“Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.” – Katharine Hepburn
Monstrosity is hard to define except in relation to a peer group. Nazis are monsters in relation to others bent on world domination. Sea serpents are monsters in relation to other ocean creatures that politely offer themselves up for a fish fry. Miley Cyrus is monstrous in relation to other teenage girls (but only marginally so). We classify organisms as monsters when they step outside the margin of what we consider reasonable behavior for their particular category of critter. Consider the alien. Aliens can be monsters, but generally only when they plot to blow up the Earth, consider us a food group, or spend an inordinate amount of effort on painful probing. Otherwise, they’re just humans in monster suits. Vampires were monstrous until they started getting all emotive, sparkly and made you feel special. Tales of monsters are about what to do when things get funky. Mythology would be awfully boring if it simply described a bunch of mortal humans running around bashing each other on the head and sleeping around. I mean, that’s just a Thursday on planet Earth. Monsters, on the other hand, are a test of character. The cowardly demonstrate their irredeemable cowardice in the face of a monster. The courageous show their courage in the face of the unfamiliar, unnatural, and unfathomable. Unfathomability, of course, accurately describes the relations between the sexes. We are in fact each other’s monsters, and in all likelihood this is especially significant, as author George Gilder said, “the differences between the sexes are the single most important fact of human society.” I’ve been married for almost fifteen years. I have a five year old son and house in the suburbs (but in case we’re ever in a bar together, I’m a dangerous, love ‘em and leave ‘em outlaw biker. Try and remember), and sometimes I’m still convinced my wife is an alien. Not literally, so don’t get on the phone to the psychiatrist; rather even though she is my best friend and soulmate, we live in different and incongruous mental universes. Hopeless romantics are no doubt objecting to this, imagining the depth of understanding that they share with their respective partners. They are wrong. That’s why we call them hopeless. The simple fact is that men and women experience the world differently. The authors of the classier medieval bestiaries recognized this, and insightfully encoded this important piece of information in a set of gendered monstrosities called the Piroboli (singular, “Pirobolus”).
The Piroboli (called Terrobolum in Greek) are two talking rocks. One is male. One is female. Rocks as a rule are not stunning conversationalists, as they are generally sedentary (when not actually sedimentary), and thus rarely have an exciting answer to “what did you do this weekend?” Don’t ask a rock that. Its bad manners and just rubs their nose in the fact that they are a rock. Piroboli, on the other hand, are the playboys of the geologic world. While other rocks sit around eroding, the Piroboli are out cruising. Well, not really cruising. More just sitting there thinking how cool it would be to find a like-minded rock looking for a little bump and grind (not sure whether this is literal or figurative). Piroboli have the distinctive quality of bursting into flames when male and female rocks are in proximity to each other, which makes for extremely short, but really intense dates. The first clear mention of the incendiary qualities of the Piroboli appears in the 2nd Century A.D. bestiary before bestiaries were cool, called the Physiologus (authored by an anonymous Alexandrian, possibly Christian theologian Titus Flavius Clemens). The Physiologus was translated into dozens of languages over the next few centuries, luckily one of which was Old English (since my linguistic skill in Latin, Ethiopic, or Syriac are sorely lacking, and in fact completely non-existent). Most bestiaries that followed, cribbed at least some of their monstrosities from the Physiologus, including the 12th Century A.D. English illuminated manuscript called The Aberdeen Bestiary.
On a certain mountain in the east, there are fire-bearing stones which are called in Greek terrobolem; they are male and female. When they are far from each other, the fire within them does not ignite. But when by chance the female draws near to the male, the fire is at once kindled, with the result that everything around the mountain burns. For this reason, men of God, you who follow this way of life, stay well clear of women, lest when you and they approach each other, the twin flame be kindled in you both and consume the good that Christ has bestowed upon you. For there are angels of Satan, always on the offensive against the righteous; not only holy men but chaste women too. Finally, Samson and Joseph were both were tempted by women. One triumphed; the other succumbed. Eve and Susanna were tempted; the latter held out; the former gave in. The heart, therefore, should be guarded and guided by all forms of divine teaching. For the love of women, which has been the cause of sin from the beginning that is from Adam to the present day, rages uncontrolled in the sons of disobedience (Aberdeen Bestiary, c.1200 A.D. Folio 94r).
