These are the creatures too weird to fit anywhere else. Starting with the ancient civilizations, and extending well past the Renaissance, Europeans assumed that a varied assortment of strange beasts populated the world, living in the oceans, on the distant continents, in their neighbors' basements. Explanations for these weird creatures varied over time; sometimes they were considered evidence of divine displeasure, and other times, they were simply sports of nature.

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Year: 1573-1585
Scientist: Ambroise Paré
Originally published in: Des Monstres
Now appears in: On Monsters and Marvels by Ambroise Paré, translated by Janis Pallister
Sixteenth-century surgeon Ambroise Paré wrote several books about monsters ("things that appear outside the course of Nature") and marvels ("things which happen that are completely against Nature"). Paré was known to be a compassionate and talented doctor, and some of his depictions were remarkably accurate. Others were less credible.


Year: 1554
Scientist: Guillaume Rondelet
Originally published in: Libri de Piscibus Merinis
Now appears in: On Monsters and Marvels by Ambroise Paré, translated by Janis Pallister, and "The Origin of the Sea Bishop" by W.M.S. Russell and F.S. Russell in Folklore, Summer 1975
Rondelet based his sea bishop depiction on an account he received from a physician, Gisbertus Germanus, who saw the creature in Poland. Rondelet was skeptical, and stated that he had omitted from his description several "fabulous" claims about the sea bishop. "I present the image of the monster altogether the way I received it," he continued. "Whether it is true or not, I neither affirm nor deny." The fish, which might have been based on a doctored skate or ray, made an appearance later in the 16th century in Ambroise Paré's Des Monstres, complete with its pontifical garments. It is not known whether Paré himself was a devout Catholic, but a few months before his death, he was reputed to confront the Archbishop of Lyons on behalf of the poor and starving in Paris. Religious animosities ran high during Paré's lifetime and for centuries afterwards, so it's no coincidence that some monsters bore striking resemblances to clergymen. Periods of religious strife likely increased attention to so-called monsters and certainly changed the explanations offered for them, from sins such as greed and vanity to sins of blasphemy and heresy.
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Sea bishop

Year: 1562
Printer: Richard Breton
Originally published in: Le Recueil de la Diversité des Habits
Now appears in: "Habits, Holdings, Heterologies: Populations in Print in a 1562 Costume Book" by Ann Rosalind Jones in Yale French Studies
Rondelet's sea bishop found its way into other publications more or less intact, but in the early 1560s, a French printer named Richard Breton tweaked the picture to make it creepier. His sea bishop appeared in a book about the clothing styles of locals and foreigners. The book wasn't really about fashion; it was a substitute for travel to faraway places — understandable considering travel experiences in the 16th century ranged from unpleasant to deadly. As Renaissance and Enlightenment naturalists discovered more exotic animals, they sometimes used familiar analogies to describe what they found, and Rondelet's depiction may (or may not) have belonged to that tradition. At the same time, many Catholics and Protestants utterly despised each other, and clerical-looking monsters were a way of criticizing the followers of the wrong religion. Fervent Protestant Breton made the sea bishop not only uglier than Rondelet's, he also took care to give it more elegant attire (note the embroidery on the creature's upper cape). Did Breton mean for anyone to take this literally? It may have been simple satire, although frightening "prodigies" like this were publicized by Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon to warn Catholics that they followed awful leaders.
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Prodigious signs

Year: 1638
Originally published in: "A Lamentable List of Certaine Hidious, Frightfull, and Prodigious Signs"
Now appears in: "Unnatural Conceptions: The Study of Monsters in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century France and England" by Park and Daston in Past and Present
In 16th- and 17th-century Europe, monsters were rarely viewed in a void, especially when they were considered bad omens. In those times, they were regarded parts of multi-pronged warnings: earthquakes, floods, falling stars. This "lamentable list" shows conjoined twins, a creature with a face on his torso, and what looks like the head of a monarch on the body of a worm, in addition to other disturbing signs. The picture also apparently includes the unfortunate events the bad omens foretell, such as armed conflict. The religious animosities of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation fueled rumors of impossible creatures, as well as fearful interpretations of any kind of birth defect. The invention of the printing press only eased the spread of such scary propaganda. Broadsides — posters that could also be read aloud to the illiterate by hawkers and sold to the literate for about a penny apiece — tended to engage in the most dire interpretations of monstrous apparitions. In fact, religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants and among different Protestant sects may have sparked even more interest in monsters than had occurred during the Middle Ages. Highbrow and lowbrow alike took an interest. As religious tensions gradually eased, so did the assumption that any unusual event or deformity necessarily foretold divine wrath.
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Monster menagerie

Century: 16th
Scientist/artist: Ulisse Aldrovandi
Originally appeared in: Aldrovandi collection
Now appears in: Eye for Detail by Florike Egmond
Renaissance naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi paid an extraordinary amount of attention to monsters, even by the standards of his own monster-obsessed time. Egmond reports that he included 32 "human monsters" in a single volume he wrote on natural history. During the Renaissance, a monster could mean an actual birth defect, such as conjoined twins, or a complete fabrication. This set of illustrations clearly contains both kinds. Polycephaly has long been observed in livestock, so the three-headed sheep in the upper left corner is quite plausible. The creature next to it is harder to explain. As is every other creature in this small menagerie. The bottom row shows sea monsters seen in depictions elsewhere, including a sea bishop (lower left), sea devil (lower right), and a sea monk, which might have been inspired by a fleeting glimpse of a big squid.
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Monster of Ravenna

Year: 1642
Scientist/artist: Ulisse Aldrovandi
Originally published in: Monstrorum Historia
Now appears in: Rare Treasures edited by Judith Magee (Also discussed in Wonders and the Order of Nature by Daston and Park)
Aldrovandi penned more books than printers managed to publish during his lifetime. Monstrorum Historia came out decades after his death, and featured creatures the naturalist heard about during the 16th century. One of the most notorious was the Monster of Ravenna. Rumored to be the cursed offspring of a friar and a nun, the monster was said to have a horn on its head, eye on its knee, an eagle claw on its left foot, snakes at its waist, and wings at its shoulders. Often it was depicted as a hermaphrodite. Reputedly first described by a Ravenna pharmacist in 1512, the creature preceded a foreign invasion of the city by mere days. Daston and Park have traced the legendary creature's origins to Florence in 1506. Exactly what prompted this legend is probably impossible to figure out centuries later, but the story might have started with an infant with birth defects whose deformities worsened with each whisper and broadside. The Monster of Ravenna became an allegory for every evil from the violence of war to the corruption of the clergy.
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Year: 1646
Originally published in: "A Declaration"
Now appears in: "Reading the Medieval in Early Modern Monster Culture" by Serina Patterson in Studies in Philology
Despite monsters' lingering effects on Europeans' nightmares and worries, skepticism was growing by the mid-17th century. Some pamphleteers began transitioning the creatures' roles to serve political satire. For centuries, headless people with faces on their chests had figured in maps of faraway lands, but this broadside placed the chest-faced creature in Lancashire. The text of this broadside proclaimed that a "Popish" woman had given birth to a headless baby with its face on its chest after she expressed her preference for a headless child over a Roundhead. This broadside was published in the midst of the English Civil War, when Catholics generally sided with the deposed king, and Roundheads — named after Puritans with hair cropped "round the head" as opposed to well-born royalists' ringlets — sided with Parliament. Of course, Roundhead was a derogatory term. So was Popish.
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New World scene

