Part II: Fantasy
Be sure to check out the illustrations at the end of the text sections!
Botany in Myth
Possibly because of a high school English class more than for any other reason, Americans have a good idea of what myths are. Myths succeed in talking about important truths. The truths spoken about in myth may deal with the world, society, or the spiritual realm. Really good myths transcend space and time; they're apt to make a reader say, "I don't know these people or how they lived, but I get their point-- I understand their story and see connections with my own life." That is what makes myth important. As Joseph Campbell (see The Power of Myth, pp. 3-4) puts it:
"One of our problems today is that we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit. We're interested in the news of the day and the problems of the hour. (...) When you get older, and the concerns of the day have all been attended to, and you turn to the inner life-- well, if you don't know where it is or what it is, you'll be sorry. (...) It used to be that these stories (myths) were in the minds of the people. When the story is in your mind, then you see its relevance to something happening in your own life. It gives you perspective on what's happening to you. With the loss of that, we've really lost something because we don't have a comparable literature to take its place. These bits of information from ancient times, which have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religions over the millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage, and if you don't know what the guidesigns are along the way, you have to work it out yourself. But once this subject catches you, there is such a feeling, from one or another of these traditions, of information of a deep, rich, life-vivifying sort that you don't want to give it up."
Myth or mythos, in the oldest sense of the word, has to do with stories or accounts. As was discussed in the chapter on the Genesis creation stories, myth can refer to a human attempt to understand deep, even mysterious, truths; although the stories themselves may be fictional, there exists in each some reality at a fundamental human level which calls for the telling. The truth or reality at the core of myth may be a statement about the natural world or, just as likely, about humanity or the human mind itself. Some of the myths are poetic, mysterious, otherworldly, while others seem to be more casual commentaries on the everyday experiences of the teller. Some are set in a sort of "once-upon-a-time" world, not unlike the Australian Aborigine's dream time,(1) while others give specific geographical locations and dates. Some are ancient, and others are as new as the latest issue of a favorite tabloid. Even when a myth is stated in mundane terms, or when it seems to be a thinly veiled fabrication, or even a wildly exaggerated traveler's tale, it is important and can say something about the culture in which the myth appears. All that being said, first the plant kingdom's myths will be sampled, then exploration will turn to the animal kingdom.
Sacred Plant Life
In some cultures, certain plants and trees were considered sacred or even as the seats of divine spirits. Under the animistic view, for example, such plants and trees could enclose gods of nature or strength. In other mythological systems, plants or trees were sacred to a deity more symbolically. They could even be avenues for coming into contact with the divine because of their intoxicating or uplifting effects; this was sometimes the case with wine, which was fermented from the fruits of the grapevine, in the Mediterranean region or with tobacco in the New World. In the Germanic mythological traditions, along with some others, certain trees were associated with the gods. One source of evidence for this kind of association is a legend from the Christian evangelization of Germany.
In the 720's A.D., the Anglo-Saxon apostle to Germany, St. Boniface, went on a mission to convert the people there to Christianity in the name of Rome. When he arrived in Germany, he was confronted with the cult of Thor, the German god of thunder and storms. At first, Boniface wasn't very successful in making converts, but he eventually settled on a great idea. It seems there was a certain ancient and gnarled oak which was held sacred to Thor, and before which the priests of Thor performed their magical rites. Boniface, in a show of Christian bravado, approached the giant tree and threw out an irresistible challenge to the priests of Thor and to those who followed them. He said that he intended to cut down the tree and reasoned with the people that if their god was a true god, he would prevent the cutting of the tree. Seeing a way to get rid of the pesky missionary, the priests foolishly agreed to the test, just as the prophets of the Baals had done to Elijah's challenge in I Kings 18:21-46, and Boniface was able to cut down the tree without hindrance by god or by man. In the absence of any prevention or retribution from Thor, many Germans converted and were baptized that day. As for the tree itself, it was sawn into planks with which was built the first Christian church in that area.
Vegetative Animal Mythology
Unknown lands have always served as great sources for the bizarre. Such travelers as Marco Polo returned with tales of wonderful things from far away. Many of the travelers circulated manuscripts of accounts of their travels and the exotic mysteries that they had seen or heard about. One such traveler was a man who called himself Sir John Mandeville.(2) Sir John claims to have encountered a plant which produced not only fruit but also edible meat which was consumed with great relish by the people of China where this marvelous plant was supposed to be native.(3) In his travelogue he writes:
"...there grows a manner of fruit like a gourd, and when it is ripe, men cut it in two and find within a little beast, with flesh and blood and bone, like a little lamb, but without the wool. Men eat both the fruit and the beast, and it is a great marvel. I have tasted it myself."
This account, although certainly not worthy of belief today, would have been accepted readily by Europeans of the fourteenth century. The reason was that a fairly common bird, the barnacle goose, was thought by them to "grow on trees" in just the same sort of way. Sir John claims to have topped his Chinese hosts by telling them about these marvelous geese:
"... as great a marvel to them, which is common to us, was that of the barnacle geese. For I told them that in our country there are trees that bear a fruit that becomes a flying bird, but if the fruit falls to the ground the bird soon dies, and that the birds are very good meat for men to eat. What I said caused such marvel that some of the listeners swore it was impossible."
Although it is not really our purpose here to find the logical explanations behind such stories, Ley's search through the scholarly accounts and his subsequent conclusions are hard to resist. Apparently, the oldest surviving account of the bird tree was written in the second half of the twelfth century by a man named Giraldus Cambrensis. In his book, Topographia Hibernia,(4) Cambrensis speaks of geese called bernacae which he says are numerous in Ireland:
"...against nature, nature produces them in a most extraordinary way. They are like marsh geese, but somewhat smaller. They are produced from fir timber tossed along by the sea...they hang down by their beaks, as if from a sea-weed attached to the timber...I have frequently, with my own eyes, seen more than a thousand of these small bodies of birds, hanging down from one piece of timber at the seashore, enclosed in shells and already formed."
Cambrensis also reports a sort of crisis in the Irish Catholic Church. In some dioceses of Ireland the consumption of the barnacle goose was allowed on days of abstinence and fast because it was "not born of flesh." Other dioceses strictly forbade the practice. And although he condemned the eating of the barnacle goose as a vegetable on such days, Cambrensis agreed that no one had ever seen the geese breed or lay eggs. According to Ley, papal intervention was eventually required, and Pope Innocent III, arguably the most powerful pope of all times and a reform-minded man, condemned the practice in 1215, in the midst of implementing the improvements of the Fourth Lateran Council.
Later in the century, Bishop Albert von Bollstadt, better known as St. Albertus Magnus,(5) rejected the story of the bird tree as absurd, stating categorically that he had observed the mating behaviors of the goose species in question and had even spent time studying them while they were nesting and laying eggs. Even this, however, was not enough to discourage the stories. One of Albert's own students, Thomas of Cantimpre, claimed to have researched accounts of the marvelous tree back as far as Aristotle, the scholastic philosophers' ultimate authority on everything. And, according to Ley, a craving for the miraculous by medieval European society, and the evidence of the greatness of God these wondrous creatures provided, explains why such stories continued in circulation.(6)
As late as 1678, accounts of the geese which grew on wood continued to appear. In the published transactions of the Royal Society for that year, Sir Robert Moray, a member of the king's Council for Scotland, reported that he had himself seen on the beach of the Isle of Uist, a nine or ten foot long section of fir tree with multitudes of shells hanging from the underside of it. He stated that although he did not open any of the shells because they were dead and dry, they had within them little birds thought to be barnacle geese. He also described the necks by which the shells clung to the wood as round, hollow, creased, and not unlike the wind-pipe of a chicken. Since 1700, however, the truth of the barnacle goose has been widely known, although there seems not to have been much of an "ah-ha!" moment. It seems that two different animals had been combined into one. The actual goose, still called the barnacle goose in English, was a bird with standard reproduction. The great taxonomist Linnaeus called the species Anser bernicula(7) because of the legend. Ireland was called Hibernia in Latin; therefore, Irish goose would be anser Hibernicae or anser Hiberniculae, and the early account placed the bird tree in Ireland. According to Professor Max Muller, a linguist writing in 1864, confusion followed: Hiberniculae was shortened to berniculae, and the Latin for the sea creatures called barnacles was bernaculae. This brings us to the second animal, Lepas anatifera,(8) a type of barnacle which anchors itself to driftwood by a long, dark "neck" and has light gray or white wing-like shells around its body, giving the same overall color effect as the goose. With a little imagination, one could certainly see an "unripe" goose.
As far as the lamb plant or barometz is concerned, there are two possible explanations. The first is Polypodium barometz,(9) again named by Linnaeus because of the legendary plant. This Asiatic fern has thick roots which grow along the surface of the soil. These roots are covered by what seems to be a thick, woolly fur and can be branched in such a way as to resemble small animals. According to Ley, the root releases a thin red fluid when cut which could appear to be blood, but, he points out, the fern is not edible. The second, and more plausible, explanation revolves around language and another unlikely combination of two things. In this theory, put forward by Henry Lee in his 1887 book, The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, the problem started when Theophrastus(10) needed a word to describe the cotton boll, the rounded seed pod of the cotton plant. He chose the word melon which has a first definition of "apple" or "fruit". It, apparently, has the secondary meaning of "sheep".(11) This led to the figurative interpretation of the cotton plant as a "vegetable sheep" which bore wool, and this added to the confusion among would-be translators and later writers. It should be pointed out that Sir John's description is once again rather far from the mark; although cottonseed oil can be used in food preparation, the cotton plant itself is not edible, and this little lamb certainly does have "wool" on it.
