Since time immemorial, people have believed in the existence of magical creatures. Medieval bestiaries are full of descriptions of beasts with peculiar attributes, such as unicorns, dragons and phoenixes. There is something comforting in seeing these images, a reminder of the power of the human imagination and the wish to believe in animals with extraordinary (and sometimes dangerous) talents.
An Enchanting Siren
Normally a siren is depicted as a creature with a woman’s head and a bird’s body, but in this medieval French manuscript it is shown with a fish-like tail. The siren is said to be violent in nature: she enchants sailors with her birdsong and voluptuous body, before dragging them from their ships to eat their flesh.
Ulisse Aldrovandi was obsessed with dragons, to the extent that he wrote a best-selling book named The History of Serpents and Dragons. Aldrovandi owned a specimen of a ‘monstrous dragon’, which had been found near Bologna, Italy, in 1572. Its preserved body was displayed in his personal museum and could still be seen there more than 100 years later.
A French Phoenix
Did you know that the French author Guy de la Garde devoted an entire study to the phoenix, entitled L’Histoire et description du Phoenix? The British Library’s copy of this book is printed uniquely on vellum and contains a hand-coloured picture of a phoenix emerging from a burning tree.
The simurgh was traditionally portrayed with a canine head, pointed ears and a ‘peacock’ tail. In Persian literature, it is usually depicted in flight with fantastic swirling tail-feathers. In this bestiary, the author describes the simurgh as strong enough to easily carry off an elephant, and it is said to lay an egg once every 300 years.
Five Species of Unicorn
Pierre Pomet, a Parisian pharmacist, identified no fewer than five species of unicorn, including the camphur (a horned ass from Arabia) and the pirassoipi (a unicorn with twin horns, a contradiction in terms). Pomet stated that unicorn horn was ‘well used, on account of the great properties attributed to it, principally against poisons’.
Hunting The Unicorn
The blood, hair and horn of the unicorn have long been supposed to have medicinal properties. This image of the killing and skinning of the pirassoipi, a twin-horned unicorn, is found in a study by Ambroise Paré, surgeon to the French Crown. Paré had wide-ranging interests. He devoted other chapters in this book to phenomena such as Egyptian mummies and poisons.
A Cunning Cat
Cats have long been associated with witchcraft. Conrad Gessner, a 16th-century Swiss naturalist, reported that they possess ‘a cunning character’ and that ‘men have been known to even faint at the sight of a cat’. Edward Topsell, the first English translator of Gessner’s work, noted, ‘The familiars of witches do most ordinarily appear in the shape of cats, which is an argument that the beast is dangerous to soul and body.’
An Outstanding Owl
This hand-coloured illustration of a pair of snowy owls is found in the enormous Birds of America, which shows at actual size every bird native to North America. The finished volume is just over 3¼ feet (1m) tall and is the most expensive printed book ever sold at auction. Snowy owls are native to the Arctic regions of North America and Eurasia.