We are the original shock image, mirabilia monstrosum. Long before the first caves were painted, monsters like ourselves were born into the group, a living image of the Other, or created by accident, a passing beast of prey. Born or made, we were greeted with fear and loathing, sympathy, curiosity, and a near-endless variety of explanations.
From the beginning, we were the creatures who must be explained. Only much later did priests, metaphysicians and philosophers begin the task of explaining "normal" human existence.
Babylonian priests explained us in 2800 BC, translating our otherness on clay tablets in what Leslie Fiedler calls a lexicon of monsterology. Here's one: "When a woman gives birth to an infant who has six toes on each foot," the tablets say, "the people of the world will be injured."
Priests, not physicians, rushed to our cradles to assess and intervene. Some sacrificed us to their gods. We were mummified and worshipped, in that order, by the ancient Egyptians.
A potent and long-lived explanation for inborn bodily deviance held that we issued from manís matings with other species, half man, half beast, or, as Jerry Lewis put it much later, "only half a person."
In the time of Aristotle, who himself saw in us the lusus naturae, jokes of nature, freaks were already employed as amusements for the royals or the masses.
Christians argued, Fiedler has written, that we "existed for one of three reasons: as signs of God's wrath, occasioned by sin; as a reminder' that each birth was as miraculous as the original Creation; and as omens and portents, intended for the good."
When the occasional wave of witch hysteria swept over Europe, Fiedler reports, "some who called themselves Christians murdered such unfortunates at birth."
Martin Luther, the original Protestant, saw in us a massa carnis, mass of flesh without a soul. He called us "changelings," too, the devilís spawn.
Early In American history, the bodies of newborns and stillbirths were examined for signs of witchcraft. Any abnormality would signal that a nearby witch had cast Satan's spell. "It was," Fiedler says, "arguably the duty of the pious to destroy his evil work."