Muirdris

Variations: Muirgris (erroneously); Sínach, Sinech; Píast Uiscide (“Water Beast”); Úath (“Horror”)

muirdris

Fergus mac Léti, the King of Ulster, was an inveterate swimmer. Captured while sleeping by water-spirits, the lúchorpáin or “small bodies” (actually the first appearance of leprechauns), he was awoken by the cold water they tried to carry him into. This allowed him to turn the tables on his would-be captors, and he seized three of the lúchorpáin. Fergus demanded that the sprites grant him three wishes: the ability to breathe underwater in seas, pools, and lakes.

The sprites granted him his wish, in the form of enchanted earplugs and a tunic to wear around his head. But like all wishes granted by the Fair Folk, it came with a caveat. Fergus was not to use his gifts at Loch Rudraige (Dundrum Bay) in his own land of Ulster.

Of course, Fergus arrogantly disregards the rule and swims underwater at Loch Rudraige anyway. There he encounters the Muirdris, the “Sea Bramble” or “Sea Briar”, a huge, mysterious, undefined horror that inflates and deflates, expands and contracts like a bellows. It has features of a thorn-bush, with branches and stings, and its appearance alone is deadly.

Fergus does not take well to his encounter with the muirdris, and he is horribly disfigured after seeing it, with his mouth moving to the back of his head. His courtiers are dismayed, as a man with a blemish cannot be king, but they somehow keep this defacement a secret from Fergus for seven years. They prevent him from accessing mirrors, and surround him only with people who will protect the king’s deformity. He finds out only after Dorn, a highborn slave, taunts him about it after he strikes her with a whip. She is bisected for her troubles, and Fergus goes to face his nemesis alone.

The battle between Fergus and the muirdris lasts a day and a night, during which the water of the loch bubbles like a giant cauldron. Finally Fergus slays the monster with his bare hands, and emerges from the loch holding its head in triumph – only to collapse and die from the ordeal.

A thirteenth-century retelling of Fergus’ tribulations renames the monster sínach or sinech. In this version, it is the king’s wife who reveals his secret after an argument.

The muirdris is a monster, but is it rooted in fact? Surely the expansion and contraction, the comparison to a thornbush, and the disfiguring stings strongly suggest a large jellyfish, perhaps the lion’s mane jellyfish.

References

Borsje, J. (1996) From Chaos to Enemy: Encounters with Monsters in Early Irish Texts. Brepols Publishers, Turnhout.

MacKillop, J. (2005) Myths and Legends of the Celts. Penguin Books, London.

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La Grande Encylopédie des Lutins/Fées/Elfes (The Great Encyclopedia of Faeries; The Complete Encyclopedia of Elves, Goblins, and other Little Creatures)

by Pierre Dubois, illustrations by Claudine and Roland Sabatier

The three encyclopedias written by Pierre Dubois and illustrated by Claudine and Roland Sabatier are a bit of a special case. As of writing this, there are 3 volumes, covering goblins, fairies, and elfs (respectively), but they are relatively little-known in the English-speaking world. Passable English translations are available, but the books have had an influence on French bestiaries in the same way Rose’s books have had in English – and that includes the mistakes too. I have a soft spot for these books – again, I read them cover to cover back in the day – but do they stand up to scrutiny today? Let’s find out.

Can be bought from Amazon in French here, here, and here, and in inferior English here and here.

Scope

The encyclopedias cover all sorts of magical beings but leave out the more “prosaic” creatures such as bonnacons and leucrotas. There is a marked tendency to favor humanoids above everything else, even when the creature in question isn’t humanoid (more on that below).

Otherwise, they cover a broad range of cultures across the world, with a strong focus on French creatures, giving them a niche that sets them apart.

Organization

Goblins, fairies, and elfs, but the distinction is vague and hazy at best. “Fairies”, for instance, includes basilisks and codrilles, valkyries and nagas. Chapters are by habitat: those of the Earth and caves, those of woods and forests, and so on.

The distinctions are arbitrary at best, but then that’s the author’s prerogative. Considering Dubois’ views on scholarship and classification, his categories come across as somewhat ironic.

