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The dragons, mermaids and other monstrous inhabitants of myth and historical world views seem irreconcilably at odds with the blood, bones and chromosomes organisms of modern science. How people, only five hundred years ago, who were able to charter ships that circumnavigated the globe, could believe that there could be birds that never landed, or monstrous Plinian races still existed at the edges of the known world, might seem like a paradox. Likewise, the use of high-tech biological methods by modern cryptozoologists, or our fascination with the apparently monstrous, rare or extinct above the wonderful but familiar creatures we know to exist seem nonsensical.
These outlooks are far less at odds than they appear. Most animals – indeed, most natural things – exist for us between the mythical and the biological. It is very difficult to disentangle our emotive and symbolic valuations of creatures from the objective reality of them. The history of natural history is one of complex relationships with animals, plants and nature: the entanglement of myth and observation, science and art.
The PhD I recently completed dealt with these ideas. In ‘Monstrous Assembly, Constructing Exotic Animals in Early Modern Europe’, I examined the making and use of wonderful novel beasts in natural history and other publication forms from 1550-1750. I used the angelic birds of paradise from the spice-filled east, the pangolin and armadillo from both Indies, the walrus from the frozen Arctic and the bulbous dodo of Mauritius to show how myth and empiricism could be used to make monstrous creatures that were of great cultural value. I am currently turning it into a book. You can find more of my academic writing here.
This blog is a place for discussion of our relationships with animals, nature and monstrosity.