Marina Warner’s studies of religion, mythology, and fairy tales include Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, From the Beast to the Blonde, and No Go the Bogeyman. In 2013 she co-edited Scheherazade’s Children: Global Encounters with the Arabian Nights. A Fellow of the British Academy, she is also a professor in the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex. Her most recent book is Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale. She was awarded the Holberg Prize by the government of Norway in 2015.
In the sixteenth century, a new focus on reading the Bible led to a resurgence of interest in stories of direct divine intervention, and Protestant Europe saw a “boom” in compendia of miracles, among them The Book of Miracles, a luxury manuscript produced in the Imperial City of Augsburg and only recently rediscovered.
If animals are not only bons à manger but also bons à penser (good to eat, good to think with), according to the celebrated dictum of Claude Lévi-Strauss, then monsters, while perhaps less inviting to the palate, make even better food for thought. Themselves the direct and fanciful products of attempts to understand phenomena, they appear in a wonderful variety of forms on the maps drawn up by medieval and Renaissance cartographers, as Joseph Nigg and Chet van Duzer show in two resplendently illustrated and thoughtful recent studies. Scylla and Charybdis, sea serpents and pristers offer a range of explanations for natural phenomena, such as whirlpools and reefs; indeed the abundant stories that Homer and Ovid tell draw up a wonderful narrative geography as much as a mythical history.
Monsters still fascinate precisely because they express what might lie beyond the light of common day. And as in the case of Goya’s dream of reason, the fear and awe monsters inspire can’t entirely be dispelled by enlightened investigations, neither in the past nor today. The ocean swirls in a condition of mythopoeic duality: it is there, it covers two thirds of the world, it is navigable and palpable and visible, but at the same time, unfathomable, stretching down in lightless space and into the backward abysm of time where every fantasy can be incubated.