Where the Wild Things Weren’t: A Dozen Map Monsters from History

Where the Wild Things Weren’t: A Dozen Map Monsters from History

Tim Flight - June 27, 2018

Have you ever looked at a church or cathedral, and wondered why it’s covered in hideous monsters? After all, these are houses of God, a far from monstrous being for those who believe in him. Equally, have you wondered about the often obscene and monstrous daubings that surround sacred texts in medieval manuscripts? Although we cannot entirely account for this strange phenomenon, the most popular theory is that these monsters are there to mark the boundary between the sacred and profane. That is, within the building and the text is God and His associated benevolence, and without… well, monsters.

This method of demarcating spaces by incorporating monsters also characterizes maps and accounts of distant places from the ancient world to the Enlightenment era. Old maps frequently depict hideous monsters in the unexplored regions of the known world. On the one hand, they serve as a warning, and on the other, they emphatically mark where civilization ends. But, scary or otherwise, these monstrous creatures fascinated people for centuries, and still capture the modern imagination. Although people were happy to accept that these creatures were dangerous and uncivilized, they also thirsted to know more about them and their peculiar lifestyle.

The term ‘monster’ comes from the Latin monstrum, meaning a warning, omen, or something that evokes wonder. Our modern verb ‘to demonstrate’ is a derivation of a closely-related Latin word, demonstro, which etymology reminds us of another function of monsters in the medieval period and beyond, which is to teach us something. Thus the map monsters were discussed and analysed in myriad ways to unravel what God was trying to tell us through the more revolting parts of His Creation. In this list, we will look at 12 of the most interesting, and how they were depicted and described.

Where the Wild Things Weren’t: A Dozen Map Monsters from History
Saint Christopher as a Cynocephalus, Cappadocia, 17th century. Wikimedia Commons


The Cynocephali were a race of creatures, native to Africa and India, with the body of a human and the head of a dog. They behaved in a manner very similar to people, farming the land and, according to the Greek writer Ctesias in c.400BC, ‘they are extremely just, like the rest of the Indians with whom they associate’. They cooked their meat over fires, built ships, and even engaged in trade: ‘[they] exchange [agricultural crops] for bread, flour, and cotton stuffs with the Indians, from whom they also buy swords for hunting wild beasts, bows, and arrows’.

Indeed, their only difference to people is their head and subsequent necessity to communicate only in barks. But by the medieval period, legendary monstrous creatures like the Cynocephali were a big theological problem. With so many important Classical sources mentioning them, there was little reason to question their existence, but merely to ask what they were: were they chimeric monsters or people with dog’s heads? A famous discussion of the creatures comes in St Augustine’s 5th-century City of God. ‘What shall I say of the Cynocephali, whose dog-like head and barking proclaim them beasts rather than men?’ he puzzles.

His conclusion is disturbing, to say the least: ‘whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in color, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one protoplast’. That is, the Cynocephali are human! Later depictions of Cynocephali were less forgiving, however, describing them as quarrelsome and morally ignorant, yet redeemable because of their essential humanity, thus providing encouragement to sinners who feared that they could not be saved by the Church.

Though Augustine is sceptical of their existence, it is possible that the dog-heads were based on real observations, with the occasionally-bipedal baboon, which has a canine muzzle, suggested as the origin for the legend. They are described by Marco Polo as ‘a most cruel generation’, and eyewitness accounts of Cynocephali are even discussed by Christopher Columbus in his diary entry for November 23rd 1492: ‘I understand [that] a long distance from here, there are men with one eye and others with dogs’ snouts who eat men’. The tribe, called ‘caniba’ in local dialect, is possibly the etymological root of ‘cannibal’.

The most famous Cynocephalus was undoubtedly St Christopher. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Christopher was originally a fierce, dog-headed warrior captured in battle. Upon meeting Christ, he repented of his ways and saw the light, and was thus gifted with the reward of a human appearance. His alleged Cynocephalus-origin comes from a mistranslation of the Latin word Cananeus, which was intended to mean ‘Canaanite’ but was mistranslated to ‘canine’. There are many Eastern depictions of a dog-headed St Christopher in clerical garb, which begs the question of why today’s St Christopher’s medals never show this marvellous iteration of the saint.

