What Planet is This?

31 Aug 2005

Onomasticon Physiologus

In 1584 a Kentish man named Reginald Scot published an argument against the persecution of witches, which Scot took to be illogical and irreligious, called the Discoverie of Witchcraft. The book was ahead of its time, and Scot had to be very cautious to make sure that he didn't come across as being irreligious himself, so he couches his arguments in very pious terms, quoting scripture and backing up his arguments with quotes from the likes of Aristotle and Cornelius Agrippa.

As it was, when James I came to the throne in 1603, Scot's work was supressed anyway, and James I personally directed his 1597 tract Dæmonologie against "the damnable opinions of two principally in an age, whereof the one called SCOT an Englishman, is not ashamed in publike print to deny that ther can be such a thing as Witch-craft: and so mainteines the old error of the Sadducees, in denying of spirits." Scot passed away four years before James I ascended, at roughly sixty one years of age.

Scot's Discoverie contained many of our earliest references to various acts of prestidigitation and legerdemain, and it's widely believed that Shakespeare consulted it as a source for A Midsummer Night's Dream and possibly Macbeth. One particular passage of the work that stands out and is often quoted is the list of ghouls, apparitions, and creatures of all sorts that Scot casually slips into one of his points:

they have so fraied us with bull beggers, spirits, witches, urchens, elves, hags, fairies, satyrs, pans, faunes, sylens, kit with the cansticke, tritons, centaurs, dwarfes, giants, imps, calcars, conjurors, nymphes, changlings, Incubus, Robin good-fellowe, the spoorne, the mare, the man in the oke, the hell waine, the fierdrake, the puckle, Tom thombe, hob gobblin, Tom tumbler, boneles, and other such bugs, that we are afraid of our owne shadows

Discoverie of Witchcraft, Reginald Scot, Chapter XV, p.86.

A few centuries later, the exhaustless folklorist Michael Aislabie Denham took this list and expanded on it for a piece of his own called "Ghosts Never Appear on Christmas Eve!". Denham is said to have been born in Gainford, County Durham, on 8th April 1800, and first published this story between 1846 and his death in 1859, but this version is compiled from an 1895 reprint published by the Folklore Society:

ghosts, boggles, bloody-bones, spirits, demons, ignis fatui, brownies, bugbears, black dogs, spectres, shellycoats, scarecrows, witches, wizards, barguests, Robin-Goodfellows, hags, night-bats, scrags, breaknecks, fantasms, hobgoblins, hobhoulards, boggy-boes, dobbies, hobthrusts, fetches, kelpies, warlocks, mock-beggars, mum-pokers, Jemmy-burties, urchins, satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, tritons, centaurs, calcars, nymphs, imps, incubuses, spoorns, men-in-the-oak, hell-wains, fire-drakes, kit-a-can-sticks, Tom-tumblers, melch-dicks, larrs, kitty-witches, hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, Elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tales, knockers, elves, rawheads, Meg-with-the-wads, old-shocks, ouphs, pad-fooits, pixies, pictrees, giants, dwarfs, Tom-pokers, tutgots, snapdragons, sprets, spunks, conjurers, thurses, spurns, tantarrabobs, swaithes, tints, tod-lowries, Jack-in-the-Wads, mormos, changelings, redcaps, yeth-hounds, colt-pixies, Tom-thumbs, blackbugs, boggarts, scar-bugs, shag-foals, hodge-pochers, hob-thrushes, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, brags, wraiths, waffs, flay-boggarts, fiends, gallytrots, imps, gytrashes, patches, hob-and-lanthorns, gringes, boguests, bonelesses, Peg-powlers, pucks, fays, kidnappers, gallybeggars, hudskins, nickers, madcaps, trolls, robinets, friars' lanthorns, silkies, cauld-lads, death-hearses, goblins, hob-headlesses, bugaboos, kows, or cowes, nickies, nacks (necks), waiths, miffies, buckies, ghouls, sylphs, guests, swarths, freiths, freits, gy-carlins (Gyre-carling), pigmies, chittifaces, nixies, Jinny-burnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits, hobgoblins, brown-men, cowies, dunnies, wirrikows, alholdes, mannikins, follets, korreds, lubberkins, cluricauns, kobolds, leprechauns, kors, mares, korreds, puckles korigans, sylvans, succubuses, blackmen, shadows, banshees, lianhanshees, clabbernappers, Gabriel-hounds, mawkins, doubles, corpse lights or candles, scrats, mahounds, trows, gnomes, sprites, fates, fiends, sibyls, nick-nevins, whitewomen, fairies, thrummy-caps, cutties, and nisses

