“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” in the Dictionary

A look-book of literary leviathans

What makes reading about a bunch of ancient heroes fun? Of course, it is all the gruesome, ghastly, ghostly beasts they had to fight. Sea monsters, serpent-dragons, vampires, giants made of bronze—these creatures are not only fantastic on the page, they also happen to be the best inspiration Hollywood could ask for.

Whether you’re in need of an idea for the next big thriller or simply want to see an awesome collection of literary leviathans, we’ve got you covered. Here’s a look-book of ferocious beasts from the hallowed halls of myth.

Amphisbaena

Born of the blood dripping from Medusa’s severed head, the Amphisbaena in Greek Mythology is a snake-like creature with a head at either end of its long scaly body. Pliny the Elder remarked on the added toxic-potency of this beast, “as though it were not enough for poison to be poured out of one mouth.” So, this double-header has the horrifying advantage of spewing poison out both ends, as well as the ability to slither forward and back with smarmy ease. This range of motion is reflected in the beast’s name: in Greek, amphisbaena means “to go both ways.”  The creature also achieves additional mobility when the two faces grab onto each other to form a spinning loop.

Basilisk

From the Greek baskilos, or “little king,” the basilisk was first described by Pliny the Elder as a small venomous snakelike beast with a white spot on its head like a “diadem” or crown. It could paralyze the living with one hiss or gaze and destroy anything in its path with an exhale of its noxious breath. The creature had a peculiar way of getting around, lifting its midsection up in the air and crawling like a bell-curve graph across the ground. Upon spearing a basilisk, its poison would travel up the shaft, killing both rider and horse.

By the Middle Ages, the basilisk morphed into what came to be called the cockatrice, a giant bird-lizard with a rooster’s comb, sharp talons, and a snake’s tail.

Bicorn and Chichivache

Bicorn and Chichivache were satirical beasts from the Middle Ages, thought to devour kind, obedient husbands and wives. Because there were so many devoted husbands in those days, Bicorn was a very plump fellow. A fusion of panther and cow, with a face that resembled a human, Bicorn had two horns on his head (reflected in the creature’s name, from the Latin bi or “two” and cornis or “horns”).

Chichivache, on the other hand, was left with slim pickings, as it seems goodly wives were very hard to come by. Meaning “scrawny cow,” Chichivache was exactly that: a human-faced emaciated bovine that roamed the earth in misery, scarcely able to survive with so few virtuous wives to eat. Too bad Chichivache was a chauvinist!

Cerberus

Fewer beasts are more ferocious than the cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the Gates of Hell. Its nickname, “the Hound of Hades,” fails to capture the terrible physicality and power of the beast. Stick with Cerberus to evoke a real sense of fear in your audience; it's a name with uncertain origins but possible ties to Greek words meaning “flesh-devouring” and “evil of the pit.” If anyone tried to leave Hades, Cerberus ate them.

Born to a multi-headed serpent father and a half-woman-half-serpent mother, Cerberus had numerous heads and serpentine features in his DNA. He’s described as having a dog’s body and a serpent’s tail, with snakes twisting from his noses, necks, and front paws, and even coiling down his back like a slithering lion’s mane.

Fenrir

Son of a shape-shifting god and a grief-bearing giantess, Fenrir is a horrifying wolf in Norse Mythology. The name fenrir is Old Norse for “fen-dweller,” or resident of the murky swamp.

Fenrir so terrified the Norse gods, they had him bound to keep him from destroying their kingdom. Only one man was brave enough to feed the wolf, which caused it to grow to a tremendous size. Time and again, new chains were created for Fenrir, who swiftly broke free of them. Finally, a chain wrought of things that don’t exist (“a cat’s footsteps, the beard of a woman, the roots of mountains, the breath of a fish, and the spittle of birds”) proved to be more Fenrir’s power could break. Enraged, he bit off the hand that fed him.

Fomorian

As with other fantastical beasts, the fomorian is a creature of disputed description. Believed to have either been a one-eyed, one-armed, one-legged freak, or to have had a "normal" giant’s body with a goat’s head, the fomorian gives you plenty of inspiration for that new horror thriller.

Perhaps meaning “the undersea ones” or “the underworld demons,” fomorians traveled sea and land, and they were associated with nature’s stormy wrath as they brought blight, death, and despair in their wake. It took four people using rods to raise the heavy lid of a fomorian’s eye. The open eye was so poisonous, an army of thousands would perish at the sight.

