Home » Discover St John's

Mythical beasts and supernatural beings go on display at St John’s

‘The great sea serpent according to different descriptions’. Illustration from Erik Pontoppidan’s “Natural History of Norway” Credit: St John's College

A witchcraft treatise published in the initial stages of the European Witch Craze; sworn testimony as to the real existence of sea serpents; and Elizabethan woodcut illustrations showing werewolves and unicorns as part of the natural world: With Halloween around the corner, St John’s is putting the mythical beasts and supernatural beings from its Special Collections on display as part of the Festival of Ideas 2017. 

Naval officer Lawrence de Ferry claimed to have shot a sea serpent while sailing off the coast of Norway in 1746. After being hit, the terrifying creature – with a horse-like head and tentacles extending out of the water – dived into the deep and disappeared.

Erik Pontoppidan used Ferry’s account and other sworn testimonies from credible sources to argue for the real existence of sea monsters in his Natural History of Norway published in 1753. The publication of the work and its translation into English has been linked to a substantial increase in the number of reported sea monster sightings and is believed to have influenced the way people interpreted unusual things they saw in the waves.

Pontoppidan’s important work in the history of the sea monster is just one of the highlights of a new exhibition at St John’s College exploring what items from the Library’s Special Collections can tell us about belief in the real existence of mythical beasts and supernatural beings and the role such creatures have played in heraldry, literature, art and non-fiction.

The rare books, magic scrolls and magnificently illuminated manuscripts on display depict wonders of the human imagination including witches, werewolves, angels and demons. 

Other highlights include Ulrich Molitor’s On Witches and Soothsayers. Published in 1489, when the European Witch Craze that would last until the mid-18th century was gaining pace, Molitor’s work was commissioned to investigate the danger posed by witches.

A remarkable 43 editions of the book were printed – an indicator of the scale of public interest in witches – and its ideas and illustrations helped to construct and develop the idea of the witch in public consciousness.

The exhibition also shows how myths, perpetuated by traveller’s tales, were a colourful feature of 16th-century atlases and encyclopaedias. With much of the world still a mystery at this time, little distinction was drawn between real and imagined beasts. 

Elizabethan texts featured in the display present accounts of the Elephant, the Lamia, the Bison, the Phoenix, the Manticora, the Beaver, the Gorgon, the Rhinoceros and the Cockatrice side by side as inhabitants of the natural world.

The mythical and the supernatural: Beasts and beings of St John’s College is on display as part of the Festival of Ideas 2017 in the Old Library at St John’s College on Saturday 21 October from 11am – 5pm.