Questing Beast

Variations: Beste Glapissante; Beste Glatissant, Bête Glatissante, Glatisant Beast; Beste Diverse, Bête Diverse, Diverse Beste, Diverse Beast; Besta Ladrador, Besta Desasemelhada (Portuguese, from the Demanda); Barking Beast, Yelping Beast

The Questing Beast is a creature of many names, sizes, and appearances. Several features, however, are consistent throughout its appearances in Arthurian legend. First, it very noisy, its offspring within its belly baying and yelping constantly. It is also always a portentous creature, but what it symbolizes has varied from author to author. Finally, it is commonly pursued or hunted, whether by knights or by its own offspring within its belly, and often ends up giving birth in the process.

Although “Questing Beast” has been popularized in the English-speaking world by Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, the creature is more commonly known as the Beste Glatissant or Beste Glapissant (in modern French, Bête Glatissante or Bête Glapissante). Glatir or glapir refers to the sound coming from the creature’s belly, a yelping or baying sound like those of hounds chasing prey. This is also the definition of “questing”; a more accurate modern name would be the Yelping Beast or Barking Beast.

The concept of noisy animals in their mother’s womb precedes the Questing Beast. William of Malmesbury describes a dream that was had by King Eadgar. In it, the king sees a pregnant hunting dog lying at his feet. She was silent, but the pups in her womb were barking loudly. This was interpreted as meaning that after King Eadgar’s death, miscreants within his kingdom would bark against the church of God. In the Slavic Twelve Dreams of Sehachi, the titular character dreams of a foal neighing within a mare’s belly, and whelps barking in a dog’s belly; these are interpreted as mothers acting immodestly with their daughters and children rejecting the advice of their parents, respectively.

Another contributor to the genesis of the Questing Beast is the supernatural boar hunt. The most famous examples of those are the boar Twrch Trwyth and the sow Henwen. The latter is even more closely connected to the Questing Beast; like the Beast, Henwen (“Ancient White”) is white in color, and dangerously fecund. Her offspring were to be harmful to Britain, so she was hunted across the country, giving birth along the way to various young. Finally, Henwen disappeared into the sea at Penryn Awstin, similar to the stricken Questing Beast diving into a lake.

The oldest iterations of the Questing Beast have it encountered by Perceval over the course of his search for the Grail. In the Perlesvaus, Perceval finds a beautiful glade, with a red cross at the center of it. A knight dressed in white is seated at the far end of the glade, with a fair young damsel next to him. Soon a snow-white, emerald-eyed creature, between a fox and a hare in size, enters the glade. The whelps in its womb are barking like hounds, and it is terrified and agitated because of that. Perceval tries to take the small Beast onto his horse, but he is cautioned by the knight, who tells him the Beast has a destiny to fulfill. The Beast runs to the cross, where its twelve young are brought forth. They immediately tear their mother to pieces, but can only devour her head. Upon doing so, they go mad and scatter into the forest. King Pelles later explains the significance of the creature to Perceval: it represents Jesus Christ, and the twelve hounds that killed it and scattered are the twelve tribes of Israel.

Gerbert de Montreuil’s continuation of Perceval borrows from the Perlesvaus. We are not given a description of the Beast, but are instead told that it is grant a merveille (“marvelously large”). The Beast’s young are barking and yelping from within its belly, and when it comes up to the cross in the glade, they emerge violently, breaking it in two pieces. The young then devour their mother before going mad, turning on and killing each other. This bloody episode has a far more mundane meaning – Perceval is told that the loud, murderous whelps are the people who disturb church services by talking loudly and complaining about hunger!

In the Estoire du Saint Graal, there is a Beste Diverse (“Diverse Beast”) found beside a cross. No mention is made of its yelping, but it is white as snow, and has the head and neck of an ewe, the legs of a dog, black thighs, the body of a fox, and the tail of a lion. In the prose Merlin, the Diverse Beste or Beste Diverse sounds like 30 or 40 baying hounds and is moult grant (“very big”). Perceval is destined to hunt it.

