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These are the creatures too weird to fit anywhere else. Starting with the ancient civilizations, and extending well past the Renaissance, Europeans assumed that a varied assortment of strange beasts populated the world, living in the oceans, on the distant continents, in their neighbors' basements. Explanations for these weird creatures varied over time; sometimes they were considered evidence of divine displeasure, and other times, they were simply sports of nature.

Most Recent Additions

Chimera Oct-27-2014
Caribbean scene Oct-17-2014
Basilisk Sep-27-2014
 
Monster

Year: 1573-1585
Scientist: Ambroise Paré
Originally published in: Des Monstres
Now appears in: On Monsters and Marvels by Ambroise Paré, translated by Janis Pallister
Sixteenth-century surgeon Ambroise Paré wrote several books about monsters ("things that appear outside the course of Nature") and marvels ("things which happen that are completely against Nature"). Paré was known to be a compassionate and talented doctor, and some of his depictions were remarkably accurate. Others were less credible.

 
Monster

Year: 1554
Scientist: Guillaume Rondelet
Originally published in: Libri de Piscibus Merinis
Now appears in: On Monsters and Marvels by Ambroise Paré, translated by Janis Pallister, and "The Origin of the Sea Bishop" by W.M.S. Russell and F.S. Russell in Folklore, Summer 1975
Rondelet based his sea bishop depiction on an account he received from a physician, Gisbertus Germanus, who saw the creature in Poland. Rondelet was skeptical, and stated that he had omitted from his description several "fabulous" claims about the sea bishop. "I present the image of the monster altogether the way I received it," he continued. "Whether it is true or not, I neither affirm nor deny." The fish, which might have been based on a doctored skate or ray, made an appearance later in the 16th century in Ambroise Paré's Des Monstres, complete with its pontifical garments. It is not known whether Paré himself was a devout Catholic, but a few months before his death, he was reputed to confront the Archbishop of Lyons on behalf of the poor and starving in Paris. Religious animosities ran high during Paré's lifetime and for centuries afterwards, so it's no coincidence that some monsters bore striking resemblances to clergymen. Periods of religious strife likely increased attention to so-called monsters and certainly changed the explanations offered for them, from sins such as greed and vanity to sins of blasphemy and heresy.
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Sea bishop

Year: 1562
Printer: Richard Breton
Originally published in: Le Recueil de la Diversité des Habits
Now appears in: "Habits, Holdings, Heterologies: Populations in Print in a 1562 Costume Book" by Ann Rosalind Jones in Yale French Studies
Rondelet's sea bishop found its way into other publications more or less intact, but in the early 1560s, a French printer named Richard Breton tweaked the picture to make it creepier. His sea bishop appeared in a book about the clothing styles of locals and foreigners. The book wasn't really about fashion; it was a substitute for travel to faraway places — understandable considering travel experiences in the 16th century ranged from unpleasant to deadly. As Renaissance and Enlightenment naturalists discovered more exotic animals, they sometimes used familiar analogies to describe what they found, and Rondelet's depiction may (or may not) have belonged to that tradition. At the same time, many Catholics and Protestants utterly despised each other, and clerical-looking monsters were a way of criticizing the followers of the wrong religion. Fervent Protestant Breton made the sea bishop not only uglier than Rondelet's, he also took care to give it more elegant attire (note the embroidery on the creature's upper cape). Did Breton mean for anyone to take this literally? It may have been simple satire, although frightening "prodigies" like this were publicized by Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon to warn Catholics that they followed awful leaders.
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Prodigious signs

