Erotic Dreams and Nightmares from Antiquity to the Present (Charles Stewart, 2002)


NOTE: This article is excerpted from the The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Jun., 2002), pp. 279-309


The Mixed Dream


Early Christian preachers such as Justin Martyr assimilated all of the pagan gods to ‘demons’ under the control of the Devil (Pagels 1988: 42). According to pagan cosmology, demons were not intrinsically evil, but they were biddable. The magical papyri of the last centuries BCE and first centuries CE reveal how people sought, through ritual incantations, to command demons to carry dreams to others. In one particular example, a man named Hermeias exhorts the demons to cause his unresponsive object of desire to lust for him, even when she is ‘drinking, working, conversing, sleeping, dreaming, having an orgasm in her dreams, until she is scourged by you and comes desiring me.1

Granted the prevailing association of demons with dreams in popular thought, Christians were counselled to distrust their sleeping visions as possibly satanic. Dreams thus came to be placed squarely on the negative side of a morally polarized universe. John Climacus, whose Ladder of divine ascent synthesized the ascetic tradition and became a handbook for monks, wrote: ‘Devils often take on the appearance of angels of light or martyrs and they appear to us in sleep and talk to us … And if we start to believe in the devils of our dreams, then we will be their playthings when we are also awake’ (Climacus, Ladder, 3).

Beginning with Tertullian, the Church Fathers held that dreams could come variously from God, the Devil or the Soul (Tertullian, On the soul, 47). This tripartite scheme was apparently adapted from pre-Christian philosophical traditions. A look at the third-century BCE Alexandrian physician Herophilus’ classification of dreams reveals that the erotic dream figured centrally in the transition from paganism to Christianity:

“Herophilus says that some dreams are inspired by a god and arise by necessity, while others are natural ones and arise when the soul forms for itself an image (eidolon) of what is to its own advantage and of what will happen next; and still others are mixed (synkra-matikoi) and arise spontaneously (ek tou automatou) according to the impact of the images, whenever we see what we wish, as happens in the case of those who in their sleep make love to the women they love.”2

Greek physician Herophilus, considered to be the father of human anatomy, was accused of conducting live dissections of some 600 prisoners.

The interesting part of this scheme is the third, or mixed category. In so far as people see what they inwardly desire in these dreams, they seem identical to enypnia – the physical state dreams discussed earlier.3 Yet, this identification cannot be correct, since Herophilus pointedly differentiates them from the category of dreams produced exclusively by the soul. Mixed dreams have an exogenous element; they result from outside forces – the impact of images on the sleeper. These images happen to coincide with internal desires.

Herophilus’ mixed dream, with its ready erotic exemplification, corresponded to the demonic dream in the Christian tripartite system (von Staden 1989: 310). Early ascetic theories of human nature and psychology reveal how monks understood demons to inspire erotic dreams. These accounts, presented by writers such as Evagrius and Cassian, possibly illuminate what Herophilus intended by the mixed dream. Certainly they take us deeper into the genesis of the erotic nightmare.


For Evagrius, who became a monk in Egypt around 382 CE, demons could manipulate an individual’s previously acquired, emotionally charged memories to excite the passions, and set sinful thoughts in train. Thus evil thoughts were simultaneously exogenous and endogenous; demons activated what was already there. Evagrius conceded that disturbing thoughts would inevitably occur, even in the course of monastic life – such thoughts were part of the human condition. Sin set in only if one mentally entertained a thought for too long. As he expressed it: ‘It is not up to us whether evil thoughts might trouble the soul or leave it in peace. What does depend on us is whether they linger or not, and whether they set the passions in motion or not’ (Praktikos, 6). The goal was inner stillness, which Evagrius referred to by the familiar Stoic term, apatheia (Guillaumont 1971: 98ff.).

Evagrius named eight primary demons, the model for what would become the ‘seven deadly sins’ in Western Christianity. Each of these demons normally attacked only one of the two vulnerable parts of the soul, the high-spirited or the sensual. Predictably, the demon of fornication (porneia) attacked the sensual part of the soul. According to Evagrius “it compels one to desire ‘remarkable’ bodies; it violently attacks those living in abstinence in order to cause them to quit, convinced they will amount to nothing. And, soiling the soul, it inclines it to ‘those acts’ [obscene acts]. It causes monks to speak and hear things, as if some object were visible and present” (Praktikos, 8).