Where the Wild Things Weren’t: A Dozen Map Monsters from History
Manticore, England, c.1230. Pinterest


The Manticore originates in Persian legend, where its name roughly translates to ‘man-eater’. However, in the centuries that followed its original attestation, the creature acquired some peculiar characteristics, and for these we defer to Ctesias: ‘it has a face like a man’s, a skin red as cinnabar, and is as large as a lion. It has three rows of teeth, ears, and light-blue eyes like those of a man; its tail is like that of a land scorpion, containing a sting more than a cubit long at the end… with which it inflicts a wound that is always fatal’.

Incredibly, the Manticore was deadly even from great distances: ‘[it] launches its stings in a direct line to the distance of 30 metres’. The only creature which can survive being stung by one of its foot-long barbs is the elephant, and ‘although it preys upon other animals, it kills and devours a greater number of human beings’. It lives far away in the largely-unknown land of India. As a straightforward monster, its predation on humans and dangerous nature simply serves to mark where the sacred, civilised world ends, killing people as if to defend its sinful realm from them.

From an allegorical perspective, the Manticore represented Satan. In depictions of the Garden of Eden, the snake that tempts Eve is often given a human face to ensure that it is identified with the devil, which for many recalled the Manticore. The beast’s habit of preying on humans in this sense also recalls Satan as the enemy of mankind, hoping to tempt them into condemning themselves to eternal damnation. Having a human head, in medieval physiology, also confirmed that the Manticore could think rationally, defining it as especially evil, since rationality meant that it had a choice about killing men.

Where the Wild Things Weren’t: A Dozen Map Monsters from History
A sea-serpent attacks a ship, from the Swiss 1572 copy of Olaus Magnus’s Carta marina, Rome, 1539. Pinterest

Sea Serpents

Sea serpents or dragons have been a feature of mythology since the Mesopotamian era. In Mesopotamian belief, Tiamat is the goddess of the sea, often depicted as a sea serpent. In Ancient Greece, we have Scylla of The Odyssey and the multiple-headed Hydra that Heracles (Hercules) slays. The Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament also refer to sea serpents, such as the Tannin (Genesis 1:21) and the sea monster mentioned in Amos 9:3. Despite their differing cultural meanings and allegorical resonances, at their core, all of these sea serpents reveal a deeper anxiety about the dangers of the deep.

Man, of course, cannot naturally breathe underwater. For the ancient world, in which most trade was carried out across the great seas and oceans of the world, this was a significant danger to sailors crossing expanses of water only seldom with the aid of an inaccurate map. The sea today is still one of the last frontiers for scientific discoveries, so one can only imagine how terrifying it was to sail across it with an even more limited understanding of its nature. Those who fell overboard were rarely saved, adding to rumors of ferocious beasts lurking below the surface.

It is not hard to understand how a fleeting glimpse of whales or big fish could produce legends of sea monsters. In terms of sea serpents, specifically, creatures such as the giant oarfish must have nurtured tales of the mythological dangers of the deep. People often see what they expect to see or have heard tell of – one has only to think of the continuing sightings of the Loch Ness Monster, appearances of which are often no more than a branch or an otter swimming across the Loch – to understand how powerful the brain’s interpretive short cuts can be.

Specific sea monsters outside of the world of religion and myth are recorded as far back as Aristotle’s Historia Animalium. Strabo’s Geography also reports a dead sea serpent seen by the appropriately-named Poseidonius: ‘the fallen dragon, the corpse of which was about a plethrum [100 feet] in length, and so bulky that horsemen standing by it on either side could not see one another; and its jaws were large enough to admit a man on horseback, and each flake of its horny scales exceeded an oblong shield in length’. Sightings have continued ever since, suggesting man’s innate fear of seas.

