Decoding the morse: the history of sixteenth-century narcoleptic walruses

Cross-posted from the Public Domain Review

“To the far north, on the coast of Norway, there lives a mighty creature, as big as an elephant, called the walrus or ‘morse’, perhaps so named for its sharp bite; for if it glimpses a man on the seashore and can catch him, it jumps on him swiftly, rends him with its teeth, and kills him in an instant”

A woodcut of a four-footed, boar-tusked, thickly-whiskered creature clinging to a cliff-face accompanied this description of the rosmaro or morse in Olaus Magnus’s Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (A History of the Northern Peoples, 1555). The Swedish Ecclesiast had never himself seen such a fearsome beast, but as part of an exercise in the marketing of marvels, the accounts of other respected scholars were, it anything, of rather more value. They certainly allowed Magnus to create a more fantastical product, which could only suit his aims better

Magnus Rosmaro
De Rosmaro’ woodcut from Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (Rome, 1555) by Olaus Magnus.

The de Gentibus built on Magnus’ lavish Carta Marina (1539), one of the first and most spectacular maps of the north to be published. Across the land masses are depicted the strange peoples, unusual creatures and odd land formations Magnus described in his text: hunters spearing bear-like seals on the ice floes and women milking reindeer, whilst fires belch from the cavernous pits of ‘Islandia’ and fierce tribes war with each other across the ice. The seas are filled with ferocious sea beasts disporting themselves, sending great water-spouts into the air, writhing around ships, and playfully mauling one another.

Carta_Marina olaus magnus
The Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus (2nd ed., 1572)

These images were largely the fantastical products of generations of scholarly minds. Magnus wanted to present the North as an impenetrable region of wonders and marvels — flesh-eating Scricfinns, magicians, vast whirlpools, and flaming volcanoes — at the very edge of the known world. Importantly, he wanted to portray wonders that were resonant to an audience in Catholic Southern Europe. He needed support from the church against the threat of Protestantism that encroached from vocal Protestant clerics. Bringing his neglected corner of the world to the attention of the Catholic powers in the South was Magnus’ way of demonstrating that it was a part of God’s realm worth protecting. To do so, he used practical, local information, but, ironically, also based much of his description on classical scholarship and Southern European perceptions of the north. He was re-igniting images of the “septentrional lands” rather than generating them: selling mythologies back to the traditions that had created them.

The morse was one such arctic wonder. Magnus went on to relate how:

“Using their tusks, these animals clamber right up to the cliff-tops, as if they were going up a ladder, in order to crop the sweet, dew-moistened grass, and then roll back down into the sea again, unless, in the meantime, they have been overcome with a heavy drowsiness and fall asleep as they cling to the rocks.”

Hunters would sneak up on the napping behemoths, tie ropes around their tails, and, from a safe distance, wake the animals with a hail of stones. The startled morses, flinging themselves into the ocean to escape, were stripped of their valuable skins, and, weakened by loss of blood, became easy prey for the hunters.

Magnus acquired this image from a long lineage of cliff-top snoozers. The Catholic Bishop, Albertus Magnus had described in his De Animalibus (1250), “hairy whales” with “the longest tusks” by which they “hang from the rocks of cliffs when they sleep”. In order to catch them:

“…a fisherman, coming close, separates as much of its skin as he can from the blubber near its tail. He passes a strong rope through the part he has loosened and he then ties the ropes to rings fixed into a mountain or to very strong stakes or trees. Aroused, the fish, as it tries to escape, draws off its skin from its tail down along its back and head and leaves it behind… it is captured in a weakened state, either swimming bloodless in the water or lying half-alive on the shore…”

In the early sixteenth century, a Polish diplomat, Maciej z Miechowa, had described the “mors” that climbed cliffs with its long teeth and the Scottish historian Hector Boece had described ‘an grete fische’ in the “Orknays” that was bound by the tail while asleep, and died from its wounds while struggling to free itself.

The walrus was a relatively unfamiliar creature in sixteenth-century Europe, despite the fact that walrus parts had been circulating for hundreds of years through trade with Greenland, Iceland, and Russia. The medieval Lewis chessmen, featuring shocked-looking bishops and terrified pawn soldiers gnawing at their shields, were made from walrus tusk during the twelfth century. This trade was reflected in the European names for the walrus. The name, morse, was borrowed from the Russian and Lapp name morsz, whilst the Scandinavians and Dutch used Rosmarus and Walrusch, probably derived from the Old Norse hvalross (hairy whale).

