Aesthetics of Evil in Middle Ages: Beasts as Symbol of the Devil
‘The sixth note states that they claim that the devil was never good and that his nature is not the work of God. Rather they claim that he emanated from chaos and darkness, having in fact no author of his being but being himself the principle and the substance of all evil. The true faith on the other hand, the Catholic faith, professes that the substance of all creatures, both spiritual and corporeal, is good, and that evil is not a nature, since God, the Creator of the universe, made only what was good. This is why the devil himself would be good if he had remained in the state in which he had been created. Unfortunately, since he abused his natural excellence and did not remain in the truth (Jn 8, 44), he was not transformed (without doubt) into a contrary substance, but he separated himself from the supreme good to which he ought to have adhered just as they themselves who make such assertions run headlong from truth into falsehood, and accuse nature of their own spontaneous delinquencies, and are condemned for their voluntary perversity: though of course this evil is in them, but is itself not a substance but a penalty inflicted on substance’
2. The Reality of Art and the Art of Reality
‘Ceterum in claustris, coram legentibus fratribus, quid facit illa ridicula monstruositas, mira quaedam deformis formositas ac formosa deformitas? Quid ibi immundae simiae? Quid Feri leones? Quid monstruosi centauri? Quid semihomines? Quid maculosae tigrides? Quid milites pugnantes? Quid venatores tubicinantes? Videas sub uno capite multa corpora, et rursus in uno corpore capita multa. Cernitur hinc in quadrupede cauda serpentis, illinc in pisce caput quadrupedis, Ibi bestia praefert equum, capram trahens retro dimidiam; hic cornutum animal equum gestat posterius. Tam multa denique, tamque mira diversarum formarum apparet ubique varietas, ut magis legere libeat in marmoribus, quam in codicibus, totumque diem occupare singula ista mirando, quam in lege Dei meditando. Proh Deo! si non pudet ineptiarum, cur vel non piget expensarum?’
‘Bestiarium vocabulum proprie convenit leonibus, pardis, tigribus, lupis et vulpibus canibusque et simiis ac ceteris, quae vel ore vel unguibus saeviunt, exceptis serpentibus. Bestiae dictae a vi, qua saerio suo ferantur. Sunt enim liberae eorum voluntates, et huc atque illuc vagantur et quo animus duxerit, eo feruntur’
3. The Beasts of Pleasures and Deceit: Chameleon, Manticore and Siren
3.1. The Chameleon
‘The chameleon is not all one color, but is multicoloured, like the pard. It is able to vary the colours of its body very easely, whereas the bodies of other animals cannot readily be changed in this way. The chameleon-pard is so called because while it is like the pard in having White spots, its neck is like that of a horse, its feet like those of ano x, but its head is like that of a camel. It is native of Ethiopia’
‘L’altre creatura és calamió, lo qual jamés no·s posa sinó en l’ayre […]. Per lo calamió, qui viu solament de l’àer, podem entendre una manera de sàvies gents que ha en lo món, qi, com nexen, jamés de tota lur vida no posen lur enteniment en les riqueses temporals, ans posen tot lur enteniment en les altes coses, e en allò viuen e s’adeliten tots temps per voluntat que han de ésser ab lo dolç Pare qui és en lo gloriós paradis’
‘Camelion est un veste ki naist en Ayse, et si en i a grant plenté. Et sa face est samblable a lizarde, mais ses jambes sont droites et longues, et les ongles fieres et aguës, et coue grant et voutice, et vet autresi lentement comme tortue, et sa pel est dure comme de cocodril; et ses oils fiers et durement encavés dedens la teste, et ne les muet pas ça et la, por ce ne voit il en travers, ains regarde tot droit devant soi. Et san ature est de fiere merveille, car il ne manguë n ene boit chose del monde, ains vit solement de l’air k’il atouche a aucune chose, prent sa color et devient d’autretel taint, se ce n’est rouge ou blanc, car ce sont .ii. coulours k’il ne peut faindre. Et sachiés que son cors est sans char et sans sanc, se ce n’est ou cuero u il en a .i. petit. En yvier maint repost, et en esté vient et un oiseaus l’ocist ki a non corax; mais s’il manguë de lui il le covient a morir, se fueille de lorier ne l’en delivre’
3.2. The Manticore
‘in India there is a beast called the manticore. It has a triple row of teeth, the face of a man, and grey eyes; it is blood-red in colour and has a lion’s body, a pointed tail with a sting like that of a scorpion, and a hissing voice. It delights in eating human flesh. Its feet are very powerful and it can jump so well that neither the largest of ditches nor the broadest of obstacles can keep it in’
‘Una fera manticora kiamatapare d’omo et de bestia concept,però k’a ciascheduno è semegliatae carne humana desia e afecta.
