My triptych for the 2018 Southend Festival is inspired by creatures from myth, legend, and folklore from around the world. I find it fascinating that, at a time when most people did not necessarily believe in elephants, rhinoceroses, giraffes, or narwhals, some of the creatures below were given equal credence. And why should they be any less probable than so many of the extraordinary organisms that we now know live in impenetrable jungles or the depths of the sea?
The Imaginary Creatures: Viewing Notes
1. Cockatrice, or Basilisk
If an old cockerel lays an egg under the right kind of moon, and the right kind of snake finds the egg and incubates it, a cockatrice (or basilisk) will hatch from it; the resulting creature can not only spit poison, but kill with a glance. Incidentally, the word “cockney” comes from a phrase that means “cockerel’s egg”. It’s probably a coincidence.
If you ever find yourself beside a Scottish loch, or an Irish lough, and you notice a magnificent horse nearby, be on your guard. Don’t approach it, don’t touch it, and certainly don’t try to ride it. The kelpie oozes sticky oil to trap its victim, drags them into the water, drowns them, and devours them.
Before Adam and Eve, there was Adam and Lilith. Things didn’t work out, mostly because Lilith was a woman who knew her own mind, and she went to live by the sea. Succubi are her demon daughters, who appear as beautiful women to tempt men into sin.
Blemmyes, along with several other species of headless men, were believed by the Ancient Greeks to live between the Nile plains and Nubia, and in what’s now Sudan. It’s believed that accounts of their existence were based on glimpses of chimpanzees, who carry their head lower between their shoulders than their human cousins.
5. Faun, or Satyr
This Roman nature spirit spent much of him time roaming the woodland, playing music and frolicking with nymphs. The foremost amongst them, Pan, was known to lurk in the woods and roar to frighten passers-by; the resulting alarm and confusion was, naturally, called panic.
As a mix of a lion and an eagle, the gryphon was thought of as the King of birds and beasts, and was said to mate for life. Mediaeval courts would clamour to see the gryphon’s egg, which may in fact have belonged to an ostrich.
7. Siren, or Harpy
Rather than the mermaids that so many imagine, the sirens that sang to lure sailors to shipwreck on jagged rocks were said to be half-bird, half-woman. Originally the legends also spoke of male sirens too, but they disappeared abruptly in around 5 BCE.
In contrast to the harpies on Panel 1, the mermaid really was part-fish, part-woman, although both were a danger to shipping. Mermaids wouldn’t always sing, but they would hang around on jagged rocks, combing their hair and generally looking beautiful until a ship full of lonely sailors went by.
Centaurs were thought to represent the struggle between civilisation and barbarity, and were notable fighters in Greek myth. It’s believed that the centaur legend started when tribal societies that hadn’t domesticated horses came into contact with mounted warriors or nomads – which might explain why the earliest depictions of centaurs were always male.
The legendary Minotaur of Crete was the offspring of a white bull, gifted to King Minos by Poseidon, and Minos’ wife Pasiphaë. Being an abomination, a mix of man and beast, and having no natural diet, the Minotaur satisfied its ravenous hunger by eating people until Daedalus designed the labyrinth to entrap the monster in.
11. Canvey Island Sea Monster
This local legend washed up on a Canvey beach in 1958, and was verified by a local clergyman. Was it a hitherto unknown species from the vasty deep? Merely a hint of the savage and terrifying beasts that lurk in the unassailable depths? Or just a frogfish? Only the people of Canvey Island know for sure.
The legendary death warning of the old Irish families (basically any surname beginning with “O'”), the banshee’s keening wail would be heard in the vicinity of the home of the person fated to die, or would be heard by their family in their absence. A similar spirit would appear as an old woman, washing the bloody shirt of the soon-to-be-lost in a stream and weeping. Approaching the phantom washerwoman was said to be a grave error – either way, we can’t change our fate once the banshee weeps.
13. Kraken, or Giant Squid
Sailors in earlier times always had the best stories, and the kraken, or giant squid, was by no means the most outlandish. The really big ones would lie half-submerged, grass and trees sprouting on their backs, waiting for a band of unfortunate mariners to mistake them for an island – once they were all safely on “dry land”, the beast would submerge, drowning and eating the confused sailors. Smaller examples could be witnessed fighting whales or attacking ships. The really alarming thing about the giant squid is not that they actually exist – it’s that we don’t know how big they can grow.
14. Phoenix, or Firebird
Most of the information we have about the Phoenix comes from the ancient Greeks, although similar creatures were found in any number of cultures – legendary birds that were reborn from the ashes of their old selves. The Greek accounts of the Phoenix said that the bird lived for 500 years before its fiery rebirth, but that was about all they agreed on – some said that it was like a peacock, or a cockerel, or bigger than an ostrich, and that it was blue, or red, or gold, or pink. History doesn’t record how such a creature might taste, possibly because you can’t catch a bird to eat if you don’t know what it looks like.
The selkie was a beautiful seal-woman, who married a fisherman and lived with him on land. Once she’d removed her sealskin to assume her human form, he stole the skin and hid it, preventing her from leaving her unhappy marriage and returning to the sea. One day, driven to desperation by the increasingly intolerable behaviour of her terrible husband, the selkie finds her own sealskin and that of her child. Just as her husband rushes through the harbour to stop her returning to the sea, she pulls on her sealskin and slips beneath the waves, reuniting with her selkie family.
The three-headed dog belonging to Hades and Persephone, Cerberus’ role as guardian of the gates of the underworld is still a matter of debate. Did he prevent the souls of the dead from leaving, breaking the natural order of things by returning to their old lives amongst the living? Or did he shepherd weary souls to their new home, ensuring that all humans alike reached their destination instead of being doomed to wander eternally?
17. Dragon (European Dragon, Draco Nobilis)
Perhaps the most prevalent and widespread example of any mythical creature, dragon stories have been found in virtually every part of the world. Said to live in high mountains, deep forests, dark caves, or crumbling ruins, dragons are said to be very clever, very large, and very, very dangerous.
This creature, with a lion’s, goat’s, and snake’s heads, was a fire-breathing sibling of Cerberus and was certainly no easier to escape from. To see it was an omen of fires, earthquakes, and shipwrecks, and over time the beast came to represent the savagery of nature.
19. Loch Ness Monster
While most people have heard of Nessie, few will have encountered her lake monster counterparts in other lands. She has sisters in Europe, Canada, the USA, Africa, and South America, and is thought to be a distant and less dangerous relative of the kelpie. Some witnesses believe that she’s a rare example of a mostly extinct prehistoric monster, the last members of a species lost to time.