Lewis Chessmen
Four of the Lewis Chessmen, carved out of walrus tusk in the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides (c. AD 1150-1200) (source:

One illustrious piece of walrus to make its way south in the sixteenth century was a head sent to Pope Leo X in 1521 by Bishop Walkendorf of Trondheim. On its journey, it was painted by an artist in an effigy on the wall of Strasbourg town hall, accompanied by a poem:

In Norway they call me “walrus”,

But I am “cetus dentatus”.

My wife is called Balaena.

I am well known in the Eastern Sea

I make mighty thunder in the sea…

To battle and fight is nothing to me,

One finds many thousands of my comrades…

…Had I lived my life to the full

I would not have devoted it to whales.

The bishop of Nidrosia had me stabbed on the shore

The Pope Leo had my head sent

To Rome where many men saw me

This doleful lament from a slain whale-husband, is a rare personification of an animal about which few people in Europe were very certain. In the same year, perhaps this very same walrus head was subject of a sketch by Albrecht Dürer, who was travelling around the Netherlands at the time, making and selling prints and drawings.

Durer Walrus
Head of a Walrus (1521, brown pen and ink), by Albrecht Dürer. (Source: British Museum online)

Tusked amphibious beasts, that may or may not have been based on walruses, existed in various sixteenth-century scholarly works. Some of these harked back to classical authorities: Pliny had described a “sea-elephant”, with which the Arctic beast sometimes became identified. Disentangling circumstantial similarity and actual representation is not easy. The elephant-like “morsus” represented on the world map of Martin Walderseemüller (1516), was most probably the result of such confusing names and a mainland trade of mammoth teeth through Russia.


Waldseemuller Morsus 1516
‘Morsus’, detail from the Carta Marina (1516) by Martin Waldseemüller. [Jay I. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress]
Once Europeans began hunting walruses in the Arctic themselves in the late sixteenth century, however, undeniably walrus-like creatures began to appear in natural histories. This wasn’t a simple process of “discovery” of walruses. Nobody except the hunters who killed walruses on the Arctic ice saw living walruses: carcasses were immediately channeled through the marketplaces of Northern European shores, into apothecary shops, curiosity cabinets and natural histories. Walrus hides were carted off to the tanners, the ivory and bone sent for carving into combs and knife handles, or ground up. The blubber was rendered into soaps, lamp fuel, or cooking oil. Tusks and penis-bones were sometimes gilded, carved, and polished for luxury sales to curiosity collectors.

Apothecaries placed ground-up walrus tusk for sale alongside other exotic and costly medicinal substances: walrus ivory was often billed as possessing similar qualities to “unicorn horn”, a traditional panacea against all poisons. “Unicorn horn” could itself, in reality, be any of a number of powdered, osseous things, from narwhal or walrus tusks to elephant bone. As long as the apothecary was of good repute, nobody would be any the wiser. They certainly weren’t going to be protected from poison, whatever species the powder contained.

Walruses were physically and metaphorically dismantled and reassembled; cut up into transportable parts by hunters and put back together in various guises by scholars, who constructed their very own walrus-creatures from walrus artifacts and older textual accounts. These quasi-mythical images had lives of their own. Magnus’ image of narcoleptic cliff-hangers was particularly long-lived. Parts of walrus images were also broken up and scattered into other depictions. Imposing, walrus-like tusks or bristly manes were featured by many cartographic denizens of treacherous oceans. Elements of the morse were used in depictions of monstrous sea-beasts such as the “sea-pig”, “sea-boar”, “sea-wolf” and “sea-lion” in various books of monstrosity.

There were, in fact, a number of first-hand accounts from hunters published in this period describing the slaying of hundreds of “see-horses” on the Arctic ice, heroic battles with enraged and red-eyed creatures in the waters, followed by the heavy work of flensing (skinning) and dismantling the slain creatures. But very few scholars seemed interested in these kinds of images of what a walrus was, preferring the monsters depicted in more authoritative, erudite accounts. One of the most important was by the prolific Swiss naturalist, Conrad Gessner, in his Historiae Animalium (Vol.IV, 1558). Gessner worked to weave all the material he could find on anything remotely walrusy to construct the most complete account of this creature, including Magnus’ description.

