Table of Contents
Fabulous beasts are found on many types of object. They are not common in the early-medieval world, but develop in the medieval period when they are also found in bestiaries (books with descriptions and pictures of real and mythical beasts). They also occur in Greek and Roman myths, and are much used in heraldry.
Here is a list of the most common fabulous and mythical beasts that you are likely to come across, together with some hybrids and grotesques. At the top are the well-defined types. The taxonomy of these is not exact – people have disagreed since medieval times about the precise definitions – but as long as we use the same terms, we’ll be able to retrieve all the examples that the PAS has recorded.
At the bottom is a list of some names for the more poorly-defined or unusual animals, and also a list of some real animals that you may find on medieval objects.
It is essential to describe the animal as well as naming it. So if your object has a dragon on it, go on to say that it has four legs and two wings (or that only two of the four legs can be seen, etc). Otherwise you will find that what you felt was a harpy has been interpreted by someone else as a seraph.
A dragon is normally defined as a reptile-like creature with four legs and two wings. For two-legged dragons, see Wyvern (below). For something with four legs and two wings that is not reptile-like (especially if it has long ears) see Griffin (below).
The Latin word draco (from the Greek drakon) meant any great serpent, and so the term ‘dragon’ is used loosely by Romanists; neither legs nor wings are necessary to identify a monster as a dragon. Dragonesque brooches are supposed to have terminals in the shape of a stylised dragon’s head.
Although dragons existed in Anglo-Saxon and Viking-age mythology (notably in Beowulf, where the words used include draca and wyrm), they do not appear to be recognisably depicted as such in early-medieval art. Fabulous beasts do not appear to have been classified in as rigorous a way as they were later in the medieval period, and on the PAS database we simply describe the animal we can see.
The dragon is the commonest mythical creature in the medieval world. It is normally shown as a reptile-like creature with four legs and two wings. The tail is often curled right over into a loop
Dragons often appear in medieval stories as the foe of St George or St Michael. These two saints can usually be told apart because St Michael has wings and a halo (he is an angel) but St George does not. St George is often shown riding a horse.
Another common story involving a dragon is that of Margaret of Antioch. This unpleasant tale has many variants, but essentially Margaret escaped after having been swallowed by a dragon. She is generally shown with a cross.
The dragons shown with saints often do not have the standard features (four legs, two wings, reptile-like), but you can identify them as dragons because they are with their saints.
A wyvern looks like a dragon (i.e. reptilian), but it has only two legs. With two legs and two wings, they can look rather like birds, but their long tails, often curled into a circle like dragons’ tails, can give them away. They also should have reptilian heads, with jaws instead of a beak. Many animals currently recorded as ‘dragon’ on the PAS database are in fact wyverns.
A hybrid of a lion and eagle. It normally has the body, tail, and back legs of a lion; the head and wings of an eagle; and an eagle’s talons as its front feet. It can also have long ears, and the ears are how you recognise a griffin from its head only.
Griffin has two alternative spellings that you may see elsewhere, ‘griffon’ and ‘gryphon’. We only use ‘griffin’ on the PAS database, to allow easy searches.
The commonest place to find a Roman griffin is on a razor handle. Note the long ears projecting from the top of the head, which distinguish the griffin’s head from a bird’s head.
Occasionally griffins can be found elsewhere….
It can be hard to distinguish griffins from dragons, as both have four legs and wings. The griffin has a lion’s body and eagle’s head, and the dragon has a reptile’s head and body, but the details need to be clearly shown to be certain which one you are looking at. Long legs and long ears probably indicate a griffin. If in doubt, use both words.
You may not think that a lion belongs in the category of fantastic and mythical beasts, but this was not necessarily clear in medieval England. Lions in medieval art, unsurprisingly, do not look very realistic, but they do have certain identifying features: the tail ends in a tuft, and the neck is decorated to represent a mane. Contrast these with the more naturalistic lions produced in the Roman world.
Heraldic lions are a little different in that they do not always have a mane. You can often identify them by their distinctive posture (e.g. rampant, passant guardant, sejant, etc). See How to Describe Objects with Heraldic Decoration for more details.
You may find a heraldic lion passant guardant referred to as a ‘leopard’, but this usage is now outdated and should not be followed.
Technically a sphinx has the body of a lion and the head of a human, and sometimes wings. Although the Egyptian sphinx has taken over our imagination, most sphinxes do not have its characteristic pose. The sphinx is not used much in medieval art, so most of our examples will be Roman (especially on coins) or modern.
A harpy is a bird (normally an eagle) with a human neck and head. They are almost always female. The plural is harpies.
A centaur is a human-animal hybrid with the upper body of a man and the lower body (with all four legs) of a horse.
A mermaid is a human/animal hybrid with the upper body of a woman and the lower body and tail of a fish. The male equivalent (not often found) is a merman.
There are many other forms of human-animal hybrids, not all of which have names. Using the word ‘hybrid’ will help in searching. The term ‘gryllus’ is often used for a monster with a human face and an animal’s body. It can be a useful word, but remember that a gryllus comes in many forms and must be clearly described.
Other mythical beasts: yale, centicore, manticore, basilisk and others
There is no agreed definition for these and many other fabulous and fantastic beasts. You can use the words, but do be careful to explain what you mean by them and to describe the animal or hybrid precisely.
Real beasts commonly found in medieval art
Other animals you might find on medieval objects include hares and hounds, monkeys or apes, and squirrels.