Vegetative Human Mythology
Here there are two striking examples of myths that seem to say as much about the human psyche, and about humanity"s egocentrism, as about anything else in nature. After all, these two myths are about plants which are thought of as created in our own image and likeness. Although there is no evidence for this, the first of the two myths may well be a slightly more "fictionalized" version of the second. The first "vegetable human" is called the jidra, and the second is called the mandrake.(12)
The jidra appears in a book by Dr. L. Lewysohn. Published in 1858, it was called Zoology des Talmuds, and was claimed to be an exploration of all the animals mentioned in the Jewish Talmud. The jidra is described as an animal whose bones have magical properties, and the rest of the description is only slightly more plant-like. It grew from roots which were firmly anchored in the ground to which it was attached by a long vine described as being like an umbilical cord. It took the form of a sort of pumpkin which was shaped like a man. According to the account, this "pumpkin man" ate anything it could reach within the radius allowed by the vine and would instantly kill any animal or man it could get at. In order to harvest the jidra one needed to detach it from its roots, causing its death.
The mandrake legend, although based on a real plant, seems just as fantastic.(13) According to Dale-Green, Pythagoras, the famous Greek philosopher and mathematician of the sixth century B.C., mentioned the mandrake in his writings and referred to it as an anthropomorphic plant. And, one Christian theory held that it was made from the same earth as Adam and resembled man due to a trick of the Devil. It was said that the plant came in both male and female forms, that is, that there were both mandrakes and womandrakes. The plant has been known and used for more than three thousand years and seems to have always carried with it the taint of the demonic in the human mind. It was generally thought that the plant was inhabited by evil spirits, and some even claimed that at the center of the roots was entangled a human heart, guarded by Satan himself. In some places it was called "thieves' root" or "little gallows man" because it was thought to grow under gallows, having come from the hanged man's mouth or having been "seeded" by him from semen and urine voided during the execution. Despite all of the evil and negative imagery associated with it, the mandrake was thought to bring great good fortune once harvested.
The problem became how the harvesting could be done safely, and complicated rituals grew around it. According to the stories, there were two dangers which a would-be gatherer of the mandrake root could fall into. First, any resident demon needed to be avoided, and, next, the sound of the shriek of the mandrake when cut out of the ground was said to mean death for any who heard it. In order to avoid both of these problems a scapegoat was used, and, as far back as the first century, the Jewish historian, Josephus, recorded the use of a dog for this purpose. In their simplest form the rites associated with the harvest of the mandrake called for digging around the plant until the roots were exposed and tying a starving dog to the center root. Next, the ears of the gatherer were plugged with wax or a great deal of noise was made as he backed away and called the dog, tempting him with bread or meat. When the dog rushed toward the food, the root was pulled up, the mandrake shrieked, the dog dropped dead, and any vengeful demon was theoretically appeased by the death of the dog.(14)
Of course, more complex versions of the rite developed. By the sixteenth century, a German version was very elaborate indeed. The digger was to go out on a Friday before dawn accompanied by a black dog without a single white hair on it. When he found a suitable mandrake, he was to bless it three times with the sign of the cross; he then dug up and freed every root of the plant save a single thin rootlet. Now, with his ears stopped up, he tied the unfortunate dog to the main root, quickly dropped back and threw some food to just out of reach of the dog. He then said ritual prayers over the sacrificed dog and collected his prize, but the ritual was far from over. The mandrake was taken home to be bathed in red wine, wrapped in red and white silk, and laid respectfully in a casket.(15) It was then bathed each subsequent Friday and was given a clean white shirt to wear each month!
Trees of Death
The present section returns to the realm of traveler's tail with a vengeance. Each of the three trees in question either grew or was supposed to have grown on far-off and remote islands. Only rumors and questionable accounts made it back to Western Europe at first, but Western theology had already primed it to receive tales of a "tree of death" as the corollary to the Tree of Life, mentioned in Genesis and much debated.(16)
The first representative of this group is the manchineel, and it was said to be so deadly that none dare to get close to it, except those who had trained in order to collect its sap. The natives of the West Indies, where the manchineel grows, harvested the sap in order to poison arrows with it. In 1789 Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin of natural selection fame, wrote (Ley, p. 308):
"With the milky juice of this tree the Indians poison their arrows; the dew drops which fall from it are so caustic as to blister the skin and produce dangerous ulcers; whence many have found their death by sleeping under its shade."
Apparently, even then, Darwin had it right to a great extent; it was not lethal, however, to sleep in the shade of Hippomane mancenilla. But, to have its distilled sap enter the blood stream on the point of an arrow would certainly do a lot of harm. Interestingly, Ley points out that the "deadly sleep" story was used as part of the plot of an opera by Meyerbeer which made its debut as late as 1865. The librettist got the geography wrong, however, when the heroine kills herself by resting under the manchineel in Africa in an opera entitled L'Africaine.
Our second death tree is known as the upas, but it should be noted that this word is simply a label for any vegetable poison in the Malay language. Stories of this wondrous tree of death first appeared in the West in about 1330 A.D. with the writings of Oderich of Portenau who was mentioned earlier in the chapter. According to Oderich there was but one cure for the poison of the upas, and that was to steep the leaves of the very tree itself in water and to drink the resulting tea. According to legend, the ground beneath the upas tree is always bare and devoid of any vegetation because of the prodigiously powerful poison produced by the tree. Another sign of the toxicity of the tree was supposed to be that dead birds circled the base of its trunk, these having perched in the tree and been overwhelmed by the murderous fumes. Some writers even claimed that villages could not be built within 12 or 14 miles of such a tree. Such rumors and fanciful tales about the tree persisted for centuries until a French naturalist named L. T. Leschenault de la Tour traveled to the interior of eastern Java in 1804. The tree, which he named Antiaris toxicaria, grew in very fertile soil and was surrounded by a thick undergrowth which was perfectly healthy, and he brought a large quantity of the sap back to France with him for chemical analysis without hurting himself or his shipmates. Today it is known that the genus Antiaris forms a part of the fig family and produces fruits which are edible and much sought after by birds with no ill effect. The sap is, however, deadly when introduced into the bloodstream, even to a very large animal.
The final example of the death tree is a very interesting case, indeed. Although the setting for the story is Madagascar, it says a lot more about the human imagination than it does about that great island or any of its native species. Second only to Australia in the depth of natural oddities it contains, Madagascar is certainly a land of mystery. One of its many mysteries is the tale of the man-eating tree. This story was first allegedly reported in a German magazine which was supposed to have been called Carlsruhe Scientific Journal from a letter to Dr. Omelius Fredlowski by an eye witness named Carl Liche in 1878. The problem was that Ley could, at first, find no reference to the letter, the author, the recipient, the journal, the tribe, or any part of the story before a 1924 book by Chase Salmon Osborn claims to quote it in its entirety. After 1924, some other books about Madagascar did incorporate statements about the tree, however. Although Ley reprints the whole "letter"(see pp. 326-329), the highlights of the story will be enough for our purposes here.
According to the story, the tiny Mkodo people of Madagascar were primitive in the extreme; they wore no clothing and kept only the loosest ties to one another so that they weren't really much of a tribe at all. The only thing that kept the people together was their worship of one of the trees of the forest. Along a swampy, slow-running stream one of the man-eating trees was supposed to have been seen in the company of a group of Mkodo who immediately forced one of their number to climb the tree. The tree was described something like a dracaena palm with an eight foot tall trunk which was somewhat bulbous, like the fruit of the pineapple. From the top, pairs of huge leathery leaves, shaped like those of the agave, hung to the ground and were covered on the inside with many hooks. From the midst of the crown of leaves a large white bowl-shaped structure contained a thickly sweet narcotic fluid, and two types of tendril-like stems grew from the same area. One set of stems were four inches in diameter at their bases and tapered along their eight foot length; the other set numbered six white stems of about six feet long which constantly waved about as if searching for something to latch on to. Once the native woman was made to climb the tree, she was instructed to drink. Immediately the stems began to crush the life out of the woman, and once she was dead the enormous leathery leaves began to raise around her. At this point the rest of the natives began to lap up the spilling liquid; they ended their sacrifice with an intoxicated orgy as the white men who were supposed to have witnessed the terrible ritual skulked quickly away into the forest.
It was not until Ley discovered the account of Dr. Conrad Keller, the Swiss writer of an 1887 travel book about East Africa and Madagascar, that he became convinced of the reason he could not find the corroborating writings he sought in the libraries of the world. Keller states that he was unable to trace the magazine in which the account was supposed to have been printed in Germany, but he published the translation of the letter which he had made from a Madagascar annual, published in 1881, which was mostly written by the missionaries and other settlers. Keller's mention of the German source was a red herring that was probably provided by a reference made in the Madagascar annual itself to lend verisimilitude to the account. Ley's conclusion was that the whole story was a hoax or a kind of inside joke aimed at seasoned residents who would see the story for what it was. Of course, there is always the possibility that the story was concocted for the benefit of tourists like Keller, however. No such tree and no such tribe have ever been found.