Ane una boce bella e consonatanella quale ki l’ode se delecta:a lo nemico pare semeliatake, variando, nell’anima decepta.
Semiglia ad omo per demostramento,ké, volendo la gente a sé trare,fasse parere angelo de luce,
a bestia k’è in reo delectamento:fa ki li crede tanto delectare,k’a la dannatione lo conduce.
3.3. The Siren
‘sirens are sea maidens, who seduce sailors with their splendid figure and the sweetness of their song. From their head to their navel, they have female bodies, and are identical with the human race; but they have the scaly tails of fish, with which they always move in the depths of the sea’
‘Siren lives in the sea, it sings at the approach of a storm,and weeps in fine weather; such is its nature;and it has the make of a woman down to the waist,and the feet of a falcon, and the tail of a fish.When it will divert itself, then it sings loud and clearif then the steersman who navigates the sea hears it,he forgets his ship, and immediately falls asleep;remember that this has a meaning.The sirens are riches of the world;the sea shows this world, the ship the people who are in it;and the soul is the steersman, and the ship the body which ought to swim;know that many times the rich who are in the world makethe soul sin in the body, that ship and steersmanthe soul hinders from sleeping, and furthermore from perishing.Riches of the world effect great wonders,they talk, and fly, take by the feet, and drown;for this we paint the sirens with falcon’s feet’
‘Isaïe a dit: «Que les sirènes fassent leur demeur, que les démons bondissent; que les porcs-épics mettent bas». Le moraliste enseigne que les sirènes sont crueles; qu’elles habitent la mer, que les accents de leurs voix sont mélodieux; et que les voyageurs en sont épris au point de se précipiter dans la mer, où ils se perdent. Le corps de ces enchanteresses est celui d’une femme, jusqu’aux mamelles; le reste tient de l’oiseau, ou de l’âne, ou du taureau. De même (tels sont, etc.) ceux qui ont deux manières d’agir sont inconstants (sic). Il est de gens qui fréquentent les églises sans s’éloigner du péché. Ils ont l’apparence de la vérité (droiture?), mais sont bien loin de ce qu’ils semblent être. Lorsqu’ils entrent dans l’église, ils ont l’air de chanteuses; puis, mêlés à la foule (dans la ville?), ils ressemblent à des brutes. Ces sortes de gens tiennent du dragon et de la sirène; ils ont le pouvoir séducteur des hérésiarques, qui entrainent le coeur des innocents (imprévoyants) et des faibles. Isaïe dit: «Les paroles dangereuses gâtent la douce (faible?) nature (perdunt incautos)»’
‘In Arabia there are white serpents with wings, called sirens, wich run faster than horses, and are also said to fly. Thei poison is such yhat the victim is dead before he feels the pain of their bite’
‘Mais selonc la verité, les seraines furent .iii. meretrix ki dechevoint toz les trespassans et les metoient en povreté. Et dist l’estoire k’eles avoient eles et ongles, por senefiance de l’amor ki vole et fiert; et conversoient en euue, por ce que luxure fu faite de moustor’
‘the Sirenae (Sirens), so Physiologus says, are deadly creatures who are made like huma beings from the head to the navel, while their lower parts down to the feet are winged. They give forth musical songs in a melodious manner, wich songs are very lovely, and thus they charm the ears of sailormen and allure them to themselves. They entice the hearing of these poor chaps by a wonderful sweetness of rhythm, and put them to sleep. At last, when they see that the sailors are deeply slumbering, they pounce upon them and tear them to bits. That’s the way in wich ignorant and incautious human beings get tricked by pretty voices, when they are charmed by indelicacies, ostentations and pleasures, or when they become licentious with comedies, tragedies and various ditties. They lose their whole mental vigour, as if in a deep sleep, and suddenly the reaving pounce of the Enemy is upon them’
4. The Beasts of Terror and Death: Asp, Dragon and Basilisk
4.1. The Asp
‘Aspis est quoddam genus serpentis obturantis aures suas ne incantatores audiat
Aspis is a serpent which signifies people;it is cunning and sly, and aware of evil;when it perceives people who make enchantment,who want to enchant, take, and ensnare it,it will stop very well the ears it has,it will press one against the earth, in the other it will stuffits tail firmly, that it hears nothing of it.This signifies a great thing, I will not omit to tell it you.
