Sacred Texts  Legendary Creatures  Symbolism  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art, by John Vinycomb, [1909], at

p. 1


"Angels and ministers of grace defend us."—"Hamlet."

THE human mind has a passionate longing for knowledge even of things past comprehension. Where it cannot know, it will imagine; what the mind conceives it will attempt to define. Are facts wanting, poetry steps in, and myth and song supply the void; cave and forest, mountain and valley, lake and river, are theatres peopled by fancy, and

             "as imagination bodies forth
 The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
 Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
 A local habitation and a name."

Traditions of unreal beings inhabit the air, and will not vanish be they ever so sternly commanded; from the misty records of antiquity and the relics of past greatness as seen sculptured in stupendous ruins on the banks of the Nile and the plains of Assyria, strange shapes look with their mute stony eyes upon a world that knows them but imperfectly, and

p. 2

vainly attempts to unriddle the unfathomable mystery of their being. Western nations, with their growing civilisations, conjured up monsters of benign or baneful influence, or engrafted and expanded the older ideas in a manner suited to their genius and national characteristics.

The creatures of the imagination, "Gorgons and Hydras and Chimeras dire," shapes lovely and shapes terrible begot of unreason in the credulous minds of the imaginative, the timid and the superstitious,—or dreamy poetic fancies of fairies and elves of whom poets sing so sweetly:

"Shapes from the invisible world unearthly singing
 From out the middle air, from flowery nests
 And from the pillowy silkiness that rests
 Full in the speculation of the stars,—"

                   "or fairy elves,
 Whose midnight revels, by the forest side
 Or fountain, some belated peasant sees,
 Or dreams he sees,—"
                 Milton, Paradise Lost, Book i.

the nameless dreads and horrors of the unknown powers of darkness, the pestiferous inhabitants of wastes and desert places where loneliness reigns supreme, and imaginary terrors assault the traveller on every hand, assuming forms more various and more to be dreaded than aught of mortal birth,—such vague and indefinable ideas, "legends fed by

p. 3

time and chance," like rumours in the air, in the course of time assume tangible shape, receiving definite expression by the poet and artist until they become fixed in the popular mind as stern realities influencing the thoughts and habits of millions of people through successive generations. We see them in the rude fetish of the South Sea Islander, the myriad gods and monsters of heathen mythology, as well as in the superstitions of mediæval Europe, of which last the devil with horned brow, cloven hoofs and forked tail is the most "unreal mockery" of them all. The days of Diabolism and the old witch creed are, however, passed away; but under the dominance of these ideas during centuries, in Protestant and Catholic lands alike, hundreds of thousands of innocent victims of all ages and both sexes were accused of the most absurd and impossible crimes, and subjected to almost inconceivable torture and death.

The dying Christian about to pass through the valley of the shadow of death, in the words of the poet, expresses his faith in the nearness of the spirit world:

"I see a form ye cannot see
 I hear a voice ye cannot hear."

To the spiritually minded other forms, with more of the beautiful and less of the hideous and frightful, revealed themselves; the solitary recluse, his body and mind reduced to an unnatural condition by fasting and penance, in mental hallucination beheld his

p. 4

celestial visitants with awe and adoration, and saw in visions angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim towering in a blaze of glory to illimitable height and extremest space. The rapt seraph and the whole angelic host of heaven to his ecstatic gaze was a revelation and a reality as tangible as were the powers of darkness seen and felt by more sordid natures, incapable of the higher conceptions, and whose minds were accessible chiefly through their terrors.

To classic fable we are indebted for very many of the fictitious animals which heralds have introduced into coats armorial. In all ages man has sought to explain by myths certain phenomena of nature which he has been unable to account for in a more rational manner. Earthquakes were the awakening of the earth tortoise which carried the earth on its back; the tides were the pulses of the ocean; lightning was the breath of demons, the thunderbolt of Jupiter, the hammer of Thor; volcanoes were the forges of the infernal deities. In the old Norse legends we read of waterspouts being looked upon as sea serpents, and wonderful stories are related of their power and influence. The Chinese imagine eclipses to be caused by great dragons which seek to devour the sun. Innumerable beliefs cluster round the sun, moon, and stars. We may trace from our own language the extent of power which these peculiar beliefs have had over the human mind. We still speak of mad people as lunatics, gloomy people as saturnine, sprightly people we term mercurial; we say, "Ill-star’d event,"

p. 5

[paragraph continues] &c. &c. The ships of the early navigators, with masts and sails and other requisites for directing their motion or influencing their speed, would be objects of astonishment to the inhabitants of the countries they visited, causing them to be received with the utmost respect and veneration. The ship was taken for a living animal, and hence originated, some say, the fables of winged dragons, griffons, flying citadels, and men transformed into birds and fishes. The winged Pegasus was nothing but a ship with sails and hence was said to be the offspring of Neptune.

