The best books for following mythical beasts through time

Joseph Nigg Author Of The Book of Fabulous Beasts: A Treasury of Writings from Ancient Times to the Present
By Joseph Nigg

Who am I?

Ancient mythical animals are all around us in words and images. Following the transformations of such animals through literature and art across millennia has been my passion since the early ’80s. It was then, after years of writing and teaching, that I became intrigued by a winged and fishtailed lion figure on an antique oil lamp hanging in my study. That hybrid creature led me to the eagle-lion griffin and my first published book, The Book of Gryphons. I have followed a host of mythical beasts ever since. My most recent book, The Phoenix: An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast, was published in a 2021 Chinese translation.


I wrote...

The Book of Fabulous Beasts: A Treasury of Writings from Ancient Times to the Present

By Joseph Nigg,

Book cover of The Book of Fabulous Beasts: A Treasury of Writings from Ancient Times to the Present

What is my book about?

This illustrated collection of writings about fantastic animals, from the Babylonian epic of creation to The Hobbit of J. R. R. Tolkien, spans millennia. More than a hundred primary sources in multiple literary genres chart imaginary animals’ classical and medieval rise, post-Renaissance fall, and return to the world on the other side of belief. 

Getting permission to reprint texts and art from international libraries and museums was, of course, the final stage of research for this book. The most surprising art permission I finally acquired was for the Scandinavian Midgard Serpent. After a thousand years, the manuscript had recently been returned from Denmark to Iceland. A joy to produce, Fabulous Beasts provided a body of research for my later books.

The books I picked & why

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The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century

By T. H. White,

Book cover of The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century

Why this book?

This first complete English translation of a twelfth-century Latin bestiary has served me well as a partial map for following mythical beasts through time—from when the unicorn, griffin, and other fantastic creatures were considered part of God’s animal kingdom. T.  H. White supplements his translation of the moralized Christian bestiary with his own learned and entertaining footnotes and afterword. His “Family Tree” graph of Western animal studies highlights classical and medieval authors and ends with “Sir Thomas Browne’s Vulgar Errors,” the end of bestiary lore and the beginning of modern biology.


Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or, Enquiries Into Very Many Received Tenents, and Commonly Presumed Truths

By Sir Thomas Browne,

Book cover of Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or, Enquiries Into Very Many Received Tenents, and Commonly Presumed Truths

Why this book?

Don’t be scared off by this 1646 book. It’s essential for anyone who follows mythical beasts through time. One of the best-known parts of Browne’s influential book is Book III: “Of divers popular and received Tenets concerning Animals, which examined, prove either false or dubious.” By discrediting the classical and medieval authorities that perpetuated them, he considers the griffin, basilisk, unicorn, amphisbaena, and phoenix to be “fabulous,” thus separating them from the actual animal kingdom after centuries of general belief.

The now obscure Alexander Ross, “Champion of the Ancients,” refuted Browne’s book virtually point for point in his 1652 Arcana Microcosmi. Ross lost that Battle of the Books between the ancients and the moderns. Mythical animals rarely appeared in eighteenth-century literature, but they rose again a century later.


The Lore of the Unicorn

By Odell Shepard,

Book cover of The Lore of the Unicorn

Why this book?

The unicorn and the dragon are still the two most ubiquitous animals to emerge from the host of fantastic creatures that began spreading through popular books, art, and film in the late 1970s. Years before the unicorn’s commercial popularity, Odell Shepard’s classic book, The Lore of the Unicorn, traced the millennia-long cultural transformations of the mysterious animal, beginning with an early traveler’s tale of the wild asses of India. 

I admire Shepard’s blending of personal voice with wide-ranging research and commentary. He opens his introduction with, “On the table before me, there lies a long straight wand of ivory,” a walking stick made of narwhal tusk, which for centuries had been accepted as unicorn horn.


Mythical and Fabulous Creatures: A Source Book and Research Guide

By Malcolm South,

Book cover of Mythical and Fabulous Creatures: A Source Book and Research Guide

Why this book?

As the late 1970s popularity of fantastic creatures continued to spread, professor Malcolm South edited a research guide that follows twenty imaginary animals and creatures through time. The substantial 1987 book is highly schematic in South’s earnest attempt to sum up what was known about particular mythical beasts and imaginary creatures during their recent surge in popularity. Illustrations, a glossary, and even a taxonomy supplement specialists’ articles and bibliographies about creatures from the unicorn and other major mythical animals to the vampire and werewolf, giants, and fairies. 

All my previous recommended books are cited in South’s sourcebook. I’ve been much indebted to it for research leads over the years and highly recommend it as a standard source for any reader following mythical beasts and other creatures.


Imaginary Animals: The Monstrous, the Wondrous and the Human

By Boria Sax,

Book cover of Imaginary Animals: The Monstrous, the Wondrous and the Human

Why this book?

I love this lavishly produced 2013 book. It overarches my other recommended “best books for following mythical beasts through time.” Titles of early chapters—“What is an Imaginary Animal?” “Every Real Animal is Imaginary,” and “Every Imaginary Animal is Real”—encompass the book’s interplay between nature’s animals, imaginary ones, and human beings.

Open Imaginary Animals anywhere to get a glimpse of its variety and scope. Boria Sax’s interdisciplinary, learned, and conversational text sweeps across folklore, legends, myths, and natural history of worldwide cultures from antiquity to today. Accompanying art, much in color, spans a Lascaux cave painting and a photograph of a human-looking robot; throughout are fantastic creatures in paintings, early natural history engravings, and other pictorial forms.

As Dr. Sax writes, “Imaginary creatures can be overwhelming in their multiplicity.”


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