Year: 1638
Originally published in: "A Lamentable List of Certaine Hidious, Frightfull, and Prodigious Signs"
Now appears in: "Unnatural Conceptions: The Study of Monsters in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century France and England" by Park and Daston in Past and Present, August 1981
In 16th- and 17th-century Europe, monsters were rarely viewed in a void, especially when they were considered bad omens. In those times, they were regarded parts of multi-pronged warnings: earthquakes, floods, falling stars. This "lamentable list" shows conjoined twins, a creature with a face on his torso, and what looks like the head of a monarch on the body of a worm, in addition to other disturbing signs. The picture also apparently includes the unfortunate events the bad omens foretell, such as armed conflict. The religious animosities of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation fueled rumors of impossible creatures, as well as fearful interpretations of any kind of birth defect. The invention of the printing press only eased the spread of such scary propaganda. Broadsides — posters that could also be read aloud to the illiterate by hawkers and sold to the literate for about a penny apiece — tended to engage in the most dire interpretations of monstrous apparitions. In fact, religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants and among different Protestant sects may have sparked even more interest in monsters than had occurred during the Middle Ages. Highbrow and lowbrow alike took an interest. As religious tensions gradually eased, so did the assumption that any unusual event or deformity necessarily foretold divine wrath.
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New World scene

Year: 1671
Scientist/artist: Arnoldus Montanus
Originally published in: De Nieuwe en Onbekende Weereld ("The New and Unknown World")
Now appears in: Arnoldus Montanus' New and Unknown World in Public Domain Review
Arnoldus Montanus's 17th-century book about America bore a long title. Translated into English, it read: The New and Unknown World: or Description of America and the Southland, Containing the Origin of the Americans and South-landers, remarkable voyages thither, Quality of the Shores, Islands, Cities, Fortresses, Towns, Temples, Mountains, Sources, Rivers, Houses, the nature of Beasts, Trees, Plants and foreign Crops, Religion and Manners, Miraculous Occurrences, Old and New Wars: Adorned with Illustrations drawn from the life in America, and described by Arnoldus Montanus. The book also bore elaborate illustrations, though it's debatable whether they were actually drawn from life. This scene, purported to be of the Caribbean, features dragon-headed serpents, belly-dragging quadrupeds that look vaguely mammalian, and flying animals that look like they could be flying fish or giant bugs. In fairness, the book's illustrations weren't entirely inaccurate. Mixed in with unidentifiable creatures were recognizable spoonbills, alpacas or llamas, and an armadillo.
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Locust monster

Year: 1594
Artist: Nicolaas de Bruyn
Originally published as: Pictures of Flying Creatures of Many Kinds
Now appears in: Curious Beasts by Alison E. Wright
De Bruyn's engraving of "flying creatures of many kinds" included accurate illustrations of multiple insects. And it included a monster. Intended to be a locust, perhaps the kind dispatched in divine punishments, this creepy little creature is strangely accurate in some respects: The locust has six legs, multiple wings, antennae and a proboscis. The trouble, obviously, is that the six legs are fleshly legs with webbed feet, the head looks vaguely mammalian or reptilian, the antennae look like feathers, and the wings look like bird wings. De Bruyn might have followed instructions to show an animal with six legs, four wings and a proboscis without thinking about the particulars, or he might have copied an earlier image with these mistakes. British Museum curator Alison Wright remarks that this monster "offers particular insight into the hazards of copying."
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Tapestry fragment

Year: 1420-30
Appears at: A Fabulous Beast (Fragment of a Tapestry) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
From the Metropolitan Museum of Art: "This fragment of a weaving, or Rücklaken — a tapestry hung in a domestic interior at frieze level — represents a fabulous composite beast, part horse and part lion, wearing a collar ornamented with small bells that is attached to a leash held by a hand, visible at the left, which is now all that remains of a missing figure. The inscriptions accompanying these creatures on many hangings indicate that they were valued as better company than corrupt townsfolk, and that they symbolize both concupiscence and the unsullied forces of nature. That the creatures are tethered or otherwise subdued suggests that the figures shown with them likewise have tamed their libidinous cravings."
This tapestry continued the tradition of many medieval bestiaries, to present real or fabricated animals based the lessons in morality that they could impart. It also followed a practice that would continue through the Renaissance: combining traits of multiple animals into a single beast.

 
Bestiary illustration

Year: 1250-1300
Appears at: Medieval Monsters © The British Library
This image presents a trio of monsters, one of which is meeting its end, and another of which has perhaps bitten off too much to chew. All the monsters have just two legs and long, serpentine tails. The monster not partaking of a meal sports two extra heads. The heads look a bit like joeys peering out of a kangaroo mother's pouch, but few Europeans had met marsupials in the 13th century. Perhaps the heads are part of the bigger monster, or perhaps they belong to a recent meal looking for an exit. All that can be said with much confidence is that the monster on the far left is a carnivore.

 
Book of Hours grotesque

Century: 15th
Originally appeared in: Book of Hours
Now appears in: Rainbow-Coloured Beasts from 15th-Century Book of Hours in Public Domain Review
Known as a grotesque, this multicolored creature embellished a margin in a 15th-century book of hours. Like other grotesques, it almost certainly wasn't intended to be taken literally. This grouchy-looking little monster is so colorful that its nonexistence is almost a pity.

 
Book of Hours grotesque

Century: 15th
Originally appeared in: Book of Hours
Now appears in: Rainbow-Coloured Beasts from 15th-Century Book of Hours in Public Domain Review
This colorful grotesque boasts a goat-like body, just one that's missing its front legs. Considering bulk of this creature — including its horned head and what looks like a long, red wattle — hovers over nonexistent legs, its talent for balance is impressive. But like other grotesques in the Book of Hours, this picture probably wasn't meant to be taken at face value.

 
Manticore

Year: c. 1300
Originally appeared in: Hereford Mappa Mundi
Now appears in: "The Death and Life of the Frontier" by Caspar Henderson in Nautilus
Even in the most tumultuous stretches of the Dark Ages, some lucky Europeans had access to an education, and few of those educated Europeans believed that the earth was flat. But while sailing off the edge of the earth was not such a widespread fear, many medieval Europeans did believe that distant lands held strange creatures: headless people with faces on their chests, bat-like people, people with horses' hooves for feet, and weird animal-human hybrids. The manticore (or manticor) was assumed to have the face of a man, the body of a lion, the tail of a scorpion, the voice of a seductive siren, and three rows of teeth — something like the creepiest used car salesman you could ever meet. This manticore inhabited India in the Hereford Mappa Mundi. The Hereford map followed the convention of the times: Jerusalem was situated at the center, and the far regions with weird creatures lined the map margins. Because this map was made nearly 200 years before Columbus stumbled onto the New World, North and South America didn't appear. Neither did Australia or Antarctica. Still, the belief introduced in Classical times in Terra Australis (a landmass in the Southern Hemisphere) was fairly widespread, even though that landmass hadn't been located with any more success than the manticore.

 
Chimera

Year: c. 1777-1784
Artist: Louis Jean Desprez
Appears at: The Chimera (La Chimère de Monsieur Desprez) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Material discussed in: Metal Solves Mystery of Flames that Inspired Homer (http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22429914.900-metal-solves-mystery-of-flames-that-inspired-homer.html)
From the Metropolitan Museum of Art: "Trained as an architect, Desprez won the Prix de Rome for architecture in 1776 and lived in Italy from 1777 to 1784 where he found employment as an illustrator. In 1784 he left for Stockholm as theatre designer to king Gustav III. Today he is best remembered for his skills as a draftsman. He also made a small number of original etchings, of which La Chimère is both the most accomplished and the most bizarre. The subject is described in a lengthy inscription which appears on the fifth state of the print. Born on the burning sands of Africa, Desprez's mythical beast has three heads: one a bird and two with the features of the devil. The skeletal monster devours its human prey amid the bones of its previous victims framed by the dark semicircle of an archway, the pale semicircle of the moon visible beyond. Even seen against the venerable tradition of demonic creatures in Western art, Desprez's macabre vision is a tour de force of his inventive skills and graphic technique."
In illustrating this beast, Desprez relied on a centuries-old legend. Folklorists credit Homer with creating the chimera, a three-headed fire-breather, in Illiad, and have long tied his inspiration for the beast to a site in southern Turkey named Yanartas ("flaming stone"). The fires that never die out can be explained by methane gas, but scientists long thought that methane arising from inorganic sources could only form at much higher temperatures than those at Yanartas. But a paper published in 2014 explained that ruthenium, a rare metal occurring in the igneous rocks underneath Yanartas, can act as a catalyst for methane formation at lower temperatures. Though the chimera is fantasy, its inspiration may be real rock.

 
Map monsters

Year: c. 1300
Originally appeared in: Hereford Mappa Mundi
Now appears in: Wonders and the Order of Nature by Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park (Also discussed in A History of the World in 12 Maps by Jerry Brotton)
The manticore was hardly the only odd creature to stalk the margins of the Hereford Mappa Mundi. The map's representation of Africa had little to do with reality, either of the landmass itself or of its inhabitants. A motley selection of monsters appears in this snippet of the map, including what looks like a human-plant hybrid (lower left) and a monster with a staff (upper right). The farther one got from the familiar, the closer one got to the monstrous, and this tradition continued long after the Middle Ages.

 
Map animals

Year: 1529
Scientist/artist: Diogo Ribeiro
Originally appeared in: Ribeiro's world map
Now appears in: A History of the World in 12 Maps by Jerry Brotton
Two years after Columbus sailed to America, the Portuguese and the Spanish settled their differences over who could have what in the newly discovered lands by drawing a north-south line down the Atlantic. What lay west of the line, namely the New World, went to the Spanish. What lay east of the line (outside of Europe), including the coast of Africa and the Indian Ocean, went to the Portuguese. The line-drawing officials apparently didn't wonder whether the inhabitants of these newly acquired regions agreed. And once the Spanish and Portuguese divvied up the Atlantic, they started squabbling over the Moluccas on the other side of the world because with control of the Moluccas came control of the global spice trade. Attempts to clarify the dispute entailed Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe, in which Magellan and most of his sailors died. Other efforts to settle the fight over the Moluccas included mapmaking, and one of the most skilled cartographers in that effort was the mapmaker Diogo Ribeiro. Putting aside the placement of the Moluccas, Ribeiro's 1529 map abounded with winsome creatures. This image includes three scenes from that map. Some of the animals are recognizable, such as the elephant, antelope and some birds. Others are harder to identify. In the top scene, a griffin-like animal squares off with a nondescript quadruped. Ribeiro's map was far ahead of the Hereford Mappa Mundi in accuracy and realism, and yet the fauna of faraway lands still retained mythical qualities.

 
Ichneumon

Year: 1551
Scientist: Conrad Gesner
Originally published in: Historia Animalium
Now appears in: Cultures of Natural History edited by Jardine, Secord and Spary
Today, the term "ichneumon" typically refers to a wasp or, even more exotically, an Egyptian mongoose. To medieval Europeans, however, the ichneumon was the dragon's worst enemy, using a combination of camouflage and cunning to kill that scaly, winged beast. Given mongooses' adversarial relationships with snakes, the ichneumon's story might have had some basis in reality. This picture, however, looks a bit like a porcupine.
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Werewolf

Year: 1551
Scientist: Conrad Gesner
Originally published in: Historia Animalium
Now appears in: Monsters: A Bestiary of the Bizarre by Christopher Dell
Gesner might have believed this creature to be a werewolf. Werewolf legends date back to Antiquity, but the legends varied. Herodotus apparently wrote about a Scythian tribe that turned wolfish en masse every few years, though he might not have believed the story himself. Unlike some monsters that were assumed capable of changing their shape at will, werewolves didn't necessarily have complete control over their appearance. In the Middle Ages, some Europeans thought werewolves might change between wolf and human through the use of ointments or potions. Contact with a werewolf could turn an otherwise vanilla human into one of the loathsome animals (werewolf cooties). If Gesner believed that werewolves switch back and forth between animal and human, perhaps this specimen was caught mid-switch — between a human, a wolf, and apparently a giant chicken.
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Krakow Monster

Year: 1559
Scientist/artist: Pierre Boaistuau
Originally published in: Histoires Prodigieuses
Now appears in: Wonders and the Order of Nature by Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park
Within a few decades of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses a new monster made an appearance in Europe. Called the Monster of Krakow (or Cracow), this beast sported heads on its joints — the standard identifier of demonic handiwork. It reputedly died four hours after its birth, but not without warning, "Watch, the Lord cometh." By the time this monster was "born," Luther and Philipp Melanchthon had published pamphlets about other monsters engendered by divine displeasure with the papacy. Convictions that heretical beliefs were on the rise likely played a role in the appearance of this beast.

