Olaus Magnus, Carta marina (detail), 1539. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
In the collections of Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, there’s a round ceramic disk, about the size and shape of a cobblestone, with the barest image of a face on it. Two eyes in a mushroom-shaped head, a mouth opened in a howl or scream of some kind. Radiocarbon dating puts its age at about seven hundred years old, which would make it one of the earliest known images of the Jersey Devil.
The Lenape knew it as Mësingw, a spirit being vital to preserving the balance of the forest. Mësingw (“Living Solid Face,” “Masked Being,” or “Keeper of the Game”), according to Herbert C. Kraft, who devoted his life to researching and documenting Lenape culture, was of prime importance to the Lenape. Of all the manetuwàk (spirit beings whose job it was to care for and maintain the world that Kishelëmukòng had created), Mësingw had one of the most important jobs: looking after the animals of the forest and ensuring their health and safety. Mësingw could sometimes be seen riding through the forest on a large buck, covered in long, black hair from head to toe like a bear. The right side of his large, round face was colored bright red, the left side colored black.
Alternately revered and feared, he ensured the prosperity and prevalence of vital game for the people but could also, if displeased, ruin a hunter’s luck, or “break his speech,” causing him to stammer uncontrollably, or scare him to death. Mësingw, for the Lenape, kept the forest in balance, mediating between humanity and animal life. When white settlers came to the land where the Lenape lived, they saw images and masks of a strange creature who, they were told, lived in the forbidding wilds of the Pine Barrens, the edge of the settled world. As they heard tales of Mësingw and saw the masks and effigies of the god, they saw him not as a figure of order but of terror.
Whatever prowled the foreboding Pine Barrens, early settlers thought, it was not Christian. And in the early Puritan imagination, fevered with thoughts of Satan and divine punishment, Mësingw merged with another local legend: the Leeds Devil. Stories tell of a “Mother Leeds,” who was in labor with her thirteenth child when she uttered, out of exasperation or pain, “Let this one be a devil!” resulting in a monstrous birth, the hideous creature fleeing the house as soon as it was birthed.
“Mother Leeds makes no attempt to love or nurture her offspring, and, rather than mourn his loss, is relieved to be rid of him,” Frank Esposito and Brian J. Regal write in their study of the Jersey Devil. “It is the female—a self-centered, uncaring, unloving mother—who bears the brunt of the blame.” This story, Regal and Esposito note, has some basis in fact: Anne Hutchinson, the Puritan leader who was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637, later gave birth to a “disturbing mass that bore little resemblance to a child” (what was likely a molar pregnancy, in which a nonviable fertilized egg implants in the womb, resulting in a malformed mass of cells). Another apostate, Mary Dyer (who was later executed for converting to Quakerism), likewise gave birth to a deformed child who was taken as proof of her heresy. Mother Leeds “becomes a scapegoat for various fears about witches, non-Christians, and women in general,” Esposito and Regal explain. “She is an outsider, rural, uneducated, and prone to supernatural and superstitious beliefs and who has sex with the devil.”
The Devil itself, meanwhile, likely took its name from Daniel Leeds, a well-respected and influential early New Jersey writer, but one who increasingly flirted with unorthodox ideas. He brought English astrology with him to America, publishing astrological charts in his popular almanacs. So the Leeds Devil’s emergence as early American folklore came at a time when there was a fair amount of anxiety over colonials living outside of the carefully controlled Puritan power structure.
The early years for European settlers in America were filled with strife, everything from unexpected crop failures, conflict with the indigenous populations, and a general inability to adapt to new conditions and climate so far from England and Europe. As with many communities under siege from external forces, the early colonists responded by enforcing a strict religious and governmental hierarchy; dissent could simply not be tolerated, lest the whole colony fail.
The Leeds Devil prowled at the edges of a tight-knit community, a warning to all who might step out of line. Cryptids have since come to occupy these places, almost exclusively: marginal locations on the edge of the known world. The dense redwood forests of northern California; the deep, forbidding lochs of Scotland; the impassable Himalayan peaks; or the deserts along the border of the United States and Mexico, where the goat-sucking cryptid the chupacabra is often seen. It was here that one was caught in 2007 by a local rancher. (“I’m not going to tell you that’s not a chupacabra,” the veterinarian Travis Schaar, who examined the creature, told the Associated Press. “I just think in my opinion a chupacabra is a dog.”)
