Flightiness

Marina Warner

  • Women Who Fly: Goddesses, Witches, Mystics and Other Airborne Females by Serinity Young
    Oxford, 432 pp, £19.99, May, ISBN 978 0 19 530788 7

At the furthest edges of the known world, medieval travellers encountered creatures who held a single giant foot over their head as a makeshift parasol and fearsome hybrids with eyes peering out from their chests or set in the middle of their foreheads: they were classed as wonders, close kin to the monsters and dragons of classical genealogies. When Thomas Browne was considering the dietary prohibitions in the Bible, he was puzzled that griffins were listed, commenting that griffins were ‘Poetical Animals, and things of no existence’. The combination of eagle and lion was, he wrote, ‘monstrous’ and couldn’t possibly exist in reality, although he conceded that some flying creatures ‘of mixed and participating natures, that is, between bird and quadruped’ – he cites bats as an example – are ‘a commixtion of both, rather than an adaptation or cement of prominent parts unto each other’.

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