M is for…Monsters?

5 September 2014

Uh oh: some monsters seem to have found their way into our latest exhibition. Don’t panic, though. The exhibition in question explores what it means to be human; in this post Muriel Bailly explores what (or who) monsters really are and how different they are from us, if at all.

If you have visited An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition recently, you may have seen the drawing below entitled Three Monsters in the “F is for Fear” section. Maybe, like me, you were a little surprised by this caption? Personally I find these little creatures rather cute. I looked at them carefully and didn’t feel a single shiver. Definitely not monsters to me.

 Three monsters, 1668.

Three monsters, 1668.

So why do creatures that were labelled “monsters” in the 17th century, probably feared and hated by many, appear sweet and pleasing to the 21st century viewer? Have monsters changed so much; if so, what do our present day monsters look like?

In any given culture monsters have been synonymous with excess, aberrant behaviour and being different. The theme of monsters and mystical or unnatural beings can be found everywhere from ancient civilisations to contemporary cinema and television.

In Roman and Greek mythology, monsters are both the origin and the limit of the world. The Titans (gigantic, patricidal and fans of anthropophagy) were the children of Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (Sky) and ruled the world in the Golden Age. They were led by Cronus and were eventually overthrown by a new generation of gods, called the Olympians, led by Zeus. With this new generation came the world as we know it. Thanks to the tricks played on Zeus by the Titan Prometheus, human kind obtained fire and nourishing food, benefitting it greatly. These events, known to us through Hesiod’s Theogony, are echoed in many mythologies from the Far East and Scandinavia.

 Cronus, Goya. © Museo del Prado, Madrid

Cronus, Goya. © Museo del Prado, Madrid

In Homer’s Odyssey Ulysses encounters numerous monsters on his epic return home. Venturing to remote parts of the world he is confronted by the Cyclops Polyphemus, the Sirens, the whirlpool Charybdis and the six headed monster Scylla, among others. He is only safe when he finally reaches his beloved Ithaca. Centuries later, Pliny the Elder (1 BC-1 AD) in his Naturalis Historia describes Greece as being the centre of the world whilst Egypt is at its periphery. The latter was known as a land where half animal and half human creatures lived. In both Homer’s and Pliny’s work monsters are the physical representation of the limit of civilisation.

 Ulysses [Odysseus] and the Sirens. Etching by P. Aquila.

Ulysses [Odysseus] and the Sirens. Etching by P. Aquila.

 Cultures without monsters?

Pliny’s description of Egypt with its half animal/half human inhabitants could be a reference to its gods. While Greek and Roman gods were anthropomorphic, Egyptian gods were hybrids with both human and animal features, such as Anubis the jackal-headed god of the afterlife. These hybrid gods, who may have been perceived as monstrous or grotesque in the western world, are very common in Eastern mythology. The Hindu god Ganesh is an elephant-headed deity and one of the most worshiped in the Hindu pantheon. Although it might be too much of a shortcut to say that Eastern cultures do not have monsters, it is fair to say that their association between monstrous appearance and monstrous identity is less automatic.

 Anubis tending a mummy. Tombs of the Kings, Thebes.

Anubis tending a mummy. Tombs of the Kings, Thebes.

The status of monsters changes radically with the arrival of monotheist religions. The most famous monsters of the Old Testament (common to both Christianity and Judaism) are the Leviathan and Behemoth mentioned by Job 40 and 41. While in polytheist cultures monsters seem to be an aberration of nature, in monotheism monsters are creatures designed by God with a purpose. It was said that at the time of the Apocalypse God will prove his supremacy by killing the monsters in the ultimate victory of good against evil.

 Job rides the leviathan in front of a grotesque procession of demons and tormentors.

Job rides the leviathan in front of a grotesque procession of demons and tormentors.

 Monsters classified

The first attempt to identify and record all existing monsters happened in the Middle Ages with an anonymous publication from 9-10th centuries, entitled All Sorts of Monsters. The monsters are classified according to their nature: book I is dedicated to anthropomorphic creatures; book II to elephant, lions, whales and other wild, large animals; and finally, book III is entirely dedicated to snakes.

In 1559, in his last and most famous work, Histoires Prodigieuses, Pierre Boaistuau attempted to record all monsters from “freaks of nature” to extraordinary beings from mythology. He sailed to England that winter with a copy of the book, yet to be published. He hoped to offer it to Queen Elizabeth I, newly installed on the throne. Although we do not know how the Queen reacted to this peculiar book, we know that the book stayed in England. A copy is available at Wellcome Library.

 Portrait of two monsters. Histoires prodigieuses, 1560.

Portrait of two monsters. Histoires Prodigieuses, 1560.

 Renaissance: monsters with reason

The development of scientific and medical knowledge during the Renaissance shed new light on “monsters”. The work of Ambroise Paré, a French barber surgeon who served kings Henry II, Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III, illustrates this change. Paré makes a distinction between “real monsters” (existing individuals living with a deformity) and monsters from mythology and religion.

Focussing on the former, he looked for a rational and medical reason for their unusual appearance. The findings published in his essay Des Monstres et Prodiges (1573), argue that a child with such an appearance is the result of an accident that happened during pregnancy. Indeed, Paré suggested that a poor diet, emotional shock and domestic violence during pregnancy could all cause a deformity in the baby yet to be born.

Following Paré’s example, Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, a French naturalist from the 18th century, attempted a scientific classification of monsters in his monumental essay on tetratology (the study of abnormalities and psychological development). Simultaneously, the development of social sciences and psychology helped to demystify “unreal” monsters living in individuals’ subconscious and in cultural tradition.

 Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.

Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.

The modern monster

Thanks to the development of medical and social sciences in the 18th century, “monsters” became better understood and, instead of provoking fear or disgust, society started empathising with these people. In literature, one of the most powerful indications of this humanisation of “monsters” is Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, published in 1831.

As the distinction between “monsters” and the rest of society becomes more blurry from the 19th century onward, there seemed to be a new generation of monsters: one created by humans. This latter generation greatly inspired the arts. Dr Frankenstein, in Mary Shelley’s novel, through scientific experiments creates a creature so horrible that he cannot name it. A similar fate was encountered by Edward in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands.

 Frankenstein observing the first stirrings of his creature. Engraving by W. Chevalier after Th. von Holst, 1831.

Frankenstein observing the first stirrings of his creature. Engraving by W. Chevalier after Th. von Holst, 1831.

 Edward Scissorhands.

Edward Scissorhands.

So what of today’s monsters? The physical manifestation of evil in the form of some kind of deformity has taken a back seat. Just as abnormal physical appearances tend to be used to inspire (such as in The Elephant Man or Mask), a polished exterior often hides the demons today.

 Patrick Bateman from American Psycho.

Patrick Bateman from American Psycho.

Many of the classic monsters from the 20th and 21st centuries are savage criminals with complicated psychologies. In the Fritz Lang movie M, the child murderer Hans Beckert claims that he cannot escape himself and seems to be a victim of his own impulses. Hannibal Lecter, despite being a cannibalistic serial killer, is also a refined intellectual with sophisticated taste for the arts. Patrick Bateman is a suave and handsome Harvard educated businessman. Ghostface can be kids from school or members of your family. Dexter Morgan is your next door neighbour.

21st century monsters are often elegant, charming and seemingly “normal”. They walk among us; they are (part of) us.

Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.