Year: 1671
Scientist/artist: Arnoldus Montanus
Originally published in: De Nieuwe en Onbekende Weereld ("The New and Unknown World")
Now appears in: Arnoldus Montanus' New and Unknown World in Public Domain Review
Arnoldus Montanus's 17th-century book about America bore a long title. Translated into English, it read: The New and Unknown World: or Description of America and the Southland, Containing the Origin of the Americans and South-landers, remarkable voyages thither, Quality of the Shores, Islands, Cities, Fortresses, Towns, Temples, Mountains, Sources, Rivers, Houses, the nature of Beasts, Trees, Plants and foreign Crops, Religion and Manners, Miraculous Occurrences, Old and New Wars: Adorned with Illustrations drawn from the life in America, and described by Arnoldus Montanus. The book also bore elaborate illustrations, though it's debatable whether they were actually drawn from life. This scene, purported to be of the Caribbean, features dragon-headed serpents, belly-dragging quadrupeds that look vaguely mammalian, and flying animals that look like they could be flying fish or giant bugs. In fairness, the book's illustrations weren't entirely inaccurate. Mixed in with unidentifiable creatures were recognizable spoonbills, alpacas or llamas, and an armadillo.
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Tapestry fragment

Year: 1420-1430
Appears at: A Fabulous Beast (Fragment of a Tapestry) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
From the Metropolitan Museum of Art: "This fragment of a weaving, or Rücklaken — a tapestry hung in a domestic interior at frieze level — represents a fabulous composite beast, part horse and part lion, wearing a collar ornamented with small bells that is attached to a leash held by a hand, visible at the left, which is now all that remains of a missing figure. The inscriptions accompanying these creatures on many hangings indicate that they were valued as better company than corrupt townsfolk, and that they symbolize both concupiscence and the unsullied forces of nature. That the creatures are tethered or otherwise subdued suggests that the figures shown with them likewise have tamed their libidinous cravings."
This tapestry continued the tradition of many medieval bestiaries, to present real or fabricated animals based the lessons in morality that they could impart. It also followed a practice that would continue through the Renaissance: combining traits of multiple animals into a single beast.

Bestiary illustration

Year: 1250-1300
Appears at: Medieval Monsters at the British Library
This image presents a trio of monsters, one of which is meeting its end, and another of which has perhaps bitten off too much to chew. All the monsters have just two legs and long, serpentine tails. The monster not partaking of a meal sports two extra heads. The heads look a bit like joeys peering out of a kangaroo mother's pouch, but few Europeans had met marsupials in the 13th century. Perhaps the heads are part of the bigger monster, or perhaps they belong to a recent meal looking for an exit. All that can be said with much confidence is that the monster on the far left is a carnivore.

Leggy fish

Year: 1486-1506
Originally appeared in: Book of Hours
Now appears in: Medieval Monsters by Damien Kempf and Maria Gilbert, and Add MS 18852 at the British Library
The British Library records that the manuscript bearing these leggy fish originated in the Netherlands, and was compiled for Joanna I of Castile. (Joanna I was also known as "Joanna the Mad," though it's not clear whether her disconcerting moniker was down to actual mental illness or simple court intrigue.) Her richly illustrated Book of Hours mixed recognizable animals and creatures of the imagination, and these legged fish might have represented whales. Kempf and Gilbert remark that whales were often associated with the devil, and devils were often portrayed as monsters. These monsters look more placid than terrifying. They even show a prescient resemblance to Darwin fish fender decals.
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Margin hybrid

Year: 1455
Originally appeared in: Hours of Simon de Varie
Now appears at: Initial I: Saint Bernard Disputing with the Devil Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
Topic discussed in: Beasts: Factual and Fantastic by Elizabeth Morrison
This isn't really a goof; there's no good reason to believe that the author of this illustration believed this animal to be real. Instead, this cute little creature belongs to the category of art loosely called marginalia, where manuscript illuminators indulged their imaginations by drawing hybrids of different animals. This chimera looks like a deer with dual spires on its head and a snail shell for a behind. Despite its oddly proportioned body, it appears to be smiling. But not everybody had a sense of humor about the marginal creations. Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th-century Cistercian monk, denounced them as creepy, sometimes dirty distractions.

Male and female margin hybrids

Year: c. 1265
Originally appeared in: Antiphonal
Now appears at: Marginal drollery Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
Discussed in: Images in the Margins by Margot McIlwain Nishimura
The text and primary illuminations of a medieval manuscript typically delivered a moralizing message. Artwork in the margins could reinforce or mock that message. In many cases, marginal artists simply had fun, illustrating human-animal hybrids without much concern for the message of the text. Whether this illustration of male and female heads on dragon-like bodies is a jest or a warning is a little hard to tell. They're rubbing noses, suggesting intimacy, and the man has a monkish haircut, so the illustration might indicate deformity caused by breaking vows of celibacy. On the other hand, even if they're rubbing noses, they don't appear all that happy with each other. Maybe they're just Ralph and Alice Kramden of the Middle Ages.

Book of Hours grotesque

Century: 15th
Originally appeared in: Book of Hours
Now appears in: Rainbow-Coloured Beasts from 15th-Century Book of Hours in Public Domain Review
Known as a grotesque, this multicolored creature embellished a margin in a 15th-century book of hours. Like other grotesques, it almost certainly wasn't intended to be taken literally. This grouchy-looking little monster is so colorful that its nonexistence is almost a pity.

Book of Hours grotesque

Century: 15th
Originally appeared in: Book of Hours
Now appears in: Rainbow-Coloured Beasts from 15th-Century Book of Hours in Public Domain Review
This colorful grotesque boasts a goat-like body, just one that's missing its front legs. Considering bulk of this creature — including its horned head and what looks like a long, red wattle — hovers over nonexistent legs, its talent for balance is impressive. But like other grotesques in the Book of Hours, this picture probably wasn't meant to be taken at face value.


