The Compendium of Magical Beasts
From controversial cryptozoologist and explorer Dr. Veronica Wigberht-Blackwater, The Compendium of Magical Beasts is a definitive field guide that explores the history, biology, and anatomy of mythological creatures. Approaching the fantastic with a scientific eye, Dr. Wigberht-Blackwater explains the history, habits, and biology of each creature's existence with equal attention to detail. Her research is accompanied by stunning scientific illustrations of each specimen's anatomy, providing a comprehensive view of creatures most often dismissed as pure fantasy. Combining biological fact with folklore, cultural studies, and history, this volume is crucial to science both fringe and mainstream. Locked in a dusty attic for almost a century, Dr. Wigberht-Blackwater's trailblazing work was recently discovered by writer Melissa Brinks, who spent months transcribing the journals she found. Brinks joined forces with artist Lily Seika Jones to digitize the doctor's amazingly detailed anatomical diagrams in order to share these revolutionary findings with the world for the first time. The Bestiary: Mermaid, Unicorn, Wild Man, Gnome, Werewolf, Troll, Fairy, Jackalope, Winged Horse, Centaur, Minotaur, Vampire, Dragon, Sea Monsters/Loch Ness/Kraken, Goblin, Sphinx, Phoenix, Harpy, Cyclops, Banshee, Incubus/Succubus, Nymph, Ghoul, Selkie, Kelpie
Release date: October 9, 2018
Publisher: Running Press Adult
Print pages: 208
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The Compendium of Magical Beasts
Dr. Veronica Wigberht-Blackwater
Many of us associate unicorns with the Middle Ages, particularly in Europe, but evidence of this shy beast crops up in Asian antiquity. Recording the stories of Indian travelers in Persia, Ctesias, a Greek physician and historian, was the first to write of unicorns in the fifth century BC. In India, he wrote, lived wild asses of multiple colors—white bodies, crimson heads, and blue eyes—with long red and black horns. He also spoke of the horn’s healing properties, including that drinking from a cup fashioned of the animal’s horn would make the drinker immune to poison, seizures, and other undesirable ailments. These were secondhand stories, so we can forgive his bizarre descriptions; color variations do exist (see here), but none are quite so impressive as his white, crimson, and black monstrosities.
Other historians and writers have mentioned the unicorn in their studies. Strabo, a Greek historian, claims there were one-horned horses in the Caucasus Mountains. Pliny the Elder mentions a monoceros, described as something like a stag crossed with a variety of other animals and bearing a black horn. Claudius Aelianus, a Roman teacher, echoes Ctesias’s claims about the healing properties of the horn. Cosmas Indicopleustes, a Greek merchant in the sixth century, writes that the unicorn’s strength is carried within its horn and that, when pursued, the beast will fling itself off a cliff and land on its horn, which will not break. This is, of course, absolute nonsense; a unicorn’s horn is susceptible to damage, though it is in fact imbued with magical capability (see here).
European interest in unicorns peaked in the Middle Ages, especially after certain translations of the Christian Bible shifted the meaning of the Hebrew word re’em from “wild ox” to “unicorn.” Physiologus, an early Christian text composed somewhere between the second and fourth centuries BC, is the source of much knowledge and many falsehoods about the unicorn. The text tells of the animal’s appearance, including its cloven hooves and beard, both of which became common features of unicorn art produced in later periods. It also featured an important allegorical story in which a unicorn, trapped by a virgin, represented the Christian Incarnation.
This, indeed, is where we get the association between unicorns and virginity. As common lore goes, the creatures can only be tamed by young maidens. Some claim that sin or wickedness scares them off; others believe that unicorns attack anyone who is not pure of heart. Again, this is nonsense. A unicorn is no more adept at sensing virginity—a nebulous, sexist concept, to say the least—than any other creature on Earth. It is far more likely that young women in a patriarchal society simply tended to be calmer, quieter, and more courteous than the males of the era, who carried horns and weapons and were quite often drunk while on hunting parties. Using a maiden to lure a unicorn may have been a productive practice, but only because young women, restricted by long skirts and societal pressure, were less likely to go tramping through the forest shooting and throwing spears at things.
And that, of course, is the reason unicorns are so difficult to find today. Because of reports that unicorn horns had all manner of magical properties, the creatures were hunted to the point of endangerment through the eighteenth century, when it became no longer en vogue to believe in them. As the Age of Reason bled into the next century, less fantastical-minded scientists cited the lack of live specimens as evidence that there was no such thing as unicorns, and, as science flourished and medicine grew into its more modern incarnation, the hunt for unicorns slowed and ultimately ceased. Thankfully, the lack of interest and the replacement of magical cures with scientific ones mean there is potential for unicorn herds to rebound, though conservation efforts must persist to ensure the species’ survival.
