Like her one-time idol Indiana Jones in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark, York archeology and anthropology Professor Kathryn Denning has embarked on some far-flung adventures to chase down vampire folklore and ideas about communicating with alien life. Her most recent undertaking had her pursuing beasts of lore and legend across the globe for an upcoming television series.
Denning will be one of four co-presenters appearing in six one-hour-long episodes of the show "Beast Legends" which will involve her “romping around the world to study tales of legendary creatures.” The information gathered is then brought to the show’s Beast Lab, where the creature is created in 3-D computer imagery before being unleashed in the modern world. “Beast Legends” is produced by Yap Films and will premiere on History Television beginning tomorrow at 10pm and running for six weeks. In the fall, the series will air on Syfy.
Left: Kathryn Denning with the skull of an Australopithecus
As one of the show’s “beast seekers”, Denning found herself scuba diving in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Fiji with dozens of bull sharks – one of the top three shark species prone to attacking humans – in search of clues to the Fijian shark god Dakuwaqa. Despite the risk of being attacked, she dove with locals without the use of a shark cage. She also tracked stories of the Navajo bird monster in New Mexico, and in France she recorded a recent eyewitness account by a sailor whose boat had been attacked by a giant squid, evoking the medieval tale of the kraken, a fierce multi-tentacled sea monster thought to crush ships and scoop men from ship decks.
The show poses questions like: If these beasts were here today, what would they be doing or eating and where would they be living? says Denning. “Then we bring the data together and create the beast as it would look and act if it was here today.” Bringing the ancient into the present and understanding the linkages between the two is a particular interest of Denning’s, which, to her delight, she got to exercise while on assignment. "I’m interested in how people think of the ancient world and how that gets used in the modern world." She also had the opportunity to explore what she calls a highly innovative yet traditional culture by staying with Fijians in their homes while shooting. She got to experience their culture first-hand and better understand their rapidly changing religious beliefs and how those connect with modern phenomena like ecotourism.
The local people believe the Fijian shark god, a former chief who became a god after his death, protects and watches over them. Dakuwaqa not only sees all, but can change shape at will, although his most prominent shape is that of a bull shark. In recent years, a local Fijian operation began regularly diving down to feed the bull sharks by hand without cages to allow spectators to see the animals barrier-free. “I got an astoundingly close look at these beautiful, majestic killing machines,” says Denning. The local shark-feeding specialists have no fear of being attacked. In fact, Denning says, “they have named many individual sharks, and in turn, the sharks seem to recognize these individual humans by smell.” So far there have been no incidents in 15 years of feedings.
Right: Kathryn Denning when she’s not chasing legendary beasts
“Some of the beast legends we explored are very old, some more recent. There are many different versions of these myths and they evoke very different images for different people and in different regions,” says Denning. “That’s the really interesting part, the variations from region to region. What the beast does in the stories speaks more to the culture that believes in it than to the beast itself.” These ancient societies had an encyclopedic knowledge of their natural environment but didn’t necessarily know what was over the distant ridge, and that could lead to unexplained tales of beasts.
At the same time, there is still much “we don’t know about the sea” and “there’s a tremendous delight in thinking we haven’t civilized the whole world yet.” That there might actually be beasts out there that humans haven’t gotten a hold of yet. “The idea that there are still things that elude us is delicious,” she says.
Denning is joined on the show by Scott Edwards, a professor of organismic and evolutionary biology and curator of ornithology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University; Stephen Leonard, an adventurer and veterinary surgeon based in Bristol, England; and Francis Manapul, a Philippines-born, Toronto-based comic book artist. Together they explored the remote jungles of Vietnam looking for the Wildman, a giant, hairy, bloodthirsty beast similar to Bigfoot, and the Navajo lands of New Mexico for a giant bird predator said to be the size of a small plane. They travelled to Mongolia’s Altai Mountains searching for the griffin, a massive, legendary creature with the head of an eagle, razor-sharp talons and the body of a lion. They also ventured deep into the primeval forests of Poland to find the truth behind ancient legends of a terrifying, fire-breathing dragon known as Smok.
“When we look at these things that seem exotic, they help us to understand ourselves and other cultures better at the end of the day,” says Denning. She admits it’s a little different from some of her other academic work at York, although she was also a part of a documentary that aired in 2007 that looked at the natural history and folklore of vampires. "Tales of the undead are ubiquitous, ancient and always changing," she says, similar to tales about fantastical beasts. Denning hopes viewers of "Beast Legends" will gain a better understanding of animals in their natural environment, as well as other cultures.
Is there any truth to the legends behind these beasts? You’ll have to watch the show to find out.
For more information, visit the "Beast Legends" Web site. The first episode will be the search for the Wildman, followed by the kraken, Dakuwaqa, the griffin, the Navajo bird monster and, in the final episode, Smok the dragon.
For more information about when the show will be aired, visit the History Television Web site.
By Sandra McLean, YFile writer