12 Fantastic Drawings of Fictional Creatures from a 17th Century Book
University of Houston Digital Library
Published in 1658, The History of Four-Footed Beasts, Serpents and Insects presents a catalog of the known animals at the time in several volumes (that link takes you to Volume 1). Compiled by English clergyman Edward Topsell, the collection is based largely on the earlier Latin work by Konrad Gesner. Interspersed among the imaginative depictions of all sorts of animals from the antelope to the wolf and many different kinds of goats are more fictional fauna like satyrs and dragons.
Aegopithecus looks more like our traditional understanding of a satyr than the entry for half-man half-goat later on. The name later got applied to an early anthropoid that lived around 33 million years ago.
At first you may think it's the eerily human-like profile on this unnamed monster that makes it especially frightening, but a second look reveals giant chicken feet only on the hind legs. Which should terrify anyone who's ever ticked off a rooster.
These dragons don't have legs like modern interpretations; they are literally giant winged serpents.
As you may notice in the picture, the artist has chosen to depict the gulon excreting amid a pile of bones. This was not some random slander against the mythical Scandinavian creature. The gulon, who is described as a cross between a cat and a dog, was best known for his bizarre eating habits. After violently gorging himself beyond the point of satiation,"he seeketh for some narrow passage betwixt two trees, and there drawth through his body, by pressing whereof, he driveth out the meat which he had eaten."
By the time the catalog was collected, there were no living hydras, but rumors of a seven-headed serpent carcass in Venice seemed enough to corroborate the tale of Hercules and Hydra.
The catalog admits that the term "lamia" has historically been applied to a range of beasts and even fish. Topsells explains that perhaps this stems from a myth about a beautiful young woman, Lamia, who caught the eye of Jupiter and bore several sons by the god. When Juno learned of her husband's infidelity, she cursed Lamia, killing her sons and condemning her to perpetual sleepless mourning. Jupiter, in turn, granted his ex-lover the ability to shape-shift—which still doesn't explain why she chose the image you see above.
7. Man Ape
Half man, half ape. Looks like a cross between a scarecrow and a wooden human model from art class.
With the head of a man, the body of a lion and the tail of a dragon, the mantichora was often used in medieval times as a symbol of the Devil.
Topsell writes that, unlike the Aegopithecus above, real satyres do not have goat-like features but are rather a breed of ape, often thought to be the shape taken by the Devil on earth.
10. Sea Serpent
Looks like an eel to me.
11. Sphinga or Sphinx
"If a man do first of all perceive or discern these natural sphinges, before the beast perceive or discern the man, he shall be safe," Topsell writes, "but if the beast first decry the man, then it is mortal to the man."
Of all the creatures, Topsell dedicates perhaps the most time to the unicorn. Accounts of the curative properties of the horn are detailed and varied but, the author admits, it is precisely these almost unbelievable claims that call into question the existence of such a magical creature.
All photos courtesy of University of Houston Digital Library