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.

Beast of the Charred Forests

Variations: The Beast, Dhu Guisch (“Of the Black Firs”)

Tradition holds that the dense, impenetrable forests of Scotland once covered most of the Highlands and Outer Hebrides, but fell to the Norsemen. The Scandinavians burned down the forests to dominate the trade in timber, and to prevent potential ambushes from forested areas.

In Sutherland the destruction of the forests is attributed to a dragon, the Beast of the Charred Forests. This terrifying, powerful monster was born from a fire that burned for seven years and lived in fire. It once stalked over northern Scotland, breathing fire and incinerating trees. There was no escaping its wrath, and people would abandon their villages to the dragon whenever they heard it was near. Only a man who saw it before it saw him could slay it.

But the Beast itself met its match in Saint Gilbert. When it came upon St. Gilbert’s Church in Dornoch, it roared “Pity on you, Dornoch!” Saint Gilbert, who had previously dug a hole and hid in it to see the dragon before it appeared, emerged from his church armed with a bow and arrows, and repeated the Beast’s boastful statement to its face. “Pity on you, Dornoch!” The beast prepared to breathe fire on Dornoch, but the Saint’s first arrow pierced and killed it immediately. It was buried on the moor between Dornoch and Skibo, and a stone – the Beast’s Stone – was placed over it.

The presence of charred pine stumps in the peat moss of Ross, Sutherland, and the Reay is evidence of the Beast’s ravages.

References

Dempster, M. (1888) The Folk-lore of Sutherlandshire. Folk-Lore Journal v. VI p. 3, pp. 149-189.

MacGregor, A. A. (1937) The Peat-Fire Flame: Folk-tales and Traditions of the Highlands and Islands. The Moray Press, Edinburgh.

Loch Oich Monster

Somewhat less famous than its neighbor in Loch Ness, the Loch Oich Monster is known from the Great Glen of Scotland and Inverness-shire.

It was notably spotted on August 13, 1936 by Alderman Richards and his companions while out boating on Loch Oich near Laggan. They described the monster as a strange creature with two humps, like a snake’s coils, each three feet in height, three feet long, and three feet apart. The head was shaggy and like that of a dog. The entire body was black in color.

References

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

MacGregor, A. A. (1937) The Peat-Fire Flame: Folk-tales and Traditions of the Highlands and Islands. The Moray Press, Edinburgh.

Beast of Barrisdale

Variations: Wild Beast of Barrisdale, Loch Hourn Monster

The Beast of Barrisdale lives near Loch Hourn in Scotland. Unlike other lake monsters, it has three legs, two in front and one in back, which leave distinctive tracks in Barrisdale Bay. It also has huge wings which allow it to fly. It makes its lair in the Knoydart Hills, near the dark cliffs of Ladhar Bheinn.

At the end of the 19th century, a crofter from Barrisdale said he frequently saw it soaring high over the Knoydart hills. Once it chased him with malicious intent, but he made it home safely – slamming the door in its face, no less, as he used to relate. An old man by the name of Ranald MacMaster also claimed to have found the tracks of the monster in the hills and along the sandy beaches around Barrisdale Bay. The monster’s frightful roar is said to be heard by night.

References

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

MacGregor, A. A. (1937) The Peat-Fire Flame: Folk-tales and Traditions of the Highlands and Islands. The Moray Press, Edinburgh.

Mitchell, W. R. (1990) It’s a Long Way to Muckle Flugga: Journeys in Northern Scotland. Souvenir Press, London.

Cu Sith

Variations: Fairy Dog

Cu Sith

The Cu Sith (pronounced coo-shee), “fairy dog”, is a great beast associated with the fairies of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Fairy dogs are almost always malevolent and implacable with no love for humans. There are some stories of fairy dogs treating humans with kindness, but these are best regarded with suspicion.

A fairy dog is hideous in appearance. It appears as an enormous dog the size of a two-year-old stirk, with paw-prints as broad as a man’s outspread hand. The fur is dark green, lightening downwards to the paws. The ears are a deeper green in color. The tail may be flat and plaited, or long and coiled over the dog’s back.

During the day the fairies keep their dogs tied up to keep watch, and even untethered fairy dogs will hide in caves by day. Night-time is when they roam free and are at their most dangerous. They run in straight lines, silently; sometimes they make a sound like a galloping horse. They are deadly to humans and beasts, although at least one tale has them driven off by ordinary, mortal dogs.

