Posts Tagged ‘Medieval bestiaries’

This is probably going to be a short one, partially because I’m busy with other endeavors, and partially because wordpress changed how their tracker widgit works and I now have no idea if anyone is actually reading this blog.  Really folks, a few comments so I know this is amusing to just me and two or three friends would do a writers confidence a world of good.  This is number twenty, let’s hear some shout outs.

And though this post may be short and sweet, it’s about one of my favorite cuddly wuddly balls of death ever.  Ladies and gentle-beings, my friend Manny, the manticore.

(Holds up Hand Puppet, looks at it grinning at me, and quietly puts it away and takes my meds.)

… Now, most people think manticores are Greek beasties, popularized by Pliny and spread around medieval bestiaries with the same frequency of griffin poop.   You’d have no idea how often those little balls in the floral patterns around coat of arms are really griffin feces.  Grapes?  Nuts? Abstract bits of frippery?  Don’t you believe it, griffin droppings all the way.

Actually, the manticore isn’t a Greek beastie at all, it’s up and up Persian, and at least as old as the Egyptian sphinx.  It’s name literally translates as man-eater, and that’s what it likes to do.  Crunch men, women, and tasty children between three rows of pointy teeth.  With the body of a red lion and the head of a man, that three tooth grin is what gives orthodontists the world over a case of the vapors.

After the basic form, man headed grinning lion, which is creepy enough, some later manticore gained appendages like horns, dragon’s wings, and a scorpion tail.  Of all these, the scorpion tail is the most common and most traditional.  In fact, the manticore is said to have a variety of poisonous outlets.  Its red lions fur often hides poison tipped quills, which the beast can throw with disturbing accuracy.  In some legends the manticore’s poison is some of the deadliest in the world.   Yet in others, it prefers to paralyze its victims so it has time to mock and strip away any pesky clothing that might get stuck in its teeth.  Because there is nothing quite so yummy as chilled, quivering peasant.

Now I personally have never found out just what the manticore meant in heraldry.  I half imagine that a few families, in an effort to be different, decided to shake things up from the usual hippogriff and unicorn motif.  It would be like Paris Hilton changing her little dog for a gila-monster.  It would cause talk, it would, but it  wouldn’t be exactly a wise idea.

And big surprise, later on the church made the poor dragon-winged man-eater a sign of the devil.  More amusingly, some see it as a unholy cross of the zodiac signs scorpio, aquarius, and leo.  Never mind that the Persians had a completely different astrological system.  Never mind that the manticore didn’t bother tempting people into sin or bringing about evil.  It ate people, often slowly and painfully, but that’s about it.  You might as well make a rabid polar bear the symbol of the devil.

In fact, thats a great idea for a cartoon series.  He can be chased off by the koala pope.

There have been incidents of the manticore showing up in graffiti on church walls.  Not because the manticore is evil, but because it would really piss off the church.  And I don’t mean modern graffiti either, I mean sixteenth-century graffiti.  When the crips and bloods were religious orders.

As for the manticore itself, it’s one of those sweet cute creatures I feel sorry for.  Much like the stories of man eating tigers in India. You snack on one or two wandering school children and you get a bad wrap forever.  The only reason there aren’t more stories of manticore hunters is because the Persians didn’t go chasing after their monsters like later knights.  They usually had since to leave the beasts alone in teh wilderness, and only took necessary measures when the creepy crawlies started to become a real nuisance to the livestock.

Also, a big fire breathing lizard is probably an easier target than something that grins at you after you are paralyzed.

But why can’t the poor little manticores be left alone to poison and snack on hapless people in peace, like the gods intended?  It’s not like you are going to miss a bat-winged grinning lion trying to sneak up on you.  Its grin doesn’t make it the ruddy cheshire cat, able to appear and gobble you up at a moment’s notice.  I think that time frame-needed a serious dose of PETA, Persians for Ethical Treatment of Anthropophages.

Writing Prompts

People for Ethical Treatment of Anthropophages, that’s a brilliant idea that is.

Uses for manticore quills besides poison.  I’m thinking hats.

Mythological graffiti artists.  I’m picturing huge letters above a great serpent.  THY ASS’TH BE DRAGON


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Another twofer this week.  There are some creatures out there that are so related, that one can’t help but talk about them together.  Kissing cousins of the monster world if you will.  Though considering the parentage of this particular pair of cousins, one has to seriously worry about the potential of truly hideous results from inbreeding.