The Denham Tracts, Michael Aislabie Denham, vol.2, pp.76-80. Via Asliman and Pechkin, et al., cf. notes.

The instance of "hobbit" in this nomenclator may have been seen by J.R.R. Tolkien and subconsciously recalled later on as the name for his famous creatures, though this is matter of some contention. In any case, Denham didn't go as far with his nomenclator as he could have done. For example, if you take just the synonyms of Will-o'-the-wisp, of which Denham does already have several, you can generate plenty more names:

Billy-wi'-t'-wisp, Bob-a-longs, canwll corfe, corpse-candle, Dead/death-candle, elf-fire, Ellylldan, fetch candles, fetch lights, foolish fire, Friar Rush with a lantern, friars-lanthorn, gealbhan, Gyl Burnt-tayl, Hinky-punk, Hob-and-his-Lanthorn, Hobbledy's-lantern, Hobby-lantern, ignis fatuus, Jenny-burnt-tail, Jenny-wi'-t'-lantern, Joan-in-the-wad, Kit-in-the-candlestick, Kitty-candlestick, Kitty-wi'-the-wisp, Lantern-man, Meg o'th' Lantern, Peg-a-lantern, Peggy-lantern, Peggy wi'th' lantern, Pinket, Spunkie/Spunky, Teine Sith or Fire Faery, walking fire, Will-o'-the-wisp, Will-with-the-wisp, Will-o'-the-Wykes, Willy Wisp.

Will-o'-the-wisps, inamidst.com.

And taking the proper names of spirits would expand it still further, such as those from Samuel Harsnett's classic onomasticon of 1603 which Shakespeare made use of in King Lear:

Maho, Modu, Pippin, Philpot, Hilco, Smolkin, Hillio, Hiaclito, Lustie huffe-cap, Soforce, Cliton, Bernon, Hilo, Motubizanto, Killico, Hob, Portirichio, Frateretto, Fliberdigibbet, Hoberdidance, Tocobatto, Lustie Jollie Jenkin, Delicat, Puffe, Purre, Lustie Dickie, Cornerd-cappe, Nurre, Molkin, Wilkin, Helcmodion, and Kellicocam.

A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, Samuel Harsnett. Via Flibbertigibbet & Purre.

But it was easier for Scot, Denham, and Harsnett to come up with their lists, since they had to watch out for amphisbaenae, basilisks, black dogs, centaurs, chimaerae, cockatrices, cyclopses, dragons, dryads, dwarves, elves, esquilaxes, gargoyles, giants, gnomes, goblins, griffins, hellhounds, the hydra, imps, jackalopes, leprechauns, mermaids, nymphs, pegasuses, phoenixes, pixies, satyrs, selkies, sprites, trolls, unicorns, vampires, and werewolves. Nowadays instead of the bestiary we have the cryptozoological tome, and you're unlikely to see a bigfoot, bunyip, chupacabra, giant squid, the Loch Ness monster, mokele-mbembe, sea serpent, wild haggis, or yeti pottering around in your local high street.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Onomasticon Physiologus", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/bestiary


Your email address:
(Feedback is moderated. Relevant feedback will be displayed below. The email addresses of senders are not revealed.)


Periodical essays on linguistics, history, and much more, from Shakespeare to post Romano-​British findings. Like Notes and Queries sans the queries and solely antiquarian disposition.

Subscribe Online


There is a list of essays. For queries, email the author.


Powered by Azimuth

XHTML 1.0 inamidst.com