Images courtesy of Princeton University Press
Opening image: In a Scythian wood carving from the
fourth to sixth century B.C., a griffin clutches in its
jaws the head of a stag. The carving exemplifies the
technical mastery of its creators.
(State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.)
Fantastic beasts span the history of human artistic
expression. About 17,000 years ago, someone painted on a
wall of a Lascaux cave an equine beast bearing a single
horn, the earliest known representation of a unicorn. The
recent cinematic Lord of the Rings trilogy featured
computer-generated wolfish creatures called wargs that were
big enough to bring down a horse, war elephants 50 feet at
the shoulder with four immense tusks, and immense
dragon-like flying creatures that carried the evil
Ringwraiths into battle. Our imaginations seem now as they
have always been — populated by creatures not found
in nature, but lurking in our subconscious.
Christian Delacampagne, professor of 20th-century French literature in the Krieger School's Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, has examined 50 centuries of art, searching for griffins, dragons, manticores, hydras, chimeras, centaurs, mermaids, harpies, phoenixes, and sphinxes. He and his wife, Ariane, a translator and photographer, have written Here Be Dragons: A Fantastic Bestiary (Princeton University Press).
"I have always been interested in the study of religions, because I perceive religion as a fascinating phenomenon from an anthropological point of view," says Delacampagne. "This is where my interest in imaginary animals comes from. Mythical animals have always existed and continue to exist in world art, and they usually have a religious meaning."
On the pages of Here Be Dragons, his zoology of the human imagination spans millennia and cultures. A Cambodian vulture-man hybrid guards a temple. Winged horses carry armored knights to the rescue of naked maidens. Dragons rendered by a second-millennium B.C. Bactrian silversmith, the 15th-century Italian painter Paolo Uccello, and poet and artist William Blake document the long history of imagined great worms and fell beasts.
"The most difficult part of the job was gathering
iconographic information about all kinds of mythical
animals from all over the world," says Delacampagne. "We
strived to cover all major civilizations in human history
from ancient times to the present day. I hope we have
provided new insights for understanding this complicated
and sometimes sophisticated symbolism."
Marco Polo didn't actually see dragons, but that didn't
stand in the way of their depiction in a 15th-century
manuscript of his Book of Marvels.
Dragon as pet: "Alizon the Cantankerous and Her Dragon,"
a 17th-century pen-and-watercolor illustration by French
illustrator and ballet set designer Daniel Rabel.
Sumerians appear to have invented the dragon, says
Delacampagne. During ensuing centuries it became ubiquitous
in world art and mythology. This example is a
pen-and-watercolor drawing from 1585, by Giuseppe
This Grand'Goule, a winged serpent with claws and a
scorpion's tail, devoured nuns who entered underground
chambers of the local monastery. Or so the story went in
Poitiers, France, where this wood sculpture was carried in
local processions until 1789, to appease the
Images of unicorns precede written history by thousands
of years. The unicorn above attends a lady in a
15th-century French-Belgian tapestry.
Constructed from wood, dried fish skin, eel teeth, and
an actual fish tail, this object was exhibited as a "siren
corpse" in European salons and popular fairs in the 17th
and 18th centuries.
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