 
roadside monster

Year: 1592
Originally published in: "A True Discourse of such Straunge and woonderfull accidents . . . house of M. George Lee of North Aston"
Now appears in: "How to Approach a Monster" by Anna Dunthorne in History Compass, July 2008
Amidst the Reformation, printing presses enabled monster descriptions to spread rapidly across an uneasy Europe. Looking at monster illustrations centuries later, it's not possible to know whether each depiction was based on a real phenomenon or was a complete fabrication. At a time when even storms might provoke fear about the potential wrath of God, a deformity — whether in a human or livestock birth — could raise tensions. Pamphlets and broadsides were fairly cheap to produce, cheap to obtain, and capable of spreading worry. On the other hand, an unusual event might induce delight, or at least morbid curiosity. A 16th-century monster picture might serve the same purpose that an editorial cartoon does today. What a monster should mean often depended on context.

 
Nature's jokes

Year: 1671
Scientist/artist: Athanasius Kircher
Originally published in: Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae
Now appears in: "Between Carnival and Lent: The Scientific Revolution at the Margins of Culture" by Paula Findlen in Configurations, Spring 1998
One way to make nature less frightening was to give it a sense of humor. Well-known for his own sense of humor (he liked to dress up cats in little outfits), Kircher was well-suited to this task. His examples of nature's jokes included rocks showing pictures and plants sporting little men. In the end, playfulness like Kircher's didn't prevail, and scientists like Francis Bacon and Robert Hooke stressed the seriousness of scientific pursuits. Good humor was reserved for "vulgar" works directed at the uneducated masses, women and children.

 
Hallucigenia

Year: 1977
Scientist: Simon Conway Morris
Artist: Marianne Collins
Appears in: Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould. Also discussed in The Crucible of Creation by Simon Conway Morris
If you're thinking this is the worst fabrication in history, think again. In fact, this depiction isn't far from the real thing. In 1909, C.D. Walcott discovered a remarkable fossil locality known as the Burgess Shale, preserving some of the strangest fossils ever found. Paleontologists began reexamining Burgess Shale fossils in the latter half of the 20th century, and identified, among others, Hallucigenia shown here. Simon Conway Morris, who identified Hallucigenia, originally theorized that it might have walked on its seven pairs of spines. Later finds, and studies done by Hou Xianguang and Lars Ramsköld, showed that Hallucigenia actually had seven pairs of big tentacles (not the single set shown here) and probably walked on those while defending itself with menacing spines. In all fairness, Conway Morris's interpretation was based on incomplete data, and he himself pointed out the correction in The Crucible of Creation.

 
Cyclops

Year: 1572
Scientist: J. Sluperius
Now appears in: Fossils: Evidence of Vanished Worlds by Yvette Gayrard-Valy
Believe it or not, the animal that inspired this hideous depiction is a gentle vegetarian: the elephant. This 16th-century engraving of a cyclops kept alive a myth that started thousands of years before, when ancient Greeks assumed the big skulls they found must have belong to giants, and the median nasal openings must have been single eye sockets.

 
Vulture

Century: 14th
Originally published in: Peterborough Bestiary
Now appears in: The Bedside Book of Birds by Graeme Gibson
Another real animal sometimes described as monstrous was the vulture, shown here finishing off a human corpse. The bestiary that pictured this bird not only described its alleged ability to spot corpses at a great distance, but also its ability to produce young without a mate. This curious "fact" was enlisted as evidence for the immaculate conception. Vultures were also believed to foretell death. Some said the birds followed doomed armies in search of future meals.

 
Monster

Year: 1573-1585
Scientist: Ambroise Paré
Originally published in: Des Monstres
Now appears in: On Monsters and Marvels by Ambroise Paré, translated by Janis Pallister
Paré described this simply as "a very monstrous animal that is born in Africa." A similar picture appeared in an earlier book by Gesner, and that creature was described as a sea monster found somewhere between Antibes and Nice.

 
xxx

Year: 1648
Scientist/artist: Ulisse Aldrovandi
Originally published in: Musaeum Metallicum
Now appears in: "Da Vinci's Paleodictyon: The Fractal Beauty of Traces" by Andrea Baucon in Acta Geologica Polonica
Ulisse Aldrovandi was one of the 16th century's foremost naturalists. He studied the world in between the eras of medieval superstition and the Scientific Revolution. Sometimes the Middle Ages won. Musaeum Metallicum included depictions of fossils — some interpreted fairly accurately, others not — and the odd monster. This one appeared to be female.

