A look at some weird medieval creatures from legend and lore. Plus some stories about some recent cemetery visits in Queens, New York, including Houdini’s grave.

Highlights include:
• An ancient, impenetrable European forest
• A magical glowing bird
• A dragon with a rooster’s head

Episode Script for Weird Medieval Creatures

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

  • This is a just-for-fun kind of episode–to be honest, things have been really hectic at work and I’ve been too exhausted to do one of my real deep-dive episodes, even though I’ve been doing research for more cemetery episodes and also some Hellgate stuff as I have time.
  • Though in theory I took a whole semester of college just learning about medieval history, theology, art, and literature, like I’ve said before, I’m not an expert in anything, and I definitely am not very well positioned to give a very intelligent historical context for these creatures, though I’ll give whatever context I can.
    • But to be honest, I literally just love looking at old medieval bestiaries and find the animals funny. I haven’t talked a ton about medieval stuff on the podcast, but if you follow the podcast on instagram, I repost a decent number of medieval accounts on my stories, and have mentioned my love of the Met Cloisters, which is maybe my favorite museum. It’s in upper Manhattan, in the middle of a really cool park with a view of the NJ palisades and the Hudson River. It’s basically a big medieval cloister full of tapestries, stained glass, and other medieval art and artifacts, but it’s really immersive. It’s a cloister that was brought over from Europe, and they have medieval-type plants growing everywhere, including a garden of magical plants. Also, pre-pandemic, they had an annual renaissance fair that I went to once, which was really cool, it had fencing and stuff. I have my problems with the Met museum as an institution, but I can’t stop loving the cloisters, it’s just so cool.
    • So while my knowledge of actual medieval history is iffy, I have a lot of enthusiasm for the aesthetic, and a lot of the time I zone out and unwind by going through scans of medieval manuscripts on the internet and trying to find weird medieval creatures. We all have our hobbies, I guess.
  • So last weekend I was really exhausted and relaxing by going through some cool medieval manuscripts and ended up googling some animals and got wrapped up in reading about different medieval beasts. I want to go into them here.
    • But before I get into that, sidenote, if you’re into medieval stuff at all, google Black books of hours–there some medieval manuscripts where they dyed the vellum black before illuminating them. There aren’t many of them–I think there are only 7–but they look so cool. Unfortunately, I guess the ink they used to dye them was corrosive so the surviving manuscripts are in bad shape, but still, they’re wild looking/
  • The main source I used here is bestiary.ca, which lists a bunch of creatures and has information about each one.
    • I went through their list, which has a one-line description of each critter, which is very funny to me because some of them are real animals and the description is hilarious, at least to me.  So I’m gonna go through some of the animals that I found most interesting or funny.
    • And I guess a final sidenote before I get into these creatures: some of the descriptions of what these animals can do are very metal. I’ve had several people mention that sometimes they listen to this with their kids around, and this is generally a lighthearted episode, but if anyone’s listening with their kids, just make sure they aren’t scared of deadly animals.
  • Seps
    • Description: The poison of the seps consumes both body and bones
    • In Bestiary.ca, the illustration of a Seps looks like a snake with a cat, or maybe a mean looking bunny head.
    • This is a legendary, imaginary creature
    • Basically, this was a little snake with a big power: it was very deadly when it bit you, and it’s poison literally dissolve your body and bones
    • There’s this amazing description from a Roman poet named Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, or Lucan, which I wanted to read:
      • Clinging to his skin / A Seps with curving tooth, of little size, / He seized and tore away, and to the sands / Pierced with his javelin. Small the serpent’s bulk; / None deals a death more horrible in form. / For swift the flesh dissolving round the wound / Bared the pale bone; swam all his limbs in blood; / Wasted the tissue of his calves and knees: / And all the muscles of his thighs were thawed / In black distilment, and file membrane sheath / Parted, that bound his vitals, which abroad / Flowed upon earth: yet seemed it not that all / His frame was loosed, for by the venomous drop / Were all the bands that held his muscles drawn / Down to a juice; the framework of his chest / Was bare, its cavity, and all the parts / Hid by the organs of life, that make the man
  • Next up is another imaginary serpent, the Scitalis
    • Descrip: A serpent with such a marvelous appearance that it stuns the viewer
    • That reminds me a bit of  a basilisk, though for the scitalis, it’s these beautiful and strange markings that run along their back and transfix people. It was supposed to be very slow moving, so it relied on people being stupified so it could get them.
    • Also it apparently was a very warm-blooded snake, so even during the winter it had to shed its skin.
  • Wether
    • The description of this made me crack up: The wether is named from the worms in its head
    • They were supposed to stronger-than-average rams that head butted each other because they were agitating by the worms in their head, because I guess they were itchy
    • The accompanying drawing just looked like a normal ram to me.