The Sea Nut of King Solomon
At least as far back as the 1600's, Europeans became aware of a natural curiosity which was considered quite valuable and quite remarkable. This curiosity went by a number of different names, but the most common seem to have been King Solomon's sea nut and the coco-de-mer.(17) The second name is the one preferred by most authors today. Occasionally, giant nuts, weighing as much as 50 pounds, would be discovered near the shores of such tropical lands as Java, Sumatra, and Borneo, but their source was a great mystery. This caused the demand for them to rise because the ground nut meats were believed to produce medicines that not only cured strokes, gall bladder troubles, and hemorrhoids, but that, when added to any food or drink, would protect the user from all poisons! According to legend, the powerful of Java, Burma, and China would pay enormous sums for just one such nut. Rumors about the source of the enormous nuts continued, and the people of Java had two main mythical traditions about them. As reported by Georg Eberhard Rumpf, who collected stories and wrote between 1662 and 1701, the first tradition claimed that the coco-de-mer grew far below the water and that it could sometimes be glimpsed through clam, clear seas; attempting to get a better look or diving toward the plant was thought to result in death, however. The second story reported by Rumpf seems to have major elements in common with both the Arabian Nights and a medieval German romance, according to Ley; Ley makes no conjecture about the reasons for this, but Rumpf, although probably Dutch, considered the German town of Hanau his home. At any rate, Rumpf claims to have heard a version of the following tale from natives in Java:
Beyond Java in the open sea grows a unique tree called the pausengi tree. This tree, although it grows in the sea, spreads one branch beyond the waves. Upon that branch is built the nest of a ferocious and enormous bird called the geruda. This fierce bird circles the islands in search of prey, carrying off elephants, rhinos, tigers, or any other large beasts to feed to its young. Since all the currents of the seas drift toward the spot where the tree grows, it is almost impossible to see the tree and return to tell the tale. Only a very few unlucky fishermen who drifted off course have found themselves there and have been able to return to Java by climbing into the plumage of the great geruda and clinging to it until the bird came close enough to the ground for them to make an escape. The wonderful and miraculous nut of the pausengi had a unique characteristic: it always moved against the current and so swam away from its parent tree, and when it reached some distant shore it would even pull itself out of the waves and up the beach to come to rest in the undergrowth of the island.
Although Rumpf seems to have had reservations about the last part of the story, Ley points out that "walking" coconuts, even fairly large ones, are possible in this part of the world. It seems that the local coconut crabs, Birgus latro, often drag the nuts into the underbrush at night to crack them open and feed on them. The native myth may well have incorporated the "walking" of the pausengi nut because of the occasional sighting of such crabs at work. Because of myths like the ones reported by Rumpf, it seemed logical to draw one conclusion about the coco-de-mer: it must be the product of some sort of sea plant which grows near Java, Sumatra, and Borneo, the islands on which the nuts sometimes wash ashore. This alone seemed to make sense.
Unfortunately life doesn't always answer to the rules of logic. In fact, when the mystery was finally solved in the 1760's, the correct solution seemed almost as strange as the Javan myths themselves. In the 1740's a group of granite islands about 600 miles north of Madagascar was claimed in the name of the king of France and was eventually christened the Seychelles Islands. This island group sits a mere 800 miles from the nearest point on the coast of Africa, and this means it is a remarkable 3000 miles from Java! On one of the islands, which had received little attention before, was discovered the only grove of coco-de-mer trees in the world. Whether the trees evolved in situ as unique island flora or constitute a "living fossil" as Ley asserts, is really less relevant than the rarity of these palms. The small population of trees has never been able to spread naturally to nearby islands let alone ones as far away as Java, so far as it is known. This may well be due to the extremely long germination period required by the nuts in combination with the slow growth of the trees to their adult size of nearly 100 feet. Called Lodoicea seychellarium,(18) The palm comes in male trees and female trees, and the females will not even begin to flower for the first 40 years of growth. It is at this age that the trunk begins to form, as the palm fronds grow up from a central heart on the ground up to this age. Although individual trees have been grown in other tropical locations by botanists as an insurance measure, the core of the world's population of these trees could, presumably, be wiped out in a single tropical storm.
As has been seen, plants play an interesting role in human mythologies. Often, the myths produced have some basis in nature, but, as with the case of the Madagascar carnivorous tree, this is not always so. The human fascination with plants native to far away places is still alive and well, as can be demonstrated in countless nurseries and florist's shops around the world, and many homes hold examples of once rare and precious plants native to exotic lands.
Notes For Chapter 7:
(1) This is their mythic "time before time" in which animals and men came to be and spoke to one another.
(2) Sir John, although of questionable honesty, was very well respected as a learned man and physician by the people of Liege where he died in 1372. In Liege he went by the names of Jean of Bourgogne and Jehan a la Barbe; to add to the mystery, he claimed to have been given the travelogue he circulated by an English knight named Mandeville, but on his deathbed he claimed to be Mandeville himself. As a further complication, much of the work seems to have consisted of the plagiarized works of others. For more on this see Ley, pp. 48-50. The quotes from Mandeville's work have been modified into more current language; they also seem to be unattributed "borrowings" from the writings of a monk named Oderich of Portenau, according to Willy Ley.
(3) My main source for the lamb tree, goose tree, and jidra is Ley, pp. 48-61.
(4) The title may be translated as : "A Detailed Description of Ireland."
(5) Albert was quite a man. Among his many accomplishments was that he was a sort of one-teacher university; in his day he was the authority on theology, biblical studies, logic, metaphysics, mathematics, ethics, physics, geography, astronomy, mineralogy, chemistry, and biology. He wrote prolifically on all that he studied, from a treatise on the life cycle of the European eel to an argument demonstrating that the earth is a sphere. It does not seem possible, but this bishop and teacher also found time for field work. Through his own observations of the natural world, he was frequently able to prove or disprove earlier "scientific" theories, descriptions, and myths. He became the teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas in 1252, and is considered by the Church the patron of students of the natural sciences. For more information see Thurston, volume IV, pp. 345-348.
(6) Although we are supposed to live in a more scientifically enlightened and informed society ourselves, the tabloids and television schedules are filled with stories no less fantastic which people devour with great delight and some credulity. Some people, even today, want to believe in such things as impossible creatures, paranormal phenomena, and extra-terrestrial visitations. If one of these can be combined with, say, a conspiracy theory, such as the so-called "ufologists" have managed with the Roswell incident, so much the better, and the result is volumes of investigative writing and hours of documentary footage. This is not intended to ridicule those who believe in such things, but to illustrate that there is less difference between us and the people of earlier ages than we like to pretend.
(7) In resources that I have checked, the contemporary scientific name for the bird is Branta leucopsis or the "brant which appears white" (the other major representative of the genus is called the black brant in English, and this one is lighter in body color with more white and light gray markings). Apparently, since the time of Linnaeus an affinity has been found with members of the genus Branta which explains at least part of the name change. By the way, the "affinity" between the barnacle goose and other members of the genus is so strong that members of more than one species can't be housed together in the same waterfowl collection because crossbreeding will occur very readily. So much for not being "born of the flesh."
(8) Anatidae is the scientific name for the waterfowl family; this name would, therefore, translate as "the waterfowl-bearing barnacle".
(9) This would translate as "many footed" barometz. According to Ley, the plant named by Linnaeus is now called Cibrotum glamescens, but the genus Polypodium is still used, at least by nurserymen, to label ferns termed rabbit's foot ferns in English.
(10) Theophrastus was a Greek philosopher, botanist, and author of the late fourth and early third centuries B.C.
(11) I was able to trace this to a possible Indo-European root, mel or smel, which means a small animal
(12) Although the jidra does not seem to have a firm foundation in reality, the mandrake is a real plant. Its scientific name is Mandragora officinarum, and it is described as a Eurasian plant with purple flowers and roots which resemble the human body. From the roots, a narcotic substance can be prepared. While its original Greek name was mandragoras, it was shifted to mandragge in Middle English and finally to mandrake which takes on the new connotation of a dragon (draco or drake) in the shape of a man.
(13) My main source for this section on the mandrake is Dale-Green, pp. 160-162.
(14) Since the mandrake is a plant which is native to the area around the Mediterranean, one would think that this ritual was tried more than once. It is easy to explain why a person with his ears plugged or protected by loud noise could continue to think that the plant had shrieked without being heard, but what about the dog's death? If any starving dogs died, perhaps it was due to having sampled some of the poisonous plant in desperation or to the stresses of the ordeal itself.
(15) Dale-Green does not say whether she means a box or case for keeping precious items or a coffin, but, given the rest of the account, I suspect she means a coffin.
(16) The major source for the trees of death is Ley, pp. 307-319 and 326-329, 333.
(17) Here, again, the source is Ley. See pp. 256-270.
(18) According to Ley, the genus name is a reference to Laodice (Laodike) of Greek mythology. Although Ley identifies her as a daughter of Priam, the ruler of Troy, The Oxford Classical Dictionary also identifies it as a stock name meaning "princess", as is the case with the name Creusa in the story of Medea. This would make the name of the tree the Seychelles princess palm; this would be in perfect keeping with the names of other palms like the king palm, Archontophoenix cunninghamiana, and the queen palm, Syagrus romanzoffianum.
