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Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors

David D. Gilmore

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Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors

David D. Gilmore

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The human mind needs monsters. In every culture and in every epoch in human history, from ancient Egypt to modern Hollywood, imaginary beings have haunted dreams and fantasies, provoking in young and old shivers of delight, thrills of terror, and endless fascination. All known folklores brim with visions of looming and ferocious monsters, often in the role as adversaries to great heroes. But while heroes have been closely studied by mythologists, monsters have been neglected, even though they are equally important as pan-human symbols and reveal similar insights into ways the mind works. In Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors, anthropologist David D. Gilmore explores what human traits monsters represent and why they are so ubiquitous in people's imaginations and share so many features across different cultures.Using colorful and absorbing evidence from virtually all times and places, Monsters is the first attempt by an anthropologist to delve into the mysterious, frightful abyss of mythical beasts and to interpret their role in the psyche and in society. After many hair-raising descriptions of monstrous beings in art, folktales, fantasy, literature, and community ritual, including such avatars as Dracula and Frankenstein, Hollywood ghouls, and extraterrestrials, Gilmore identifies many common denominators and proposes some novel interpretations.Monsters, according to Gilmore, are always enormous, man-eating, gratuitously violent, aggressive, sexually sadistic, and superhuman in power, combining our worst nightmares and our most urgent fantasies. We both abhor and worship our monsters: they are our gods as well as our demons. Gilmore argues that the immortal monster of the mind is a complex creation embodying virtually all of the inner conflicts that make us human. Far from being something alien, nonhuman, and outside us, our monsters are our deepest selves.

