Thursday, July 11, 2013


What lurks below
Possible reality for some of our mythical monsters? Sounds entertaining to me. Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters by Matt Kaplan covers a pantheon of monsters, some I'd never heard of like a Rukh (an oversized bird), and those that fill my favourite movie genre (Zombies). Included are the overdone Vampire (I've never been a vampire fan) and Frankenstein's monster (the monster that keeps getting stuck with his creators name). Not quite as funny as Mary Roach, Kaplan's style still contained plenty of humour – how else could one approach this topic?

Some of his links seemed a bit tenuous, but entertaining non-the-less. For example, I didn't know toads were a component of Haitian potions to make zombies. Excretions from toads may have induced the berserker rages from Norse legend, leaving me picturing groups of Vikings standing around licking toads. We keep an assortment of toads in my home, making toad induced zombie-states and berserker-rages a second reason not to lick the toads*.

My favourite monsters turned out to be the sea-monsters. When I'm out at sea, I often wonder what lurks under the surface and I'm well aware the ocean is more powerful than any man made contraption that I might be standing in. To quote the book:

... on modern vessels there are often radios, life rafts that automatically pop open if the boats are struck by rogue waves, and emergency beacons that will alert rescue teams if the ship goes down, but even so, these essential bits of safety equipment do little to assuage a primal fear of vulnerability associated with the sea. For ancient mariners, the ocean was a powerful and dangerous force.

From the fear of the sea, ancient Greeks brought us Charybdis – a living whirlpool with a reputation of eating men alive and their ships too. She's a monster composed of water, without physical form, making her unique among the ancient monsters. I picture her as the maelstrom out of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, sucking whole ships in (except everyone would be wearing outfits out of the 1981 Clash of the Titans). Kaplan argues Charybdis' creation grew out of a fear of drowning and observations of tidal whirlpools – meaning that the ancient Greeks dabbled in oceanography, as any group that included mariners would. Perhaps Greek mariners observed the tidal whirlpools that form in the waters between Sicily and the boot of Italy.

Out of the Book of Job came the hulking Leviathan – a clearly male sea-monster. This monster has form unlike Charybdis, and he uses it for destruction. In the book, this monster's biblical description was dissected like a specimen in a lab. The monster's form could have originated from decaying carcases washed ashore, fossilized remains of sea going plesiosaurs, along with sailor's tales of huge creatures such as whales and sharks. Over time the Leviathan theme morphed into other sea-monsters such as Cetus (the sea-monster of Clash of the Titans), the Kraken, the giant squid of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and even the much more recent Jaws.

I realize this wasn't his point of the book, but I felt creatures solely from human imagination got left out. Can't we think of some pretty weird things from scratch? He also never mentioned half-animal half-human creatures other than the Minotaur – what about mermaids, centaurs, fauns, or Egyptian gods such as Anubis, Horus and Thorth? Why did we come up with so many half-and-half creatures? On that note, Kaplan did bring in some creatures of non-European origin, but his focus was mostly on the European ones.

*the first reason is because they wouldn't like it

Image is from here.

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