On early maps, that’s essentially what got written by the cartographers to indicate they were guessing about the edges of the world, or perhaps severely misinformed by well intentioned sailors or what have you. Sometimes they’d decorate the things with artistic renderings of such beasts abounding, too.
I just finished reading On Monsters: an unnatural history of our worst fears by Stephen T. Asma. He packs a lot into this book, Alexander the Great’s tales of mysterious beasts he defeated, other mythological creatures around the world, how people treated people with genetic deformities (from murder to side-shows), biblical references to giants, leviathans and demons, and the fluidity of the definition of monster, and how the word itself creates the monster in the eyes of the public in terms of serial killers and other scientific horrors in the present day. It deserves more than one blog post, that’s for damn sure.
Ultimately, what the fear of monsters appears to be is largely a fear of the unknown aspect, and what’s conjured up in the imagination as explanation. The book also touches on the problems that arise when there’s a lack of critical thinking in regards to all kinds of fearful things – not just because people are generally stupid and ignorant but because they’re culturally credulous and willing to believe the monster and all its horrors can and does exist.
Asma brings up Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, and the scenes involving ghosts moving about and the witches three and portents and all that. He also mentions a book published around the same time called a bestiary. Edward Topsell filled the thing with “information” and illustrations about many real and imaginable creatures.
The natural world was misunderstood in a lot of ways, explains Asma, and magical, mythical creatures were taken just as seriously as the existence of the cat next door. Looking at a bestiary now, it’s ridiculously inaccurate and quite silly. Looking at Shakespeare now, we read Macbeth and enjoy the fanciful idea of ghosts and witches as mechanisms that help drive the tale to its tragic conclusion. But for audiences who first watched his plays performed,
No doubt many in Shakespeare’s audience would have accepted the reality of witches, and even the reality of waking up with a donkey’s head where one’s normal head once perched. A witness to such a phenomena, whether it be on stage or in a beer-house traveler’s tale, would not flinch from accepting it as true. (pg 130)
Another thing I’ll mention out of the book is the fact that culture does have an impact on what’s important in a story. Asma gives a very good example of this via Beowulf, an epic I’ve yet to read. I’d watch the recent movie version but, as it turns out, it’s nowhere near accurate enough. Here’s the thing: when the poem was written, pride didn’t goeth before a fall. Pride wasn’t a vice, it was a virtue.
Beowulf was completely justified to brag about his successes against Grendel, Grendel’s mom and whatever else he battled over the course of the story. Beowulf was the hero of the piece and was lauded for it. Heroes were praised for kicking ass and taking names. Scandinavian paganism made room for that kind of attitude. Sadly, most of the people who read it now have been raised within the realm of Christian ideology, whether they identify as Christians or not and recent movie editions of the epic chose to put the sympathies in Grendel’s lap, and cast Beowulf and his kin in the roles of societal villains.
Beowulf is both the last gasp of pagan hero culture and an important breath in the rise of the Judeo-Christian humility culture. The truly Christian monster, the one that has completed the arc that Beowulf only initiates, will not be a monster at all, but only a confused soul who needs a hug rather than a sword thrust. True Christianity seeks to embrace the outcast, not fight him. Christianity celebrates the downtrodden, the loser, the misshapen. Grendel is an outcast, and tender hearts have argued that the people who cast him out are the real monsters. According to this charity paradigm, the monster is simply misunderstood rather than evil. Perhaps God has created the monsters in order to teach us to love the ugly, the repulsive, the outcast. …
In the original Beowulf the monsters are outcast because they’re bad, just as Cain, their progenitor, was an outcast because he killed his brother, but in the new liberal Beowulf the monsters are bad because they’re outcasts. … The only real monsters, in this now dominant tradition are pride and prejudice. (pg 100-101)
Agree or disagree? Still, better a trial than a mob lynching, yes? Not every crime has a psychopath behind it. Socio-economic issues and political or religious propaganda might really be the unkillable monsters in the world today, and some of these people under those dark and disturbing powers are merely moving down the only path that seems to lead somewhere, even if, at the end of the road, there’s a prison or a bomb.
Personally, I think we’re better off looking for the reasons people do what they do than letting the media paint them as monsters just because it’s what people expect will be said when other people do horrible things. Not that knowing a serial killer was abused as a kid will stop other kids from being abused and becoming serial killers, but at least the effort’s being made to understand how it can happen. A mythical fiend needs no reason. People do.