  • Sea-pig
    • Just the name of this made me laugh
    • The description: Sea-pigs dig up the ground under water
    • The drawing is like a fish with a pig snout, and the idea was that I guess like regular pigs, they would use their snout to dig around in the sand to find food
    • There is a real animal called a sea pig that’s a deep-water sea cucumber that digs around in the sediment and eats stuff that it finds there, but I doubt the medieval people knew of it, since the real sea big is found around 1,200-5,000 meters under water
  • Cerastes
    • Description: An exceptionally flexible serpent with horns
    • These were supposed to be so flexible that they had no spine, yet they had either four horns, or two horns like a ram’s. They would bury themselves in sand, and when animals would gather around  the exposed horns, it would strike and kill them instantly.
    • They came from Greek lore, but even in the Renaissance it seems like people were still talking about them. Here’s how Leonardo da Vinci described their behavior:
      • This has four movable little horns; so, when it wants to feed, it hides under leaves all of its body except these little horns which, as they move, seem to the birds to be some small worms at play. Then they immediately swoop down to pick them and the Cerastes suddenly twines round them and encircles and devours them.
    • In the drawing that accompanies that one, it has little front feet
    • The Cerastes actually comes from Greek lore that was said to reside in the desert.
    • I guess it was supposed to be small–the largest animals they could attack were mice and small lizards
    • People suppose that this mythical creature was based on the real horned viper, which ended up with the scientific name cerastes cerastes because of the legendary creature
  • Echeneis
    • The description of this one is: This fish clings to ships and holds them back
    • The idea was that this was a 6-inch-long fish in the Indian sea that could suction onto the bottom of a boat and delay its voyage. Even storm winds couldn’t move a boat when this fish decided to anchor it in place.
    • Pliny the elder, who always has funny things to say about animals, plants, and magic, talked about some of the fish’s metaphysical properties:
      • “It is also the source of a love-charm and a spell to slow litigation in courts, and can be used to stop fluxes of the womb in pregnant women and to hold back the birth until the proper time. This fish is not eaten. Some say this fish has feet; Aristotle says it does not, but that its limbs resemble wings.”
    • This seems obviously inspired by the real-life fish the remora, and from what I can gather, it seems like Pliny the Elder uses remora and echeneis interchangeably. Pliny the Elder told stories about how the remora was responsible for Mark Antony’s death during battle, as well as Caligula’s.
    • The real fish, the remora, in case you don’t know, has a suction cup sort of thing on it, and it usually attaches to a shark, sea turtle, whale, or ray. They’re supposed to have a symbiotic relationship, where they get rid of their host’s dead skin and ectoparasites, and they’re also protected by being attached to the larger animals.
  • Hercinia
    • Description: A bird with brightly glowing feathers
    • My favorite kind of medieval critters: a bird
    • These were supposed to be found in the forests of Germany. Specifically, they lived in an ancient German forest called the Hercynian Forest (hence the name hercinia). It was a huge forest that spread across Western Central Europe, though it’s kinda unclear exactly how far it stretched. Basically, it was the northern edge of the part of Europe that writers in antiquity were aware of.
      • The forest was basically impenetrable. For example, during Julius Caesar’s time, the forest blocked the Roman Legions from going further into Germania. Caesar wrote in his book De Bello Gallico, he said that it would take more than 60 days to walk its width.
      • I guess he was fascinated by the forest, including old stories of unicorns. He also wrote about elk with no joints so to sleep they would lean against the ancient trees
      • Pliny the Elder was also fascinated by the ancient, deep forest, and its legends, and he talked about the glowing birds with feathers that “shine like fires at night”
      • The forest also contained real, though now extinct animals, the aurochs, which were huge cattle that lived in Asia, Europe, and North Africa, but which died out n the 1600s, when the last of them died in the woods
    • While this deep, dark forest doesn’t exist anymore, there are some remnants of it, like the Black Forest and some other woods in the area.
    • The idea was that they were so bright that even on the darkest night, their glowing wings would light the way ahead.
    • Some manuscripts adorned depictions of them with gold or silver leaf, since they were shiny.
    • The 7th century writer Isidore of Seville wrote a really poetic description:
      • “Their feathers sparkle so much in the shade that, however dark the night is with thick shadows, these feathers, when placed on the ground, give off light that helps to mark the way, and the sign of the glittering feathers makes clear the direction of the path.”
    • I found a poem by the 18th/19th century Irish poet Thomas Moore that had some cool glowing bird imagery. This is a bit from his poem A Dream of Antiquity:
      • “And now the fairy pathway seemed
      • To lead us through enchanted ground,
      • Where all that bard has ever dreamed
      • Of love or luxury bloomed around.
      • Oh! ’twas a bright, bewildering scene–
      • Along the alley’s deepening green
      • Soft lamps, that hung like burning flowers,
      • And scented and illumed the bowers,
      • Seemed, as to him, who darkling roves,
