Bestiary 5



In Greek mythology, Sileni were creatures of the wild, part man, part beast, closely associated with the god Dionysus. At first they were portrayed as uncouth men, each with a horse tail and ears and erect phallus, later they became men with lower parts of a goat. How they differed from Satyrs is not clear. Some say that Sileni was a name given by Asian Greeks and Satyr by the mainland Greeks for the same creature, or that Sileni were part horse and Satyrs part goat.

From 5th cen BC Silenus was a name of Dionysus’ foster father. He was shown as a fat old man with hairy body and bald head, upturned nose, horse ears, barely able to walk, riding an ass or a wineskin, held on his mount by Satyrs. All the Sileni were wise, but they were always drunk. Fine musicians, able but not willing to prophesise. If one came across a sleeping silenus, he could bind him by a chain of flowers.



Scolopendra shows a marked tendency to grow in size through the recorded history. First mentioned by Aristotles, his Scolopendra were two-feet long centipedes, or annelid worms. Pliny the Elder stretched scolopendra into the largest marine animals. In Book 9 of Historia Naturalis, ch. 49, he writes that when scolopendra swallowed a hook, “she casts all her guts out, till she spewed the hook, then she suppeth the guts again.” And Roman writer Aelian, in his treatise “On Animals”, 13.23, used such a hyperbole to describe scolopendra, that it is worth quoting in full:

In the course of examining and investigating these subjects to the utmost limit, with all the zeal I could command, I have ascertained that the Scolopendra is a Ketos, a Sea Monster, and of the Sea Monsters it is the biggest, and if cast upon the shore no one would have the courage to look upon it. And those who are expert on marine matters say that they have seen them floating and that they extend the whole of their head above the sea, exposing hairs of immense length protruding from their nostrils, and the tail is flat and resemble that of a cray-fish. And at times the rest of their body is to be seen floating on the surface, and its bulk is comparable to the full-sized trireme. They swim with numerous feet in line on either side as though they were rowing themselves with tholepins hung alongside. Those who have experience in these matters say that the surge corresponds with a gentle murmur, and their statement convinces me.”

5umi bozu

Umi bozu

Tortoise with human head. “Kodansha Encyclopaedia of Japan” calls them ghosts of the sea. If you speak to it, it will capsize your boat. It lives in the Western Sea and attains a length of 5 or 6 feet. A fisherman once caught it and he was going to kill it, but the animal said to him in a human voice:” If you kill me, I shall repay you after my death. You will always live in fear.” Fisherman threw it back in the sea and it swam towards west until it finally went to heaven.

5monkey in the ink bottle

Monkey of the inkpot

Chinese source Wang Tai-hai writes in 1791: “This animal is common in the north, it is four or five inches long. Its eyes are scarlet and its fur is jet black, silky and soft as a pillow. It is marked by a curious instinct – the taste for India ink. When a person sits down to write, the monkey squats cross-legged near by with one forepaw folded over the other, waiting until the task is over. Then it drinks what is left of the ink, and afterwards sits back on its haunches, quiet and satisfied.”



 “Vodianoi” in Russian. Master of rivers, fresh water streams and ponds. He is immortal but his true shape is not known, as he is an adroit shape-shifter. He appears as a big moss-covered fish, or a giant man covered in moss, an old man with long green hair and beard, man with glowing red eyes and paws instead of hands. He lives in an underwater palace of gold and silver, lit by a magic gem. He ventures out at night, to lure people into water, where he drowns them. Drowned people become his slaves. Vodianoi of China Mieville (“Perdido Street Station”) mastered what they called “water craft”, with their hands forming chunks of water into self sustaining shapes and statues held together by the willpower of its maker.

Czech variant, “vodnik”, prefers to live close to a water-mill. Traditionally depicted as a bald man, tun-bellied, puffy-cheeked, with green clothes and tall pointed cap of reeds, he can assume many other guises – an attractive young man, or someone well known in the community. There is always something to give him away, though, water dripping from the edge of his clothing, etc. Ashore he is a weak wimp, but in the water he is indomitable. He likes to dance on moonlit nights. He marries drowned girls, while the souls of other drowned he keeps in jars arranged on the shelves in his pantry. When one of his wives is about to deliver, he goes to the village, looking for a midwife. If she follows him, vodnik pays her richly in gold and silver.


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