Year: c. 1300
Originally appeared in: Hereford Mappa Mundi
Now appears in: "The Death and Life of the Frontier" by Caspar Henderson in Nautilus
Even in the most tumultuous stretches of the Dark Ages, some lucky Europeans had access to an education, and few of those educated Europeans believed that the Earth was flat. But while sailing off the edge of the Earth was not such a widespread fear, many medieval Europeans did believe that distant lands held strange creatures: headless people with faces on their chests, bat-like people, people with horses' hooves for feet, and weird animal-human hybrids. The manticore (or manticor) was assumed to have the face of a man, the body of a lion, the tail of a scorpion, the voice of a seductive siren, and three rows of teeth — something like the creepiest used car salesman you could ever meet. This manticore inhabited India in the Hereford Mappa Mundi. The Hereford map followed the convention of the times: Jerusalem was situated at the center, and the far regions with weird creatures lined the map margins. Because this map was made nearly 200 years before Columbus stumbled onto the New World, North and South America didn't appear. Neither did Australia or Antarctica. Still, the belief introduced in Classical times in Terra Australis (a landmass in the Southern Hemisphere) was fairly widespread, even though that landmass hadn't been located with any more success than the manticore.

Alexander the Great and the Devil

Year: c. 1375
Cartographer: Cresques Abraham
Originally appeared in: Catalan Atlas
Now appears in: Mapping the Silk Road and Beyond by Kenneth Nebenzahl
In the late 14th century, Cresques Abraham produced a remarkable map, incorporating established knowledge, accounts from travelers, legends and myths. The map was commissioned as a gift for the 13-year-old King Charles VI of France. According to cartography historian Kenneth Nebenzahl, the Catalan Atlas includes the earliest known illustration of the Silk Road, as well as information derived from the travels of Marco Polo. But monsters and demons inhabit Catalan Atlas, including the bat-winged devil in this vignette. The figure pointing at the devil is Alexander the Great. The figure below them, upside down in this perspective, is Kublai Khan. Other parts of the map depict cannibals, the ruler of Gog and Magog, and human-animal hybrids.
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Dog-headed man

Year: 1550
Cartographer: Pierre Desceliers
Originally published as: World map for King Henry II of France
Now appears in: The World for a King by Chet Van Duzer
The cartographer Desceliers made multiple maps in the 16th century, including a large map for King Henry II. This particular map was designed to be spread out on a table, oriented to the nearest viewer, where "up" was in the middle of the map. In this excerpt of the map, showing northern Asia, south is up and north is down. Besides landmasses, whose contours were often speculative, he included some oversized depictions of people, animals and beasts thought to live in remote regions. In depicting this Region of Darkness, Desceliers relied on the account of Marco Polo, who claimed that people lived in darkness half the year, and apparently lived like beasts all year. Next to the picture of this dog-headed man, known as cynocephalus, Desceliers included the term "hommes monstruces," meaning monstrous men. That scary beasts should live in far-off places somewhere up north seemed logical; to the medieval European mind, north was often the direction of the devil.
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Babylonian tablet

Century: c. 6th BC
Photographed in: British Museum by Victor R. Ruiz (some rights reserved)
Discussed at: The Map of the World at the British Museum
Mapping monsters on the fringes of the world goes back a long time. Although this clay tablet doesn't actually show any monsters, it shows a world populated by them. It presents an ancient Babylonian conception of the world: an earthen disk bisected by the Euphrates River and surrounded by a round "Bitter River." The cuneiform text accompanying the map describes a mixture of mundane, exotic and fantastic creatures. The British Museum explains that the text "appears to be a description of the inhabitants, divine, human, animal or monstrous, of the areas beyond the Earth." The text mentions Marduk (mythical owner of a dainty dragon), Tiamat (a mother goddess sometimes portrayed as a she-dragon), a lion-headed bird and a scorpion-man. This ancient tablet was excavated in Iraq, and acquired by the British Museum in the late 19th century.

Calydonian boar hunt

Century: 1st-2nd AD
Photographed in: Campanian amphitheater, Italy
Now appears at: From Dragons to Unicorns: Finding Fantastic Beasts in Ancient History ( from-dragons-to-unicorns-finding- fantastic-beasts-in-ancient-history/) Photo by DeAgostini / Getty Images
The ancient Greeks revered the goddess Artemis as the champion of ironic pairs: wildlife and hunting, chastity and childbirth. They must have thought she had a hot temper, too. Legend says she sent a giant Calydonian boar to trash the countryside around the ancient city of Calydon. Artemis apparently felt snubbed by a regional king's lapse in remembering her when he praised all the other gods. With a zeal roughly matching that of modern hunting enthusiasts, boar slayers showed up from all over Greece, and the hunt was commemorated for centuries afterwards in Greek art. Folklorist Adrienne Mayor, who identified plausible fossil origins of the griffin myth, maintains that the big boar might also have arisen from extinct animal bones. The only tusked animals familiar to ancient Greeks were boars, but mammoths left their remains in the region. Someone might have found a mammoth tusk and supersized a more familiar animal to fit the find.


Year: c. 1777-1784
Artist: Louis Jean Desprez
Appears at: The Chimera (La Chimère de Monsieur Desprez) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Material discussed in: Metal Solves Mystery of Flames that Inspired Homer ( article/mg22429914.900- metal-solves-mystery-of-flames- that-inspired-homer.html)
From the Metropolitan Museum of Art: "Trained as an architect, Desprez won the Prix de Rome for architecture in 1776 and lived in Italy from 1777 to 1784 where he found employment as an illustrator. In 1784 he left for Stockholm as theatre designer to king Gustav III. Today he is best remembered for his skills as a draftsman. He also made a small number of original etchings, of which La Chimère is both the most accomplished and the most bizarre. The subject is described in a lengthy inscription which appears on the fifth state of the print. Born on the burning sands of Africa, Desprez's mythical beast has three heads: one a bird and two with the features of the devil. The skeletal monster devours its human prey amid the bones of its previous victims framed by the dark semicircle of an archway, the pale semicircle of the moon visible beyond. Even seen against the venerable tradition of demonic creatures in Western art, Desprez's macabre vision is a tour de force of his inventive skills and graphic technique."
In illustrating this beast, Desprez relied on a centuries-old legend. Folklorists credit Homer with creating the chimera, a three-headed fire-breather, in Illiad, and have long tied his inspiration for the beast to a site in southern Turkey named Yanartas ("flaming stone"). The fires that never die out can be explained by methane gas, but scientists long thought that methane arising from inorganic sources could only form at much higher temperatures than those at Yanartas. But a paper published in 2014 explained that ruthenium, a rare metal occurring in the igneous rocks underneath Yanartas, can act as a catalyst for methane formation at lower temperatures. Though the chimera is fantasy, its inspiration may be real rock.