"In reality," says Southey, in his preface to the "Morte d’Arthur," vol. ii. 1817, "mythological and romantic tales are current among all savages of whom we have any full account; for man has his intellectual as well as his bodily appetite, and these things are the food of his imagination and faith. They are found wherever there is language and discourse of reason; in other words, wherever there is man. And in similar states of society the fictions of different people will bear a corresponding resemblance, notwithstanding the differences of time and scene." And Sir Walter Scott, in his "Essay on Romance and Chivalry," following up the same idea, adds, "that the usual appearances and productions of nature offer to the fancy, in every part of the world, the same means of diversifying fictitious narrative by the introduction of prodigies. If in any romance we encounter the description of an elephant, we may reasonably conclude that a phenomenon unknown in Europe must

p. 6

have been borrowed from the East; but whoever has seen a serpent and a bird may easily aggravate the terrors of the former by conferring on a fictitious monster the wings of the latter; and whoever has seen or heard of a wolf, or lion and an eagle, may, by a similar exercise of invention, imagine a griffon or a hippogriff."

Beyond the common experiences of every-day life the popular mind everywhere cares very little about simple commonplace practical truths. Human nature seems to crave mystery, to be fond of riddles and the marvellous, and doubtless it was ever so and provided for in all the old faiths of the world.

"The multitude of dragons, diverse as they are, reflecting the fears and fancies of the most different races, it is more than probable is a relic of the early serpent-worship which, according to Mr. Fergusson, is of such remote antiquity that the religion of the Jews was modern in comparison, the curse laid on the serpent being, in fact, levelled at the ancient superstition which it was intended to supersede. Notwithstanding the various forms under which we find the old dragon he ever retains something of the serpent about him, if no more than the scales. In the mediæval devil, too, the tail reveals his descent." (Louis F. Day.)

The fictitious beings used as symbols in heraldry may be divided into two classes: (1) Celestial beings mentioned in Holy Writ, and those creatures of the imagination which, from the earliest ages, have held

p. 7

possession of men's minds, profound symbols unlike anything in the heavens or in the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth. They may be abstract ideas embodied in tangible shape, such as the terrible creature, the type of some divine quality, that stands calm, immovable, and imperishable within the walls of our National Museum; such forms as the dragon, of the purely imaginative class, and those creatures compounded of parts of different real animals, yet unlike any one of them, each possessing special symbolic attributes, according to the traditional ideas held concerning them. (2) Animals purely heraldic, such as the heraldic tiger, panther incensed, heraldic antelope, &c., owe their origin and significance to other ideas, and must be accounted for on other grounds, namely, the mistaken ideas resulting from imperfect knowledge of these objects in natural history by early writers and herald painters, to whom they were no doubt real animals with natural qualities, and, as such, according to their knowledge, they depicted them; and although more light has been thrown upon the study of natural history since their time, and many of their conceptions have been proved to be erroneous, the well-known heraldic shapes of many of these lusus naturæ are still retained in modern armory. These animals were such as they could have little chance of seeing, and they probably accepted their descriptions from "travellers’ tales," always full of the marvellous—and the misleading histories of still earlier writers.

p. 8

[paragraph continues] Pliny and many of the writers of his day describe certain animals in a way that appears the absurdest fable; even the lion described by him is in some points most unnatural. Xenophon, for instance, describing a boar hunt, gravely tells us: "So hot are the boar's tusks when he is just dead that if a person lays hairs upon them the hairs will shrivel up; and when the boar is alive they—that is, the tusks—are actually red hot when he is irritated, for otherwise he would not singe the tips of the dogs’ hair when he misses a blow at their bodies." The salamander in flames, of frequent occurrence in heraldry, is of this class. Like the toad, "ugly and venomous," the salamander was regarded by the ancients with the utmost horror and aversion. It was accredited with wondrous qualities, and the very sight of it "abominable and fearful to behold." Elian, Nicander, Dioscorides and Pliny all agree in that it possessed the power of immediately extinguishing any fire into which it was put, and that it would even rush at or charge the flame, which it well knew how to extinguish. It was believed that its bite was certainly mortal, that anything touched by its saliva became poisonous, nay, that if it crept over a tree all the fruit became deleterious. Even Bacon believed in it. Quoth he: "The salamander liveth in the fire and hath the power to extinguish it." There is, too, a lingering popular belief that if a fire has been burning for seven years there will be a salamander produced from it. Such is the monstrous character given to

p. 9

one of the most harmless of little creatures: the only basis of truth for all this superstructure of fable is the fact that it exudes an acrid watery humour from its skin when alarmed or in pain.

