Monster tales abounded in ancient times. Given how little most people knew most of the world’s phenomena during those ancient times, it’s easy to see why chimera tales were so popular. People were using monster tales to describe phenomena they didn’t understand in the universe. Despite this, tales about freaks aided people in sharing their horror stories and coping with their fears about the uncertain future. People do, in fact, still use monster stories to cope with strangers. The reason for this is that human experiences are common, such as strife, economic disasters, wars, terrifying political situations, the ruins of our climate, and other issues that feature in our daily news (Matar, n.p). Thus, nearly every society shares something common – they all have stories and tales involving the monsters. However, these tales differ according to the environment and setting of the tellers. This is what makes the difference in the stories, communities tell about monsters. The western part of the world has its own stories concerning freaks, and the non-western part of the world has as well. Consequently, one of the issues that feature prominently in the relationship between the Arabs and the West is how the two cultures depicted the monsters in their ancient stories.
Human beings have used the concept of monsters in numerous contexts – be they many historical, ideological, or geographical contexts – to put an end to things that are thought to be fringe, aberrant or outright horrible (World of Tales, n.p). The use of monsters to tell stories allows people to speak the ugly truth to fellows. Thus, even though people do not want to hear stories about the grim future, or that of their own death, the use of monster in storytelling allows them to tell such stories indirectly. Different monsters are assigned with different characters, but their quality of deviance remains standard. Since monsters are used to represent human beings, they represent people, who live among us. In short, freaks are culturally beings, which people use to portray the terrible things that we subconsciously dread and the other things that we are told to hate or love (Matar, n.p).
Monsters can be anything – from the terrifying sea creatures, to razor-toothed marauders, and colossal birds of prey (Nittle, n.p). The tales surrounding these villainous beings usually began as eerie myths and long tales shared between mariners and travelers, who feared the unknown in the seas and deep forests. However, as time went by, the stories gained a foothold and found their way into people’s homes and houses. As a result, they became part of the ancient natural history and medieval “bestiaries” of bizarre animals (Padgett, n.p). The tales could involve birds of prey with formidable power, or a snake-like rooster that has the ability to kill with its eyes, or other forms of sea creatures, whose physical attributes remained mysterious as their names.
There are a number of monsters that the western part of the world used to depict different characters.
Kraken was a sea creature, which was scarier to people, than the brutal sea serpents and even the scaly-skinned fish men. As a result, it struck deep fear into the hearts of sailors. The mighty Kraken originated from Norse mythology, where it was first depicted as a giant fish from the Hafgufa (Nittle, n.p). From this mythology, the mighty Kraken entered into the popular folklore as a giant octopus or squid that was seen by fishermen on the coasts of Norway and Greenland (Kay, n.p). By the 18th century, this mythical creature was described as a squid-like beast that was so large that even when just a part of its body protruded out of the water; it would look like a floating island. Tales were told of how this monster was using its numerous tentacles to entangle ships’ masts and take them deep into the icy parts of the ocean. However, this was not the only method, which Kraken was using to finish off human beings. The creature, because of its huge body, could also generate a killer whirlpool simply by dipping itself into water. In such circumstances, if some sailors were passing close by in a sea vessel, the whirlpool would draw them into the water and the sailors would drown. People believe that, although the kraken story might have been exaggerated, there may be some truth to it. For instance, sailors were actually seeing giant squids during the prehistoric periods. Indeed, historians have affirmed that there once lived a creature that was 100-foot-long, known as the cephalopods and it ate whale-sized Ichthyosaurs (Padgett, n.p).
Griffin was another monster that originated from the western part of the world. The creature is a combination of two different killers. On the one hand, the creature had the body and back legs of a lion. While on the other hand, it also possessed the beak, wings, and claws of a hawk or an eagle (Nittle, n.p). The tale of this monster is likely to have come from the Middle East, but later on, stories about this flying behemoth became a widespread subject in ancient Greek literature (Padgett, n.p). The spread of the tales on griffin was popular and by the 14th century. When Sir John Mandeville picked them in a largely fictional travelogue (Matar, n.p). The writer further embellished the story of the creature by stating that it was “stronger, than eight lions” and a hundred times stronger, than the eagles. Griffins had numerous features and characteristics that made people to revere and tell tales about them. First, the creatures were thought to be monogamous and their mating went on for the whole of their lives. In addition to this, they were also brutal beasts, who could rip the flesh of other creatures with their razor sharp talons. To make them more fearsome, people said that they fly their victims to unknown heights before dropping them to the deaths (Fauster, n.p). The tales of these creatures are linked to the existence of dinosaurs, whose fossils closely resembled what griffins were said to be like. Possibly, the Scythian nomads, who stumbled on dinosaur fossils in central Asia, may have mistook them for a bird-like creature. This is what might have led people to think that they were air creatures, giving birth to the myth of a terrifying flying beast (Matar, n.p).