Text

Florid, long-winded, pompous, purple, and fluffy. Dubois is a master at making mountains out of molehills, and creatures with summary descriptions are given extended biographies. For instance, the Duphon – literally the eagle owl, except it’s blamed for typical fairy behavior – is made into a sort of Knight Templar of the mountains by Dubois, with extended descriptions of its hunting habits and suicidal recklessness. None of this is corroborated in the primary literature.

Each creature gets a summary of vital statistics (size, habitat, food, activities, etc.) in the margins, which gives the book a further encyclopedic feel. These vital statistics are also often completely fabricated.

Dubois’ embellishment can take on rather uncomfortable tones. We really did not need to know what the pubic hair stylings are for the skogsra (thick) or the makralles (shaved). Nor is there an explanation for his alteration of some stories: the original tale of the girls and the pilous, for instance, ends with the girls shutting up and the pilous leaving, but Dubois makes the pilous stomp into the room, strip the girls naked, and force them to dance until exhaustion. There is no mention of the fact that vouivres get slain same as any other dragon. These modifications have no basis in the literature, which is cause for concern – not just for bad scholarship, but because they also say quite a bit about Dubois.

Images

There have been complaints that the drawings are “childish” and “comic-booky” and “not serious enough”. I on the other hand have no such problem. The ink and paint drawings by the Sabatiers are easily some of the best selling points of the books, often conveying a setting without even showing the creature front and center. There are interesting takes on some creatures (the Yara-ma-yha-who and the Gremlin come to mind).

Any inaccurate depictions are ultimately Dubois’ fault, and I would not blame the Sabatiers for them.

Research

This is where I reserve most of my criticism, although it overlaps a bit with the text complaints. The fact that most of what Dubois writes about is obscure gives him free rein to invent anything he wants, and a lot of his inventions have been parroted by later authors, making it even harder to separate myth from, er, modern man-made myth. Dubois has also made it clear that he has nothing but scorn for research, study, academia, books… And it shows.

Creatures that are non-human are changed to become humanoid, often losing their best features in the process. The beefy-armed water-horse Mourioche becomes a goblin in a jester’s hat. The shapeless pilous become anthropomorphic dormice (to be fair, I liked that look enough to keep it for my pilou. I am part of the problem). The tourmentine and parisette plants become a goblin and fairy respectively, complete with backstory. The Rabelaisian coquecigrue bird becomes a tiny snake-fairy. The Breton tan noz will-o’-wisps become goblins. The list goes on and on.

Other creatures are fabricated out of whole cloth. The H’awouahoua has found its way into less critical bestiaries, even though this purported Algerian bogey has meaningless gibberish for a name. The Processionary, the Fougre, the Danthienne… The list of dubious creatures goes on, made worse by the difficulty of finding primary sources.

Dubois has also used a pseudonym, Petrus Barbygere (“Peter the Bearded”, i.e. himself), which he uses as a source for a number of citations. Whether this is amusing or not depends on who you ask, but it only muddies the mixture further.

Summary

There is a lot to fault in the Dubois encyclopedias, foremost being an attitude to research similar to that espoused by Attila the Hun. Once again, however, I can’t bring myself to lower the grade too much, as those books have nice drawings, obscure creatures, and helped set me on the track to finding out more.

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Skötumóðir

Variations: Skate Mother; Fluxuskrímsl (Flake Monster); Vatnsandi (Water Spirit); Vatnaskratti (Water Devil)

skotumodir

Skate in Iceland are mystical creatures. Saint Peter recognized them as the holiest fish in the sea, and they are intimately connected with the number nine. A skate has nine good qualities and nine bad. It will watch over a drowned man for nine nights, and spend the next nine nights eating him. A skate will carry its young within her for nine months, then lie upon them for nine weeks, during which a stone grows within them. This stone, the “skate-stone”, could make a man invisible for one hour, or relieve labor pangs. Empty mermaid’s purses, or “Peter’s purses” as they are known, have lost their skate-stones.

