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Literature / Book of Imaginary Beings

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Published in 1957, the Book of Imaginary Beings is one of Jorge Luis Borges' most famous works. A compendium of well over a hundred fantastical creatures, the entries in the Book of Imaginary Beings are short — very rarely longer than a page, and many are only a paragraph long — and not meant to be read in a linear fashion. Rather, the book is designed to be dipped into here and there, each entry being a self-contained window into a strange and wondrous world.

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Borges drew inspiration from many different sources; besides some fairly well-known mythical creatures, the Book describes entities from minor or obscure myths, beasts from literary works, abstract beings from philosophical thought experiments and fruits of Borges' own imagination, presented side-by-side with no particular distinction.

It was originally published in Spanish as the Manual de zoología fantástica, and expanded in 1967 and 1969 under the title of El libro de los seres imaginarios. The first English translation was published in 1969.


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Tropes:

  • All Trolls Are Different: Scandinavian trolls were originally the giants of Nordic myth, before being downgraded with the onset of Christianity. They are stupid, evil creatures who live in mountain caves and ramshackle hovels that they think are palaces, and drink a foul concoction that they think is a delicious brew. Particularly noteworthy trolls may have two or three heads.
  • Art Initiates Life: Chang Seng-yu's painted dragons remained such as long as he left them incomplete, but when he gave two of them eyes they turned into living dragons and flew away.
  • Basilisk and Cockatrice: Borges notes how the basilisk (also called the cockatrice)'s appearance has changed over the centuries; Pliny had it as a snake with a crown-shaped mark on its forehead, but in the Middle Ages it turned into a four-legged rooster with thorny wings, yellow feathers, a crown and a serpent's tail tipped with either a hook or another rooster's head. It is always a horribly deadly creature, at whose passage plants wilt and birds fall dead from the sky, which poisons the water from which it drinks, and whose gaze kills, withers plants and splits rocks. It lives only in deserts, because any land it settles become such. Its only weaknesses are weasels, which are immune to its power and attack it on sight; roosters, whose crowing sends it running in fear; and mirrors, as seeing its own reflection will strike it dead. One myth places the basilisk among the many snakes born from Medusa's severed head.
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  • Beauty = Goodness: According to one scholar, when Jinn take human form their appearance will be affected by their morality — good Jinn will be handsome, while evil ones will be hideous.
  • Carbuncle Creature: The Trope Maker; Borges made the carbuncle up more or less from whole cloth. The carbuncle is described as a small animal reported by conquistadors in South America. They were never seen clearly, so nobody actually knows if they are birds or mammals. They have small red stones or mirrors in their foreheads, similar to opals or to actual carbuncles, a name used for rubies or garnets, which are reputed to bring luck if obtained. Many hunted for the creature and its gem, but no-one succeeded. Borges further compares the carbuncle to the dragon and the toad, which were reputed to also bear precious stones in, respectively, their brains and their foreheads.
  • Dissimile: The goofang is described as being about the size of a sunfish, only much bigger.
  • Dragons Are Demonic: Western dragons are often used to symbolize the Devil in the Bible and Christian writings.
  • Eat Dirt, Cheap: One variant of the Alicanto bird feeds on gold, while the other feeds on silver. This heavy diet has the side-effect of making it incapable of flight, and it cannot even run with a full belly.
  • Fantastic Foxes: Chinese foxes can live for a thousand years, start fires by striking the ground with their tails, see into the future and take human shape. They are sometimes born from the souls of the dead taking on a new form, and will cause no end of mischief to those who cross them.
  • Fauns and Satyrs: They're the same thing; the Greeks called them satyrs, the Romans called them fauns, pans or sylvans. They have the legs of goats, short horns, pointed ears and hooked noses. They are fond of wine, dancing, chasing nymphs and playing the flute, and are attendants of Bacchus.
  • Fearsome Critters of American Folklore:
    • Several are described under "Fauna of the United States", including the axehandle hound, which is shaped like a hatchet and eats the handles of the same; the gillygaloo, a bird whose square eggs lumberjacks hard-boil to use as dice; the goofang, a fish that swims backwards to keep the water out of its eyes; the goofus bird, which flies backwards and makes upside-down nests; the hidebehind, which is always hiding behind something and is impossible to escape; the pinnacle grouse, whose single wing forces it to fly in circles around a single mountain peak; the flightless roperite bird, which uses its lasso-like beak to ensnare rabbits; the teakettler, a dog with feline ears that makes noises like boiling kettles, issues smoke from its mouth and walks backwards; and the winged upland trout, which nests in trees and fears water. Borges notes that, in all likelihood, nobody ever believed that these things really existed.