Rosmarus’ woodcut after the Strasbourg Town Hall image, from De Piscium et Aquatilium animatium natura (1558) by Conrad Gessner

Gessner cast a skeptical eye over his sources: he was less than certain of the accuracy of Magnus’ fantastical account, while the finned and four-limbed image from the Strasbourg town hall image was clearly an extrapolation, having been produced from a severed head. The walrus existed only as a scattered set of body parts and imagery, insufficient material for Gessner to determine the creature’s nature, even had he wanted to. Which he probably didn’t. Just like Magnus’ northern wonders, monsters that retained an air of intangible mystery sold rather well to the markets of curious punters. Gessner’s account was exhaustive, but did not provide a definitive “walrus”.

It was only in 1612 that a whole, living walrus was brought to mainland Europe. A walrus pup arrived in Amsterdam, along with the stuffed skin of its mother on a Dutch hunting ship. It was described by Dr Everhard Vorstius of Leiden University, as a “sea-beast…much like a seal” with holes for ears and a bristly beard. This small animal “roared like a boar” and was placed in a barrel of water to relax. He was fed porridge oats, at which he sucked slowly and grunted as he ate. Vorstius finished with the ominous mention that the walrus’ fat was rather “toothsome”.

This porridge-slurping pup was co opted into the roster of morse images in later descriptions, but sat awkwardly with the fierce-toothed behemoths. It certainly did not replace them: they were far too powerful and too resonant with traditional preconceptions of what the Arctic must be like. The walrus remained a nebulous beast from an intangible and wonder-filled north, long after Magnus purported to reveal its secrets.


Walrus, anoniem, 1560 - 1585
‘Walrus’, anon., c.1560-85.

Links to public domain works

Historia de Gentibus septentrionalibus by Olaus Manus (1555). Bk.21, ch.28, pp.757-8.

Historia de Gentibus septentrionalibus by Olaus Magnus (1557). Bk.21, ch.19, pp.491-2.

(For a full English translation, see: Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, by Olaus Magnus. edited and translated by P. Fisher, P. Foote, J. Granlund and H. Higgens (London: Hakluyt Society, 1998))

Tractatus de duabus Sarmatiis, Asiana et Europiana, et de contentis in eis by Mathias De Miechow (1517). Bk.2, tr.2, p.194.

Heir Beginnis the Hystory and Croniklis of Scotland by Hector Boece (1540). Ch.15, pp.50-1.

Historiae Animalium, vol. 4, De Piscium et Aquatilium animatium natura by Conrad Gessner (1604). Bk.4, pp.210-2.


Further Reading

The Rhinoceros and the Megatherium: An Essay in Natural History. (2017, Harvard University Press) by Juan Pimentel

Raising Lazarus: the exoticism of extinction

The promise of the ‘resurrection’ of the mammoth has been causing a stir in recent media. A group of Harvard scientists estimate that in a few years, ‘mammophant’ embryos will be produced, using the genomes of Asian elephants into which sections of mammoth DNA have been spliced. Most commentary has questioned the timeline and moral viability of these projects, rather than why we want to bring extinct animals back or why this one in particular? And why not start with something a bit more manageable, like an extinct amphibian or fish?


We already know how to play jiggsaw with genomes, roll out herds of clones, or store the biosphere’s blueprints in gene banks. What makes the possibility of a living mammoth, or mammoth-elephant chimaera, so intriguing? The Harvard group suggest they might give the Asian elephant a genetic segue in the face of climate change and reinstate a cornerstone of the Tundra ecosystem. But these two reasons seem more fantasy of a regenerated Ice-Age Utopia than practical conservation endeavours.

De-extiction and the rediscovery of creatures thought lost undoubtedly capture our imaginations. Recently-extinct animals, such as the dodo or tasmanian tiger (thylacine) seem to hold a special allure, even over equally-strange, extant creatures. Many people have never heard of a pangolin, despite their bizarre, prehistoric appearances and widespread over-exploitation. Yet everyone would recognise a dodo, a flightless bird that lived on a distant Indian Ocean Island several hundred years ago, extinct just 80 years after it was first encountered.

