They’re a common sight in mythology and literature, and they’re bound to show up whenever a hero has too much uninterrupted screen time. Why do they keep showing up, and, more importantly, what are they?
The answer, in a word, is “monsters”.
But Wait, There’s More
Oddly enough, the idea of monsters has remained static for the majority of human history. From ancient days up until the 18th century, they simply were what they were, and it didn’t even occur to people to put a new spin on them or try to evolve the concept.
But when the 19th century rolled around, a number of new developments occurred. And those developments were so powerful that they monopolize the popular ideas about monsters to this day.
From this point forward, we get the tragic monsters: the victims of terrible accidents or neglect, the symptomatic creations of environmental destruction, and the just plain misunderstood misfits with hearts of gold.
Some of them are so misunderstood that it is LITERALLY THE ONLY THING THEY CAN EVER TALK ABOUT. Somebody needs to give poor Edward a gold medal for the 100-meter pity party.
These are not the monsters I am going to talk about today.
Because in order to really understand the appeal of monsters, we have to go back to their roots. Back when they represented the unknown and unsaveable. Even the human-as-monster phenomenon, with its vampires and werewolves (and these are relatively recent additions to monster canon) started out as unsympathetic and irredeemable freaks of supernature.
And if we go even further back than those, we discover the truly eldritch monstrosities of our collective mythology—primal things that live in the darkest corners of our collective nightmares.
These older forms have a lot more staying power than their modern counterparts, and are much more universal in their appeal because they are created from the basest instincts of our reptilian brains, which cannot be overwritten by our artificial upbringing, our civilized facade.
This is one of the reasons why Lovecraft inspired so many other authors. When creating his monsters, he tapped into a kind of fear that the ancients knew all too well. And if you are going to inspire fear as a writer, you’re going to want to know where monsters came from.
They Come in Two Great-tasting Flavors
The first thing we must remember, when we consider the origin of monsters, is that there are actually two origins. Meaning that the original monsters of old fall into two categories. These groups are so different that it boggles the mind how the one word—monster—came to describe them both. It must be a quirk of the English language, as there is no sensible explanation for it.
So, for clarification, I take it upon myself to finally separate these two groups and assign unique names to each. For the purposes of this post, we shall simply call them “Godsters” and “Mansters”.
Godsters: Shapers of the World
Godsters, as the name implies, are menaces to the gods, and they appear in every mythology. The purpose of the godster is to vex and challenge the gods, doing such mighty battle with them that the scars of the conflict remain for all recorded time.
In other words, godsters were invented as a way of explaining geographic phenomena.
Where did that undulating mountain range come from? Oh, it’s just the corpse of a giant serpent that was slain by the gods.
How did those canyons get there? Oh, those are the talon marks made by the death throes of the giant bird who fought a mighty battle with the gods long ago.
And that lake? Formed by the enormous rump of the world-eating hippopotamus that the maiden goddess foolishly got for Christmas.
Even the world’s own existence could be thought of as a byproduct of monstrous intervention. In Judeo-Christian tradition, the creation of the world was borne out of a pre-Genesis war between God and the Leviathan.
Bet they didn’t teach you this one in Sunday School
It’s an exciting subject, though it does come with some hefty limitations. In any authentic myth, only gods can destroy the godsters. In modern storytelling, there is a trend of pitting human characters against them, but this is merely a political invention, meant to reinforce the humanist agenda of post-industrial-revolution society. Through sheer Nietzchean hubris, we have our human heroes performing acts that even the gods could not accomplish and slaying beasts that divine powers can only seal away, at best. And it is rarely explained in any satisfactory way.
Besides, humans have their own monsters to deal with.
Mansters: the Natural Predator of Humans
As godsters make trouble for, and are defeated by, gods, so do Mansters make trouble for humans, and ultimately are vanquished by them.
They are not so much used to explain geographical landmarks, except in a few cases. They are, however, used to explain another common phenomenon that has baffled humans since the beginning: sudden and/or unexplained death.
Your livestock keep disappearing, but you’re sure that there are no wolves nearby? It must be those darn trolls coming down from the hills.
People who visit this one river keep disappearing? Well there must be a kappa in that river. It’s the only explanation.
Your male children keep dying in their cribs? That’s Lillith for you. She’s peachy keen on sneaking into your nursery for a taste of that sweet, sweet boysoul.
Mansters can, in many cases, be killed by heroes, though that doesn’t always work, as some mansters are perennial scapegoats and, according to mythology, are still at large. However, they are a lot less sinister than most godsters, as mansters really only have one motive: predation.
And that’s easy to understand, because if there’s one thing that ancient humans understood, it’s that everything is eaten by something. The lack of a universal human-preying species was doubtlessly confusing to the ancients, so they invented new species to fill that role. In this sense, mansters are little more than fictional animals—vicious but still natural. In a few cases, they exhibited some kind of supernatural prowess, but most of them were only deadly because of how much stronger they were than humans.
And these are the most ancient examples of monsters in the human psyche. There are exceptions, of course. Some types of monsters could fall into either category. The most famous example of this would be dragons, which, depending on the mythology, could face off against either gods or men.
But by and large, the two-category system encompasses all the monsters of the ancient world.
Monsters today are almost unrecognizable from what they were originally. There is a case to be made that this evolution happened for a reason, and was even beneficial. However, a similar case exists to support the idea that the ancient concept is more valid. After all, if you take the monstrousness out of the monster, is he really a monster anymore?
And there is profit to be had from examining monsters in their original forms, as they can evoke universal emotions that are hard to reproduce otherwise. As stated before, this is one of the reasons why H.P. Lovecraft was so good at making people afraid. And you can do that, too.
So have fun making monsters, and remember that they are just as important as your heroes when it comes to making a good story.
[This week’s tagline: “Where people come…when they’re being hunted.”]