Fabulous beasts and where they lurk in our library

Fabulous beasts and where they lurk in our library

A steampunk Pokémon sea dragon, mutant whales, and a sabre-toothed devil bunny of the Aztecs. Librarian Martin Lewis (aka @RareBookGuy) presents his favourite curious creatures while researching this month.

Pégase dragon (Eurypegasus draconis –‘short or little dragon fish’) and friend from Ichthyologie Eléutheropomes in Cloquet’s (Ed.) Dictionnaire des Science Naturelles, Poissons et reptiles, 1816-1830. Photo by Rachael Hockridge, 2018. Te Papa

Research is a funny thing. It’s a lot like Dr Seuss’ great book Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

Sometimes it’s sifting through Google and tricky databases, other times consulting and gossiping with colleagues around the world.

But researching is most fun when you’re rooting around the physical material in libraries and museums.

Our exhibition designed for kids, Curious Creatures & Marvellous Monsters, is closing at the end of the week (Nov 4), and it inspired me to share some of my own ‘curious creature’ discoveries from our rare book collection.

Animals lost in translation

Before I show you my favourite monsters I want to pose a question – have you ever thought about how drawings of strange beasts came to be?

For me, I’ve been imagining a scientist, or artist, seeing an animal in the flesh for the first time from those days of ‘discovery’. Because photography didn’t exist then they’d kill it, dry it, pickle it, or skin it, then take it back home to study (and home could be years away!)

When they’re ‘back in the office’ they’d pull the poor beastie or plant out, and then try to draw it properly for science as part of the describing (naming) process, with the help of their notes and sketches.

Fish in spirit jars
Specimens in spirit jars, 2007. Photo by Kate Whitley. Te Papa

Because of this, I can imagine how some things might get lost in translation. Sometimes the illustrator only has the mess and the notes – they may not have ever seen the creature alive.

This is one of my thought processes anyway, and I completely appreciate that not all these monsters you’re about to see will fall into that category… I imagine it would be pretty hard to pickle an elephant, for example.

Here be dragons: Steam punk Pokémon sea dragon

It was love at first sight when I saw this 1800s rendering of a Pégase dragon. It looks like it has riveted amour and ready to rumble/breath fire. Something that should fly, not swim.

The illustration is based on a Eurypegasus draconis, the little dragon fish, and in real life looks more like an inverted, flattered seahorse, but still very cute.

Pégase dragon (Eurypegasus draconis –‘short or little dragon fish’) and friend from Ichthyologie Eléutheropomes in Cloquet’s (Ed.) Dictionnaire des Science Naturelles, Poissons et reptiles, 1816-1830. Te Papa

Battling, anatomically incorrect dinos

John Martin, The country of the Iguanodon, 1837, watercolour. Gift of Mrs Mantell-Harding, 1961. Te Papa (1992-0035-1784)

Slight fib here, the library has the book this image is used in but the image above is from the artwork featured in the exhibition. The book image is very dark and not as amazing as the watercolour.

An early imagined depiction of dinosaurs, terrible lizards, living up to Tennyson’s famous line,“Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw” – interestingly he penned that line a couple of years after the publication of this book.

The book was Gideon Mantell’s The wonders of geology – or, a familiar exposition of geological phenomena, 1848.

Our copy was presented by his son Walter Mantell to the New Zealand Institute (former RSNZ) and Walter is the same chap who also gifted the famous Iguanodon tooth.

Here be a saber-toothed devil bunny of the Aztecs

Devil bunny detail from Los Calendarios Mexicanos, 1907, Mexico City, by Museo Nacional de Mexico, Mariano de Echeverría y Veytia, Genaro López. Te Papa (RB001172)

I love this little guy, Bugs Bunny crossed with a sabre-toothed tiger.

Sadly I can’t read the text that goes with the publication. So I’m yet to find out what the Aztecs thought about this beast.

But he is surely something you don’t want to encounter in a dark alley of Tenochtitlan.

Here be something that sounds like the opening line of a joke…

What do you do when four tiny monkeys, a tiger, a bull, two dragons, and two trolls are hanging outside a building?


