Imagine you were tasked with drawing an exotic animal you'd never seen before. With a little luck, it might look a bit better than something from a child's imagination. Now, imagine a similar scenario, except you have to draw an animal based on journal entries of explorers who've been to lands you'll likely never see. What would a whale look like if it was almost impossible to get a glimpse of it in its natural surroundings? It's easy to laugh at historically inaccurate drawings of animals, but keep in mind before the camera, historic records — especially drawings — were subjective at best. Think you could fare any better given the circumstances?

Leopard, Rochester Bestiary, 13th Century

Medieval bestiaries were books that included both real and fantastical beasts. But, often, the lines between the two were a bit blurred when it came to accurate depictions. The big spotted cat preying on the stag in this illustration is some kind of strange, leopard-lion hybrid.

"The Leopard" from the 13th-century bestiary known as the "Rochester Bestiary" Public Domain / Wikipedia


Panther, Aberdeen Bestiary, 1200

Lavish illustrations filled the pages of the Aberdeen Bestiary. It continues to be one of the top examples of bestiary manuscripts from the time. The artistic skill is clear with the hooved animals. But it takes a lot of imagination to see that the prominently featured blue creature is a leopard. The long, winged, alien critter on the right is even more confusing.

Folio 9 Recto - Panther Public Domain / Wikipedia


Panther, Bern Physiologus, 9th Century

Christians created the Physiologus in Greek text in the 2nd century. The Bern Physiologus is an illuminated copy of the Physiologus, created in the 9th century. This illustration is inaccurate in so many ways. The "panther" looks like a cross between a griffin and the artist's family dog.

Panther, Bern Physiologus, 9th century Public Domain / Wikipedia


Sawfish, Book of Beasts, 1187

These sailors may have been at sea too long if they were seeing winged fish soaring above their boat. While the size of this fish may be somewhat accurate, it's missing a major anatomical detail the saw-like nose extension that the fish is named for.

Sawfish and Ship Public Domain / Wikipedia


Crocodile, Northumberland Bestiary, 1250-1260

Most people know what a crocodile looks like, and this illustration shares no characteristics of the giant reptile. It's safe to say the poor human who came into contact with the creature wasn't around to provide an accurate description of the creature afterward.

A Crocodile; Unknown; England, Europe; about 1250 - 1260; Pen-and-ink drawings tinted with body color and translucent washes on parchment Public Domain / Wikipedia


Squirrel, Icelandic manuscript, 17th Century

In Norse mythology, Ratatoskr was a squirrel that lived in the world tree, Yggdrasil. Although the illustration doesn't share much of a physical resemblance to modern-day squirrels, its behavior doesn't seem far off. Ratatoskr was a gossiper who carried messages between the eagle at the top of the tree and the serpent at the bottom.

Seventeenth-century Icelandic manuscript illustration depiction Ratatoskr, a squirrel in Norse mythology said to live in the world-tree Yggdrasil and to convey insults and gossip Public Domain / Wikipedia


Beaver, Livre des simples médecines, 1480

Artists often depicted the beaver sporting a fishtail because people in medieval times thought the beaver was a close relative of the fish. Many took advantage of this faux pas on religious fasting days. They substituted beaver meat for the less-satisfying fish they were supposed to stick to.

During the Middle Ages it was believed that beaver tails were of such a fish-like nature that they could be eaten on fast days Public Domain / Wikipedia


Rhinoceros, Albrecht Durer, 1515

Durer was famous throughout Europe for his highly detailed woodcut prints. While this depiction of a rhinoceros is somewhat accurate, most rhinos don't have skin made from riveted metal. Was it an over-exaggeration of the animal's skin folds, or did an industrious metalsmith forge armor for the rhino? We'll never know for sure.

The Rhinoceros Public Domain / Wikipedia


Elephant, Eleazar Maccabeus, 1470 - 1475

Artists often added exotic animals to their paintings even though they'd never seen one. As a result, there are thousands of questionable and unusual illustrations of animals throughout history. Many included creatures we can only assume were elephants, although this one looked more alien than mammal.

Eleazar Maccabeus illustration, Speculum Humanae Salvationis Public Domain / Wikipedia


Owl, Aberdeen Bestiary, 1542

Most people associate the owl with wisdom, but this depressed, sad-faced bird shows no signs of it. Maybe it's because the artist gave it lips instead of a beak.

Aberdeen Bestiary - Owl Public Domain / Wikipedia


Raven, Abd al-Rahman, 16th century

Night-sky observers may be familiar with the raven-shaped Corvus constellation in the southern sky. The artist seemed to get a bit lost depicting a raven, and instead, created a generic-brand version of a diving bird with a duck-like head.