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The dream of reason produces monsters.
—Francisco Goya, “Caprichos”
The mind needs monsters. Monsters embody all that is dangerous and horrible in the human imagination. Since earliest times, people have invented fantasy creatures on which their fears could safely settle. Examples from Western lore are Frankenstein and Dracula, all those dragons of the Middle Ages, Hollywood’s ghouls and extraterrestrials, and of course the sharp-toothed bogeymen that hide under children’s beds (and adults’ beds, too). Classic works, from the Grimm brothers to recent psychological studies (Bettelheim 1976; Beaudet 1990; Carroll 1990; Warner 1998), demonstrate the rich variety and primal power of the imaginary evil creature as a cultural metaphor and literary device in folklore, fiction, art, dreaming, and everyday fantasy.
Monsters are not confined to a single tradition. Such nightmares haunt “primitive” peoples all over the world. Mythical monsters made an especially rich vein among Native Americans, for example. The Algonquian-speaking Indians of Canada, including the Ojibwa, Cree, and Saulteaux, are still obsessed today with what they call the Windigo, a man-eating giant with a heart of ice (Teicher 1960; Bishop 1975). Sightings of the Windigo inspired mass panics as recently as the 1960s, emptying out entire villages. In British Columbia, the Athabaskans feared the Wechuge—a cannibal woodland ogre (Ridington 1980). The Yuroks of California believed in all manner of devilish creatures and bogeys (many still do). One is the Wo-gey, a hideous homicidal demon. Older Yurok still have nightmares about the “vicious ones,” horrid sprites. Many other Indians believe in giant reptiles and birds of prey that eat children whole and underground serpents that swallow people up (Buckley 1980: 155–56).
In New York State, the Iroquois are still bedeviled by malignant creatures called “stone giants.” These are powerful demons, half-human in shape. They lie in wait in dense forests, where, protected from human weapons by a skin of impenetrable slate, they eat hapless hunters. No arrow can harm them. Indestructible and unstoppable, they are, as usual, violently predisposed toward humans and of course enjoy a customary snack of human flesh (Fogelson 1980: 141).
In southeastern United States, Cherokees fear the uktena, a man-eating aquatic serpent. Although uktenas look like rattlesnakes, they have horns on their heads (Hudson 1978). Like many comparable monsters in other belief systems, utkenas live on the periphery of the Cherokee universe: in the high passes in remote mountains and in the deepest parts of the rivers that slice through Indian territory. They are able to spew forth fire and smoke, and so dreadful were they that even the sight of one would cause a man to fall ill. If a person happened to sniff the poisonous breath of a uktena, it would cause instant death (Hudson 1978: 62).
The uktena, incidentally, reflects a widespread archetype that reappears in many Native American cultures as a pond or lake demon. It of course can be found in deathless incarnations in European lore as the mysterious Kraken, a continuation of sea monster legends that go back at least to the ancient Greeks. Among classical writers, for example, the sober Aristotle pondered the terrible sea serpents and other marine terrors of the ancient Mediterranean that he and his countrymen believed responsible for most shipwrecks (Bright 1991: 2). Without the slightest possibility of cultural diffusion, it is obvious we are dealing with almost identical ideas among disconnected peoples, revealing some deep human thread.
Like these others, the people living in sub-Saharan Africa also fear monsters. For example, there is Mokele-Mbembe. Held in awe by the Congolese Pygmies and sought after unsuccessfully by European explorers, this imaginary beast (or cryptomorph) is a two-legged, dinosaur-like behemoth. It haunts the Congo River and its estuaries, eating travelers and panicking whole villages (Eberhart 1983: 3) This prehistoric leftover is only one of what has been called a huge monster menagerie of central Africa (Nugent 1993: 213–14), which includes man-eating devils, outsized beasts, and chipekwes, the latter described by the natives simply as “big monsters.” In Kenya the horrible Nandi bear is said to have the appearance of a giant chalicotherium (an extinct prehistoric herbivore), except that it is carnivorous. Like other monsters, the Nandi bear eats human beings, supposedly cracking open the skull of its victim to extract the brain (Grant 1992: 47).
Further north, among the Egyptian Nubians along the Nile, there survives a belief in serpent-beasts called aman doger, “ugly water beings.” These creatures come out of the river at night to prey upon human habitations. They are described as ugly, black, animal-like, masculine in gender, and having human-like desires. Their manner of predation is to attack the nose of the victim until he or she dies of suffocation, and they also eat small children (Kennedy 1970: 441–42).
In Arab North Africa, according to accounts collected by Frenchman Joseph Desparmet in the early part of the twentieth century (1909), Berber peasants in the Atlas mountains believed in cannibal ogres, or ghouli (from which we get the word “ghoul”). These evil spirits infested the broken countryside of the entire Maghreb area, making travel dangerous. Derived from the Arabic concept of jinn, or genies (which are mentioned in the Qur’an), these creatures were famous for their appetite. Desparmet tells us that in 1907 there was wholesale hysteria due to sightings of ghouli massed in the area around the town of Blida, and many panic-stricken women and children stayed behind locked doors for months (1909: 2–3). The same fears abound even today.
Moving further east, folklore roils with giant serpents, fire-blowing dragons, hideous demons, and other weird, threatening creatures. Many Far Eastern legends center on the depredations of fire-belching demons that local warriors must confront or else the society will be destroyed. The apocalyptic man-versus-monster formula is a prominent feature in both Tibetan and Japanese folklore (Kiej’e 1973; D. White 1991), and is probably as much a source as the Hollywood precedents for the Japanese Godzilla genre. Among the Tibetans, there is still a thriving artistic tradition of monster and demon masks used in Buddhist exorcism rites. Further east, off the Asian landmass, the Micronesians and Polynesians had their own nightmare apparitions. Their folklore is full of ogres and oversized reptiles, as well as marine were-beasts such as were-sharks and were-octopuses, all of which gobble up humans with relish (Lessa 1961; Kirtley 1971).
Latin America, too, both before and after the Iberian conquest, has had gruesome monsters. Aboriginal folklore before the Spaniards featured “diabolical dogs,” giant lizards, and flying half-human fiends that attacked people from impenetrable forests (Peniche Barrera 1987). One of these, a giant ogre called Tlacahuepan in Mayan, ate children and occasionally adults too. The ekuneil and hapai-can were giant Aztec serpents that caught people in their coils and sucked their blood (15). These beasts still haunt rural Latin America today and have been regarded by anthropologists as reflecting a mixture of aboriginal and Spanish beliefs (Magaña 1988; Isla 1998).


