copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman
Today, when we think of monsters, we envision something like Frankenstein’s creature, a troll, or a misshapen blob. That’s not what the word originally meant--or not quite what it meant. “Monster” initially referred to an animal or other creature (humans, for example) that were malformed, often because of a birth defect. The word “monster” meant, literally, “omen, portent, or sign,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, and monsters were regarded as “signs or omens of impending evil.” The sense of “abnormal or prodigious animals composed of parts of creatures,” a la many of the creatures of ancient Egyptian, Greek, and other mythologies, originated about 1385, the dictionary asserts, adding that the “sense of ‘person of inhuman cruelty or wickedness’ is from 1556.” By 1556, “monster” had come to also signify a “person of inhuman cruelty or wickedness.”
What was monstrous about monsters? The etymology of the word “monstrous,” the adjective derived from the noun “monster,” gives us a clue or two: “Monstrous,” according to the dictionary meant “unnatural, deviating from the natural order, hideous,” picking up the additional senses of meaning of “enormous” and “outrageously wrong” only later. The existence of monsters was once a subject of study known as teratology (from “teratos,” meaning “marvel” or “monster,” and “-ology,” meaning “study of”).
The etymologies of many of the words for monsters disclose the fears upon which many of them rested. Often, monsters were associated not only with death as such, but also with the horrible way in which one died at the hands--or rather, at the teeth and claws--of various monsters. Often, the unnatural creatures ate people alive, perhaps regarding them much as Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s vampire, Spike, thought of people--as “Happy Meals with legs.” However, a victim might be strangled (and then eaten, dead). For example, the Online Etymology Dictionary relates the following information concerning:
- Manticore = man-eater
- Ogre = man-eating giant
- Orc = devouring monster
- Sphinx = strangler.
A monster such as the water-dwelling afranc, with appetites for cattle rather than humans, was also feared, because, in eating the cattle, it deprived people of beef (although, it might be supposed, from the cattle’s point of view, the humans who consume them might also have been monsters). After all, what frightens us, as we observe in “Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of
Fear,” is really threats to the people and things we hold dear.
Some monsters suggest that we fear meaninglessness, too (a threat to our need to believe that our existence is important and purposeful). Some unnatural creatures imply that life, including human existence, might be absurd. One such monster is the moon-calf, whose name meant “abortive, shapeless, fleshly mass.” (One thinks of a tumor or an aborted fetus, perhaps.)
What’s most interesting to me is that the word “monster” is contrasted with the concept of normalcy, because a monster, originally, was a creature that was considered, in some way, unnatural. The ancients, of course, believed in natural laws. In physics, these were the laws of nature that controlled cosmic events. For society, similar laws of human nature controlled--or, at least, determined--what was right and proper conduct. These laws were inborn; they were the essential qualities with which one was born and which governed--or should govern--his or her behavior. To act against these natural laws was to act against nature, or to act unnaturally--to behave as a monster and, therefore, to become a monster.