This Week’s Prompt: 122. Horrible things whispered in the lines of Gauthier de Metz (13th cen.) “Image du Monde”.
The Resulting Story: The Foundations
It took more time than I’d like to admit to track down a digital copy of Image du Monde in English. Even then, I found a prose version—not a poem. Still, I think the main points of the poem are kept intact. It is a summary of all the kingdoms, animals, plants, places, and so forth of the world. The poem explains in the first the beginning of the world, posits some theories on why the world and heavens are formed the way they are, and then moves onto to describe the inhabitants of the three continents it recognizes (the poem refers to India, Africa, and Europe—but India is better understood as “all of Asia”).
The book examines both the real and the fantastic—and sometimes both. For instance, it describes the repeated story of a lion restoring their young with tears, and it’s description of a tiger—a blue furred cat with clear or white spots—is strange. At the same time, it endevors to explain customs and beliefs elsewhere, although through a Christian centric lense—the author makes no secret his opinion of those who confess their sins in public and think fire caries them to Heaven, for instance. There are other allusions to classical works—we even have reference to the tale of Atlantis, struck down by God in this case.
The book has some peculiarities—most of which are apparent and outlined in the introduction I had. One key difference is the break with where the center of the earth is—most books and bestiaries of the time place Jerusalem as the center of the earth. Here instead we have the city of Arym or Aaron, a city with round walls. This city has some Islamic mythical roots as the city where Iblis dwells—although to my frustration I couldn’t find another source on this that I could access. If anyone else can find a copy of what this references more directly, I’d be happy to review it.
There are otherwise a number of fantastic events. People cursed with tails for mocking a saint by tying fishtails to his clothes, for instance. And we are told that Aether, the element of the stars, shines because it is too pure to be gazed upon by those with sin. Which of course, all men are presupposed to have. We have stories of unicorns, manticores, basilisks, and others. Amazons and other fighting women are accounted for. Going through each would be a bit tedious, so I will present a selection of them here. We are informed of how long Adam has been walking towards Heaven, a journey he began after Eden (a few thousand years left).
We are also told that the founders of the liberal arts foresaw the coming deluge and a second destruction of the world by fire, and so they raised up two pillars. The first of iron to withstand the waters, the other of brick to withstand the flames, and on these they wrote down the ancient knowledge. This I think has plenty of Lovecraftian echoes of strange wall writings and the like—although the preservation of such knowledge by human hands is a bit rarer.
Magog and Gog are accounted for, the great giants who were sealed away by alexander and who’s tribes fight to this day. Also accounted for are nations of cannibals, sun worshipers, and men that are part beast. One nation is called out as especially fearsome, of men with the heads of dogs who have terrible claws that they can slay any they get their hands on. They have the voice of dogs, yet are notably clothed—these fierce men are then more akin to wild men then beast.
We have in the more monstrous category the aforementioned animals—but also the Salamander. Intriguingly, the salamander is mentioned as having wool that if woven into clothes will make one immune fire proof. There is a mythical panther, who’s coat appears painted, and who’s breath is so sweet that it lures along other animals—except serpents, who the breath kills. We have also strange nations marked—the land where Sodom and Gomorrah are, which are noted as barren and uninhabited. After the Amazons, there are mentions of warrior women who’s skin is pale as snow and who have teeth like a hounds.
Fascinatingly, an entire section is given over to Ireland—more than to anywhere else in Europe. We hear of a part of Ireland where men cannot die—and they leave this land when they grow too old and feeble. We have reports of six month day-night cycles—which is astounding and quite unlikely. There is also a place called St. Patrick’s Purgatory. Here, if a man enters and hasn’t confessed his sins, he is liable to wonder forever, never finding an escape. And if he has, he will escape but feel nothing but misery and woe for the rest of his days. The writer finds this…unlikely, which is somewhat amusing considering the rest. Still, it highlights a belief existent already back then—that once the world was more wonderous than it is now.
The last thing I’ll note is the mention of a river that makes fire “Greekish”, which means it burns forever unless put out by sand. The idea of an entire river of what amounts to napalm is frankly terrifying in a number of ways.
But more interesting to me is the similarities this work has with a certainly unrelated work from China. The work, The Classic of Mountains and Seas, has a number of similarities, recounting strange creatures, stones, and rites of various lands. While they are distinct in a number of ways—Classic does not recount the start of the universe, and has stories scattered through out in a more regular way—they both attempt to account for all the world, its strange peoples, practices, and virtues.
Some oddities of the Chinese Classic in the Western Mountains includes the serpent named plump-remains. This serpent has six feet, four wings, and brings drought wherever it flies. No other animal lives on this mountain. On Mount Smallnext, there dwells a similar foreboding animal. It resembles an ape, with scarlet hands and a white face and brings war wear it goes. Another war sign comes from the Sky God at River Overflow—he resembles an ox with eight feet and two heads. Not far from him (A mere four hundred leagues) is the Great God’s City Here Below, where dwells Land My. He resembles a tiger with a human’s head, nine tails, and tiger claws.
Moving away from the animals, we can see just as strange nations recorded from this end of Eurasia as well. Again, in only the West we have reference to people with three arms and one eye, two headed people who resemble pigs, and people who ride creatures that look like foxes with horns on their back. We find fewer mentions of customs or anthropology here—an odd mention on if people eat millet, or if they cook. Frankly, they are more fantastic at times—Satefire country is inhabited by people who breath fire for instance, or the people of Neverdie who…well, you can guess. There are places with archers who shoot snakes, or have no guts.
Of course, there are some shocking similarities. Places with cyclopes, or peoples with only one leg and arm and eye. Places with multiheaded persons, monstrous man eating tigers—or tiger eating horses, and so on. The traits of specific stones and plants are even noted in a more detailed fashion. If I had a longer research period, reviewing the descriptions of what are roughly the same areas and contrasting the styles of presentation seems like it would be fruitful. But alas. This is already late.
So what sort of story does this text provide? Well, it feeds somewhat into the notion of other Lovecraft works, of hidden or suppressed truths known in ancient times. Here, however, I would suggest such knowledge is alluded to and not part of the main text. It instead works better as the catalyst—some sort of shaping or knowledge or perhaps prophecy that has fallen into wicked hands and is now being attempted. Or perhaps the location of a treasure that someone launches an expedition to go find. Perhaps some mystery that by medieval means was unattainable, but by more modern methods and technologies can be unlocked.
Birrell, Anne. The Classic of Mountains and Seas. Penguin, 1999.
Caxton, William. Caxton’s Mirrour of the World. Early English Text Society. 1913