The Antipodes and the Manticore

Moore1790Brasil02 Maragnan detail Moore

“Animals of Maragnan, an island on the coast of Brazil in South America” John Moore, A new and complete collection of voyages and travels, London, 1790 (and detail)

I came across this image when I was doing my Masters thesis – it appeared in two of the English books I was looking at from the late eighteenth century. It supposedly depicts ‘Animals of Maragnan’ an island off the coast of Brazil, on which French Catholic Capuchin missionaries attempted to set up a mission in 1612 – the mission didn’t survive very long. I was intrigued by the image of the animal with a human face on the right and the one on the ground (a baby one?) Perhaps it was meant to be a sloth. However, it wasn’t part of my main study, which was of images of Pacific peoples, so I only commented on its ‘outdatedness’ – how an image like this could still be used in 1790 seemed another instance of the recycling of old images in these popular travel books. But recently I was reading Rudolf Wittkower’s collection of essays called Allegory and the Migration of Symbols (Thames & Hudson, 1977) and now realise the animal with the human face is probably a Manticore – Wittkower uses the term Martikhora.

“THE MANTIKHORAS (or Manticore) was a fabulous man-eating monster with the body of a lion, the face of a man, and a spike-tipped arrow-shooting tail. The name “Manticore” was reputedly derived from a Persian word meaning ‘man-eater’.” [1]


From Wittkower, p. 67


From Wittkower, p. 62

Wittkower says it was one of a number of fabulous beasts or monsters invented by the Greeks, always living at a great distance away in the east, especially in India. There were Sciapodes (having one large foot that they could put over their heads like an umbrella); Cynocephali (men with dogs’ heads); headless people with their faces between their shoulders; people with very large ears that they could sleep in, and many more. Many of them came from the Indian epics, according to Wittkower. Pictures of them existed in antiquity and continued into the 17th and 18th centuries – especially on maps.

In the 12th century the story of a fabulous Christian empire to the east – Prester John’s – circulated; it was a fabrication, but one reason it was taken to be true was just the ‘fact’ that it included these marvellous beasts – all the sources confirmed they existed in those distant parts of the world. On reading this, I was struck by the similarity with my argument in my MA – in the popular travel books of the late 18th century, showing Pacific peoples with feather headdresses and grass skirts, for example, helped establish the ‘authenticity’ of these images as that is what Europeans had come to expect of ‘savage’ people. These images now look totally inauthentic to us!


Girl of New Zealand, Grasset de Saint-Sauveur, 1796

The Antipodes were an interesting category – the word means ‘reversed or opposite feet’ – it meant the people who walk with their feet opposite ours – that is, on the other side of the world. However, in the Middle Ages the term came to be applied to men with reversed feet.


From Wittkower, p. 67

Later, the term ‘Antipodes’ often came to be applied to Australia and New Zealand from the perspective of Britons, but of course, I don’t feel like a ‘reversed foot’ antipodean – here in Wellington, New Zealand my antipodes are in Spain between Valladolid and Salamanca, according to the online tunnelling tool. In fact it is close to Tordesillas, which is familiar to me from the Treaty of Tordesillas, (June 7, 1494), an agreement between Spain and Portugal aimed at settling conflicts over lands newly discovered or explored by late 15th-century voyagers, which is how Portugal claimed Brazil and Spain the rest of South America.

my antipodes

But curiously, when I looked up the Manticore on the Theoi website it kept coming up with advertisements telling me to search for my ‘New Zealand ancestors’ – is it suggesting the Manticore is one? – or perhaps the Antipode is!


Other reading: Martin Edmond, Zone of the Marvellous: In Search of the Antipodes, Auckland University Press, 2009

[1] Theoi Greek Mythology website:


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