In the prose Tristan, the Beste Glatissant has the legs of a stag, the thighs and tail of a lion, the body of a leopard, and the head of a snake; its yelping is equal to that of a hundred hunting hounds. The addition of snake, leopard, and lion elements grant it unsavory connotations; the combination of lion and leopard is reminiscent of the Beast of the Apocalypse, and a snake or dragon is always inauspicious.

No longer a creature of purity torn apart by its own offspring, the Questing Beast is now an evil, wretched being spawned from violence. Its mother was the daughter of King Ypomenes, who lusted for her brother. When she could not have him, she instead turned to a devil, who slept with her and convinced her to accuse her brother of attempting to rape her. He was duly sentenced to be torn apart by dogs. As he died, the brother proclaimed that his sister would give birth to a monster, one from whose belly the barking of dogs would forever remind others of his shameful death. As predicted, the daughter gave birth to the Questing Beast, and she was executed for her crimes.

The Saracen knight Palamides had particular reason to hate the Questing Beast, as its horrid shriek had killed eleven of his twelve brothers. In the Portuguese Demanda, the Questing Beast is finally slain during the last years of the Grail quest, when Palamides strikes it and it runs into a lake that immediately starts to boil. The lake has since then become known as the Lake of the Beast.

Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, the foremost mention of the Questing Beast in English literature, follows the prose Tristan in its description. The Questing Beast is said to have a head like a serpent’s, a body like a leopard’s, buttocks like a lion’s, and feet like a hart. Its belly made a noise like thirty couple hounds barking. King Arthur first sees the Questing Beast after an illicit tryst with the wife of King Lot of Orkney. Arthur had stopped to rest by a well when the Questing Beast, making a horrid din, came up to drink from it. As it drank, the noise coming from its belly was quelled, but it started up against as soon as the creature had finished and ran off. Arthur then encountered Sir Pellinore, who hunted the Questing Beast. After Pellinore’s death, the task of hunting the Questing Beast was passed on to Sir Palamides.

Merlin later revealed to Arthur the significance of the Questing Beast. The king had seen the beast because he, too, had just done something unforgivable. The wife of King Lot was in fact his sister on his mother’s side, and the child of this adulterous and incestuous union – Mordred – was destined to destroy Arthur’s kingdom.

References

Evans, S. (1903) The High History of the Holy Graal. J. M. Dent & Co., London.

Gaster, M. (1900) The Twelve Dreams of Sehachi. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, pp. 623-635.

Löseth, E. (1891) Le Roman en Prose de Tristan, analyse critique. Emile Bouillon, Paris.

Malory, T. (1956) Le Morte d’Arthur, v. I. J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London.

Malory, T. (1956) Le Morte d’Arthur, v. II. J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London.

Nitze, W. A. (1902) The Old French Grail Romance Perlesvaus, A Study of its Principal Sources. John Murphy Company, Baltimore.

Nitze, W. A. (1936) The Beste Glatissant in Arthurian Romance. Zeitschrift für Romanische Philologie, 56, pp. 409-418.

Paris, G. and Ulrich, J. (1886) Merlin: Roman en Prose du XIIIe Siècle, t. I. Librairie de Firmin Didot et Cie., Paris.

Pickford, C. E. (1959) L’evolution du Roman Arthurien en Prose vers la Fin du Moyen Age. A. G. Nizet, Paris.

Williams, M. (1925) Gerbert de Montreuil: La Continuation de Perceval, t. II. Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, Paris.

Billdad

Variations: Saltipiscator falcorostratus (Cox)

Boundary Pond in Maine, near the Canadian border, is the only spot where Billdads live. These creatures are beaver-sized with long kangaroo-like back legs and short forelegs. The paws are webbed and the beak is strong and hawk-like. The powerful tail is large and flattened, like a beaver’s.