Most terrifying of all is the Skötumóðir, or “Skate Mother”. Like the other Icelandic “fish mothers”, they are not necessarily skate themselves; in fact, some accounts describe them as evil whales that resemble skates. They are enormous and toxic to eat, with backs like mud-covered islands, and sport nine tails. Unlike regular skate, they have been found inland, in freshwater, and even on dry land.

There is always a swarm of skate swimming around a skötumóðir. As they are caught by fishermen, the sea seems to get shallower as the skötumóðir rises to the surface. Finally, the vengeful skate mother hooks its wings onto the gunwales of the boat, and drags it below the waves.

To evade a skötumóðir, prompt action is required. When the huge ray latches its wings onto the boat, they must be immediately chopped off with whatever sharp implement is handy. This will effectively neutralize the threat.

An enormous skate, no doubt a skötumóðir, was one of three monsters terrorizing people around Lagarfljót, lying in wait at ferry crossings. It was transfixed to the bottom of the river by a powerful sorcerer, and unless it has escaped, it is there still.

References

Davidsson, O. (1900) The Folk-lore of Icelandic Fishes. The Scottish Review, October, pp. 312-332.

Hlidberg, J. B. and Aegisson, S.; McQueen, F. J. M. and Kjartansson, R., trans. (2011) Meeting with Monsters. JPV utgafa, Reykjavik.

Bruch

Variations: Bruchus, Brucha (pl.)

bruch

If the Hortus Sanitatis is to be believed, a young locust is far more dangerous than its adult counterparts. Referred to as a bruchus, it is an immature stage lasting until the animal can fly, and is distinguished by absent or undeveloped wings and a yellow color. As bruchi cannot fly, they remain in one place and gnaw fruiting plants down to the roots.

The Epistil Ísu, the Irish version of the pseudo-epigraphic Sunday Letter, describes the Bruch (pluralized as Brucha) differently. Here as before, the bruch is separated from its adult, and both are used to punish people who disrespect Sundays. A bruch has iron bristles and fiery eyes. Swarms of brucha go into the vineyards of sinners and cut the branches, roll about in the fallen grapes to impale them on their spikes, and carry the fruit off into their lairs – much like Pliny’s hedgehogs, which doubtlessly inspired this account.

Brucha apparently mature into locusts, which have iron wings that scythe wheat and make the ears fall. They too are avengers of Sunday.

References

Borsje, J. (1994) The Bruch in the Irish Version of the Sunday Letter. Ériu, v. XLV, pp. 83-98.

Borsje, J. (1996) From Chaos to Enemy: Encounters with Monsters in Early Irish Texts. Brepols Publishers, Turnhout.

Cuba, J. (1539) Le iardin de santé. Philippe le Noir, Paris.

carnivores-logo

Ah yes, the 90s, back when men were XTREME, women were XTREME, and toys were THE KOOLEST EVER. Toy manufacturers were constantly outdoing themselves in making XTREME action figures, and in a post-Transformers landscape, the importance of a storyline to enhance the play pattern was recognized.

Makers of toy cars in particular had to reinvent themselves. Making die-cast toys was becoming increasingly expensive, forcing them to cut corners (more on that in a later post); worse, they were losing in popularity to the XTREME newcomers. That’s when increasingly bizarre lines of “cars” were produced and died with a whimper. They were not huge sellers, but they were pretty cool- sorry, I mean XTREME. This post is dedicated to one such short-lived line.

Matchbox’s Carnivores (Carnivores, get it?) were short-lived and obscure by any account. There was only one wave produced in 1995, and nothing else after that. The backstory was fairly flimsy – car-monsters battling each other in an XTREME post-apocalyptic landscape – and the marketing was half-hearted (Skull Shooter, for instance, didn’t even get advertised on the back of the packaging). They did make a catchy ad for them with a bit of claymation, though. Nowadays they lurk in the dark recesses of eBay.

What connection do I have with them? Back in 1995, I was presented with the opportunity of having either a Carnivore or The Illustrated Book of Myths. I chose the latter, obviously, but the toys and their box art remained etched in my young mind. It wasn’t until years later that I found out what those things were.

