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The Otherworldly History of the Demogorgon

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In the first episode of Netflix's hit series Stranger Things, four boys—Dustin, Lucas, Will, and Mike—are sitting around a basement table playing a spirited game of Dungeons & Dragons. It's nighttime, and a sense of foreboding hangs over the scene, established by the show's opening just seconds before when a lab worker fell victim to an unseen creature chasing him down the corridors of a mysterious government facility.

Suddenly, Mike, the Dungeon Master, reveals the mother of all D&D monsters—the one most feared by the other players.

"The Demogorgon!" Mike yells as he slams the game piece down.

As fans of the show well know, the Demogorgon is more than just a formidable foe from a popular role-playing game. It's also the name the boys give the creature that breaks out of the Upside Down realm, abducts Will, and terrorizes the small town of Hawkins, Indiana. Moreover, it's a symbol of unspeakable evil, a shorthand for the chaos that visits the otherwise predictable lives of this Anywhereville, USA.

That evil has a long history behind it. Indeed, Stranger Things is only the latest in a collection of novels, epic poems, and other works stretching back centuries that reference the terrifying name.

The Demogorgon piece from a Dungeons & Dragons game, as seen in Stranger ThingsYouTube

Beginning in the Middle Ages, the Demogorgon was characterized as a powerful, primordial demon. In Paradise Lost, John Milton's 1667 epic poem about the fall of man, Demogorgon is "the dreaded name," and in Milton's earlier Prolusion 1, Demogorgon is explained as the ancestor of all the gods in ancient mythology. In Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, written circa 1590, the title character invokes the name of Demogorgon while calling upon the demon Mephistopheles. Edmund Spenser, in his allegorical poem The Faerie Queene, describes Demogorgon as one of the rulers of hell, residing "Downe in the bottome of the deepe Abysse … Farre from the view of the Gods and heauens blis," while in Moby-Dick, Starbuck refers to the white whale as "demigorgon" to the Pequod’s heathen crew. Fast forward more than 100 years, and Hunter S. Thompson is name-checking the Demogorgon in The Rum Diary.

But the Demogorgon's starring role came in Percy Bysshe Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, published in 1820, in which it overthrows Jupiter, king of the Gods, and frees the title character from 3000 years of torture. The Romantic poet imagined the Demogorgon not as a creature, but as a dark, shapeless god residing in a cave deep in the underworld.

I see a mighty darkness
Filling the seat of power, and rays of gloom
Dart round, as light from the meridian sun,
Ungazed upon and shapeless; neither limb,
Nor form, nor outline; yet we feel it is
A living Spirit.

So powerful was the Demogorgon that it transcended physical form and, like a Medieval Voldemort, was too terrible a name to say or spell out.

With Dungeons & Dragons, the monster finally took shape: Standing 18 feet tall, it had a scaly, reptilian body, tentacle arms, and two giant baboon heads. It could charm, hypnotize, drain away life force, or make you deadly ill. It was called "The Prince of Demons." Truly, chaos was its calling card.

In Stranger Things, the Demogorgon became something different—a dark, twisted creature resembling a cross between a werewolf and a Venus flytrap. A general of hell? Lord of the underworld? Maybe not. But with its otherworldly menace and point of origin—a dusky, alternate plane where tiny particles swirl about like falling snow—the creature is every bit vintage Demogorgon.

So who created the Demogorgon? The oldest known mention comes from, of all things, an ancient typo. In a 5th century commentary on an epic by the Roman poet Statius, the Christian scholar Lactantius Placidus referenced "Demogorgon, the supreme god, whose name it is not permitted to know." Sounds scary, but scholars today believe Placidus's "Demogorgon" was a misconstruction of the Greek word for "demiurge," the creator of the physical world. The name conjured up the Gorgons of Greek mythology—the three sisters with snakes for hair, Medusa being the most famous—and stoked the imaginations of future writers. In the 14th century, the Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio included the Demogorgon in his genealogy of mythical creatures, the Genealogia deorum gentilium, thus securing its place in the cultural lexicon.

A name, of course, is just that. What’s more important is what a name signifies, which in this case seems to be a fear of the unknown, a fascination with realms beyond. Stranger Things may be a love letter to the '80s, but its marauding demon carries on a timeless tradition. Long live the Demogorgon.

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7 Proposed Explanations for the Loch Ness Monster
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It was 85 years ago, on May 2, 1933, that Scotland's Inverness Courier published a report about a local couple swearing they saw “an enormous animal rolling and plunging on the surface” of Loch Ness. It didn't take long for word to spread. Does a mysterious beast really patrol one of Scotland’s deepest lakes? Or do any of these less fanciful explanations hold water? Is the Loch Ness Monster real? You be the judge.

1. LAKE STURGEONS

Photo of a lake sturgeon
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Many Nessie witnesses have mentioned large, crocodile-like scutes (hardened plates) sitting atop the spine of the creature in question. At least one native fish matches that description perfectly: Sturgeons can weigh several hundred pounds and have ridged backs, which make them look almost reptilian.

2. SURFACING TREES

A photo of a tree emerging from a body of water
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When a mighty Scottish pine dies and flops into the loch, it quickly becomes water-logged and sinks. While submerged, botanical chemicals start trapping tiny bubbles. Eventually, enough of these are gathered to propel the log upward as deep pressures begin altering its shape. These bubbles finally start dissipating after a while, but their momentum allows the deformed wood to briefly surface before returning downwards to its watery grave. Such sudden bursts of arboreal buoyancy could easily be misinterpreted as huge animals coming up for air.

