Mythical Beasts, Magical Creatures

mythical beasts

Dragons, mermaids and griffins lurk in the museum collections. Christina Westenberger leads the hunt.

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Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.

Creatures like the griffin, phoenix, mermaid, unicorn and dragon snagged the imaginations of Virginians in the 18th century, and they continue to fascinate today. Depictions of these giants of folklore are embedded throughout the collections in the Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.

Last summer, a museum program called "Mythical Beasts and Magical Creatures" debuted. Here to talk about the program is Christina Westenberger, who is assistant manager for museum education.

In your hands, you have a little book called …

Christina Westenberger: "The Book of Magical Beasts and Mythical Creatures."

Lloyd: I was reading that, when you opened the program, all the kids who went through got books like that.

Christina: They do.

Lloyd: And they fill them out and write what they want to write about. So actually, they're writing their own book of magical beasts and mythical creatures.

Christina: During the tour.

Lloyd: Does it work?

Christina: It does. I think the nice thing about giving kids something to do when they're touring through a museum – they have this book with nice, pretty white pages and a pencil, because we wouldn't give them pens in the building – they can take notes if they want, or they can draw pictures of the objects that we're looking at. It gives them an opportunity to really look into not just the subject, but into the object itself.

We might be looking at a big plate. There's a charger on exhibit with several mermaids and a scene that's taking place in the very center of the plate. They can focus in on the creature itself, right on the mermaid. They can draw her picture in the book. Or maybe we're looking at a big silver soup tureen with a griffin on top. They see the soup tureen, but they can focus in on just a little bit of detail, rather than getting bogged down in the entire object. They're kids. We don't need to bog them down with all the details about the soup tureen.

Lloyd: Actually, I doubt kids would care about a soup tureen to begin with.

Christina: I'm sure. I think that was the goal of the program – to get them in to start looking at this stuff. We've got all this stuff, and it's wonderful, but to a kid of 6 or 7 or 8 years old, to them, it's stuff. Absolutely. But, if they can look past the stuff and see there's a unicorn, or there's a griffin, "I know what that is, because I've read favorite stories like 'Peter Pan,' or 'The Chronicles of Narnia,' or 'Harry Potter.'" Those are books that they're familiar with, and hey, they can see creatures that they've read about in some of their favorite stories, or seen in some of their favorite movies.

Lloyd: The idea of mystical beasts and magical creatures is timeless. So it didn't come from anywhere. But, it was more commonly believed in the 17th and 18th century than it is commonly believed today.

Christina: Certainly.

Lloyd: Was it more commonly believed in like the 14th and 15th century than it was in the 17th and 18th?

Christina: Absolutely. And that's when you get into the whole discussion of the Age of Reason, which is where we are here at Colonial Williamsburg. We've already reached the Age of Reason. People are really starting to look at things a little more closely related to science and related to reason within their minds, rather than taking every word from the past as truth.

Lloyd: In the collection that you've got, have you found with the kids going through that they have a favorite creature? Is there a favorite creature?

Christina: I think each kid has their own favorite, depending on the favorite story that they have. Little girls might love "The Little Mermaid," because they've seen the movie, or they've read some book about mermaids. Boys like dragons, but I have to say, I really like dragons myself. We've got lots of them in the Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.

I think my favorite story is the story about the griffin, which is probably maybe the least-known of the creatures that we're looking at. I have to say that's one of my favorites. Amongst the volunteers who give the tour, I think they each have their own particular favorite, and if you put them all in a room and we all got together and started talking about it, I'm pretty sure that we would each have a different favorite creature.
 
Lloyd: OK, what's the tour like?

Christina: Well, our guests arrive at the museums. They join us at the base of the grand staircase. They get their book and their pencil, and then we head on out to start looking at the objects. I like to set up a tour where, let's say, I have five or six objects that I'm going to look at, and at each object, I have a different assignment, or a different touring technique, if you will. If I visit the griffin first, I'm going to tell a fantastic story about the griffin, and how interesting and wonderful and fabulous it is.