PART II: FANTASY
Zoology in Myth-- Domestic Animals
As promised, the animal kingdom's myths will now be explored. One logical way of doing this seems to be to proceed from the known to the unknown. Humanity's domestic animals are those which have been most studied and are, therefore, the most known. And, of these, the dog has probably been domesticated the longest.(1)
The Canine in Science
According to some estimates, dogs have been companions to man for as many as 25,000 years, but a love/hate relationship between anatomically modern humans and the ancestors of the dog, which led pack lives similar to those of the communal human hunters, may be as much as 120,000 years old. This puts their period of domestication far back into the mists of time, and there is no concrete evidence of its course; semi-wild canines may have lived on the refuse of human encampments for generations before anything like what we consider a domestic dog developed. Theories of where, exactly, the dog came from also vary; some claim that the dog is nothing other than a domesticated gray wolf, Canis lupus , perhaps with some other species contributing to its make up, and others claim that another species, the golden jackal, Canis aureus , is the main ancestor. Still others insist on a fairly even blend of several species of the Canidae , the canine family, in the make up of the domestic dog.(2) Whatever the ancestry, biologists consider canids to show signs of domestication when they retain certain characteristics of puppyhood in their skeletons, dentition, etc. as adults,(3) and these first domestic dogs had branched into five major types by 6500 years ago. This is evidenced by the various differences in the fossils which have been found in association with human camp sites and settlements of the time. The first type remained rather similar to a wild wolf and may be ancestral to such breeds as the spitz, husky, and elkhound. The second type was characterized by large stout bodies and massive heads and probably resulted in the mastiffs and bulldogs. The next type was long-legged and slim, and from them came the gaze hounds. Next came an intermediate type which probably gave birth to spaniels and pointers. The last type may have given rise to the various sheepdogs.(4) Although it is claimed by some that certain surviving breeds of domestic dog are many thousands of years old, it is probably more accurate to assign their age as "from antiquity" rather than to attempt to say with authority how many thousands of years ago any individual dog with enough characteristics to be considered of a certain breed first appeared. Breeds such as the saluki, afghan, greyhound, pharaoh hound, basenji, pekingese, and a few others claim such pedigrees, but the majority of common existing breeds have been developed in modern times. A few other breeds are considered primitive, that is, "pre-specialist", dogs by some scholars, and these, too, are thought of as quite old; Australian dingoes and Asian pariah dogs, who live at the edges of human society, fall under this heading. All varieties of dog remain very closely related, and will readily cross-breed with each other as well as with the wolf.
Dogs in Myth
There is a story told by certain Native Americans about the creation of the earth and its inhabitants. Once the Great Spirit had made all manner of creatures, man and beasts, an enormous gap or canyon began to form between the man and the other creatures. Most of the creatures looked on with indifference, but, as the crevasse grew, the dog became more and more agitated, pacing back and forth along the ledge and barking and whining. As the void widened still further, the dog could stand it no longer, and he sprang across with a huge leap. From then on the dog stood beside the man as his friend and companion forever.
This story illustrates the special place that the dog holds in human mythology. The dog, unlike other domestic animals, is thought of as a willing companion, a friend, and even a co-worker and helpmate. He has chosen us in this myth, just as he may actually have done in pre-history by frequenting human trash heaps and encampments. His canine lifestyle of co-operative hunting and pack life, of life in a "hierarchical" group structure, made him ideally suited to life with a humanity which lived under similar systems. Perhaps it is the similarity between canine and human lifestyles and behavior that makes the anthropomorphism of dogs so tempting and so prevalent, both in myth and in everyday dealings with dogs.
Deified and Demonized Dogs
Dogs have certainly had their share of good and bad press, but this goes beyond certain dogs or types of dogs having their reputations raised or lowered as good companion vs. vicious killer. Over the millennia, certain mythical dogs have been raised to the level of minor gods while others have sunk to the level of devils. This blessing and cursing of dogs seems to be fairly universal, and at one time or another has taken place in most regions of the world.
In ancient China it was considered polite for a guest to inquire after the household watchdog (see Dixey, p. 3). This was not because the Chinese were a nation of dog lovers; they were not, and most dogs were valued for their utility as watchdog or kitchen ingredient alone. Instead, the dog guardian of the house was asked about as a symbolic representation of the health and prosperity of the household. A healthy, alert watchdog meant a safe and happy family. The dog became not only the family's protector and guardian against physical intruders but also the "symbolic" guardian against other evils as well. Eventually, the symbolic duties became associated with the mythical guardian dog of China, the Fu kou or shih kou , the Buddha dog or lion dog. This mythical creature seems to be a blending of two traditions of ancient Asia. The first is the symbolic role of the family dog as "spirit" guardian, and the second is the Asiatic lion as the sacred animal of Buddha. With the advent of Buddhism in China, between the first and sixth centuries A.D., myths about the Buddha and his sacred lion escort and guard made their way into Chinese culture (see Godden, p. 33), and it is at this time that the two guardian figures are thought to have been intertwined. Lion-dogs have been a big hit in China ever since; great statues of them traditionally stood guard at the entrances to buildings and tombs of ancient China, and smaller versions can still be seen for sale in Chinatowns around the world. It is interesting to note that not all Chinese valued dogs as utilitarian alone; the emperors and favored nobles took great delight in keeping what were at first called hai-pa kou (under-table dogs or what we would call toy dogs). These seem to have been active little dogs with long coats and lots of personality. Such value was eventually placed on little dogs in the various courts of East Asia that a network of trade in the form of "presentation" dogs was soon developed, and breeding stock from one court was presented to another as a token of respect. Although some theories hold that these dogs were originally developed more than two thousand years before the adoption of Buddhism in China, the little dogs began to be thought of as miniature Fu kou almost immediately upon its arrival, and their descendants, such breeds as pekingese, shih tzu, lhasa apso, and their Japanese cousin the chin (a word which means Chinese), all took on the divinity of the sacred lion-dogs in Asian myth and legend. The pekingese, eventually the exclusive property of the Chinese imperial family under pain of death, has some interesting myths told about its origins. The first is that a lioness grew enamored with a beautiful butterfly and yielded to his attentions; when she whelped, the pekingese was born and remains as noble and fearless as a lion but as delicate and graceful as a butterfly (see Godden, p. 14). The other origin myth would have it that a great lordly lion once fell in love with a marmoset, a tiny graceful monkey. He begged the Buddha to make him small and attractive to the object of his affection, and the Buddha granted his request. The pekingese, depending on the version of the myth, is either their offspring or the miniature lion himself (see Dixey, p. 20). More modern legends are also told of the pekingese. The stories would have it that puppies of the imperial breed were suckled by the wet nurses of the court, that the ownership of one by non-royals would mean excruciating tortures and execution by the imperial army, and that the first to come to the West were saved from death in the nick of time by British officers in a raid on the imperial precincts at the summer palace during the Opium War when Chinese officials meant to kill the little dogs to save them from the indignity of being taken prisoner by the British. By the way, at least one of the little dogs continued to be pampered once it came West. It was named Looty, presumably to show its method of acquire, and was presented to Queen Victoria. Although the Queen never treated the little pekingese bitch as a personal pet, she had her well taken care of in the royal kennels at Windsor and commissioned the famous canine painter, Landseer, to paint her portrait.
Moving west from East Asia, we come to the Zoroastrian or Parsi traditions. Although the dog itself is not divine here, he co-operates with the divine in the funeral rites of men, and each dying Parsi is attended by a dog whose job it is to take the dying man's soul and turn it over to the angels as well as to keep the demons at bay. According to Dale-Green (pp. 125-127), this is an ancient practice which developed over long periods of time and had many variations, and in some expressions dogs and sometimes vultures were later expected to consume the body of the deceased. This last part of the rite was also shared by Tibetan Buddhist monks, and this was thought of as the proper and respectful method of corpse disposal by both groups.
In Hindu myth there are twin four-eyed(5) dogs named Syama and Sabala, companions to the god of death. Syama is the black moon-dog who roams the night in search of the dying, and Sabala is the spotted sun-dog who does the same during the hours of daylight. The Vedas, Hindu sacred writings, state that the night and the day are "killers" of men, and the dogs are, therefore, dogs of death, according to Dale-Green (see pp. 85-86). The idea of a death/dog relationship extends beyond Asia, however.
In ancient Egypt the dog-like jackal lent its form to the god Anubis (Anpu)(6) who led the dead to their judgment before the great king of the dead, Osiris. It was Anubis and his priests who supervised every step of the preparation for the all-important funeral of an Egyptian, and it was Anubis who would weigh the heart of the dead against the feather of judgment in his underworld balance. If the heart was found lighter than the feather, it would be fed to a hideous reptilian chimera, but if the heart outweighed the feather and showed the deceased worthy, he would be accepted into the kingdom of Osiris and share in his identity. According to Dale-Green, this mythical dog was combined with the Greek god Hermes during the reign of the Ptolemies to form Hermanubis, a god who acted as messenger, guide, and granter of sexual petitions. He was worshipped in shrines called Anoubeions in great Egyptian cities such as Alexandria, and these often served as kennels for the numerous sacred dogs kept there (pp. 110-111). Still later, with the dawning of Christianity in Alexandria, it has been speculated that Anubis was once again combined with another sacred system; this time he would appear not as a Greek god but as a Christian saint. The now-baptized Anubis forms an obvious undertone to the Coptic version of the legend of St. Christopher. In this version, St. Christopher was depicted as a cynocephalic himself, that is, he would have the head of a dog and body of a man just as Anubis was portrayed in classical Egyptian myth. According to this fourth century legend, Christopher started life with the name Reprobus which means "reprobate" or "depraved" and made himself famous by eating as many people as he could. Eventually he was converted to Christianity and baptized by St. Bartholomew and St. Andrew, the Apostles, and began preaching the Gospel to many people, earning the name Christopher which means "Christ bearer". The lesson is obvious: through the saving action of God, the reprobate becomes the bearer of Christ. Christopher only begins to be shown with a human face in the West where he is depicted as carrying the Christ-child across a river, but with such a literal interpretation of Christ bearer much of the symbolism of the story is lost.(7) Because the original version of the legend seems to have been written in Egypt, scholars believe it was an attempt by Coptic Christians to include their old god, Anubis, in their new religion (see Dale-Green, pp. 177-180). Even though this seems probable, it should be noted that myths about dog-headed men don't end with Christopher. Well into the Middle Ages the world traveler, Marco Polo, heard and recorded strange rumors about a whole race of cannibalistic cynocephali living in Asia. This forms part of the wildman mythology which will be explored in a later chapter.