Map monsters

Year: c. 1300
Originally appeared in: Hereford Mappa Mundi
Now appears in: Wonders and the Order of Nature by Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park (Also discussed in A History of the World in 12 Maps by Jerry Brotton)
The manticore was hardly the only odd creature to stalk the margins of the Hereford Mappa Mundi. The map's representation of Africa had little to do with reality, either of the landmass itself or of its inhabitants. A motley selection of monsters appears in this snippet of the map, including what looks like a human-plant hybrid (lower left) and a monster with a staff (upper right). The farther one got from the familiar, the closer one got to the monstrous, and this tradition continued long after the Middle Ages.

Demon trio

Year: 1565
Author: Giovanni Battista Ramusio
Explorer: Giovanni da Verrazano
Originally published as: La Nuoua Francia
Now appears at: Normal B. Leventhal Map Center (
On behalf of the French, Giovanni da Verrazano explored parts of the North American East Coast in the 16th century, and Venetian geographer Giovanni Battista Ramusio published a map based on Verrazano's explorations. The map combined believable vignettes of human activities on land and in the water — hunting, fishing, visiting, partying — with monsters. Belief in fantastic creatures still thrived in the 16th century, and Europeans spread remarkable tales of strange beings from the ocean's depths and from the New World. Not far from a ship where fishermen haul in a net, this trio of demons cavorts along the shore.
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Map animals

Year: 1529
Scientist/artist: Diogo Ribeiro
Originally appeared in: Ribeiro's world map
Now appears in: A History of the World in 12 Maps by Jerry Brotton
Two years after Columbus sailed to America, the Portuguese and the Spanish settled their differences over who could have what in the newly discovered lands by drawing a north-south line down the Atlantic. What lay west of the line, namely the New World, went to the Spanish. What lay east of the line (outside of Europe), including the coast of Africa and the Indian Ocean, went to the Portuguese. The line-drawing officials apparently didn't wonder whether the inhabitants of these newly acquired regions agreed. And once the Spanish and Portuguese divvied up the Atlantic, they started squabbling over the Moluccas on the other side of the world because with control of the Moluccas came control of the global spice trade. Attempts to clarify the dispute entailed Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe, in which Magellan and most of his sailors died. Other efforts to settle the fight over the Moluccas included mapmaking, and one of the most skilled cartographers in that effort was the mapmaker Diogo Ribeiro. Putting aside the placement of the Moluccas, Ribeiro's 1529 map abounded with winsome creatures. This image includes three scenes from that map. Some of the animals are recognizable, such as the elephant, antelope and some birds. Others are harder to identify. In the top scene, a griffin-like animal squares off with a nondescript quadruped. Ribeiro's map was far ahead of the Hereford Mappa Mundi in accuracy and realism, and yet the fauna of faraway lands still retained mythical qualities.


Year: 1551
Scientist: Conrad Gesner
Originally published in: Historia Animalium
Now appears in: Cultures of Natural History edited by Jardine, Secord and Spary
Today, the term "ichneumon" typically refers to a wasp or, even more exotically, an Egyptian mongoose. To medieval Europeans, however, the ichneumon was the dragon's worst enemy, using a combination of camouflage and cunning to kill that scaly, winged beast. Given mongooses' adversarial relationships with snakes, the ichneumon's story might have had some basis in reality. This picture, however, looks a bit like a porcupine.
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Year: 1551
Scientist: Conrad Gesner
Originally published in: Historia Animalium
Now appears in: Monsters: A Bestiary of the Bizarre by Christopher Dell
Gesner might have believed this creature to be a werewolf. Werewolf legends date back to Antiquity, but the legends varied. Herodotus apparently wrote about a Scythian tribe that turned wolfish en masse every few years, though he might not have believed the story himself. Unlike some monsters that were assumed capable of changing their shape at will, werewolves didn't necessarily have complete control over their appearance. In the Middle Ages, some Europeans thought werewolves might change between wolf and human through the use of ointments or potions. Contact with a werewolf could turn an otherwise vanilla human into one of the loathsome animals (werewolf cooties). If Gesner believed that werewolves switch back and forth between animal and human, perhaps this specimen was caught mid-switch — between a human, a wolf, and apparently a giant chicken.
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Krakow Monster

Year: 1559
Scientist/artist: Pierre Boaistuau
Originally published in: Histoires Prodigieuses
Now appears in: Wonders and the Order of Nature by Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park
Within a few decades of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses a new monster made an appearance in Europe. Called the Monster of Krakow (or Cracow), this beast sported heads on its joints — the standard identifier of demonic handiwork. It reputedly died four hours after its birth, but not without warning, "Watch, the Lord cometh." By the time this monster was "born," Luther and Philipp Melanchthon had published pamphlets about other monsters engendered by divine displeasure with the papacy. Convictions that heretical beliefs were on the rise likely played a role in the appearance of this beast.

roadside monster

Year: 1592
Originally published in: "A True Discourse of such Straunge and woonderfull accidents . . . house of M. George Lee of North Aston"
Now appears in: "How to Approach a Monster" by Anna Dunthorne in History Compass, July 2008
Amidst the Reformation, printing presses enabled monster descriptions to spread rapidly across an uneasy Europe. Looking at monster illustrations centuries later, it's not possible to know whether each depiction was based on a real phenomenon or was a complete fabrication. At a time when even storms might provoke fear about the potential wrath of God, a deformity — whether in a human or livestock birth — could raise tensions. Pamphlets and broadsides were fairly cheap to produce, cheap to obtain, and capable of spreading worry. On the other hand, an unusual event might induce delight, or at least morbid curiosity. A 16th-century monster picture might serve the same purpose that an editorial cartoon does today. What a monster should mean often depended on context.

Nature's jokes

Year: 1671
Scientist/artist: Athanasius Kircher
Originally published in: Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae
Now appears in: "Between Carnival and Lent: The Scientific Revolution at the Margins of Culture" by Paula Findlen in Configurations, Spring 1998
One way to make nature less frightening was to give it a sense of humor. Well-known for his own sense of humor (he liked to dress up cats in little outfits), Kircher was well-suited to this task. His examples of nature's jokes included rocks showing pictures and plants sporting little men. In the end, playfulness like Kircher's didn't prevail, and scientists like Francis Bacon and Robert Hooke stressed the seriousness of scientific pursuits. Good humor was reserved for "vulgar" works directed at the uneducated masses, women and children.


