NOTE: Many of the Orthodox Church Fathers believed in the existence of mythological creatures. Some even wrote about their existence and described them in detail. The following article is by no means a complete index of Orthodox Patristic “cryptozoology,” which is quite an exhaustive subject.
- Cynocephali in the Ancient Christian Tradition
- St. John Damascene’s Epistle on Dragons
- The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages
- The Aberdeen Bestiary – MS 24
SOME CHURCH FATHERS WHO WROTE ABOUT IMAGINARY CREATURES
St. Ambrose of Milan (d. 397): His commentary on the fourth day (creation of birds and fish) and fifth day (creation of land animals) [in the Hexameron] influenced the later writers of the bestiaries, who occasionally quote from him directly. Ambrose’s stature as a Father of the Church ensured that his account of the creation of animals would be accepted as true.
St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430): In City of God, Augustine discusses the monstrous races of humans, giving the reports of their existence cautious acceptance. With the respect Augustine had in the Middle Ages, his opinions were taken seriously. His acceptance, though cautious, of some of the beast tales could only have made them more acceptable to later writers.
Isidore of Seville (d. 7th century): Book 12 of the Etymologies is about animals. Isidore took much of his information from Aristotle and Pliny, who also wrote about real and imaginary animals. Isidore, as usual, accepted whatever his sources told him; observation of the real world has little part in his “zoology.”
Hrabanus Maurus (d. 856): De rerum naturis (On the Nature of Things), also known as De universo, is an encyclopedia in 22 books, covering a large range of subjects. It was written between 842 and 847. Hrabanus’ stated intent was to compile an encyclopedic handbook for preachers. He drew on earlier sources for his information, particularly the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville, but the organization of the material was his own invention.
Book 8 is on animals. It is divided into seven chapters: De bestiis (“beasts”, mostly mammals); De minutis animantibus (small animals); De serpentibus (serpents, reptiles); De vermibus (“worms”, mostly insects); De piscibus (fish); De avibus (birds); De minutis avibus (small birds).
St. Photius the Great (d. 893): The most important of the works of Photios is his renowned Bibliotheca or Myriobiblon, a collection of extracts and abridgements of 280 volumes of classical authors (usually cited as Codices), the originals of which are now to a great extent lost. The work is especially rich in extracts from historical writers. It contains Ctesias’ Indica, which describes various mythological creatures.
ORTHODOX PATRISTIC “CRYPTOZOOLOGY”
Amphisbaena: The amphisbaena is a two-headed lizard or serpent. It has one head in the normal position, and another at the end of its tail. It can therefore run in either direction. Its eyes shine like lamps, and has no fear of cold. The name “amphibaena” is now given to a legless lizard that can move either forward or backward, though this is a relatively modern use of the name.
The amphisbaena has two heads, one in the proper place and one in its tail. It can move in the direction of eaither head with a circular motion. Its eyes shine like lamps. Alone among snakes, the amphisbaena goes out in the cold. (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 12, 4:20)
There are two interpretations of what an ant-lion is. In one version, the ant-lion is so called because it is the “lion of ants,” a large ant or small animal that hides in the dust and kills ants. In the other version, it is a beast that is the result of a mating between a lion and an ant. It has the face of a lion and and the body of an ant, with each part having its appropriate nature. Because the lion part will only eat meat and the ant part can only digest grain, the ant-lion starves.
The ant-lion story may come from a mistranslation of a word in the Septuagint version of the biblical Old Testament, from the book of Job (4:11). The word in Hebrew is lajisch, an uncommon word for lion, which in other translations of Job is rendered as either lion or tiger; in the Septuagint it is translated as mermecolion, ant-lion.
