Western Devils, Eastern Devils

April 13, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

One of the more interesting sections of Mandeville is his description of the “Vale Perilous,” which so far as I can tell he thought was somewhere in India.  It is full of gold and silver, or at least the illusions thereof.  It’s also full of the corpses of Christians and others who have been tempted by the riches, only to be killed by the demons that live there.  This is the scary-campfire-story section of Mandeville, and for whatever reason this passage did give me a little chill:

In the middle of the valley under a rock one can clearly see the head and face of a devil, very hideous and dreadful to see; nothing else is seen of it except from the shoulders up.  There is no man in the world, Christian or anyone else, who would not be terrified to see it, it is so horrible and foul.  He looks at each man so keenly and cruelly, and his eyes are rolling so fast and sparkling like fire, and he changes his expression so often, and out of his nose and mouth comes so much fire of different colours with such an awful stench, that no man can bear it.

Quite a word-picture, that; for some reason the thought of seeing a devil’s head under a rock spooks me.  I’ve been interested in demon iconography for quite a while; I’m especially fond of Hieronymus Bosch’s whacked-out devils, and this Schongauer engraving is one of my favorites.  I’ve gotten really interested in Buddhist sculpture in recent years, especially Japanese.  This guardian figure in the Boston MFA is one of my favorites, and is scary as hell in person (it’s the crystal eyes).  Interesting that this is actually a benevolent figure in Buddhism, a protective deity and defender of the Buddhist law.  Also interesting that it’s dated to the 14th century, when Mandeville was touring around Asia.

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