    • The squonk (Lacrimacorpus dissolvens, meaning "dissolving tear-body") is given a chapter of its own. They live only in hemlock forests in Pennsylvania, and are in a state of constant grief due to their ill-fitting, wart-covered skin. They weep wherever they go, making them easy to track, and if caught, cornered or even simply surprised they dissolve into tears.
  • Fiery Salamander: Salamanders are lizards or worms whose skin is so cold that it extinguishes fire, allowing them to live amidst flames. Their legend eventually became conflated with that of the pyrausta, an insect that lives in fires and dies if it leaves them. Later myths described it as making cocoons that could be used to weave cloths that will not burn and can be cleaned by being placed in a fire; this was likely based on asbestos. In the middle ages, the salamander became an elemental spirit of fire.
  • Flying Face: The Chonchón, a Chilean creature resembling a disembodied head that flies with its prodigiously large ears.
  • Golem: Men of clay animated by the word emet written upon their foreheads or by a tablet placed under their tongues, which can be killed (or at least rendered inanimate, as they are not truly alive) by erasing the m in emet (truth) to turn it into met (death) or by removing the tablet. They are brought to life through the kabbalah, generally in emulation of God's act of creation, in order to act as servants and workers.
  • Hell: According to Emanuel Swedenborg, God forbid any map of Hell from being drawn, but it is believed to be something like a vast devil. The worst parts of it lie to its west.
  • Harping on About Harpies: Woman-headed vultures with a filthy smell and insatiable hunger, who raid others' food to gorge themselves and befoul with excrement that which they do not carry off.
  • A Head at Each End: The amphisbaena, a snake with an additional head instead of a tail. Borges describes a similar snake from the Antillles, called the doble andadora ("both-ways-goer"), and that some medieval conceptions of the basilisk gave it an additional rooster's head at the end of its tail. Sir Thomas Browne believed that no such creature could exist, as every animal needs to have a front, behind, top and bottom, and a creature with a head at each end would have two front and no behind and be therefore impossible.
  • Horned Humanoid: The thunder god Haokah has horns upon his head.
  • Karmic Transformation: Literally, in this case. There once lived a monk who liked to insult people by calling them things like "dog-head", "horse-head", "monkey-head" and so on when they made a mistake. When he died, his life’s accumulation of karma from these insults caused him to come back as a monstrous fish with a hundred animal heads.
  • Kirin: The Unicorn of China, or k'i-lin, has a deer's body, an ox's tail and a horse's head and hooves, as a well a short, fleshy horn in the middle of its forehead, and sometimes hair and sometimes scales. It is one of the four animals of good omen alongside the dragon, the phoenix and the tortoise, it never harms any living thing — it even avoids eating live grass — and its appearance heralds the birth of a righteous king. Killing one, or seeing its dead body, brings terrible luck. Borges describes a number of incidents involving these creatures:
    • A k'i-lin appeared to Confucius' mother when she was pregnant. The same k'i-lin was killed by hunters seventy years later, bringing the sage to tears for the ill omen this act foretold.
    • Genghis Khan's plans for a full invasion of China were halted when a chio-tuan, a variant of k'i-lin, appeared to his scouts and commanded them to tell their lord to return home, for Heaven was horrified by the bloodshed and war.
    • One of Emperor Shun's judges, two thousand two hundred years before Christ, had a creature resembling a one-horned goat that would refuse to harm those who had been falsely accused but headbutted the guilty.
  • Kraken and Leviathan: The Kraken is a mile and half wide, and often mistaken for an island.
  • A Load of Bull: Borges discusses the Greek Minotaur, opining that, although a house designed to make visitors lose their way is more fantastical than a man with the head of a bull, the two things go well together and it makes sense that a monstrous building would be home to a monstrous creature. He also notes that bull-headed figures feature prominently in Minoan art, and speculates that the Greek myth is likely just a faded retelling of much more horrifying tales.