The horn is, of course, the most sought- after and treasured part of the unicorn. Also called the alicorn, it has been long believed that the horn holds magical and medicinal properties, including the ability to prevent and cure disease, detect poison, and, given its shape and strength, function as an aphrodisiac.2 It has also been used as a treatment for illnesses like rubella and measles.
In actuality, the unicorn’s horn is made of bone with a keratin exterior. Its magical power is, of course, mysterious. Although we’ve made great strides in understanding preternatural3 creatures, the unicorn’s elusiveness and instinctual evasion of humans mean there are few, if any, living specimens to study. What few horn samples we do have are frequently counterfeits, often harvested from creatures like narwhals, or are under strict protection by world governments.
Those few specimens of unicorn horns that have made it into the hands of professional or amateur cryptozoologists are usually of lower quality or dubious origin. Separating a unicorn from its horn is a task that typically requires the death of the beast—none give up their horns willingly, and finding and subduing a unicorn in order to saw off its horn is by far the crueler fate, because it robs the creature of its natural protection. Though unicorns rarely use their horn for defense, it makes a useful weapon against predators.
But horn removal has happened, and study of the horn provides our best insights into how unicorns live and function. The few legitimate samples possessed by organizations like the Society for the Protection of Cryptozoological Specimens (SPCS)4 have led to an increased degree of understanding. Magic, as we know, is a force that can’t be measured by any metric the human species currently has available to us, but in cryptozoological circles certain experiments have led to a common belief that any magical ability left in the horn after it is severed from the unicorn is greatly reduced. By weighing a unicorn’s body before and after the horn is cut off, reports indicate there is a significant drop in weight, with the extra weight gradually disappearing over several hours. This leads cryptozoologists to believe that despite the margin of error, a horn’s magic is, to some degree, a physical thing that can be measured, much like Dr. Duncan MacDougall’s experiments show about the human soul.5
What this means is that there is no way for humans to harness the power of the horn without a unicorn’s agreement. The cures concocted from horns over the centuries mostly work owing to luck and a small amount of residual magic, not because of any innate property of the horn. This lack of efficacy of severed horn undergirds the push for unicorn conservation, though only time will tell if knowledge can stop the relentless pursuit of one of the world’s most interesting, elusive creatures.
Unicorn hooves are considered to be not as magical as the horn, even though, from a biological standpoint, the two extremities are made of remarkably similar matter. Like for the horn, tests are inconclusive as to whether the hoof substance has any magical ability after separation from the body.
Hooves are even more rare as specimens because there is so little mythology surrounding them. Whereas poachers have long hunted unicorns for their horns, they either leave hooves to decompose or use them in the same ways that the hooves of horses and other ungulates are used.6 The few specimens that have reached organizations like SPCS provide inconclusive evidence. Magic is, of course, a mysterious force, and cryptozoologists have reason to believe that the hoof is no less magical than the horn, if somewhat less glamorous.
One fact about the unicorn’s anatomy that remains conclusive is that hoof types vary between regions. Some unicorns have horse-like hooves, meaning a single one-toed hoof on each foot. Others, perhaps because of genetic mutation or the nature of being a different (but closely related) subspecies in the equine family, have cloven hooves not unlike those of deer or goats. As wild creatures, unicorns are never shod, and what few accounts we have of humans trying to shoe a unicorn have ended poorly, and at times tragically. It’s believed that the mysterious death of Percival Broker, a stable hand in a noble merchant’s home sometime in the early 1300s, was the result of a violent goring he received while trying to shoe a unicorn. Church records cite his death as a puncture wound from a “great beast” that later trampled him, with the record specifically referring to his work as a farrier. Because they are wild creatures and, more importantly, highly intelligent wild creatures with an innate sense of self-preservation, unicorns are not inclined to respond well to shoeing.
Unicorn hair is, in theory, more easily attained than its horn or hooves. It’s nearly indistinguishable from horse hair, meaning most samples are actually fakes. Unicorn hair does sometimes have a pearlescent sheen, particularly that from white specimens, but is easily mistaken for hair from wild horses by the untrained eye. Collectors are likely to pick up false positives while real unicorn hair goes ignored by amateur cryptozoologists.
Purebred unicorns typically display solid rather than pinto coloration.
Like hooves and horns, hair is also made from keratin, but tests of hair left in bushes and branches in places where unicorns are known to dwell have shown little, if any, magical residue. It’s possible that this is because the hair in question is in fact from the common horse, not a unicorn, but experts believe otherwise. As is the case with other body parts, the hair is no longer magical after being separated from the body. Samples of hair lose their power in the same way that horns and hooves do. Unfortunately, this means it’s nearly impossible to find any practical use for unicorn hair. Its rarity does make it a valuable resource, and there is evidence that it has been used in embroidery throughout history. Garments stitched with unicorn hair were believed to protect the wearer against poison and were often peddled by unsavory sorts to nobles throughout the Renaissance era. As the Borgia family’s many enemies in Renaissance Italy could attest—were they not dead of poison—either every garment was a fake or unicorn hairs separated from the body offer no magical effect.