Clearly the world was and still is full of awful monsters. In the West, because of their everyday presence in popular culture—spurred on by Hollywood fantasy films—we tend to take them for granted while not believing in their actual existence. We rarely stop to consider the psychological meaning of their appeal. While they differ in shape and size, all the mythical beings of the world’s cultures have many features in common that, like so many other aspects of myth and folklore, cry out for a broad comparison. Both the Maya and Spaniards believed in monstrous reptiles and man-eating ogres, and the blend of the two cultures gave rise to seamless composites at home in both traditions. In other cases the similarities between diverse cultural traditions seem to point to some underlying commonalities in the human mind. These commonalities are not only anatomical and pictorial, but also behavioral and moral—even dietary!
Literary critics, philosophers, historians, and psychologists have attempted to pinpoint common themes that run through the diverse traditions. So far this work lacks a truly comparative basis, being largely confined to the Western imagination, especially Euro-American fantasy art, science fiction, and horror films (Atwood 1977; Mully 1980; Carroll 1990; Williams 1996; Andriano 1999). Yet even with this limited scope, the research has produced some provocative findings. These are many-faceted and not easily summarized, but most authorities agree that imaginary monsters provide a convenient pictorial metaphor for human qualities that have to be repudiated, externalized, and defeated, the most important of which are aggression and sexual sadism, that is, id forces.
However, it seems to me that so much is fairly obvious. As I said in the Preface, I have always believed—perhaps based more on intuition than anything else—that the endless fascination with monsters derives from a complex mix of emotions and is not simply reducible to the standard Freudian twins of aggression and repression. The point of this book is to show that for most people monsters are sources of identification and awe as well as of horror, and they serve also as vehicles for the expiation of guilt as well as aggression: there is a strong sense in which the monster is an incarnation of the urge for self-punishment and a unified metaphor for both sadism and victimization (after all, the horrible monster is always killed off, usually in the most gruesome manner imaginable, by humans). We have to address this issue of dualism, of emotive ambivalence, in which the monster stands for both the victim and the victimizer. What other forces does the monster embody in the human consciousness aside from pure aggression? Why do we need all these monsters to express these emotions?


One compelling reason to pursue a study of monsters is that they figure so prominently in world folklore (Campbell 1968; Mode 1973). In the archetypal Culture Hero myth, which is found all over the world, some brave champion goes forth to test his mettle in a climactic battle of good and evil, the latter always embodied as some monstrous beast. The Minotaur, Medusa, the Basilisk, Grendel in Beowulf, and Saint George’s dragon are examples of the bestial villains of Western culture, but there are countless others in every tradition and in every literature from the Stone Age to the Computer Age (Rose 2000).
In early modern Spain, for example, Cervantes made fun of this genre when Don Quixote battles windmills he mistakes for the giant ogres of medieval romance. Involvement with the monster-nemesis figure, in Joseph Campbell’s (1968) terms the “monster-tyrant,” begins with the earliest stirrings of religious feeling, in one of the world’s oldest symbols, the sphinx. This fixation with monsters is well documented as a major topos running through classical antiquity, especially among the ancient Greeks, who saw corroboration for their legends in the megafaunal fossils they found exposed in promontories around the Mediterranean Basin (Mayor 2000).
Even more compelling is the fact that the very idea of the monster springs up with the same aesthetic-intellectual impulse that gave rise to civilization itself. Art historian Heinz Mode argues that visual portraits of menacing creatures occur at precisely the same time as does literacy. He claims that the consciousness of such ideas, as far as archeology can tell, occurs as a product of the earliest known civilizations, in the period around 3000 B.C. Aside from some equivocal figures in European cave art (to be discussed in the next chapter), the first unequivocal and identifiable monsters are to be found in early dynastic Egypt and Mesopotamia, and possibly a little later in the Indus Valley in present-day Pakistan (Mode 1973: 12). Indeed monsters arise with civilization—with human self-consciousness.


