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"Legendary lands … have only one characteristic in common: whether they depend on ancient legends whose origins are lost in the mists of time or whether they are an effect of a modern invention, they have created flows of belief," Umberto Eco wrote in his illustrated meditation on imaginary places. But as much as fictional lands might hold enduring allure, what captivates our shared imagination even more are the fictional and mythic creatures of our cultural folklore, both ancient and modern. That's precisely what writer Davide Cali and illustrator Gabriela Giandelli explore in Monsters and Legends (public library) – a vibrant and whimsical volume from independent British children's book press Flying Eye Books, which also gave us the illustrated chronicle of Shackleton's historic expedition. From mermaids and unicorns to Cyclops and giant squid to vampires and zombies, Giandelli's breathtaking illustrations and Cali's illuminating stories about the origin of each mythic creature bring to life the beings that haunt our collective conscience, as well as those we secretly fear – or hope – exist in some mystical corner of what we concede is reality.
In South America, we meet the stinky Mapiguari, a giant nocturnal animal with long arms and claws, the skin of a reptile, and bright red hair, believed to roam the Amazon jungle. Legend has it, the creature avoids water, which might account for its smell. Some locals and other believers think it's a giant sloth – a species that disappeared more than 10,000 years ago. Skeptics, meanwhile, consider it the mistaken mashup of a regular sloth and an armadillo, which terrified nighttime travelers in the jungle somehow remixed in their frightful imagination.
But one of the most common species-mashups is the dragon, a mythic being that appears in various incarnations in many cultures, with powers ranging from the destructive to the divine.
In every culture, there is a creature resembling a Dragon. It often appears as a symbol of life and power, a creative or protective spirit closer to a god than an actual animal. That's certainly true in the case of Huang Long in Chinese mythology, or Quetzalcoatl, the Aztecs' feathered serpent.
Commonly depicted with a snake's body, lizard's legs, eagle's talons, crocodile's jaws, lion's teeth and bat-like wings, the Dragon is a combination of several different animals. Among the Dragon's many portrayals is the Hydra of Greek mythology – a vicious sea monster with seven heads. Two of the most famous Hydras are the Lernaean Hydra, which was killed by Hercules, and Scylla, which was rumored to live in the depths of the strait in Messina.
In Africa, we find a legendary 20-foot-long Nile Crocodile that haunted Lake Tanganyika, the world's second-largest freshwater lake, for years. Named Gustave by the locals and alleged to have eaten at least 300 people, the giant croc lived for sixty years and survived countless capture attempts, until hunters managed to slay him in 2005. Once measured, Gustave turned out to be just a regular Nile Crocodile, 13 feet long – not that unusual for a species that can grow up to 16 feet in length.
In the same region, the dinosaur-like Mokele-mbembe awaits us:
800 kilometers north of Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, is a vast, swampy area where rumors tell of a frightening creature – the Mokele-mbembe. Described for the first time by a French missionary in the 18th century, he claimed the Mokele-mbembe was as big as an elephant, with a small snake-like head, a 2 to 3 meter long neck, hippopotamus feet and a crocodile tail.
The description sounds remarkably similar to the Sauropods, a group of animals that disappeared 65.5 million years ago! From 1913 onwards, expeditions set out in search of the Mokele-mbembe. But they returned with little more than a few pictures and some vague footage. According to some theories the Mokele-mbembe might be an unknown species of monitor lizard.
Others say it's a softshell turtle whose long neck, small head and aggressive attitude match the description of the monster. The softshell turtle isn't as big as the legendary Mokele-mbembe but skeptics still argue that it is possible that Pygmies, terrified of an animal that they didn't know, got the measurements wrong. They claim that this situation is far more likely to be the case than that a dinosaur is living quietly in Africa without anybody ever having taken its picture.
Then comes a mythic creature that has enjoyed a resurgence as a visual meme of the social-web era:
The Kraken is a gigantic legendary sea monster. Its name comes from the Norwegian word krake, meaning "a twisted or crooked animal." The origin of the Kraken myth goes back to the 13th century, but it's not until the 18th and 19th centuries that sailor stories about the Kraken really start multiplying! Stories were told of ships being attacked and destroyed by a creature with tentacles over a kilometer long. Carl Linnaeus … mentioned the Kraken in his first book in 1735, under the scientific name of Microcosmus marinus, but it doesn't appear in his following books, as he couldn't prove its existence.
Roald Dahl's Gremlins
One of the most charming entries highlights a tiny mischievous creature from Irish folklore, the Gremlin, brought back into the popular imagination by beloved children's book author Roald Dahl. In 1942, long before he made a name for himself with this children's stories, Dahl was a pilot in the Royal Air Force, flying a B-25 Mitchell bomber. A mechanical malfunction on one of his flights resulted in a forced landing, after which Dahl took it upon himself to inform the unsuspecting public that Gremlins had been terrorizing the Royal Air Force for months – pilots had created their own folklore, blaming the legendary creatures for the high rate of breakdowns. The myth, of course, was just a sandbox for Dahl's imagination as a storyteller – the following year, he published The Gremlins, his first children's book.
As we move closer to the present day, we meet the Chupacabra, a creature that preys on chickens and goats, named after the Spanish for "goat sucker." Witness accounts from Latin America and Florida describe it as a hairless kangaroo with the head of a dog, which acts like a vampire coyote that sucks its prey dry of blood. Some suspect it was the progeny of genetic experiments, while others abandon all attempts at plausibility and say it came from outer space. The Chupacabra is also believed to possess several paranormal superpowers, such as the ability to change color and hypnotize its prey via telepathy.
Mythic as this sounds, certain species of real animals have recently been found to employ a kind of "mind control" over their prey – perhaps proof that all myth, including religion, for that matter, is a tapestry woven of our greatest immaterial fears and hopes, with a few threats of material reality.