  • Multiple Head Case: The Hundred-heads was a fish with a hundred distinct heads, each from a different animal.
  • Mix-and-Match Critters:
    • The Greek Chimera, a three-headed mix of lion, goat and snake.
    • A creature depicted in Franz Kafka's "Depiction of a Struggle" is part cat and part lamb, and combines the two creatures' habits and natures.
    • The hsiao has an ape's body, and owl's wings and talons, a man's head and a dog's tail.
    • The hua-fish, or flying snakefish, is a fish with the wings of a bird.
    • The huallepén has the head of a calf and the body of a sheep.
    • The myrmecoleon has the forequarters of a lion and the hindquarters of an ant. Its existence is paradoxical and, because the lion will only eat meat and the ant only digest grain, it its doomed to starve.
  • Orochi: The Eight-Forked Serpent of Koshi, which had eight tails and eight heads, was so large that trees grew on its backs and heads and that its body stretched over eight valleys and eight hills, and had devoured a king's seven daughters over seven years. When it came back for the eighth, a god (whom Borges names "Brave-Swift-Impetuous-Male") got it drunk on rice beer and cut off its heads.
  • Our Angels Are Different:
    • The prophet Ezekiel was visited by four angelic beings in a vision, each of which had four faces — one human, one leonine, one taurine and one aquiline. In addition, they were accompanied by four wheels or rings that were filled with eyes. They are referred to collectively as the Hayoth, although Kabbalistic tradition names them Haniel, Kafziel, Azriel and Aniel, and are said to have been used by God to create the world.
    • According to Emanuel Swedenborg, angels are the souls of the righteous who have been admitted into Heaven. They can communicate without words, and are minute Heavens in themselves; likewise, Heaven is itself like an angel. They are always face to face with God no matter where they turn, and if two people loved each other in life they become a single angel in Heaven.
  • Our Banshees Are Louder: As no one has ever actually laid eyes on one, they don't seem to be tangible creatures so much as a dismoded keening that comes to houses in the Scottish Highlands to foretell the imminent death of a resident.
  • Our Centaurs Are Different:
    • Borges describes most of the main Greek myths concerning centaurs, in addition to an incident where a herdsman brought an infant centaur birthed by one of his mare to the ruler of Corinth (which the ruler's court sage implied was born from… less than wholesome practices on the herdsman's part) and Lucretius' claim in De rerum natura that centaurs are impossible due to the different growth cycles of men and horses — a three-year-old centaur would be part adult horse and part babbling child, and the horse half would die fifty years before the human one.
    • Ichtyocentaurs, discussed separately, originate after the period when most myth-making took place but are very common in Greek and Roman art. They have the tail of a dolphin and the forelegs of a horse or lion, and live among the gods and sea horses in the ocean.
  • Our Demons Are Different: According to Emanuel Swedenborg, devils are the souls of people who chose Hell rather than Heaven; they are not happy there, but would have been unhappier still in Heaven. They are hideous and malformed, with heads that are those of animals or shapeless lumps of flesh, but think themselves handsome. They are always in bitter conflict with one another, and only come together to plot and scheme against each other. Much like with angels and Heaven, devils are miniature Hells in themselves and Hell is much like a devil.
  • Our Dragons Are Different:
    • Chinese dragons symbolize yang, wisdom, the Emperor (deceased Emperors were said to have ascended to heaven on the back of a dragon), rain and rivers, and are one of the four magic animals alongside phoenixes, unicorns and tortoises. Borges describes them as essentially angels that are also lions. They are horned and with backbones bristling with spines, and carry pearls that are the seat of their power — if their pearls are taken, they become powerless and easily tamed. The painter Chang Seng-yu once made a wall painting depicting four dragons, but left out the eyes. When people complained about this, the annoyed Chang completed two of the figures, which turned into real dragons with a thunderclap and ascended to Heaven, while the two eyeless ones remained paintings.
    • Eastern dragons are described separately from the Chinese kind. They have a chimeric mix of features, including the head of a horse or a camel, the horns of a stag, the ears of an ox (although they may lack ears, and hear through their horns instead), the scales of a fish, the talons of an eagle, the tail of a snake and the belly of a clam. They may possess wings or lack them, but can fly in either case. They are migratory, moving into the sky during the spring and into the sea during the fall. Four kinds exist: Celestial Dragons, which carry the palaces of the gods on their backs; Divine Dragons, which create wind and rain; Terrestrial Dragons, which oversee the courses of rivers and streams; and Subterranean Dragons, which watch over treasures forbidden to men. There are also the five Dragon Kings, which are five miles long, live in the sea and can cause mountains to collapse when they move.
