, the bodies of several mermaids netted off the coast of Ceylon underwent dissection at the hands of a learned physician who concluded that, externally and internally, the anatomy of the merbeings resembled that of humans (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). Henry Hudson recorded that two of his crewmen spotted a white-skinned black-haired mermaid in 1608 (Cohen, 1982). In 1723, a Danish Royal Commission tasked with proving that merfolk existed only in myths and legends ended up running across an actual merman near the Faroe Isles (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). In 1830, residents of the isle of Benbecula in the Hebrides found the body of a small dark-haired white-skinned mermaid with “abnormally developed breasts”, perhaps the same creature that had been seen and injured at Sgeir na Duchadh a few days earlier, washed ashore at Culle Bay (Munro, 2016). Three years later, natural history professor Dr. Robert Hamilton described the capture of a short-haired monkey-faced mermaid offshore of Yell in the Shetland Isles (Munro, 2016). During a few notable summers around 1890, hundreds of eyewitnesses claimed to have seen the so-called Deerness Mermaid, a black-headed white-bodied creature that appeared like a human when swimming in the waters of Newark Bay, Orkney (Towrie, n.d.).

Believe it or not, in certain regions of the world sightings of and belief in merbeings have persisted right up to the present day. In 1947, an elderly Hebridean fisherman reported sighting a mermaid combing her hair near the shore of the Isle of Muck (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). In June 1967, passengers aboard a ferry travelling past Mayne Island, British Columbia, observed (and one snapped a photograph of) a blonde-haired dimple-faced mermaid with the tail of a fish or porpoise sitting upon a shoreside rock (Obee, 2016). In January 2008, several South Africans who had been relaxing near the bank of the Buffelsjags River at Suurbraak claimed they encountered a river-dwelling mermaid with white skin, black hair, and hypnotic red eyes known locally as the Kaaiman (Pekeur, 2008). In 2009, dozens of eyewitnesses caught sight of a mermaid porpoising and performing aerial acrobatics off the beach of Kiryat Yam, Israel (“Is a Mermaid”, 2009). As recently as 2012, workers at a dam in northern Zimbabwe insisted that mermaids were to blame for mysterious malfunctions and refused to continue their work until the harassing entities were appeased with a traditional beer ritual (Conway-Smith, 2012).

Merfolk number among the most widespread of legendary beings. Diverse cultures around the world have told stories of aquatic humanoid beings with piscine tails. Tales handed down from generation to generation attest to mankind’s relations with merfolk, for good or ill, throughout the ages. Perhaps such lore is merely the product of human imagination, but what are we to make of reports of actual sightings? Historic and more recent claims of seeing mermaids or mermen could be chalked up to mirages, misidentifications, hoaxes, or even mass hysteria. For instance, Columbus might have spied a trio of manatees. Witnesses who saw a mermaid on Mayne Island may have actually seen a human girl posing with a fake mermaid’s tail. Men who refused to continue work on a dam in Zimbabwe due to interference from mermaids might have fallen victim to mass hysteria. Whatever the truth of the matter, belief in merfolk has endured over time and continues to endure, in some locales, to this day. Regardless of the reality, merfolk continue to have a place in the hearts, minds, and imaginations of their land-dwelling mortal counterparts.

References

Briggs, K. (1978). The vanishing people: fairy lore and legend. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Briggs, K. (1979). Abbey lubbers, banshees, and boggarts: an illustrated encyclopedia of fairies. New York, NY: Pantheon Book.

Cohen. D. (1982). The encyclopedia of monsters. New York, NY: Dodd, Mead & Company.

Conway-Smith, E. (2012, February 12). Zimbabwe mermaids appeased by traditional beer ritual. PRI. Retrieved from https://www.pri.org.

Croker, T. C. (1882/2008). Irish fairy legends. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

DocumentaryMakedonia. (2013. May 24). The legend of Thessalonike, a mermaid who lived in the Aegean sea [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHSOjYTco0U

Franklin, A. (2002). The illustrated encyclopedia of fairies. London, England: Collins & Brown.

Is a mermaid living under the sea in northern Israel? (2009, August 12). Haaretz. Retrieved from https://www.haaretz.com.

Marriott, S. (2006). The ultimate fairies handbook. London, England: Octopus Publishing Group.

Matthews, J., & Matthews, C. (2005). The element encyclopedia of magical creatures. London, England: HarperElement.