Most dreaded of all is the cu sith’s bark. A fairy dog will bark three times, with an interval between each bark. The first and second barks are warnings; after the third bark the dogs appear and tear their victims to pieces. On the island of Tiree, those who hear the first baying of a cu sith know to immediately go indoors to safety.

Finding a cu sith tooth, on the other hand, is a sign of very good luck. The tooth itself can be placed in drinking water to cure the illnesses of cows, or in milk to cleanse it of a witch’s influence. The teeth tend to be found in odd places and are abandoned after the animal feeds. MacGregor tells of a farmer in Lewis whose potatoes were being stolen on a nightly basis. Yet stakeouts accomplished nothing – he could never catch the thief in the act. Then one day he found a fairy dog’s tooth sticking out of one of the potatoes. The tooth was passed down in the family for generations.

Cu sith can be avoided. A man traveling near Kennavara Hill, Tiree, saw a large dog (Campbell describes it as black in color) resting on a sand-dune. He gave it a wide berth and made for home. The next day he revisited the dune and found prints as large as his spread palm. These prints made a trackway leading to and disappearing on the plain. The dog had ignored him.

A shepherd from Lorn, Argyll, came upon two cu sith puppies curled up in their lair behind some rocks. They had green backs and sides and – most worryingly – were larger than his own hulking sheepdogs. The shepherd and his dogs wisely left before the parents showed up.

References

Briggs, K. M. (1976) An Encyclopedia of Fairies. Pantheon Books, New York.

Campbell, J. G. (1900) Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. James MacLehose and Sons, Glasgow.

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

MacGregor, A. A. (1937) The Peat-Fire Flame: Folk-tales and Traditions of the Highlands and Islands. The Moray Press, Edinburgh.

Wulver

Wulver

The Wulver lives alone in a cave halfway up a steep knowe on the Isle of Unst in Shetland. He stands upright like a man, but has a wolf’s head and a body covered in short brown hair.

A peaceful loner, the Wulver never harms people as long as he isn’t harmed. He likes to fish, and for hours will sit upon a rock, the “Wulver’s Stane”, and catch yearling coalfish. Frequently he will leave a gift of a few fish on the windowsill of the poor and old of Shetland.

References

Angus, J. S. (1914) A Glossary of the Shetland Dialect. Alexander Gardner, Paisley.

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

Saxby, J. M. E. (1932) Shetland Traditional Lore. Grant and Murray Limited, Edinburgh.

Bregdi

Bregdi

A malicious sea monster from Shetland waters, the Bregdi is feared for its habit of chasing boats. Once it has caught up with a boat, it wraps its long fins around it, putting them up over the gunwales, and dives with the boat in its deadly embrace.

Fortunately a bregdi’s attentions can be deterred in two ways. Like many other supernatural creatures, the bregdi hates the touch of cold steel. A simple skuni (knife) is more than enough to combat it. Slashing the fins as soon as they appear over the gunwales will make it let go and flee. It is also terrified of amber beads, and a single amber bead thrown at a bregdi is enough to scare it off.

References

Angus, J. S. (1914) A Glossary of the Shetland Dialect. Alexander Gardner, Paisley.

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

Beisht Kione Dhoo

Variations: [Yn] Beisht [y] Kione Dhoo ([The] Beast of [the] Black Head); [Yn] Beisht Kione ([The] Beast of Head) (erroneously)

Beisht Kione Dhoo

Fishermen on the Isle of Man have traditionally observed a number of customs. Whistling on board “bothers the wind” and is discouraged. Sticking a knife in the mast on the appropriate side causes the wind to blow from that direction. Losing items on board is bad luck; borrowing items from “lucky” boats brings good luck. Four-footed land animals should not be mentioned by name, but instead by a circuitous sea-name – rats, for instance, are “long-tailed fellows”. Cold iron is a remedy to most acts of bad luck.

Then there is a number of sea creatures that can wreak havoc on fishing vessels. Of the the Beisht Kione Dhoo, the Beast of Black Head, is the most terrifying. It makes its home in the sea-caves on Black Head, near Spanish Head at the southern tip of the Isle of Man. The few who have seen it say it has a head like that of a large horse, and it can be heard roaring by fishermen off Spanish Head. Some say it is the soul of a man killed by pirates in order to protect their treasure hidden in the headland’s caves. Nobody has attempted to claim that treasure.

To placate the Beisht and bring on good luck, rum is left in the cave at Spanish Head. Fishermen heading out to sea would throw a glassful of rum overboard in hopes that the Beisht will grant them a bountiful catch.

