Saturday, September 7, 2013

Monsters 101

Medusa, Daleks, Dementors--monsters! We love ‘em.

Seems like every culture throughout history has monsters. Big hairy, scary things that come from the sea, the deep caverns of earth, or outer space.  

A dragon from Thailand

Here are just a few examples that I hope will show the amazing scope and variety of big, bad bogeymen and behemoths.


The face of Medusa, from Greek mythology, was hideous, and her hair was a tangle of venomous snakes. If you looked at her, you turned to stone. Now, this is an aberration worthy of the name monster. Bonus points for the turning-to-stone thing. (Incidentally, the hero Perseus beheaded the Medusa and used her head as a weapon, until he later gave it to Athena as a decoration for her shield. There's no accounting taste.)

Medusa, now marketing a unique
 line of hair care products


The storm-monster, Iya, is a character in Lakota mythology. He is a son of Inyan, the creator, and younger brother of Iktomi, the spider. He eats everything in his path—people, animals, trees, houses, whole villages—nothing is safe from his insatiable appetite. Faceless and formless, he is a tornado, a hurricane, a snowstorm, a rainstorm. He is thunder and lightning. He is wind and hail. Although he is dreaded, he is not seen as evil, since he is merely performing his assigned task. Iya lives under the water, and when he travels, he carries a tipi--painted with magical symbols--that holds all the storms like a quiver holds arrows.

Iya, blowing off steam


And the award for most artistic monster goes to. . . .

In Chinese mythology, the Shen is a shape-shifting clam-monster—a giant, pearl-producing clam who lives on the bottom of the sea. He belches bubbles that rise to the surface of the water and turn into mirages of stunning mansions and other architectural marvels. While this was doubtless disorienting to sailors, I’m afraid we have to give the Shen low marks in Scary, Ugly, and Dangerous. He might make the cover of Architectural Digest, but when it comes to scary, he is Frank Lloyd Wrong.

The Shen, Monster with an artistic flair


Bl-yuck! The Bal-Bal, of Philippine mythology, hangs out at funerals and graves the way Ralph and Potsie hang out at the malt shop. Basically, he steals corpses and eats them. Once Bal-Bal has eaten a body, he puts the trunk of a banana tree in the coffin to try to hide his evil deed. This sharp-clawed monster, as you might guess, has breath that could peel paint at fifty paces.

A "haunt" of the Bal-Bal


The Loch Ness Monster, a cryptid said to inhabit Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands, is the best known of all lake monsters. Is it a dragon? A sea serpent? A plesiosaur left over from the Days of the Dinos? There have been several sightings since the first in 1933, and even a few photographs, all disputed by the scientific community. Nessie is perhaps the most famous subject of cryptozoology, the study of animals whose existence has not been proven.

Nessie's first photo shoot


[Cue creepy music.] Zombies are corpses that have been raised from the dead by some sort of sorcery. They are able to walk and talk, but they are controlled by a master. The Zombies have their roots in African and Haitian mythology, and have been greatly popularlized in horror films and lately, in humorous tv commercials.

Undead, over-acting

The Daleks

Although the British sci-fi series Dr. Who has its share of people-flashing-fangs and heads bobbing from serpent necks, it is the Daleks who pose the greatest threat to the Doctor, the human race, and the space-time continuum. The Daleks are cyborgs created by the scientist Davros, who merged a race of extraterrestrials with robotic shells. Purged of pity and compassion, the Daleks know only hatred. They look rather like giant salt and pepper shakers, and their whiney battle cry is “Ex-ter-mee-nate.”


So why do myth-makers invent monsters? Sea serpents and trolls and Cyclops and Balrogs and Dementors  and fire-breathing dragons and blood-sucking vampires and giant, radioactive grasshoppers?

I think it’s because we all have monsters to face in our lives, giants too big for us to slay in our own strength, forces beyond our control—atrocities committed by human monsters, diseases of the body and mind and sudden disasters and night terrors and death. Monsters are real, and the myth-makers put a face on them so that we can see them and understand them better.


One of the roots of monster means “to show.” We see this connection in the word demonstrate.  For ancient sea-faring people, sea monsters personified the very real dangers of stormy seas. In a more modern example, the dementors in the Harry Potter books suck all the joy out their surroundings. That sounds a lot like depression. Monsters in mythic tales show us our fears and challenge us to face them. To summon our courage. To use our wits. To seek Heaven's help. To conquer monsters with what we have at hand. 

We face monsters in stories so that we can better face the monsters in everyday life.


1 comment:

  1. So many parents these days don't want their kids to read anything scary. But I agree with you - the monsters we come across as we read throughout our childhood and young adulthood put a face on our fears, and give us an enemy we can face, with the help of God! (letting kids watch scary movies is another conversation, though...too real!)