So, beyond serving as a warning to men of the dangers of seafaring, what do the sea serpents actually tell us? In the medieval period, a boat sailing across the sea provided a powerful allegory. Chiefly, the boat represented the soul of fallen man being steered across the turbulent water (equating to the troubles of the earthly plain) to a safe harbor, representing heaven. The evils of the deep were the temptation to sin caused by the devil, and thus the monsters of the deep were seen as beasts of Satan. Take care to reach heaven safely, in other words.

Where the Wild Things Weren’t: A Dozen Map Monsters from History
The Dragon of Ethiopia by Ulisse Aldrovandi, Bologna, 1640. Genesis Park


There is scarce a culture or civilization in history that does not have legends of dragons. They are, by far, the most deadly of all animals, and more terrifying than their cousins, sea serpents, by merit of living on land, where people also thrive. The reason for their ubiquity in disparate human cultures is still something of a mystery, but may be because of people worldwide finding huge dinosaur bones in the earth, or due to the nebulous phenomenon of oral transmission, by nature impossible to quantify or trace. What is certain, however, is their hostility to people.

Dragons live on the fringes of the known world, specifically in Ethiopia and India, with the Cynocephali. Not all dragons breathe fire, but are able to coil around their prey and crush them to death before eating them. If the former reminds you of a constrictor snake, you are on the right track, for the dragon from earliest times is associated with snakes, as in Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies: ‘the dragon is the largest serpent, and in fact the largest animal on earth… it has a crest, a small mouth, and a narrow throat… it kills by entangling’.

European cartographers depicting dragons on maps were Christians, and drew from a Biblical tradition of the dragon. In the Book of Revelation, which describes the Christian Apocalypse, the dragon is Satan, mankind’s great enemy: ‘behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns and on his heads seven diadems’ (12:3); ‘and there was a great battle in heaven: Michael and his angels fought with the dragon, and the dragon fought, and his angels’ (12:7); ‘and that great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, who seduceth the whole world’ (12:9).

The devil is like the dragon that lives in Ethiopia and India because he is the worst of all serpents. The dragon’s crest superficially resembles a crown, which also reflects Satan’s overwhelming pride, which offended God and caused his fall from heaven. Just as Christ defeats Satan, so too the panther is the only animal that can defeat the dragon, by merit of its sweet breath. Its long-attested method of catching elephants, its favorite food, also recalls Satan’s tricks for catching souls: the dragon hides in a tree on the elephant’s favored path and catches them by the tail.

The message of the dragon on maps is thus doubly to avoid certain areas, and to beware the wiles of Satan. However, it is a myth that medieval maps bear the legend ‘here be dragons’. The only historical instances of the inscription are the Hunt-Lenox Globe, which dates from c.1503-07, and an ostrich egg from c.1504. Through their images, however, medieval maps do imply the statement by placing dragons in uncharted areas as an indication of their uncivilized nature. Being uncharted and unexplored, these areas were unlikely to be Christian, and thus must be evil, and hence full of dragons.

Where the Wild Things Weren’t: A Dozen Map Monsters from History
Alexander the Great confronts a group of Blemmyae, from the Talbot Shrewsbury Book, Rouen, 1444-45. Wikimedia Commons


Without doubt the weirdest map monsters were the Blemmyae. The Blemmyae were headless men who had their faces in their chests. The image may be derived from statues of Molus, a decapitated rapist depicted with his eyes in his chest. So old is the headless-men tradition that there is no certain etymology of the term ‘Blemmyae’, though it may come from the Hebrew for ‘without brains’. Herodotus, in the 5th century BC, tells us that in Libya live ‘headless men that have their eyes in their chests’, but they are first called Blemmyae by Strabo about 500 years later.

Blemmyae continued to be popular throughout the middle ages, and are described in Sir John Mandeville’s Travels, an account of his journey through India and China. He does not name them Blemmyae, but the description he gives is unmistakeable (as you might expect): ‘folk of foul stature and of cursed kind have no heads. And their eyes be in their shoulders’. ‘Sir John Mandeville’ probably never existed, and the book is likely to be entirely fantasy, sadly, but one Blemmyae-reporter who certainly did exist (and, by his period of history, surely should have known better) was Sir Walter Raleigh.