In ancient Greece, sacred dogs were fairly common. As in Parsi myth and practice, they were generally servants to the gods and not divine themselves. The ancient Greeks had an active dog cult at some of their temples where the dogs played messengers to the gods and acted as healers of the sick; this was not an original idea, however, because the Egyptians believed the jackal-headed Anubis to be the physician to the gods in addition to those duties already mentioned. According to Dale-Green (pp. 133-136) in writing about the Greek customs:
"In ancient Greece, Apollo the sun-god was the supreme god of healing, and the dog was sacred to Apollo... Immediately below the Mountain of the Rising Dog was Epidauros-- the centre of the cult of Asklepios, Apollo's son, who was known as the Divine Physician and God of Medicine. The temples of the Greek god of Medicine were not only places of worship but also health resorts. (...) Dogs were kept in the temples of Asklepios at Epidauros, Athens, Rome, Piraeus, and at Lebene in Crete. They were believed to have a presentiment of epidemics, and they took part in the religious ritual. (...) Slabs found within the precincts of the temple at Epidauros, inscribed with the names of people cured by Asklepios and the malady from which each had suffered, included the following:
Thuson of Hermione, a blind boy, had his eyes licked in the daytime
by one of the dogs about the temple, and departed cured.
A dog cured a boy from Aigina. He had a growth on his neck. When
he had come to the god, one of the sacred dogs healed him while he
was awake with its tongue and made him well."
As was already noted in terms of the founding of their city and the presence of the temple of Asklepios (also called Aesculapius) in Rome, the ancient Romans also had myths including divine and sacred canines. In addition to the she-wolf and Asklepios' healing dogs, the Romans had their lares or house gods. These house gods were frequently described as spiritual guardians of the family and had the same characteristics as good watchdogs. They guarded the family with the same sort of distrust of the stranger and fierce tenacity as shown by the protector of the Chinese family, the Fu kou .
In contrast to the sacred dog is the evil or demonic dog. Here the dog's darker, crueler, more vicious nature is emphasized, and we find both dogs as demons and as companions to demons and devils as well. Demonic dogs can be single dark specters or can run in hunting packs.
The single demonic dog myth seems to have much in common throughout Europe.(8) This dog is generally described as black with enormous eyes; he will worry nighttime travelers by brushing past, howling in a ghastly fashion, occasionally by riding his victims piggy-back style, or by running around the human target in smaller and smaller circles. Just in case the terrified human doesn't get the point, the dog can expand in size until he towers over his victim like a building. This type of demon is the harbinger of death or misfortune or is sometimes the watchful guardian of lost treasures, such treasures being thought of as belonging to Satan. Such hellish dogs go by many names. In Britain, the name Black Shuck(9) is widespread for the demonic dog, but the names Trash, Striker, the Mauthe Doog , the Gwyllgi , and the cu sith are also used in various locales.
In Goethe's version of the Faust tale, Mephistopheles the malignant spirit appears as a black poodle with eyes the size of saucers in scene II, but there is an interesting exchange between Faust and another character, Wagner, as to the character of the beast; while Faust sees the demonic nature of the dog, Wagner sees only an ordinary pet who has lost his master and circles about looking for him. This shows the importance of interpretation when it comes to the human evaluation of the dog, or anything else for that matter. In speaking of interpretation, there are two very interesting tales that come from neighboring English towns which are told about the same night, August 4, 1577. The events of that date certainly beg interpretation; a purely rational man may find nothing more than some unusually rough weather, while a more emotional one could find something vastly more sinister.
It seems that there was a terrible storm and many of the local folk were in the church at the town of Blythburgh, Suffolk, praying for an end to the tempest. All at once a great burst of energy roared through the wall of the church, making a great hole which extended a yard below the grade on which the church was built. The force of the blast knocked all the people on that side of the church over. Before it was over, a fiery fiend claimed three lives, scorched many bystanders, burned out the door of the church, and ruined its steeple and bells. Afterwards the blazing whirlwind headed across the marsh toward the town of Bungay. Although the fiend was at first described as the devil himself, modern locals claim it was none other than Black Shuck.
The second tale begins with the arrival of the storm at Bungay. Here, too, the locals were in the town church praying for deliverance from the storm. Black Shuck has always been the villain of this story, however; according to a tract published shortly after the event, eyewitnesses saw a great black dog giving off fearful flashes of fire, which they realized may have been, "the divil in such a likeness," running up and down the church aisles. Also according to the sixteenth century account, the dog-devil streaked through the congregation with tremendous speed, and, "passing between two parishioners kneeling in prayer, it wrung their necks and they died immediately." Another man was burnt until his skin seemed to be made of scorched leather.
These stories are not unique, however. There are at least two other accounts of a black dog attacking a church during a thunder storm: in 857 a bishop was celebrating the Eucharist at Treves when the bell tower was struck by lightening and a huge black dog ran circles around the altar; at Messina in Sicily a black dog was seen to enter the cathedral and destroy the sacred vessels on the altar in 1341.
Near Newgate prison in London, there is a pub called The Black Dog, and there is an old legend which goes with it. It seems that in the thirteenth century there was a terrible famine across England, and the prisoners in Newgate were starving and had turned to cannibalism in order to survive. A certain scholar had been arrested on suspicion of witchcraft, and when he was committed to the prison for holding, he was promptly eaten by the prisoners as "passing good meate." From then on these prisoners were tormented by visions of a huge black dog which growled and threatened to attack them. Shortly thereafter the warden was murdered and the prisoners fled, but according to the legend, the black dog pursued and punished the guilty cannibals. In the seventeenth century a pamphlet was published which gives an account of the ghost dog which preyed upon the minds of the worst offenders in the prison, and when the death penalty was to be put into effect, the dog roamed the prison yard and was said to ride beside the driver of the cart when the condemned were taken to Tyburn to be hanged.
Other more ancient myths about hellish dogs can be seen with the Greek stories of Cerberus, the multi-headed dog which guarded the gate to the land of the dead, and Orthrus, his lesser-known brother, which guarded the ogre Geryon's herd of beautiful red cattle from thieves. In these myths the descriptions of the dogs as multi-headed may be another way of saying that they were impossible to get by without being seen; after all, there was always at least one unsleeping head to keep watch. According to myth, both of these watchdogs were undone by the hero Hercules while performing his famous labors. A third Greek dog, although not evil in itself, became an irresistible temptation and caused great pain and punishment to befall two thieves. The dog was a golden mastiff forged by Hephaestus to watch over the infant Zeus in Crete. Later, the dog stood guard at Zeus' shrine at Dicte. It was stolen by a thief who gave it over to his friend for safekeeping. The friend immediately came down with a severe case of gold fever himself and plotted to keep the dog. Zeus searched for the precious dog in a rage and eventually asked Hermes to conduct an investigation and to recover the dog at all costs. When the dog was finally found, both thieves were punished with great torments. In addition to these myths, the goddess Hecate of the underworld and her daughter Scylla, later partnered with the whirlpool Charybdis in the straits of Messina, were both known as bitches; Artemis kept fierce hounds capable of carrying away live lions, and Ares held the leashes of the horrible dogs of war.
In the far East, sorcerers and witches kept inu-gami or dog-gods.(10) These dogs, although known as gods, are evil through and through. They were used to "hound" enemies, sometimes to the death, and were created by the malevolent magicians by starving a dog to death and then by praying to and appeasing the dog's spirit. After this the dog's spirit became the sorcerer's servant, and such spirit dogs were tied to the sorcerer's family and passed from one generation to the next.
In the stories of popular folklore there is no more hellish hound than the wolf itself. In Norse mythology there was the wolf demon, Fenris. Chained up by the gods, he would escape at the end of the world. According to the story, he would lope across the landscape with his jaws opened wide, his upper fangs scraping the vault of the sky and his lower ones raking the surface of the earth. In the end he would defeat Odin, the king of the gods, and would devour him; and Fenris' offspring, the wolves Skoll and Hati, would eat the sun and moon. Meanwhile, the wolf-dog, Garm, who was bound to the gates of the underworld by the gods, would break free, leaving the gates unguarded and the prisoners able to escape.