Munro, A. (2016, March 16, updated March 17). The myth of the Hebridean mermaid. The Scotsman. Retrieved from https://www.scotsman.com

Obee, D. (2016, January 8). Dave Obee: mermaid had no legs, but story does. Times Colonist. Retrieved from https://www.timescolonist.com/

Ó hÓgáin, D. (2006). The lore of Ireland: An encyclopaedia of myth, legend and romance. Woodbridge, England: The Boydell Press.

Pekeur, A. (2008, January 16). Mysterious ‘mermaid’ rises from the river. IOL. Retrieved from https://www.iol.co.za.

Rose, C. (1996). Spirits, fairies, leprechauns, and goblins: an encyclopedia. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Rose, C. (2000). Giants, monsters, and dragons: an encyclopedia of folklore, legend, and myth. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Rosen, B. (2008). The mythical creatures bible. London, England: Octopus Publishing Group.
Salaperäinen, O. (2016). A field guide to fantastical beasts. New York, NY: Metro Books.

Simpson, J. (1987). European mythology (library of the world’s myths and legends). New York, NY: Peter Bedrick Books.

Sykes, E., & Kendall, A. (1952/1993). Who’s who in non-classical mythology (Rev. Ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Towrie, S. (n.d.). Monsters of the deep: mermaid accounts and sightings. In Orkneyjar: The Heritage of the Orkney Islands. Retrieved from http://www.orkneyjar.com/folklore/mermaids.htm

A Variety of Draconic Creatures

We’re delighted to announce the return of guest columnist Richard H. Fay. He will be writing all three of this week’s posts, as he continues to give us his very well-researched take on the odd and the occult.  You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store, and artwork referred to this piece can be found here.  

Artwork by Richard H. Fay

Most folks, when you say the word “dragon”, envision a four-legged, winged, fire-breathing, reptilian monster. In actuality, although many dragons of both modern popular culture and traditional lore fit snugly into this description, draconic creatures of European myths, legends, and folklore exhibited an amazing variety of forms. Some bore wings, while others went wingless. Some crawled on four or even six legs, while others made due with only two or none at all. Some sported scaly hides, while at least one surprisingly hirsute beast wore a shaggy, stinger-laden coat. Some breathed fire, while others exhaled poisonous fumes or spewed water. The majority possessed just one head, but a few had several.

The English word “dragon” ultimately derives from the Latin draco and the Greek drakōn. The Greek drakon and the Roman draco displayed decidedly serpentine traits such as legless bodies, flickering tongues, and ever-gazing eyes. At times, the eternally watchful monster serpents of ancient Greek myths guarded sacred locales or fabulous treasures. Derived from these Greek models, Roman dragons retained the serpentine appearance of their forebears. Roman artists depicted their draco as an enormous bat-winged serpent. Such depictions would occasionally show the draco breathing fire. A mid twelfth-century bestiary gave the draco the additional attributes of a crest upon its head and the ability to emit a dazzling luminescence. In the astronomical realm, Ptolemy (AD 100?-170?) immortalized the serpentine-style Greco-Roman dragon when he named a sinuous northern constellation Draco.

Moving from the sun-drenched Mediterranean to the mist-shrouded north, draconic creatures of serpentine form featured in Germanic folklore and beliefs. The Old English wyrm, Old High German wurm, and Old Norse ormr, all translate as “snake”. Norse mythology spoke of the Midgardsormr Jörmungandr, the great serpent that, with tail-in-mouth, encircled the middle world of men. The Teutonic epic poem Das Nibelungenlied contained the story of Fafnir, a greedy dwarf metamorphosed into a hideous wingless dragon. Scandinavian sagas and Germanic epic poems also told tales of heroic warriors facing monstrous winged serpents called lindwurms. With hides armored in radiant green-gold or green-silver scales, these draconic beasts of northern Europe guarded golden hoard or beautiful maid. It seems accounts of encounters with lindwurms were not restricted to Germany and Scandinavia, however, since Marco Polo claimed to have sighted such serpents during his journey across the Central Asian steppe.

