Medieval bestiary, or “book of beasts” were illustrated volumes made popular during the Middle Ages. These manuscripts described a diverse selection of animals, along with a few plants and rocks. While some of the animals depicted were species native to Western Europe, others were far more exotic, and some were wildly fantasized creatures. Each animal was described by their physical characteristics, although they were often written and illustrated by those who could never have seen the animals they were characterizing. One of the advantages of being an artist during that time—who was to argue? Usually, following the description, a brief story was then linked with a moral or religious allegorical tale.
Some of the most intriguing beasts found in the bestiary are the imaginary animals. Here are a few of them:
- Leocrota— A horse-like creature from Ethiopia and India. Half-lion and half-stag, it possessed the head of a horse with one nightmarish difference: It’s mouth is split open as far as its ears. Within its jaws was a bony ridge instead of teeth to devour its victims. It was said the Leocrota could mimic human speech and call out in the night in order to lure the unsuspecting nearby resident. Some manuscripts say rather than human speech, the Leocrota would mimic the sound of vomiting men in order to ensnare their prey. Perhaps I’m a bad neighbor, but if I heard the sounds of men vomiting outside at night, I wouldn’t rush out to help. Ever. Then again, it might just mean you live smack dab in the middle of a college town. Or it could be the Leocrota ready to gnaw on you with its blade-like mouth-slicer thing.
- Monoceros— This was a unicorn-type creature with the body of a horse and the customary long horn. This is where the similarities end. The Monoceros had feet like an elephant and a tail like a pig. As the Monoceros spent its days trotting through the meadows of low self-esteem, it would kill any man that it happened to come across. The beast’s presence was made known by a loud and horrifying braying sound. The monoceros was too strong to be caught by hunters, except by a trick: if a virgin girl is placed in front of a monoceros and she bares her breasts to it, all of its fierceness will cease and he will lay its head on her bosom, and thus quieted, he is easily caught. Hmmph. Typical.
- Dipsa— one of seventeen different kinds of snakes created when Perseus cut off the head of Medusa. The diminutive dipsas had powerfully potent venom. Its victims were driven mad as their flesh incinerated from the inside out. It’s also said that the snake was constantly thirsty. Makes sense, really. One story claimed that a man came across a tomb with the image of a dipsa while traveling though Libya. It’s fangs were embedded in a man’s foot. In the picture, a group of women are pouring water over him to extinguish the flames. Perhaps underneath it read: “Dipsas: Feel the burn.”
- Jaculus— the Aberdeen Bestiary mentioned this cemetery-wandering serpent known to collect the secrets and wisdom of the dead and whisper it to the living. Since nothing is ever free, they demanded to be fed a bowl of warm beer every day to prevent them from killing those who were looking for advice (from the Ann Landers of the snake world). In other accounts it’s basically a javelin-snake that flies through the air and lands on its prey. A flying snake? That’s not scary at all.
- Bonnacon— this crowd-pleaser of medieval bestiaries had the head of a bull and the body of a horse with useless horns that curled backward. Fortunately, the Bonnacon didn’t need those horns anyway. When it felt threatened, its bowels would evacuate and cover everything within 300 feet with a wretched smelling poop-shower. The Bonnacon’s semi-automatic gut rocket also had the added bonus of burning everything it touched. Or, if you’re one who sees the best in others, maybe the Bonnacon simply had some bad medieval take-out.
Try It: Bestiary Poetry
Channel your inner child and create your own imaginary animal. What are its characteristics? Is it lethal, dangerous, venomous, or friendly? What makes your beast unique? Write a poem describing your named creature and share it with us in our mini Tweetspeak Bestiary in the comments section below.
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Thanks to everyone who participated in last week’s poetry prompt. Here is a poem from Rick about a legendary beast of a fish:
Photo by Mark Veraart. Creative Commons via Flickr.
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How to Write a Poem uses images like the buzz, the switch, the wave—from the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry”—to guide writers into new ways of writing poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology and prompts included.
“How to Write a Poem is a classroom must-have.”
—Callie Feyen, English Teacher, Maryland
- Poetry Prompt: Misunderstood Lion - March 19, 2018
- Animate: Lions & Lambs Poetry Prompt - March 12, 2018
- Poetry Prompt: Behind the Velvet Rope - February 26, 2018
My stillness unnerved them,
devouring sixty inches of their minds:
this was the mighty Muskingum,
its cataract, falling no further
than half a mile upstream.
A small hope, shared by many:
after the flood of ’50―they’d find me
moved. Yet, when a month of mud
cleared, I seemed longer and fatter than before,
near the dock where the cattails clatter.
Some swore through time, red-faced,
it was a keelhauled bow they saw,
something sunk and bogged down,
sucked-in so much the river that plucked
off seven bridges like steel flowers let it be.
Their swears evolved to dares for feats
and fears of wrestling with such a beast.
Wives were taxed for recipes of blood
and dough and meats, yet through years
of snarls and snells, they never saw me eat.
One morning I was gone, so fell their lore.
The mooring dried and shriveled,
wobbled on its legs, and stories,
shifted to the past like chum, to tell
of my return, and languid lingered:
their thoughts beyond the cast, not one for me:
how the river unseen sifted through my
solitary heart and why, one night,
as with elusive poems and dreams,
I raised my dorsal mast and drifted on.
—by Rick Maxson