Category Archives: Monsters

St Petroc vs. the dragon – worm

Species: One overgrown snake which grows into a dragon-worm.

Source: The ‘Life of St Petroc I’ a text in Latin probably written in Cornwall, perhaps at Bodmin Priory.

Date: The historical Petroc probably lived in the sixth century A.D. Our text was first written prior to 1177, most likely around the mid-eleventh century, although the only complete manuscript (Paris MS. Lat. 9989) only exists in sixteenth century transcript form. The story itself may well have been known orally before it was first included in the written life (Doble, 1965: 133-4; Orme, 2000: 214-15).

Highlights: Once upon a time an evil villain died. He had a snake pit like most evil villains and after he died no-one was being fed to the snakes (awww). They ate each other until one got so big it came out and turned into a dragon. It happens.

Oh yes, it happens. Grass snake  (Natrix natrix) photographed by Thomas Browne and shared under CC-BY 2.0 license)

Oh yes, it happens.
Grass snake (Natrix natrix) photographed by Thomas Browne and shared under CC-BY 2.0 license)

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Daddy-long-legs are harmless, right?


In the seventeenth century people still believed in phoenixes, based partially on indisputable pictorial evidence like this.
Picture from the Aberdeen Bestiary is a photographic representation of a 2d public domain image.

Source: Pseudodoxia Epidemica (the ‘Plague of Pseudoscience’), by Thomas Browne.

Date: 1646 A.D.

Highlights: It turns out that in the seventeenth century, belief in phoenixes, griffins and unicorns was still a thing.

To stop you feeling too proud of ‘how far we’ve come’ I should point out that we still have one or two irrational beliefs today.  Continue reading

The Lovers and Chameleons of Shakespeare

Looking at references to the chameleon in Shakespeare’s ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ can reveal some surprising things. Chameleons were once thought to live on nothing but air, and therefore make perfect metaphorical comparisons for those in unrequited love.

Species: Some kind of chameleon (Chamaeleonid sp.)
Source: ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’, perhaps Shakespeare’s first play.
Date: c.1589-91.
Highlights: Considering how often Shakespeare uses the semantic field of feasting to describe love, comparing people to chameleons (who were thought to never eat) was an especially effective insult…

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Salmon, Sea Eagles and the earliest Welsh story

Atlantic Salmon photo

Atlantic Salmon (S. salar) photographed by Hans-Petter Fjeld, licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.5.

Species: Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) and white-tailed sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) AT WAR.

Source: ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’ the oldest native (not imported) Welsh prose story.

Date: The version we have most probably c.1100 A.D., but some plot lines of the story also found mentioned in text from 828 A.D.

Highlights: The supposedly pointless oldest animals episode in Culhwch actually makes perfect sense, if you read it like a medieval person, with a knowledge of the species being discussed.

Click the “more” button below to read this post…

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What happens when you cut a wyrm in half?

Image of worm and wyrm
Earthworm photographed by Jacopo Werther, licensed under CC-SA-BY 2.0. Hydra concept art from Dragon’s Dogma, a 2012 computer game. Display and discussion of this cover image comprises fair-use under the 1988 Licenses, Designs and Patents Act.

Species Mentioned: Folklore originally attached to various medieval fictional serpents but now attached (falsely) to all British earthworms.

Source: Most medieval Bestiaries.

Date: Bestiary tradition most popular in Britain c.1150-1450.

Highlights: The source attests that snakes can be chopped into pieces and still try to kill you like an ineffective cartoon supervillain. Many people in Britain sometimes still believe this about worms, the modern descendants of poisonous “wyrms” to this day. Are we really any less gullible than our predecessors?

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The salamander (Salamandra sp?) in the ‘Liber Monstrorum’ (The Book of Monsters)


Photograph of fire salamander, taken by Thomas Bresson and licensed for use under CC-BY-2.0.

Species Mentioned: One non-native fire-proof salamander.

Source: ‘Liber Monstrorum’ (The Book of Monsters), a kind of Latin encyclopaedia of scary beasties.

Date of Source: c.650-750 A.D.

Highlights: The idea of a salamander living in flame isn’t original to this text, but this text lets us know the story had reached Britain by 750 A.D.

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