“But in the translation of the seventy interpreters it does not say “the tiger” but “the ant-lion perished because it had no prey.” The ant-lion is a very small animal, enemy of the ant, which hides itself under the sand and kills ants carrying bits of grain, and then eats the ants. Ant-lion is said in Latin to be either “lion of ants” or at least, more precisely, “both ant and lion.” It is rightly said to be both ant and lion, because by comparison to flying things, or to other small animals, it is an ant, but to the ants it is a lion. It devours them like a lion, but it is devoured by the other animals like an ant. When therefore Eliphaz says, “The ant-lion perished,” what is he attacking in blessed Job under this name if not both fear and boldness? As if to say openly: ‘You have not been struck unjustly, because you are timid against the strong, but bold against the weak.’ As if to say openly: ‘Against the clever, fear restrained you, but against the simple, cockiness puffed you up. But the ant-lion does not have its prey because your timid pride is beset by blows and kept from wounding others.’ But because we said the friends of blessed Job stood for heretics, it is important for us to say how these words of Eliphaz can be interpreted allegorically. … (Section 43): This beast spotted with such diversity is rightly called a tiger, though called by the seventy interpreters as we said before, an ant-lion. That animal hides in the dust, as we said, to kill ants carrying bits of grain. So also the apostate angel, cast down on earth from heaven, ambushes the minds of the just as they prepare for themselves nourishment on the path leading to good works. And when he defeats them from ambush, he is like an ant-lion unexpectedly killing ants bearing grain. But he is rightly called an ant-lion, that is lion-and-ant: for he is a lion to the ants, but to the birds a mere ant, because to those who yield to him the ancient enemy is strong, but to those who resist him he is feeble. If his suggestions find assent, he is as unstoppable as the lion; but if they are resisted, he is stepped on like an ant. To some therefore he is a lion, to others an ant. Minds devoted to the flesh can scarcely endure his cruelty, while spiritual minds step on his weakness with the foot of virtue. So heretics, because they take pride in their presumed holiness, say as if rejoicing, “The ant-lion,” or at least, “The tiger perished, because he had no prey.” As if to say openly: ‘The old adversary does not have prey in us because for our purposes he already lies beaten.’ So he is mentioned again with the name of ant-lion or tiger because he had already been said to be trampled on in the roar of the lion: for whatever is said out of joy is often repeated.” (St. Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, Book V, chapter 20, section 40)
“The ant-lion is so called either because it is equally lion and ant, or because it is the lion of ants. It is a small animal that is hostile to ants; it hides in the sand and kills other ants that are carrying grain. In this way it is like a lion to ants though it is like an ant to other animals.” (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 12, 3:10)
Asp [The Haemorrhois, Prester and Hypnalis are other varieties of asp]: “…they are like the deaf adder that stops her ear; which will not hearken to the voice of charmers, charming never so wisely” (Psalm 58:56).
“As indeed of asps it is said, that when they are lured by incantations, in order that they may not be drawn from their caves they press one ear to the ground, and use their tail to stop up the other, and yet the enchanter can bring it forth…). This appears to be the first time this method of blocking both ears was described.” (Augustine of Hippo, Sermo 316:2 – In Solemnitate Stephani Martyris; Duri Iudaei in Stephanum)
“The asp (aspis) kills with a venomous bite, and from this it gets its name, for the Greek word for poison is ios (as). When an enchanter calls an asp out of its cave by incantations and it does not want to go, it presses one ear to the ground and covers the other with its tail, so it cannot hear the enchantment. There are many kinds of asp, but not all are equally harmful. The dipsas is a kind of asp, called in Latin situla because one bitten dies of thirst. The hypnalis is a kind of asp that kills in sleep, as Cleopatra was freed by death as if by sleep when bitten by one. The haemorrhois is called an asp because anyone bitten by it sweats blood; for the Greek word for blood is haima. The prester (or praester) is a kind of asp that always runs with its steaming mouth open; one bitten becomes distended for rot follows the bite. (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 12, 4:12-16)
Basilisk: The basilisk is usually described as a crested snake, and sometimes as a cock with a snake’s tail. It is called the king (regulus) of the serpents because its Greek name basiliscus means “little king”; its odor is said to kill snakes. Fire coming from the basilisk’s mouth kills birds, and its glance will kill a man. It can kill by hissing, which is why it is also called the sibilus. Like the scorpion it likes dry places; its bite causes the victim to become hydrophobic. A basilisk is hatched from a cock’s egg, a rare occurence. Only the weasel can kill a basilisk. Some manuscripts have separate entries and/or illustrations for the basilisk and the regulus, possibly because the basilisk account in Isidore has three sections, one each for the basilisk, the “kinglet” (reguli), and the sibilus. Where the regulus is treated separately, the bite of the basilisk causing hydrophobia is generally ascribed to the regulus.