 
Crane-man

Year: 1642
Scientist/artist: Ulisse Aldrovandi
Originally published in: Monstrorum Historia
Now appears in: "Marvels of the East: A Study in the History of Monsters" by Rudolf Wittkower in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 1942
The crane-man, basically a man with a long neck and crane's head, appeared in pamphlets aimed at Europe's most gullible. (Then as now, publishers could make a tidy profit by promoting the macabre.) Depictions of the crane-man eventually found their way into the occasionally weird works of Aldrovandi, this work published after his death. The crane-man underwent a number of transformations in Europe, from a member of a monstrous race to a one-off monster from Madagascar, to a long-necked yet human-headed tartar. Crane-man pictures circulated through Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, France and England.

 
Four figures

Century: 13th
Originally published in: Medieval manuscript
Now appears at: A Man Without Knowledge of Fire; A Man Riding a Crocodile; A Centaur; Sanrus Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
Produced in Flanders, this gold-embellished illumination depicted inhabitants of far-off, mythical lands. The medieval illuminator apparently guessed that people who didn't know how to use fire stuck to a vegetarian diet. Even more obvious, the artist had never been within riding range of a crocodile.

 
Eight-legged creature

Century: 13th
Originally published in: Creatures from the Ends of the Earth
Now appears at: Praesillus; A Hairy Woman of the Island of Gorgade; A Scorpion Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
Part of a four-up illumination showing odd creatures from faraway lands, this eight-legged animal is probably a medieval Flemish take on a scorpion. Weird as this monster looks, it's still much less horrifying than the actual arthropod.

 
Bipedal tabby

Year: 1658
Scientist/artist: Ulisse Aldrovandi
Originally published in: Monstrorum Historia
Now appears in: Monsters: A Bestiary of the Bizarre by Christopher Dell
This monster, apparently enhanced by hand-applied colors after printing, looks fairly harmless — a bipedal tabby lacking front legs and, consequently, scratchy claws. Perhaps it could speak, and being a cat, it was probably quite condescending. It was part of a menagerie of odd beasts Aldrovandi described, many of which had some human characteristics.
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Marine Saurians

Year: 1858
Scientist: William Buckland
Artist: Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins
Originally published in: "Bridgewater Treatise" in Geology and Minerology
Now appears in: Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World by Martin J.S. Rudwick
This scene from Liassic life (during the Age of Reptiles) shows how 19th-century scientists and artists saw contemporaries of dinosaurs. These dragon-like creatures were marine reptiles.

 
Marine reptile sculpture

Year: 1853
Scientist: Sir Richard Owen
Artist: Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins
Still appears in: Crystal Palace Park, London (photo by Michon Scott)
In the mid-19th century, Owen and Hawkins collaborated to bring Britain's ancient past to their fellow Victorians at Crystal Palace Park. More than 150 years later, the sculptures still stand, having survived a long period of disrepair. In addition to inaccurate dinosaur reconstructions based on very fragmentary fossils, Owen and Hawkins designed marine reptiles based on more complete finds. On the right is an ichthyosaur, and Hawkins's sculpture is pretty accurate. On the left is a plesiosaur, but while the animal's proportions are pretty good, its neck contortions flirt with fantasy, looking like a dragon or sea serpent. By the time Victorians visited the sculptures at Crystal Palace Park, these animals had largely moved from the realm of the monstrous to the realm of the real — just the very old. All the same, cartoonists in the popular humor magazine Punch delighted in detailing visitors' distress at seeing these sculptures, from wailing children dragged through the park, to nightmares haunting the adults who took them.
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Soe Orm

Year: 1555
Scientist/artist: Olaus Magnus
Originally published in: Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus
Now appears in: The Search for the Giant Squid by Richard Ellis
Magnus described the Soe Orm as, "A very large Sea-Serpent of a length upwards of 200 feet and 20 feet in diameter which lives in rocks and in holes near the shore of Bergen."