3. INDIGENOUS EELS

Some amazing eels live in and near the British Isles. For example, there’s the European eel, an endangered species that spawns after migrating all the way to the Caribbean. And while we’re on the subject, here’s one fish you don’t wanna mess with:

Conger eels can exceed 10 feet in length and sometimes take gruesome bites out of unsuspecting divers. Though they’re saltwater critters, two 7-foot specimens were found lying on a Loch Ness beach in 2001. However, these animals may have been deliberately planted there to generate monster-related interest.

4. MOUNTAINOUS REFLECTIONS

Mountains reflect a monster-like image into the water below
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On choppy days, lakes regularly distort the reflections of various objects (hills, trees, etc.) upon their surfaces. Looming over Loch Ness are several mountains which face similar treatment.

5. BIRD WAKES

When you’re looking at a floating object from some distance away, ascertaining its size can be difficult. Treading waterfowl can leave disproportionately large wakes, which seemingly come out of nowhere to onlookers who can’t see the actual avian.

6. SEISMIC ACTIVITY

A photo of a bubble in the water, caused by the tremor produced by a faultline
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A fault line rests directly beneath Loch Ness, producing small tremors that release vast columns of bubbles. Their violent, unexpected emergence might very well have spawned the area’s creature legends.

7. SWIMMING ELEPHANTS

A swimming elephant raises its trunk out of the water
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Could Nessie’s head really be a trunk? Despite their bulk, elephants are talented swimmers who are capable of paddling along for hours on end. When it’s time to take a few laps, their hose noses become top-notch snorkels, periodically jetting above the surface for air. According to paleontologist Neil Clark, this behavior might help explain some of Loch Ness’s early monster sightings during the 1930s. Back then, traveling circuses were a common sight throughout northern Scotland. Between shows, these groups were known to occasionally let their performing elephants play around in nearby lakes. Perhaps, Clark argues, a few peeping locals mistook these bathing behemoths for aquatic monsters.

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History
The Dubious Legend of Virgil's Pet Fly
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bust: Hulton Archive, Getty. Fly: iStock
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bust: Hulton Archive, Getty. Fly: iStock

Here at Mental Floss, we come across a lot of "facts" that, upon further examination, don’t hold up. Like, did Benjamin Franklin invent the concept of Daylight Saving Time? Not really. (Several ancient cultures seasonally adjusted their clocks, and Franklin only jokingly pondered having people wake up earlier. The modern version was proposed in 1895 by George Hudson, an entomologist who wanted extra daylight so he could collect more insects.) Do sea cucumbers eat through their anuses? Some, but not all. (One species, P. californicus, uses its backdoor as a second mouth.)

Other facts have been trickier to debunk because the historical record was being snarky or sarcastic: Was Amerigo Vespucci, for whom America is likely named, a measly pickle merchant? (Ralph Waldo Emerson said so, but he was probably being snide.) Did people in 16th century France wipe their butts with geese? (A quotation from François Rabelais's comic series of novels Gargantua and Pantagruel has been confused as evidence, but Rabelais was a bawdy satirist.)

Yet one of our favorite dubious fun facts—a Trojan Horse that has snuck into a handful of trivia books—concerns Virgil, the Roman poet and author of the Aeneid. The story goes that Virgil had a pet housefly, and when the insect died, Virgil spent 800,000 sesterces—nearly all of his net worth—for an extravagant funeral. Celebrities swarmed the poet’s home. Professional mourners wailed. An orchestra performed a lament. Virgil drafted verses to celebrate the fly’s memory. After the service, the bug’s body was ceremoniously deposited in a mausoleum the poet had built on his estate.

Virgil wasn’t losing it: It was all a scheme to keep the government’s fingers off his land. At the time (and this part is true), Rome was seizing private property and awarding it to war veterans. According to legend, Virgil knew the government couldn’t touch his property if his estate contained a tomb, so he quickly built a mausoleum, found an arthropod occupant, and rescued his house.

It’s a great story! It’s also unsubstantiated. None of Virgil’s contemporaries mention the poet throwing a lavish funeral—especially one for a housefly. The story probably has roots in an old poem that’s been (incorrectly) attributed to the poet called "The Culex." In the poem, a fly (or, depending on your translation, a spider or gnat) wakes up a man just as a snake is lurking nearby. The man kills both the insect and serpent, but soon regrets killing his winged protector. He builds the bug a marble headstone with this epitaph:

O Tiny gnat, the keeper of the flocks
Doth pay to thee, deserving such a thing
The duty of a ceremonial tomb
In payment for the gift of life to him.

Most scholars don’t believe that Virgil wrote "The Culex." But as Sara P. Muskat, a research assistant at the University of Pittsburgh during the 1930s, wrote in a short essay, Virgil was regularly the subject of this kind of mythmaking. Shortly after his death, people in his hometown of Naples alleged he was the founder of the city. (He wasn’t.) Others claimed he had been the city’s governor. (He hadn’t.) By the Middle Ages, Virgil was depicted as a magician or dark wizard who could communicate with the dead. (He couldn't.)

“There is then no evidence, ancient or medieval, that I can find to support the story that Vergil had a pet fly and gave it an elaborate funeral,” Muskat writes. “It seems quite inconsistent with Vergil’s usual behavior, and may indicate that the period of myth-making about Vergil has not yet closed.”

Like our friendly imaginary fly, perhaps it’s time for this factoid to bite the dust, too.

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