As this passage shows, the battle with demons spilled over into the realm of dreams and (other) hallucinations where the power of the will to resist demons was weakest. Although demons could provoke erotic dreams and nightmares, these were normally two distinct types of dream (Praktikos, 21, 22, 54). The phenomenon of an erotic nightmare required a fusion of demonic domains that contravened the normal division. In such dreams the sensual part of the soul joined forces with the irascible to overwhelm the intellect. It was the opposite of Plato’s ideal scenario of self-mastery where the intellect and the high spirits co-operated to overpower the appetitive part. In Evagrius’ psychology the erotic nightmare was not excluded but rather given a powerful theorization. It was the exception that confirmed the rule.4 The erotic dream was a mixed dream then, not only because external demons aroused internal thoughts, but also because it simultaneously affected the two parts of the soul.


If dreams were, indeed, controllable, then anyone who experienced an erotic dream was potentially culpable. John Cassian excused nocturnal emissions if they occurred to someone with a full stomach (Cassian, Conferences, 12.2). In such cases they were a simple physical fact of the body, and he allowed that it was ‘natural’ for emissions to occur as often as every two months, although three times a year was a more acceptable frequency (Cassian, Institutions, 6.20; Conferences, 2.23).


The sinfulness of erotic dreams and nocturnal emissions continued to be a topic of debate in ascetic ‘anthropology’- as patristic theories of human nature and psychology are sometimes known – throughout the Middle Ages in both the Eastern and Western Churches (Elliott 1999; Fogen 1998). Excusable nocturnal emissions became sinful erotic dreams if one entertained them, allowed them to linger, and, most importantly, if one consented to them (Elliott 1999: 20). The way to fight the images and sensations of the mixed dream was to sever them with the knife of the will, withholding assent so that externally instigated images did not connect with bodily passions. Nocturnal emissions unaccompanied by visual imagery indicated spiritual progress (Evagrius, Praktikos, 55; Angelidi forthcoming).

From the Monastery to the World

The account developed to this point presents the views of learned texts representing the ideas and practices of elite, free men in antiquity and a narrow subsection of monks and high clerics in the early Christian period. Their practices of self-cultivation may not have been shared by very many of their contemporaries, but their influence on subsequent generations has been enormous. If the ancient Greek ethic of self-moderation was explicitly elitist, the Christian ethic became increasingly unified in conception and intended for all – men and women, young and old alike. I turn now to consider how the ascetically influenced Christian ethic of self diffused to the population at large and how the Christian laity was conditioned to view the erotic dream as dangerous and nightmarish.

Incubus, 1870
Incubus, 1870

In popular vocabulary the word incubus, as we saw, gave people a ready label for the erotic nightmare.5 In the wake of Augustine’s writings about concupiscence and original sin, the general term for demonic interference in a dream, ‘inlusio‘ (illusion), came to have automatically erotic overtones in succeeding generations (Elliott 1999: 20). Likewise, the term ‘phantasma‘, which Aristotle had used interchangeably with phantasia to mean a ‘mental perception, image, or representation’, came to mean a distorted – usually by demons – mental representation (Schmitt 1999: 278). If normal sensory perceptions were like water that flowed through a person, then memories could be likened to water that was stored and which remained clear. Phantasmata, on the other hand, were like stagnant water that had become cloudy, rank, and overgrown with algae.

How did these developments affect popular views of these matters? Certainly the laity were not expected to live up to the ascetic standards of the monks – this would have meant the extinction of Christian society – nor were they necessarily concerned by, or even able to comprehend, the high-flown arguments of theology. People in the world no doubt continued to have extra-marital sexual relations, dreams, erotic dreams, nocturnal emissions, and nightmares. But the Church did make attempts to regulate these phenomena. Early penitential books such as the Irish penitential of Cummean, composed in the seventh century after the model of Cassian’s rules for monks, represented one such effort. This penitential is notable for its comprehensive distinctions among erotic deeds and thoughts.

“He who merely desires in his mind to commit fornication, but is not able, shall do penance for one year … He who is willingly polluted during sleep, shall rise and sing nine psalms in order, kneeling … He who desires to sin during sleep, or is unintentionally polluted, fifteen psalms; he who sins but is not polluted, twenty-four” (Bieler 1963: 115;Asad 1993: 101).

