Natural history and bestiaries
Bestiaries and other texts on natural history are populated with animals both actual and fabulous. It is as if they illustrate the story of the fifth and sixth day of the Creation: living creatures each after its kind. The properties ascribed to certain animals made them suitable as metaphors of vices or Christian virtues. As modern books and movies demonstrate, both real and phantasy animals continue to challenge our imagination.
Part eagle, part lion, the griffin fuses the two mightiest animals into one. Ruling heaven and earth, immortal and of a double nature, it can symbolize Christ. When a griffin mates with a mare, they produce a Hippogriff: the eagle part of a griffin, hind legs and tail of a horse. The Hippogriff still lives: it is the pet of Hagrid, one of the main characters of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter saga. You'll find it on the cover of Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban.
The Antalops or blackbuck is a hoofed animal with very long horns. It is to be found in the Meermanno Bestiary where we see it with its long horns entangled in the foliage of a tree, attacked by a hunter. When you click 'more images', you'll see a broad selection of fabulous hoofed animals.
The most famous fabulous animal, haunting man's imagination since Antiquity, is the unicorn or monoceros. Pliny tells us that this animal is so wild and fierce that it can not be taken alive. During the Middle Ages methods to catch this legendary animal - e.g. with the help of a virgin - were discussed. The unicorn can symbolize Christ. The image of the Virgin Mary with the unicorn in her lap can denote the incarnation of Christ.
The Harpy is a poetical construction from Antiquity. It is a winged creature with the head and breasts of a woman and the body and claws of an eagle. Harpies play a famous part in the story of Jason and the Argonauts where they torment Phineus, the blind king of Salmydessus. When you click 'more images', you'll see a broad selection of fabulous birds.
Dragons and snakes
Dragons and large snakes are close relatives. The dragon is a fierce animal, playing a formidable part in folk-lore. It can take on various shapes and qualities, e.g. venomous breath and eyes that flash fire. Some of the most famous dragon-slayers are Cadmus, saint George and saint Michael. The Devil often takes the shape of a dragon.
The legendary echinus was also known as the remora or sucking fish. They were small creatures, believed to be capable of stopping a ship by sucking their mouth onto its keel and attaching their tail to a rock, or by attaching themselves in large quantities to a ship. In the 17th century the Dutch writer Roemer Visscher dryly states that the only remora capable of stopping a ship, was the thirst of its crew.