Yaxham church has seven pews in the south aisle with a remarkable series of bench end carving depicting mythological beasts. Nothing, uncommon, you say? But these date from the early part of the twentieth century.

The Pelican vulning is a common Christian symbol of renewal.

Pelican vulning

Pelican vulning

The Unicorn is next.  A horse-like creature, it may have originally be the description of a rhinocerous; “dangerous, with elephant feet and black hair, spending its’ time wallowing in mud, with a single black horn” was one description of it.  The horn was an antidote to poison, and for the Chinese at least, an aphrodisiac.

Then the WYVERN. It is a winged dragon with two legs, with bird-like claws, and frequently a barbed tail.


Then the Owl. Thought to be a symbol of wisdom, in the past it was also considered to be the harbinger of disaster. The little owl was associated with the goddess Athene. [see also http://www.pauldfrost.co.uk/intro_o2.html]


The Manticora, a winged lion-like figure with a devil’s tail, and with a bearded human head. It also had a triple row of teeth, but a thin voice like pipe or trumpet. A symbol of the devil. [ See also: http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast177.htm}

The Manticora

Cockatrice comes next, a cockerel-like body, head and wings, but with an extended serpent’s tail. Described as a dragon with a cockerel’s head, its look or breath is said to be poison; it can only be killed by a weasel or the sound of a cock crowing.


The Elephant and Castle is next.  The castle was in fact a howdah, a seat on an elephant used in India for tiger hunting.  This sign was used by a blacksmith in south London, in a building later used by the Cutlers guild; so it became used as a sign of cutlers and workers making surgical knives, scissors, and other instruments. [see also http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-ele1.htm]

Elephant and Castle

Next, a Dragon, which have two pairs of legs and wings.  Carnivorous, fiercesome creatures, often watching or guarding places or special objects.


Then a Griffin.  Part eagle, part lion, it has a lion’s body with an eagle’s head. Sometimes shown without wings.


Yale. The size of a hippopotamus or a horse, with the tail of an elephant and two-foot-long horns which it can swivel at will, forwards or backwards in attack or defence.  Used by the Beaufort family as supporters.


Next, the Phoenix, shown arising from a nest of flames; when it becomes old, it makes a nest and ignites it, and is born again from the ashes. Only one (or maybe two) phoenix lives at any one time, it is never seen to eat, though it may live up to 1460 years.  Most colourful, it is as big as an eagle, with golden neck, purple body and an azure tail. It might represent the sun, and being born again, for Christians it may represent rebirth after death.


Another Wyvern.


Tiger. Notice the clever way in which the tiger’s stripes have been reproduced.


It is remarkable to find so many recent carvings of mythological creatures in a small church.  The whole question of the previous use of ancient mythology in religious buildings, manuscripts and pictures is complex and obscure.

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