‘[They] are called Ewaipanoma; they are reported to have their eyes in their shoulders, and their mouths in the middle of their breasts, and that a long chain of hair groweth backward behind the shoulders’, notes Raleigh, who locates the creatures in Guiana, South America. But what is the point of the Blemmyae, if monsters are supposed to tell us something? With no obvious allegorical overtones, it is likely that Blemmyae represent a somewhat jingoistic fear of foreigners. The West knew little of the peoples who lived in uncharted areas, and apparently feared the worst of what they were like.

Where the Wild Things Weren’t: A Dozen Map Monsters from History
Sciapod from the Nuremberg Chronicle, Germany, 1493. Wikimedia Commons


The desert is full of unusual creatures which have evolved peculiar ways of surviving in such an inhospitable place. The Fennec Fox, for example, has large ears to dissipate heat, and the Gila Monster can live off the fat in its tail underground for months at a time. Thus, it is no surprise to find that a strange group of monsters were believed by the ancients to live in the desert, ‘called Sciapods (Shadow-Foots) tribe, because in the hotter weather they lie on their backs on the ground and protect themselves with the shadow of their feet’ (Pliny, Natural History).

The single umbrella-foot acted not only for shade, but also paradoxically made the Sciapod extremely fast moving: Pliny also tells us that Sciapods ‘are able to leap with surprising agility’, and other sources such as Isidore note the incredible speed of these hops. One leg was apparently faster than two. Medieval travellers seldom returned without an anecdote of seeing Sciapods shading under their own foot, or the speed with which they hop from danger, and the maps of the period, known as Mappae mundi (‘maps of the world’) frequently depict the creatures in the outlying areas of the known world.

On the huge Hereford Mappa Mundi, which dates from c.1300 and has a circumference of around 52 inches, a Sciapod is depicted in the Ganges delta. In this depiction, the Sciapod is sat upright on its bottom, holding its calf so as to keep the oversized foot over its head. This is the most common way of depicting Sciapods, and allowed illustrators to make an elegant circular form. This standard iconography reminds us that the idea of a creature using an appendage for shade is not so outlandish: the Cape Ground Squirrel uses its tail for the same purpose.

The Sciapod was not a dangerous monster, and if anything seems to be more afraid of people than they are of it. This suggests an aspect of the Sciapod’s message as a monster: it is reputed to be impossible to catch, making it something of a Will o’ the wisp, perhaps representing the elusiveness of knowledge about the unexplored regions of the world. The circular form has also been suggested as a cognate of the ouroboros (the snake eating its own tail), which in Western tradition equates to the cycle of life and the process of death and rebirth.

Where the Wild Things Weren’t: A Dozen Map Monsters from History
King Arthur confronts the giant of Mont Saint Michel roasting a pig, France, mid-14th century. British Library


Since the dawn of time, tales have been told of giant races of people living on the fringes of civilization, who wreak destruction when they leave their homes to enter the world of people. In pagan religious beliefs, the giants are usually the antagonists of the pantheon of gods, and their troublesome behavior is a plot-device in many of the most famous legends. In Greek mythology, for example, the gigantes attack Mount Olympus, home of the gods, and are defeated with the help of Heracles (Hercules in Roman myth). Buried under the earth as punishment, their agonized convulsions cause earthquakes.

Similarly, in Norse mythology, the giants (Jötnar) are a constant nuisance, and one of their number, Surtr, actually helps cause Ragnarök, the Norse apocalypse. Despite their destructive capabilities, giants are usually depicted as incredibly stupid, such as in the tale of Odysseus and Polyphemus the Cyclops (a one-eyed giant) in The Odyssey. Odysseus gains the trust of his giant captor, tells him his name is ‘no one’, and so when he attacks Polyphemus the giant yells to his concerned friends that ‘no one is hurting me’, allowing the hero and his friends to escape from the island of the Cyclops.

