The Gryllus

The medieval butt-face.

Cuerden Psalter, Morgan Library, MS M. 756, fol. 10v-11r

When it comes to hedgehogs, bees, birds of all sorts, even ants, medieval bestiaries have lots to say. Which makes my job of riffing a bit on medieval attitudes towards animals relatively easy.

Things look a bit different when the question concerns humans.

That’s not to say medievals didn’t think about human nature. They did. A lot. And medieval bestiaries actually tell us a lot about humanity, albeit indirectly.

I’m not going to dive into that, though.

In the spirit of keeping these intervening posts light, I thought we’d look at the gryllus.

Hieronymous Bosch

You’ll find these figures in the margins of all kinds of medieval manuscripts. The concept is fairly simple: a face with two legs.

Maastricht Hours, British Library, Stowe 17, folio 10

The style dates back to ancient days and the Graeco-Egyptian painter Antiphilos, who painted a ludicrous figure known as a Gryllus (or so says Pliny in the Natural History).

In the Middle Ages, the gryllus stood for the baser bodily instincts. In other words, it is meant to show how the soul can become prisoner to the beast within.

Ormesby Psalter, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 366, folio 131r

Take a look at the anatomy of the gryllus.

The head and face are where we’d expect a belly to be, right? That highlights the backwardness of the gryllus figure: someone ruled by their appetites (especially sexual).

One last aspect I’ll point out: the eyes.

The anatomy of the gryllus makes them particularly prominent.

Luttrell Psalter, British Library

As Michael Camille has pointed out in Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art, the prominence of the eyes for the gryllus are important: looks could kill in the Middle Ages. They not only transmitted the soul and emitted rays–medieval laser eyes!!

Sorry, where was I?

Oh, right. The eyes were also particularly susceptible to demonic influence.

I thought the gryllus would therefore be a nice choice for a story about greed, gambling, and anger. Of course, I thought that after I’d drawn my stick figures. Ah well.

Keep an eye out for a gryllus making an appearance in a future story!

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