Wouldn’t it be great to hear the story these representations of Indonesian puppets have to tell? Here’s an online edition if you are interested in seeing the rest of the images – the photos don’t do the colours and gilt justice.

Close up of cover featuring three puppets and scenery, from De wajang poerwa : eene ethnologische studie by Lindor Serrurier, 1896. Te Papa
De wajang poerwa : eene ethnologische studie by Lindor Serrurier, 1896. Te Papa

For the Imperium!

You don’t want to mess with this Imperial eagle on this massive publication. Very grandiose for something that is just to show off Three German laws for the protection of industry, about 1880! According to Wikipedia (i.e. a quick Google and not properly researched), this is the lesser arms of the German Emperor William I, about 1870.

Cover design from Centennial International Exhibition (Melbourne), 1880. Drei deutsche Gesetze zum Schutz der Industrie | Three German laws for the protection of industry. Te Papa

Here be rhinos, elephants, lions, tigers, leopards, and a sea lion

These are great examples of when European explorers drew animals when they first encountered them – or tried to depict them when described to illustrators back at home.

This book is also a contender for the longest book title I’ve seen this week (check out the caption under the image!).

Rhinos and elephant from John Harris’ Navigantium atque itinerantium bibliotheca., Or, A complete collection of voyages and travels. : Consisting of above six hundred of the most authentic writers, beginning with Hackluit, Purchass, &c. in English ; Ramusio, Alamandini, Carreri, &c. in Italian ; Thevenot, Renaudot, Labat, &c. in French ; De Brye, Grynaeus, Masseus, &c. in Latin ; Herrera, Oviedo, Coreal, &c. in Spanish ; and the voyages under the direction of the East-India Company in Holland, in Dutch. Together with such other histories, voyages, travels, or discoveries, as are in general esteem ; whether published in the English, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, High and Low Dutch, or in any other European language. Containing whatever has been observed worthy of notice in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America … Illustrated by proper charts, maps, and cuts. To which is prefixed a copious introduction, comprehending the rise and progress of the art of navigation and its successive improvements ; together with the invention and use of the loadstone, and its variation, 1764. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. Te Papa (RB001031)

Told you it was a long title…

Lions, tigers, and leopards from John Harris’ Navigantium atque itinerantium bibliotheca…, 1764 Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. Te Papa (RB001031)
Sea lion from A voyage round the world by the way of the great South Sea, perform’d in the years 1719, 20, 21, 22, in the Speedwell of London, of 24, Guns and 100 Men, (under His Majesty’s Commission to cruize on the Spaniards in the late War with the Spanish Crown) till she was cast away on the Island of Juan Fernandes, in May 1720; and afterwards continu’d in the Recovery, the Jesus Maria and Sacra Familia, &c. / by Capt. George Shelvocke, Commander of the Speedwell, Recovery, &c. in this Expedition, 1726. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. Te Papa (RB000304)

Here be a whale of a tale

These twisted whale monsters are one of my favourites features on this 1860s map – you certainly didn’t want to drift into the uncharted seas they guarded.

Whale detail from Kaart van de reizen van Abel Jansz. Tasman gedaan in 1642 en 1644. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. Te Papa (RB0003107)
Whale detail from Kaart van de reizen van Abel Jansz. Tasman gedaan in 1642 en 1644. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. Te Papa (RB003107)

Here be a taniwha – at the end of a book and blog

It’s not often you find a taniwha the end of the book – he’s roaring at us, ‘Ka Mutu! Aue! He Kumi!’ | ‘Done! says the Lizard’

Ka Mutu! from Thomas Labert’s The story of old Wairoa and the East Coast district, North Island, New Zealand, or, Past, present, and future : a record of over fifty years progress, 1925. Te Papa

Hope you enjoyed these monsters from our library – it’s amazing what monsters are lurking…

Please let us know in the comments if you would like to see more!

And don’t forget to see Curious Creatures & Marvellous Monsters before it closes on Sun 4 Nov.



  1. Tauke! This was awesome Martin…more please.

  2. Great blog. Yes, more anatomically incorrect beasties, please! Christine

  3. Here be… an excellent blog post.
    Thanks Martin

  4. That is so cool Martin, please more of it!!!

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