Beasts Versus Monster
The other day, I was chatting about one of my favourite mythical creatures, the Griffin. My friend gave me a knowing nod and said, “Ah, Harry Potter.”
And I imagine forensics scientist feel the same way when people know all about crime scenes because they've seen every episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
But given 20 years ago I could never find anyone to talk mythology with, having so many new members of the club is wonderful. People who'd never want to have a conversation with me about the mythological origins of kelpies have now seen The Crimes of Grindelwald. Just don't forget, J.K. Rowling did not invent the Griffin, the Basilisk, the Dragon or the Pixie. And a fair few other things.
Hats off to her though, she did create the Dementor, the Thestral and the Snidget. The Snidget, by the way, is one of my favourite of the lesser known HP magical creatures. It looks a bit like a kiwi bird.
Do these creatures have real world or mythological counterparts which Rowling clearly drew influence from? Yes, but her twist on these creatures is what makes them unique and probably enduring.
Beasts of Myth
The mythological beasts of ancient times usually fell into two categories; adversary or helper. And there weren't that many helpers. The fact is, animal attacks and the fear of animals were far more prevalent a thousand years ago than they are today.
I don't expect to defend myself against a wolf attack the next time I go to Tescos. In the UK, animals are pets or food. We have mastered the wildlife in Britain... by killing off anything too exciting.
Seriously, what god was smoking what to make this?
However, I have a vivid memory from my childhood at Yellowstone Park. One night, we went to a talk by a park ranger explaining how grizzly bears are okay if you leave them be. Keep your distance, don't provoke them, the usual. The next night, we went to a talk with a man who'd lived in Yellowstone for several years. And I mean lived IN Yellowstone - in a treehouse in the middle of the woods. And he described these bears as though they were smelly devils in hairy disguise.
You think of animals differently when you're faced with them as an actual and constant threat day by day. And it was in that era that most of our mythological beasts were formed.
So in our list of helper mythological creatures, we have Pegasus, the winged steed of Perseus; the dragons of Chinese myth which were powerful and guiding spirits; Unicorns and Phoenix, both seen as positive royal symbols... and not much else.
There were a lot of real world creatures who were considered good omens like owls and doves. Also Odin's ravens, Huginn ("thought") and Muninn ("memory").
The Nemean lion, Minotaur, Chimera, the Giants, Harpies, Revenant (Zombies), Cerberus, Dragons (in the western tradition), Hydra, the Kraken, the Kelpie, Fairies, Pixies, Goblins, Chupacabra, Sphinx... I could go on...
And forgive me if I lean towards Greek mythology - it's the area I know the most about.
These stories were told to a) delight and frighten the audience and b) convey a warning. Beware of leaving your children alone, or the pixies will get them. Don't wander too near the water, or the Kelpie will get you. Careful where you sail, or the Kraken will pull you under.
Basically, don't leave the house.
Monsters versus Beasts
My pet-peeve, one I've held for a long time, is the difference between beasts and monsters. For me, a beast is an animal - functioning on instinct, mindless, without higher reasoning or consciousness. The stories we tell about them are usually about themselves. Wouldn't it be terrifying to come across a Nemean lion, or a Kraken?
Monsters are human or human-like - something like a beast, but able to think, to reason and act in a way apart from instinct. Think the difference between Cerberus, the many-headed dog of the underworld and a vampire.
Medusa is the prime example. Medusa was not born a gorgon but was a beautiful priestess serving in Athena's temple... until she was raped by Poseidon and Athena punished her by giving her snake locks. Because this is Greek myth we're talking about. However, this is only true if you lean towards Ovid's interpretation of the myth, rather than the classical Hellenistic version.
My monster list, therefore, would include Werewolves, Vampires, Centaurs, Maenads, Satyr, Sirens, Harpies (arguably...) and Cyclops. And I think this bears up, given the story around these creatures are usually a direct commentary on humanity, rather than the dangers of animals. Don't be drunken thugs like the Centaur. Beware your baser instincts or you'll end up a werewolf. Beware of beautiful women singing next to rocky beaches... I mean, that's just common sense.
Of course, this line gets blurry very fast.
Because I would argue the Big Bad Wolf of folklore functions as a commentary on people, rather than the danger of talking wolves. However, I wouldn't describe the Big Bad Wolf as a Monster. Similarily, Dragons were far more a warning against sin and greed than against giant lizards (especially how Christianity used them). And it's only been in the last maybe ten years we've started looking into the softer side of our monsters - sparkly vampires and tortured werewolves.
How Twilight should have ended...
Not to mention, the Greeks and Romans themselves were often a little hazy about what creatures were more like people and what people were more like animals. We're talking about a world where if you weren't Greek or Roman, you were a barbarian and less than human.
As you might be able to tell, this is something I've wanted to talk about for a long time, but this is the first opportunity I've had! But be sure I'll be returning to this subject in the not too far future.
Meanwhile, hit me with your favourite mythological creature! If you could bring any into being, which would it be?