Bestiary, or “Teratologus”
With the new year I will embark on a big project which will probably take me six months or regular posting. I want to parade in here the rough draft of my “Bestiary”, or a Book of Imaginary Beasts, that’s been on my drawing board on an off for the past 15 years. At one stage, in Silaga, in the Philippines, I did nothing else but paint the illustrations for my bestiary, putting in close on three years of intense work. Drawings, marbling, acrylic, oils, every size imaginable. I have never counted exactly how many images I painted, and even the number of beasts described can only be estimated, at something between two and three hundred.
The original ideas went into a bound book of 8×5 inches, about 400 densely covered pages of research, gossip, assumptions and art work. The front cover is Burmese teak, carved in a formal style I learned in Comoros Islands in East Africa. The stars of the design form the constellation of Southern Cross.
The back cover is studded with copper nails, stained by smoke of coconut husks. We polished our books with bees wax mixed with kero, later applying clear shoe polish as a maintenance.
Edges of all pages are also stained by smoke – my “Bestiary” lived on a shelf under the house, in my “studio”, where we burned coconut husks for five years, day and night, to keep the malarial mosquitoes away.
As a start I would like to introduce the concept of a “Bestiary”, in the Middle Ages a book second in popularity only to the Bible.
“Traditionally, the eldest attested bestiary is held to be “Physiologus”, anonymous Greco-Egyptian compilation dating from the 2nd century Alexandria. It is a description of the known world, and it included beasts real, mythical and imaginary. All the later bestiaries took Physiologus as a pattern and freely borrowed from it. Large chunks of text came in turn directly from Pliny the Elder, who around AD 77 wrote the oldest extant encyclopaedia, “Historia Naturalis”, a book of 36 volumes. However from inferences and marginalia in medieval manuscripts we can deduce an encyclopaedic work of a far grater antiquity. Fra Carpillas, in his “De Bestio Mundii”, quotes repeatedly from “Teratologus”, a lost work in seven volumes, attributed to Pythagoras, and mentioned in passim by such authorities as Strabo, Aristotles and Pliny himself. Armstrong and Woomera (1917), cast some shadow on the Dominican friar’s sources, arguing that the last rumoured copy of “Teratologus” perished in the fire of Alexandrine library, 1300 years before Fra Carpillas’ days.
Regardless of credentials, “De Bestio Mundii” (original Padua codex is dated 1348, unauthorised reprint in Russian was done in Vladivostok in 1992) was helpful in defining the scope of my own work. Fra Carpillas divided the mythical beasts into seven “Pythagorean” categories, beasts of the air, beasts of the sea, fresh water beasts, and four kinds of land-based beasts: shape shifters, anthropomorphic beats, composite beasts and pure monstrosities. Naturally many could be classified in more than one category.”
“Dividing line between gods, humanoids, and beasts is a fuzzy one, and any definition, be it based on biology, psychology, tradition or personal preferences, is bound to be artificial and open to justified criticism. In the present volume the author decided to exclude all the beings that customarily adopt a fully humanoid form: greater and lesser deities, spirits, ghosts, ghouls, demons, orcs, dwarfs, elves, jinni, witches, giants, were-beings and most goblins. Borderline cases were arbitrarily included.”
“Medieval bestiaries laid heavy emphasis on illustrations and the author continued this venerable tradition. All the illustrations that I will present here are originals done for this work, and stacks more are not included.
“Medieval bestiary” is a flexible concept encompassing a great body of material which is only loosely connected. “Physiologus” had 48 chapters, highly moralising and allegorical, each chapter dealing with one animal, plant or stone. Another manuscript, “Etymologis”, by St.Isidore (560-636) was conceived as an encyclopaedia of everything then known to man, explained on the basis of etymology.
Present volume is not intended to be an encyclopaedia, dictionary or a handy desk reference book. Number of beasts and monsters in local traditions of the world is impossible even to estimate. Any work pretending to be exhaustive would become exhausting, and boring. Instead, I present the current “Teratologus” as a mind teaser, an inspiration to an artist, an idle curiosity, summed up by the opening lines of another modern bestiary, “The Book of Imaginary Beings”, by Jorge Luis Borghes: “As we all know, there is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition.”
Besides the original book, there is also a lesser known little brother to my Bestiary. My Teratologus became rather notorious, and I was worried that some unscrupulous admirer may pinch the original and I would loose years of my work, so I copied the text, by hand, into a little hand bound Mandala book. (All this was in the early days of Internet, before the wide distribution of scanners and printers)
I did not worry about loosing illustrations; I was constantly reworking them in different media, so I had several versions of the art work.
photos by Nat from smallestforest.net