There were seven Carnivores in total. All of them had “Ax-L Action”, which is to say that the wheels made their legs move around like they were crawling forward. Two of those were “deluxes” slightly larger than the others and with more action features. As for the creatures themselves, well… let’s see what they have to offer. I will be using the box art because it’s even more gloriously monstery than the toys.

iron-claw

Iron Claw is fairly typical of the “basic” line, with crawling legs and a simple action feature – in this case, pressing the back claw causes the front claw to stab downwards. Iron Claw himself (only male pronouns are used, because girls aren’t allowed to play with XTREME car monsters) appears to be some kind of slug (or at least a mollusc), with a round sucker mouth, the eponymous iron claws, and an engine block in his back uncomfortably surrounded with tubercular tumorous tissue. He’s beautiful.

buzz-off

Buzz Off is much easier to narrow down: a giant car-wasp, with ragged membranous wings and three pairs of legs. And bull horns, apparently. But what’s with the chains? You will note that almost all the Carnivores have broken chains on their legs. Were they once tied up? Are they a top secret government experiment gone wrong? The world may never know.

Buzz Off’s gimmick is a “stinger missile”, a missile that can be spring-loaded and fired a short distance. It also appears to be sentient. Maybe they chat with each other in between dismembering prey.

chomper

A huge mouth, teeth, drool, wrinkly skin… Yup, this hits all the right buttons. Chomper’s gimmick is straightforward: he chomps stuff. This is the sort of thing that could keep you busy forever. Chomper seems rather toadlike, but I want to imagine that it’s a mutated horned lizard. And can also shoot blood from its eyeballs.

spitfire

Spitfire is apparently some kind of squid? But it also has a ring of teeth and tentacles with claws attached to them? Yeah, I don’t know either. This one’s gimmick is spewing “deadly venom” – OK, water – that you load up and fire by pressing the soft plastic engine block on the back.

skull-shooter

Skull Shooter, the zombie skeleton of the bunch, is the “secret” Carnivore, being largely unadvertised. He’s grabbing a pair of human skulls, so apparently the Carnivores share the Earth with us, and it gives us a sense of scale. He doesn’t seem to correspond with any known animal as far as I can tell.

Oh, and he shoots his own spring-loaded head off as a weapon. Metal.

venom-spitter

Venom Spitter is one of the two “deluxe” Carnivores, and is a large creature that’s mostly mouth and which has stolen Spitfire’s venom-spewing powers. It’s not clear what it’s mean to be, but the first thing I think of when I see that huge mouth and those tusks is a hippopotamus.

bite-wing

Bite Wing, finally, is the other “deluxe” and is the most unconventional Carnivore, being not a car but a helicopter that evolved from some kind of mutated bat. It also has what seems to be an insect’s thorax and abdomen, so it’s another one of those darn GMOs.

It comes with not one, but two “parasite bombs” that look like secondarily flightless vampire bats. And they too seem to have a mind of their own. Do they make small talk while being carried by their “parent”? Do they monitor Carnivore activity from on high?Are they good cops or loose cannons? Do they like lattes? So many questions, but the closure of the line in 1995 means that there will never be answers.

Carnivores are © Matchbox.

Selamóðir

Variations: Seal Mother

selamodir

The Selamóðir, or “Seal Mother”, is the protector of the harbor seals and grey seals of Iceland. It is called by seals when persecuted, or it may appear of its own accord to defend its charges. Unlike most seals, it can be found inland as well as at sea, in freshwater and saltwater.

Seal mother or not, a selamóðir is a monstrous sight. It is like a seal in general appearance, but of “unusual dimensions”, “terrifying size”, or simply the size of a large foreign dog with short legs. It is reddish-pink in color (perhaps with a red neck), with flashing eyes and a back like an island. There is a tuft of hair, like brushwood or heather, between its eyes.

Seal mothers may be found wherever seals gather, and ferociously attack anything that approaches their “children”. There is one report of a selamóðir charging out of the sea to scare off would-be seal hunters, and others of selamóðirs swimming upriver.

A selamóðir was also one of the three monsters inhabiting the Lagarfljót river. It slept under the waterfall, and was much feared until it was vanquished and transfixed to a rock.

