February 21, 2012

The Classical Monster No One Wants To Fight

A common project of the AD&D days was the scouring of classical and world mythology for creatures that might be statted up and sent off to duke it out with dungeon-exploring adventuring parties. Some imaginary beasties, it transpires, are more equal than others. No death could be more honorable than that faced by characters falling before a chimera, basilisk or hydra—especially if temporary. Other classical creatures, like the peryton, seem like candidates for a monster reboot. It’s especially embarrassing to be killed by a creature that is likely not classical at all, but a recondite joke of Jorge Luis Borges’.

The divide between the purely mythical creature and mistaken belief about real animals also blurs the picture. Linnaeus, as he systematized taxonomy in the 18th century, still accepted the mermaid as a likely animal, if not a hybrid of woman and fish.

Earlier still, Aristotle’s confusion over the identity of the European buffalo led him to record the existence of one creature no one wants in a roleplaying bestiary, even though it’s totally clear what its attack form would be. This animal was given various names, including the catoblepas, and confused for an entire menagerie of creatures. Here’s the animal Aristotle assigns to one such name.

Aristotle described the bonasus as being capable of “projecting its excrement to a distance of eight yards…the excrement is so pungent that the hair of hunting dogs is burnt off by it.”

– from Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science, Carol Kaesuk Yoon

Despite the delight of twelve year old boys everywhere—or rather, because of it—the poor, imaginary bonasus never made it to the pages of a Monster Manual. And doubtless never will. Among the deaths too horrible to contemplate, demise by bonasus ranks humiliatingly high on the list.