Indeed, Cali takes care to balance the mythology with a healthy dose of myth-busting that would make Carl Sagan proud. Each myth is followed by a "What We Know" section that grounds us with reality-based evidence:
The videos of the Chupacabra, often blurry and hard to follow, and the pictures, usually faked, don't help much with identifying the creature. But if you trust the descriptions, the Chupacabra looks a lot like a rare species of Mexican hairless dog called Xoloitzcuintle.
DNA tests on dead specimens have proven that it is an ordinary dog with nothing extraterrestrial about it at all.
And of course no taxonomy of modern folklore would be complete without everyone's favorite pop culture meme:
Zombies, or Walking Dead, [are] regular actors in horror movies… But Zombie stories, like Werewolf stories or Vampire stories, have their roots in reality. Well, almost… In Haiti people practice a religion called Voodoo that holds magic and superstition in high regard. It is thought that a Bokor – a Voodoo sorcerer – can steal someone's soul, wake him or her from the death and turn them into a slave – a Zombie.
Cali once again contrasts the myth with the empirical evidence:
A study conducted in the 1980s found that the Bokor probably controlled people using a neurotoxin created from the poison of the fugu, a type of pufferfish. The neurotoxin causes a state of apparent death and the supposed complete obedience of the "exhumed corpse." In reality, Zombies are just drugged slaves forced to work in sugar plantations. Obedient workers that never go on strike!
Monsters and Legends is bound to tickle the imagination and poke a friendly stick at superstition, all while enchanting us with irresistibly gorgeous illustrations. For a different octave of the siren song of the mythic, complement it with Eco's The Book of Legendary Lands and Codex Seraphinianus, history's most bizarre and beautiful encyclopedia of the imaginary.
There is something inescapably alluring about the reading lists of cultural icons, perhaps because in recognizing that creativity is combinatorial and fueled by networked knowledge, we intuitively long to emulate the greatness of an admired mind by replicating the bits and pieces, in this case the ideas found in beloved books, that went into constructing it.
One interesting observation: The majority of Eno's favorite books were published in the 1970s and 1980s, when he was in his mid-twenties to late thirties – indication, perhaps, that this is the golden age within a lifetime, when we have transcended the know-it-all arrogance of youth, haven't yet entered the know-it-old complacency of old age, and live with that wondrous combination of receptivity to new ideas and just enough not-yet-calcified intellectual foundation with which to integrate and contextualize them.
In 1961, young Maurice Sendak illustrated Let's Be Enemies – a charming lesson in friendship via reverse psychology by writer Janice May Urdy, published by Harper's children's division. Eight years later, the same publisher, overseen by Sendak's remarkable editor and patron-saint Ursula Nordstrom, came out with The Hating Book (UK; public library) by Charlotte Zolotow, the beloved children's writer whom we recently lost and with whom Sendak frequently collaborated – a story strikingly similar in its ethos to Let's Be Enemies, only featuring two little girls rather than two little boys, and illustrated by a very young Ben Shecter in a style akin to Sendak's.
Whether the parallel was intentional or just the product of creative happenstance, we'll never know. But Zolotow's story and Shecter's illustrations stand on their own not only as a lovely vintage treasure, but also an endearing, light-hearted yet poignant reminder that we invent our attitudes towards friends and foes, that a great deal of how we interpret another person's behavior and intentions is merely a projection of the stories we've constructed about them, and that open communication is the glue of true friendship.
I hate, hate, hated my friend.
When I moved over in the school bus, she sat somewhere else.
When her point broke in arithmetic and I passed her my pencil, she took Peter's instead.
What if she should say
Oh, please, just go away.
You're ugly and dumb.
Being with you
was never fun.
Oh, I hated my friend.
When it was her turn to wash the board, she didn't ask me to help.
Oh, I hated my friend.
When I went to walk home with her,
she had already gone.
When she took her dog out
and I whistled to him,
she put him on a leash
and led him away.
Oh, I hated my friend.
After a few more spreads of inner turmoil, the snubbed little girl eventually decides to take her mother's advice and confront her friend.
Mercifully, The Hating Book was reprinted in 1989 and remains in circulation – treat yourself to it, then revisit I'll Be You and You Be Me, the lovely 1954 ode to friendship by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Sendak.
Between January and July of 1956, a pivotal point in art when abstraction and realism confronted one another in a particularly fierce conflict and fine art was exorcising its ambivalence about the "organic" and the "formal" on canvases the world over, the celebrated writer, poet, critic, and public intellectual Selden Rodman (February 19, 1909–November 2, 2002) engaged in a series of conversations with some of the era's greatest artists. Among them was the influential painter Mark Rothko. Found in Conversations with Artists (public library) – the same magnificent anthology that gave us Jackson Pollock on art and mortality and Frank Lloyd Wright's feisty critique of other architects – the exchange with Rothko is equal parts amusing and profound.
Unlike most of the other interviews, it didn't take place in the artist's studio – rather, the two ran into each other at the Whitney Museum Annual. Rodman recounts Rothko, who was generally "touchy about his work," was in a particularly cranky mood, mad at his dealer for having given Rodman permission to reproduce one of his paintings in the book The Eye of Man. Rodman recounts the exchange:
"Janis had no right to give permission," he said, adding that he'd contemplated suing both me and the publisher.
"You should have, Mark," I said, laughing, "you should have. That would have given abstract expressionism far more publicity than I ever could!"
"You might as well get one thing straight," he said, relaxing, "I'm not an abstractionist."
"You're an abstractionist to me," I said. "You're a master of color harmonies and relationships on a monumental scale. Do you deny that?"
"I do. I'm not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else."
I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on – and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!"
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