      • Amid the lone Hercynian groves,
      • Appear those countless birds of light,
      • That sparkle in the leaves at night,
      • And from their wings diffuse a ray
      • Along the traveller’s weary way.”
  • Apparently there’s a question of whether this creature, or a version of it, ever existed. Some birds have iridescent features that reflect moonlight, and it’s possible that people were seeing birds with bioluminescent fungi or bacteria
  • Ichneumon
    • Description: Another enemy of the dragon
    • This was a creature that, when it saw a dragon, would burrow into the mud, cover its nostrils with its tail, and then attack and kill the unaware dragon. Some people also claimed that it could also kill asps and crocodiles in the same way
    • It sounds like this was maybe a mongoose, or something rodent-like
    • One of the ichneumon’s special powers was that it could look at a medieval creature called the cockatrice without turning to stone
  • So let’s talk about the Cockatrice, also known as the basilisk
    • The description of a basilisk is: Its odor, voice and even look can kill
    • On the bestiary.ca page, the basilisk, or cockatrice, is shown a two-legged dragon with a rooster’s head. Though it can also be just a crested snake–it doesn’t necessarily need to have a rooster’s head, or be a rooster with a snake tail.
    • Pliny the Elder said that the basilisk was a foot long (though some people said 6 inches), and it had white markings on its head that looked like crown
    • The smell of the basilisk could kill snakes. It breathed fire out of its mouth, or beak, I guess, which could kill birds. Some accounts said that no matter how far away a bird was, if a basilisk looked at a bird, it would die.
    • And a human could be killed if the basilisk looked at them, or maybe if the human sees the basilisk’s eyes, depending on who’s telling the story. Pliny the Elder tells a story about the basilisk’s poison being so strong that a man speared a basilisk and then was killed when the poison travelled up his spear and got to him. The poison also killed his horse.
    • It can also kill just by hissing. So a very deadly creature.
    • The basilisk could only be killed by a weasel. You get the weasel, throw it into a basilisk’s den, and then basilisk is killed by the smell of the weasel at the same time as the weasel dies from the smell of the basilisk.
    • If you’ve ever been to Belvedere castle in Central park, there’s supposedly a cockatrice in the window over the doorway to that, though it looks more like a two-legged dragon, like a wyvern
    • some stories say that the basilsik was created by a rooster laying an egg and a toad incubating it, and it seems like they may have been seen as the same thing
    • There was also an ancient Egyptian story about how the eggs of the ibis should be destroyed because otherwise the poison of the snakes that ibis ate would create a hybrid snake-bird
    • Apparently you could prevent a cockatrice from hatching by tossing a cock’s egg over the house so it lands on the other side of the house without the egg hitting the house
    • And I looked it up, a cock egg is basically like an egg with no yolk, which younger chickens sometimes lay before they can lay normal eggs, but back in the day people assume that cocks were laying the egg
    • The cockatrice could kill people by looking at them, touching them, or breathing on them
    • Though the living basilisk is extremely deadly, the basilisk’s ashes were apparently very useful in alchemy, when transforming metals

 

 

Sources consulted RE: Weird Medieval Creatures

Websites

  • https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/fantastic-beasts-of-the-middle-ages/xQKCn9wmjCVVJg
  • https://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/ms24/f57r
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caladrius
  • http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast270.htm
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_books_of_hours
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Hours,_Morgan_MS_493
    http://bestiary.ca/prisources/psdetail964.htm
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seps_(legendary_creature)
  • http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast271.htm
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scitalis
  • http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast552.htm
  • http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast417.htm
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scotoplanes
  • http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast532.htm
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cerasteshttp://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast422.htm
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Echeneis
  • https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0137%3Abook%3D9%3Achapter%3D41
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Remora#Mythologyhttp://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast539.htm
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hercinia
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hercynian_Forest
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aurochs
  • http://bestiary.ca/articles/anne_walshe/index.html
  • https://internetpoem.com/thomas-moore/a-dream-of-antiquity-poem/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Moore
  • http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast541.htm
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ichneumon_(medieval_zoology)
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yolkless_egg
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cockatrice
  • http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast265.htm

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