03 MARCH, 2014
By: Maria Popova
A vibrant dance across the global spectrum of the popular imagination.
“Legendary lands … have only one characteristic in common: whether they depend on ancient legends whose origins are lost in the mists of time or whether they are an effect of a modern invention, they have created flows of belief,” Umberto Eco wrote in his illustrated meditation on imaginary places. But as much as fictional lands might hold enduring allure, what captivates our shared imagination even more are the fictional and mythic creatures of our cultural folklore, both ancient and modern. That’s precisely what writer Davide Cali and illustrator Gabriela Giandelli explore in Monsters and Legends (public library) — a vibrant and whimsical volume from independent British children’s book press Flying Eye Books, which also gave us the illustrated chronicle of Shackleton’s historic expedition. From mermaids and unicorns to Cyclops and giant squid to vampires and zombies, Giandelli’s breathtaking illustrations and Cali’s illuminating stories about the origin of each mythic creature bring to life the beings that haunt our collective conscience, as well as those we secretly fear — or hope — exist in some mystical corner of what we concede is reality.
In South America, we meet the stinky Mapiguari, a giant nocturnal animal with long arms and claws, the skin of a reptile, and bright red hair, believed to roam the Amazon jungle. Legend has it, the creature avoids water, which might account for its smell. Some locals and other believers think it’s a giant sloth — a species that disappeared more than 10,000 years ago. Skeptics, meanwhile, consider it the mistaken mashup of a regular sloth and an armadillo, which terrified nighttime travelers in the jungle somehow remixed in their frightful imagination.
But one of the most common species-mashups is the dragon, a mythic being that appears in various incarnations in many cultures, with powers ranging from the destructive to the divine.
In every culture, there is a creature resembling a Dragon. It often appears as a symbol of life and power, a creative or protective spirit closer to a god than an actual animal. That’s certainly true in the case of Huang Long in Chinese mythology, or Quetzalcoatl, the Aztecs’ feathered serpent.
Commonly depicted with a snake’s body, lizard’s legs, eagle’s talons, crocodile’s jaws, lion’s teeth and bat-like wings, the Dragon is a combination of several different animals. Among the Dragon’s many portrayals is the Hydra of Greek mythology — a vicious sea monster with seven heads. Two of the most famous Hydras are the Lernaean Hydra, which was killed by Hercules, and Scylla, which was rumored to live in the depths of the strait in Messina.
In Africa, we find a legendary 20-foot-long Nile Crocodile that haunted Lake Tanganyika, the world’s second-largest freshwater lake, for years. Named Gustave by the locals and alleged to have eaten at least 300 people, the giant croc lived for sixty years and survived countless capture attempts, until hunters managed to slay him in 2005. Once measured, Gustave turned out to be just a regular Nile Crocodile, 13 feet long — not that unusual for a species that can grow up to 16 feet in length.
In the same region, the dinosaur-like Mokele-mbembe awaits us:
800 kilometers north of Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, is a vast, swampy area where rumors tell of a frightening creature — the Mokele-mbembe. Described for the first time by a French missionary in the 18th century, he claimed the Mokele-mbembe was as big as an elephant, with a small snake-like head, a 2 to 3 meter long neck, hippopotamus feet and a crocodile tail.
The description sounds remarkably similar to the Sauropods, a group of animals that disappeared 65.5 million years ago! From 1913 onwards, expeditions set out in search of the Mokele-mbembe. But they returned with little more than a few pictures and some vague footage. According to some theories the Mokele-mbembe might be an unknown species of monitor lizard.
Others say it’s a softshell turtle whose long neck, small head and aggressive attitude match the description of the monster. The softshell turtle isn’t as big as the legendary Mokele-mbembe but skeptics still argue that it is possible that Pygmies, terrified of an animal that they didn’t know, got the measurements wrong. They claim that this situation is far more likely to be the case than that a dinosaur is living quietly in Africa without anybody ever having taken its picture.
