Moonlit blue-tinted night, billowy curtains flicking edges of open terrace doors, impending danger for two sky-gazing protagonists. In swoops a softly neighing white horse with wings so large they trail on the ground when folded.
My first memory of Pegasus.
Despite the grainy TV picture and the obviously unrealistic set of what must have been an ancient Hollywood film, I only remember the awe. The magic! A flying horse, whoever thought of that?
Afterwards, catching a glimpse of a flying lion in a show about Narnia somehow didn’t do it for me. Not to say that Aslan is comparable to Pegasus, but perhaps there is a little idea-bulb in every child’s mind belonging to winged animals, and it can only be turned on once: first-imagined best-imagined?
Fictional cross-breeds, or hybrids, are produced by mating or creatively putting together a few different species. They’ve populated humankind’s imagination as long as shape-shifters.
I won’t attempt a classification—Wikipedia is thorough. However, since I mentioned horses and lions, here’s a taster for their hybrids.
With lion bodies:
- The Great Sphinx of Giza (built c. 2550 BCE) has a human head, but the mythological sphinx also has wings.
- The manticore, a fantastic man-eater creature from Persian mythology, has a human head and a scorpion’s tail (recorded by Pliny the Elder c. 70 CE).
- The lamassu, an Assyrian protective deity, has a human head and wings (first recorded in 3000 BCE).
- The Lion of Venice has wings (erected in the 12th century).
- The griffin has the head and wings of an eagle (traced back to before 3000 BCE).
With horse bodies:
- The hippogriff, a second-generation cross-breed born to a horse and a griffin, has an eagle’s head and wings (first mentioned by Virgil in his Eclogues from 37 BCE).
- Pegasus, the child of the Greek god Poseidon and the Gorgon Medusa, has wings.
- The unicorn, though not explicitly a cross-breed, is a fictional creature defined by an attribute present in other animals (rhinos, antelopes) but not on horses: namely the single, straight horn.
- The winged unicorn, another second-generation cross-breed not encountered often, born to Pegasus and a unicorn, and facing a thorny naming issue: should it be called a unisus, a unipeg, a pegacorn, or an alicorn? (This Oxford Dictionaries blog post elaborates.)
- The hippocampus, a sea-horse from Greek mythology, has a fish’s tail instead of the hind two hooves.
- The centaur, creature of Greek myth, has the upper body of a man (like Chiron in the final picture below).
- Slepnir, the child of the Norse god Loki and a stallion called Svaðilfari that helped build the fortifications around Valhalla, has eight legs. He is ridden by Odin.
With the exception of Pegasus and Slepnir who were born to gods, it’s almost as if cross-breeds are made of readily interchangeable body parts.
In real life we’re more likely to get sterile blends like a mule or hinny (from a horse and a donkey) or like a liger or tigon (from a lion and a tiger). Even before horticulture discovered grafting to get hybrid plants, natural inosculation occurred between proximate, twining plants. Today we have plum and apricot hybrids, such as pluots, plumcots, apriplums, apriums.
What about humans? Chimeras, mermaids, sirens, Death from Milton’s Paradise Lost (son of Satan and Sin, where Sin is also Satan’s daughter) and all the various human-bodied deities with non-human heads, like the ancient Egyptian god of the sun Ra (flacon’s head), or the Hindu god Ganesha (Elephants’s head). For a neat classification of many hybrids see this Wikipedia page.
Most of the above-mentioned creatures are familiar; their histories and cultural references explaining, perhaps justifying, their particular dual nature. I’m curious about the more exotic varieties. In The Book of Imaginary Beings, Borges presents, amongst others, a Mermecolion: lion in its foreparts, ant in its hindparts. Since the father of such a creature eats flesh and the mother grains, the Mermecolion can eat neither. Therefore, it perishes.
Kafka invents something equally weird. The following quotes are from his short story A Crossbreed (translated by Willa and Edwin Muir).
I have a curious animal, half kitten, half lamb. […] From the cat it takes its head and claws, from the lamb its size and shape; from both its eyes, which are wild and flickering, its hair, which is soft, lying close to its body, its movements, which partake both of skipping and slinking.
Can you imagine what it looks like? What about its behaviour?
Lying on the window sill in the sun it curls up in a ball and purrs; out in the meadow it rushes about like mad and is scarcely to be caught. It flees from cats and makes to attack lambs. On moonlight nights its favorite promenade is along the eaves. It cannot mew and it loathes rats. Beside the hen coop it can lie for hours in ambush, but it has never yet seized an opportunity for murder.
The narrator describes something which is neither this nor that, and worst of all, is seemingly not a coherent whole. When this kitten-lamb doesn’t want to leave the narrator’s side, he jokes:
Not content with being lamb and cat, it almost insists on being a dog as well.
If shape-shifters face prejudice for their behaviour, cross-breeds not only face the prejudices surrounding non-conventional ancestry, but they also face the problem of identity. Shape-shifters maintain their internal core, while cross-breeds must struggle to find their own, new middle ground. Or seek out a sideways shift: to dogs, for example.
Finally, when Kafka’s narrator sees the creature’s tears he comments:
Had this cat, along with the soul of a lamb, the ambitions of a human being?
The most sophisticated character development of any non-human fictional creature is personification. Indeed, personification itself is a hybridisation of the creature with human nature. Tolkien’s fox who saunters by the hobbits and has an anthropomorphic interior monologue is neither ordinary fox nor extraordinary man.
Who’s your favourite cross-bread?
- Tech integrations are a staple of Sci-Fi: limb replacement, combating disease and environmental stress through technological grafts, mental and physical ability-enhancement (chips in brains, iron claws in hands), creation of fighting machines (e.g. RoboCop) or transferring human consciousness into computerised entities (robots, AI starships, etc).
- Genetic tinkering is the modern version of cross-breeding and involves an exterior party—the tinkerer.
- Multiple identities living in a single body, due to nature, magic or science: involves explorations of mental illnesses as well as literal cohabitation of multiple identities in one brain and body (e.g. Dollhouse).
This post is part of series on the fantastic grotesque.
- Judging a Book by its Quirk Words: on Léon Bloy’s Tarantula’s Parlour and Other Unkind Tales (1893–4).
- Diabolical Framings: on Jules Barbey’s Diaboliques (1874).
- Urns as Hearts: on Jean Lorrain’s Soul-Drinker (1890s).
- Alone (With Only Your Demons for Company): on Michel de Ghelderode’s Spells (1941).
- Various articles on Henri Michaux’s Life in the Folds (1949): Fearing Fate; Fearing Change; Fearing Pain; Terror-Horror-Revulsion; Hiding Fear Behind Scientific Words; Writing Helplessness; Dangerous Associations; Paralipsis and Ironic Process; Zeus in the Attic.
- Unsaid Goodbyes: on Gabrielle Wittkop’s Exemplary Departures (1998).
- Siren, Man, Mandrake Stem: on mixing metaphors in a quote from Exemplary Departures.
- Wittkop’s Necrophiliac: On Gabrielle Wittkop’s Necrophiliac (1972) and the questions in raises.
- Kafka’s Harrow: On the creeping terror of the slow reveal in Kafka’s short story In the Penal Colony (1919).
- Kafka’s Hunger Artist: On Kafka’s Hunger Artist (1922) and the performance art of fasting.
- Kafka’s Invisibles: On invisibility in Kafka’s The Bucket Rider, Investigations of a Dog, Rejection, The Bridge.
- Imaginary Creatures: Shape-Shifters: On shape-shifting creatures and Kafka’s Report to an Academy (1917).
- Imaginary Creatures: Cross-Breeds: