Thursday, June 24, 2021

StorySpotting: They don't make critters that big anymore (Love and Monsters)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

I finally watched Love and Monsters on Netflix, and I have things to share.

Where was the story spotted?

Love and Monsters (2020)

What happens?

"The destruction of an asteroid headed for Earth releases chemical fallout, causing cold-blooded animals to mutate into large monsters and kill off most of humanity."
The movie has some spectacularly designed giant insects, worms, frogs, crabs, and other creepy-crawlies.

What's the story?

Incidentally, the fear of gigantic creepy-crawlies is nothing new to the human imagination. Let's take them in order of appearance:

Giant ant

Large (small dog-sized) gold-digging ants might be familiar to people who read Herodotus. They don't necessarily eat people, but they do attack anyone who approaches their nest. The Irish Voyage of Mael Duin legend, on the other hand, features a whole island of man-eating ants as big as foals (by the way, the folktale motif number for those is B16.6.1). 
In a Dominican version of the "Boots and the Beasts" folktale type, the hero gains the ability to transform into various animals - among them, a monstrously large ant. In a Namibian folktale two siblings accidentally grow an ordinary ant into a giant monster. All the animals try to defeat it together, but it is finally killed by a puff adder's venom and the arrows and ax of the father of the children.

Giant toad

Probably one of the most well-known large frog stories is the Australian Aboriginal myth of Tiddalik, the frog that drinks up all the water in the world, and has to be tricked into laughing to release it. Another famous example is the Japanese legend of Jiraiya, in which the main character gains the magic ability to summon frogs and toads and grow them to enormous sizes. He uses this ability (in tandem with his wife Tsunade) to defeat the serpent magician Orochimaru. If you feel like this sounds familiar, you probably watched Naruto.
There is a Tsimshian legend about a boy who creates a clever trap to kill a giant, copper-clawed frog and take on its skin and powers. In a Macedonian folktale, eternal summer grows frogs and toads so large that they threaten to take over civilization. When the Toad King tries to kidnap St. Peter's daughter, the saint finally finds a way to end the heat wave. In a legend from the Khasi in Northeast India, the beautiful girl Ka Nam is first helped, then enslaved by a giant toad named U Hynroh. When she escapes into the sky and joins the household of the Sun, the toad wages war on her - which is what causes solar eclipses.
In more recent sources, the Wuhnan Toads of China deserve a mention. They are large, voracious albino amphibians that pursue people who disturb them. One of them allegedly even ate a camera tripod.

Giant worms

One notable story is the tale of the Giant Caterpillar from the Ivory Coast. In it, a giant and ugly caterpillar swallows a young boy, and when the men of the village fail to defeat it, the women band together and beat the monster to death. In an Inuit legend a young man named Kivio goes on an adventure and encounters an evil old woman who eats people. The woman's protective spirit is a giant worm that attacks Kivio, but the boy shoots arrows at it and manages to kill it.
In the Persian Book of Kings there is a legend about a giant worm raised by a man named Haftvad and his daughter. The worm brings good fortune, and the bigger it grows the better the luck of its owners is. However, the worm is evil, and it corrupts Haftvad as well, until he becomes drunk with power. Finally, a hero named Ardashir defeats the monster with molten lead.

Giant snail

Giant snails are somewhat less common in folklore, but we can still rustle up a few. The Sarmatian Sea Snail is a delightful specimen of medieval legends, complete with antlers and meat with curative powers. Another large snail (laconically called Snail) haunts the city of Hastingues in France.

Giant centipede

Possibly the most famous giant centipede story is the Japanese Tawara Toda Monogatari. It features a brave samurai, Fujiwara no Hidesato, who is recruited by a Dragon Queen to help her kill a giant centipede (omukade) that has destroyed many of her family. He manages to kill the monster with an arrow that he'd spit on, after saliva-free arrows don't do the trick. Monster-hunters, take note.
In a Yaqui legend the giant centipede monster (chupia) travels inside a whirlwind. It is bigger than a human, and a man chops it to death with an ax. (Centipedenado, anyone?).
There is also a Thai folktale in which a kind boy saves and raises a snake. When he later travels to take examinations in the city, the snake follows him, and saves him by battling a giant centipede that has killed many people. An even larger centipede monster is mentioned in a legend from Myanmar: this one is big enough to hunt and eat elephants, and build its lair from their ivory.
A Korean folktale (A father's legacy) mentions a giant centipede that ate thirty people. It is killed with a gun by the hero, who uses a woman as bait... Interestingly, the Korean hero Nam Yi was believed to be the reincarnation of the spirit of a giant centipede that was killed by another hero for demanding human sacrifice. Nam Yi retained some supernatural, ghost-related powers from his origins. 
On an even more disturbing note, in a folktale from Assam a man with the evil eye transforms into a giant centipede in his sleep, chasing people around. When his family is burned for their ability, they pass on their evil eye powers to those who killed them. Oops.

Giant crab

Spoiler alert: the giant crab in the movie turns out to be a friendly creature. Hands down my favorite friendly giant crab story is an indigenous legend from Taiwan, where a giant snake causes a flood, and people are saved by a giant crab that takes up the battle against the serpent. To protect it in the fight, people make a giant clay shell for it; but since time is short, the crab puts on the shell while it is still hot, accepting the pain in order to help. 
A hero of the Garo people enlists the help of a loathsome giant crab, Songduni Angkorong Sagalni Damohong, The Terror of the Sea, to threaten his grandmother into helping him defeat another monster. This creature "was a hideous loathsome-looking being. It had projecting eyes that seemed to be constantly glaring , long , flexible feelers and gigantic claws with which it used to nip its victims to shreds." On a friendlier note, the legend of Our Lady of the Barn from Guam tells of a "naked fisherman" who finds a statue of the Virgin Mary floating in the sea, guarded by a giant crab carrying two candles in its pincers.
A Haida legend tells of the giant crab of Chief Rock that served a famous chief by guarding the entrance to his harbor. Eventually it kills a lot of people, and a young man (who learns how to turn himself into a halibut) manages to kill it in an underwater battle. 
Another giant (golden) crab appears in the Kakkata Jataka, in which the Buddha is born as an elephant, and is captured by the crab that likes to eat elephants. With the help of his mate he breaks free, and tramples the monster. A giant, ship-sinking hermit crab features into an adventurous navigation legend from the Maldives. According to Moken tradition, tides are caused by a giant crab that lives under a sky-high mango world tree. There is also the giant crab from Indonesia that ferries girls across a river in exchange for a kiss...
But giant crabs are no strangers to European mythologies either: the constellation Cancer is based on a giant crab named Karkinos that tried to stop Herakles from killing the Hydra, and in the legend of Theseus the famous murderer Skeiron kicks his victims into the sea to be devoured by a giant crab (sometimes a turtle). 


Rule of animals in folklore: if it exists, there is probably also a giant version of it.