Aurelius Prudentius Clemens

The dissemination of prayer formulas comprised another area for ascetic influ-ence on the development of mainstream Christianity. The expanding practice of bedtime prayers is of particular interest here (Le Goff 1988: 225). Early in the fifth century CE, Prudentius composed a hymn before sleep that included the following lines: ‘If a man’s stains of guilty conduct are few and far between, him the clear and flashing light teaches secret things; but he who has polluted and befouled his heart with sins is the sport of many a fear and sees fright-ful visions’ (Daily round 6.49). And it concluded with the following exorcistic entreaty: ‘The cross drives out every sin; before the cross darkness flees away; consecrated with this sign, the spirit cannot be unquiet. Away, away with the monstrosities of rambling dreams! Away with the deceiver and his persistent guile!’ (Daily round 6.133).

Between the fifth and thirteenth centuries, the Church’s mode of eliciting and forgiving lay sins altered. Initially, there was the brutally demanding office of penance in which the penitent was excluded from the worshipping com-munity (Asad 1993: 100). This person’s sins and their on-going punishment were socially apparent. The practice of individual, private confession to a cleric gradually replaced penance until the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), when it was made mandatory for all. Later, the Protestants identified compulsory confession to lascivious clerics as a practice that increased rather than decreased general sexual excitation. In the reformed Church confession would have no place. Each individual would be responsible for his or her own actions in the face of God. This was not an easy option, but rather the beginning of an in-worldly asceticism. In Weber’s famous formulation, asceticism ‘now … strode into the market-place of life, slammed the door of the monastery behind it, and undertook to penetrate just that daily routine of life with its methodicalness, to fashion it into a life in the world, but neither of nor for this world’ (1991 [1904-5]: 154).

Woodcut from the Malleus maleficarum

Just as the new order of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations got underway in the sixteenth century, so, too, did the witch-hunts. The judicial system became a means to contravene the new space of private conscience that the reformers had begun to stake out. Officials asserted greater power than ever to interrogate individuals about their inner thoughts, convictions, and fantasies. These witch trials frequently involved accusations that men and women attended sabbaths at which they had sex with the Devil. The witch-hunting manuals developed an elaborate picture of incubi that attacked women and succubi that copulated with men. According to the Malleus maleficarum (Kramer & Sprenger 1970 [1486]: 41 ff.), such erotic episodes occurred more frequently to women since they were more feeble, credulous, and less self-controlled than men.

These various developments continue the story of erotic dreams and self-control begun in antiquity, a contention that emerges more clearly if we closely consider the tenth-century Canon episcopi (Lea 1939: 38; Russell 1972: 292). This text urged priests to eradicate demonic sorcery from their parishes. It also alerted clerics that some women, ‘seduced by illusions and phantasms of demons (daemonumi llusionibuse t phantasmatibusse ductae), believe themselves, in the hours of night, to ride upon certain beasts with Diana, the goddess of the pagans’ (Lea 1939: 178). In such cases, priests were instructed to teach that these beliefs were false delusions of the Devil. The Canon episcopi conceded that women did undergo demonic molestation but only ‘in their spirits’ (cum solus eius spiritus). The problem, from the Church’s point of view, was the exuberant folk credulity aroused by these tales, and the laity’s apparent inability to distinguish imagined from real experiences. Thus the Canon episcopi emphasized that:

“[w]hile the spirit alone endures this [demonic manipulation], the faithless mind thinks these things happen not in the spirit, but in the body. Who is there that is not led out of himself in dreams and nocturnal vision, and sees much when sleeping that he has never seen when waking? Who is so stupid and foolish as to think that all these things which are only done in spirit happen in the body …” (Lea 1939: 179).

The text of the canon Episcopi in Hs. 119 (Cologne), a manuscript of Decretum Burchardi dated to ca. 1020.
The text of the canon Episcopi in Hs. 119 (Cologne), a manuscript of Decretum Burchardi dated to ca. 1020.

Uncertainty over ‘the imaginal’6 thus lay at the centre of European witchcraft.

