On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears

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Hailed as "a feast" (Washington Post) and "a modern-day bestiary" (The New Yorker), Stephen Asma's On Monsters is a wide-ranging cultural and conceptual history of monsters--how they have evolved over time, what functions they have served for us, and what shapes they are likely to take in the future. Beginning at the time of Alexander the Great, the monsters come fast and furious--Behemoth and Leviathan, Gog and Magog, Satan and his demons, Grendel and Frankenstein, circus freaks and headless children, right up to the serial killers and terrorists of today and the post-human cyborgs of tomorrow. Monsters embody our deepest anxieties and vulnerabilities, Asma argues, but they also symbolize the mysterious and incoherent territory beyond the safe enclosures of rational thought. Exploring sources as diverse as philosophical treatises, scientific notebooks, and novels, Asma unravels traditional monster stories for the clues they offer about the inner logic of an era's fears and fascinations. In doing so, he illuminates the many ways monsters have become repositories for those human qualities that must be repudiated, externalized, and defeated.

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Real or imagined, literal or metaphorical, monsters have exerted a dread fascination on the human mind for many centuries. Using philosophical treatises, theological tracts, newspapers, films, and novels, author Stephen T. Asma unpacks traditional monster stories for the clues they offer about the inner logic of our fears and fascinations throughout the ages.

Take a Closer Look at the Mythical Creatures from On Monsters
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The manticore monster was thought to favor human flesh.
Descriptions of the beast appear in the natural history texts of Ctesias, Aristotle, and Pliny.
Pencil drawing by Stephen T. Asma © 2008, based on a sketch from Edward Topsell’s seventeenth-century bestiary.



The Golem is a bumbling monster of Jewish folklore. The clay creature was animated by Rabbi Judah Loew to protect the Jewish ghetto but could not be controlled and wreaked havoc in Prague.
Pen and ink drawing by
Stephen T. Asma © 2008.


The Cyclops legend was fueled by ancient Greek misinterpretations of mastodon skulls found in Mediterranean caves.
Pencil drawing and collage by
Stephen T. Asma.


Symbolic of God’s power, the biblical Behemoth appears in the Book of Psalms and Job.
Pencil drawing by Stephen T. Asma © 2008.

About the Author:


Stephen T. Asma is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, where he holds the title of Distinguished Scholar.

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