02 October 2009

Bestiary 201: Composite Beasts

For today’s bestiary lesson, we’re going to talk about a few composite creatures – those that seem to be made of the leftovers of Creation.

First, the Manticore. The Manticore is made of three elements. It has the face of a man, the blood-red body of a lion, and the tail of a scorpion. It’s from India and feasts on the flesh of men with its rows of sharp teeth. Its voice is that of pipes, or pipes blended with trumpets – somewhat incongruous for such a terrifying beast.

The Manticore, because of its human face, is often related to the Sphinx, even going so far as to make its prey answer riddles. Spiritually, it represents fraud because its face hides its true nature.

The Leucrota is another impossible combination made from the offspring of a hyena and a lioness. Now, through countless National Geographic Specials, lots of Animal Planet and, of course, “The Lion King,” we know that lions and hyenas do NOT get along, so unless there’s some kind of interspecies Romeo and Juliet thing that happened along the way, plus a good dose of miraculous genetic coding, this particular beast never existed.

Pliny the Elder went even further than hyena/lion in his description: “The leucrocota is the size of an ass, and has the neck, tail and breast of a lion, the haunches of a stag, cloven hooves, a badger's head, and a mouth that opens from ear to ear, with ridges of bone instead of teeth. It is the swiftest of wild animals, and is said to be able to imitate the human voice.”

The next two aren’t so much composite creatures in description, as much as they’re shown that way in illustration.

The Jaculus is a flying serpent often depicted with a serpent’s body, but the wings of a bird and the haunches of a beast. It waits in trees for prey to pass beneath, then jumps down and kills it.

The Cerastes is very likely a Horned Viper, which is a real snake that lives in the Sahara Desert. The medieval illustration, however, depicts a serpent with the literal head of a horned ram.

My bestiary story has been moved back in my writing queue, so there’s no guarantee on what I’ll be talking about next time I blog. I may continue in this vein, I may go back to pantheons of gods – you just never know, so stay tuned!
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