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Medieval Monsters and the Anxiety towards the Alien

Medieval Monsters and the Anxiety towards the Alien

By Carlos Espi Forcen

The Journal of Humanistic Psychiatry, Vol. 2:1 (2014)

 Cynocephali. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. 15th century. British Library, London. MS Harley 3954, fol 40v
Cynocephali. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. 15th century. British Library, London. MS Harley 3954, fol 40v

Introduction: Humans have always been afraid of those that are different to us. We have feared extraterrestrial life ever since we are aware of its possible existence. In Ancient Greece, that same fear towards what was alien to their culture was related to the lack of knowledge of the Far East. Two ancient Greek travellers allegedly visited India and described these remote places and its customs: Ctesias of Cnidos in the 5th century BCE and Megasthenes in the 4th century BCE. Very little of their descriptions have been preserved, but their works were available to Pliny the Elder and he was able to compile all this documentary material in his Natural History. In the work of the Roman writer a wide range of monstrous races are described that differ from western people in their physical appearance and customs. Most of the monstrous races described by Pliny will be later included in medieval encyclopedias and bestiaries, therefore the Natural History is the main source. Some medieval monsters resemble our current monsters, e.g. the cynocephalus is a monster with the head of a dog that physically is not very different from our werewolves, but their origin and role is quite diverse.

Similar to many monsters or aliens in our current science fiction culture, some medieval monsters could be dangerous and life threatening. A good example of this sort is the donestre, a monster from the legends of Alexander, that speaks the language of any traveller and when he comes across with them, pretends to know their relatives to gain their trust. Once the traveller thinks he has found a kind host, the donestre eats him and mourns over his head. An 11th century codex of the Marvels of the East shows the donestre at work.

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The ferocity of the donestre has turned him into a man with lion’s head that first talks to the random traveller to be able to devour him and finally weep over his head. Cannibalism is likewise attributed to other monsters: the antropophagi (man-eater) were monsters supposed to live in Scythia (central Asia) or Africa that drank blood from human skulls and would eat even their own parents. Anthropophagia was also a custom attributed to real people such as the so-called tartars, i.e. Mongols that invaded Europe in the Middle Ages. After they conquered Poland in the 13th century, they were feared to the extent that they got their name from Tartarus, since it was believed that they came from hell. On a miniature of a 13th century codex of the Chronica Majora by Matthew Paris a tartar is beheading a man close to another companion, who is eating two human legs.

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