The last individual dog demon constitutes the zenith of the anthropomorphic dog. This "demon" is the lycanthrope or the cynanthrope.(11) In fact, there are different legends which accompany these labels. The lycanthrope, also called a werewolf or wolf-man, has been depicted by Hollywood as a pathetic individual who has caught a "disease" by being bitten by a wolf or another werewolf. Under this curse the individual changes form, into something between a wolf and a man in structure, with the rising of the full moon and wanders about slaughtering and eating anyone who crosses his path. The traditional Italian tale about becoming a lupo di notte, a "wolf of the night", simply by sleeping under the light of the full moon, seems to go along with this version of lycanthropy. In more common traditional myths, the lycanthrope is a sorcerer who has discovered how to transform himself into a wolf, virtually at will; he seems to be indistinguishable from other wolves while doing this but retains his human intellect and desires and uses his form to secretly accomplish those desires. The cynanthrope accomplishes the same goal in the guise of a dog.
According to Barry Lopez on pp. 226-236, persecution of the wolf, especially in the Middle Ages when werewolf hunting was prevalent, was really an exercise in self-loathing. The goodness shown by such mythological characters as the Roman she-wolf, which nursed a future nation, was admirable. The seeming hubris of the killer of the flock was worthy of hatred. But, the wolf came to symbolically represent what was good and evil about humanity, and any love or hatred shown toward the wolf was really a thinly veiled self-love or self-hatred. It seems that what is lupine in man's nature, the wolf suffers for. In fact, similarities between human and wolf behavior, rather than causing human compassion toward the wolf, have been the wolf's downfall, and superstitions which blend man and wolf natures have only compounded the wolf's problems. With wolf-man superstitions, too, there is a link with the wildman myths, and the giant, naked wildman of European folklore, who acts on his every passion and lives in the dark forest between human settlements along with all of the social outcasts of the day, is a representation of the persistent psychological urges of medieval man. The wildman in turn is represented by the wolf, symbol of all things wild, of all things beyond the society of man. It is not only in Europe, however, that the werebeast supposedly roamed. Many cultures had some belief in "shapeshifting", and such creatures as African werehyenas, Japanese werefoxes, South American werejaguars, Norwegian werebears, wander the folklore landscape right along with Native American and European werewolves.
One European account of werewolves is passed on by Giraldus Cambrensis, who we met in a previous chapter. Writing in 1188 A.D., he retold an Irish tale. It seems that there was a certain priest traveling along a road through a wood between Ulster and Meath, and he was approached by a wolf who spoke to him in human language. The wolf begged the priest to come and give his wife the Last Rites because she was very ill. On seeing the man's reluctance to follow, the wolf explained that he and his wife were the victims of a curse by St. Natalis on their home village of Ossory. Every seven years two people from the village had to wear wolf skins and live as wolves until the end of the seven year period. On hearing this the priest reluctantly followed. After a short walk, they come upon a she-wolf resting under a tree, but when the priest knelt down beside her he could not bring himself to anoint the grizzled wolf, fearing he would be committing sacrilege by using the sacred chrism on an animal. The male wolf seemed to understand the priest's hesitation, and reaching down he tugged at the she-wolf's hide. This exposed the thin frame of an old woman beneath the fur, and the priest anointed her. The male wolf thanked the priest and promised to reward him when he had lived out his seven years as a wolf.
In keeping with the blurring of the line between the canine and the human, there are a number of labels which are worthy of mention. A man who is a womanizer is often called a "wolf". As was seen earlier, a prostitute was known as a "she-wolf" in ancient Rome. A short-tempered or "snappy" woman is often called "bitchy", and a man who has a satisfying sex life is called a sly or lucky "dog". On the other hand, enemies are frequently referred to as "dogs", especially in Asia.
In addition to the individual demon dogs, there are whole packs of hell hounds to be found in the tales of Europe. In England the pack is part of what is called the Wild Hunt. The leader of the hunt is the Teutonic god Woden, called Odin by the Norse myths. According to the stories, Woden rides to hounds on dark and stormy nights, and the baying of the curs can be heard over the raging wind. Any laundry left on the line will be shredded by the hunt, and any open cottage door will be passed through, the contents of the cottage ransacked and anything remotely edible promptly swallowed by the pack, including cold ashes on the hearth. Occasionally, one of the dogs becomes separated from the pack and is stranded in the cottage until the hunt returns, giving the occupants much cause for alarm. In France the same stories are told, but there the hunt is called the Chasse Hennequin or the Chasse du Diable and the leader of the hunt is the devil, joined by unrepentant fornicators from among the clergy and religious. In Wales the dogs are called the Cwn Annwn or the Cwn y Wybr , the Dogs of Hell or the Dogs of the Sky, and they belong to the King of Hell, Annwn. Throughout the British Isles the hounds are variously known as wisht hounds (uncanny or melancholy hounds), Yeth hounds (heathen hounds), Gabriel hounds (said to be hunted by the angel), and Gabble Retchet (the souls of unbaptized infants doomed to haunt the earth).
One last interesting account records an event which supposedly took place in the twelfth century, during the reign of Henry II. Townspeople along the banks of the River Wye heard a great tumult with shouts and the blowing of hunting horns and the baying of hounds. Since it was the middle of the day, the people were unafraid and went out to see the course of the hunt. When they arrived at a certain meadow, they saw a great hunting party, and many of the townspeople recognized dead friends among the huntsmen. When they tried to talk to the riders, the whole hunt began to rise into the air and eventually disappeared into the river.
The domestic cat descends from one or more of the three subspecies of wildcat found in North Africa, Asia, and Europe. In scientific nomenclature this cat is known as Felis sylvestris , and the aforementioned three types go by the added subspecific names of lybica, asiatica, and sylvestris respectively. The first evidence for the domestication of the cat comes with the agricultural civilizations of the Near East and Egypt which flourished because of the cultivation of certain cereal grains.(12)
With farming came a more stable food supply and the advantage of living in larger groups, and with these came villages, cities, and civilization, but the animal spirits of prehistoric animism remained. Ancient Egypt maintained an extensive kingdom-wide system of temples dedicated to the various local gods which had taken on national importance. The vast majority of these gods were depicted as animals with human bodies or even sometimes simply as animals. There was Horus the hawk, Hathor the cow, Anubis the jackal, already mentioned. There were also other sacred animals that played a part in Egyptian mythology such as the vulture, the asp, the hippo, the crocodile, the dung beetle, and too many others to list. The cat was one very important object of veneration by the ancient Egyptians. With the construction of the great granaries of Egypt in the so-called agricultural revolution came the semi-domestication of the cat which was attracted to the abundance of mice living in them. The cat was depicted in Egyptian art from about 4500 years ago but was certainly present long before. This important animal, which guarded the very sustenance of the people, was worshipped as a protector and fertility symbol. The Egyptian temple system was run by an enormous class of priests who made regular and apparently huge ritual sacrifices to the gods of their temples. Thousands of young, strangled cats were mummified and have been discovered at ritual sites sacred to the cat goddess, Bastet (Bast). By far the most important of these sites is Bubastis in the Nile delta. Bastet was a consort of the god Ptah, the Egyptian creator god, as was Sekhmet, the lioness goddess. Sekhmet is sometimes erroneously depicted as Bastet's ferocious alter-ego. Although both were said to have been created from the fire in the eye of the sun god, Ra, as avengers and punishers of evil, Bastet's job was the slow torture of the wicked while Sekhmet's job was swift and lethal justice.
Interestingly, for a short time a pharaoh named Akenhaten, the father-in-law of Tutankhamun, disbanded the priests and closed the temples. He made himself the only priest of the one god, Aten, the disc of the sun. This was probably the first time monotheism was ever tried.(13) However, rather than giving Akenhaten credit for piety in the presence of his one god, it is just as easy to interpret this as a clever political move to limit the priestly power over the royal house and the government of ancient Egypt. When Akenhaten died, so did his religious reforms, and the powerful animal-spirit priests reasserted their authority over Egypt.
So, in contrast to the dog's 25,000 year relationship with humanity based on his wild ancestors' willingness to scavenge scraps of hunted animals, the cat is a relative new-comer, and it wasn't until the agricultural stage was set that cats and men saw any benefit in or attraction to one another. It is, therefore, claimed that cats aren't really domesticated in the same way as some other animals are and that the limited domestication which the cat has undergone has left it almost intact as a wild animal. As evidence, anatomists point out that the cat is physically closer to its wild ancestors than is the dog or other domestics. Roger Caras (p. 90) suggests that there is a real difference between most domestic animals and their ancestors, a difference not only of appearance but of intelligence and of behavior as well. As evidence, he shows that of feral animals (i.e.: animals that have "gone native" and returned to the wild) only the cat's behavior is identical to that of the wildcats from which it descends. While the dog's brain is some 1/3 smaller in proportion to the wolf's,(14) this is not the case with the cat. Cat and wildcat brains are proportionately the same size, and this may reveal only a limited extent of domestication among felines.
Despite the theory that cats are only slightly removed from their wild ancestors when compared to some other domestic animals, the lives of cats and humans are deeply interconnected, especially when it comes to myth. The cat's "wild" independence and aloofness may well contribute to its mystique. When a cat interacts with humanity it certainly seems to be on the cat's terms, but this exercise of seeming discernment on the part of the cat makes some people suspicious. It is rare to see someone who is ambivalent toward the cat as the cat usually sparks strong emotions one way or the other. In Asia the cat has long been venerated and respected.