With white typically representing purity, it’s no surprise that most of the unicorns we see represented in tapestries, books, and legends are white. There are quite a few color variations among unicorns, but, with sightings being so infrequent, it’s hard to say exactly how many there are or how frequently they occur. Unicorns are typically solid colors—white, black, brown, and, on very rare occasions, dark crimson. It’s this variety of colors that likely led to Ctesias’s bizarre description of multicolored beasts.
With unicorns being rare and tamed unicorns nonexistent, it’s hard to say whether the creatures are capable of interbreeding with other Equus species. Some historical sources claim that particularly fast or beautiful horses, especially coursers used for hunting and in battle in medieval England, were cross-breeds with one unicorn parent. These claims are difficult to verify for obvious reasons, but depictions of horses in art of the period do show some similarities to the unicorn ideal, including long, slender limbs and rather short faces. Though similarities exist that could indicate cross-breeding, inconsistencies in art styles make it impossible to know for certain.
Other evidence, particularly the continued existence of the unicorn despite overhunting, hints that interbreeding may be possible. It’s believed that many wild horse herds around the world, especially those in Asia and Europe, have interbred with unicorns. Experts believe that interbreeding tends to create more horse-like unicorns rather than more unicorn-like horses. These hybrids are likely more solitary, akin to their unicorn parent, though they bear the horn that marks them as a true unicorn.
Unicorn foals do not have horns; they develop as the unicorn matures, growing to an average of two feet long.
Unicorn conservationists are eager to explore the possibilities of breeding unicorns because the animal’s numbers are dwindling, despite a general lack of public interest in them today. With little concrete evidence and fewer clues as to where to locate these creatures, prospects are grim for the continued survival of the species, even after they’ve faded from public belief.
1 Because magical beasts are not recognized by the mainstream science community, all scientific names are subject to change and replacement. Quoting them to your biologist friends will earn you eye rolls at best, but being an eye-roll recipient is the first step toward being a professional cryptozoologist.
2 Incredibly, few yonic creatures (as compared to phallic creatures) have been hunted into endangerment. Perhaps this reflects the cultural significance of male virility or a lack of interest in female arousal, but, more likely, people with vulvas realize that eating things shaped like other things does not give you the thing’s power.
3 Whereas supernatural implies an existence beyond the natural, that is, accepted world, preternatural attempts to recognize that such creatures exist but without pushing them to mythic status.
4 SPCS is one of the few professional organizations cryptozoologists have, and as such, it’s an incredible resource. But given the lack of credentials for membership or peer review of work in such societies, your humble author recommends that you not boast about being a member.
5 By weighing humans during their moment of death, Dr. Duncan MacDougall determined that human souls weigh, on average, half an ounce. Despite the experiment being riddled with potential flaws, MacDougall’s method may nonetheless be applied to magic. Though magic is just as likely to be debunked as souls, there is slightly stronger evidence for it thanks to a unicorn horn’s purported magical ability.
6 Unicorn hooves are indistinguishable from horse hooves and are not used to make glitter glue or any other such product, despite claims of certain figures in the cryptozoology community. Unless you believe that Kwikset keeps a secret herd of unicorns in the basement of every factory, this idea makes absolutely no sense. Unfortunately, some do believe it, and it’s to them that this footnote is addressed.
STORIES OF BEAUTIFUL MAIDENS BENEATH THE WAVES ARE COMMON THROUGHOUT THE WORLD. MOST CULTURES HAVE FOLKLORE THAT INCLUDES SOME FORM OF MERMAID, SIREN, KELPIE, OR OTHER WATER-DWELLING WOMEN, THOUGH THE creatures’ motivations, temperaments, and even physical forms vary across regions. These variations, for the sake of simplicity, all fall under the Homo sirenia umbrella, a mixture of the human genus and the sirenia order (here used as species) that includes manatees and dugongs, for which mermaids are often mistaken.
The history of mermaids, mermen, and the like goes all the way back to ancient Assyria, where the goddess Atargis was said to transform into a mermaid after she accidentally caused the death of her human lover. Although she doesn’t match the image of a mermaid we have today—in fact, Atargis was represented as a fish with a human head and arms—she was only the first. Scientific hypotheses about mermaids go back to 546 BC, when Milesian philosopher Anaximander proposed an early theory of evolution that supposed humans had evolved from a water-based species. This, he claimed, explained how humans survive so long in the womb. Though Anaximander’s hypothesis could not be proved definitively, the existence of a creature that combined both human traits and those of fish was true.
Most historical accounts of mermaids have been passed do. . .
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