Renaissance theologians had to decide whether witches’ transformations, flights, and sabbaths were merely dreams, and if so, whether the individuals involved none the less merited prosecution for believing them. The issues begin to look very much like those posed by the desert Fathers. The difference between the first ascetics and the laity during the witch craze was that earlier a (male) individual had largely been left to monitor his own spiritual failures. Later (male) clerics decided this matter on behalf of (female) individuals. Torture and capital punishment replaced internally imposed humility and renewed ascetic effort as responses to erotic dreams.

The matter of the reality of witchcraft, and the responsibility for dream visions, was never uniformly decided throughout the main period of witch-hunting, that is, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Carlo Ginzburg (1983) reveals how the authorities resolutely ignored statements by Friulian villagers that they fought demons ‘in the spirit’, while their bodies were at home, asleep. The accused called themselves benandanti (good-doers) and imagined that their practices were fundamentally Christian. Under the duress of long interrogation, however, the benandanti changed their stories and confessed that they had consorted with demons ‘for real’.

The benandanti told mainly of fighting against malevolent forces in order to safeguard the community’s harvest, and it is possible that many ‘witches’ stories’ were, likewise, not particularly sexual. The inquiring authorities, however, assumed that witchcraft must involve sexual acts with the Devil and thus they pushed the stories in that direction through questioning. Judges showed a particular interest in the issue of whether the intercourse with the devil was voluntary or forced, frightening or pleasurable (Kramer & Sprenger 1970 [1486]: 114; Lancre 1982 [1613]: 200-1). Whether or not actual erotic nightmares or erotic dreams had occurred to the accused, there was a likelihood that erotic nightmare scenarios would occupy a conspicuous place in the final confession.

The nocturnal visionary tradition of the benandanti led the Roman Inquisition to accuse them of being witches, malevolent Satanists depicted in this 1508 woodcut.

Freud once rhetorically asked, ‘Why are [the witches’] confessions under torture so like the communications made by my patients in psychic treatment?’ (Ginzburg 1990: 150; Roper 1994: 245). The answer would seem to lie in the shared conviction in the importance of an underlying libidinal impulse. This sexual Urszene could be uncovered through confession, although both psychoanalysts and inquisitors faced a besetting uncertainty as to whether these received confessions were truth or fantasy (Ginzburg 1990: 151).

In this section I have retrained attention on the persistent factor of dreams, particularly demonically distorted dreams (phantasmata), at the heart of the European witchcraft phenomenon. My contention is that dreams, erotic dreams, nightmares, and erotic nightmares all occasionally figured in witch-craft cases. The effect of the threatening manuals for prosecutors, and of the prosecutions themselves, was to funnel even innocuous dreams into an erotic nightmare formulation, thereby further defining and maximally diffusing a category of experience that first arose in the context of early Christian asceticism.

  1. Greek magical papyri XVIIa; in Betz (1986: 253). For more on demons sending (erotic) dreams, see Eitrem (1991) and Faraone (1999).
  2. Found in the first-century CE author, Aetius, Placita, 5.2.3; text and translation in von Staden (1989: 386).
  3. Galen considered erotic dreams as textbook examples of the category of dreams that reflected an individual’s physical state: ‘men full of sperm will imagine that they are having sexual intercourse’ (On diagnosis from dreams, in Oberhelman 1983: 46).
  4. ‘The sin of accidie (boredom, despondency) – also known as the noonday demon – provides one example of a demonic thought that allied the irascible and sensuous parts of the soul and ‘suffocated the intellect’ (Evagrius, Praktikos, 36). Evagrius considered accidie ‘the heaviest of the demons’ (Praktikos, 12). I thank George Calofonos for his discussion of these ideas.
  5. An indication of the currency of the term may be found in Augustine’s City of God, 15.23. 17 My use of this term perhaps differs somewhat from its use in Jungian circles and elsewhere (cf. Tedlock 1987: 3).
  6. I use ‘imaginal’ to refer to a state of consciousness in which one has the impression that what one is witnessing is absolutely ‘real’ and independent of one’s mind, although one is, in fact, only imagining it. The term ‘imaginary’, by contrast, implies an awareness, even in the moment of imagining, that what one beholds is only a product of one’s imagination. Dreams, visions, hallucinations, and apparitions are, generally, experienced imaginally and then subsequently accounted for as imaginary.
  7. Succubus

Orthodox Patristic “Cryptozoology” and Medieval Bestiaries

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: &

Also see:


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.