    • Western dragons, in the modern day, are heavy-bodied reptiles with wings and claws, and belch forth fire and smoke. In Greek and Roman times, the term was used for any reptile of considerable size. According to Pliny, dragons craved elephant blood, which is said to be very cool, during the summer, which they obtain by coiling around the beast and draining it dry. This spells the dragon's doom, however, as the dead elephant falls over and crushes the dragon under its weight. Pliny also said that Ethiopian dragons sometimes cross the Red Sea to find better hunting grounds, crossing in groups of four or five by coiling themselves into rafts and floating across. They are generally held to be evil creatures and to hoard treasure, and many heroes need to slay a dragon at some point.
    • A dragon is described that lived in a river in France and killed all passers-by; it possessed a long pair of sharp tusks, and was the offspring of Leviathan and a wild ass.
  • Our Elves Are Better: The fairytale kind. Elves, or alps, are tiny, mischievous beings and rarely seen by people, and cause a great deal of mischief. They steal cattle and children, lie on sleepers' breasts to cause troubled dreams, tie hair into knots and shoot tiny iron arrows that vanish into the skin without a trace and cause sudden painful stitches.
  • Our Fairies Are Different: Beautiful but mischievous beings that appear in legends all over the world. They can the same size as people, taller or no more than three feet tall. They kidnap people and imprison them underground, and the Italian fata morgana creates mirages with which to confuse sailors and make them run aground. While they may take mortal lovers, they will often kill their partners once this whim passes. They are fond of song, music and the color green.
  • Our Genies Are Different: The Jinn were created from smokeless fire by Allah like angels were created from light and men from earth. They are normally invisible but can take many forms, and live in wells, crossroads and abandoned houses. They can be good or evil and pious or impious, and due to being able to access the lower heavens and listen to the conversations of the angels they can provide soothsayers with knowledge of the future.
  • Our Gnomes Are Weirder: Paracelsian spirits of the earth, typically depicted as short, ugly dwarves wearing beards and brown clothing. They guard treasure under the earth, and their name may be derived from the Greek word gnosis, "knowledge", due to them knowing precisely where veins of precious metal lie.
  • Our Gryphons Are Different:
    • Sir John Mandeville, in his fantastic accounts of his supposed travels, reported that griffons were large enough to carry off two oxen together, while medieval texts and artwork typically used griffons as symbols of Christ.
    • Hippogriffs are inherently paradoxical things, as griffons' hatred of horses was so well-known that "to breed horses with griffons" was a saying referring to an impossible task. Ludovico Ariosto was inspired by this saying to create a hippogriff for the Orlando Furioso, which is used as a steed by Astolpho until he sets it free late in the poem.
  • Our Hydras Are Different: The Lernaean Hydra, the child of Typhon and Echidna, was a many-headed monster — most writers gave it seven heads, but some said fifty or even a hundred — which in some accounts were human. Two heads sprouted for every one cut off, and one head was immortal. It lived in the swamps around the lake of Lerna until killed by Hercules and Iolaus, who prevented its regrowth by branding its wounds with a burning iron and buried its immortal head under a rock. The head is still alive and lies under that rock to this day, hating and dreaming.
  • Our Manticores Are Spinier: The manticore is a monster like a blood-red lion with a human face, three rows of teeth, a tail ending in a stinger and a voice like flutes and trumpets. It can fling the barbs of its tail like arrows, and is fond of human flesh.
  • Our Mermaids Are Different: The Ocean Men of China have the heads and arms of humans and the bodies and tails of fish.
  • Our Perytons Are Different: The Book of Imaginary Beings is in fact the Trope Maker; Borges describes a medieval manuscript talking about the creatures, but both the source and the perytons are his invention. Supposedly, perytons originated in Atlantis and fled the island-nation's demise by flight, cast the shadow of a human being until they kill one, and were prophesized by a Sybil to someday destroy Rome. They are great enemies of mankind, but will only kill one victim and wallow in the remains before flying off again.