Why is this? Such animals existed alongside humans, interacted with them, were hunted, eaten, marvelled at – sometimes within living memory- but have vanished. Some took on symbolic roles: in the West, for example, the dodo has become a symbol for greed, lethargy, as well as anthropogenic extinction. Just as important is the fact that rare natural things have always been valuable, whether useful or not. Things that are so rare that they are just out of reach – familiar but now lost – even more so. We often don’t value something until it is gone: footage of the last living Thylacine, ‘Benjamin’, in Beaumaris zoo, gives a haunting glimpse of an animal many would now give anything to encounter. In 1933, however, Benjamin was of so little value that he was left to die in the cold by his keepers, and the body was simply thrown in the dump. The recent stir about potential sightings of thylacines in Australia shows just how much our attitues have changed.

‘Benjamin’, 1933

The biologies of extinct creatures have to be assembled by researchers. Physical remnants, photographs, DNA, recordings, and textual descriptions are all used to build up composite, chimerical images. Self-styled ‘dodologists’, for example, scour historical sources and physical remants to try and piece together the bird’s living reality. Similarly, recent scan analysis of the thylacine brain demonstrated specialised hunting adaptations, adding another layer to the picture formed from the other materials we have about these strange marsupial carnivores.

Resurrection or de-extinction would be the ultimate reconstruction. Such projects may have practical scientific and conservation value, but, arguably, most enticing would be the possibility of direct experience of infinitely rare creatures. This would not be a true resurrection: most extinct genomes are lost for good. But, perhaps the prospect of seeing living, breathing mammoth-alikes is enough. Jurassic Park-style menageries of extinct exotica might be spectacles worth the effort and investment in de-extinction. A ‘mammophant’ would definitely draw enough ecotourists to the Tundra Mammoth Park to merit a gift shop and cafe at the very least.

This might serve a more profound psychological need for us than sheer time-machine voyeurism. Many of the creatures that would be at the top of most people’s ‘de-extinction’ lists were lost because of humans. We have always been catastrophic neighbours for other large beasts: Arctic Stellar’s sea cows, New Zealand Moa, herds of North American bison, to name but a few. The mammoth was probably amongst these victims of human ingenuity. These are spectacular beasts, but perhaps we also feel an obligation reinstate these natural wonders, even if only as tokens.


Europeans voyaging to unknown regions East and West in the sixteenth century hoped to rediscover a lost terrestrial paradise or Eden in exotic locales. Is there something of a similar quest behind de-extinction projects? Are we attempting to save a Fallen global biosphere, decimated and adulterated by human activities, perversely, through the use of human technologies. The illusory control of genetic machinery, the preservation of genetic data, and the potential ability to ‘de-extinct’ lost species might give us hope that the devastation we are causing is not permanent. Do attempts towards the restoration of an anthropogenically-destroyed Eden through resurrection and rewilding offer us the possibility of redemption for what we have done, and continue to do to the planet?

Whether or not we ‘should’ do this is a moot point: the genetic landscape is an amoral one. Reduced to manipulable sequences of letters, genomes can no longer be viewed as pristine ‘natural’ creations. Selective breeding has long allowed humans to ‘play God’ with other species. But, what is at stake is our sense of jeopardy. This sense of loss needs to be directed to where it is most needed: to what is and will be destroyed if we don’t improve our efforts to conserve the globe’s biodiversity.





Disembodied birds: crafting the dodo and the birds of paradise in 17thC natural history

The Exoticorum libri decem (Ten books of exotics) (1605) was one of the first natural history works published in Europe dealing exclusively with novel exotic plants and animals. It was published by the scholar and naturalist Carolus Clusius (1526-1609), professor of botany at Leiden University, who’s extensive network of merchants, scholars, collectors and apothecaries helped him to source wonderful natural objects and information from around the globe.

This book included entries on two very different birds: the dodo, a rotund and flightless bird from the island of Mauritius, and the birds of paradise, spectacularly plumed creatures from the forests of Papua New Guinea. Despite how dissimilar these birds were, they were also both exotic wonders from distant places. Clusius crafted them into just the type of monsters that sold books, adding material even as the book was being published.

Skins and bones

The dodo and birds of paradise had very different physical histories. The birds of paradise reached Spain in 1522 as dried skins prepared by hunters in Papua New Guinea, often without legs or wings. They had been traded across South East Asia for hundreds of years. The beautiful but strange appearance of these plumed skins contributed to the idea in Europe that the birds never landed, but floated perpetually as dew-drinking, angelic entities. They were called Manucodiata in Europe, derived from the Islamic Malay name, Mamuco diuata (birds of God) and became valuable collectors’ items.