Medieval bestiaries and psalters frequently contained images of loathly worms, wingless oftentimes two-footed serpentine monstrosities that spread blight and devastation. One such beast of northern England, the Lambton Worm, was said to have had the ability to wrap its loathsome body around its victims in the manner of a constrictor. As described when first found by the truant John Lambton, who was fishing when he should have been attending mass, this worm possessed the rather unique characteristic of nine holes on each side of its mouth. This sounds akin to the seven holes used for respiration found in the eel-like lamprey. A relative of the Lambton Worm, the Wode Worm of Linton, ravaged the northern English countryside until slain by a hero who thrust a blazing block of peat down the worm’s throat and burned it from the inside out.

Another draconic creature depicted in the illustrations of medieval bestiaries, as well as emblazoned upon heraldic arms, was the rapacious wyvern. Looking much more like what most people nowadays think a dragon should look like, the wyvern had a dragon’s head, a bat’s wings, two feet equipped with a raptor’s talons, and a serpent’s body and tail. Oftentimes the tail was tipped in a venomous barb. This particularly nasty dragon breathed poison and spread destruction wherever it went. It also became, according to the language of heraldic symbolism, a representation of might, envy, pestilence, and war.

Austrian tales told of unlucky alpine travelers meeting the fearsome tatzelwurm, a draconic resident of high mountain crags. Cat-faced but otherwise reptilian in appearance, the tatzelwurm was described as having four legs, or just two, or none at all. Descriptions also differed regarding the tatzelwurm’s pelt, which might have been smooth, or lumpy, or scaly, or even hairy. One attribute that seems to remain consistent throughout the accounts is the tatzelwurm’s terrible aggressiveness; it was said that the beast attacked humans without provocation. Swiss traditions featured a similar cat-faced mountain-dwelling wurm known as the stollenwurm, while lore from the French Alps contained a comparable creature known as the arassas It is remotely possible that tales of encounters with the tatzelwurm and its kin arose out of real-life sightings of an alpine cryptid reptile.

In the minds of many people today, the most familiar form of European dragon must surely be the four-footed winged kind as exemplified by Y Ddraig Goch, the red dragon displayed on the Welsh national flag. However, a certain legendary she-dragon of the Rhône river valley, the Tarasque, was said to have prowled about on six legs! This six-legged wingless river monster also possessed a lion’s head, a bear’s paws, a serpent’s tail equipped with a lethally-sharp barb, and a tough leathery carapace adorned with formidable spikes. According to medieval legend, the ravenous Tarasque was the terrifying product of an unholy union between Leviathan (the enormous primordial sea monster described in the Old Testament) and a bonnacon (a mythological horned bovine said to have been endowed with the ability to expel prodigious amounts of scorchingly-hot excrement).

Surprisingly enough, beyond a varying number of legs, draconic creatures of European myths and legends also had a varying number of heads, from one to one hundred or more. In Greek myths, the multiple-headed lava-spewing Typhon acted as a monstrous foe to the Olympian gods. The hundred-headed fiery-eyed Dragon of Ladon served as guardian of the golden apples of the Hesperides. The many-headed dog-bodied hydra poisoned the air and despoiled the land around the Lerna marshes in Argolis. In later times, the Greco-Roman hydra became analogous to the biblical apocalyptic beasts and came to be depicted as a wyvern with several heads. Romanian folk and fairy tales featured Balaur, a finned-and-footed dragon that had as many as twelve serpent’s heads.

Although steely scales formed the typical integument of most dragons of European lore, one rather hirsute beast of medieval French legend bore a shaggy coat. Said to have been a monstrous survivor of the Great Flood, the hair-covered serpent-headed Peluda (also known as La Velue, “the hairy one”) terrorized villagers, destroyed crops, and devoured maidens. To protect itself from attackers, it had the ability to launch lethal stingers from its hairy green pelt. Incredibly invulnerable, the Peluda could only be killed by cutting its serpentine tail in two.

Another dragon of medieval French legend, in this case, one that spewed water, gave its name to ornamental gutter spouts carved in the likenesses of grotesque monsters. The Gargouille of the Seine marshes would churn the waters and create waterspouts to overturn fishing boats and feast on drowned fishermen. It would also drag off and consume livestock. According to the legend, Gargouille’s depredations were ended by Saint Romain, Bishop of Rouen, who cowed the dragon with his crucifix and bishop’s stole and then led it into town to be slain by the townsfolk. As for those grotesquely carved gutter spouts, they came to be called gargoyles.