“The basilisk is six inches in length and has white spots; it is the king (regulus) of snakes. All flee from it, for it can kill a man with its smell or even by merely looking at him. Birds flying within sight of the basilisk, no matter how far away they may be, are burned up. Yet the weasel can kill it; for this purpose people put weasels into the holes where the basilisk hides. They are like scorpions in that they follow dry ground and when they come to water they make men frenzied and hydrophobic. The basilisk is also called sibilus, the hissing snake, because it kills with a hiss.” (Isidore of Seville,Etymologies, Book 12, 4:6-9)
Centaur: The centaur has the lower body of a horse and the upper body of a human.
St. Jerome’s version of the Life of St Anthony the Great, the hermit monk of Egypt, written by Athanasius of Alexandria, was widely disseminated in the Middle Ages; it relates Anthony’s encounter with a centaur, who challenged the saint but was forced to admit that the old gods had been overthrown. The episode was often depicted; notably, in the The Meeting of St Anthony Abbot and St Paul the Hermit by Stefano di Giovanni called “Sassetta”, of two episodic depictions in a single panel of the hermit Anthony’s travel to greet the hermit Paul, one is his encounter along the pathway with the demonic figure of a centaur in a wood.
St. Jerome ends the story with an authenticating claim that, during the reign of Constantine:
“A living man of this kind was brought back to Alexandria and shown as a great spectacle to the people; afterwards, its lifeless body, to prevent its dissolution in the summer’s heat, was salted, and carried back to Antioch to be seen by the Emperor.” (St. Jerome, The Life of St. Paul, The First Hermit).
“Centaurs are fabulous animals that are part man and part horse. Some say that this idea came from the horsemen of the Thessalians, because in battle on horseback they appear to be one body, horse and man.” (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 11, 3:37)
Cerastes: The cerastes is a snake with horns like a ram’s on its head; from this it gets its name, for the Greeks call horns kerata. It has four horns, which it displays as bait, and instantly kills the animals it attracts. It covers itself with sand, leaving exposed only the part with which it catches allured birds and animals. It is so flexible that it seems to have no spine. (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 12, 4:18)
Corocotta: The Leukrokottas (or Leucrocotta, Corocotta) was a fantastic creature with the body of a stag, a lion’s neck, cloven hooves, and a wide mouth with a sharp, bony ridge in place of teeth. It had the ability to imitate the voices of men to lure prey. The creature was probably derived from travellers’ accounts of a type of hyena.
“In Aithiopia (Ethiopia) there is an animal called Krokottas (Crocotta), vulgarly Kynolykos (Cynolycus, Dog-Wolf), of amazing strength. It is said to imitate the human voice, to call men by name at night, and to devour those who approach it. It is as brave as a lion, as swift as a horse, and as strong as a bull. It cannot be overcome by any weapon of steel.” (Ctesias, Indica, summary from Photius, Myriobiblon 72)
Dragon: The dragon is the largest serpent, and in fact the largest animal on earth. Its name in Latin is draco, derived from the Greek name drakon. When it comes out of its cave, it disturbs the air. It has a crest, a small mouth, and a narrow throat. Its strength is in its tail rather than its teeth; it does harm by beating, not by biting. It has no poison and needs none to kill, because it kills by entangling. Not even the elephant is safe from the dragon; hiding where elephants travel, the dragon tangles their feet with its tail and kills the elephant by suffocating it. Dragons live in the burning heat of India and Ethiopia. (Book 16, 14:7): Dracontites is a stone that is forcibly taken from the brain of a dragon, and unless it is torn from the living creature it has not the quality of a gem; whence magi cut it out of dragons while they are sleeping. For bold men explore the cave of the dragons, and scatter there medicated grains to hasten their sleep, and thus cut off their heads while they are sunk in sleep, and take out the gems. (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 12, 4:4-5)
Griffin: The griffin is a winged, four-footed animal. It has the body of a lion, but the wings and head of an eagle. It is born in the Hyperborean mountains, or perhaps in Ethiopia; some say it lives in the Indian desert, which it leaves only to find food. Griffins are the enemy of the horse. A griffin will tear a man to pieces or carry him to its nest to feed its young. Griffins are strong enough to carry away an entire live ox. They are also known for digging gold from mines.