Anthropologists use the word liminal, from the Latin limins, or threshold, to describe those moments and places of transition, places where the rules are fuzzy, the laws suspended. These are the frontiers between here and there, between the “savage” and the “civilized.” The sunken continents of Atlantis and Lemuria dreamed up by Ignatius Donnelly and Helena Blavatsky were liminal places, border regions halfway between the known world and a mystical realm beyond our ken. The mysterious denizens of such places have gradually been replaced by Yeti and Nessie, whose purpose remains the same: to patrol the edges of the map.
Monsters have always patrolled the margins of the map. In distant lands lived barbarians, cannibals, and wild, unimaginable creatures. Travelers’ narratives, such as Sir John Mandeville’s mid-fourteenth-century chronicle, brought back stories of the horrific and marvelous from far-off lands. Mandeville’s fictional travelogue reported of distant islands where one could find “ugly folk without heads, who have eyes in each shoulder; their mouths are round, like a horseshoe, in the middle of their chest. In yet another part there are headless men whose eyes and mouths are on their backs … In another isle there are people whose ears are so big that they hang down to their knees.” Such wonders populated maps of the period; Roman cartographers had sometimes used the phrase HIC SVNT LEONES—“Here be lions”—to denote unexplored incognita; medieval cartographers updated this with fanciful images of sea serpents, kraken, and dragons.
But these distant races of dog-headed men and basilisks were not solely about cultural superiority and jingoism. They also inspired wonder—a sense of the magic and the mysterious in the far and distant world. Such creatures were able to evoke this feeling of wonder precisely because they lived on the edges of the known world. Medievalist Karl Steel notes that medieval natural historians understood wonders primarily in terms of where they stood in relationship to civilization: “In the bestiaries and medieval natural history tradition in general, unicorns, dragons, and other wonders are not associated with a particular place or habitat,” he says. “Medieval wonders live at the edge of the conceptual map: the further you get from home, the weirder things get.” In the travels of Sir John Mandeville, wonders don’t begin to appear until after he’s passed through Jerusalem; the routes between England and the Holy Land were well documented. But after that, the landscape turns wondrous. By their very strangeness, monsters determined the boundaries of the regular world.
Such tales were less about accuracy and more about creating an organized world of the civilized and uncivilized—marked, first and foremost, by strange monsters. Credibility didn’t matter to an audience who themselves were likely never to see such places, and besides, people who’d never ventured this far were in no position to fact-check a traveler’s assertions. A sense of wonder, divorced from the obligations of veracity, was precisely the point.
Some of these distant species were gradually assimilated into a Linnaean taxonomy as they were definitively collected, observed, and cataloged (the giant squid, for example, or the panda bear). Others, though, simply vanished, receding into the mists of myth. Such creatures could exist only so long as there were unknown corners of the map; as the explorers fanned out over the seas and mountains and it became a small world after all, there were fewer regions that could plausibly be inhabited by monsters.
The birth of cryptids—of strange creatures that exist beyond the reach of civilized humanity—is in part a response to this end of wonders. For the most part, cryptozoologists are re-creating those species which are not only beyond the grasp of understanding but whose realm is specifically in the margins, where they are free to transcend scientific classification.
Cryptids require physical spaces that can’t be fully reached, fully documented, fully inhabited by civilized people. They require the borders between places, the edge lands. Cryptids are nothing without their habitat, and their habitat was, at least for a time, destroyed by colonialism and capitalism throughout the nineteenth century, as the “blank spaces” on the map were filled in, and as cultural differences were more and more assimilated through trade and tourism.
Colin Dickey is a writer, speaker, and academic who has made a career out of collecting unusual objects and hidden histories all over the country. He’s the author of Ghostland, the coeditor of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology, and a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books and Lapham’s Quarterly. He is also a member of the Order of the Good Death, a collective of artists, writers, and death industry professionals interested in improving the Western world’s relationship with mortality. With a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Southern California, he is an associate professor of creative writing at National University.
From The Unidentified, by Colin Dickey, published by Viking Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Colin Dickey.
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