For much of human history, the fantastical beings from myth and legend were as much a part of people’s lives as the sheep, blackbirds and spiders which also shared their world.
Around 2,000 years ago, a Roman writer called Pliny the Elder, who seems to have been the David Attenborough of his day, wrote a long book describing all the creatures of the Earth. Some he had seen with his own eyes; others he found out about by reading what earlier writers had said. It didn’t matter to him whether he’d actually seen them or not. This was long before the time of the empirical scientists, remember, so observation wasn’t nearly as important as imagination. He believed totally in all of the creatures he heard of and wrote about.
Over a thousand years later, scribes were still faithfully recording and referring to the creatures and beings Pliny had described. If you ever get the chance to visit the city of Hereford, near the border between England and Wales, pop into the cathedral to take a look at the Mappa Mundi. It’s the medieval equivalent of Wikipedia and gives a brilliant insight into the way people’s creation worked in those days. It’s drawn on to a single piece of calfskin, but manages to include a very graphic pictorial account of the day of judgement; a map of the world; a guide to all the main abbeys and cathedrals of the time (it was drawn by a monk, naturally); a short history of the world, and drawings and descriptions of the races and creatures who inhabited it. These things jumble together in a glorious mix of what we would now call fact and fiction. The author of the map, though, makes no such distinction. For him and the people who lived at that time, all these things were aspects of reality. Time exists all at once on the map and even space is only hinted at.
If you stay close to where he has drawn the Mediterranean, the creatures are mostly familiar. Stray out towards the edges of the map, though, and you’ll discover the Blemyes – headless beings with faces on their chests. Rubbing shoulders with a rhinoceros are a centaur and a unicorn. In the desert there is the Race with Protruding Lip, this lip being used as a handy sunshade to protect them from the relentless heat. There are dragons to the south and Dog-Headed Men in the Arctic. Many of these beings are taken directly from Pliny’s descriptions – no questions asked; none needed.
We might ask why belief in these wacky creatures kept going for well over a thousand years. These days, we tend not to believe in dragons or mermaids, let alone the grotesque human mutations shown on the Mappa Mundi. The ‘Enlightenment’, with all its scientific methods and observation saw to that. We have grown up believing only in what we see with our own eyes. Before science held sway, though, there was no need to think that way. The Hereford map shows us a world where all beliefs and all earthly places and times snuggle up together quite comfortably. Admittedly it’s rather squashed, but it’s all there.
We think of our ancestors as being rather daft and gullible for believing in those monsters, don’t we? You wouldn’t catch us putting off a holiday in Scandinavia for fear of running into those dog-headed men – unless we’d seen footage of them on a scientific documentary, of course.
Now here’s a thought: What if those people did see such things? What if their belief system allowed them to see all manner of wonders? Maybe being so caught up with finding objective evidence stops us from being able to access a whole range of amazing phenomena. Just think back to the Indians of the Caribbean who couldn’t see Columbus’ ships. Wasn’t it because the huge vessels lay outside of their belief system? I am outside my garden ant’s concept of what is ‘real’, and I’m therefore mostly invisible to it. Crop circles can only ever be hoaxes to people who don’t believe in them, no matter how quickly they appear or how incredibly complex their designs have become.
Reality has suddenly got even more bendy, hasn’t it?
This is an edited extract from my book Life: A Player’s Guide by Jan Stone.
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