“The griffin is both a feathered animal and a quadruped; its body is like that of a lion, but it has wings and the face of an eagle. Griffins are hostile to horses and attack any man they see.” (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 12, 2:17)
“There is also gold [in India], not found in rivers and washed, as in the river Paktolos, but in many large mountains which are inhabited by Grypes (Griffins). These are four-footed birds as large as a wolf, their legs and claws resembling those of a lion; their breast feathers are red, those of the rest of the body black. Although there is abundance of gold in the mountains, it is difficult to get it because of these birds.” Ctesias, Indica, summary from Photius, Myriobiblon 72)
The Hippoi Monokerata: The Hippoi Monokerata were the swift-footed unicorns of the East. They were magnificent snow-white equines with a single, brightly-coloured horn rising from the middle of their foreheads. The Greeks also referred to them as Onoi Monokerata (One Horned Asses). The fabulous unicorn of Medieval bestiaries was derived from this creature of Greek legend.
“The unicorn received one horn from nature” (Ps. 91:10 LXX). “The unicorn is the beast which is invincible on account of the sharp horn upon his forehead, by which he kills all other beasts” (Ps. 77:69 LXX). (St. Athanasius the Great, Commentary on the Psalms)
“In India there are wild asses [the Monokerata, Unicorns] as large as horses, or even larger. Their body is white, their head dark red, their eyes bluish, and they have a horn in their forehead about a cubit in length. The lower part of the horn, for about two palms distance from the forehead, is quite white, the middle is black, the upper part, which terminates in a point, is a very flaming red. Those who drink out of cups made from it are proof against convulsions, epilepsy, and even poison, provided that before or after having taken it they drink some wine or water or other liquid out of these cups. The domestic and wild asses of other countries and all other solid-hoofed animals have neither huckle-bones nor gall-bladder, whereas the Indian asses have both. Their huckle-bone is the most beautiful that I have seen, like that of the ox in size and appearance; it is as heavy as lead and of the colour of cinnabar all through. These animals are very strong and swift; neither the horse nor any other animal can overtake them. At first they run slowly, but the longer they run their pace increases wonderfully, and becomes faster and faster. There is only one way of catching them. When they take their young to feed, if they are surrounded by a large number of horsemen, being unwilling to abandon their foals, they show fight, butt with their horns, kick, bite, and kill many men and horses. They are at last taken, after they have been pierced with arrows and spears; for it is impossible to capture them alive. Their flesh is too bitter to eat, and they are only hunted for the sake of the horns and huckle-bones.” (Ctesias, Indica, summary from Photius, Myriobiblon 72)
Indus Worm: The Indus Worm from Medieval bestiaries was a giant, white, carnivorous worm that lived in the Indus River.