Along with their stupidity, giants are depicted in Western Christian tradition as arrogant, proud, and generally excessive in all sins. Their enormous, unnatural bodies were thought to signify their sinful nature, as if their size was reached by the sins forcing the confines of the physical body to expand. Christian thought saw giants as the descendents of Cain, the world’s first murderer, who had sex with the wild beasts that roamed the land to which he was exiled. His half-man, half-beast daughters were inexplicably beautiful, and they had sex with Fallen Angels, and thus the giants were born.

Usually, giants are encountered by travellers in far-off places, but when a giant inhabits civilised areas, it is unnatural, and the menacing giant must be killed. An oft-retold story illustrating this topos is King Arthur and the giant of Mont Saint Michel (see the illustration above). This giant’s appalling behaviour includes the fatal raping of young girls and gorging on livestock from local farmers (NB the excess of lust and gluttony). The giant’s unnatural pride is signified by his weaving a coat from the beards of kings he had killed. Arthur defeats the giant in single-combat, and beheads him.

The humanoid giant’s moral-message is that man can become a monster if he is excessive in sin. But why, apart from signalling the dangers of exploration into parts unknown, are giants depicted on maps? When they are depicted, superficially-human giants are always shown at the margins of the unknown, where civilised people do not live. This carries an important message: sin is usually committed at the expense of others, and even when it harms only the perpetrator such people will be unpopular. If our sins turn us, effectively, into giants, we will be forced to live in exile.

Where the Wild Things Weren’t: A Dozen Map Monsters from History
Mermaid depicted in the Luttrell Psalter, England, mid-14th century. WordPress


Half-woman and half-fish, the first known story of mermaids dates from Assyria, c.1000BC. In this tale, the goddess Atargatis falls in love with a mortal man, and accidentally kills him. Distraught, Atargatis leaps into a lake and takes the form of a fish, but she is too beautiful to be contained in such a humble form, and so ends up becoming a mermaid. A Greek legend also tells that Alexander the Great’s sister, Thessalonike, died and became a mermaid. She would periodically ask sailors if her brother was still alive, and would respond to a negative answer by causing storms.

Mermaids are associated with bad-luck and disasters. They appeared to tell sailors of their fate (from which they cannot escape), and a sighting of a mermaid usually foretold that a disaster awaited the ship from which it was spotted. Medieval depictions of mermaids show them with a mirror and a comb, admiring their reflection, signs of the sin of vanity. They are also usually shown immodestly (un)dressed, with exposed breasts, which matches tales of them seducing foolish sailors leading to the latter’s deaths. As such, they likely represent the carnal temptations to which both travellers and ordinary people are subject.

However, we must not forget that people genuinely believed that mermaids were real creatures. An incredible story from 1167 tells of the capture of a merman (a male mermaid) by fishermen in Orford, Suffolk. The merman, according to the chronicler, Ralph Coggeshall, ‘was naked and was like a man in all his members’, but showed a marked preference for raw fish, incredible swimming and diving abilities, and would not talk even under torture or show any reverence for the castle’s chapel. He was eventually released, and swam away never to be seen again. Merman? No, alas, this was a seal.

Where the Wild Things Weren’t: A Dozen Map Monsters from History
Sirens from the Northumberland Bestiary, England, c.1250-60. Brewminate


The tradition of Sirens is related to mermaids, as they are often portrayed as half-woman, half-fish, but sometimes their lower half could that of a bird or an ordinary woman. They are never anything but evil and deadly, and spend their time luring sailors to a watery grave. In Greek mythology, Sirens sing a song which is irresistible to sailors, and causes them to sail towards the sound, only to drown. Naturally, some were curious to find out what this song sounded like despite the dangers. One man who heard the Sirens and lived to tell the tale was Odysseus.

Under the advice of the sorceress, Circe, Odysseus has his sailors plug their ears with beeswax, and ties himself to the mast, instructing his men not to release him no matter how plaintive his requests. He survives the ordeal, as his men were impervious to the song. By the medieval period, literal belief in Sirens was discouraged, and they began to take on an allegorical significance. To the medieval mind, a Siren was intoxicatingly beautiful to the waist, and her song lured sailors and finally sent them to sleep in their boats. The Siren then killed the unfortunate men.