Birds of paradise, att. to Conrad Aicher, 1567.

In contrast, the dodo was from a hitherto uninhabited island and therefore not part of any pre-existing trade network. It was rarely brought to Europe as a physical specimen, much less a live animal, but used as a source of provisioning for Dutch ships heading to the Indies in the early seventeenth century. Some feet, skins or heads were found in curiosity collections, while a very few birds might have lived in menageries.

At the time that Clusius wrote about them, the dodo was relatively unknown, first described in a travelogue by first Dutch fleet to land at Mauritius in 1598. The sailors had described many ‘foules twice as bigge as swans, which they called Walghstocks, being very good meat,’ although soon they found they ‘lothsome’ and inedible. There were no scholarly descriptions to speak of, so Clusius could assemble his own.

de Bry the dutch on mauritius

Since their first arrival as legless skins aboard the ships returning to Portugal from Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage around the globe in 1522, the birds of paradise had been the subject of considerable scholarly discussion. The first accounts of them came from Malay tales told to the first European sailors, of the birds’ origins in Paradise and their heavenly nature, which sparked heated debates between scholars.

Sources for absent birds

Clusius had limited access to actual specimens of these birds, so despite his intention to gather first-hand information, he had to overcome the challenge of creating authoritative ‘histories’ of largely absent birds.

Clusius’s task with the birds of paradise was to reconstruct a familiar exotic, to make it his own. The living birds of paradise were unknown outside of New Guinea, and specimens were hard to access. He was frustrated in his attempts to see some new, legged specimens that arrived at Amsterdam in 1601, as they were rapidly sold to a wealthy collector. He was forced to describe the legless specimens owned by his friends. Clusius did, however obtain a letter from the vendor of the Amsterdam specimens describing their ‘unseemly and ugly’ feet.

In contrast, the dodo was largely unknown in Europe until Clusius described it. Clusius was not only staking a claim over this bird, but undertaking its textual genesis. There were very few whole dodo specimens in Europe, and Clusius certainly never saw a whole bird, but used his network of correspondents to secure experience of partial specimens. His colleague owned a ‘leg cut off as far as the knee’ and another collector owned ‘certain stones’ from the dodo’s stomach. Clusius made painstaking descriptions of these objects and used an image based on the journals from the first Dutch landing on Mauritius.

Clusius_dodo copy

Shaping saleable images

Clusius made a standardised ‘type’ of each animal, virtual commodities that had far greater value than the actual specimens of the animals they represented, part of a cache of wonders that fuelled the sales of books and paintings.

Both of these birds had great symbolic value, generated by their construction in natural histories like the Exoticorum. The dodo’s physical form and ‘greedy’ behavior represented the moral ills of gluttony, a resonance shared with other large flightless birds such as the ostrich. It became linked to the imagery of the consumptive Dutch East India enterprise in later natural history works.

The association of the birds of paradise with a heavenly existence in an Eastern Paradise persisted long after Clusius’s publication. The newly terrestrialised birds also gained other symbolic associations: with the increasingly bloody cost of the Dutch monopoly over spice trade came a shift in European perceptions of the East Indies through the sixteenth century. The ‘fabled Southland’ became an ‘infernal Southland.’ The newly legged and sharp-taloned birds of Clusius’s work reflected this shift in perception, as the aerial dew-drinkers became fierce carnivores.

Originally published in another form on Commodity Histories

Clusius kingbird image
King Bird, from the Exoticorum, p.362

Making monsters

Where do monsters come from? They lurk in every dark corner of our minds and culture.

We all encounter them as children, terrified of what might be waiting under the bed; or see gruesome creatures in horror films. We try to show that these things don’t exist: we grow up and see there are none living under the bed; or once the film ends and normality returns, the fear of them passes out of mind.

Likewise, we think that the pushing back of the boundaries of geographical and scientific knowledge over history, has shown most monsters to be fabulous. We assume that the spaces in which they might exist, or the biological possibilities of their existence, have shrunk. But nevertheless, monsters persist. They can be political figures like Middle Eastern dictators, organisations like Monsanto, or organisms we fear such as mosquitoes or GM crops. Even substances like sugar can be made monstrous, that we fear are going to kill us, make us age faster, or worst of all, make us fat.

