Sunday, June 15, 2008

Of Monsters in search of Pirandello

The classical world was very sensitive to portents or prodigies,which were seen as signs of imminent disaster. These included marvels such as blood raining down from the sky, disturbing incidents,flames in the sky, abnormal birth, and babies with the genitalia of both sexes,as can be seen in the Book of Prodigies by Julius Obsequens (who in the fourth century recorded all the prodigious things that had happened in Rome over the preceding centuries) It was probably on the basis of these anomalies that Plato imagined the original androgyne, and the same bases were partly the source of many of the monsters said to inhabit Africa and Asia, of which only scant and inaccurate information was available. On the other hand,those who ventured to those lands really did see hippopotami,elephants and giraffes- and in Job we find a creature that was probably a crocodile but went down in history as Leviathan.In the fourth century BC,Cstesias of Cnidos had already written about the wonders of India.Cstesias"work was lost, but there is a wealth of extraordinary creatures in Pliny's Natural History( first century), which inspired a series of successive compendia.In the second century, Lucian of Samostata, in his True History, albeit purely as a parody of traditional credulity, wrote of hipogryphs, birds whose wings were made of lettuce leaves, minotaurs, and flea-archers as big as twelve elephants. Note too how in the Romance of Alexander( which appeared in Latin in the twelfth century sprang from sources traceable back to Pseudo-Callisthenes, of the third century) the Macedonian conqueror had to face some frightening peoples. - from Umberto Eco's Monsters and Portents in his edited On Ugliness

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