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.
Visitors looking at Audubon's Birds of AmericaThe British Library
'No wizarding household is complete without a copy of Fantastic Beasts.'
Professor Dumbledore in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
The skeleton of a giant, in Athanasius Kircher,Mundus Subterraneus (1665)Original Source: 32.k.1.
There Might be Giants
Athanasius Kircher has been described as ‘a giant among 17th-century scholars’. It is fitting that in his work entitled Mundus Subterraneus (‘The Underground World’), he claimed that an enormous skeleton had been discovered in a Sicilian cave in the 14th century.
The giant reputedly stood 90 metres tall, and is shown here in comparison to a normal human, the Biblical giant Goliath, a Swiss giant and a Mauritanian giant.
A siren and an onocentaur, in a bestiary (13th century)Original Source: Sloane MS 278
Sirens and Mermaids
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.
On the shore stands an onocentaur, with the body of a man as far as the navel, and the body of an ass below.
Game-book, comprising a sheet of vellum folded, concertina-fashion, to form a game in which an overlying picture in two halves may be lifted to reveal another picture underneath (17th century)Original Source: Add MS 57312
A Game Book Mermaid
This delightful little ‘game book’ was possibly made as a love token. Using a series of flaps, different creatures could be created using the body parts of mythical beasts and real animals.
Here is a mermaid, who can be given legs to become a woman or a man’s head to become a fish-man.
'Probably the most famous of all magical beasts, dragons are among the most difficult to hide.'
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Ulisse Aldrovandi, Serpentum et Draconum Historiae Ulisse Aldrovandi, Serpentum et Draconum Historiae (1640)Original Source: 38.g.10. or 459.b.5.(2.)
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.
Ulisse Aldrovandi, Serpentum et Draconum HistoriaeOriginal Source: 38.g.10. or 459.b.5.(2.)
These pages show two types of Ethiopian dragon, distinguishable by the ridges on their back.
Spiders, in Maria Sibylla Merian, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (1705)Original Source: 74/649.c.26
Maria Sibylla Merian was a ground-breaking naturalist, the first woman to lead a scientific expedition, to Surinam, in 1699–1701.
It was on that trip that she discovered this giant, bird-eating spider. Sadly, she was denounced as a fantasist by some of her male peers, and it was not until 1863 that this spider’s existence was finally accepted.
Study of Aragog by Jim Kay, for The Chamber of SecretsThe British Library
This preparatory painting by Jim Kay captures every creepy detail of Aragog, the carnivorous spider that Harry Potter and Ron Weasley encountered in the Forbidden Forest.
In the background, hundreds of spiders’ legs become indistinguishable from the spiky trees around them.
The strands of the spiders’ webs gleam white in Harry’s wandlight.
A hippogriff, in Orlando Furiosodi M. Lodovico Ariosto (1772)Original Source: C.7.d.7.
A Knight and his Hippogriff
Ludovico Ariosto was the first to describe the hippogriff, in his epic poem Orlando Furioso (1516).
In this illustration, the knight, Ruggiero, has tethered his hippogriff to a tree. Unbeknown to him, the tree was actually another knight who had been transformed by an evil sorceress.
Drawing of Buckbeak the hippogriff by Jim Kay, for The Prisoner of AzkabanThe British Library
This beautiful painting by Jim Kay shows Buckbeak the Hippogriff, lying on Hagrid’s bed, a snack of dead ferrets under its claws. Kay drew the interior of Hagrid’s cabin from the real-life gardener’s hut at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire.
The vibrant blue highlights echo the bluebells growing in the woods at Calke.
'A crimson bird the size of a swan had appeared...It had a glittering golden tail as long as a peacock's and gleaming golden talons...'
Fawkes the Phoenix in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
A phoenix rising from the ashes, in a bestiaryOriginal Source: Harley MS 4751
Rising from the Flames
This 13th-century bestiary describes the ‘Fenix’ in great detail. According to the manuscript, this mythical bird is so called because its colour is Phoenician purple, it is native to Arabia, and it can live for 500 years.
A phoenix rising from the ashes, in a bestiary A phoenix rising from the ashes, in a bestiary (13th century)Original Source: Harley MS 4751
In old age, the phoenix is said to create its own funeral pyre from braches and leaves, before fanning the flames with its own wings, in order to be consumed by the fire. After the ninth day, it rises again from the ashes.
A phoenix, in Guy de la Garde, L’Histoire et description du Phoenix (1550)Original Source: G.10992.
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.
A simurgh, in Majma’ al-ghara’ib (1698)Original Source: Add MS 15241
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.
Study for the phoenix by Jim Kay, for The Chamber of SecretsThe British Library
Jim Kay's Phoenix
Jim Kay’s preparatory study captures the brilliant colours of the phoenix’s feathers; the image seems to soar across the surface of the page.
The painting also includes details of the egg, the eye and a single phoenix feather, all of which helped the artist to build up the final composite illustration.
'The unicorn was so brightly white that it made the snow all around look grey.'
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
A unicorn, in Manuel Philes, On the properties of animals (16th century)Original Source: Burney MS 97
A Lion-Like Unicorn
In mythology, the unicorn came in all shapes and sizes.
A poem by the Byzantine writer Manuel Philes described the unicorn as a wild beast with a dangerous bite: it had the tail of a boar and a lion’s mouth.
Unicorns, in Pierre Pomet, Histoire générale des Drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux et des mineraux (1694)Original Source: 37.h.7.
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’.
An Italian unicorn, in Discours d’Ambroise Paré, Conseiller et Premier Chirurgien du Roy. Asçavoir, de la mumie, de la licorne, des venins, et de la peste. (1582)Original Source: 461.b.11.(1.)
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.
'...owls hooted, cats miaowed, and Neville's pet toad croaked loudly from under his hat.'
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
A cat, in Conrad Gessner, Historiae animalium (1551–87)Original Source: 460.c.1.
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.’
The snowy owl, in John James Audubon, The Birds of America (1827–38)Original Source: N.L. Tab.2
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.
The female, at the front in this picture, has more flecks of black plumage.
A toad, in J. B. de Spix, Animalia nova, sive species novæ testitudinum et ranarum, quas in itinere per Brasiliam annis 1817-1820 ... collegit, et descripsit (1824)Original Source: 505.ff.16.
A Toxic Toad
Toads have featured in magical folklore for centuries. Their uses range from predicting the weather to bringing good luck, and they often feature in folk remedies: for example, rubbing a toad on a wart was said to cure it, but only if you impaled the toad and left it to die.
The cane toad, shown here, is very large and can be identified by its unwebbed hands and feet. Its venom glands produce a toxic milky secretion.