Draconic creatures of European myths, legends, and folklore, certainly came in a wide variety of forms with a diverse array of traits. Most did share one key attribute, however; whether it be a serpentine head (or heads), body, or tail, they all seemed to have something of the serpent about them. Of course, it could be said that they all shared another characteristic. Whether they had six legs or none, whether they were winged or wingless, whether they had one head or one hundred heads, whether they were scaled or furry, they were all truly awesome beasts.

Further Reading

Big Book of Dragons, Monsters, And Other Mythical Creatures by Ernst and Johanna Lehner.
The Book of Dragons & Other Mythical Beasts by Joseph Nigg.
Giants, Monsters & Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth by Carol Rose.The Mythical Creatures Bible by Brenda Rosen.
A Wizard’s Bestiary by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart and Ash “LeopardDancer” DeKirk.

A Crown Imperiled – Nearing the End of Another Great Series

It’s kind of sad if you think about it. All the great fantasy series I picked up in my early teens are coming to a close, and some of the authors have died (and now Terry Goodkind has died, too).

The Riftwar Cycle, likewise, came to a close in 2013 and, although I’ve yet to read the last book, I’ve just finished the one before that.

This installment was just another reminder of why this series has always been pretty much my favorite. Though, like most of its contemporaries, it’s composed of thick volumes of well-described and gorgeous places, it doesn’t overdo the description and every single volume is packed with more action that books twice the size by other authors.

That doesn’t mean that character development is neglected. Quite the opposite: Feist’s characters are memorable indeed, and truly make the books. While they aren’t in the same league psychologically as GRRM’s or Nabokov’s, they are more than real enough to carry a fantasy adventure series.

I have already ordered the final volume, and will be saddened when I finish reading it… knowing Feist, it’s going to a be a blood-drenched, explosive finale.

My reflection here is… what is replacing these series? I’ve seen a lot of very different kind of thing out there, but very few of the doorstop fantasies that worked so well to bring–and keep–readers in the genre. I’m sure there’s a big market for traditional fantasy based on medieval Europe with magic and evil orcs. Yes, I know it’s a cliché, but sometimes things are cliché precisely because people love them. I know Sanderson and Farland have series out there… but not sure what else worth notice is available. I need to get up to date on Terry Brooks, too.

Anyhow, if you haven’t heard of Feists Riftwar books, you’re in for a treat. Grab magician and read. You can thank me when you’re done.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book, Test Site Horror, is about Russian special forces troops attempting to survive the escape of genetically modified dinosaurs. You can have a look here.

The Translations Fad

Today is a reflection about the writing world, so if that isn’t the kind of thing that interests you, you can always read about parties.

Still here?  Cool.  Let’s talk about the current glut of translations hitting the market.  I will focus on the science fiction and fantasy worlds for this particular post, because that’s the world I know best, but I see similar trends elsewhere.

The English-language market has traditionally been the largest market on the planet (although I suspect that the Chinese market might have surpassed it), and the great works from many literatures are usually easy to find.  In fact, it’s often the case that the best translation for those unable to read the original is the English.

The reason for that, intuitively, is that the competition for a slice of the market is so fierce that only the best of several translations survives.  This is good for readers and also forces translators to up their game.

Solaris - Stanislaw Lem.jpg

This isn’t always true, however.  The science fiction classic Solaris sat in bad-translation limbo for decades because the bad English translation came from what was reputedly a bad French one as opposed to having come from the original Polish.  So it doesn’t always work perfectly.

In general, though, English readers had the best of both worlds.  The very best foreign fiction was published in what often were the best translations.

The downside was that second-level foreign work usually didn’t make it, and short fiction was pretty much ignored by the translators (even though a lot is available, there is a LOT more that isn’t).

But social and academic trends change and, for whatever reason, it is now considered wrong that English-speaking authors have an advantage… and translations have become trendy, whether novels or short stories.

Cixin Liu Three Body Problem

This is a mixed blessing.  On one side, there are some wonderful books available to English-speaking audiences that would probably never have been translated in other days.  It’s probably even more notable on the short fiction side.  A good example is American Monsters, which we discussed here a few weeks ago.

But there’s a downside.  What we said for the translation side of things, also goes for the writing side.  The English-language market is much more competitive than any other market on the planet.  There are more writers competing for fewer publishing slots than anywhere else.

