The pages of history are populated with bizarre folklore creatures.
Nowadays, with the blank areas of the maps mostly filled, there are fewer places for strange beasts and outlandish peoples to lurk. It is more difficult to put yourself in a bygone mindset and imagine existing in an era where there was a real possibility that these beasties existed.
Imagine living knowing that, somewhere in an unexplored section of the world, things like this might walk…
Pliny the Elder is responsible for a plethora of strange creatures making their way into European folklore.
Pliny wrote the Natural History, a compilation of his lifetime of study and a mix of fact and fable. Directly or indirectly through quotations by later authors, his work had an immeasurable influence on medieval bestiaries and similar writing.
Apparently the Monopod, named for their singular lower limb, lived in Ethiopia. They would lie on their backs on the ground to shade themselves from the sun with their oversized foot.
The Monopods “have only one leg and are wonderfully speedy”.
The image above and the next two below come from the Nuremberg Chronicle, printed in 1493. The Chronicle recounts the history of the Christian world and was written in Latin by Hartmann Schedel. Michael Wolgemut lavishly illustrated the original edition with woodcuts making it an invaluable example of the period’s folklore and well worth a look.
Medieval travellers, such as Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and Marco Polo, both mention Cynocephali.
Cynocephali are, quite simply, a tribe of men with dog’s heads.
Polo supposedly met them on the island of Angamanain. He reported that they grew spices but were cruel and looked like big mastiff dogs. Giovanni said the armies of Ogedei Khan met a tribe living on the Northern Ocean.
Of course, not all medieval people fully believed these tales of wonders from far-off lands. Yet, they had enough impact that theologian Augustine of Hippo mentioned them in his City of God. He wrote a section considering if they were descendants of Adam, or if they simply did not exist at all.
The tales of Blemmyes may date as far back as Herodotus. They were certainly well established by the early middle ages.
In the old French ‘Roman d’Alexandre en prose’, Alexander is said to encounter some headless men and captures them. They were 6-foot tall, with long beards and golden skin.
These fellows were also supposedly found in Ethiopia. In The Travels of Sir John Mandeville he says he meets some in the Andaman Islands between India and Myanmar.
They are often depicted carrying weapons and seem to be well-equipped to defend themselves.
(BL Royal MS 20 B xx, 1420)
Some sources treat the monocerus and the unicorn as the same beast, while others consider them two very different creatures.
The monocerus is described as having the head of a stag, the body of a horse, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn growing from the forehead.
(Bodleian Library, Ashmole Bestiary, Folio 21r)
The symbolism of the monocerus is similar to that of the unicorn, representing humility and purity. It is a wild creature but can be captured by a maiden. It’s horn can detect poison and work as an antidote to it.
The appearance of the monocerus has often been compared to a rhinoceros but let us not spoil the fun of folklore with facts.
(Kongelige Bibliotek, 1633, Folio 55v)
The medieval salamander is fascinating.
A cold animal, it is unharmed in fire. It is highly poisonous and as Isidore of Seville said in the 7th Century: “If it crawls into a tree it poisons all of the fruit, and anyone who eats the fruit will die; if it falls in a well it poisons the water so that any who drink it die.”
The salamander was symbolic of the righteous – like a saint untouched by flame.
Some folklore creatures are much easier to scientifically explain.
The Sea Monk was a folklore staple from the 15th Century. They were a fish found in the sea near Denmark, said to resemble a monk on first impression.
Modern science points to angel sharks as the most likely candidate for their reallife counterpart. They are hardly the most sensational creature from folklore but I included these because personally I find them incredibly creepy looking.
There are many more such critters in medieval folklore. I have tried to pick examples that are less well-known but deserving of remembering. A fun resource to check out is the Medieval Bestiary.
Let me know your favourite!