Year: 1572
Scientist: J. Sluperius
Now appears in: Fossils: Evidence of Vanished Worlds by Yvette Gayrard-Valy
Believe it or not, the animal that inspired this hideous depiction is a gentle vegetarian: the elephant. This 16th-century engraving of a cyclops kept alive a myth that started thousands of years before, when ancient Greeks assumed the big skulls they found must have belong to giants, and the median nasal openings must have been single eye sockets.

Alexander fighting cyclopes

Year: c. 1420
Originally appeared in: Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre
Now appears in: Medieval Monsters by Damien Kempf and Maria Gilbert, and Royal 20 B XX at the British Library (Also discussed at Greek Giants at the American Museum of Natural History)
In Homer's epic, Odysseus and his men land on Sicily on their way home from the Trojan War, and they meet and defeat the one-eyed Polyphemus. In medieval lore, one-eyed giants also menace Alexander the Great, as depicted here. The encounter was just one of many for Alexander, who also tangled with horse-headed, fiercely-fanged fighting men, and dragons with rams' horns. Polyphemus's home of Sicily was once home to elephants, many preserved as fossil skulls in Homer's day and long afterwards. In fact, as early as the 1370s, decades before this manuscript illumination was done, some scholars pinpointed the fossil skulls, which they recognized as elephant skulls, as the possible inspiration for the cyclops myth. An appreciation of just how old the fossils were would come later.


Century: 14th
Originally published in: Peterborough Bestiary
Now appears in: The Bedside Book of Birds by Graeme Gibson
Another real animal sometimes described as monstrous was the vulture, shown here finishing off a human corpse. The bestiary that pictured this bird not only described its alleged ability to spot corpses at a great distance, but also its ability to produce young without a mate. This curious "fact" was enlisted as evidence for the immaculate conception. Vultures were also believed to foretell death. Some said the birds followed doomed armies in search of future meals.


Year: 1573-1585
Scientist: Ambroise Paré
Originally published in: Des Monstres
Now appears in: On Monsters and Marvels by Ambroise Paré, translated by Janis Pallister
Paré described this simply as "a very monstrous animal that is born in Africa." A similar picture appeared in an earlier book by Gesner, and that creature was described as a sea monster found somewhere between Antibes and Nice.


Year: 1648
Scientist/artist: Ulisse Aldrovandi
Originally published in: Musaeum Metallicum
Now appears in: "Da Vinci's Paleodictyon: The Fractal Beauty of Traces" by Andrea Baucon in Acta Geologica Polonica
Ulisse Aldrovandi was one of the 16th century's foremost naturalists. He studied the world in between the eras of medieval superstition and the Scientific Revolution. Sometimes the Middle Ages won. Musaeum Metallicum included depictions of fossils — some interpreted fairly accurately, others not — and the odd monster. This one appeared to be female.


Year: 1642
Scientist/artist: Ulisse Aldrovandi
Originally published in: Monstrorum Historia
Now appears in: "Marvels of the East: A Study in the History of Monsters" by Rudolf Wittkower in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 1942
The crane-man, basically a man with a long neck and crane's head, appeared in pamphlets aimed at Europe's most gullible. (Then as now, publishers could make a tidy profit by promoting the macabre.) Depictions of the crane-man eventually found their way into the occasionally weird works of Aldrovandi, this work published after his death. The crane-man underwent a number of transformations in Europe, from a member of a monstrous race to a one-off monster from Madagascar, to a long-necked yet human-headed tartar. Crane-man pictures circulated through Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, France and England.

Four figures

Century: 13th
Originally published in: Medieval manuscript
Now appears at: A Man Without Knowledge of Fire; A Man Riding a Crocodile; A Centaur; Sanrus Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
Produced in Flanders, this gold-embellished illumination depicted inhabitants of far-off, mythical lands. The medieval illuminator apparently guessed that people who didn't know how to use fire stuck to a vegetarian diet. Even more obvious, the artist had never been within riding range of a crocodile.

Eight-legged creature

Century: 13th
Originally published in: Creatures from the Ends of the Earth
Now appears at: Praesillus; A Hairy Woman of the Island of Gorgade; A Scorpion Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
Part of a four-up illumination showing odd creatures from faraway lands, this eight-legged animal is probably a medieval Flemish take on a scorpion. Weird as this monster looks, it's still much less horrifying than the actual arthropod.

Bipedal tabby

Year: 1658
Scientist/artist: Ulisse Aldrovandi
Originally published in: Monstrorum Historia
Now appears in: Monsters: A Bestiary of the Bizarre by Christopher Dell
This monster, apparently enhanced by hand-applied colors after printing, looks fairly harmless — a bipedal tabby lacking front legs and, consequently, scratchy claws. Perhaps it could speak, and being a cat, it was probably quite condescending. It was part of a menagerie of odd beasts Aldrovandi described, many of which had some human characteristics.
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Marine Saurians

Year: 1858
Scientist: William Buckland
Artist: Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins
Originally published in: "Bridgewater Treatise" in Geology and Minerology
Now appears in: Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World by Martin J.S. Rudwick
This scene from Liassic life (during the Age of Reptiles) shows how 19th-century scientists and artists saw contemporaries of dinosaurs. These dragon-like creatures were marine reptiles.

Marine reptile sculpture

Year: 1853
Scientist: Sir Richard Owen
Artist: Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins
Still appears in: Crystal Palace Park, London (photo by Michon Scott)
In the mid-19th century, Owen and Hawkins collaborated to bring Britain's ancient past to their fellow Victorians at Crystal Palace Park. More than 150 years later, the sculptures still stand, having survived a long period of disrepair. In addition to inaccurate dinosaur reconstructions based on very fragmentary fossils, Owen and Hawkins designed marine reptiles based on more complete finds. On the right is an ichthyosaur, and Hawkins's sculpture is pretty accurate. On the left is a plesiosaur, but while the animal's proportions are pretty good, its neck contortions flirt with fantasy, looking like a dragon or sea serpent. By the time Victorians visited the sculptures at Crystal Palace Park, these animals had largely moved from the realm of the monstrous to the realm of the real — just the very old. All the same, cartoonists in the popular humor magazine Punch delighted in detailing visitors' distress at seeing these sculptures, from wailing children dragged through the park, to nightmares haunting the adults who took them.
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Grouchy prehistoric beast

Year: c. 1872
Artist: Archibald Willard
Now appears in: Paleoart by Zoë Lescaze
This grouchy animal occupies the same painting as an angry plesiosaur. No more based in fact than the plesiosaur, this animal is even harder to identify as it doesn't look very much like a plesiosaur, ichthyosaur or mosasaur. In fact, Willard's painting leaves the viewer largely guessing as to whether this is a land- or water-dwelling animal. It might be an approximation of Iguanodon or Megalosaurus, but as Lescaze points out, this creature mostly looks like a dragon.
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Grouchy prehistoric beast