The Constellation of Corvus the Raven Brooklyn Museum Public Domain, Brooklyn Museum


Lion, Tumbo A cartulary, 13th Century

Lions and other exotic animals were featured prominently in medieval art, even though the artists had likely only seen portrayals in other artwork. That led to some strange and confusing illustrations that seldom looked like the real-life animal. And few lions had the kind and gentle expression the artist chose to portray on this one.

A lion at the side of King Alfonso IX of Leon, from the Tumbo A cartulary of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela Public Domain, Wikipedia


Lion, Pieter Paul Rubens, late 18th century

The lion's appearance in Rubens' oil painting, Hercules and the Nemean lion, is confusing, to say the least, and absolutely inaccurate. The creature's round head and flattened muzzle look less like a vicious beast and more like a victimized American bison minus its horns.

Hercules fight with the Nemeean lion by Pieter Paul Rubens Pieter Paul Rubens / Public Domain / Wikipedia


Dog, Nazca Lines, between 500 BCE to 500 CE

In the Nazca Desert in southern Peru, ancient artists created a group of several hundred line drawings into the soil covering 170 square miles. Although this depiction could be any type of canine or four-legged mammal, the other drawings are easily recognizable. Maybe this dog drawing was completed by one of the artists-in-training.

Dog figure as seen in the Nasca Lines, Nazca, Peru CanY71 / Getty Images


Whale, Pieter Lastman, 1621

Obviously, someone who had seen a whale described it to the artist as "a big fish." This painting beautifully illustrates the story of Jonah and the Whale. But instead of a giant ocean mammal, the artist chose to portray the attacking creature as a humongous sea bass.

Pieter Lastman - Jonah and the Whale - Google Art Project Pieter Lastman / Public Domain / Wikipedia


Tiger, Sogdian Metalwork, 7th to 8th Centuries

Sogdiana was an ancient Iranian civilization, a province of the Achaemenid Empire. An artisan crafted this gilded silver plate with the image of a tiger, which appears often in Sogdian artwork and fables. The long legs and dog-like head and body are closer to a Great Dane's anatomy than a royal feline's.

Sogdiana, piatto con tigre, argento dorato e niellato, VII-VIII sec By I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0


Beaver, Aberdeen Bestiary, 12th Century

The blue animal wrapped around the tree seems to its two observers completely befuddled. This depiction appeared in Aberdeen Bestiary and its illustrator labeled it "beaver." Although it does appear to be gnawing on the tree, there's nothing else that would lead modern humans to associate it with the brown-furred, flat-tailed animal we know today.

Folio 11 recto of the Aberdeen Bestiary, the Beaver Aberdeen Bestiary / Public Domain / Wikipedia


Vulture, Aberdeen Bestiary, 13th Century

In medieval times, people believed that female vultures gave birth without mating. As a result, the clergy used the vulture as proof that the Virgin Mary could give birth to Jesus. It's unclear as to whether the campaign was successful. Maybe because the "vultures" looked more like eagles.

Aberdeen Bestiary / Public Domain / Wikipedia


One-horned Rhinoceros and Bear, Ashmole Bestiary, Early 13th century

The horned, deer-like animal in this illustration, a Monoceros, was a rhinoceros with a single horn. Not only was it a confusing rendition, the animal in the picture below it has nothing in common with a bear except for its fur. We won't even try to figure out what the bear is licking on the ground.

Bodleian Library, MS. Ashmole 1511, The Ashmole Bestiary, Folio 21r : Monoceros and Bear, England, Early 13th century. Public Domain, Wikipedia


Lion, Unknown, 1524

Saint Mark, the Evangelist's symbol was the winged lion. Artists frequently featured it in portraits of the holy figure. But because many had never seen a lion, they had no references other than those they'd seen in other artworks. This unknown artist seems to have mistakenly used a sweet llama-like creature to portray one of the fierce beasts.

Probably an evangelist with a lion, indicating that this is Mark, the presumed author of Mark’s Gospel. Public Domain / Wikipedia


Lion, Echternach Gospels, circa 800

Many of the big cats depicted in historical and religious drawings took on human features instead of feline ones, yet this one doesn't. In fact, people may struggle to see any resemblance to a lion or any other living creature.

Public Domain / Wikipedia


Crocodile, Rochester Bestiary, Late 1200s

This crocodile appears in the medieval manuscript, the Rochester Bestiary. Although the word "crocodile" comes from the Ancient Greek word for lizard, the artist seemed to be unaware that crocodiles don't look like toothy salamanders.

Public Domain / British Library / Wikipedia


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