Morally, Sirens as monsters warn of the dangers of succumbing to temptations, and are aligned with the devil because love of worldly pleasures makes the sinner the prey of Satan. Like the mermaid, their presence on maps is a warning of the dangers of the unknown world, but also a warning about the increased temptation of succumbing to pleasure amongst foreign women. After all, non-Christians were seen as essentially evil until relatively recently, and so foreign women of different faiths must therefore be agents of Satan, helping him to seize the soul of the man tempted into committing sin.

Where the Wild Things Weren’t: A Dozen Map Monsters from History
Member of the Panotti (NB unusually not naked) from the Nuremberg Chronicle, Germany, 1493. Wikimedia Commons


Like the Sciapods, the Panotti solve some of the essential problems of everyday life through the absurdity of their bodies. Pliny tells us that ‘islands [which he locates somewhere around the Black Sea] are also mentioned as those of the Panotii, the people of which have ears of such extraordinary size as to cover the rest of the body, which is otherwise left naked’ (Natural History). Their huge, Bassett Hound-esque ears make superb blankets to keep them warm on chilly evenings in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and thus they are a counterpart to the desert-dwelling, sun-dodging Sciapods.

Incredibly, belief in Panotti has cognates in Chinese and Papua New Guinean traditions. For one reason or another, the Panotti’s homeland was relocated in medieval and Early Modern maps to Southern Asia (perhaps they just emigrated). On Henricus Matellus’s world map of 1491 produced in Florence – so detailed that it is believed to have been used by Christopher Columbus – recently uncovered text describes the Asian Panotti using their ears like sleeping bags, so it seems their method of keeping warm had altered with their change of address. Later accounts also state that the shy Panotti use their ears like wings.

Panotti are fairly common as decoration on medieval churches and cathedrals, which suggests their function as monsters on both maps and ecclesiastical architecture is simply to signify the profane things that live away from the known, Christian world. Their nudity (ears notwithstanding) and shyness suggest they may serve as an example of despairing sinners who incorrectly believe that they cannot be saved. Alternatively, they could just make up part of God’s Word as expressed through the language of the natural world: Adam and Eve, having eaten the forbidden fruit, after all fled from God, ashamed of their nakedness.

Where the Wild Things Weren’t: A Dozen Map Monsters from History
The Griffin by Martin Schongauer, Germany, 15th century. Wikimedia Commons


One of the fiercest beasts found on maps is the Griffin, a monstrous hybrid of a lion and an eagle. The earliest known depiction of the Griffin is on a pre-3000BC Ancient Egyptian cosmetic palette, and it is possible that the beast was invented by that culture owing to the Egyptians’ inclusion of chimerical animals amongst their gods, or even more remotely to Mesopotamia, from which much Egyptian belief and custom derived. Shortly after these representations, the Griffin appeared in Iran, where it adorned cylinder seals (a cylindrical device for imprinting a design onto a flat surface) at Susa.

In the 14th century, John Mandeville described the Griffin in his Travels: ‘they have the body upward as an eagle and beneath as a lion… one Griffin hath the body more great and is more strong than eight lions… and more great and stronger than an hundred eagles such as we have amongst us. For one Griffin there will bear, flying to his nest, a great horse, if he may find him at the point, or two oxen yoked together as they go at the plough.’ Other sources attest to the Griffin’s particular aggression to men and horses.

Herodotus in the 5th century BC explains that Griffins hate men and horses because one-eyed men known as the Arimaspoi take horses to steal the gold guarded by Griffins. Herodotus locates Griffins in Northern Europe, where there ‘is by far the most gold’, which is presumably why they have colonized that area. At the time Herodotus was writing, Northern Europe was the furthest part of the known world, which naturally meant that it was full of strange and dangerous monsters. By Mandeville’s day, the extreme of the known world was Asia, where he says the Griffins in fact live.

Thus the role of the Griffin is primarily to mark where the known, civilized world ends. Their obsession with gold and predation on men, with whom they feed their young, makes the Griffin similar in some respects to European dragons, which are also associated with gold and man-eating. Some medieval bestiaries made the Griffin king of all beasts, since the lion was king of the animals and the eagle king of the birds. Despite its danger to men, the Griffin was thought to be an allegory for Christ, and in Dante’s Paradiso even had the honor of guarding heaven’s gates.