Year: c. 1886
Artist: Georges Devy
Author: Camille Flammarion
Now appears in: Paleoart by Zoë Lescaze
"Don't these beings . . . look like monsters?" asks Flammarion in the caption to this late-19th-century engraving. Why yes, yes they do. Except for the monkeys in the background who look more like time travelers to an era before they had evolved. For that matter, so does the apparent glyptodont in the foreground. By the time these monsters appeared in print, scientists and artists keeping up with newer fossil finds has already moved on from such lizard-like interpretations of dinosaurs. The giant frog was not supported by fossil evidence at the time Devy made this engraving, but maybe he was just clairvoyant about future discoveries; in 2008, a trio of paleontologists described Beelzebufo ampinga, a bowling-ball-sized frog whose name translates very loosely to "fossil frog from hell."
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Soe Orm

Year: 1555
Scientist/artist: Olaus Magnus
Originally published in: Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus
Now appears in: The Search for the Giant Squid by Richard Ellis
Magnus described the Soe Orm as, "A very large Sea-Serpent of a length upwards of 200 feet and 20 feet in diameter which lives in rocks and in holes near the shore of Bergen."

Arabian crocodile

Year: 1551
Scientist: Conrad Gesner
Originally published in: Historia Animalium
Now appears in: Curious Woodcuts of Fanciful and Real Beasts by Conrad Gesner
Described as the "Arabian or Egyptian crocodile," this beast might have been inspired by the sighting of a spiny-tailed lizard.


Century: 16th
Scientist/artist: Ulisse Aldrovandi
Originally published in: The History of Serpents and Dragons
Now appears in: Crossing Over by Stephen Jay Gould and Rosamond Wolff Purcell
Despite the title of the publication in which they appeared, these creatures were actually believed to inhabit the human body.

Amphisbaena Europaea

Year: 1651
Scientist/artist: Johannes Faber
Originally published in: Thesaurus
Now appears in: The Eye of the Lynx by David Freedberg and Amazing Rare Things by Attenborough, Owens, Clayton and Alexandratos
Although it stretched the limits of credulity, Faber included this depiction of a two-headed animal, the amphisbaena, in the Thesaurus, recounting, "Just as I became convinced that the two-headed amphisbaena was probably the stuff of myth and fable rather than of truth, the Cavaliere Cassiano dal Pozzo, one of our Linceans, showed me the most truthful image of an amphisbaena in the form of a drawing with all the appropriate colors." The amphisbaena dated back to medieval bestiaries, but the 17th-century Lincean Academy, of which Faber was a member, was generally known for more accurate depictions.
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Two-headed dragon

Century: 13th
Originally published in: Medieval manuscript
Now appears at: A Winged Dragon Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
Centuries before members of the Lincean Academy reluctantly illustrated the snake-like amphisbaena, a medieval miniaturist produced this colorful two-headed dragon. The head on the front of this beast appears happy enough, but the head on the tip of the tail looks a bit beleaguered. Perhaps that head better registers the effects of a shared digestive system lacking a convenient outlet.

Beasts of Egypt

Year: c. 1480
Artist: Robinet Testard
Originally published in: The Book of Nature
Now appears at: Professor Sarah Peverley: Beauty of the Bestiaries ( 17/beauty-of-the-bestiaries/) and Bestiaire du Moyen Âge ( grand/k_02_bnf.htm)
Toward the end of the 15th century, medieval beliefs about ancient lands populated with fabulous creatures still thrived across Europe. But the Renaissance brought improved techniques to the monsters' depictions. This scene shows animals — some real, some monstrous — believed to inhabit Egypt. A winged dragon roars while a unicorn drinks from the river. Not far from them is a chimeric animal with spiky antlers and webbed feet. The quadruped in the foreground might be a Nile crocodile. Though it bears a head shaped somewhat like a bear's, it's a little closer to the real animal than some other bestiary pictures.
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Giant femur

Year: 1443
Excavated at: St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna
Now appears in: "The Skeletons of Cyclops and Lestrigons: Misinterpretation of Quaternary Vertebrates as Remains of the Mythological Giants" by Romano and Avanzini in Historical Biology
Like cathedrals throughout Europe, Vienna's St. Stephen's Cathedral underwent construction for centuries. In the 15th century, workmen digging the foundation for an expansion turned up this big femur. The femur is now understood to belong to a mammoth, but in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, few Europeans realized that extinct, hairy proboscideans roamed their homeland. It was much easier to explain the femur with the prevailing legends of giants. Locals inscribed the bone with its discovery date, and the symbol for Emperor Frederick III (AEIOU). The mammoth bone remained in the cathedral for many years, but now resides in the Earth sciences collections at the University of Vienna.
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Giant's grave

Year: 1619
Originally published in: The Relation of a Wonderfull Voiage made by Willem Cornelison Schouten of Horne
Now appears in: "The Skeletons of Cyclops and Lestrigons: Misinterpretation of Quaternary Vertebrates as Remains of the Mythological Giants" by Romano and Avanzini in Historical Biology
The 17th-century account of Schouten's journey "Shewing how South from the Straights of Magelan in Terra Delfuego: he found and discovered a newe passage through the great South Seaes, and that way sayled round about the world" described exotic birds, sea lions and guanacos — described as "beasts resembling deer but with longer necks and legs." Shown here is something else the account mentioned: "the burial site of a giant, whose bones measured between 10 and 11 feet long." If the travelogue simply spun a fabulous tale, it wouldn't be the first. But the purported giant's dimensions are fairly modest — 10 feet, not 30 or 100 feet — which suggests an effort to relay a truthful account. This "giant" might have been based on a real skeleton, just not a human one. Roughly a century later, when the naturalist Hans Sloane was asked to examine bones attributed to giants, he would likely disappoint some of his supplicants by diagnosing the so-called giant remains as cetacean or proboscidean. The Argentinian giant shown in this image might have been a misinterpretation of an extinct relative of modern elephants.
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Sized-up bone

Year: 1638
Scientist: Galileo Galilei, Lincean Academy
Originally published in: The Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences
Now appears in: "Galileo Among the Giants" by Anita Guerrini in Collected Wisdom of the Early Modern Scholar
By Galileo's time, belief in giants had thrived for centuries. In the 17th century, giant-believers felt vindicated by discoveries of genuine gigantic bones, and accurate identification of all those bones' owners lay many years in the future. Before such bones could be definitively linked to mammoths, dinosaurs, or deinotheres, the leading contenders often included giants or Hannibal's elephants. But centuries of frustration building towering cathedrals had bolstered another conviction, that giants are frail. Along those lines, and without explicitly stating giants were impossible, Galileo pointed out if such legendary creatures existed, they would have to be very weird. He explained his square-cube law with pages of mathematical formulas. Then he wrote that "it would be impossible to fashion skeletons for men, horses, or other animals which could exist and carry out their functions proportionably when such animals were increased to immense height — unless the bones were made of much harder and more resistant material than the usual, or were deformed by disproportionate thickening, so that the shape and appearance of the animal would become monstrously gross." This illustration, pairing a "normal" bone with a scaled-up one, illustrates Galileo's point. The square-cube law has withstood the test of time, and no convincing human giants have been found. But paleontologists keep finding big bones. We'll just have to wonder what Galileo would have said if he could see an articulated titanosaur skeleton. Hopefully he wouldn't find it gross.