Before describing monsters, let us first clarify terminology. People everywhere use “monster” glibly to describe whatever they find loathsome, terrifying, or dangerous, so we should be specific. For purposes here, by monster I will confine usage to supernatural, mythical, or magical products of the imagination. I will not include heinous criminals or mass murderers like Hitler or Stalin (justifiably “monsters” in a metaphorical sense), nor will I include physical abnormalities, freaks and birth defects, or other real anomalies or deformities (referred to as “monsters” in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Friedman 1981; D. White 1991). Additionally, for purposes of cultural comparison, I will exclude witches and sorcerers, because, like our serial murderers, they are only human beings who have gone bad, rather than fantasies. For the same reason I exclude revenants like ghosts and zombies, which are, once again, only dead (or half-dead) people come back to haunt.
Restricting our study to imaginary beings, then, we note that these are usually represented in fiction, art, and folklore in strikingly conventional and patterned ways. Most often they are grotesque hybrids, recombinations uniting animal and human features or mixing animal species in lurid ways (Harpham 1982; Andriano 1999). Such a formal definition of monster would include human metamorphoses like werewolves and vampires, as well as man-eating giants like the Algonquian Windigo and the Athabaskan Wechuge mentioned above, shape-shifters like Jekyll-Hyde, European dragons, and the various ogres of Micronesia (Hames 1960: 91–95). We would also include giants like the Gorgons and Cyclops of classical antiquity, since disproportionately huge size so often defines monsters, and terrible cryptomorphs like Grendel in Beowulf and the yeti or abominable snowman of Himalayan folklore. For our purposes, then, monsters, are imaginary, not real, embodiments of terror.
Other key elements are “mystery and menace” (D. Cohen 1970: 1). In her study of fictional ogres and monsters, literary critic Ruth Waterhouse develops what she calls a paradigm of the Monstrous, based on the following criteria. First there is large size and deformity, but there is also the quality of inherent evil, that is, unmotivated wickedness toward humans (1996: 28–29). Another literary critic, Joseph Andriano, who has also written perceptively about monsters, in art and film, suggests that the main criterion of monsters is that they are dangerous objects of fear, but that this fear includes “the primal fear of being eaten” (1999: 91). To judge from what we have already observed about the customary monster diet, this observation about being eaten is important. As we will see, eating human beings is as critical an aspect of monsterhood as bigness, physical grotesqueness, and malice.
St. George and the Dragon by Paolo Ucello (1397–1475), emphasizing the mouth both as weapon and as target of human aggression. Giraudon/Art Resource, NY.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell offers us other useful observations, and these may serve as parallel criteria: “By a monster I mean some horrendous presence or apparition that explodes all of your standards for harmony, order, and ethical conduct” (1968: 222). For Campbell, a monster is an imaginary being with a portmanteau morphology combining animal and human traits in frightening ways or mixing up animal categories, as in the generic dragon that combines lizard, bird, and snake—an icon in European mythology. For Campbell and others, monsters are defined not only by their size, their malevolence, or their tendencies to eat human beings, but also by their morphological oddity and, especially, the joining of known organisms into weird, unnatural forms that shock. Hybridization, or “reshuffled familiarity” (Harpham 1982: 5), remains a critical element in all analyses, demanding special attention. In a book on medieval monsters, the French cultural historian Claude Kappler (1980) includes such criteria as unnatural asymmetry of parts, substitution of anatomical organs by unnatural forms, and mélange or recombination of human, animal, and plant life into impossible composite organisms. He refers to such bizarre confabulations as an “agglutination of images” (1980: 283).
Historian Rudolf Wittkower confirms this by telling us that throughout the European Middle Ages and Renaissance what was considered monstrous was whatever combined various naturally occurring flora and fauna into weird combinations, whether in the imagination or as a mistake of nature, especially those so-called prodigies that united the animal with the human; during this entire thousand-year period, monsters were defined as composites, half-human, half-animal (1942: 197). In an analysis of medieval monster books such as the Liber Monstrorum [Book of Monsters), historian Douglas Butturff notes that in the literature of the Middle Ages the distinguishing characteristic of monsters is that they are a hybrid of man and beast (1968: 24). Of course this relates to the European tradition only, but the concept finds resona...

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Citation styles for Monsters
APA 6 Citation
Gilmore, D. (2012). Monsters ([edition unavailable]). University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc. Retrieved from (Original work published 2012)
Chicago Citation
Gilmore, David. (2012) 2012. Monsters. [Edition unavailable]. University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
Harvard Citation
Gilmore, D. (2012) Monsters. [edition unavailable]. University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Gilmore, David. Monsters. [edition unavailable]. University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc., 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.