References

Hlidberg, J. B. and Aegisson, S.; McQueen, F. J. M. and Kjartansson, R., trans. (2011) Meeting with Monsters. JPV utgafa, Reykjavik.

Each Uisge

Variations: Each-uisge, Water horse

each-uisge

While the kelpie plies the rivers and streams of Scotland, the lochs and seas are home to the far more dangerous Each Uisge, literally the “Water Horse”. Each uisges are carnivorous, and relish human flesh. While other water-horses are content with playing pranks, tossing riders into ponds and laughing at their lot, an each uisge’s actions are always predatory. In addition to hunting humans, they will also reproduce with farm animals, siring foals with flashing eyes, strong limbs, distended nostrils, and an indomitable spirit.

Like kelpies, each uisges are shapeshifters and can assume a wide variety of forms, from sea life to attractive human beings. Their most common guise, however, is that of a fine horse, standing by the waterside and waiting to be mounted. Such horses are always magnificent, sleek, and wild-looking, and their neighs can wake people up all around the mountains.

The each uisge in human form is attractive and charming, but always has some features that give it away – horse’s hooves, for instance, or hair full of sand and seaweed, or a tendency to whinny in pain. In such cases where an each uisge lover was found out, it is usually killed by the girl’s father or brothers before it can devour her. Regardless of the shape it has taken, an each uisge’s carcass will turn into formless jellyfish slime by the next day.

Sometimes the each uisge is a large bird, although this may be confusing it with the boobrie. More worrisome features have been observed, including viciously hooked, 17-inch long beaks, enormous claws, and footprints larger than an elephant’s. An each uisge observed at the Isle of Arran was light grey, with a parrot-like beak and a body longer than an elephant’s.

For all their carnivorous nature, each uisges can be easily tamed by slipping a cow’s cap or shackle onto it, turning it docile and harmless. If the cap or shackle ever falls off, the each uisge immediately gallops off for the safety of the loch, possibly dragging its would-be master with it. Each uisges can also be tamed by stealing their magic bridles. They use them to see fairies and demons, and are vulnerable without them. Finally, like many other evil creatures, each uisges avoid crosses and other religious symbols.

Every loch in Scotland has its own each uisge. Loch Treig was said to have the fiercest each uisges. Loch Eigheach means “Horse Loch” and is home to a much-feared each uisge, with a deadly charm and a silky grey hide. It would yell triumphantly as it bore its prey into the water.

Seven girls and a boy once found an each uisge on a Sunday afternoon near Aberfeldy. It was in the form of a pony, and it continued grazing as the first girl jumped onto its back. One by one, the other girls followed their friend onto the pony, but only the boy noticed that the pony’s back grew longer to accommodate its riders. Finally, the pony tried to get him on as well. “Get on my back!” it said, and the boy ran, hiding in the safety of the rocks. The terrified girls found that their hands stuck to the each uisge’s back, and they could only scream as it dove into the loch. The next day, seven livers floated to the surface.

The son of the Laird of Kincardine encountered an each-uisge near Loch Pityoulish. He and his friends found a black horse with a bridle, reins, and saddle all made of silver. They got onto it and immediately found themselves on a one-way trip to the loch, their hands glued to the reins. Fortunately for the heir of Kincardine, the youth had only touched the reins with one finger, and freed himself by cutting it off, but he could only watch as the water-horse took his friends with it.

While the water-horse legend may be pervasive and universal in northern Europe, some of the each uisge’s appearances may be more prosaic. The beak and large footprints of some each uisges suggest a leatherback turtle more than they do a horse.

References

Fleming, M. (2002) Not of this World: Creatures of the Supernatural in Scotland. Mercat Press, Edinburgh.

Gordon, S. (1923) Hebridean Memories. Cassell and Company Limited, London.

MacKinlay, J. M. (1893) Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs. William Hodge & Co., Glasgow.

Parsons, E. C. M. (2004) Sea monsters and mermaids in Scottish folklore: Can these tales give us information on the historic occurrence of marine animals in Scotland? Anthrozoös 17 (1), pp. 73-80.