Aspis hic pingitur, et quomodo obturat aures.
In this manner do the rich people of the world;one ear they have on the earth to obtain riches,the other sin stops up, by which they are ensnared:by the tail of the serpent is understood the sins of people.The rich man will have what he sees, be it with wrong or with right;after he shall have taken it, he will not do any alms,nor has he any compunction to do people injury,if they will not owe and do his pleasure;yet they will see a day when the caitiffs shall wail,at the Day of Judgment; then the wretches will wailwho will go into hell, which they have deserved.This is the signification of the aspis without doubt.
Yas Grece, venenum dicitur Latine.
As in Greek is venom, from whence the name aspis is derived;it has a strong venom, by which it draws people to death.There are several vipers, which are serpents in the world;they have divers natures, and divers ways of stinging,for they will sometimes sting, and the persons will die immediately,and sometimes they will swell, and then after a long time will die;sometimes they will dry up and die by burning;sometimes they will take the blood of those whom they shall sting;as was the case with Cleopatra, who was wise in the arts,she was called queen of the country of Egypt;she did this wonder, she put them to her teats,and they milked her so hard that they sucked out the blood;the queen died of it; so the discourse finishes
‘such indeed are the men of this world, who press down one ear to worldly desires, and truly by stuffing up the other one they do not hear the voice of the Lord saying ‘He who will not renounce everything which he possesses cannot be my disciple or servant’. Apart from men, asps are the only other creatures which do such a thing, namely, refuse to listen. Men make their own eyes blind, so that they do not see heaven, nor do they call to mind the works of the Lord’
‘Physiologus says that if an enchanter comes to the asp’s hole where it lives, and charms it with songs to make it come out of its hole, the asp presses its head on the ground and plugs the other with its tale so as not to hear the enchanter’s voice. Such are the rich men who turn one ear to the earthly desires and who plug the other with their sins. However the asp plugs only its ears, while the rich men also cover their eyes with their earthly thoughts and desires so that they have neither ears with which they can hear nor eyes with which they can see Heaven, and thus they do not turn their thoughts toward God who gives everything, goodness and justice. But those who do not want to hear him now will no doubt hear him on the Day of Judgment when he will say: ‘You cursed, go away from me into the eternal fire prepared in hell for the devil and its angels’ (Matt. 25: 41)’
‘Aspis est une maniere de venimeus serpes ki ocist home de ses dens [wrath]. Ja soit ce, k’il sont de plusours manieres; et chacuns a une proprieté de mal faire; car celi ki est apelés aspis fait morir de soif l’ome que ele mort [greed]; et l’autre ki a non prialis le fait tant dormir k’il muert [sloth]; et l’autre ki est apelés emorois li fait fondre tot son sanc jusc’a sa mort [lust]; eli ki a non preste vait tozjours boucheoverte, et quant il estraint nuli a ses dens, il enfle tant k’il devie, et maintenant porrist si malement que c’est diaublie [gluttony]. Et sachiés que aspis porte la trés luisant et la precieuse piere [envy] que l’on claime carboncle; et quant li enchanteour ki li veut oster la piere dist ses paroles, et maintenant ke la fiere veste s’en aperchoit, fiche l’une de ses oreilles dedens la terre et l’autre clot de sa coue, en tel maniere k’ele devient sourde et non oïans des paroles conjurans [pride]
4.2. The Dragon
‘the Dragon is the biggest of all serpents, in fact of all living things on earth. The Greeks call it ‘draconta’ and hence it has been turned into Latin under the name ‘draco’. When this dragon has come out of its cave, it is often carried into the sky, and the air near it becomes ardent. It has a crest, a small mouth and a narrow gullet through which it draws breath or puts out ist tongue. Moreover, its strength is not its teeth but in its tail, and it inflicts injury by blows rather than by stinging. So it is harmless as regards poison. But they point out that poisons are not necessary to it for killing, since if it winds round anyone it kills him like that. Even the Elephant is not protected from it by the size of its body; for the dragon, lying in wait near the paths along which the elephants usually saunter, lassoes their legs in a knot with its tail and destroys them by suffocation. They arte bred in Ethiopia and India, in places where there is perpetual heat. The Devil, who is the most enormous of all reptiles, is like this dragon. He is often borne into the air from his den, and the air round him blazes, for the Devil in raising himself from the lower regions translates himself into an angel of light and misleads the foolish with false hopes of glory and worldly bliss. He is said to have a crest or crown because he is the King of Pride, and his strength is not in his teeth but in his tail because he beguiles those whom he draws to him by deceit, their strength being destroyed. He lies hidden round the paths on which they saunter, because their way to heaven is encumbered by the knots of their sins, and he strangles them to death. For if anybody is ensnared by the toils of crime he dies, and no doubt he goes to Hell’
4.3. The Basilisk
‘The basilisk’s name Greek (regulus) means little king, because he is the king of creeping things. Those who see him flee, because his scent will kill them. And he will kill a man simply by looking at him. No bird that sees him can fly past unharmed: it will be consumed at a distance by his fiery breath and then swallowed. But he can be conquered by the weasel, and for that reason men put weasels in the holes where basilisks live. If the basilisk sees the weasel he flees, but the weasel pursues him and kills him. For the Creator of all things has made nothing for which there is not an antidote. The basilisk is a half-a-foot long, with white spots. He lives in dry places, like the scorpion; if he comes to water he poisons it so that those who drink get hydrophobia and are struck with panic. The hissing snake is the same as the regulus, killing by his hissing before he bites or scorches. But the basilisk signifies the devil, who openly kills the heedless sinner with his venom; he himself is conquered, like all other harmful creatures, by the soldier of Christ who puts all his hope in the Lord, whose power overcomes and tramples underfoot all hostile forces. Of this too the prophet says in the Psalms: ‘Thou shalt tread upon the asp and basilisk; the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample underfoot’ (91: 13). This represents divine power, which holds sway over so many savage creatures. All these names are aptly bestowed on the devil. Hi is an asp when he strikes secretly; a basilisk when he spreads his poison abroad; a lion when he pursues the innocent; a dragon when in his evil greed he swallows the heedless. But, truly, at the glorious coming of our Lord, all creatures will lie subject at His feet. He alone was strong enough to subdue these fierce creatures, who is coeternal and consubstantial with the Father in His divinity. If we trace these things in preaching of the holy fathers, so that we are not led astray by any depraved heretics or madmen, every one of these sayings in true’
‘sa grandor est de mi pié, et a blanches taches, et creste comme cok. Et vet droit contremont la moitié devant, et l’autre moitié comme autres serpens. Et tot soit il si fiers, les belotes l’ocient, c’est une veste plus longhe que soris, et est blanche el ventre. Et sachiés que Alixandres les trova, et fist faire grandes ampoles de voirre ou homes entroient dedens ki veoient les basiliques, mais il ne veoient ceaus, ki les ocioient des saietes; et par itel engin en fu delivrés il et son ost’
‘Lo besalís és pocha bèstia, e tant de verí, que solament ab la vista aucien les hòmens. E aquests són reys de les serps; e no és bèstia al món qui.s vulla combater ab ells. E per tot là hon passen, per lo gran verí que han, sequen los arbres e erbas. E aquests muden tots anys la pell, axí con fa la serp, e puys renovella’
Informed Consent Statement
Conflicts of Interest
‘Again, in the cloisters, what is the meaning of those ridiculous monsters, of that deformed beauty, that beautiful deformity, before the very eyes of the brethren when reading? What are disgusting monkeys there for [or satyrs?], or ferocious lions, or monstrous centaurs, or spotted tigers, or fighting soldiers, or huntsmen sounding the bugle? You may see there one head with many bodies, or one body with numerous heads. Here is a quadruped with a serpent’s tail; there is’ a fish with a beast’s head; there a creature, in front a horse, behind a goat; another has horns at one end, and a horse’s tail at the other. In fact, such an endless variety of forms appears everywhere, that it is more pleasant to read in the stonework than in books, and to spend the day in admiring these oddities than in meditating on the law of God. Good God! If we are not ashamed of these absurdities, why do we not grieve at the cost of them?’.
‘The term ‘beast,’ properly speaking, includes lions, panthers, tigers, wolves, foxes, dogs, apes, and other animals that attack either with their mouth or their claws, excepting serpents. They are called beasts (bestia) from the force (vis) with which they attack. They are termed wild (ferus) because they enjoy a natural freedom and are driven (ferre) by their own desires—for their wills are free and they wander here and there, and wherever their spirit leads, there they go’ (Isidore of Seville 2006, XII 2 1 251).