Gargouille

From a French word for “gargler,” the gargouille was a giant sea dragon who, according to Christian myth, emerged from the Seine River in the early Middle Ages. Gargling and spewing water in all directions, the monster submerged the countryside and ate whatever the waters didn’t drown.

St. Romanus, the archbishop of Rouen, sought to kill the beast once and for all. He entered its lair and made a cross with two fingers, which immediately pacified the dragon. The saint escorted the gargouille back to town, where it was burned to a heap of ashes and was thrown back into the Seine. Since then, in memory of the conquest, architects have decorated buildings with gargoyles, stony replicas of the beast that drain rainwater from the roofs.

Geryon

Geryon was conceived in the union of “he who has a golden sword” and a beautiful fresh-water nymph—dipping the sword in the stream, so to say. With a star-studded mythological pedigree, Geryon was grandson of Poseidon and Medusa and nephew to Pegasus, so it’s unsurprising that he inherited a few odd physical characteristics. He was a warrior-giant with three heads, three torsos, four wings, and six hands and feet.

Unfortunately, this strangely assembled monster didn’t seem to have incredible powers, although he kept a fine bunch of cattle, so the story goes. After Heracles captured Geryon’s cattle, an incensed Geryon pursued, decked out with triple shields, spears, and helmets. Those were no match for Heracles’s poisonous arrow that pierced Geryon’s skull, evidently killing three heads with one blow.

Hydra

In Greek and Roman Mythology, Hydra was the multi-headed water monster that plagued the Lake of Lerna. Hydra possessed the power of regeneration; with each attempt to sever a head, new heads appeared. Hydra’s blood was so poisonous, even a whiff of it was fatal. In fact, the poisoned arrow that killed Geryon was soaked in Hydra’s blood.

Protecting himself with a cloth over his nose (Really, that’s all it took?), Heracles set out to destroy the beast, but quickly learned of Hydra’s regenerative powers—as long as Hydra had one head, it was invulnerable. With the help of his nephew, Heracles scorched Hydra’s neck stubs until only one very vulnerable head remained. A swift decapitation, a sword-dip into steaming crimson poison, and Hydra and Geryon were history . . . or myth.

Jauds and Drekavacs

Very little information can be found about the following mythical creatures (at least, in English).

In Russian folklore, jauds were tiny vampires born in the form of babies. Another Russian legend describes how the souls of sinful men and unbaptized children emerged as Drekavacs, dog- or fox-like monsters that walk on elongated hind legs with extended sharp claws. Meaning “the screamer” or “the yeller,” Drekavacs sometimes appeared as gangly-legged beasts with colossal heads, who emerged, especially during the twelve days of Christmas, to howl and haunt in the night.

Krasue

In Southeast Asian folklore, the krasue was a beastly spirit with the head of a beautiful woman attached to dripping entrails that hovered as it glided. Cinematic portrayals of this legendary monster depict the sagging human viscera, the blood-slick organs glowing with a faint luminescence.

One story goes that a young princess fell in love with an enemy officer who was fighting in a war against her people. The princess, forced to marry another man of higher rank, was caught with her lover and sentenced to execution by burning. The princess acquired a magic spell to keep her body safe from the flames, but the potion took effect too late. Her upper half was all that remained, cursed to roam the earth forever.

Manticore

Depicted in Persian, Indian, and Greco-Roman Mythologies, the manticore was a man-eating monster with a large lion’s body, a man’s face, and blood-red fur. A 4th-century Greek historian describes the beast as having “three rows of teeth, ears, and light-blue eyes like those of a man . . . ,” and “a tail like that of a land scorpion,” with the ability to inflict stings a foot deep and about as wide as small bird. The manticore could also propel foot-long, bird-wide stings out of its butt. The teeth were, as you would expect, exceedingly sharp, should it want to use its other end to kill.

In Persian, mardkhora or mardyakhor means “man-eater,” but the manticore was deadly to all creatures, except the mighty elephant.

Nuppeppo

Nuppeppo is probably the coolest word on the list and the oddest mythical beast ever conceived. It’s harmless, too, which doesn’t fit the mold of our previous monstrous monsters.

In Japanese folklore, Nuppeppo is a genderless white, blobby Yokai (“goblin” or “monster”) that reeks of rotting flesh. It’s literally a blob. Just a big, sagging, squidgy wad of putrefying flesh, with vague facial features oozing through the rolls of decomposing fat. The name nuppeppo comes from a derogatory term in Japanese for a woman wearing too much makeup, as if her skin were slumping with the weight of her face paint. Nuppeppo, the saggy skin-dumpster, squelches around at night and does nothing offensive but stink.