Really, monsters are whatever we make them. We delight in consuming monsters in media at all ages: there is a big market for new monsters and re-makings of old ones.

Why is this? What is it that monsters still do for us that makes them so popular and so persistent? Yes, monsters scare us, but why do they scare us? We make monsters that highlight our personal and social values by embodying their frightening antitheses, and thereby bolstering these values. This is what makes monsters both terrifying and self-perpetuating: they have powerful effects on audiences, and they can be continually re-imagined for new purposes.

The creature in Ridley Scott’s Alien films has been described as ‘the perfect monster’. But how can a monster be perfect? Surely they are monstrous due to their deviation from idealised social norms. I suggest that a monster seems most monstrous when it inhabits numerous borderlands and simply refuses to be categorised. Scott’s ‘alien’ is at once insect-like, reptilian and mammalian; simultaneously organic and almost machine-like; both living and corpse-like. Monsters cannot be put neatly into any box.

We make monsters because we value their ability to overstep boundaries. We characterise them as uncategorisable forms that are impossible to pin down, so that we can use them to suit different purposes. Monsters are the things we make to help challenge and reinforce the structures of our world views.


Early modern monsters

Looking at how monsters were used historically shows how little has changed in the making of, and functional roles of monsters, even if we believe that we have undoubtedly moved on.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europe was filled with an influx of new peoples, plants, and creatures from distant lands, many of which were made into monsters.

Monsters appeared in all sorts of publications in this period. This included medical monstrosities such as the births of deformed calves or Siamese twins, or monstrous races described by classical authors such as Pliny, like the Sciapodes or Dog-headed men. It also included new things that had been brought to Europe from overseas that were depicted as monstrous, including bizarre animals such as armadillos, possums and sawfish.

Plinian races from Sebastian Munster’s Cosmographia (1544), p.1080.

Monsters could act as portents and omens, signs of Godly wrath, or could be deformed beings that dwelt on the outer edges of the known world. They always inhabited the margins of normality; they were always abnormal ‘others’ as a result of geographical distance or their deviation from accepted norms of appearance and behaviour.

These prolific monsters had long histories and spawned many new monsters. Why was this? For one, early modern monsters sold very well: there was a roaring trade in monstrosity literature and freak-shows.

Conceptually, monsters were frequently used to represent political upheavals or social issues in cheap mass-produced leaflets, similar to today’s newspapers. When social or political boundaries were under contention, monsters embodying these conflicts arose. For example, Protestant clerics used representations of the chimerical Whore of Babylon to make the rival Catholic church look morally debased.

The ‘Whore of Babylon’, 1523 woodcut by Hans Burgkmair for Martin Luther’s New Testament

Further afield, new peoples encountered in colonial locations like the Americas were often deemed to be cannibals, and cannibalism was thought rife amongst exotic ‘primitive’ peoples. Yet, ironically, the only recorded cases of cannibalism are in Europe, especially in the corpse-medicine that was used widely at this time.

So, making exotic monsters was a way of projecting the darker elements of society elsewhere. And in so doing, to reinforce the values held at home. Far from being chaos-creating things, as we might expect, monsters actually helped to create the social and natural boundaries that they seemed to flout.

Something like an armadillo, with scaly carapaces as well as fur and warm blood, seemed to be at once lizard-like and mammalian. It could be interpreted as a monstrous hybrid cross between a tortoise and a hedgehog. It highlighted the accepted distinctions between these kinds of animals, rather than blurring the boundaries.

Similarly, a human born with extra limbs, joined to another person or being of extraordinary size, highlighted what it was to be a ‘normal’ human. Monsters were notable exceptions to rules. Transgressing the boundaries in the natural order, they reinforced what that order was meant to be.

Modern monsters?

Today, in the West, our definition of ‘normal’ humanity is much more inclusive. We are far more likely consider people who try to exclude different groups as monsters. Take for example, the recent criticism of Filipino boxing champion Manny Pacquiao for his homophobic comments.

We look back and feel like we have dismantled historical monsters and made them obsolete. We have filled in the gaps on maps where they used to exist. We’ve incorporated strange creatures into taxonomies, and medically explained monstrous births. We have naturalised them, and thereby neutralised them.