The pair of monsters I’d like to look at this week are the basilisk and the cockatrice.  Yes, the demented schoolboy in me giggles a bit when I say the last one.  Actually, he gets a bit of a smirk over the first one too, even if it only sounds like it should be dirty.   Proof that bad things can come in small, and very ugly, packages, both of these creatures tend to be depicted at only a little over a foot in length.  Yet they are so deadly that just their gaze has been known to kill, their passage destroys crops, and their breath can blind.

We’ll go with the basilisk first, the king of serpents.  Often shown as little more than a snake with a row of bony frills on its head in the shape of a crown, this little beast is the result of a toad or snake egg being fertilized and hatched by a cockerel.  One has to more or less assume the cockerel was bewitched, or at very least drunk, and I don’t even know how to go about collecting viable eggs from a toad.  Sometimes the beast has small chicken legs, up to a dozen in some of the more imaginative pictures, and a beak like snout, but it’s the crown that’s important.  This guy is the snake that all others bow to, and its very touch is as deadly as any bite.  It can petrify with a glare, though most reports mean petrify as in stun, more than the turn them to stone Medusa variety.  It fears only the scent of weasels, and some legends say that it drops dead when it sees its own hideous reflection or hears the sound of a cock crow.

Presumably because the cock is shouting for it’s adopted son and the kid is having a heart attack out of embarrassment.

The weasel bit is interesting, because one of the more common explanations of basilisk stories is that it is a medieval expansion of tales about cobras.  The crown would be the cobra’s hood and markings, the deadly weasels would be the closest thing most of Europe knew to mongooses.  This explanation actually makes a good deal of sense, and it holds true for the cockatrice as well, though the physical description bit falls right out the window.

The cockatrice starts out as the reverse of the basilisk, not in form, but in birthing.  Here you take the egg of a cockerel and have a toad fertilize and hatch.  Obvious problem, roosters don’t lay eggs, at least not willingly.  Okay okay, a ‘cock’s egg’ often meant a yokeless egg, which were thought to be left by roosters.  However, you have to crack one open to find out if it is yokeless right?  So you can’t have the toad do its motherly duty then.

One could imagine some Dark Age sorcerer using a perverse tincture to bring about the results, but that giggling kid of me is thinking about the Looney Tunes cartoon with Daffy laying golden eggs for the mobsters.  “You never know what you can do till you put your mind to something.”

In any case, the cockatrice is a whole lot more interesting physically.  Stories of it developed a little later, when people were having more fun with medieval bestiaries.  Imagine a tiny dragon, two legged, barely a foot long, and with the head of a rooster.  So poisonous its spit can ruin a water supply if it drinks there too long. Again, its mortal enemy is the weasel, apparently the lithe little rodents are immune to the poison.  You toss a weasel in a cockatrice burrow, spotted because all the plants around it are dying, and the weasel takes care of your problem.

Without a doubt, basilisks and cockatrice are solitary creatures. They are ill tempered and it’s hard to make friends when you’ve got the real evil eye going for you.  Considering that they don’t even have proper parents, you almost feel sorry for the little guys.  Never fear though, there were lots and lots of old school alchemists and magicians who would have loved to keep one of the wee buggers as a pet.  Or at least as a specimen.   With mirrored gloves and masks they could harvest all sorts of things from the unnatural lizards.  Poisons and potions galore call for basilisk bits and cockatrice crumbs.  Turning copper to gold with their urine was just a start. Many people trying to make the elixir of life started out by gathering some of the most deadly of ingredients, and on the top of that list was pretty much anything that came from our friendly little monsters.

You’d be grumpy too if you were them.  Right up till they sent the weasels for you.


Writing Prompts


I have to go there. Basilisk breeding programs.  What toads work best with which types of cocks?  What is the most fashionable basilisk this year?  I can just see Paris Hilton with one in her purse, carefully neutered and dyed pink.


Cockatrice chemical warfare.  Although this one has been done a time or too.  The trick isn’t using the buggers, it’s clearing them out when you are done.


What does happen if you finally get two cockatrice or basilisk to mate?  Or do you need one of each?  Results widely vary; do not try this at home.

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