Bestiary 2



Marco Polo wrote about the unicorn: “It is a hideous beast to look at, and in no way like we say and think in our countries.” Medieval unicorn was a horse-like creature, pure white in colour, dainty and refined in appearance. One long tapering horn grew from its forehead. Although the classical reports give the unicorn’s horn a white base, black middle and red tip, Dr.Dove notes that only females have red tips. It was thought to be native of India and later of Africa. In Biblical aetiology the unicorn is now extinct, because he was thrown out of the Ark and drowned.

Stories of unicorn are based on a real animal, Indian rhinoceros, which so disappointed Marco Polo. Ctesias, cca 400 BC, wrote in his book on India: ”There are certain asses, larger than a horse. Their bodies are white, heads dark red, their eyes blue. They have a horn on their forehead, which is about foot and half long.” (Indian rhinoceros does have only one horn, while the African rhino has two horns, one above another). Ctesias also correctly noted that rhino’s speed increases as it’s running.

Rhino may not look like a traditional unicorn, but it shares its etymology. In the 3rd century BC scholars were translating Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek, and they met an unknown animal, called in Hebrew “re’em”, large and powerful beast. In Job 39: 10-11, we read:”Will the re’em be willing to serve thee, or abide by thee crib? Can you bind the re’em with his bands in the furrow?” Drawing on garbled descriptions of rhinoceros, Greek translators coined a word “monokeros”, a one-horn, which was later translated into Latin Vulgate as “unicornus”, with the same meaning, a one-horn. Modern scholars are inclined to identify re’em with middle-eastern aurochs, a wild ox, now conveniently extinct.



Cecrops was the first king of Athens, a misty figure of which little is known. Down to the waist he was human, below the waist a serpent. Originally he was autochthonous, he had neither parents nor offspring. In later mythology he was claimed by Gaea as her son. Under his rule Athens were called Cecropia. He built temples, established worship of gods, abolished human sacrifice, introduced writing. Poseidon and Athena were contending for the influence over his domain and chose him as an arbiter. Poseidon struck a rock and a horse sprung from it. Athena planted an olive tree. Cecrops chose Athena as a patroness, because horse signified war but the olive stood for peace. His town was renamed Athens in her honour, he built a temple for the goddess and his own daughter Pandrosos became the first priestess.



Tenth sign of Zodiac, half fish and half goat. It corresponds neither in location nor in extent with the constellation of Capricorn. Descending from Babylonian images of half goat and half fish, it has a confusing association with a number of distinct myths:

Aegipan, was recovering the sinews of Zeus stolen from him by Typheus, and then transformed himself into Capricorn to escape the giant. In gratitude Zeus placed him in heaven as a constellation.

Another myth is that Pan, pursued by Typhon, jumped into Nile to escape, transforming himself into Capricorn. In this guise he was taken into the sky as a constellation. Major stars in Capricorn are Algiedi, Armus, Bos, Babih and Nashira.



“Zhar-ptitsa” of Russian legends, it is better translated as a “glowing bird”, than fire bird.

Magical bird of many fairy tales, with golden wings and crystal eyes. “One tail feather was so wonderful and bright that when carried into a dark chamber, it shone as if great number of tapers were lighting the place.”

In the tale of Prince Ivan and the Golden Bird, Ivan’s father, the Tzar, had a tree in his garden, which bore apples of gold, with pips of pearls. Every night a firebird came to the garden and stole a few apples, until only few were left on the tree. Angry Tzar sent his sons to guard the tree, one after another. Dmitri and Vasili fell asleep while on guard, but Ivan, the youngest, stayed awake and grabbed the firebird by his tail. The bird tore away, but left one feather in Ivan’s hand. Seeing the shining feather, tzar decided he wanted the bird, and sent his sons on the quest.

In a series of improbable adventures Ivan had his horse devoured by a gray wolf, who in turn became his new steed, helper and adviser. An accomplished shapeshifter, wolf helps Ivan to gain not only the firebird, but also the magic horse and Helen the Beautiful, all that in spite of the kleptomaniac tendencies of young Ivan.



Mythical dwellers of Japanese forest, Tengu were gnomes of two kinds: human shaped Konoha Tengu, with wings and noses of inordinate length, and the crow-like Karatsu Tengu with a strong beak. Konoha Tengu carries magic fan from leaf of yatsude tree, which gives him power to fly. It can cause rain, windstorm or volcanic eruption. Karatsu Tengu is his servant. In the ancient days the Chief Tengu willfully broke the precepts of Buddha and in consequence Tengu does not belong neither to Hell nor to Heaven, besides which he is sick three times a day as a penance. They are adepts and teachers of martial arts. At the hands of artists Konoha Tengu image undergone a humorous and sometimes erotic treatment, long nose becoming a subject of numerous fancies. Hokusai depicted them with wings, beaks and feathers on human body, calling them “Umin”. My own Tengu is rolling along on the Wheel of Solomon, which came to me one night in Fukuoka, as I was doodling geometrical illusions.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: