By Paul Wickenden of Thanet
In all cultures, there have been stories created about creatures. Some of these creatures have been familiar animals like foxes and bears, but often given characteristics that they don’t exhibit in nature (like the ability to talk, perform music, or engage in everyday commerce with humans). Other creatures like minotaurs and goblins have been more fanciful, bearing little resemblance to anything that exists in the known world. The Slavic world, of course, was no different, and most of us know about the more shining examples of the Firebird (zhar-ptitsa) for example.
But whether the beasts of stories are mundane or exotic, these creations usually were symbolic of human beings or of human traits. Perhaps as a metaphor or as a means to clearly explain a behavior to the listener or reader, the beast served as a tool. As a result, the way that a beast or monster is depicted (both in illustration and in description) can be revealing of the people who created the stories.
The following random examples (in no way an attempt at giving a complete bestiary of the Slavic world) is intended to give a taste of some of the beasts and monsters that occupied the Slavic medieval mind. The drawings are mostly taken from an 18th century treatise on Medieval bestiaries (which I chose for their clarity) but are based on period depictions.
We can begin with common creatures that were largely known and thus depicted pretty much as they were. In period literature they were often used to draw comparisons to human behavior, for better or for worse.
Of course, the bear is a much used image of modern-day Russia. In period, the associations were not as general (or as friendly). Rather than being a jovial child-friendly creature, the bear was seen as gluttonous and quarrelsome. In one case, the bear was even described as a sodomite. A far cry indeed from being the mascot of the Moscow Olympics!
This drawing of a bird from the late 15th-early 16th century would not meet Audubon’s standards, but is a largely accurate representation of the bird. Although not nearly this plump in real life, this particular example is actually less exaggerated than some illustrations that have the bird being nearly spherical! The night heron is largely associated with Jesus and so makes frequent early appearances in the culture.
Then we have the problems of explaining beasts that were quite unlike anything known in the region in period. Sometimes, the illustrator was struggling with a poor description to begin with, but other times the creature was simply too far outside the realm of local understanding.
Consider the difficulty in describing the rhinoceros to others. The 15th century text says that it is like an elephant (because it has horns) but is far more “terrible.” The artists had to make do. Initially drawn as a bear with tusks, artistic license eventually lead to an image that only Picasso could love.
A rather amusing example is the sea urchin. The Russian name actually translates better as “mer-hedgehog” (bearing in mind that “urchin” is a synonym for hedgehog) and the artist who drew it in this example obviously saw it as a marine equivalent of the hedgehog. Scribes opined that this sea-based creature did not breathe at all and was found in the deep sea amidst the “heaviest stones.”
At some point, the confusion of name and animal could grow so complete that trying to assemble now what the animal actually being described was is quite difficult. In this case of a “starling fish,” which features a fish with a bird’s head, we really have little idea what sort of animal this truly was supposed to be. But we can see that the artist didn’t suffer from lack of creativity.
Some creatures (like the snake) are largely metaphorical; their appearance in literature largely telegraphing a meaning in itself, rather than any particular importance given to the creature’s real-life habits. Often, these metaphors are negative ones, with beasts standing in for traits that humans seek to avoid.
The snake is a common element in Slavic culture, but the viper is truly a more fantastical representation. Originally drawn as a feminine figure, the example illustrated here is a more androgynous version. The beast is found often as a representation of the Pharisees or of Jews in general in medieval religious texts and is widely used as an anti-Semitic representation.
Far removed from the playful “Krokodil Krokodilovich” of modern Russians children’s literature, the crocodile in period was an evil creature used to symbolize the devil or hypocrites.
Perhaps because of Winnie-the-Pooh, Westerners tend to associate owls with wisdom and intelligence, but in period Slavic literature, the owl was seen as ignorant: “The owl flies in the night, and in the day sees nothing. Like a person who knows nothing, who does not see the light of God, but instead hates it.” Other texts note that the owl hates other birds. This illustration (while suggesting a fairly friendly looking animal) certainly depicts the animal as a predator.
Slavic culture shared many of the fantastic beasts and monsters of Western Europe, which should be no surprise given that they shared many of the same Grecian roots for their myths and stories. But geographical separation did lead to subtle differences.
As in the West, unicorns were often associated with virtue and virginity, sometimes representing Jesus directly, other times being associated merely with people who overcame temptation to live virtuous lives. While it was common (as in the West) to envision a unicorn as a horse-like beast, the illustration here shows a much smaller creature, more like a fox with a horn.
Described as a cross between a lion and a snake, it is more traditional in Western culture for the chimera to be depicted as some sort of dragon. But in the illustration here, the lion-like qualities are given more stress.
Depictions of the phoenix are usually of a much plainer looking bird, but the example here is wonderfully more fanciful, appearing to be in fact headless. As in the West, the phoenix is as a symbol of Christ, since the monster is believed to be resurrected from the ashes of its death. But a less direct usage of the creature is more found in period texts as a symbol of spiritual rebirth and of martyrdom.