 
Arabian crocodile

Year: 1551
Scientist: Conrad Gesner
Originally published in: Historia Animalium
Now appears in: Curious Woodcuts of Fanciful and Real Beasts by Conrad Gesner
Described as the "Arabian or Egyptian crocodile," this beast might have been inspired by the sighting of a spiny-tailed lizard.

 
Parasites

Century: 16th
Scientist/artist: Ulisse Aldrovandi
Originally published in: The History of Serpents and Dragons
Now appears in: Crossing Over by Stephen Jay Gould and Rosamond Wolff Purcell
Despite the title of the publication in which they appeared, these creatures were actually believed to inhabit the human body.

 
Amphisbaena Europaea

Year: 1651
Scientist/artist: Johannes Faber
Originally published in: Thesaurus
Now appears in: The Eye of the Lynx by David Freedberg and Amazing Rare Things by Attenborough, Owens, Clayton and Alexandratos
Although it stretched the limits of credulity, Faber included this depiction of a two-headed animal, the amphisbaena, in the Thesaurus, recounting, "Just as I became convinced that the two-headed amphisbaena was probably the stuff of myth and fable rather than of truth, the Cavaliere Cassiano dal Pozzo, one of our Linceans, showed me the most truthful image of an amphisbaena in the form of a drawing with all the appropriate colors." The amphisbaena dated back to medieval bestiaries, but the 17th-century Lincean Academy, of which Faber was a member, was generally known for more accurate depictions.
Larger image available

 
Two-headed dragon

Century: 13th
Originally published in: Medieval manuscript
Now appears at: A Winged Dragon Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
Centuries before members of the Lincean Academy reluctantly illustrated the snake-like amphisbaena, a medieval miniaturist produced this colorful two-headed dragon. The head on the front of this beast appears happy enough, but the head on the tip of the tail looks a bit beleaguered. Perhaps that head better registers the effects of a shared digestive system lacking a convenient outlet.

 
Giants

Year: 1678
Scientist/artist: Athanasius Kircher
Originally published in: Mundus Subterraneus
Now appears in: Fossils: Evidence of Vanished Worlds by Yvette Gayrard-Valy and Athanasius Kircher by Joscelyn Godwin
People found gigantic fossil bones long before they could determine with much accuracy what those bones had been. The obvious — and original — diagnosis was that the big bones had belonged to giants. Remains of the biggest fellow shown here were allegedly found in a cave in 1401 and originally described by Giovanni Boccaccio. In Mundus Subterraneus, Kircher wrote of the giant, "Standing he would have been 200 cubits high, but alas, his corpse fell to dust at a touch and only a few monstrous teeth remained to be piously preserved in a nearby church." Kircher was said to dispute Boccaccio's gigantic claims, however, at the very least reducing his giant's height to a mere 30 feet. In the image, the itty-bitty creature next to the giant's left ankle is a regular-sized man; the second-littlest is Goliath.

 
Femur fragment

Year: 1676
Scientist/artist: Robert Plot
Originally published in: The Natural History of Oxfordshire
Now appears in: The Dinosaur Papers edited by Weishampel and White
This bone may not look monstrous, but it was attributed to a monster. Robert Plot accurately identified this is the distal end of a femur (the end of the femur that points toward the foot). At first he guessed it might belong to an elephant, but after considering how unlikely it was for elephants to ever have been in England, he guessed that it belonged to a giant.

 
Crocodillus

Year: 1486
Artist: Erhard Reuwich
Originally published in: Perigrinationes ad Terram Sanctam
Now appears in: The Lore of the Unicorn by Odell Shepard
Reuwich included this animal, perhaps a crocodile, along with other beasts "truthfully depicted as we saw them in the Holy Land." A medieval bestiary described the "Crocodryllus" as a 30-foot-long Nile-dwelling creature armed with "horrible teeth and claws." The bestiary continued, "Hypocritical, dissolute and avaricious people have the same nature as this brute — also any people who are puffed up with the vice of pride, dirtied with the corruption of luxury, or haunted with the disease of avarice . . ."