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to pick up on the theme that when men and women get together, the flames of passion can be all consuming, which is of course why Christian monks faithfully reproduced the Piroboli in their bestiaries, since it more or less justified their cloistered lifestyle choices. While a rather extreme choice resulting from a fear of talking to girls, it certainly solves the problem. It also handily puts the blame for all sin on women, which would be consistent with the attitude of western civilization towards the ladies, well, forever. If you pull back some of the theological gloss, the Piroboli are a strangely accurate metaphor for the ways in which men and women relate to each other. That is, they don’t. Fortunately, you typically don’t burst into flames around your girlfriend/boyfriend, but the comprehensive list of inanity related to our lifelong quest for a mate, would likely represent a compendium of all the stupid behaviors humanity has conceived or will conceive, in order to impress each other.
Fire stones, which are found in the East, are male or female. When far apart, there is no fire; but if they approach one another, a fire is ignited that burns everything. French accounts are similar. The moral of this is that man should flee woman lest the good that Christ has placed in him be consumed. Philippe de Thaun specifies because love burns when men and women are close, monks and nuns are kept apart. He also states that Samson and Joseph were tempted by women with diverse results. Although sexual differences between stones were not unknown to ancient writers,” the above description of the fire stones is not recorded other than in the Physiologus. Illustrations of fire stones usually show the bust of a man and a woman emerging from a mound surrounded by flames, or a couple holding stones (McCulloch, 1962, p119).
Remarkably, commentators on the significance of the Piroboli for male-female relations chose to focus on the whole igniting when near each other thing, whereas nobody seems to care that these rocks talk. I mean, talking rock monsters. How awesome is that? I guess the point that men and women seem to need each other (continuation of the species, interesting conversation, expansive sharing of the remote control), yet are fundamentally different both physiologically and in terms of perspective was considered more salient to the philosophically oriented. All the bestiaries seem to concur that the Piroboli reside in the unspecified “east”, which was the medieval forerunner of having a girlfriend in Canada.
The Terrebolen, or two Stones which emit Fire (Lat. Lapides igniferi, turdbolem, terrebolen, terrebuli, and cmrobolim; Fr. les deux pierres qui rendent feu).—Philippe de Thaun tells us that “turrobolen” are stones of such a nature that when near together they will emit fire, but when far apart they will not do so. These stones are found in the East, upon a mountain, and one has naturally the semblance of a man, and the other takes the form of a very beautiful woman. The two stones which emit fire typify the love between the opposite sexes, which is kindled by close contact, and those who wish to lead a life of chastity should avoid the society of women, and thus escape the temptations that assailed Adam, Solomon, David, and Samson (Allen, 1887, p353).
Sometimes symbolism (despite what your literature professor tells you) isn’t all that complicated, or as Hemingway observed when asked to comment on the symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea, “Then there is the other secret. There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.” And what we can be fairly certain of is that man is a monster to women, and women are monsters to men. This is pretty much the theme of anything interesting humanity has ever written. Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash captured this in the modern idiom when he wrote, “She’s a woman, you’re a dude. You’re not supposed to understand her. That’s not what she’s after…. She doesn’t want you to understand her. She knows that’s impossible. She just wants you to understand yourself. Everything else is negotiable.” But most importantly let’s not forget. Dude, these are talking rocks.
AberdeenUniversity Library MS 24. Aberdeen Bestiary. Digitized version available at http://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary, c.1200 A.D.
Allen, J. Romilly 1847-1907. Early Christian Symbolism In Great Britain And Ireland Before the Thirteenth Century. London: Whiting & co., 1887.
McCulloch, Florence. Mediaeval Latin And French Bestiaries. [Rev. ed.] Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962.
Great post. My parents have been married 59 years. My dad still says stuff like, “I do NOT understand what goes on inside that woman’s head.” My mom tends to be more resigned: “Sometimes there’s just no pleasing your father.”