But when I get to the phoenix, I'm going to have them open their books and take out their pencil. Then, I'm going to give them a description of a phoenix – but not tell them that it's a phoenix. There's a great description of a phoenix from China that talks about the phoenix has, let's see … it's a fabulous bird, it has red feathers, but it also has this wonderful description of having, "The head of a swallow, the beak of a rooster, the neck of a snake, the breast of a goose, the back of a tortoise, the hindquarters of a stag, the tail of a fish, and it has the five Chinese colors within its feathers." I might have them draw a picture using that description, and then when their picture is drawn, ask them, "What creature do you think we're talking about?" And they'll have absolutely no idea, based on that description from Chinese folklore.

Lloyd: I'd have no idea.

Christina: It gets the conversation going, and then we look around for some objects. Fortunately, in one little nook in the building, there's a mirror with two fabulous gold phoenixes, and a clock with a carved phoenix on the very top. In this one little corner, you have three examples of a phoenix.

Lloyd: Any one of the three actually match the Chinese description?

Christina: Not at all. But I think if you look at any description of these creatures in history, none of them would match up. Here's a good one from the 12th century. See if you can figure out what this is.

"The minocerous is a monster with a horrible bellow, the body of a horse, the feet
of an elephant, and a tail very like that of a deer. A magnificent, marvelous horn projects from the middle of its forehead. It's four feet in length, so sharp that whatever it strikes is easily pierced with the blow. No living minocerous has ever come into man's hands. While it can be killed, it cannot be captured. "

So what is that?

Lloyd: Sounds like a unicorn.

Christina: It is. Good description of a unicorn, but totally different than that beautiful white horse with the long beautiful gold horn.

Lloyd: The part that gave it away was that it cannot be captured. No unicorn can be captured. You can kill it pretty easily – just walk up on it.

Christina: So at each creature that we visit, the kids have an opportunity maybe to draw some pictures, or maybe to take some notes, maybe we'll give them an assignment: think of all the good qualities of a dragon, think of all the bad qualities of the dragon. We have them make a list. What's good about a dragon? What's bad about a dragon?

Lloyd: I can think of a lot more bad than I can good.

Christina: Well it depends on what culture you come from. Dragons in Europe were evil and terrible and very, very bad. Dragons in China were good, and brought good luck.

It give us an opportunity to talk about different cultures and different folklore, rather than focusing right in on our European history that we're so good at illuminating here at Colonial Willamsburg. We don't talk a great deal about Chinese history, but we can when we start looking at some of the objects that have this wonderful basis in Chinese history and Chinese ceramics.

If you look at the claw feet on many of the furniture pieces, it's debatable. Is it an eagle claw? Could be an eagle claw. Could be a dragon claw holding the ball of wisdom in his hand. You can go through the building and see lots of dragon feet, or lots of pots with dragons. I have to say, on the tour, one thing that we end with – and we try to look at both collections, the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum collection of decorative arts, and we also visit the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and explore folk art a little bit – the object that we always end with is our own magical beast and mystical creature in the folk art collection which is a hippoceros.

Lloyd: A hippoceros?

Christina: A hippoceros.

Lloyd: You got me that time. I have no idea what a hippoceros is.

Christina: Well, it's a record player. It's this wonderful object. It was created by a folk artist named Edgar McKillop, and it's a mix between a hippopotamus and a rhinoceros. Inside his body are the workings for a record player that you can wind up. When he plays the record, his tongue moves.

(Music plays.) His mouth is open, and he has this leather tongue right behind his row of ivory piano key teeth. When the record plays, his tongue moves back and forth so it looks like he's singing. So we have our own magical beast in the collection. The kids get to create their own story about this magical beast that they've probably never heard of, just like you.

Lloyd: It occurs to me that some of the kids might not know what a record player is.

Christina: You're absolutely right. I've never been more astounded in my life as when somebody said "It must be from the Middle Ages." I felt really old. I had a record player, so apparently I lived in the Middle Ages.

Lloyd: Oh, that's funny.

Christina: Fortunately, there's a video that you can watch that shows the hippoceros in operation. They can see the record player, and see it being cranked up, and hear a song "Animal Crackers in My Soup," a song they have probably never heard of before and watch the hippoceros in action.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Let us know what you think about the program, leave your feedback at www.history.org/podcasts. Check history.org to learn more. Check back often, we'll post more for you to download and hear.

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