 
Basilisk

Year: 1672
Scientist/artist: Georg Wedel
Originally published in: Ephemerides
Now appears in: The Feejee Mermaid by Jan Bondeson
Believed to kill merely with a glance, the basilisk was sometimes described as resembling a small snake, but more often as a two-legged, winged creature. Naturally, it had an unusual mode of generation: the basilisk would spring from an egg that had been laid by an old cock and hatched by a toad — all of this carried out in a dunghill. While the basilisk was mythical, some notions leading to its image weren't entirely delusional. Old hens, still capable of laying eggs, could occasionally take on the outward appearance of roosters. And parasitic worms that found their way into eggs may have caused unappetizing basilisk baby "sightings" at breakfast.

 
Basilisk

Year: 1511
Appears at: Basilisk Supporting the Arms of the City of Basel © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Also discussed in: Fabulous Beasts by Joseph Nigg
Bestiaries and broadsides weren't the only places where fantastic creatures thrived. They also appeared in heraldry. Joseph Nigg writes that early heraldic artists "accepted the griffin, dragon, and other fantastic hybrids as actual beasts." He also explains that "by the time certain animals were rejected as fabulous, images of those creatures has already been established on coats of arms of the most respected families and institutions of Europe." In the 17th century, Sir Thomas Browne, an early skeptic of such outlandish creatures, placed the basilisk in the dubious category.

 
Deformed rooster

Year: 1664-1678
Scientist/artist: Athanasius Kircher
Originally published in: Mundus Subterraneus
Now appears in: Athanasius Kircher's Theatre of the World by Joscelyn Godwin
Kircher included in his expansive work on the subterranean world this chimerical creature. Based on an earlier depiction in one of Ulisse Aldrovandi's books, the animal shown in Kircher's book shows something that looks suspiciously like a basilisk, but the animal was said to be merely a deformed rooster residing in the Boboli Gardens of Florence. The serpentine tail suggests artistic enhancement.
Larger image available

 
Petit lezard

Year: c. 1720
Scientist/artist: Henri Abraham Chatelain
Originally published in: Decorative Images of People and Animals, with a Map of Southern Africa
This picture shows a "Petit Lezard du Cap de Bonne Esperance" from southern Africa. Apparently a very devout lizard, it carried three crosses on its back.

 
Hydra as portent

Year: 1557
Scientist/artist: Conrad Lycosthenes
Originally published in: Prodigiorum ac Ostentorum Chronicon
Now appears in: "Foils and Fakes" by Suzanne Magnanini in Marvels & Tales Magazine
Midway through the 16th century, Lycosthenes published what he believed to be a comprehensive catalog of portents dating back to when God made the world. According to Lycosthenes, the ominous hydra made its appearance in 1530. The Reformation had begun, and the religious turmoil that took hold of Europe might have had something to do with its new glut of monsters. About the time this was published, however, some naturalists eyed the multi-headed creature with skepticism.

 
Boa

Year: 1658
Scientist: Conrad Gesner
Originally published in: History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents
Now appears in: Curious Woodcuts of Fanciful and Real Beasts by Conrad Gesner and "Ancient Scientific Basis of the 'Great Serpent' from Historical Evidence" by Richard B. Stothers in Isis June 2004
This illustration, published in London by Edward Topsell long after Gesner's death, shows a boa eating a child. Although it looks completely fanciful, the animal might have had some basis in actual observations extending back to Antiquity. In 256 BC, Roman soldiers deployed to northern Africa reputedly watched in horror as "a reptile of astonishing size devoured many of the soldiers as they went down to the river to get water." Lacking visible feet, the reptile apparently "walked" with its ribs, and nothing the soldiers threw at the beast deterred it until they hurled a large stone at its spine. Large snakes have been known to swallow humans, and Stothers has hypothesized that some snakes might have been somewhat larger and ranged farther in centuries past than they do now. Rumored lengths of 90 feet, however, prompted him to observe, "Antiquity doubtless had its P.T. Barnums, too."

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