- Here Be Dragons: A Fantastic Bestiary
This lavishly illustrated, multicultural study of fantastic animals depicted in art spanning over five thousand years covers an ambitious territory. In their introduction, the authors identify three large themes: the symbolic or religious function of fantastic animals; their genesis and their formal transformations; and the ambiguous relationship between man and animal. Beginning with the depiction of animals in sacred art, the work moves to a study of the medieval bestiary and then to a historical overview of various creatures organized by type. From there it offers a discussion of the relationship between diffusion and independent genesis of types, citing certain cultural circumstances that tend to lead to the proliferation of fabulous animals, and concludes with a discussion of modern creations. It purports to be "the first book to explore this subject with such cross-cultural and chronological range" (book jacket), although emphasis leans heavily toward Western art, with solid attention to Middle Eastern traditions and some Asian. Pre-Columbian, Native American, and African art are briefly represented, but only brief, passing references are made to Pacific Island art.
The first chapter ("Symbols, Dreams, Religions") discusses fantastic animals as "embodiments of the sacred, or ... intermediaries whose function is to help humanity communicate with the sacred" (18). The discussion, largely focused on ancient cultures and medieval Christianity, of the way these creatures function in "the endless conversation between religion and the sacred" (21), lays a solid foundation. The overview that follows then distinguishes between those animals that have an educational function and those that have a magical function, as repositories of "supernatural energy" (36).
I would like to have seen these crucial distinctions developed in more depth in subsequent chapters, but in chapter 2 ("Inventing a Bestiary") the authors turn to a historical overview of the medieval bestiary as a way of illustrating "the Aristotelian postulate that all works of art result from some type of imitation" (45). The authors argue that medieval bestiaries of the Christian West result from the "imitation" of erroneous perceptions or misleading descriptions, going back as far as Ctesias of Cnidus (fourth century BC), although the main [End Page 137] source for the Middle Ages was the Hellenistic compilation the Physiologus (second century AD). Throughout the Middle Ages, symbolic interpretations of fantastic creatures served as a "basis for Christian moralization while also providing believers with a lexicon that could help them find meaning in the slightest details of daily life" (60). The discussion of bestiaries and the section on medieval travelogues provide a useful introduction to these genres.
The two following chapters ("Unicorns and Human Hybrids" and "Flying Quadrupeds and Dragons") turn to a sustained discussion of fantastic creatures by type. Although they do not provide an exhaustive list, the authors focus on five "structures": the unicorn, the animal-headed human (e.g., the Minotaur and Egyptian deities of pharaonic Egypt), the human-headed animal (e.g., the sphinx, the centaur, the siren), the flying quadruped (e.g., Pegasus and the griffin), and the dragon. The discussions are largely structured as chronological catalogs of the various creatures, with special attention given to diffusion. The territory is tantalizing, the limitations being twofold. First, one would like to see more application of the foundational discussion in chapter 1 of the role of the sacred and the way fantastic creatures negotiate between the natural and the supernatural. Second, the brief discussions would be considerably enriched by more specific discussions of the illustrations as a way to draw implications from the large framing ideas. A few discussions do move to important unfolding of larger issues. Especially insightful, for instance, is the section on the medieval Lady with Unicorn tapestries. Thought-provoking as well is the authors' speculation that the genesis of the flying quadruped is related to "the appearance of the centralized state embodied by the figure of the all-powerful leader, exercising strong spiritual as well as temporal power" (120). The section on differences between Eastern and Western dragons is also engaging, discussing the Western dragon...