Giant parts

Year: 1656
Scientist/artist: Lodovico Moscardo
Originally published in: Museo Moscardo
Now appears in: "Projecting Nature: Agostino Scilla's Seventeenth-Century Fossil Drawings" by Paula Findlen in Endeavour
Though many naturalists made progress toward the Enlightenment in the 17th century, that progress wasn't uniform or uninterrupted. Besides an embrace of biblical literalism, the century also saw the reemergence of fascination with giants. It was the wrong interpretation, but the evidence was compelling: giant teeth and bones, probably belonging to fossil proboscideans. One on the earliest published pictures of these giant's bones appeared in Lodovico Moscardo's book, and he wrote, "However fabulous it seems to remember that men of immense and seemingly unlimited size may have lived on the earth, nonetheless we are certain that they ruled a great part of the world under the name of giants." He went on tooth and bones were "hardened by time and by antiquity, which seems to be more of hart stone than bone," and he was right about that.
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Year: 1678
Scientist/artist: Athanasius Kircher
Originally published in: Mundus Subterraneus
Now appears in: Fossils: Evidence of Vanished Worlds by Yvette Gayrard-Valy and Athanasius Kircher by Joscelyn Godwin
People found gigantic fossil bones long before they could determine with much accuracy what those bones had been. The obvious — and original — diagnosis was that the big bones had belonged to giants. Remains of the biggest fellow shown here were allegedly found in a cave in 1401 and originally described by Giovanni Boccaccio. In Mundus Subterraneus, Kircher wrote of the giant, "Standing he would have been 200 cubits high, but alas, his corpse fell to dust at a touch and only a few monstrous teeth remained to be piously preserved in a nearby church." But Kircher was said to dispute Boccaccio's gigantic claims, reporting that he (Kircher) visited the cave where the giant reputedly lived, and found the entrance too small for a creature matching Boccaccio's story. At the very least, Kircher reduced his giant's height to a mere 30 feet. In the image, the itty-bitty creature next to the biggest giant's left ankle is a regular-sized man; the second-littlest is Goliath. Kircher likely found the biggest fellow too much to believe.

David and Goliath

Year: c. 1480
Originally appeared in: Master of the Dresden Prayer Book (Flemish)
Now appears at: David and Goliath Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
Topic discussed in: Flying Snakes and Griffin Claws by Adrienne Mayor
This flower-festooned prayer-book scene depicts the story of David taking on the Philistine Goliath. Putting aside a debate about the literal truth of this particular story, folklorist Adrienne Mayor points out that it was just one of many accounts of giants in ancient warfare. She makes the intriguing argument that these tall tales may have been exaggerations rather than complete fabrications. Ancient civilizations could have produced the occasional supersized human, and it's also possible that average height varied considerably between different populations. She writes, "Studies of more than two hundred Egyptian skeletons from ancient sites along the Nile River show that the males of the New Kingdom era had an average height of five feet, two inches. Comparative data are lacking for the ancient people of Sudan and Libya, and in view of population movements since antiquity, average modern heights may not tell us much. But it's interesting that one of the tallest National Basketball Association players to ever play the game, Manute Bol, stood seven feet, seven inches tall and hailed from Sudan. And the tallest player of all time was Suleiman Ali Nashnush, an eight-foot Libyan." Paleontologist Paul Sereno's studies of the Gobero region in modern-day Niger revealed substantial height differences between two populations in that region: the tall, robust Kiffians, and the more gracile Tenerians — though those populations were separated in time by roughly 5,000 years. Ancient Roman soldiers sometimes quaked at the site of big, blonde Celts and Gauls, but often defeated them in the end anyway. Among concurrent populations, height disparities might have been down to more than genetic differences between groups that didn't mix much. Contrary to the popular belief that average human height has risen over time, scientists have found that environment and lifestyle factors can raise — or lower — average population height. Childhood malnutrition and disease can impede growth. So can switching from hunting and gathering to farming, though the loss in height is typically measured in inches, not feet. For all the benefits of agriculture (and they continue to be debated), early farmers often had to work harder for fewer calories and poorer nutrition, sometimes lowering average adult height. That said, the height loss would be measured in inches, not feet. Still, a roughly 5-foot soldier encountering a 6.5-foot opponent might have considered that opponent gigantic.

Passage about Hygelac

Century: c. 10th
Now appears in: Kelmscott Press edition, 1911 ( beowulf1895text.html)
Discussed in: "Fossil Folklore in the Liber Monstrorum, Beowulf, and Medieval Scholarship" by Timothy Burbery in Folklore
Now housed in the British Library, the manuscript containing the earliest known account of Beowulf was probably written sometime between the late 10th century and early 11th century. The titular hero — who defeats a monster, the monster's mother and, decades later, a dragon — has an inspirational uncle: King Hygelac. Like the original manuscript, William Morris's Kelmscott Press edition contains no illustration of Hygelac, but like the original, relays a combination of historical events and legendary qualities. Hygelac may well have been a real person, considering Beowulf is not the only text to discuss a 6th-century raid Hygelac might have led against the Franks. But Beowulf also describes the king as a giant. In Folklore, Burbery argues that the gigantic aspect of Hygelac's character may have been inspired by something as real as the raid against the Franks, just much older. Roughly 9,000 to 10,000 years ago, a land bridge connected Britain and the Netherlands. Now dubbed Doggerland, the land bridge was home to wooly mammoths. If you find part of a mammoth skeleton (assuming you don't also find its skull), you might think you'd found the bones of a human giant. Along with less spectacular creatures, giants figure in another medieval manuscript, Liber Monstrorum, which might have partially inspired Beowulf. To the people who regarded Hygelac as a hero, gigantic bones might have seemed like appropriate remains. In a monograph on Beowulf, Jane Leake first advanced the fossil-bones-turned-to-king argument in 1967.

