Monster diary, part 3: Two lessons from ancient and medieval monsters

As I noted in my previous post, video game monsters have so far not attracted too much attention of scholars. Thanks to some of the readers and colleagues, I have since read additional work that I previously missed or forgot to mention, including Frans Mäyrä’s work on the demonic in Lord of the Rings Online, Tanya Krzywinska’s essays on zombies and the gothic in games, and Melissa Bianchi’s analysis of video game lycanthropy.
Most of the existing work focuses on particular types of monsters, like zombies, vampires or werewolves. It tends to draw from theorists associated with scholarship of horror, including Noël Carroll and Julia Kristeva. These approaches are, of course, extremely valuable and valid. However, they cannot capture video game monsters holistically, for two basic reasons. First, video game monsters do not always have to horrify or disgust. Often, they are ordinary creatures within extraordinary worlds. By medium or genre convention, they may serve as more or less standardized obstacles, or cannon fodder for player’s agency. Second, many analyses in the horror studies tradition focus on one monster or a single monstrous species. Games, however, tend to include large numbers and types of monsters, grouped into databases and nomenclatures. For ancient and medieval peoples, monsters were also a matter of fact. As science could not convince them otherwise, they believed in the existence of dragons, unicorns, harpies and griffins. Monsters were not only localized instances of otherness, but also integral parts of mythical or religious cosmologies, just as they are parts of simulated video game worlds. In this post, I will discuss two of the aspects of ancient and medieval monsters that I have found relevant for video games.

The Nine-headed phoenix – a Chinese monster, dynasty Qing illustration

1. Containment

Today’s video games tend to draw inspiration from fantastic film and fiction, which has in turn borrowed monsters from the ancient mythological systems and medieval bestiaries. In ancient Greek, Roman and near Eastern cosmologies, monsters are portrayed as figures of chaos and remnants of primeval, irrational forces that need to be conquered. There are other traditions, too, which is important to take note of. As Richard Strassberg, scholar of the Chinese “bestiary” Guideways through Mountains and Seas, puts it:
“Despite their bizarre appearances, most of the hybrid creatures of the Guideways are not monsters in the ancient Greek or medieval European sense. That is, they are not primordial powers that must be overcome by virtuous gods or heroes for human civilization to progress. […] Most legitimately dwell in the environment alongside humankind and simply represent another, overlapping order with its own principles.

Several monsters from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. The book itself dates back to at least 4th century BC, these drawings are from the early 20th century, but did not change much from the 16th century version, which has the oldest preserved illustrations.

No matter which specific culture we are dealing with, we may expect that people had originally feared or made sacrifices to such monsters. However, the spread of literacy, bureaucracy and organized religion has usually led to attempts at containing these monsters within books, bestiaries and guides. Art historian Asa Mittman, in his illuminating work on old English bestiaries, suggests that the process of naming and sorting monsters is a process of containment through which a culture defines its borders and distinguishes itself from monstrous others. And, as Strassberg says of Guideways: “The reader willingly consumed an illusion that all the important objects of reality had been collected and ordered according to a fundamental taxonomy and that these things were now manageable and available for exploitation.” In standard medieval bestiaries, monsters were not only enumerated, but also used to illustrate lessons in Christian morality.
I believe that this bureaucratic, encyclopedic impulse also governs video game representations of monsters, not least because of the encyclopedic nature of the medium. In role-playing games, specifically, the player can collect and access information about monsters in in-game bestiaries, knowing that their features and behaviors are encoded in the game’s databases and algorithms. By doing this, he or she is also mastering the world, making the strange familiar. Even if monsters’ design is transgressive, they are being brought under control after being temporarily unleashed.

2. Morphologies

Authors like Noël Carroll or Richard Kearney, following in the footsteps of (post-)structuralist anthropology and psychoanalysis, have pointed out that monsters disrupt categories – they are, for example, neither dead nor alive, neither human nor animal etc. If we look at traditional monsters in ancient and medieval art, they are often hybrids, composites, or, perhaps, corruptions of existing creatures. We would hardly find a monster that has completely original, unknown features. Griffin is a hybrid of a lion and an eagle, a harpy as half-human, half-bird. The Chinese Zhi-Pig monster “has the form of a tiger with the tail of an ox and who makes a sound like a dog.” Despite their often inventive and bizarre depictions, they were built from familiar building blocks. Where did these monstrous morphologies originate?
Independently of each other, Richard Strassberg and archeologist Richard Wengrow explain the origins of monstrous imagery in similar terms, the former in China and the latter in Egypt and Mesopotamia . According to Wengrow, depictions of monsters had in fact been rather scarce and exceptional in the art of early hunter-gatherer and farming peoples. What he calls “counter-intuitive images” were, in his analysis, born in the first cities and states:
“Such settings fostered the cultivation of an otherwise latent mode of perception that confronts the world, not as we usually encounter it—composed of unique and sentient totalities—but as a realm of divisible subjects, each comprising a multitude of fissionable and recombinable parts.”
Similarly, In China, the “hybrid figure” was indicative of the type of thinking of the Warring States period, when early Chinese states had to confront the strangeness of their peripheries.
Besides these sociological/cognitive explanations, both authors give one related to techniques of inscription and image reproduction. Wengrow argues that the proliferation of hybrids was possible due to technology like clay sealing, one of the earliest means of mechanical image reproduction. Looking beyond these two contexts, we can see that monster shapes have changed and adapted to new technologies, and arguably drove formal innovation in art. As other art historians like Michael Camille and Kirk Ambrose have shown, when sculpting or illuminating monsters, sculptors and scribes could allow themselves freedom of formal experiment.

Composite monsters from Crete (around 1500 BC), impressed onto clay sealings.

I believe that two things are crucial here: the relationship of the structures of monstrosity to current configurations of governance and power (which I’ve explored in my 2013 chapter), and the relationship of monsters to the specifics of the medium. We can ask how things like 3D modelling or just the computational ability to endlessly duplicate and respawn in-game monsters contribute to the specific kinds of monstrous representations.
Of course, there are more ways in which scholarship on ancient and medieval monsters can inspire research on video game monsters, especially the different conceptualizations of the monster slayer figure. More about that is coming soon!

2 thoughts on “Monster diary, part 3: Two lessons from ancient and medieval monsters

  1. Actually a lot of the Scandinavian mythological critters are similar in that sense. They lived amongst us with their own way of life but they weren’t evil. They were just representations of moral virtues. The forest spirits did not at all mind the logger going into the forest, because the replanting of trees kept the forest young and full of life. But if you didn’t replant and didn’t respect the trees… Bad news. The spirits of nature likewise didn’t mind the hunter. But the careless hunter who didn’t respect the prey would face consequences.

    Yo ucould also see this in norse mythology where the Jotnir were not the evil counterparts to the noble Aesir. They were both dicks to each other. But the Aesir created us (as a bioweapon to fight the Jotnir), so the Jotnir were antagonistic towards us. It was nothing personal however, they just wanted to survive. But come the Day of Judgement, there would be us or them, so…

    We also had the monsters that were older primordial forces that must be overcome, like the trolls. But there were different kinds of trolls. Not all were the giant evil kind. Some of them were just essentially… mythological representations of our older pagan roots I guess.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that every mythology has it’s own intersting nuances.

    • Hi Haakon,
      thanks for the comment! Myths and legends do have many layers. I’m looking forward to reading more about Norse mythology and legends.

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