Monday, December 02, 2013

Mythical Animals: The Peryton

From Wikipedia
Little known in modern times, the Peryton was an animal feared by ancient peoples, for these beasts often hunted humans out of spite. Resembling a winged deer, the Peryton had the antlers, head, and legs of a deer. In addition, this beast possessed the wings and body of a bird. Furthermore, some Europeans thought that Perytons were relatives of the Stymphalids, the man-eating birds of Arcadia.

 Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina, 1899 - 1986) documented in his “The Book of Imaginary Beings” (1969) that the Peryton had originally came from Atlantis. When that continent sank, these beasts fled east beyond the Pillars of Hercules to the mountains of Greece and North Africa. Since they perceived that Atlantis, their home, was destroyed by humans, the Perytons sought their revenge by murdering people.

 Whenever a Peryton hunted, the beast would cast the shadow of a human on the ground. Since it was not vulnerable to human weapons, a Peryton could easily kill a person. However once the beast did so, its shadow was transformed into that of a winged deer. According to Dr. Karl Shuker, (U.K., 1959 - ) a zoologist and cryptozoologist, a Peryton lost its invulnerability after slaying a person. Moreover, the beast could only kill one human in its lifetime.

 Roman accounts tell that a sibyl prophesied that the Perytons would bring about the end of Rome. During the Punic Wars (264 BCE to 146 BCE), these beasts fought for Carthage against the Romans. From their home in North Africa near the city, Perytons regularly attacked Roman ships in the Mediterranean Sea. 

During the Second Punic War in 218 BCE, Hannibal had attacked Rome. As he laid siege against the city, Hannibal waited for more reinforcements to arrive from Carthage. Meanwhile the Roman general Publicus Scipio Africanus sailed to North Africa to stop them. As he sailed, the Perytons attacked his fleet killing many Roman legionaries. To stop the on-going carnage, Scipio ordered the survivors to raise their large square shields (scutum) towards the sun. The reflection from these shields blinded the Perytons, which then fled to the mountains of North Africa where they are reputed to be living today. 

  Various scholars have claimed that Borges made up his stories about the Perytons. According to them, Borges’ sources were bogus, and the Peryton was a figment of the writer’s imagination.  Borges, himself, claimed that his information came from a 16th century Rabbi’s essay, who cited an ancient Greek scholar. Borges said that the only known copy of this Rabbi’s treatise was destroyed in World War II. Many think that this is very suspicious and highly coincidental.

 However, Dr. Shuker points out the abundance of portrayals of winged deer in various cultures. He thinks that Borges had other sources for his information about the Peryton. Dr. Shuker points to the statues in Segovia, Spain, and at the palace grounds of Linlithgow Palace in Scotland as evidence. 

 Meanwhile, Caspar Henderson (U.K., 1963 - ), author of  “Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary,” asked, “which dreams are wholly fantastical and which are vision or distortions of what is real or has the potential to be so?” Henderson observed that life is inventive and creatures today are as fantastic as the ones that Borges wrote about. Therefore, the Peryton exists whether we want to believe Borges or not.

 Works Used:

Allan, Tony, “The Mythic Bestiary,” Duncan Baird: London, 2008.

Henderson, Caspar, “Rereading The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges,” “The Guardian,” 23 November 2012,, .

Nigg, Joseph, “The Book of Dragons and Other Mythical Beasts,” Quarto: London, 2002.

Shuker, Karl, “‘And Hast Thou Slain the Peryton?’ – An Antlered Atlantean,” ShukerNature, 21 November 2011,, .

Zell-Ravenheart, Oberon and Ash DeKirk, “A Wizard’s Bestiary,” New Page Press: Franklin Lakes, NJ, 2007.

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