Rare Book Highlights: Mythical creatures in zoological works

You know that feeling when you are flipping through an early book of natural history and you see illustrations of insects, armadillos, and…mermaids? No? Just me?

Black and white engraving of a creature that is half human with a long fish's tail. The human part is nude to the waste and appears to be female. Script on the illustration reads, "Pece Muger, sive piscis," followed by letters in Greek.

Illustration of a creator that looks like a mermaid, found in Francesco Redi’s work, “Opuscula…” (QH41 R248o).

Truly, you never know what you are going to find when you look through early works of zoology. Mythical creatures aren’t limited to medieval bestiaries. Check out these other interesting creatures from books in our collections.

This two-headed snake-like creature is found in an Italian book on parasites from 1684.

Illustration shows three figures in the shave of a Y, one of which is a two-headed snake.

From “Osservazioni di Francesco Redi” (QL757 .R248o).

And for the Potterheads out there, Charles Owen’s An Essay Towards a Natural History of Serpents (1742) has many delights.

Winged dragons…

Black and white engraving of four types of serpents, the common asp, the winged dragon, the Ethiopian dragon, and the scytale. The two dragons are shown with wings. The Ethiopian dragon is illustrated with wings and two legs.

Illustration of winged dragons from Charles Owen’s “An essay towards a natural history of serpents” (QL666.O6 Ow2e).

a basilisk…

Black and white engraving of four different serpents: two of "the Basilisk or Cockatrice living in the Desarts of Africa," an American serpent, and the elaphis. The top image of the basilisk or cockatrice shows a snake like creature wearing a crown on its head. The second of the two show a creature with a long tail, four pairs of legs, and a bird-like head wearing a crown.

Illustration of the basilisk or cockatrice, from Owen’s work on serpents (QL666.O6 Ow2e).

and various sea serpents.

Black and white engraving of four creatures: the sea serpent, the sea scolopendra, the mistress of serprents, and the natrix torquata. The sea serpents is looped multiple times around intself with a large head, large eye and rows of teeth. The sea scolopendra is shown with a feathery-looking coat down its entire body.

Illustrations of sea serpents in Owen’s work on serpents (QL666.O6 Ow2e).

Owen has interesting things to say about all these serpents. Speaking of dragons, he cites ancient Greek and Roman historians who were said to have seen such beasts. The are supposed to be found in Europe, “between the Caspian and Euxine Sea,” as well as “the Atlantic Caves, and Mountains of Africa.” Surprisingly, “These also have been seen in Florida in America, where their Wings are more flaccid, and so weak, that they cannot soar on high” (192). “The Basilisk or Cockatrice,” he tells us, “is a Serpent of the Draconick Line, the Property of Africa, says Aelian, and denied by others: In shape, resembles a Cock, the Tail excepted” (78). He notes many traditional characteristics of the basilisk–again familiar to Potter fans: “his Eyes and Breath are killing,” “it goes half upright, the middle and posterior parts of the Body only touching the Ground,” and its venom “is said to be so exalted, that if it bites a Staff, ’twill kill the Person that makes use of it; but this is Tradition without a Voucher” (78-79).

Charles Owen (d. 1746), a Presbyterian minister, was following in the footsteps of the authors of early medieval bestiaries, who believed that animals as creatures created by God, were endowed with moral meaning for mankind. Thus, not being a scientist himself, he gathers together what others, particularly the ancient Greek and Roman authors, have written about the creatures and hopes that it “produces in the Reader a more exquisite Perception of God in all his Works” (vii). It comes as no surprise, then, that Owen frequently quotes from the Bible and refers to stories in which serpents play a role, or philosophizes on the symbolism of the serpent as with this passage from his section on dragons:

What is moral Evil but the Venom of the old Serpent? A Venom as pleasant to the Taste, as the forbidden Fruit to the Eye, but the End is Bitterness. And what are Incentives to Sin, but delusive Insinuations of the subtle Serpent? And what is Enjoyment, but a pleasing Illusion, which is no sooner grasp’d, but glides away as a Shadow, leaving behind it a wounded Conscience, direful Apprehensions and Prospects. (193)

Bibliography

Owen, Charles. An essay towards a natural history of serpents. London: Printed for the author, 1742. Call number: QL666.O6 Ow2e

Redi, Francesco. Opuscula… Amsterdam: Apud Henricum Wetstenium, 1685-86. Call number: QH41 R248o

Redi, Francesco. Osservazioni di Francesco Redi … intorno agli animali viventi che si trovano negli animali viventi. Florence: P. Matini, 1684. Call number: QL757 .R248o

 

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