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.

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.

Akampeshimpeshi

Variations: Lightning

Akampeshimpeshi

According to the Lamba people of Zambia, there is a great lake of water above the dome of the sky. This lake is held back by a weir protected by guardians appointed by Lesa (God). Sometimes Lesa appoints children to guard it, and their irresponsible playing makes holes in the weir and allow the water to spill to earth as rain. When Lesa appoints grown men to guard the weir, then there is no rain.

Lightning (akampeshimpeshi) is caused by the guardians of the weir swinging and tossing their knives (imyele). The knives do not fall – if they did, the earth would be destroyed.

When a flash of lightning hits the ground, an animal descends to the ground on the end of a long cobweb. It looks like a goat, with beard and horns, but has the feet and tail of a crocodile. Usually it returns to the sky on its string of web; if the cobweb breaks, the animal will be trapped on the ground and cry like a goat. In this state it is very dangerous and might kill people, so it is mobbed, killed, and burned by the Lambas. Anyone trying to slay this beast must have protective medicine (ubwanga bwayamba) to avoid being killed themselves.

References

Doke, C. M. (1931) The Lambas of Northern Rhodesia. George G. Harrap and Company Ltd., London.

Nue

Variations: Nue-dori (Nue-bird)

Nue

Described as a “bird-beast”, the Nue lacks any avian physical features. It exists largely outside the Japanese yokai canon, best known from the Tale of the Heike (1371).

The kanji for the word nue are “night” and “bird”. It is likely that the legend of the nue started with a Chinese bird. When it appeared in the 8th-Century Kojiki and the Manyōshū it was a bird that sang mournfully in the forest at night. Purification rituals would be performed in the palace after its sad song. This is probably the White’s thrush or toratsugumi (Zoothera dauma).

In the Tale of the Heike the nue becomes a frightening hybrid creature with the head of a monkey, the body of a tanuki or badger, the limbs of a tiger, and a snake’s or viper’s tail. It makes a cry like that of the nue thrush and lives deep in the mountains. It would appear in the sky over the emperor’s palace every night, hidden in a foreboding black cloud.

The nue was shot out of the sky by Minamoto no Yorimasa with a single arrow. For this feat he was awarded the sword known as Shishiō, the “King of Lions”, which is still on display at the Tokyo National Museum. The event also established Yorimasa’s reputation as a slayer of monsters, and he killed a second nue during the reign of a later emperor.

A 15th-Century Noh drama by Zeami Motokiyo tells the tale of the nue’s slaying from the perspective of the nue. Its forlorn lament over its death hearkens back to its origin as a bird with a sad song.

References

Foster, M. D. (2015) The Book of Yokai. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Sekien, T.; Alt, M. and Yoda, H. eds. (2017) Japandemonium Illustrated: The Yokai Encyclopedias of Toriyama Sekien. Dover Publications, New York.

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.

Myrmecoleon

Variations: Myrmecoleo, Myrmekoleon, Mermecoleon, Mermecolion, Mirmicaleon, Mirmicoleon, Murmecoleon, Formicaleon, Ant-Lion, Antlion

Myrmecoleon

The Myrmecoleon, or Ant-lion, is a tale of two creatures and many translation errors. Druce distinguishes between the Eastern myrmecoleon, a hybrid of lion and ant, and the Western myrmecoleon, a carnivorous insect. These are one and the same, but the vagaries of translation led them down separate paths.

The Eastern myrmecoleon is found primarily in Greek, Arabian, Armenian, Ethiopian, and Syrian bestiaries. Its pedigree can be traced back to the giant gold-digging ants originally described by Herodotus. Further additions were added to the account as it evolved away from its origin. Nearchus claimed that the skins of the ants were as large as those of leopards. Pliny said that the horns of an Indian ant at the Erythraean temple of Hercules were remarkably large. Agatharchides, Aelian, and Strabo tell of Arabian and Babylonian lions called “ants” (myrmex) that have gleaming golden fur and reversed genitals (probably hyraxes, which have a distinctive dorsal gland).

The translators of the Septuagint were faced with the unfamiliar term lajisch or layish in Eliphaz’s phrase “the old lion perishes for lack of food” (Job 4:11). In the Vulgate it was rendered as tigris, and modern translations use “old lion”, but the Septuagint, drawing on obscure Classical species of lion, arbitrarily used the term myrmekoleon. Its name presupposes a hybrid of ant and lion; as the Bible is inerrant, this led led to the necessary existence of a creature whose father was a lion and whose mother was an ant. The fruit of this improbable union is a lion in front and an ant behind, and dies of starvation since the ant half cannot digest what the lion half eats, while the lion half cannot eat the plants the ant half requires. Thus “the myrmecoleon perishes for lack of food” became a logical statement, and was expounded upon in the Physiologus.

Myrmecoleon antlionThe Western myrmecoleon originally appeared in Latin sources and subsequently found its way into European bestiaries. This ant-lion is both ant and lion – an insect that preys on ants as lions prey on other animals, an ant to us, a lion to ants. It is an ant with a white head and a black body marked with white spots. It appears in bestiaries as something like a large ant or spider. This is a real animal – the antlion is a larva with huge jaws that constructs funnel-shaped traps in sand to catch ants. It eventually metamorphoses into a lacy-winged fly, but both larva and adult are completely harmless to humans.

As a denizen of bestiaries the ant-lion has its own religious connotations. The Eastern myrmecoleon is two-faced, double-minded, unstable, and deceitful. The Western myrmecoleon represents Satan lying in wait for sinners.

References

Beavis, I. C. (1988) Insects and other Invertebrates in Classical Antiquity. Alden Press, Osney Mead, Oxford.

Borges, J. L.; trans. di Giovanni, N. T. (1969) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Clarke, Irwin, & Co., Toronto.

Borges, J. L.; trans. Hurley, A. (2005) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Viking.

Druce, G. C. (1923) An account of the Μυρμηκολέων or Ant-lion. The Antiquaries Journal, 3(4), pp. 347-364.

Flaubert, G. (1885) La Tentation de Saint Antoine. Quantin, Paris.

Isidore of Seville, trans. Barney, S. A.; Lewis, W. J.; Beach, J. A.; and Berghof, O. (2006) The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Kitchell, K. F. (2014) Animals in the Ancient World from A to Z. Routledge, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon.

Newbold, D. (1924) The Ethiopian Ant-lion. Sudan Notes and Record, 7(1), pp. 133-135.

Robin, P. A. (1936) Animal Lore in English Literature. John Murray, London.

Chouyu

Variations: Jiuyu, Jiyu

The slopes of Exceedingly Lofty Mountain in China are home to the Chouyu. It is like a rabbit but has a bird’s beak, owl’s eyes, and the tail of a snake. It falls asleep (i.e. plays dead) when it sees people. If a chouyu is seen it is an omen of a locust plague.

Mathieu identifies this animal as the armadillo, but admits with impressive understatement that China is a bit far from the neotropics…

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.