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 an extra head on its tail, allowing it to quickly run in either direction.
The amphisbaena has an extra head on its tail, allowing it to quickly run in either direction.

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)

A two headed amphisbaena looks at itself.
A two headed amphisbaena looks at itself.

Ant-Lion (Μυρμηκολέων)

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 Spetuagint it is translated as mermecolion, ant-lion.

A large spider-like ant-lion (right) faces an eight-legged ant.
A large spider-like ant-lion (right) faces an eight-legged ant.

“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).

To avoid hearing the charm being spoken by the magician, the asp presses one ear to the ground and blocks the other with its tail.
To avoid hearing the charm being spoken by the magician, the asp presses one ear to the ground and blocks the other with its tail.

“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)

To avoid the sound of the enchanter's voice, the asp presses one ear to the ground and blocks the other with its tail. This asp seems to be breathing fire, perhaps to show its venomous nature.
This asp seems to be breathing fire, perhaps to show its venomous nature.

“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)

The asp blocks its ear so it can't hear the song of the enchanter.

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 half cock and half serpent.
The basilisk is half cock and half serpent.

“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)

This basilisk is drawn as a legged serpent with a cock's head and feet. Its glance will kill a man.
This basilisk is drawn as a legged serpent with a cock’s head and feet. Its glance will kill a man.

Centaur: The centaur has the lower body of a horse and the upper body of a human.

The centaur has the lower body of a horse and the upper body of a human.
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.

The Meeting of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul, Master of the Osservanza, 15th century
The Meeting of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul, Master of the Osservanza, 15th century

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).

St. Anthony with the centaur.
St. Anthony with the centaur.

“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)

“I am a mortal being and one of those inhabitants of the desert whom the Gentiles deluded by various forms of error worship under the names of Fauns, Satyrs, and Incubi. I am sent to represent my tribe. We pray you in our behalf to entreat the favour of your Lord and ours, who, we have learned, came once to save the world, and 'whose sound has gone forth into all the earth.'”
St. Anthony with the Satyr.

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)

The cerastes, a very flexible snake with horns.
The cerastes, a very flexible snake with horns.

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.

Leucrocota, Aberdeen Bestiary manuscript  c. 1200, Aberdeen University Library
Leucrocota, Aberdeen Bestiary manuscript
c. 1200, Aberdeen University Library

“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)

Crocotta, as illustrated in a medieval bestiary
Crocotta, as illustrated in a medieval bestiary

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)

There is considerable variation in the illustration of dragons, but they usually have two or four feet, long tails, and at least one pair of wings. Fire-breathing dragons are rarely depicted; the dragon in British Library, Harley MS 3244 appears to be breathing fire. The most common scenes show the dragon attacking an elephant or threating the female elephant giving birth; the dragon held at bay by the peridexion tree; and the dragon trying to hide from the panther.
Fire-breathing dragons are rarely depicted; the dragon in British Library, Harley MS 3244 appears to be breathing fire.

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, a powerful hunter, has caught a sheep.
The griffin, a powerful hunter, has caught a sheep.

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)

A griffin rampant, in heraldic style.
A griffin rampant, in heraldic style.

“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)

A knight attacks a griffin, which has killed his horse.
A knight attacks a griffin, which has killed his horse.

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)

A monocerus, a fierce beast with a long horn, often confused with the unicorn.
A monocerus, a fierce beast with a long horn, often confused with the unicorn.

“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)

A monocerus with a very long, curved horn and cloven hooves, drawn much as described in the text.
A monocerus with a very long, curved horn and cloven hooves, drawn much as described in the text.

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.

A manticore with a somewhat human face, a lion's body, and a scorpion's tail.
A manticore with a somewhat human face, a lion’s body, and a scorpion’s tail.

“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)

A manticore: lion body, human face.
A manticore: lion body, human face.

“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)

An orange manticore grins with nasty teeth.
An orange manticore grins with nasty teeth.

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)

A male and female pard attacking a sheep.
A male and female pard attacking a sheep.

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.

After 500 years of life, the phoenix burns itself and rises renewed from the ashes.
After 500 years of life, the phoenix burns itself and rises renewed from the ashes.

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 on its funeral pyre, which was lit by the rays of the sun above.
The phoenix on its funeral pyre, which was lit by the rays of the sun above.

“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)

A medieval depiction of the Devil
A medieval depiction of the Devil