Femur fragment

Year: 1676
Scientist/artist: Robert Plot
Originally published in: The Natural History of Oxfordshire
Now appears in: The Dinosaur Papers edited by Weishampel and White
This bone may not look monstrous, but it was attributed to a monster. Robert Plot accurately identified this is the distal end of a femur (the end of the femur that points toward the foot). At first he guessed it might belong to an elephant, but after considering how unlikely it was for elephants to ever have been in England, he guessed that it belonged to a giant.


Year: 1486
Artist: Erhard Reuwich
Originally published in: Perigrinationes ad Terram Sanctam
Now appears in: The Lore of the Unicorn by Odell Shepard
Reuwich included this animal, perhaps a crocodile, along with other beasts "truthfully depicted as we saw them in the Holy Land." A medieval bestiary described the "Crocodryllus" as a 30-foot-long Nile-dwelling creature armed with "horrible teeth and claws." The bestiary continued, "Hypocritical, dissolute and avaricious people have the same nature as this brute — also any people who are puffed up with the vice of pride, dirtied with the corruption of luxury, or haunted with the disease of avarice . . ."


Year: 1672
Scientist/artist: Georg Wedel
Originally published in: Ephemerides
Now appears in: The Feejee Mermaid by Jan Bondeson
Believed to kill merely with a glance, the basilisk was sometimes described as resembling a small snake, but more often as a two-legged, winged creature. Naturally, it had an unusual mode of generation: the basilisk would spring from an egg that had been laid by an old cock and hatched by a toad — all of this carried out in a dunghill. While the basilisk was mythical, some notions leading to its image weren't entirely delusional. Old hens, still capable of laying eggs, could occasionally take on the outward appearance of roosters. And parasitic worms that found their way into eggs may have caused unappetizing basilisk baby "sightings" at breakfast.


Year: 1511
Appears at: Basilisk Supporting the Arms of the City of Basel © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Also discussed in: Fabulous Beasts by Joseph Nigg
Bestiaries and broadsides weren't the only places where fantastic creatures thrived. They also appeared in heraldry. Joseph Nigg writes that early heraldic artists "accepted the griffin, dragon, and other fantastic hybrids as actual beasts." He also explains that "by the time certain animals were rejected as fabulous, images of those creatures has already been established on coats of arms of the most respected families and institutions of Europe." In the 17th century, Sir Thomas Browne, an early skeptic of such outlandish creatures, placed the basilisk in the dubious category.

Deformed rooster

Year: 1664-1678
Scientist/artist: Athanasius Kircher
Originally published in: Mundus Subterraneus
Now appears in: Athanasius Kircher's Theatre of the World by Joscelyn Godwin
Kircher included in his expansive work on the subterranean world this chimerical creature. Based on an earlier depiction in one of Ulisse Aldrovandi's books, the animal shown in Kircher's book shows something that looks suspiciously like a basilisk, but the animal was said to be merely a deformed rooster residing in the Boboli Gardens of Florence. The serpentine tail suggests artistic enhancement.
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Petit lezard

Year: c. 1720
Scientist/artist: Henri Abraham Chatelain
Originally published in: Decorative Images of People and Animals, with a Map of Southern Africa
This picture shows a "Petit Lezard du Cap de Bonne Esperance" from southern Africa. Apparently a very devout lizard, it carried three crosses on its back.

Hydra as portent

Year: 1557
Scientist/artist: Conrad Lycosthenes
Originally published in: Prodigiorum ac Ostentorum Chronicon
Now appears in: "Foils and Fakes" by Suzanne Magnanini in Marvels & Tales Magazine
Midway through the 16th century, Lycosthenes published what he believed to be a comprehensive catalog of portents dating back to when God made the world. According to Lycosthenes, the ominous hydra made its appearance in 1530. The Reformation had begun, and the religious turmoil that took hold of Europe might have had something to do with its new glut of monsters. About the time this was published, however, some naturalists eyed the multi-headed creature with skepticism.


Year: 1658
Scientist: Conrad Gesner
Originally published in: History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents
Now appears in: Curious Woodcuts of Fanciful and Real Beasts by Conrad Gesner and "Ancient Scientific Basis of the 'Great Serpent' from Historical Evidence" by Richard B. Stothers in Isis June 2004
This illustration, published in London by Edward Topsell long after Gesner's death, shows a boa eating a child. Although it looks completely fanciful, the animal might have had some basis in actual observations extending back to Antiquity. In 256 BC, Roman soldiers deployed to northern Africa reputedly watched in horror as "a reptile of astonishing size devoured many of the soldiers as they went down to the river to get water." Lacking visible feet, the reptile apparently "walked" with its ribs, and nothing the soldiers threw at the beast deterred it until they hurled a large stone at its spine. Large snakes have been known to swallow humans, and Stothers has hypothesized that some snakes might have been somewhat larger and ranged farther in centuries past than they do now. Rumored lengths of 90 feet, however, prompted him to observe, "Antiquity doubtless had its P.T. Barnums, too."


Year: 1578
Artist: Pieter van der Borcht the Elder
Originally published as: "The Difficulty of Ruling over a Diverse Nation"
Now appears in: The Difficulty of Ruling over a Diverse Nation in Public Domain Review
Besides a unicorn horn in between its bison horns, and a pointy proboscis projecting off its primary head, this fantastic beast bears a multitude of other animal heads or partial bodies. Scattered among less familiar creatures lurk an elephant, leopard, bear, peacock, stork, rooster, lion and frog. From left to right, the feet fit a feline, human, giant bird and horse. But the artist didn't expect anybody to take this picture literally. It was neither eye-witness account nor omen. It was pure allegory. Perhaps the ongoing difficulty of ruling over a diverse nation was worth it; in the 17th century, bustling cities in the Netherlands nurtured some of the best thinkers and tinkerers of the Enlightenment.

New World scene

Year: c. 1689
Artist: Ferdinand van Kessel
Originally appeared in: Ansichten aus den vier Weltteilen mit Szenen von Tieren ("Views from the Four Parts of the World with Scenes of Animals")
Now appears in: Ferdinand van Kessel's Four Parts of the World in Public Domain Review
Roughly 30 years after his father produced a Four Parts of the World series of paintings, Ferdinand van Kessel produced 68 tiny oil paintings purporting to show scenes from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. The nine-inch-wide landscapes shared characteristics: human-built structures fading into the background of lively scenes of animals, mixtures of real and fanciful creatures, and violence. Like his father, Jan, Ferdinand hailed from a long line of artists, namely Jan and Pieter Bruegel (the Elders). Like his forebears, van Kessel mixed exquisite artistry with moralizing, and a palpable angst about a changing, frightening world. In this scene, labeled as a picture of Olinda in northeastern Brazil, a serpent devours a goatlike animal while a crocodile or alligator munches a drowning human.

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