Oy vey! Galloping golems!
At the end of the world, according to Hebrew legend, the righteous will dine on a sublime three-course feast of beasts the world has never seen: Leviathan, a mammoth fish that rules the sea; Behemoth, a titanic beast with dominion over land; and Ziz, a gargantuan bird that lords it over the air.
“But is it kosher?” husband-and-wife science-fiction writers Ann and Jeff VanderMeer asked themselves during a hike in the woods one day. Their talk of Jewish dietary laws veered over to imaginary animals of all sorts, from the chupacabra to the manticore, a Persian cousin of the sphinx that confounds its captured human prey with existential riddles. (Jeff VanderMeer, by the way, is a pioneer of the New Weird, a type of postmodern urban fantasy writing that is heavily influenced by Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino.) Just before Passover in 2008, the pair blogged their conversation, and the post went viral, picking up tens of thousands of readers through Boing-Boing, a tech-culture blog, and Jewcy, an online Jewish hipster magazine. They decided to expand their research and publish their efforts as a compact, brilliantly illustrated book called The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals: The Evil Monkey Dialogues (Tachyon Publications). Graphic designer John Coulthart gets part of the credit for the book’s charm. He also provided the deft imagery that accompanies the cult classic The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases.
The book is a field guide to 34 beasts, most of them imaginary, and it surveys the folk origins of the fantastic animals in acerbic one-page descriptions. These are followed by good-cop, bad-cop dialogues about the creatures’ purported kosherness. In the back-and-forth conversation, Jeff goes by his alter-ego, “Evil Monkey.” After hashing out the origins of the aigi kampos, a muscular fish-tailed ram that the authors say is the basis for the astrological sign Capricorn, Jeff surmises, “Can you get cheese from this thing?”
Beyond its humor, the slim volume is a refreshing break from a media landscape awash with sexually charismatic vampires and telegenic werewolves. Instead, the book bypasses the usual suspects of bloodsuckers and zombies for a far more eccentric universe of Japanese tsukumogami, spiritually possessed inanimate objects; Lithuanian aitvaras, malicious shape-shifting roosters; and South African tokoloshes, zombie-poltergeist hybrids created from dead bodies.
“The bizarre animals in this book are descendants of phantasmagorical creatures that crawled out of the ocean of oral-story millennia ago,” Joseph Nigg writes in the foreword. Nigg is a scholar of the imaginary animals in world folklore. While nature has endowed us with millions of species of insects, animals, and plants, he believes humans create their own mythological creatures out of a need to make something wholly theirs. “But our hybrids are our own, shaped by our imagination out of fears, hopes, wonder, and sheer joy of creation.”
Consider the ouroboros, a mythical creature that Plato treats as fact in his dialogues. “Best known as an ancient alchemical symbol of the integration of the infinite and the opposite, the ouroboros is a tail-devouring serpent or dragon,” the VanderMeers write. To some ancients, it symbolized the circle of life; to others, it was “a vastly efficient organism that became immortal by eating its own waste.” Here the Jewish dietary laws — or kashrut — provide comic relief.