Like griffins, the basilisk was also a fearsome creature. Its tales started way back in the first century, when the Roman writer, Pliny the Elder, included it on his list of fantastical creatures and that of exotic race of deformed men (Padgett, 2014). In his writing, Pliny gave the basilisk features of a snake, but also added that the animal had markings on its head, which made it to look like a crown. However, tales about this monster were not consistent as, later on in the Middle Ages, it acquired the features of villainous serpent that had the head of a rooster and the wings of a dragon or a bat (Nittle, n.p). It was said that the basilisk had a fatal bite and toxic breath, but still, it could also exterminate a man merely by looking at him. The hunters, who were searching for the creature often carried mirrors with the expectations that the monster could kill itself by seeing itself in the mirror. This monster is of North African descent, but its tales spread to places like European even in the Middle East.
There are numerous monsters that have Arab themes, or Arab characters that are produced in the western world, especially in the United States. While it is a free, anybody can produce any content about monsters and air it, the issue that the western cinemas raise is a misrepresentation of the Arab monsters. Indeed, it seems that many of these films are produced with the intention to portray the monsters in a negative light.
Previously, the Arab monster was given the role of a poor villain, who often engaged in stealing to make ends meet for him. Over the centuries, everything has changed. The changes culminated in the 20th century, when the role of the Arab monster changed from the poor thief to a terrorist (Nittle, 2016). The depiction is clear – he is often a Muslim fundamentalist, who is ready to conduct terrorist activities. The terrorist’s preferred mode of operation is to engage in suicide bombing. Films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Back to the Future (1985), and True Lies (1994 are clear examples of the level of stereotyping in the film industry (Padgett, n.p). These roles in the movies have contributed in making the Arabs look like villainous or clowns in the eyes of the average citizen of the western countries.
According the western films, the Arab Sheik must have a long and unkempt beard, flowing robes, and, occasionally, sunglasses, (Padgett). In the pocket of the Sheik are dollars that are earned from the sales of oil, and the SUV is the Sheik’s preferred means of transport. On the other hand, the Bedouin has been always a nomad covering the length of the desert on a camel’s back, and spending his time in a tent (Matar, n.p). To feed into the stereotype about all Arabs being Muslims, the cinema makers depict a young Arab man as a The mad dog that is set loose, ready to die for the promise of 79 virgins in heaven (Cathey, n.p). Indeed, the terrorist, as depicted by the western cinema, is ready to kill even all his family members, as long as it means killing a few enemies alongside the relatives.
In all these depictions of the Arabs as willfully evil people, there is a suspicion that these are meant to be a propaganda war to tilt the Israel and Palestine war in favor of the former. When the world citizens see these films, their judgments’ are distorted. Naturally, if they see the Arabs as being people, who are more ready to kill, than their perception of the reality on the ground on Israel-Palestine, war would be distorted. Therefore, it is not a surprise that most people, who watch these movies, often side with Israel. The propaganda war is already won in the movies.
Even in this avalanche of negative portrayal of the Arabs, there are a few films that depict the Arabs in a positive light. The Kingdom of Heaven, Syriana, and comedy movies such as Ahmed Ahmed, Dead Abudella, Maz Jobrani, are some of movies that show the Arabs as a people with characters that are shaped by circumstances around them, and not just people, who are willfully evil (Padgett, n.p). More of such positive movies would be required to correct perceptions that have been distorted.
Different cultures have different monsters. The monsters were merely a depiction of the world views of particular societies. Thus, through the monsters, people expressed their own fears and anxieties. In this case, it is only natural that monsters in the western part of the world would be much different from the monsters that were created in the Arab world. At times, the monsters created by a particular cultural group transcended barriers and attracted the attention of other cultures. Otherwise, in most instances, the monsters remained an exclusively a cultural affair.
Monsters have become a part of many people’s lives, given that much of the world still remains a mystery. It is plausible that although monster tales came in the pre-Christian cultures, they still continue to exist in nearly all societies throughout the world (Matar, n.p). The monsters have acted as a condensation or an articulation of many forms of cultural fears and anxieties. Probably, this is because monsters tales have been used to give an explanation to the numerous misfortunes that human beings have to deal with, in addition to the evil and diseases that afflict them on a daily basis. Thus, monster stories bring people together in their rejection of the imagined evil beings.
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Fauster, Ted. The top five monsters from the West Virginia hills. April 3, 2014. https://wvexplorer.com/2014/04/03/five-west-virginia-monsters-0005/. Accessed: 1/12/2017.
Kay, Alya. 10 supernatural Middle Eastern creatures that are scary AF. Dec 18, 2016. https://stepfeed.com/10-supernatural-middle-eastern-creatures-that-are-scary-af-9622 Accessed: 1/12/2017.
Matar, Sally. “Arab Portrayals in Film: A History of Stereotypes”. 2005: http://www.aaiusa.org/arab-portrayals-in-film-a-history-of-stereotypes Accessed: 1/12/2017
Nittle, Kelly. “The Monster Culture”. 2016. http://www.buffalo.edu/home/feature_story/monster-culture.html. Accessed: 1/12/2017
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