In Siam, modern Thailand, cats live in Buddhist temple precincts and once lived in the royal palaces. There is a legend about a beautiful Siamese princess and her devoted cat. One day the princess went down to the palace pool to bathe as it was a hot and sultry day. Her little siamese cat followed her as it often did. When the princess arrived at the pool she realized that she had forgotten a box in which to put her exquisite rings. She looked down at the little cat which looked back at her, twisting and twitching its thin tail this way and that. It came to the princess that her cat was offering to mind her rings on its tail. At once the happy princess placed her rings on the cat's tail which then kinked in a peculiar way so that the rings would safely remain where they had been placed. According to the story, this explains why the best siamese cats have kinks near the tips of their tails. Another myth involves the blue-eyed and golden coated birman cat of Thailand.(15) Although cats are held in high esteem throughout Asian cultures, the Thai Buddhists claim the prize. Their precious siamese cats are said to be cross-eyed from staring intently at the Buddha in meditation, and their birman cats are said to have their beautiful coloring as a reward. According to medieval Thai Buddhist philosophy a great spiritual teacher who died would have his spirit sent to occupy the body of a temple cat until it too died. When the famous monk and teacher Mun-Ha died, his soul entered one of the cats at the temple. Within the week the perfectly healthy cat was also dead, and his feline descendants would wear the raiment of gold fur forever as a reward for and sign of his self-sacrifice.
In Arabia cats also fared pretty well. Although Moslems are known for their prejudice against all dogs but the valuable gaze hounds such as the saluki, at least some are great cat lovers. The prophet Mohammed himself owned a cat toward which he showed a great deal of respect. On one occasion Mohammed had been sitting for some time, and his little cat, called Muezza, had fallen asleep on his large sleeve. Rather than disturb the sleeping cat, Mohammed slit his garment and left cat and sleeve where they had been and stood up without disturbing his beloved pet. In another instance Mohammed saw the cat drink from a certain water source and went over and used the water to ritually purify himself; although much could be made of this, watching the cat drink is not a bad criterion for choosing clean water as cats are often more picky about such things than some other animals. Despite the respect that cats enjoyed in many places, they often didn't do as well in medieval and renaissance Europe.
Possibly because of its independent and mysterious nature, the cat has often been distrusted by Europeans. The cat has been associated with papism by Protestants and with heresy by Catholics, and it has been linked to witchcraft by both. There are tales of cats being tried and hanged for worshipping the devil or for helping those who did. Both dogs and cats could be the familiar spirits of a witch; these did the witch's will and in turn sucked blood from the witch's body to keep their powers strong. In the 1600's a woman named Elizabeth Clark was accused of witchcraft and admitted to having several familiars, including dogs named Jarmara and Vinegar Tom and a cat named Pyewackett (see Dale-Green, p. 79 and plate 3f). Even Queen Elizabeth I who presided over a grand blossoming of English culture joined in the hatred of and cruelty toward cats. Apparently, she once had a large effigy of the pope made of straw and stuffed it to the brim with cats; she then set the whole thing ablaze.
Perhaps because of the cat's identification with the fertility goddess Bastet or because of the sexual undercurrents of the witch/familiar relationship or simply because of the very vocal nature of the domestic cat's sex life, a sexually promiscuous woman can be labeled a "cat", and a free and easy attitude about granting sexual favors is called "catting around". A sexually overactive man is sometimes called a "tom cat". By the way, annoying feline vocalizations, whether of a sexual nature or not, are appropriately labeled "caterwauling", a word that comes from the Low German katerwaulen which means "cat's shriek".
Even before its domestication, the horse probably played a major role in the myths and rituals of humanity. In the Upper Paleolithic period, as was already mentioned in an earlier chapter, men painted accurate and beautiful portraits of the wild horse along with other animals (the mammoth, the rhinoceros, the stag, the aurochs or wild bull, etc.) on cave walls. This may have been an attempt to secure a successful hunt through animistic ritual. The domestic horse seems to have descended from two wild types of the species Equus ferus . The stout, muscular, and shaggy ancestor depicted on the cave walls of Europe and the more slender, graceful one from warmer climes came together to form most of the modern breeds. The two are known as cold bloods and hot bloods, giving birth to the large, slow plow horses and the slender, swift thoroughbreds respectively. Horses with a fairly even mixture of the two, such as the hunters, are known as warm bloods.
In the ancient myths, horses made an appearance. One example of a mythical horse is the winged Pegasus. Pegasus is the bearer of the thunderbolts of Zeus. He was born of Medusa as she died, but even so, he seems to have been of average character for a Greek horse, throwing who he chose and obeying who he chose like any other Greek plug.(16) Despite the reputation of the horses of the time, both the Greeks and the Romans spent a lot of time around horses at the hippodromes and circuses. The Greek version of the chariot race, far more important than the racing of individual horses with riders, took place on a rectangular course with rows of pillars at each end. The charioteers raced toward one end, maneuvered their chariots and teams of two or four horses abreast around a pillar and raced back.
In Rome, chariot racing became very popular with crowds of 200,000 in attendance, leading to at least one riot at Constantinople during the period of the Eastern Empire. Racing factions were formed, and horses raced under a certain faction's colors, just as is the case with Siena's Palio race today. In the ancient world, hot bloods from North Africa were popular, but the Greeks and Romans preferred cross-bred horses of mixed type. This may have given Hannibal his most effective weapon against Rome as his North African horses are said to have been much more swift, maneuverable, and obedient. Alexander the Great was an admirer of such good horses and, according to legend, is said to have paid as much as 100 times the cost of an average horse for his personal mount, Bucephalus.
In Greek mythology, Glaucus, the king of the city which would later be known as Corinth, fed his beautiful team of chariot horses on human flesh in order to cause them to be fierce in battle. This angered the gods who avenged Glaucus' human victims with a cruel twist of fate. The gods caused the king to be thrown from his chariot. At once his beautiful team of fierce horses sprang on him, and he was ripped to shreds by them and devoured.
There was a youth in the same town named Bellerophon, and Bellerophon wanted one thing more than anything else in life. He coveted the winged horse Pegasus. Although he thought of little else, he could not find a way to capture the creature. Finally he told his troubles to a local seer who advised him to sleep in the temple of Athena and that perhaps she would give him some help, as the gods and goddesses often spoke to supplicants in dreams. He took the seer's advice and went off to the temple to put his petition before the goddess. As he slept, he saw before him the great, gray-eyed Athena holding a bridal of purest gold.(17) When he awoke the goddess was gone, but the sparkling bridal remained before him. He took it and went in search of Pegasus without delay. He found the winged horse at a famous spring of water, Pirene, just outside the city, and he approached cautiously. As Bellerophon came closer and closer with the magic bridal, Pegasus never stirred, and Bellerophon was easily able to place the bridal over the great beast's head. From that moment, the winged horse obeyed his every command, and he was able to ride him across the sky. It seems that Bellerophon's happiness was short-lived, however, because he accidentally killed his brother. He went to a neighboring king who absolved him and wined and dined him. When the king's wife showed romantic interest toward him, Bellerophon refused, and this outraged the unfaithful wife. She told her husband that the interest had been on Bellerophon's side and that he should punish him without delay. Although the king wanted to punish his guest, he knew that this was against the rules of hospitality and that Zeus would not tolerate such behavior. He then came up with a scheme which would take care of Bellerophon without himself having to raise a hand against him. He composed a letter to a friend and fellow king detailing the situation and asking the foreign king to do the dirty work. All he had to do then was to ask Bellerophon to deliver the letter to the foreign king. This he did, and Bellerophon promptly agreed.
When the youth arrived at the palace of the foreign king, he was treated as an emissary from the first king and was again wined and dined for several days before the recipient of the letter bothered to read it. Now, his hands were tied as well, but he came upon the idea of asking Bellerophon to perform certain tasks in the hopes that one would do him in, taking the foreign king off the hook with his friend. What would have been impossible tasks for other men were very easily performed while sitting on the back of Pegasus, however. Before he was through, Bellerophon had killed the Greek version of the chimera, composed of parts of the lion, the goat, and the serpent, had defeated the Solymi, a group of mighty warriors, and had defeated the Amazons, men-hating, warring women. With that, even the foreign king was impressed and gave up, offering Bellerophon his own daughter's hand in marriage.
All went well until one day, when Bellerophon was feeling particularly full of himself, he decided that he had proven himself worthy to visit high Olympus, seat of the gods. He mounted Pegasus' wide back and started toward the gods' home, but before he had come near it, the winged horse saw his folly and threw him off. Bellerophon, realizing his vain foolishness, was condemned to wander the earth alone, despised by gods and men alike.
Finally, we come to the centaurs. These were Greek wildmen, and they were horse bodied from the waist down. Although they are often portrayed as brutish and bloodthirsty hunters and unthinking sensualists, at least one among their number, Chiron, was known for his wisdom and learning. In fact, Chiron was often called upon to raise and educate the sons of the great, including Apollo's son Asklepios, and it was from Chiron that Asklepios first learned the healing arts.
All domesticated cattle, whether of the meat breeds or milk breeds, descend from the same wild ancestor, the aurochs or urus. In scientific name, the beast was Bos primigenius , the Eurasian wild bull which had large horns, massive frame, and evil temper. This dangerous creature no longer exists; it has been extinct since the last specimens were killed in Poland in the seventeenth century. It also resists attempts to recreate it by "breeding back" from the domestic breeds thought to be most like it. It had a wide range throughout Europe and Asia and was known to cultures throughout both continents. In Babylon it was known as the re'em and is featured on the Ishtar Gate, adding to the mystery of the unicorn legend which will be looked at later. By the time Egyptian art was in full bloom, three breeds of domestic cattle were being depicted there. A major distinguishing feature between the three was that one breed had enormous, heavy horns, the second had small horns, and the third was polled or naturally hornless.