  • Our Werebeasts Are Different: Argentina is home to the lobisones, men who turn into pigs or dogs, and the tigres capiangos, who take the form of jaguars instead.
  • The Phoenix:
    • The Chinese phoenix is a brilliantly colored bird divided between the male of its species, called the Feng, and the female, called the Huang. Its appearance is a sign of celestial favor.
    • The Western kind is equated to the Egyptian benu bird, which, Borges considers fitting in light of the ancient Egyptians' own preoccupation with eternity. Early versions of the myth had the phoenix generating an offspring before death, but later variants had the bird itself be reborn in flame. In any case, the phoenix was generally linked with the Platonic concept of a cyclic and eternal universe.
  • Roc Birds: The rukh, or roc, is a vast exaggeration of an eagle or vulture typically found in the Indian Ocean. It may have been inspired by condors blown far from home, or may be a wholly fictitious creation. It is large enough to prey on elephants and enormous serpents, and was encountered by Sinbad and described by Marco Polo.
  • See the Invisible: Chonchóns are invisible to most people, but can be seen normally by wizards.
  • Snake People: Lamias, who are women from the waist up and snakes from the waist down.
  • Species-Specific Afterlife: According to Borges, the Bhil people of central India believe that there are hells appointed specifically for tigers.
  • Talking Animal: According to an African legend, all animals could talk until a man named Hochigan stole this gift from them. Descartes believed that all monkeys could talk but simply stayed silent so as to not be made to work, and an Argentine writer named Lugones claimed a chimp was taught to speak but died under the strain of this effort.
  • Turtle Island: The Fastitocalon, a great whale whose slumbering form can be mistaken for an island. When sailors land on it and kindle a fire on its back, the Fastitocalon awakes and dives back into the sea, dragging the sailors to their doom. In ancient times it was called the Aspidochelone and was described as a turtle, but the name became corrupted over time and one sea beast replaced the other. There is also the zaratan, which is much the same thing. The kraken is also often mistaken for an island.
  • Turtles All the Way Down: A number of variations of a certain Arabic myth posit that the world rests on an infinite series of vast things; as the Earth had no base at its creation, God had to place something beneath it, and as that had no base either something else had to go beneath it, and so on and so on. The idea behind these myths is to prove the necessity of God — everything needs a prior cause for its existence, and so God is required to avoid going back forever.
    • The first variant has the Earth upheld by an angel, which stands on a crag of ruby, which rests upon Kujata, a bull with four thousand eyes, ears, nostrils, mouths, tongues and feet, which stands on the great fish Bahamut, which floats on a great water, which rests on darkness, and whatever is below is darkness God alone knows.
    • A second has it that the Earth floats on a body of water upon the crag, which lies on Kujata's forehead; Kujata rests on a bed of sand upon Bahamut, which lies upon a stifling wind, which lies on a bank of mist, which lies on who knows what.
    • The third and final version places the Earth on an angel, the angel on the crag, the crag on Kujata's back, Kujata upon Bahamut and Bahamut upon a great sea. Beneath the sea is a chasm of air, then fire, then a serpent named Falak in whose mouth are the nine hells.
  • Unicorn: A creature known since the time of the Greek writer Ctesias, who reported it as wild ass with a white coat, a purple head, blue eyes and a pointed horn that is white at its base, black in the middle and with a red tip. Pliny described it as a horse with the tail of a boar, the feet of an elephant, the head of a stag and black horn three feet long. In modern depictions it is typically white, with legs like an antelope's and a beard like a goat's. It's often described as a fierce creature impossible to capture alive, which can kill an elephant with one strike of its horn and which is a mortal enemy of lions. It can be caught and rendered tame by a virgin maiden, which according to Leonardo da Vinci is due to the unicorn's lust overpowering its fierceness.
  • Vertebrate with Extra Limbs: Borges records a Siberian myth according to which antelopes once had six legs. This made them far too fast for humans to catch, so a divine huntsman cut off the hindmost pair to make them easier quarries.
  • Walking Wasteland: At a basilisk's passage, plants wilt and birds fall dead from the sky; any stream the creature drinks from becomes poisoned, and its gaze kills, withers plants and splits rocks. Basilisk always live in deserts, because any land they settle will quickly become a barren waste.

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