‘The other creature is chameleon and it never settles anywhere but in the air. As per the chameleon, who lives solely from air, we may understand a careful class of people in the world who never, in their whole life since they are born, settle their understanding in the world’s things but rather in others, and they do not live nor find permanent delight in something other than that, given their will to remain close to the sweetest Father who in glorious paradise abides’.
‘The chameleon is an animal which is born in Asia, and there is an abundance of them there. Its face is like a lizard’s but its legs are long and straight, and its claws are fierce and sharp, and its tail is long and curved. Its gait is as slow as a turtle’s and its hide is as hard as a crocodile’s. Its eyes are fierce, and set back in its head, and it does not move them, and for this reason it cannot see to the side; it looks straight ahead. Its behavior is simply astonishing, for it does not eat or drink anything; rather it lives off of air alone wich it breathes in. Its color is such that it takes on the color of each thing it touches, and it takes on any other color except red or white, for these are colors it cannot reproduce. You should know that its body is whitout flesh and without blood, except in the heart, where there is a little. A bird named corax can kill it, but if it eats it, it inevitably dies, unless a laurel leaf saves it from death’ (Latini 1993, I: 185 134–35).
‘Ctesias writes that in the same country [Ethiiopia] is born the creature that he calls the mantichora [fabulous] which has a triple row of teeth meeting like the teeth of a comb, the face and ears of a human being, grey eyes, a blood-red colour, a lion’s body, inflicting stings with its tail in the manner of a scorpion, with a voice like the sound of a panpipe blended with a trumpet, of great speed, with a special appetite for human flesh’ (Pliny the Elder 1954).
‘A beast called manticore, / conceived of man and animal, / but resembling each of both, / and greedily desiring human flesh. / His voice is beautiful and harmonious, / and he who hears it, in it delights: / he is akin, of course, to the Enemy, / who, pretending, deceives the soul. / It resembles man by its deception, / Who, wanting to attract people to himself, / Becomes an angel of light, / And the beast that lives in delight: / So much does it make those who believe it enjoy / That it leads to damnation’.
‘But in truth, the sirens were three prostitutes who tricked all passers-by and brought them to ruin. The story goes that they had wings and nails to signify love, which strikes and flies; and they remain in the water because lust was made of moisture’ (Latini 1993, I: 136 107).
‘The asp is a kind of very poisonous serpent which kills a man with its teeth [wrath]. They are of several types and each one has a way of causing injury for the serpent called an asp causes a man to die of thirst [greed] when it has bitten him; another, called prialis (hypnalis) causes a man to sleep so much that he dies [sloth]; another, called emorois (haemorrhois), makes him lose all his blood until he dies [lust], and the one mnamed priest (praester) always has its mouth open, and when it sinks its teeth into someone, it swells up until it dies, and then it begins to rot so horribly that no man can bear it [gluttony]. You should know that the asp carries in its head the very shiny and precious stone [envy] called a carbuncle, and when the magician who wants to remove the stone says his words, as soon as the fierce creature realizes it, it puts one of its ears into the ground and covers up the other with its tail, and in this manner it becomes deaf and does not hear the words of the conjurations [pride]’ (Latini 1993, I: 138 108–9).
‘It is six feet long, and has white spots, and a comb like a rooster, and its front half rises up above the ground while the bottom stays down like a snake. However ferocious they might be, they are killed by weasels, an animal longer than a mouse, red on its back and white on its belly. You should know that Alexander found a great quantity of them between two mountains when he went there with his men, and may of them died because of the basilisk who were looking at them. Neither Alexander nor his men could detect why his men were dying in such a way, but then he had a great glass container made. When the men were inside they could see the basilisk, but the basilisks could not see the men enclosed in the glass; and Alexander had them all killed with arrows. Through this stratagem, his army was saved from them’ (Latini 1993, I: 140 109).
‘The basilisk is a small animal, but so venomous that it kills men with its eyes alone. These are the kings of snakes; and there is no beast in the world that will stand up to them. Wherever they go, because of the great poison they have, they dry up trees and grasses. And every year they shed their skin, as the snake does, and afterward they renew it’.
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Piñero Moral, R. Aesthetics of Evil in Middle Ages: Beasts as Symbol of the Devil. Religions 2021, 12, 957. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12110957
Piñero Moral R. Aesthetics of Evil in Middle Ages: Beasts as Symbol of the Devil. Religions. 2021; 12(11):957. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12110957Chicago/Turabian Style
Piñero Moral, Ricardo. 2021. "Aesthetics of Evil in Middle Ages: Beasts as Symbol of the Devil" Religions 12, no. 11: 957. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12110957