English "monster" comes from Latin monstrum "divine omen, supernatural occurrence", from moneō "warn". Later this shifted to the meaning it has in English, a horrifying or evil creature.

But before this shift happened, how would I talk about "monsters" in general? A word specifically for supernatural horrors, or specifically for natural ones, would be fine.

  • I don't have an answer, but this could help someone else find it: I once heard Roman law considered the case when a woman gave birth something different than a human being. If I remember right, the word used in Spanish was monstruo (monster), so the answer could be in Roman law.
    – Rafael
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 21:04
  • Did the meaning shift? I always thought that anything horrifying and monstrous was called a monstrum precisely because it was interpreted as a "supernatural occurrence", intended as a warning by the divine powers. That is to say, monstrum did always mean "monster" in the sense we currently understand it (horrifying) although we don't now necessarily associate something malformed as a divine omen (but we do associate monsters in horror films as "evil" to some extent).
    – Penelope
    Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 2:39

1 Answer 1


For natural monsters, perhaps belua:

Belua immanis, crocodillus ille qui in Nilo gignitur …

That colossal monster, the crocodile born in the Nile …

Apuleius, Apologia, 8

Belua is often used for sea-monster (belua ponti) and it's sometimes ambiguous whether this means something like a whale (a natural 'monster') or something more supernatural. See for example: Ovid, Metamorphoses, 5.18; Lucan, Civil War, 8.764

Here, Lucretius speaks of the fanciful shapes clouds sometimes appear to take:

inde alios trahere atque inducere belua nimbos

after them some monster pulling and dragging other clouds

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 4.140 (trans. W. H. D. Rouse)

This, then, is a cross between natural and supernatural! Vergil uses it to describe a supernatural monster - belua Lernae - when Aeneas is in the underworld confronting all sorts of ghouls and horrors (Aeneid, 6.287).

Another option is portentum (from portendo). This obviously has semantic overlap with monstrum.

diram qui contudit hydram
notaque fatali portenta labore subegit,
comperit invidiam supremo fine domari

He [Hercules] who crushed the Hydra and laid low with fated toil the monsters of story found that Envy is quelled only by death that comes at last.

Horace, Epistles, 2.1.10-12 (trans.H. R. Fairclough)

This passage is clearly referencing supernatural monsters. It is interesting that Cicero uses both belua and portenta in the following. Perhaps he is differentiating here between both natural and supernatural monsters:

quae plurimorum saeculorum et eventorum memoriam litteris continet, bovem quendam putari deum, quem Apim Aegyptii nominant, multaque alia portenta apud eosdem et cuiusque generis beluas numero consecratas deorum

[in Egypt] ... which preserves written records of the events of countless ages, a bull, which the Egyptians call Apis, is deemed a god, and many other monsters and animals of every sort are held sacred as divine

Cicero, De Re Publica, 3.9 (trans. Clinton W. Keyes)

Lastly, Apuleius here lists many types of scary creatures, but I think occursacula, terriculamenta, and formidamina (from formido) are all good generic terms for monsters in general:

At tibi, Aemiliane, pro isto mendacio duit deus iste superum et inferum commeator utrorumque deorum malam gratiam, semperque obvias species mortuorum, quidquid umbrarum est usquam, quidquid lemurum, quidquid manium, quidquid larvarum, oculis tuis oggerat, omnia noctium occursacula, omnia bustorum formidamina, omnia sepulchrorum terriculamenta, a quibus tamen aevo et merito haud longe abes.

But as for you, Aemilianus, may that god, the intermediary between the upper and lower worlds, repay you for that lie with the ill will of the gods above and below; may he ever bring dead men’s forms to meet your eyes, every shade, phantom, spectre, ghost that ever was, every apparition of the night, every horror of the pyre, every terror of the graveyard, to all of which your age and just deserts have brought you near.

Apuleius, Apologia, 64 (trans. Christopher P. Jones)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.