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A Beastly Good Read

Here’s something to wake this blog up from the hibernation phase it somehow had slipped into with the first days of autumn: I have a book announcement to make! It’s one cool piece of hard lit, called Kulturni bestijarij 2 – Književna životinja. It’s in Croatian, all right, but how could I miss the opportunity to write down a few words about it, when I took part in it;) 

The book pays homage to medieval bestiaries with dozens of articles regarding -just as its title says – Literary Animals. I didn’t have time to read all of it yet, but what I’ve seen so far is quite interesting. The variety of topics, approaches, interests and of course, animals! Bees, donkeys, werewolves, centaurs, snakes, birds, rats, cats… all tamed by words through anything from common forms like poems and novels to less usual ones like marriage instructions or.. well, bestiaries! 

The book is edited by Suzana Marjanic and Antonija Zaradija Kis and published by Croatian Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research. It’s a set of articles by different authors, most of them social scientists, and each giving a delightful insight to the beast of their choice. I got the opportunity to submit an essay as a member of non-profit organization Shield Maidens of Midgard, which was pretty active on promoting pre-Christian heritage several years ago in Croatia. Unfortunately, we weren’t many, so we had to set that project aside for a while. As soon as unpredictable situations stop bumping into our lives and disturbing our plans, we’re having a revival 🙂 

My subject is kind of a cliché. I just thought I should explore the first animal that came to my mind when I heard the words literary animal. And for me, it’s the raven. If I have to explain which raven, then I guess you’d find my article a bit over-suggestive. What can I say! The Raven aside, I just love complete Poe’s work. 

Anyway, my article (If Bird or Devil?) is honestly not the most scientific one you’ll get in the book, but don’t worry, there’s another great piece about raven that will please even the most demanding reader. It’s called The Raven Offspring-Loather in Mediaeval Slavonic Sources by Anguševa and Dimitrova. I love it, and hate the fact it didn’t already exist when I was writing my piece, cause I would certainly use it as a source:) There are other articles with such particular subjects. For example, there are as much as two completely unrelated yet equally exceptional texts about – toads! Toads and Frogs in the Lithuanian Ethno-Tradition by Mirjana Bračko and The Terrible Toad – A Miserable Monster with Gentle Eyes by Antonija Zaradija Kiš. Which brings us to one of many proves why this bestiary shouldn’t be reserved just for book worms. Not only the articles are fluent and easily absorbed, all accompanied by appealing illustrations, but you’ll even find some practical use in it. I bet you didn’t know that dried toad cures throat-ache! And there’s other folk wisdom where this came from. You’ll find many precious medical remedies in the book. Take this, for example: a whole essay is dedicated to Animals in Croatian Glagolitic Medical Recipe Books (by Durrigl and Fatović-Ferenčić) where you’ll find the most unusual remedies, such as hedgehog teeth, rooster wings, squashed snails for stomach-ache, and many others. Let me just warn you in case you don’t get to read the book, the snail thing doesn’t work if you didn’t squash his shell, too 🙁 

I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I’m trying to trivialize this book. I’m deliberately taking a lighter approach on it because I know it’ll be hard to stumble upon an appealing review of the book. There will be reviews by highly competent critics who will use puzzling long sentences filled with Latin phrases to give this book a well-deserved value among the scientific circles, at the same time making it absolutely repulsive to an average person. Even though this book indeed is a set of thesis which are all products of careful and throughout research, it is also – very interesting!  I personally think it deserves a much broader audience than this type of book usually reaches. Moreover, the editions of the Institute actually make a collection of books that would probably have a significant reach if some popular publisher pushed them through. Look at these titles alone: Hororr-Porno-Enui, Mythical Almanac, Speciesm: Discrimination upon a Specie, Ethnographies of the Internet,… Behind each of these appealing titles hides a creative, yet carefully thought of, well-studied topic. I’m really a fan of their book lines, and think they deserve more public attention. This opinion of mine is based on their editions alone, for what else should I rely on? It’s the one true trace they’re leaving in this world. This institute thinks outside Croatian societies’ conservative collective mind. When you say the word institute, you most probably think – real smart and equally boring. But this team is far from being boring. I admire the boldness they show digging into topics that are still very sensitive in this society. I honestly hope their progressiveness doesn’t affect their funding by State. They do studies in tradition, but they’re far from being traditional. 

If you don’t believe me, just take the book again! Now think folklore and ethnology.. Did the word zooerotics come to your mind? Well, that’s just one far-from-boring thing they study, and if you were hoping your guess about what exactly it was, is wrong, just read the last entry in the book by Nikola Visković. There are other authors writing about similar taboos, like Jasmina Vojvodić in her Of the Wolf and the Fox in Viktor Pelevin’s The Sacred Book of the Werewolf. Some things are better left unsaid, but she had the guts to say it anyway: wolf and fox are doing it:) Oh, and The Unicorn and the Mirror by Anna Loba.. It can seem a bit kinky too at first… but only if you don’t read the 14th century marriage instructions for ladies carefully enough. 

I feel guilty I mentioned only a few authors throughout this post, when I didn’t find a single article that wouldn’t keep me occupied. Once again, I haven’t read the entire book, but I was browsing through it a lot. My personal favorites (at the moment) by topic are Animals in the Narratives about Witches by Mirjam Mencej (some more toad lore there), Perje i pandze between the Mura and the Drava by Lidija Bajuk (with mithical creatures traditions), The Snake Groom- From the Oral Fairy Tale to the Contemporary Literary by Milana Romić (about what’s probably the most widespread animal shapeshifter of this region), Animals of the Apocalypse – Markers of Prototext in Croatian Fantasy Prose (Kornelija Kuvač – Levačić) and Extratterestrials-animals in Slavic Science Fiction (Dejan Ajdačić). The author who took the most original approach is by far Željko Uvanović with his Grass’s Apocalyptic Female Rat who used two films to build his case against the hopeless she-rat. Then there’s Miss Congeniality of what I’ve read so far: sincere and unique contemplation of Nataša Govedić in The Rethorical Pussy Cat

In the end, let me just give you a word of advice: if you think this post was a bit too long, don’t even bother getting the book cause it’s more than 1000 pages of pure cultural animalistics. Meow to that!


Wriiten by Iva SIlla

Illustration: Ante Vlašić


Some tales and folk believes about animals and other beasts can be heard on some secret Zagreb tours. And don’t forget to bring your dog!