Tuesday 5 July 2016

Written in Water #11: Fauna of the Far-Away Places

St. Anthony and the Centaur, by Francesco Guarino, 1642.
I picked this one because the look on Anthony's face cracks me up.

As a kid, I was always fascinated by monsters. Movies like Jason and the Argonauts, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Clash of the Titans, Warlords of Atlantis, and a dozen others were always a source of excitement for me, and my favourite bits were always the bits with the amazing Harryhausen monsters. It was a picture of a Lemurian that made me care about the Theosophists. I got older and got into Dungeons & Dragons, and the monsters were always the thing I had most fun reading about.

My favourite D&D monster was always the Peryton. It's a relatively obscure one, but I hooked onto it from the beginning. It's a flesh-eating predator with the head of a stag, the body of a bird of prey and the shadow of a man. I like weird shadows. I like animals with antlers. It stands to reason. I have never played a D&D game where I haven't used Perytons.
Perytons, snapped from my old Dungeon Master's Guide.

So imagine my delight when, aged 20, I read in The Book of Imaginary Beings by Borges that the Peryton was a mythological creature! That it was actually a creature prophesied to bring about the Fall of Rome and that it came from Atlantis. Rome and Atlantis? Oh hell yes.

Actually, I fell prey to the same mistake that the writers of the original Monster Manual did. Borges's book (which you should read because it is wonderful) is a complex exercise of the imagination. He quotes monsters from stories, he catalogues mythological creatures... and he makes up some of his own. The Peryton is one of them, and looking at the Peryton entry in The Book of Imaginary Beings closely, it cites a destroyed book that quotes a lost treatise (and how can you quote a book you haven't seen, that no longer exists?)

Borges knows what he's doing there. He was all about that sort of thing, about hiding meanings in plain sight (do yourself a favour and read his story "The South" when you have a chance. It's wonderful). But then that's why I am so fond of him. Without Borges, half of the stuff I wrote for White Wolf would never have happened. I have no doubt that whichever of the writers of the Monster Manual it was just thought that the Peryton was an old mythological creature and fair game for hit dice and treasure statistics.

Just like I did.

The point is that these creatures we read about are not set in stone. Mythologies we think are very old are still constantly changing, being added to.

Another example, when I was researching Anthropophagi the other day (Man-Eaters, remember), I found that people have for a long time thought that the Man-Eaters were the same as the Blemmyes, the Headless Men, who have their faces on their chests. Now the Headless Men are a really ancient idea. Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BCE, includes them in the Historiai (the earliest work of narrative historiography) along with kynokephaloi (dog-headed men), phoenixes and giant ants. 
15th century, Nuremberg.
But the confusion with the Man-Eaters, that's relatively recent, and entirely because of this one line in Othello, Act 1, Scene 3:
It was my hint to speak, — such was the process;
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.

And you see, he's not saying the Blemmyes are the Anthropophagi, he's mentioning them in the same breath. But the association got into people's heads. Thanks, Shakespeare.

Our ideas of monsters and creatures change. And during that period of historical collapse I keep banging on about this was still the case. And the interesting thing is, the Church didn't always react how you think it might have.

OK, listen. This is from the 5th Century Life of Saint Paul the Hermit, by Jerome. Paul the Hermit was said to have lived in a cave for a hundred years, and is supposed to have been the first hermit. In this incident, Antony (and Antony is like Batman – he's always having guest spots in other people's stories because he's the most popular character) has been told in a dream to find Paul in the desert. He is wondering out loud where to go when this happens.
Soon after, he saw a creature like a man mixed up with a horse, like the ones that poets usually call Hippocentaurs. He made the sign of the cross on his forehead when he saw the Centaur, and said, "Hey, you! Where does God's servant live in these parts?"

And the creature, gnashing his teeth and grinding out his words rather than speaking them, tried in some weird language to get out of his mouth the most polite conversation he could. He pointed with his right hand to show the way. Then he galloped off across the plain and disappeared from view. We don't actually know if this was the Devil taking this shape to scare Antony or if (and this is more likely) the far-off desert that gives birth to strange creatures produced this one too.

Antony was amazed. He carried on travelling, thinking about the thing he'd seen. It was soon after that, as he traversed a rocky pass, that he saw this little dwarfish being who had its nostrils joined together as one, and twisting horns on its forehead, and goat hooves on its feet. Antony was astonished by this, but he took up faith as his shield and hope as his armour, like a warrior.

But what the creature did was to offer him some dates, as a peacemaking gesture. When Antony realised this and took a few steps forward, and asked the creature who he was.

"I'm just an ordinary person! I live around here with my tribe. The pagan people hereabouts get it all wrong and worship us as Fauns, and Satyrs, and Incubi. My tribe sent me as a representative to find you. We ask that you pray to our common God for us. We know that He once came down to save the world, and his call was heard throughout the universe."
Jerome, The Life of Saint Paul the Hermit, 7-8
What interests me is that there's a clear distinction made here. Another version of Paul's story exists, an older one that Jerome is working from, and in that one the centaur's a demon in disguise.

But Jerome makes a clear distinction between supernatural creatures and far-away creatures. In fact, he even makes a point of saying that the little faun is not only just an average guy (only with horns and hooves and a funny nose) but one who's already converted to Christianity and is even better at it than the humans in the nearby city.

He's not talking about mythological creatures, he's talking about animals he hasn't seen. And we forget that distinction. Medusa, the Chimera, Pegasus, the Hydra, these are the divine monsters of stories about gods and heroes. But these are not Blemmyes, Man-eaters and Skiapodes. Those creatures, like the ones in Jerome's story, are creatures of the natural world, who are strange, but real, only unseen because they live far away.

I like the animalistic details in Antony's encounter. I cannot help imagining Jerome's monsters as hairy, smelly, matted, flecked with spittle and earth. And that's important. because the concept here is of a creature that's just a creature, just as wondrous as, say, a giraffe is (and don't underestimate that – there have been periods in history where people have had difficulty believing in giraffes as credible creatures, and seriously have you ever really looked at a giraffe?)

We get so familiar with animals from our media that we have become blind to how alien they are.

But look into the eye of a goat. Find a jellyfish or a crab washed up on a beach. Watch a snail. The life we take for granted is full of an alien wonder, quite divorced from any idea of the supernatural. If a creature with hourglass eyes can live on a farm, if a caterpillar can become a butterfly, if a creature with tentacles can live in the sea, if an elephant can hold things with its nose, why can't a little man with goat legs live in the desert and share his dates? Why can't you ask directions of a Centaur?