The first hint that a billdad is about is a distinct sound, like a paddle hitting the water. This is caused by the billdad’s method of fishing, which consists of jumping above a surfacing fish and smacking it hard with its flat tail. Adult males can cover over sixty yards in a single leap. The stunned fish can then be collected and eaten at leisure.

The retiring billdads are usually heard and not seen. They are left alone by lumberjacks – and with good reason. The only man known to have eaten billdad meat, the late Bill Murphy, suffered odd symptoms after tasting it. He ran screaming out of the mess hall and leaped over the lake just like a billdad. Alas, he could not swim like one.

Billdad has been off the menu since.

References

Cox, W. T. (1910) Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods with a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts. Judd and Detweiler, Washington D. C.

Skvader

The Skvader is a taxidermist’s chimera found in Sundsvall, in the Swedish province of Medelpad. It is a winged hare, combining the skins of a European hare and a capercaillie.

The original skvader was made by Rudolf Granberg in 1918, based on an illustration of a hunter’s tall tale from 1874. It was preserved in a museum in Sundsvall and has since then become an unofficial symbol of Medelpad.

References

Fraser, M. (1947) In Praise of Sweden. Methuen and Co. Ltd., London.

Panafieu, J. and Renversade, C. (2014) Créatures fantastiques Deyrolle. Plume De Carotte, Toulouse.

Akhekh

Variations: Ākhekh

As an incarnation or ally of the god Set, the Akhekh is associated with darkness and water (both elements of chaos). Pierret gives it an eagle’s head on a winged lion’s body; Budge specifies that it is an antelope with two wings on its back, and the head of a bird crowned with three uraei – the cobras on Pharaonic headdresses.

The akhekh is a symbol of terror, but the uraei also connect it to the power of the Pharaoh. Ramesses II was described as being an akhekh to his Hittite enemies. The Metternich stele shows a king in a chariot drawn by an akhekh galloping over two crocodiles.

References

Budge, E. A. W. (2015) The Gods of the Egyptians, vol. II. Dover Publications Inc., New York.

Pierret, P. (1875) Dictionnaire d’archéologie égyptienne. Imprimerie Nationale, Paris.

Paoxiao

Variations: Baoxiao

Mount Gouwu in China has much jade at its peak and much copper at its base. It is the dwelling-place of a beast called the Paoxiao. A Paoxiao looks like a goat with a human face armed with tiger’s teeth. Its eyes are behind its armpits (Wenxuan instead states that its mouth is under one armpit), and it has human hands. It is a man-eater that makes sounds like a baby.

Guo Pu described the paoxiao as exceedingly savage and gluttonous, liable to start biting itself before finishing its human prey. He also equated it with the ornamental taotie, a symbol of gluttony, but this connection is dubious at best.

Mathieu compares the unusual appearance of the Paoxiao with that of an animal delousing itself.

References

Mathieu, R. (1983) Étude sur la mythologie et l’ethnologie de la Chine ancienne. Collège de France, Paris.

Strassberg, R. E. (2002) A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. University of California Press.

Hujiao

Variations: Tiger-dragon, Crocodile-tiger, Cuo-fish, Tiger-cuo

The Yin River and the Yangtze are home to large numbers of Hujiao, or tiger-dragons. A hujiao has the body of a fish with the tail of a snake, and makes a sound like a mandarin duck. It is probably the same as the cuo-fish, whose young hide in their mother’s womb, and the tiger-cuo, which has black and yellow patterns, the ears, eyes, and teeth of a tiger, and is capable of turning into a tiger. All of those are probably sharks.

Eating hujiao flesh prevents hemorrhoids.

References

Mathieu, R. (1983) Étude sur la mythologie et l’ethnologie de la Chine ancienne. Collège de France, Paris.

Strassberg, R. E. (2002) A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. University of California Press.

Lagopus

Variations: Lagepus, Lagephus

According to Pliny, the Lagopus (“hare foot”) or ptarmigan is so named because its feet are covered with hair like those of a hare’s foot. It is the size of a pigeon and white all over. While delicious to eat, the lagopus cannot be tamed or kept outside of its native land, and it putrefies rapidly when killed.