Yet, monsters have a way of forever re-emerging. They still percolate through our culture. We watch films and read books with monsters in them, and the reported media also makes figurative monsters for us to fear or revile. These are all kinds of fictions. They might be entirely fabulous, like cinematic monsters. Or they might be heavily distorted views of reality, like the portrayals of people that become publicly vilified for some perceived breach of social boundaries.

One example of this was the media-lynching of the dentist Walter Palmer, who killed ‘Cyril the Lion’ in 2015. He not only lost his career but received death threats, so strong was the social backlash against what he had done, and so vehemently did certain individuals feel that he embodied some evil to be obliterated. Indeed, he remained under scrutiny.


This ‘monsterification’ is certainly not limited to human figures: we still make different organisms into monsters. Just as in the past, we still tend to see animals and plants through a lens of moral and anthropomorphic attributes.

One of the clearest examples of this is the resistance to genetically modified organisms. No only the plants or animals themselves, but those doing research on and marketing them, are vilified by some groups. This is on the grounds of percieved health, ecological and moral threats, despite the much-needed benefits that such breeds could offer. These are mosters of our own making, both literally and figuratively.

Excising monsters

So what are these monsters used for? Arguably they still perform similar functions to those that they have done historically. In all of these examples, monsters exist on the boundaries between reality and fiction: they contain just enough realism to frighten us. A monster with no recognisable features would not be scary, nor would it serve any other purpose.

The most pervasive figures in Gothic literature, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, act as distorted mirror-images to the protagonists. They are inextricably linked to us, the readers, and we come to realise that we are afraid of them because they show us elements of ourselves we would rather not encounter.

One of the central functions of monsters is to represent the darker parts of our society or our own minds. We make our own monsters, not simply in order to be scared by them, but because they embody the elements of ourselves that we wish to deny or defend against, as individuals or collectively.

Psychoanalytic theory has a great deal to say on these kinds of monsters, essentially suggesting that they are projections of parts of our own psyches. This process of projection allows us to symbolically rid ourselves of these parts. The monster is killed, banished or destroyed, and thus the inner evil expelled. Dracula is vanquished; the lion-murdering Dentist is hounded out of social and professional circles; just as seventeenth-century exotic ‘cannibal natives’ were civilised and Christianised. Evil is externalised and excised.

Monstrous Boundaries

By acting as scapegoats for our own darker elements, monsters also allow us to define boundaries within our society. We make monsters out of individuals or groups who seem to transgress moral and social rules. In this way, monsters act to help us negotiate these rules, even as they appear to disrupt them.

The political history of all kinds of minority groups: racial, medical and sexual; offer plentiful examples of the flux of social identities. They have all been invariably stereotyped at some stage as ‘other’, and imbued with all kinds of negative qualities at some point, often used as justification for persecution.

This making of groups into monsters involves a tension between exclusion and acceptance. The debate over Islamic refugees has resulted in monsters on both sides: both images of Islamic terrorists trying to infiltrate Europe and destroy it from within; and right-wing Nazis trying to deny refugees a home and a future on the basis of their race and religion. The fate of such ‘monstrous’ figures depends on where the social boundaries, and indeed the porosity of our national borders, are fixed.

The taxonomic boundaries that seem so concrete in science can still produce monsters too. In-between forms, like Scott’s ‘Alien’ are certainly unnerving.  Likewise, apparently uncategorisable creatures like velvet worms or egg-laying echidnas undoubtedly still fascinate people. Beasts crossing the categories with which we have divided the natural world serve as monsters that help us to redefine these rules as well.


Our monsters say a great deal about us as individuals and as a society. A clue to this lies in the etymology of ‘monster’, which comes via a Latin root, monstrare, ‘to demonstrate’, and monere, ‘to warn’. In the early modern period, these terms referred to the revelation of divine messages or designs. Modern social or psychological monsters are, rather, demonstrative. Instead of disrupting cultures and psyches, they reveal their internal workings.

Monsters blur the boundaries between the internal and external; excluded and included; the self and other. In Alien, new creatures spring from the bodies of parasitised humans; vampires immortalise their prey; and Isalmic extremists brainwash new recruits within our own society. Monsters frighten us because they cannot be escaped, and in fact, because we sometimes need them.

Based on a TEDX talk I gave in March 2016


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