There were two kinds of books I read more than any other when I was a little kid: books about zoology, and books about mythological monsters. Both fascinated me for the same reasons, as they allowed me a glimpse into a world of amazing creatures I might never see in person. Crocodiles and tigers seemed just as distant and wondrous as dragons and ogres, and I often daydreamed about these fantastic creatures emerging from the wilderness of my own yard. The distinction between real exotic animals and mythological monsters was so blurry in my childhood that I even tried to capture a mythic beast on more than a few occasions. After all, my books said crocodiles and elephants existed even though I had never seen one – maybe the only reason people didn’t think dragons exist was that they hadn’t seen one either, and maybe they hadn’t seen one because they hadn’t looked in my backyard yet.
Though the flights of fancy they inspired were incredibly similar, there was a notable distinction between zoology and mythology books. Zoology was focused on the animals. You’d find their average and maximum sizes, their lifespans, their habits and homes, their social lives (or lack thereof), and dozens of more facts. You’d learn about entire families of different creatures and how they compare to each other, like how the Saltwater crocodile was the largest crocodilian but the Nile crocodiles were more cooperative, or how there are only two species of alligators despite them being equally as famous as their much more diverse crocodile cousins.
Mythological creatures never got the same complexity. Their books were more like History textbooks, and as we all know, history is defined by the winners, which means the history of mythological monsters is defined not by the monsters themselves, but by the heroes who slaughtered them. There is very little about the nature of a mythological monster – rarely do you hear about their family, their lifespans, their place in the environment, their personalities, or their habits. Instead you get a name, a rough physical description, the name of the town they menaced, and the life story of the person who killed them. Child me was perturbed that such wondrous creatures were defined by the lives of their murderers. It would be as if a book of crocodiles said little about the reptiles themselves and devoted most of its page count to the biography of the poacher who wiped them out.
This disconnect planted a seed in my childhood mind. If there was not a biology book about mythic creatures yet, then it would be up to me to make one. We already have biology books for real creatures, after all, and most of them live outside our homes in exotic places. Mythic creatures live in our minds and imaginations – a much easier place to visit, especially when you’re four years old. Surely it couldn’t be too hard to make a grand biology book of mythic creatures.
Oh, sweet childhood ignorance.
I began researching this project around the same time I began forming permanent memories. Now, over two decades later, I am still researching it. The world of mythological monsters is immense, for every culture in the world has its own, and there are so many cultures in the world. To make things even more daunting, those cultures are so wildly different, and have changed over thousands of years in different ways. Child me was wrong to think that the world of imagination was smaller and easier to visit than the world of reality: while my own mind is within easy reach, the mind of, say, a 700 BC storyteller from China is farther than any distant crocodile, for it is separated not only by distance, but by vast amounts of time. Each mythology is its own world, separated from reality by a mixture of imagination and misconception, with rules vastly different than those of our modern world as well as those of OTHER mythologies, which are different in their own unique ways.
Researching every mythological monster in the world is probably an impossible task. Putting all of them in the same world, with shared rules that follow and honor the myths that inspire them all, is definitely impossible. Child me had undertaken a project that no mortal being could see through – perhaps one that no god could either, for these monsters are the products of different gods as well. It is a labor that makes Sisyphus look like a whiny chump.
Yet here I remain, pushing this boulder up a hill.
The Midgaheim Bestiary isn’t the entirety of the project I started as a child. Rather than adapting EVERY mythology in the world, it focuses solely on the ones that come from Europe, from Norse sagas and Greco-Roman epics to Arthurian ballads and Celtic and Russian fairy tales, and on and on as I discover more and more less well known pockets in this broad umbrella. Why focus on these myths, which many agree are a little overexposed? Well, because they’re overexposed, honestly. These are the mythologies I’ve had access to since I was small, and the ones I continue to have more access to than any other. They’re the myths of my ancestors and radiate through my culture’s history even today. They are, ultimately, the myths I am most knowledgeable about and comfortable with, and for that reason they feel like a good starting place.
Notably, I’m still researching them. I’ve had access to these myths for my entire life – close to three decades! – and even now I keep learning new things about them. If other mythologies are just as complex, and I have no reason to believe they aren’t, then I have a LOT of work ahead of me before I’m ready to start adapting them. So for now this project focuses on what I know best, and what I know best, to the disappointment of many, is European monsters.
Yet despite how well known and “cliché” these myths have become in modern fantasy, weaving these different European mythologies has proved very difficult. Even with the great deal of overlap between them, they are all products of different fictional worlds. The dragons of the Norse aren’t quite the dragons of the Greeks, which in turn aren’t quite the dragons of Arthur, and on and on it goes. I have had to make changes and choices. Sometimes wildly different takes on the same monster – all hailing from equally valid myths – require that monster to be split into a few different ones (often using different variations of the same name). Sometimes monsters that are incredibly similar but technically come from wildly different sources get lumped together. Changes are made for consistency.
It’s not quite the biology my childhood self envisioned, but to be fair, the book I envisioned can’t exist. It is, however, pretty close to the idea. I even added a few original creations to all the mythological ones – child me would disapprove of other authors doing that, but it never stopped him from doing so. Since this text will never be 100% faithful to the myths that inspired it (as, again, it literally cannot be), my adult self embraces the notion of adding my own touches without a trace of hypocrisy. It’s all made up nonsense in the end – some of it is simply younger than others. When a wholly original monster appears in the bestiary, I will make a note of it for those of you who are mythological purists like my younger self. You can then ignore these fake monsters while you read about dragons and minotaurs.
Many, but not all, entries in this bestiary will include some “Meta” notes at the end talking about how the entry in question is adapting myth in varying amounts of details. This is another compromise I’ve made between the impossible ideal of this project and the reality of it – while the literal myths cannot be interlinked as they are, I can at least give them the respect of talking about how I’ve adapted them and how they differ from my adaptation. It’s a simple courtesy I think.
I post this project here knowing that it may never be finished. Even this limited portion of it – the Midgaheim Bestiary – may be too large for me to complete before I croak. There are so many monsters out there, after all. However, maybe, just maybe, I’ll complete it. If I don’t, then maybe, just maybe, I’ll inspire some other kid who loves monsters to make their own. Maybe, in time, there will be as many books on monster biology as there are on real zoology. Maybe someday the monsters will get their due.
We’ll just have to see how it goes, won’t we?