A History of Wemics
A modern conception of a liontaur.
Fans of the fantastical have long been entranced by the idea of creatures that are human on top and beast-like down low. Sphinxes, centaurs, mermaids, harpies, driders, satyrs, lamia, and, yes, even unipegataurs -- they all appeal to the idea that humans can be more than what they are in our drab, mundane reality. My particular interest is in wemics, also known as liontaurs: basically centaurs, but with the horse bits swapped out for lion parts. Human from the waist up, leonine from the waist down, these creatures have a history that dates back thousands of years, although they get less press than their more widely-known kin. Let me beg your indulgence for a whirlwind tour of the history of the wemic.
We start in Ancient Assyria, where the kings of the day decorated their palaces with statues and drawings of protective spirits. And yes, there was a spirit that watched over you while you were taking a bath -- the "urmaluhlu"! A true liontaur, this monster guarded the "ablution room" in the palace at Ninevah, circa 3,400 BC. Read more about the urmaluhlu at my site, here and here.
The Ancient Assyrian urmaluhlu
Now, there are hints I have found of wemic-ish things in Ancient Greece, in Constantinople, and even in the doodles that monks drew in prayer books back in the Dark Ages. But the next undeniable wemic sighting I have found is on the coat of arms of King Stephen of England, grandson of William the Conquerer. He ruled from 1135 to 1154, and the liontaur on his shield was referred to as a "sagittary."
Two variations on the Coat of Arms of King Stephen of England
Stephen’s enemies called him the “Sagittary of London Park,” and I think they meant it as an insult, but it sounds pretty bad-ass to me. Stephen was not only King of England, but also a French noble, being the Duke of Normandy. Here’s a French sagittary that was once a decorative buckle on a small coffer, circa 1180.
A medieval sagittary, or lion-centaur
Moving on, no less than the Bard of Avon sang the song of the sagittary. In his 1602 play, "Troilus and Cressida," Shakespeare mentions a horrible monster. "The dreadful Sagittary / Appals our numbers. Haste we, Diomed, / To reinforcement, or we perish all." But is this sagittary a centaur or a liontaur? There’s reason to think it could be either.
Honesty compels me, though, to admit that most medieval sagittaries were references to traditional centaurs, for example, lingering on to the modern day as the constellation Sagittarius. But the ones shown above are clearly true leonine sagittaries!
And that's it for history. Well, okay, there's the Lion Centaur of 1846, but I'm just not sure what to make of that.
In the modern day, there have been, I believe, three separate reinventions of liontaurs. First, in 1974, in Poul Anderson's SF novel, Fire Time, a major race and several major characters are clearly liontaurs! Here's the art from the cover of the paperback, and it does a good job of representing the author's words:
Poul Anderson's Ishtarian
Then, in 1982, D&D publisher TSR released an expansion set of "Monster Cards." Each set included a couple brand new monsters, and the very first set introduced the wemic. This liontaur was the first ever "wemic" by that name. It was created by Dave Sutherland, an iconic artist who drew many classics for D&D:
The very first "wemic," a Monster Card special for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons
A screen grab of liontaurs from the Quest for Glory II game
See how these three lion centaurs are different? The Ishtarian is a sci-fi race with photosynthetic capabilites (see how the example above has a greenish cast). The wemic is a pure centaur-analog, completely human from the waist up. And the liontaur is furry -- even the humanish parts -- and has a beastial face with catlike features. These differences are part of my circumstantial case for three seperate reinventions. Did Dave Sutherland read Fire Time? Did the makers or Quest for Glory ever meet a wemic in playing D&D? Maybe, maybe not! ... But why, then, did Anderson call his creatures "Ishtarians"? Maybe after Ishtar, the Ancient Assyrian goddess known for her love of lions? Maybe it all goes back to the urmaluhlu after all?
But either way, wemics, liontaurs, felitaurs, lion-centaurs, chakats, cattaurs, and all the rest have found new lives in games, stories, and art, especially online. And for fantasy fans, that's fantastic.
NOTE: All sources for art and lore can be found on my site at the links given, or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Cayzle of Cayzle's Wemic Site
Note: user was awarded 25 Shmuckers for this post! -Rob
Poul Anderson was not only into history to the point of being one of the founders of the SCA, but one of the most careful world-builders in SF. There is no way that Ishtar wasn't chosen after thoughtful consideration. He knew heraldry (Three Hearts and Three Lions) and was probably familiar with these images and let them show him that Ishtarians would be cat-centaurs.