Spenser, in the "Fairy Queen," Book 1, cant. v. 18, according to the mistaken notions of his time, compares the dangerous dissimulation and treacherous tears of Duessa (or Falsehood) to the crocodile:

"As when a weary traveller that strays
 By muddy shore of broad seven-mouthed Nile,
 Unweeting of the perilous wand’ring ways,
 Doth meet a cruel, crafty crocodile,
 Which in false guise hiding his harmful guile,
 Doth weep full sore, and shedding tender tears;
 The foolish man, that pities all the while
 His mournful plight, is swallowed unawares
 Forgetful of his own that minds another's cares."

[paragraph continues] And Shakespeare, 2 Henry VI. iii. 1:

             "as the mournful crocodile
 With sorrow snares relenting passengers."

[paragraph continues] Quarles, too, in his "Emblems":

"O what a crocodilian world is this,
 Compos’d of treach’ries and insnaring wiles!"

Bossewell, an heraldic writer of the sixteenth century, after the model of his forerunner, Gerard Leigh, edified his readers with comments on natural history in such a delightful manner (according to his friend Roscarrocke) as to provoke the envy of Pliny in

p. 10

[paragraph continues] Elysium, though now these descriptions in many instances only serve to call up a smile from their very absurdity. With "veracious" histories of this description, is it to be wondered at that such beings as those referred to were made use of in heraldry and accepted as types or emblems of some particular quality in man? As an instance of how an error in the form of an animal may be perpetuated unperceived, it may be mentioned that even in the best books on heraldry, natural history, and in other illustrated publications, the elephant is rarely to be seen correctly delineated. A peculiarity in his formation is that the hind legs bend in the same manner as the fore legs, so that, unlike other quadrupeds, it can kneel and rest on its four knees, whereas it is usually depicted with the hind legs to bend in the same way as those of the horse or the cow. When artists and herald-painters continue to commit this blunder unobserved, some palliation may be afforded to the old heralds for their offences against zoology in the errors and delusions arising from lack of information. They could have little opportunity of acquiring a correct knowledge of the rarer kinds of animals; they had not the advantage of seeing menageries of wild beasts, or of consulting books on natural history with excellent illustrations, as the modern herald may do. Only when their scanty information fell short did they venture to draw on their imaginations for their beasts, after the manner of an ancient worthy, who "where

p. 11

the lion's skin fell short, eked it out with the fox's."

Some writers, however, maintain that these monstrosities are not so much the result of ignorance of the real forms of the beasts as that they were intended to typify certain extraordinary qualities, and therefore exaggeration of the natural shapes and functions was needful to express such qualities. This may be true in some instances. Under this idea the noble form of the lion may have been distorted to resemble the wild cat in the fury of its contortions. The Panther incensed, breathing fire and smoke out of its mouth, nose and ears, seems as if taken from some misleading history—like that of the boar, by Xenophon, already referred to—or the result of the erroneous description of some terrified traveller. This is a natural and probable mode of accounting for its unnatural appearance. It may, however, fairly be said that the natural ferocity of the brute, and also its destructive qualities, are most fitly typified by the devouring flame issuing from the head of this bloodthirsty and treacherous beast of prey.

The Heraldic Pelican, again, is evidently a mistake of the early artists, similar to the heraldic tiger, heraldic antelope, &c., and the persistent following of the traditional "pattern" by the heralds when once established. Early Christian painters always represented this emblem of devoted self-sacrifice, A Pelican in her piety—that is, feeding her young with her own blood—as having the head and beak of an eagle

p. 12

or bird of prey such as they must have believed it to possess, and with which it would be possible that it could lacerate its own breast; and not with the clumsy and ungainly "bill" peculiar to this species of bird, which we know is more suited to gobble up small reptiles than to "vulning" itself.

Some symbols, again, are neither real nor do they pretend to be fabulous, such as the two-headed eagle, but are pure heraldic inventions that have each their special signification. The tricorporate lion lays no claim to be other than the symbol of a powerful triune body under one guiding head; the three legs conjoined—the arms of the Isle of Man—is an old Greek sign for expedition. Many other instances will, no doubt, occur to the reader of similar emblems of this class.

Next: Introduction