The reason for this is simple: the English market’s huge audience means that writers get PAID for their work.  That seems like an obvious thing, but sadly, it’s very much isn’t.

I get together once a month (when pandemics don’t intervene) with the local Argentine SFF writing community.  There are some very good writers and editors there, but the only one who gets paid to write is me.  And that’s because my writing is good enough to break into the US and British markets.

In Argentina the dynamic is different.  Publishers see the writers as either providers of free content (in the best of cases) or as investors in the printing process.  This is often done with the best of intentions, and often art is the first priority, but the dynamic drives away all but the truly obsessed, creating art for art’s sake.  Only bestsellers and celebrities make even pin money from their writing.

This situation is extended to most of Latin America, and I know that most worldwide SF publications don’t pay, so I’d assume it can be extrapolated to a certain degree everywhere.

The competition in those places is naturally less.  Therefore, the quality is also proportionally less.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t geniuses writing in every language on Earth, but I would definitely say that the second-level stuff wouldn’t be good enough to make any impression at all in the English-language marketplace.

Unfortunately, it’s often second-level stuff that’s now the bulk of what’s being published in the translation fad.  Perhaps talented writers, but ones that would need to hone their craft in the crucible of the most competitive market before they can earn their place.

This situation is making the life of English-language writers a little difficult.  I’m lucky enough that I’ve been selling steadily, both on the novel and the short fiction fronts (perhaps because I’ve been in the market long enough that readers know my name – ironically, having a weird name makes name recognition easier), but many are finding this new market reality impossible.  They are being forced to the sidelines by work that would normally be rejected… just because it’s translated.

I think a lot of writers just entering the market will be turned off by this… and we’ll lose them, possibly even some major talents.  Of course, we’ll also get a taste of translated work, so it should even out for readers.

In the future, I think the market will sort itself out.  I think the upper level translations are here to stay, but the foreign-language writers on the second tier will either need to up their game or find that these automatic acceptances are no longer the case.  Fashions do not last forever, and the English-language market is a strict meritocracy: you need to impress both editors (to make the cut) and readers (to ever make the cut again).  A lot of the translated stuff from the past couple of years won’t meet this litmus test, and will gradually disappear.

But what remains will make the genre stronger, so I say welcome aboard.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s well-received science fiction novel Siege is a sweeping story of desperate survival in a galaxy ravaged by war and incomprehensible intelligences.  You can check it out here.

My Favorite Anthology Covers

I sell a lot of short stories, both original and reprint, so it stands to reason that my work has appeared not only in magazines, but also in countless anthologies.

Sometimes, the antho cover is a bit of a disappointment.  Most times, though, they are wonderful, with either beautiful artwork or brilliant design jumping out at readers.  But, since I’m an expert at neither art nor design, choosing my favorites ends up being a question of personal opinion without too much basis in argument of any kind.

That, of course, has never stopped me before so, without more ado, I present my five favorite antho covers from books in which my work appears, in no particular order.

 

A High Shrill Thump makes the list because that Etruscan zombie on the cover is an illustration of my story “Comrade at Arms”.  I’m pretty sure this is the first time the cover illustration of an anthology was based on one of my stories.

A High Schrill Thump.jpg

 

Made You Flinch. This one makes the list because, all these years later, I still remember it.  The reason was that, as I was working my way through the lowest ranks of the indy press, the quality of artwork was often iffy at best.  This one was striking, and anything less than iffy.  I don’t recall much of the stories inside (excpet mine, “Topside”), but this cover is unforgettable.

Made You Flinch

 

Sha’Daa Toys.  I always loved the Sha’Daa covers, even before I managed to convice the editors that I was good enough to join this particular shared world antho series.  And the Toys cover is creepy and dark and moody and everything that it should be for the apocalypse.

Sha'Daa Toys.jpg

 

American Monsters Part One.  The Fox Spirit Books of Monsters represent the most critically acclaimed series of anthos on this list, and with good reason.  They have a powerful lineup of writers from all over the world writing about the monsters near and dear to them.  It’s understandably powerful.  But the artwork is also wonderful.  How and you not love these sepia-toned images?  My story “Vulnerable Populations” is included in there.

