Marina Warner is a Distinguished Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, Professor of English and Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London, and President of the Royal Society of Literature. Her books include Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale, and Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights. A memoir of her childhood in Cairo, Inventory of a Life Mislaid, will be published next spring. (July 2020)



Eglon van der Neer: Circe Punishes Glaucus by Turning Scylla into a Monster, 1695

Drawing Down the Moon: Magic in the Ancient Greco-Roman World

by Radcliffe G. Edmonds III
The enchantress Circe, who could turn men into beasts with a wave of her wand—her rhabdos—wouldn’t be puzzled by the magical paraphernalia on sale today in Oxford, where pilgrims to the film locations of Harry Potter can choose from any number of wands or take home a stuffed messenger owl …

Holy Shape-Shifters

A fresco showing lares, or local household gods, from a shrine in Pompeii, circa first century AD

The Dancing Lares and the Serpent in the Garden: Religion at the Roman Street Corner

by Harriet I. Flower

Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion

by Jörg Rüpke, translated from the German by David M.B. Richardson
Without a holy book to restrain it, Roman polytheism tended to promiscuous hospitality: a profusion of gods, goddesses, nymphs, divine heroes, and abstract virtues appeared and disappeared; faith remained inventive, untroubled by questions of authenticity; distinctions among deities, supernatural powers, personifications, and allegories were casual. Foreign gods—Isis and Serapis from …

Legends of the Fall

‘Satan Watching the Caresses of Adam and Eve’; illustration by William Blake for John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 1808

The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve

by Stephen Greenblatt
In 1872, when the brilliant young Assyriologist George Smith found a cuneiform tablet in the British Museum inscribed with part of the story of the Flood, he became so excited that he began undressing, though the comparative literature scholar David Damrosch thinks that he might have been merely loosening his …

Rescuing Wonderful Shivery Tales

‘The Frog King’; illustration by Andrea Dezsö from The Complete First Edition: The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

The Complete First Edition: The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, translated from the German and edited by Jack Zipes, and illustrated by Andrea Dezsö

Grimm Legacies: The Magic Spell of the Grimms’ Folk and Fairy Tales

by Jack Zipes
The metaphors the Grimms used to describe their work are messianic and ecological: they believed they were saving authentic popular German culture, an endangered species.

Here Be Monsters

A sea monster from the ‘Carta Marina,’ the map of Scandinavia and Iceland produced  between 1527 and 1539 by Olaus Magnus, the archbishop of Uppsala, after his exile to Danzig

Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps

by Chet Van Duzer

Sea Monsters: A Voyage Around the World’s Most Beguiling Map

by Joseph Nigg
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.


‘The Book of Miracles’

Monstrous Birth from The Book of Miracles

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.

Maps and Monsters

A haunting humanoid sea monster; from Urbano Monte's manuscript atlas, 1590

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.