Medieval to Modern Bestiaries, Studies in Cryptid Classification


For thousands of years, people have been aiming to identify and classify pretty much everything from insects and plants to the mysterious and supernatural. 

As a kid, I was fascinated by bestiaries and compendiums of the weird and paranormal. I’d spend a lot of time admiring the crisp artwork and smart descriptions of nymphs, faeries, trolls, and pookahs. 

But bestiaries aren’t exclusive to the supernatural or cryptid. While modern fantasy stories have turned the bestiary into a kind of compendium of arcane knowledge, they were originally used to provide valuable information about plants, animals, minerals, and many other parts of the natural world.

Having grown up hasn’t changed my love for bestiaries, and I figured I would share some of the most interesting things I’ve learned about the bestiary, and recommend some of my favorites.


The Earliest Bestiaries

I was curious about when the first bestiary came about, and I was surprised to learn that it dates back all the way to ancient Greece. The first recorded book is called the Physiologus, and it had descriptions of all kinds of animals. It was more of a naturalist’s handbook than a black book of arcanum. 

The Physiologus included writings from various Greek scholars, including Aristotle, Herodotus, and Pliny the Elder. 

As time went on and religion started to take over Europe, bestiaries started to deviate from the fable-like teachings to include Christain themes. Medieval bestiaries reworked the naturalist content of books like the Physiologus to create animal hierarchies and messages from God. 

Despite being vessels for Christain teachings, many of these bestiaries included creatures that we consider to be part of the fantastical. Unicorns, dragons, and griffins made appearances in the pages of these illuminated manuscripts, which set the precedent for future bestiaries that set their sights on the purely mythological. 

(If you’re interested in learning more about medieval bestiaries and want to see some of the illuminated texts, The Medieval Bestiary database is a great place to start.)

Becoming Even More Fantastic

So there was a pretty large jump from the early Greek days where bestiaries were used to record natural history to the medieval age where they became a means of spreading religious teachings. 

There is still yet another jump to the modern bestiary, where it’s used almost purely to classify magical beasts. These are the bestiaries that I grew up reading, and in my opinion, they are the coolest. 

Some of the bestiaries that I recommend taking a look at include:

spiderwick field guide

Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You – This book was my bread and butter as a kid. It’s filled with great artwork from Tony DiTerlizzi and history from Holly Black. It’s based on their popular Spiderwick Chronicles, and the Field Guide is a big part of the original story. You’ll find all kinds of great info in here, and my personal favorite entry is the Wandering Clump, a fun little grass fairy. 

labyrinth bestiary

Jim Henson’s Labyrinth: Bestiary: A Definitive Guide to the Creatures of the Goblin King’s Realm – This one is just like it sounds! The Labyrinth is such an awesome movie, visually and creatively speaking. This book features all the different goblins, fire monkeys, hobgoblins, and dog knights that fill the world of the Labyrinth. It’s illustrated by Iris Compiet, and has accompanying text from S.T. Bende. (Iris Compiet worked on another bestiary along the same vein, focusing on The Dark Crystal.)

And while this next one isn’t necessarily a bestiary, it certainly fits into this category:

natural history of dragons

The Memoirs of Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan – This series combines Victorian steampunk era drama and exploration with dragons. Yup, the first book is called A Natural History of Dragons, and features Isabella Trent, a dragon naturalist, and a damn fine one at that. Her adventures take her all over the world as she learns more about dragons and their evolution. 

I’ll admit I haven’t finished the Lady Trent series yet (there are 6 books and 1 short story), but I really enjoyed the first two so far!

And as a runner-up that I discovered while writing this blog post (that definitely makes it onto the TBR list) was originally written in Spanish by Jorge Luis Borges called Manual de zoología fantástica. It translates to The Book of Imaginary Beings, and is sort of a cultural compendium of literary and mythological entities. It borders on seriousness and hilarity at the same time, with stoic creatures like the centaur situated in pages next to things like a Goofus Bird.

Are there any prominent bestiaries we failed to mention? Old or new alike, feel free to drop their names in the comments!

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