Amercian Monsters Part One.jpg

 

Sinisterotica.  Normally, this cover wouldn’t have made the list.  I don’t love it when computer-generated humans land in the uncanny valley, and those fonts are… questionable.  But the cover is also the bravest, boldest thing I’ve seen in a long, long time.  Only the judicious use of shade keeps it from landing in the adults-only section behind a brown paper wrapper but, as they say, no guts, no glory, so this one makes the list among more professionally executed covers.  It contains my story “Top of the Food Chain”.

Sinisterotica

There are so many more that I love, and I hate to leave out such a massive number of great publishers and editors.  But I had to cut somewhere and these are the five I thought of today.

Ask me again tomorrow, and I’ll probably pick a different five.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over 300 published stories.  His latest collection is Off the Beaten Path, a curation of stories that take place outside the usual American and European settings.  They will make you think, and they will entertain you.  You can check it out here.

 

Gorgeous Inside and Out

I was at WorldCon in Dublin last year and I met the publisher of Fox Spirit Books, to whom I’d recently sold a story for their book American Monsters Part I.  This is part of their FS Monsters series which already included award-winning volumes.  It was an honor to be a part of the anthology, and it was even better to receive the book and look through it quickly.

The thing was gorgeous, a square format, comics, great authors.  Just a wonderfully presented book overall.  I immediately understood why the earlier installments in the series had been so well-received.

After spending a little time with the publisher group in Dublin, who is a very laid-back and funny human being, I told her that I was surprised that they’d produced such a serious series.

Fortunately, they took is well and I count them among friends as opposed to having landed me on the blacklist, but it’s definitely a wonderful feeling to know that awesome art can come from fun people who don’t take themselves too seriously.

American Monsters Part I.jpg

As you know, I’m a sucker for beautiful books, so having a contributor copy of something that looks this good is just wonderful.

But the best part of it all was that I eventually got to read my copy and revel in the amazing job that editor Margrét Helgadóttir (a great writer in her own right) did in compiling, translating and introducing the work in this volume.

Simply put, the content matches the presentation.  Each story is very different, and each explores a chilling expression of Latin American myth, with monsters mostly being  from before colonial times.  The fact that these are most certainly not European monsters adds an unfamiliarity which makes many of them truly chilling.

My favorite story was Christopher Kastenschmidt’s “A Parlous Battle”, both because it’s very well written and because I tend to enjoy adventure fantasy even more than the quieter types.  This one is set in his Elephant and Macaw Banner world which is quite the universe (there’s an RPG and a novel, too).

Honorable mention goes to the comic “Perla del Plata” by Paula Andrade which, as a native of Buenos Aires hit very close to home, especially the phrase “We have made sadness an art form.”  Perfect.

Anyhow, I recommend this entire series.  There are big names in every book, and they look fantastic.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  Those of you who enjoy fantasy and science fiction set outside the usual European and US settings will love his collection Off the Beaten Path.  You can buy it on Amazon.

Truth in Advertising

A lot of times books are very different from what the title, cover or ad copy promises.  I, for example would have hated to be an editor attempting to create a movie tie-in edition of Beowulf.

The publishers of that book had two possible routes: they could be faithful to the movie or to the poem, but not to both.  These seemed to have based the book on a novelization of the screenplay.  If it had been me, I would have sold the poem with the movie artwork… in Old English.  I doubt any of the potential buyers would have made the considerable effort required to read the thing but at least they would have realized (except for those people incapable of any kind of realization) that there was something deeper going on here, a mystery to which they were not privy.

The above is a good way to have a little fun at others’ expense, but it probably isn’t the best way to create a happy customer base.

This is:

Outposts of Beyond.jpeg

Show your readers an alien landscape generating all kinds of questions, and then fill the publication with stories that take place in similar places.  That is the key, and Outposts of Beyond (at least in the January 2019 issue that I recently read) does this beautifully.  It’s a mix of fantasy and science fiction and the quality of the writing is such that it transports you to exotic, wonderful locales.  Every tale sticks in the mind (when I started writing this review, I leafed through them all and realized that I could remember details of them all–that doesn’t always happen).

The story I enjoyed most was “For All These Worlds, a Messiah”, by Mike Morgan.  This one isn’t what you’d call a literary or contemplative piece, but it was fun, an the characters have depth–also, though I am not particularly religious myself, I love reading adventure/spiritual journey stories–if they’re well done, of course.

Like other publications, this one also contains poetry and even an interview (with Adam-Troy Castro), so you get quite a bit of content n a compact package.