Thomas de Cantimpré misreads the allusion to the native ground of the lagopus, and instead deduces that the lagopus does not eat in the open air. Having made that conclusion, it is only logical that it must carry its food into a cave to eat it. Albertus Magnus makes the further logical deduction that the lagopus cannot fly well.

Although only the feet are described as hare-like, depictions show it with a hare’s head as well. It is often shown standing in front of a cave.

References

Aiken, P. (1947) The Animal History of Albertus Magnus and Thomas of Cantimpré. Speculum, 22(2), pp. 205-225.

de Cantimpré, T. (1280) Liber de natura rerum. Bibliothèque municipale de Valenciennes.

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

Magnus, A. (1545) Thierbuch. Jacob, Frankfurt.

Magnus, A. (1920) De Animalibus Libri XXVI. Aschendorffschen Verlagbuchhandlung, Münster.

Pliny; Holland, P. trans. (1847) Pliny’s Natural History. George Barclay, Castle Street, Leicester Square.

Unknown. (1538) Ortus Sanitatis. Joannes de Cereto de Tridino.

Dard

Dard

The Dard is peculiar to the department of Vienne in France, but its physiognomy recalls that of the alpine dragons – and, like them, it probably evolved from mustelid accounts. It is a serpent with four legs and a short viper’s tail. It has the head of a cat and a mane running down its dorsal spine.

Dards drink milk from cows and can produce a terrifying whistle. They are nonvenomous, but bite viciously when provoked.

Peasants in Vienne claimed to recognize the dard’s likeness in the carvings of certain churches.

References

Ellenberger, H. (1949) Le Monde Fantastique dans le Folklore de la Vienne. Nouvelle Revue des Traditions Populaires, 1(5), pp. 407-435.

Arassas

Arassas

The Arassas hails from the folklore of Lagrand in the Hautes-Alpes region of France. It is a greyish-colored animal with the head of a cat and the body of a lizard. It lives in ruined houses and old crumbling walls. Its gaze kills immediately.

Like other European mountain dragons, it is likely derived from superstitions about otters and martens.

References

van Gennep, A. (1948) Le folklore des Hautes-Alpes, Tome II. J. P. Maisonneuve et Cie, Paris.

Celestial Stag

Variations: Celestial Roe

Celestial Stag

Celestial Stags or Celestial Roes are neither roe stags nor are they celestial. They are Chinese spirits that haunt deep areas, corpse-demons native to the ore mines of Yunnan province. As with numerous other creatures, their name is probably phonetically derived.

Celestial stags are born from the souls of miners unfortunate enough to be trapped deep underground by cave-ins. There the trapped miners are kept alive by the breath of the earth and of the rare metals around them. Their material substance dies and rots away, but their essences cling to life and become celestial stags.

Perhaps because of this traumatic genesis, the primary goal of a celestial stag is to reach the surface. The stag will do anything it can to reach this goal. When a celestial stag meets a miner it is overjoyed and asks for tobacco. Then it begs the miner to take it to the surface. Stags will try to bribe miners by promising them the choicest veins of gold and silver. If this fails they become violent and torture miners to death.

But worse yet is the outcome if their wishes are granted. A celestial stag that reaches the open air dissolves – flesh, bones, clothes, and all – into a pestilential liquid that spreads disease and death.

The only way to escape these creatures is to kill them before they can do harm. If celestial stags are discovered, miners will wall them up in abandoned galleries. Another way out is to promise to haul the stags to the surface in a bamboo lift. Halfway up the rope is cut and the stags plummet to their death – a merciful end to their grim lives.

Borges attributes his account of the celestial stag to G. Willoughby Meade’s Chinese Ghouls and Goblins.

References

Borges, J. L.; trans. di Giovanni, N. T. (2002) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Vintage Classics, Random House, London.

De Groot, J. J. M. (1907) The Religious System of China, Volume V, Book II – On the Soul and Ancestral Worship. E. J. Brill, Leiden.