I was just thinking about…monstrous races
“We never saw those people, we don’t know them, we’ve never been where they live, they’ve never been here. So obviously they must have two heads. Or maybe they have only one head but also only one eye. Or maybe one head and three eyes. They’re probably covered with feathers. Or fur.”
For much of human history — until relatively recent human history, in fact — people have imagined “the other” to be extremely other.
In a strange coincidence, I’ve been studying two different realms of “other” recently, two worlds that had bumped into each other in a big way, not in my brain but in the real world, by the fifteenth century.
Realm One: I’ve been taking a course in the age of European exploration. We Americans learn about this era when we study the exploits of Christopher Columbus, who, sailing the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, was looking for a trade route to Asia when he accidentally stumbled onto America, which was not on his map.
Realm Two: I’ve been researching Chinese folklore for a writing project, from the very China that those exploring Europeans were trying to reach.
That’s where the “other” comes in.
Medieval Europeans, taking their tradition from the Romans, were quite sure that “monstrous races” inhabited the unexplored lands outside the edges of their known world, which centered more or less around the Mediterranean.
Some of those other people, if they could be called people, were dog-headed with human bodies. Some possessed feet like ours, but pointing backwards. Some had gigantic floppy ears that hung down to their knees. Some were cannibals which, in some cases, turned out to be true, but never mind, even guesses are right sometimes. One race had no head, but large faces in their chests, their mouths where their navels would be.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Chinese tradition described the same kinds of “unnatural people,” as it’s translated, who lived outside their familiar territories. The Chinese pictured nine-inch tall, large-headed people who lived like ants; 50-foot giants whose lives spanned 18,000 years; people without arms whose legs grew from their shoulders; people with holes in their chests, so they could be carried by a pole running through the hole, or hung on a wall peg; the gentle feathered people with wings instead of arms, who sang so beautifully. Like the Europeans, they imagined gigantic-floppy-ear people, and the ever-popular people with no heads, whose faces were in their chests, their mouths where their navels should be.
For various political and social reasons, the Chinese weren’t enthusiastic explorers, even though they knew how to build and navigate big ships; otherwise, they might have arrived in America first and you would be reading this in Chinese. They preferred to wait for the world to come to them, which as we know, it did.
And imagine everybody’s surprise when — once previously unexplored lands were explored and unknown peoples became known — it was revealed, probably to everyone’s great relief, that we all have one (human) head, with two eyes, two arms, and two feet that point forward.
Not that this anatomical similarity has ever been enough to inspire us to appreciate, trust, and cooperate with each other. Maybe some day it will. Probably monstrous races inhabit other planets. We earthlings will discover we have a lot more in common with each other than we thought, when we meet those strange monstrous interplanetary races face to face though probably they won’t have faces.
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