References

Broderick, G. (1984) A Handbook of Late Spoken Manx: Grammar and Texts. Max Niemeyer, Tübingen.

Killip, M. (1976) The Folklore of the Isle of Man. Rowman and Littlefield, New Jersey.

Rose, C. (2000) Giants, Monsters, and Dragons. W. W. Norton and Co., New York.

Onchú

Variations: Enfield; Alphyn; Water-dog, Sea-dog

Onchu

The Onchú, “Water-dog”, is a peculiar Irish creature with a long history of phonetic transformation. It is better known as the Enfield or Alphyn.

Of the three variants it is the enfield that has the most defined morphotype. It has the head of a fox, the chest of a greyhound, the talons of an eagle, the body of a lion, and the hindlegs and tail of a wolf. A more simple description gives it the head of a fox, the breast and forelegs of an eagle, and the hindquarters of a wolf, combining the cunning of the first, the honor of the second, and the ferocity of the third. There may be a mane and a lion’s tail. Enfields are rarely used in heraldry, most notably appearing in green as the crest of the O’Kelly family of Ireland. This is traditionally attributed to an incident when Tadhg Mór Ua Ceallaigh, the ancestor of the O’Kellys of Hy-Many, fell in battle against the Danes at Clontarf. An enfield or dog-like creature emerged from the sea and protected Tadhg Mor’s body until it was recovered.

As for the alphyn, it vaguely resembles a tiger, sometimes with the same clawed forelimbs as the enfield. It shares its name with the term alphyn or alfin for the chess bishop, itself derived from al-fil, “the elephant”, but this is coincidental. Elephants were well-known in bestiaries long before the decidedly unproboscidean alphyn, which appears at the end of the fifteenth century.

The word onchú is more ancient than enfield or alphyn, and is probably derived from , “hound”, and on, “water” (as in onfais, “plunging”, and onfaisech, “diver”). It is synonymous with doburchú, the otter (literally “water dog”). Therefore the onchú can be inferred to be a dog or dog-like animal that lives at least partly in water. Onchú also is used to mean “banner”, or “standard”, suggesting that the use of the onchú on battle-standards was common enough that the name was transferred to the item – and that its use preceded the battle of Clontarf.

The confusion only increases with the pluralization of onchú to give onchoin or onchainn. Onchainn in turn became onfainn following the trend of ch conversion (e.g. Dunphy from Donnchaidh). Williams traces phonetic vagaries and lists a sequence of alterations: onfainn to anchainn to anfainn to anfaill to anfild to enfild. Anfaill also gave rise to the less-successful alternative name of alphyn. Further assimilation with the heraldic sea-dog gave the onchú/enfield/alphyn a mane and clawed, bird-like forelegs.

Since then onchú has been used as a term for a large water beast. It is wild, fearsome, valorous, heroic, with reptilian and venomous qualities (probably the origin of its green color). The onchú that lived between Loch Con and Loch Cuilinn killed nine men. Muiredach pursued it into the water and slew it, earning the title of Cú Choingelt, “Hound of the Pasturage”.

Williams proposes the adoption of onchú as the official Gaelic term for the animal. Enfield remains an acceptable English version.

References

Barber, R. and Riches, A. (1971) A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts. The Boydell Press, Ipswich.

Cooke, T. L. (1859) Proceedings, November Meeting. The Journal of the Kilkenny and South-East of Ireland Archaeological Society, v. 2. McGlashan and Gill, Dublin.

Vinycomb, J. (1906) Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art, with Special Reference to their Use in British Heraldry. Chapman and Hall, London.

Williams, N. J. A. (1989) Of Beasts and Banners: The Origin of the Heraldic Enfield. The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, v. 119, pp. 62-78.

Beathach Mòr Loch Odha

Variations: Big Beast of Loch Awe, Big Beast of Lochawe

big-beast

Like so many other lake monsters, the true nature and appearance of the Beathach Mòr Loch Odha, the “Big Beast of Loch Awe”, is shrouded in mystery. Some say it resembles a giant horse, while others describe a colossal eel. What is known for certain is that the Big Beast is a large and powerful creature with twelve legs. It can be heard in the dead of winter, breaking the ice on the frozen loch.

It has been a long time since the Big Beast was last seen. Its existence is all but forgotten on the shores of Loch Awe, and a resident of Ford interviewed by Fleming in 2001 had nothing to say on its subject.

References

Campbell, J. G. (1900) Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. James MacLehose and Sons, Glasgow.

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