“In the river Indos (Indus) a worm is found resembling those which are usually found on fig-trees. Its average length is seven cubits, though some are longer, others shorter. It is so thick that a child ten years old could hardly put his arms round it. It has two teeth, one in the upper and one in the lower jaw. Everything it seizes with these teeth it devours. By day it remains in the mud of the river, but at night it comes out, seizes whatever it comes across, whether ox or camel, drags it into the river, and devours it all except the intestines. It is caught with a large hook baited with a lamb or kid attached by iron chains. After it has been caught, it is hung up for thirty days with vessels placed underneath, into which as much oil from the body drips as would fill ten Attic kotylai. At the end of the thirty days, the worm is thrown away, the vessels of oil are sealed arid taken as a present to the king of India, who alone is allowed to use it. This oil sets everything alight–wood or animals–over which it is poured, and the flame can only be extinguished by throwing a quantity of thick mud on it.” (Ctesias, Indica, summary from Photius, Myriobiblon 72)
“In regard to the river Indos, he [Ctesias] says that, where it is narrowest, it is forty, where it is widest, two hundred stades broad . . . He also mentions a worm found in this river, the only living creature which breeds there. Beyond India there are no countries inhabited by men. It never rains there, the country being watered by the river.” (Ctesias, Indica, as summarized in Photius, Myriobiblon 72)
Manticore: The Mantikhoras (or Manticore) was a fabulous man-eating Persian monster with the body of a lion, the face of a man, and a spike-tipped arrow-shooting tail. The name “Manticore” was reputedly derived from a Persian word meaning “man-eater.” The Manticore also appeared in Medieval bestiaries, derived from the Greek and Roman writers.
“He [Apollonios of Tyana] also asked them [the Brahmans of India] . . . if they had among them a four-footed animal called a Martikhoras (Manticore), which had a head like that of a man, but rivals a lion in size, while from its tail projects hairs like thorns a cubit long, which it is accustomed to shoot out like arrows at those who hunt it . . . [and] Iarkhas said that they never had existed at all.” (Eusebius, Treatise Against Hierocles 21)
“The Martikhora (Manticore) is an animal found in this country [India]. It has a face like a man’s, a skin red as cinnabar, and is as large as a lion. It has three rows of teeth, ears and light-blue eyes like those of a man; its tail is like that of a land scorpion, containing a sting more than a cubit long at the end. It has other stings on each side of its tail and one on the top of its head, like the scorpion, with which it inflicts a wound that is always fatal. If it is attacked from a distance, it sets up its tail in front and discharges its stings as if from a bow; if attacked from behind, it straightens it out and launches its stings in a direct line to the distance of a hundred feet. The wound inflicted is fatal to all animals except the elephant. The stings are about a foot long and about as thick as a small rush. The Martikhora [a Persian word meaning man-eater] is called in Greek Anthropophagos (Man-Eater), because, although it preys upon other animals, it kills and devours a greater number of human beings. It fights with both its claws and stings, which, according to Ktesias (Ctesias), grow again after they have been discharged. There is a great number of these animals in India, which are hunted and killed with spears or arrows by natives mounted on elephants.” (Ctesias, Indica, summary from Photius, Myriobiblon 72)
Pard: The pard, a beast of many colors, is very swift, likes blood, and kills with a leap. The adulterous mating of the pard with a lion (leo) produces degenerate offspring, the leopard. (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 12, 2:10-11)
Phoenix: There are two similar versions of the account of the phoenix. In the first, it is a bird that lives in India. When it reaches the age of five hundred years, it flies to a frankincense tree and fills its wings with spices. In early spring a priest at Heliopolis covers an altar with twigs. The phoenix comes to the city, sees the altar, lights a fire there and is consumed by it. The next day a small, sweet-smelling worm is found in the ashes. On the second day the worm has transformed into a small bird, and on the third has the form of the phoenix again. The bird then returns to its place of origin.
The second version says that the phoenix is a purple or red bird that lives in Arabia. There is only one living phoenix in the world at any time. When it is old, it builds a pyre of wood and spices and climbs on to it. There it faces the sun and the fire ignites; it fans the fire with its wings until it is completely consumed. Some say it is the sun that ignites the fire; others say that the phoenix starts it by striking its beak against a stone, or that stones gathered with spices in the pyre rub together to create a spark. A new phoenix rises from the ash of the old.
Other versions of the story combine parts of the above accounts. The tale of the phoenix is very old and was widely known throughout antiquity, with many variations.
“The phoenix is a bird of Arabia, which gets its name from its purple (phoeniceus) color; or because it is singular and unique in the world and the Arabs call singular and unique phoenix. It lives for 500 years or more. When it sees that it has grown old it builds a pyre for itself from spices and twigs, and facing the rays of the rising sun ignites a fire and fans it with its wings, and rises again from its own ashes.” (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 12, 7:22)