Monsters peer and prowl, roar and ravage in myths and legends the world over. They are the stuff of nightmares, the looming presences outside the comforting circle of firelight, the menacing shapes glimpsed moving through the shadows of trees or in deep water. Monsters are creatures that represent everything that is fearful about the natural world and the darker corners of human nature. Mythological monsters inspire dread and embody evil. They challenge heroes and heroines to prove their worth in order to advance in their quests or simply to survive.
Types and Characteristics of Monsters. Monsters are by definition unnatural, something that should not exist. The word monster comes from the Latin monstrum, meaning a sign of future events. The Romans used the word to refer to bizarrely unusual events—such as a rain of mud or the birth of a two-headed calf—that were believed to show divine displeasure or a troubled future.
The world's mythmakers and storytellers have created hundreds of kinds of monsters, but all share two qualities. First, monsters are not human. Even those that look and act to some extent like people are not fully human. Second, monsters are hostile to people, enemies of the human world.
A monster may be a creature grown unnaturally large and strong. Fenrir, the immense world-devouring wolf of the Norse* gods, was so large that when he opened his mouth his jaws spanned the gulf between earth and sky. According to the Ambundu people of Angola, the hero Sudika-mbambi slew two giant creatures in the underworld: the great serpent Kinioka kia Tumba and the monstrous crocodile Kimbiji kia Malenda.
Many monsters are hybrids, the offspring of unions between deities or demons and animals or people. Hindu myths tell of Bhutas, monstrous beings born of unions between demons and ghosts. They hover over sleeping people and drop disease into their ears. In Chinese myth, Lei Jen Zu was the son of the thunder dragon and the earth. The egg from which he hatched was formed when lightning struck the earth. He started out as a human but then changed into a green-faced dragon with boars' tusks and an anteater's snout.
underworld l and of the dead
deity god or goddess
Monsters may be composites that combine the features of several kinds of beings. The Chimaera of Greek myth, for example, had the head of a lion, the body and legs of a goat, and the tail of a
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
snake. Another Greek mythological monster, the Lamia, occurred in various forms, one of which was a mixture of woman, rabid dog, cow, and mule. Even monsters that are not hybrids are generally deformed or hideous. The Flying Head of the Native American Iroquois people is a huge, hungry head with wings of flapping hair, fiery eyes, and knife-blade teeth. Palraiyuk, an Eskimo water monster, has two faces, two spiked tails, and three stomachs. Roman mythology features Cacus, a creature with an enormous spider body and three fire-breathing heads, who hunts at night for anything warm-blooded.
Some monsters combine human and animal qualities. The tengu of Japanese mythology, mysterious and mischievous supernatural creatures, are part human and part bird. Eastern and northern European cultures have legends of werewolves, beings that look like humans but take wolf form when the moon is full. Such shape shifting, or shape changing, is a common feature of monster legends. The Chaga, a Bantu people of Tanzania, have a tale about a young woman who met a handsome man at a village dance. She married him, but after they left her village together, she discovered that he was really a werewolf.
Not all such beings are hostile to people, at least not all the time. For example, the centaurs of Greek myth, creatures half human and half horse, were sometimes warlike and sometimes friendly. Dragons, the fire-breathing serpents of myth and legend, also appear benevolent on occasion, as do giants. The term monster is generally reserved for the destructive and cruel creatures who attack and torment people.
Many mythic monsters prey on human beings. The Aborigines of northern Australia have stories about the Namorodo, skeletons that fly by night. They create more Namorodo by sucking the flesh from living people and turning them into arid skeletons. The vampires of European legend also feed on humans by sucking their blood. The fearsome Minotaur of Greek mythology had to be fed a steady diet of young humans. Grendel, one of the monsters in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, preyed on the warriors of Denmark. Native American mythology, too, includes many eaters of human flesh. Among these are the Hantceciitehi or cannibal dwarfs of the Arapaho people, the Dzoavits or cannibal giants of the Shoshone, and dozens of people-eating giants, babies, grandmothers, water monsters, and more.
supernatural related to forces beyond the normal world; magical or miraculous
benevolent desiring good for others
epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
Monsters and Myths. The Orokaiva people of the Pacific island of New Guinea have a myth that includes the themes of shape shifting, unnatural union, and cannibalism. A monster named Totoima married a human woman. He was in human form at first, but when his wife had children, he turned into a wild boar and devoured them. His wife got the help of a magician. After Totoima ate his baby son, the magician made the boy grow up at once in the boar's stomach. The son then burst forth, killing the boar. The wife married the magician and fed the boar's meat to her neighbors.
A Native American myth from eastern North America illustrates the hero's role in protecting the community from monsters. Gluskap, a trickster god and hero, created a village where life was perfect—until the spring that provided water dried up. A villager went to investigate and found a huge, grinning monster who had built a dam to hold all the water. Inside the monster's gaping mouth were the many things the monster had devoured, and the man did not like the way the monster was eyeing him. Gluskap saw what was happening and armed himself with a sharp knife made from a flint mountain. He fought the monster and slit its stomach open, causing a mighty river to flow forth. Then he seized the monster, squeezed it small, and tossed it into a swamp. It became no more than a croaking frog.
Intelligence and good fortune may be more useful than brute force against monsters. In a myth of the Iroquois Indians, a clever woman outwits the Flying Head. Knowing that the Head would see her, she roasted chestnuts in a fire and ate them with obvious enjoyment. The Head thought she was eating stones heated by the fire and decided to share the feast. It flew into her hut and gobbled up the hot stones of the hearth and the entire fire. But the Head could not swallow the fiery stones, because it was only a head with no stomach. It could not spit them out past the barrier of its teeth. It had to hold the hot stones in its mouth until they burned it up.
trickster mischievous figure appearing in various forms in the folktales and mythology of many different peoples
Greek mythology contains a great number of monsters. Heroes such as Odysseus* and Hercules* are frequently pitted against them. Sometimes the outcome depends as much on good luck and sharp wits as on strength. Odysseus, for example, outwitted a one-eyed Cyclops after blinding him. One of Hercules' tasks was to clear the Stymphalian Marshes of the monstrous, man-eating birds that infested them. Hercules tried shooting the birds out of their nests with arrows, but there were far too many of them. When he shook his weapons in frustration, the rattling sound drove the birds into flight. At this, Hercules ran about shaking his weapons and uttering a loud battle cry, and the birds kept flying until they left the human world altogether.
See also Basilisk ; Beowulf ; Centaurs ; Cyclopes ; Devils and Demons ; Dragons ; Fenrir ; Furies ; Giants ; Golem ; Gorgons ; Griffins ; Harpies ; Hydra ; Leviathan ; Loch Ness Monster ; Manticore ; Minotaur ; Nemean Lion ; Satyrs ; Scylla and Charybdis ; Serpents and Snakes ; Sphinx ; Thunderbird ; Trolls ; Unicorn ; Vampires ; Werewolves .