With Halloween rapidly approaching, we’re well into the season of monsters and the bizarre, but if we look back through time we’ll see that humans have been interested in strange creatures for millennia.
Encyclopedias that described the natural world gained popularity in the Middle Ages. Topics ranged from the Genesis story to the nature of God to people and their daily activities. However, it is their sections on animals, called “bestiaries,” that we most often remember. Medieval writers often attempted to explain the characteristics and names of the beasts that appeared on their pages. In many cases, they drew allegorical connections between nature and spiritual concepts applicable to the average person.
Most of the creatures portrayed actually existed, but presented alongside them were numerous mythical beasts with fantastical abilities. Even some of the real animals were depicted with special powers (like in number 6 on this list).
In celebration of the holiday, here’s a list of ten weird medieval beasts!
Mentions of amphisbaena date as far back as the first century A.D./C.E, but by the seventh century, depictions had become fairly standardized. Amphisbaena were believed to be serpents with glowing eyes and two heads, one in the normal location and one on the tail. Isidore of Seville, a seventh-century monk, described their unusual mode of locomotion: “It advances with both heads leading, its body trailing in a loop.” In the Middle Ages, manuscript illuminators illustrated amphisbaena even more whimsically, giving them wings and clawed feet.
Like the amphisbaena, the bonnacon appears to have been first mentioned in the first century. Writers often characterized it as a bull-like creature with a horse’s mane and curled horns. Because their horns were curled, bonnacon couldn’t use them for defense and instead depended on something much more outlandish. According to Pliny the Elder, a Roman first-century writer, “It runs away, while releasing a trail of dung that can cover three furlongs. Contact with the dung burns pursuers as though they had touched fire.”
By the medieval period, the legend of the bonnacon had become further exaggerated. Instead of following Pliny’s description, medieval writers stated that the beast’s dung could cover a three-acre span and ignite anything it touched!
Maybe medieval writers had an obsession with animal excrement, because a caladrius’ dung was believed to cure cataracts. That, however, was not the only thing that made the birds extraordinary. Spotless with pure white feathers, they could predict whether an ill person would die and heal him or her of the sickness. As the writer of the Aberdeen Bestiary explained,
“If, therefore, a man’s illness is fatal, the caladrius will turn its head away from the sick man as soon as it sees him, and everyone knows that the man is going to die. But if the man’s sickness is one from which he will recover, the bird looks him in the face and takes the entire illness upon itself; it flies up into the air, towards the sun, burns off the sickness and scatters it, and the sick man is cured.”
Writers of medieval bestiaries generally depicted birds in a positive way, and the hercynia was no exception. Frequently referred to as glowing creatures, they were believed to have bright coats of feathers that emitted light in darkness. Isidore of Seville’s seventh-century description of them set the pattern for how they would be portrayed throughout the Middle Ages: “Their feathers sparkle so much in the shade that, however dark the night is with thick shadows, these feathers, when placed on the ground, give off light that helps to mark the way, and the sign of the glittering feathers makes clear the direction of the path.”
Known alternatively as “darters,” “javelins,” and “javelin-snakes,” jaculi were believed to be flying serpents that hid in trees. When a person or an animal passed underneath, the jaculus would launch itself from the branches and attempt to kill the passerby. Isidore’s Etymologiae further hinted that jaculi were somehow related to sirena, mythical winged venomous serpents native to Arabia.
Medieval representations of panthers were far more fantastical than the real creature. In the Roman period, they were supposedly fearsome brutes, but in the seventh century, Isidore wrote that they were gentle, spotted beasts that only gave birth once. By the composition of the Aberdeen Bestiary in the 1100s, writers had finally given them a well-defined set of qualities:
“[The panther is] multi-coloured, very beautiful and extremely gentle. . . . It has only the dragon as an enemy. When it has fed and is full, it hides in its den and sleeps. After three days it awakes from its sleep and gives a great roar, and from its mouth comes a very sweet odour, as if it were a mixture of every perfume. When other animals hear its voice, they follow wherever it goes, because of the sweetness of its scent. Only the dragon, hearing its voice, is seized by fear and flees into the caves beneath the earth. There, unable to bear the scent, it grows numbed within itself and remains motionless, as if dead.”
The mythical salamander has survived into modern pop-fantasy as a serpent that either dwells in or resists flames, but, historically, there’s more to the story. Its invulnerability to fire was so acknowledged that Saint Augustine, writing in the fifth century, suggested it was evidence that condemned souls could burn in hell without being consumed by the flames. As if being fireproof wasn’t enough, salamanders were believed to be able to extinguish flames on contact (perhaps making them the best thing to have around an angry bonnacon). They were also regarded as highly dangerous, being so venomous that one bite could contaminate all the fruit on a tree or all the water in a well.
In the early Middle Ages, saura were described as serpents that went blind over time but could miraculously recover their sight. According to Isidore of Seville, “It goes into a chink in an east-facing wall, and stretches out and receives light when the sun rises.” Because of this, artists regularly depicted them climbing through a wall and looking toward the sun. Since the creatures in bestiaries were often used to represent spiritual lessons, it’s possible that the saura was meant to illustrate the resurrection of Christ, spiritual rebirth, or the Christian theme of leaving spiritual darkness for the light of salvation.
Mythical serpents with shimmering scales, scitalis appear to have been mentioned as early as the first century A.D./C.E. In the Middle Ages, they were believed to be so hot-humored that they could shed their skin in the middle of winter. However, their uniqueness came from their scales, which were so colorful and captivating that anything that looked at them would be temporarily stunned. Isidore even claimed that this was how scitalis caught their dinner: “Because it is rather slow at crawling, it captures those it is too slow to catch when they are mesmerized and wondering at it.”
Similar to the scitalis, mentions of the yale date as far back as the first century, and by the Middle Ages, writers commonly mentioned them in bestiaries. The descriptions were all the same: a black, horse-sized creature with tusks. Atop the yale’s head was a pair of exceptionally long, moveable horns that it used in combat. As the writer of the Aberdeen Bestiary put it, “[The horns] are not fixed but move as the needs of fighting require; the yale advances one of them as it fights, folding the other back, so that if the tip of the first is damaged by a blow, it is replaced by the point of the second.”
- The Aberdeen Bestiary.
- Isidore of Seville. Etymologiae. Translated by Stephen A. Barney, et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
- The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages, a website maintained by David Badke.
- “Ten Strange Medieval Animals You Might Not Have Heard Of,” on Medievalists.net.
Further images can also be found in the Northumberland Bestiary and Montague Rhodes James’ commentary on the Peterborough Psalter and Bestiary.