A good read (disclaimer – one of my stories is in there).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  Fans of both strange places and short SF and Fantasy will absolutely love his collection Off the Beaten Path which features a dragon on the cover… illustrating a science fiction story.  You can check it out here.

The Perfect Response to “Bite Me”

Those of you who’ve been following along know that, though I’m not particularly a follower of the genre, I have little problem with an occasional piece of erotic fiction, whether it be a timeless classic or a forgotten piece of 1970s sleaze.

You might also know that, as a writer, I occasionally dabble in erotic fiction across a few genres.  I mentioned a sale to Blood in the Rain 4 a few months back, and the book has cycled through my enormous TBR pile and now I can review it.

Here’s that cover again:

cof

Now that I’ve read it, I can state that the content within is exactly what it says on the tin: vampire erotica.

Now before you run off, I need to say three things that surprised me (as someone who doesn’t read all that much modern erotica).  The first is that the stories in this volume are uniformly well-written.  On a sentence level, the writing (and don’t tell anyone I said this), is of a much higher quality than that which you’d find in a non-erotic science fiction or fantasy volume of the same payscale.

Secondly, the definition of what a vampire is gets examined and plenty of different roles, good and evil, victimizer and victim are studies between the sheets of this book.

Third, there is much less preoccupation with politics than in the rest of the genre.  This book is lovely in that any personal politics the author might have are left behind.  And that means you actually get decent stories instead of manifestos.  SF and fantasy editors need to take note.

In fact, the weakest story of the bunch is the single story that is a political revenge fantasy.  Included, one supposes, for variety’s sake, it was the single clunker as a tale, although well-written.

As for the sex, all varieties are sprinkled in here and, like me, you will probably find some stories that turn you on while others might make you squirm a bit.  Which, quite possibly, is the whole point.  In my own case, male / male stories aren’t my cup of tea, but there are a couple in here, “Lawful Evil” by Erin Horáková is memorable that worked for me as a tale despite being male / male.  In fact, almost every single story was excellent, with well-done sex scenes central to each.  Vampires lend themselves well to that.

The best of the bunch was “The Prisoner” by Bill Davidson, a long story with a twist ending that nevertheless follows logically from the themes developed inside.

This one is highly recommended (and not just because there’s one of my stories in it).  The quality of writing is superlative, the sex is sexy and the vampires are memorable.  What more do you want from life?

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His novel Timeless is a fast-paced and sexy thriller, and you can buy it here.

A Wonderful Cultural History Lesson

Several years ago–long before this blog was born–I stumbled upon a series of books that i absolutely love and that I dip into every once in a while, although I know them basically by heart.

These books were published in the early 2000s by Collector’s Press (which I can’t seem to find today, so perhaps they no longer exist): Fantasy of the Twentieth Century and Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century.  The fantasy volume in particular is spectacularly well-thought out, but both are good.

But I needed to complete the genre set.

Horror of the 20th Century.jpg

Horror of the Twentieth Century, written by Robert Weinberg, didn’t let me down.  Although it wasn’t quite up to the Fantasy volume (I am in awe of that one, it’s a wonderful history), it does an excellent job of tracking the literary and cinematic fortunes of the horror genre through the 1900s (and with a bit of history to set the stage).

Of the three genres, Horror is probably the one that, particularly in the first half of the 20th century survived because of the movies, and that is reflected particularly well in this book.  Also, the horror boom and crash are looked at long and hard, which is key to understanding the genre today.

Since I’m not a collector, the text is as important as the images here, but as a writer, it’s always fun to fantasize about what would have happened if I’d been active in any of the eras described within.  Would this or that Weird Tales cover have had my name on it, or, better still would I have rated a Hannes Bok cover painting?  Reading these books creates a tangible feeling of connection with the men and women writing in bygone eras, sometimes even more than reading the stories did.

For readers who aren’t writers, these books are just as good (probably even better, as there’s no pressure to compare yourself to the heroes of the past…) and it’s the kind of book you’ll find yourself pulling off the shelves whenever you have a few minutes of free time and the novel you’re reading just isn’t as engrossing as you wanted.

In short, this is a great primer for those just getting in to any of these genres, but it’s also the stuff experts’ dreams are made of.

Hugely recommended.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is a collection of dark fiction which would fit beautifully within the volume we’re discussing.  It’s called Pale Reflection and you can buy it here.