AliFigments: A Bestiary

January 1st 1909.  Ten-Footed Bear.  Tarak told us Wednesday evening that the tenfooted bear lives mostly in the water like a seal.  Looks like a polar bear all but the ten legs.  When he walks on ice the five feet of each side track after each other so the bear makes a double track like a sled.  Walking the bear often gets his legs tangled up; there are so many, he can’t manage them all.  Once a man was followed by a ten-footed bear.  The man walked between two cakes of ice and the bear was caught in the crevice between them.  If his feet had not become entangled he might have gotten off.  As it was, the man speared him.  When dying, the bear fell on his back, all his feet pawing the air.  This is an old men’s story.  Tarak never saw such a bear or tracks. – Vilhjalmur Stefansson, in his Stefansson-Anderson expedition journal, 1908-1912 One of the wonderful things about monsters is that you can make them even more monstrous by merging them together.  Many fabulous beasts are a fusion of animal body parts, or of multiple instances of the same creature crammed together: one body with three heads or nine tails.  So too the qupqugiaq of the Arctic, who the Inuit and Inupiat peoples describe as a massive polar bear with ten legs.  During blizzards, the qupqugiaq rolls onto its back and waves all its limbs in the air.  Fooled by the swirling snow, the unwary hunter mistakes the moving legs for a human crowd and goes to them.  Then the qupqugiaq tears him into more than ten pieces, and feasts well. We don’t know much more than that about qupqugiaqs (most of those who survive an encounter only do so by killing the bear), although it would be wrong to think of them as malignant creatures just because they like to snack on human beings.  That’s just bears being bears.  Evidently the ten-legged polar bear can be an aid as well as a danger.  In Explorations in Anthropology and Theology, by Frank A. Salamone and Walter R. Adams, the authors’ Inupiat host describes how his son inherited a ten-legged bear as an animal helper (a feral kind of guardian angel) from an ancestor.  ‘Polar bear helpers grow to a gigantic size,’ he explains, ‘then develop three more pairs of legs to become the ten-legged polar bears known as kiniq or qoqoqiaq.’ There’s another kind of many-legged and nigh-on mythic bear out there, officialy named the tardigrade but more commonly referred to as the water bear.  At less than a millimetre in size, it’s obviously not a member of the ursidae family of mammals.  But, hey, those extra limbs also bar the ten-legged polar bear from entry into the mammalian club, so I’m calling both of these creatures as members of familus qupqugiaq.  To make up for their size, water bears have powers.  They can ressurect themselves, for a start, and they can become invulnerable … Read More



AliFigments: A Bestiary

She appeared to be a slight and graceful person, handsomely dressed; and her hair was arranged like that of a young girl of good family.  ‘O-jochu,’ he exclaimed, approaching her, ‘O-jochu, do not cry like that! … Tell me what the trouble is; and if there be any way to help you I shall be glad to help you.’  (He really meant what he said; for he was a very kind man.)  But she continued to weep – hiding her face from him with one of her long sleeves … Then that O-jochu turned around, and dropped her sleeve, and stroked her face with her hand – and the man saw that she had no eyes or nose or mouth.’ – from Mujina by Lafcadio Hearn The only interesting thing about a monster is its humanity.  When, in the back of a book of a thousand imaginary beings, I came upon a Japanese print labelled Noppera-bo, I was at once struck by its sense of sadness.  It seemed like it carried a weight too heavy for a creature so small and shapeless.  This noppera-bo was a strange, sagging creature with an arrangement of wrinkles in place of a face.  I started reading what I could about it: that it was a ghost found weeping or in great distress.  When comforted, it would turn to face the comforter then wipe a hand across its face.  With that motion its features would smudge away: eyes, nose and lips smoothing out into a face as plain as eggshell. I loved this story but it didn’t seem to fit the wrinkled fellow in my print.  Turns out that little guy is a nuppeppo, a different kind of ghost entirely, whom the compilers of my book had confused with the noppera-bo.  There’s not a lot to be said about the nuppeppo, except that he smells of fetid meat and to eat him grants immortality.  But I don’t think the world needs the sort of people who’d cook nuppeppos to live forever. But what of the noppera-bo?  Facelessness is a powerful idea.  We’re hard-wired to hone in on human faces and pick them out in the most unlikely of places.  There was a spot in 2011’s Royal Institute Christmas lectures in which Bruce Hood showed an eleven week old baby one abstract pattern and one pattern that resembled a human face.  Immediately the baby attuned himself to the face (you can watch it here – fascinating from start to finish but the bit I mentioned starts at 7.20).  Likewise we often imagine faces in clouds, bark or the burned surfaces of our toast.  Since we’re so hyper-sensitive to the pattern of a human face, it follows that we’re  unnerved on some deep-seated level if we focus on the place where a face should be and find it wiped away – find nothing there at all. When I was a kid, my art hero was Francis Bacon.  My noppera-bo pastel drawings at the top of this post … Read More



AliFigments: A Bestiary

She is one of the Panotii.  She has ears so big that she can hear evil.  Sometimes she goes out with no clothes on, because her ears are big enough to wrap around her and keep her warm. She lives on an island along with the other Panotii.  Noted cataloguer of made-up beings, Pliny the Elder, wrote that this place, this All-Ears Island, lay somewhere within landlocked Asia.  Another ancient geographer, Pomponius Mela, thought it was one of the Orkney Isles.  Thankfully, the mapmakers of the Hereford Mappa Mundi, a 700-year-old map inked onto vellum, cleared up the matter.  Their Mappa Mundi is a fabulous work, as attested to here What the BBC video doesn’t show is a little island in the top left of the map.  Squint at this and you’ll see it… …but in case you couldn’t make it out, here’s a close-up. That’s All-Ears Island, and let me give you its geographical context in the world as we know it.  The furthest north point on this map is India, and the British Isles are in the bottom left, at about eight o’clock.  That circle in the centre of the map is Jerusalem.  Midway between Jerusalem and ten o’clock is Noah’s Ark, while Gog and Magog are closer to eleven.  By now you should have a pretty clear idea of where All-Ears Island exists. ~ Time for a big-eared interlude, because it’s cute to do so. ~ Sebastian Brant wrote about the Panotti in his edition of Aesop’s Fables (that’s his woodcut, above, from page 372), while they also appear in the Nuremberg Chronicle (below) and in the bottom right corner of this elaborate stone relief from the Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine in France. The British Library has another fabulous image on its site, into which you can zoom and zoom until you can see the brush marks in the ink I like the way this Panotii has rolled up its ears to either eschew decency or catch some sun.  The BL’s accompanying article states that the Panotii can even escape from danger by flapping their ears and flying away.  Which reminds me of this…