The reason for its association with Christ is the Griffin’s alleged habit of mating for life with its partner, reflecting the eternal bond of marriage. Defending its gold from thieves, the Griffin also shows a zero-tolerance policy for evil, just as Christ defeated the devil and condemned the Pharisees. Thus as well as marking the extent of the known world and signaling the dangers that lie without, the Griffin also carries important Christian messages. Legends of the Griffin similarly made it a symbol of Islamic virtue, and it is a common feature of Islamic art, such as the Pisa Griffin.

Where the Wild Things Weren’t: A Dozen Map Monsters from History
The centaur Chiron teaches Achilles to play the lyre, Herculaneum, 1st century AD. Wikimedia Commons


Centaurs are monstrosities that combine the body of a horse and the torso-up of a man where the equine neck should be. They are most common in Greek and Roman mythology, and were said to inhabit the sparsely-populated Mount Pelion and Folóï Oak Forest in Greece. They were proverbially lustful, and their aggressively amorous advances to women often landed them in bother. For example, their famous battle with the Lapiths came about when they tried to carry off Hippodamia and the Lapith women on her wedding day. The ensuing bloody battle was a popular subject in Classical Art.

The Centaur’s lustiness perhaps comes from the part of the creature that is horse. In Roman thought, man was separated from the animals by his rationality. His exact opposite was the horse, whose life is entirely ruled by passion, not rational thought. A famous illustration of the dangers of allowing passion to oust rationality in decision making is an exhausted and beleaguered man being ridden enthusiastically by a horse, rather than vice versa. Thus, perhaps, the Centaur is ruled by the equine half of its nature; the customary depiction of Centaurs with enormous penises certainly supports this hypothesis.

Very closely related to the Centaur is the Satyr, which is near-identical in form and behavior but for having the lower half of a goat. Goats have long been associated with lasciviousness, probably due to the size of their testicles, which again accounts for the Centaur/ Satyr’s lechery. A possible explanation for the legends of Centaurs comes from Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies: ‘centaurs are fabulous animals that are part man and part horse. Some say that this idea came from the horsemen of the Thessalians, because in battle on horseback they appear to be one body, horse and man.’

The Christian application of the story of the Centaur and its monstrous sexual appetite hardly needs elaboration, and its message as a monster is simply the danger of the sin of lust. Bestiaries chiefly locate the Centaur and Satyr in Ethiopia, and maps throughout the medieval and Early Modern period depict Centaurs in far-flung outposts of the known world, such as the Italian cartographer Urbano Monte’s 1587 atlas. They advise people not only to be wary of lust and of the dangers of travel but also evoke the strange customs amongst strange peoples who populated the fringes of civilization.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Barber, Richard, trans. Bestiary. Woodbridge: Boydell, 1992.

Baxter, Ron. Bestiaries and their Users in the Middle Ages. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 1998.

Benton, Janetta Rebold. Medieval Menagerie: Animals in the Art of the Middle Ages. New York: Abbeville Press, 1992.

Camille, Michael. Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art. London: Reaktion Books, 1992.

Herodotus. The Histories. Trans. by John M. Marincola. London: Penguin, 2003.

Isidore of Seville. The Etymologies. Trans. by Stephen A. Barney, W.J. Lewis, J.A. Beach, and Oliver Berghof. 2006.

Mandeville, Sir John. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Trans. by C.W.R.D. Moseley. London: Penguin, 2005.

The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages.

Pliny the Elder. Natural History. Trans. by John Healey. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991.

Van Duzer, Chet. Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps. London: British Library, 2013.

White, T.H., trans. The Book of Beasts. New York: Putnam, 1960.

Williams, David. Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Medieval Thought and Literature. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1999.

Where the Wild Things Weren’t: A Dozen Map Monsters from History
Monsters are depicted on the Psalter World Map, Westminster, c.1265. Wikimedia Commons