Then comes a mythic creature that has enjoyed a resurgence as a visual meme of the social-web era:
The Kraken is a gigantic legendary sea monster. Its name comes from the Norwegian word krake, meaning “a twisted or crooked animal.” The origin of the Kraken myth goes back to the 13th century, but it’s not until the 18th and 19th centuries that sailor stories about the Kraken really start multiplying! Stories were told of ships being attacked and destroyed by a creature with tentacles over a kilometer long. Carl Linnaeus … mentioned the Kraken in his first book in 1735, under the scientific name of Microcosmus marinus, but it doesn’t appear in his following books, as he couldn’t prove its existence.
Roald Dahl's Gremlins
One of the most charming entries highlights a tiny mischievous creature from Irish folklore, the Gremlin, brought back into the popular imagination by beloved children’s book author Roald Dahl. In 1942, long before he made a name for himself with this children’s stories, Dahl was a pilot in the Royal Air Force, flying a B-25 Mitchell bomber. A mechanical malfunction on one of his flights resulted in a forced landing, after which Dahl took it upon himself to inform the unsuspecting public that Gremlins had been terrorizing the Royal Air Force for months — pilots had created their own folklore, blaming the legendary creatures for the high rate of breakdowns. The myth, of course, was just a sandbox for Dahl’s imagination as a storyteller — the following year, he published The Gremlins, his first children’s book.
As we move closer to the present day, we meet the Chupacabra, a creature that preys on chickens and goats, named after the Spanish for “goat sucker.” Witness accounts from Latin America and Florida describe it as a hairless kangaroo with the head of a dog, which acts like a vampire coyote that sucks its prey dry of blood. Some suspect it was the progeny of genetic experiments, while others abandon all attempts at plausibility and say it came from outer space. The Chupacabra is also believed to possess several paranormal superpowers, such as the ability to change color and hypnotize its prey via telepathy.
Mythic as this sounds, certain species of real animals have recently been found to employ a kind of “mind control” over their prey — perhaps proof that all myth, including religion, for that matter, is a tapestry woven of our greatest immaterial fears and hopes, with a few threats of material reality.
Indeed, Cali takes care to balance the mythology with a healthy dose of myth-busting that would make Carl Sagan proud. Each myth is followed by a “What We Know” section that grounds us with reality-based evidence:
The videos of the Chupacabra, often blurry and hard to follow, and the pictures, usually faked, don’t help much with identifying the creature. But if you trust the descriptions, the Chupacabra looks a lot like a rare species of Mexican hairless dog called Xoloitzcuintle.
DNA tests on dead specimens have proven that it is an ordinary dog with nothing extraterrestrial about it at all.
And of course no taxonomy of modern folklore would be complete without everyone’s favorite pop culture meme:
Zombies, or Walking Dead, [are] regular actors in horror movies… But Zombie stories, like Werewolf stories or Vampire stories, have their roots in reality. Well, almost… In Haiti people practice a religion called Voodoo that holds magic and superstition in high regard. It is thought that a Bokor — a Voodoo sorcerer — can steal someone’s soul, wake him or her from the death and turn them into a slave — a Zombie.
Cali once again contrasts the myth with the empirical evidence:
A study conducted in the 1980s found that the Bokor probably controlled people using a neurotoxin created from the poison of the fugu, a type of pufferfish. The neurotoxin causes a state of apparent death and the supposed complete obedience of the “exhumed corpse.” In reality, Zombies are just drugged slaves forced to work in sugar plantations. Obedient workers that never go on strike!
Monsters and Legends is bound to tickle the imagination and poke a friendly stick at superstition, all while enchanting us with irresistibly gorgeous illustrations. For a different octave of the siren song of the mythic, complement it with Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands and Codex Seraphinianus, history’s most bizarre and beautiful encyclopedia of the imaginary.
Images courtesy of Flying Eye Books
Donating = Loving
Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.
You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.