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

Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0322-6
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    (pp. 1-10)

    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...

    (pp. 11-22)

    In the study of culture and folklore monsters come to our attention most often as enemies of culture heroes in the various ethnic traditions, both past and present. Mythologists like Joseph Campbell and others (Gould 1969; Holiday 1973; D. Cohen 1970, 1982) have written much about the theme of the Epic Hero who goes out to fight monsters in order to rescue maidens or to save society as a whole. At various times, Campbell writes about the recurrent archetype of both the hero figure and the monster in the world’s cultures. He points out that the figure of the monster-tyrant...

  6. 3 MONSTERS IN THE WEST, I: The Ancient World
    (pp. 23-46)

    Monster lore in the West shows change and flux from the earliest times, as one would expect, but there is also continuity under the surface. By West I mean the European-derived traditions including those of the Americas: what is commonly referred to as the Occident. For current purposes, however, I will include the Middle East, for this is the cradle of the Judeo-Christian tradition from which much of Western mythology derives.

    From its earliest stirrings in the archaic cultures of Europe and the Middle East, an “innate awe of the monster” (Wittkower 1942: 197) shines forth like a beacon in...

  7. 4 MONSTERS IN THE WEST, II: The Christian Era
    (pp. 47-74)

    We saw that the ancients regarded their monsters as closely—if paradoxically—related to notions of divinity. Like the Babylonian Tiamat and the Egyptian Apophis, the terrible beasts of the early civilizations predate not only humankind but also the very gods, encompassing within their deformed bodies an unformed universe. Or else, as in the case of the Cyclops, the Minotaur, and the Harpies in Greek mythology, they are begotten by gods gratuitously, or to bedevil or to instruct humans, or else as divine challenges for mortal heroes like Odysseus. With the advent of Christianity, these attitudes underwent subtle shifts in...

  8. 5 WINDIGO: Monster of the North
    (pp. 75-90)

    Many are the monsters that haunt the woods of North America, but none is more terrible than the Windigo—the very incarnation of terror. A fixture of native American folklore since aboriginal days, the Windigo (also transliterated Wendigo, Witiko, Wiitko, Wetikoo, etc., all stemming from roots meaning the one who lives alone, hermit) lurks in the forested backlands throughout central Canada. When this lonesome creature gets hungry for human flesh, which is often, it crashes through the forests, uprooting trees, stampeding game, and setting off whirlwinds. Within its hideous, malformed body, there beats not a flesh-and-blood heart but a pitiless...

    (pp. 91-114)

    The Windigo is pretty much localized to the Algonquian-speaking tribes of central Canada—a few thousand souls in all. Anthropological evidence indicates that the neighboring peoples did not borrow or reinvent the Windigo per se in their belief repertory. For example, the closest neighbors of the Algonquians, the Arctic Eskimo (Inuit) to the north and the Athabaskans on the Pacific Coast in British Columbia to the west, have no cannibal monster called by any of the cognate terms that may be transliterated Windigo.

    This difference in the mythological repertory of these neighboring tribes has cast some doubt on the conventional...

    (pp. 115-134)

    We spoke earlier of a “combat-myth” that underlies many early state religions and serves as a basic cosmological principle. In these myths, a hero goes forth to challenge a beast that holds the world in thrall. The Egyptian Seth and Babylonian Marduk are among the earliest examples of monster-defying champions, defeating the terrible Apophis and Tiamat respectively. By destroying these tyrants, the hero ends human subjugation, liberating people from darkness and promulgating civilization. Central to the great traditions, the archetypal combat-myth instructs that only after vanquishing monsters can people achieve control over themselves and over nature. The hero’s victory signals...

    (pp. 135-154)

    All the great civilizations boast grandiose monster repertories in their folklore and art, and especially in the myths that explain the world and humanity’s place in it. Preliterate cultures are no less rich in monster mythology in their oral traditions. But none of the world’s cultures—preindustrial, industrial, or postindustrial—have richer or more diverse monster imagery than Japan, the land of the behemoth known to all schoolchildren as Godzilla.

    Terence Barrow, a Western scholar impressed with the variety of traditional Japanese “grotesqueries,” argues that Japanese culture is “unprecedented” in the diversity of its demonic iconography. He provides the text...

    (pp. 155-173)

    We have already encountered ritual monsters, by which I mean scary effigies or statues used in public festivities: figures of a horrible mien that are brought out to frighten or to instruct people, that is, ceremonial paraphernalia. Such would include the hideous masks the Sri Lankans use to exorcize devils and the colorful Kachina costumes the Hopi use to frighten neophytes during initiations. The ubiquity of such rite fright shows that the awful visions of the mind are wont to take concrete form and to engage with humans under controlled circumstances.

    We have seen that since prehistoric times the monster’s...

    (pp. 174-194)

    Now that we have now looked at monsters in every corner of the world and seen their horrible shapes and depredations in all sorts of contexts—fantasy, mythology, oral folklore, rituals, and both primitive and modern art—what can we say about their commonalities? What do all these terrible figments have in common? And what might such convergences say about the human mind that makes up such horrors everywhere in the world and at all times in history? Let us return to our original hypotheses and see how the data support our premises.

    The first attribute that stands out is...

    (pp. 195-204)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 205-210)