In Egyptian mythology, there was the very early goddess Hathor (Het-heru, Het-hert). Her name means the "house of Horus" or the "house above" in reference to her as a sky goddess. She is often depicted as a cow with dark blue skin covered in golden stars or as a beautiful woman wearing a headdress composed of two cow's horns with the sun disk between them. Her shrine site was at Dandarah where she was honored as a model of femininity. As the Egyptian goddess of love, festivity, joy, art, fertility, and childbirth she was linked with the goddess Aphrodite in Ptolemaic times.
Another image of the bovine in ancient Egypt was Apis (Hapi), the bull god of Memphis. Apis was said to be the physical manifestation of the creator god, Ptah. His conception occurred when his mother, Isis, was hit by lightning. Apis was thought to be incarnated on earth by a black bull with a white blaze on his forehead. The priests of Apis observed the behavior of the living bull-god in order to predict the future, and when an Apis bull died, he was mummified and buried at the Serpeum, the shrine of Apis. His priests then searched for another bull calf with the correct markings to take his place. The pharaohs were said to share in Apis' strength and fertility. In art, the god Apis was depicted as a bull with the disk of the sun between his horns. An earlier god, also named Hapi, is sometimes blended with the bull-god. He was the river god responsible for the annual flood of the Nile each year, and so was a god of both fertility and plenty.
Ancient Greece also had its cattle myths. In addition to the red cattle of Geryon, there was also a special herd kept by King Phylacus. But, the two most important myths are the transformation myths involving two of Zeus' romantic conquests. These are the myths of Io and Europa.
Once, Zeus fell in love with a lovely young princess named Io. He sent her many messages in her sleep all designed to show his attraction to her. Finally the young girl agreed to a meeting, and Zeus spread a cloak of cloud over the earth to keep what he was about to do secret from his wife, Hera. This, of course, made the rightly suspicious Hera go in search of her unfaithful husband. As the clouds dispersed at her approach, Zeus quickly changed Io into a white heifer. Hera knew something wasn't right about Zeus' claim that the calf had just sprung up from the ground as he was passing, and asked for the heifer as a gift. Zeus could not refuse without drawing even more suspicion on himself. Hera gave Io over to Argus, the hundred-eyed watchman, for safekeeping. Zeus sent Hermes to kill Argus and to set Io free, and Hermes disguised himself as a simple shepherd for the task. Hermes began to tell the watchman story after story, but only some eyes would sleep while others remained watchful. Finally, Hermes hit upon a tale which did the trick, and all of Argus' eyes closed at the same time. This was the opportunity that he was waiting for, and he slew Argus at once. As Io wandered off, Hera came to find her watchman dead. As a reward for his service unto death, she placed his eyes on the plumage of her sacred bird, the peacock. Next, Hera created a biting fly which she sent to drive Io mad. Io was chased by the fly until she reached the Caucasus peak where Prometheus had been imprisoned for helping men. Here Prometheus predicted that she would one day be happy and that she would bear a son to Zeus and that one of his descendants would eventually set Prometheus free. This descendent was to be Hercules.
The other myth, that of Europa, begins with a young girl gathering flowers into a basket which was decorated with scenes from the story of Io. One would think that this would make an end to any romantic intentions on the part of Zeus as far as this girl was concerned, but it did not. Here again, Zeus was in love with a mortal girl. To be safe, this time Zeus disguised himself by changing into a great chestnut-colored bull with a silver circle on his brow and wonderfully curved horns. The bull lowed in a sweet voice and smelled of heavenly perfumes. He offered Europa his broad back, and she climbed on; at once the bull was off and leapt over the great sea with the frightened princess holding tight. She began to question the bull as to his identity, which Zeus revealed along with his love for her. When they arrived at Crete, the island sacred to Zeus, she conceived brave sons from him.
Finally, there is the role of the bull in the Mithraic mystery religion. The name Mithras was associated with a very ancient god of Iraq, and it has been assumed that the Roman mystery religion was based on his worship. At any rate, he was a sun god and the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, was sacred to him as the feast of the unconquerable sun; this feast was later taken over by Christians to celebrate the birth of Christ, the Light of the World. Secret rituals of Mithras were performed in underground chambers called mithraea or spelaea which could hold twenty-five or thirty worshippers at a time. Although what happened in these shrines is unknown, they were usually decorated with a scene known as the tauroctony . This scene depicted the slaying of a bull by the god Mithras watched by a dog, a serpent, and a scorpion. For years, it was assumed by scholars that the Iraqi myth which corresponds to the scene had been lost. However, recent research has revealed that the positions of the figures in the scene correspond to the astronomical positions of the constellations Taurus, Canis Major, Hydra, and Scorpio, and it is known that astrology played some part in this religion.
Goats and Sheep
Next, there are two domestic herd animals which frequently appear together in the stories of the cultures of the Middle East, especially of Israel. They seem to have been kept in large mixed flocks in that area. Goats are thought to descend from the Bezoar wild goat (Capra aegagrus ). Sheep have three probable ancestors, the Asiatic moufflon (Ovis orientalis ), the Urial sheep (Ovis vignei ), and the argali or Marco Polo sheep (Ovis ammon ).(18) According to some experts, goats and/or sheep may well vie with the dog for the title of longest domesticated animal. There is a different problem, however, in that much of the archeological material which is being used for species identification purposes was damaged by human butchering and cooking fires. To add to the problem, those bones which are most likely to be found in the kitchen waste of these archeological sights are the ones which appear very similar in domestic goats and sheep, especially those of unknown breed or type; these are the bones of the legs, typical of roasted joints of meat. With this sort of difficulty, we may never know for certain which species, goat or sheep, was domesticated earlier at various sites.
In ancient Egypt, Amun (Ammon) was a god of the sky and god of the sun. His name meant "the hidden one", and he was the head of the Egyptian pantheon, especially in his combined form Amun-Ra, which adds the attributes of another sun god, Ra, to his own. Under this combined name he is king of the gods and creator who brought earth and sky out of his very thoughts. When he is shown in human form, he is a blue-skinned, bearded man with long stylized plumes on his head, but he was also occasionally depicted as a human figure with the head of a horned ram, a symbol of sexual power. Still, in his role as a virility god, he was called Min (Menu) and was shown as a man with a flail and an erect penis. However, in later myths he was said to be, "hidden of aspect, mysterious of form," and he was considered invisible yet omnipresent. His cult flourished at his temples at Karnak and Luxor. Both the ram and the goose were sacred to him.
In Greece, myths which mention sheep and goats abound, and both animals have been a part of the Mediterranean way of life since pre-historic times. Perhaps the most striking of the myths is that of the golden fleece. A king wished to divorce his wife and marry another. This he did, and the former wife became afraid for the lives of her children. It seems she was right to fear as the new wife wanted to assure the crown for any son she might have herself. The new wife hatched a plot to have the first wife's son killed. The way she did this was quite underhanded; first she ruined all the seed grain in the stores by parching it, ensuring that nothing would grow. When the seed failed to sprout, a messenger was sent to the oracle for advice. The messenger was bribed by the new wife to return with the message that the oracle said the sacrifice of the young prince would stop a famine in the land. The king reluctantly agreed, and all was prepared for the slaughter of the innocent prince. As the sacrifice was about to take place, Hermes heard the first wife's prayers and sent a golden-coated ram to free the prince, Phrixus, and to take him and his sister to safety. The miraculous ram descended from the heavens and took the children away just as their father was about to have his son destroyed.(19) The golden ram flew off with the two children on his back; unfortunately the sister, Helle, fell into the sea, giving the Hellespont its name. Phrixus, however, arrived safely at Colchis on the Black Sea. Although the people were fierce and war-like, the golden ram won the young prince entrance into Colchis society. When the prince came of age, the king of Colchis even offered him a daughter's hand in marriage. The prince slaughtered the golden ram as a thanksgiving sacrifice to Zeus and gave its golden fleece to the king.
Now Phrixus had an uncle king who had been cheated out of his kingdom, and the king's son, Jason, was sent away by the king for safety's sake. The usurper of the kingdom sent for advice to the oracle who told him to beware a man with one sandal. Meanwhile, Jason grew and returned to his father's kingdom to claim it for himself. He came to the city marketplace wearing only one sandal. When the usurper heard about this he went and questioned Jason who told him who he was and that although the usurper could keep anything that he had acquired as king, Jason wanted the crown back. The usurper agreed on the condition that Jason go and retrieve the golden fleece and so return the now dead Phrixus' spirit to Greece. Jason drew together the greatest heroes of Greece and set out at once. After many adventures the heroic crew of the Argo arrived at Colchis with Jason, their leader. The goddesses Hera and Aphrodite were on Jason's side and caused the king of Colchis' daughter, Medea a powerful sorceress, to fall in love with him. With her aide, another story in itself, Jason was able to flee Colchis with both the fleece and Medea in his care.
When Jason arrived at his father's kingdom, he discovered that the usurper had caused the death of his father and mother. Medea gave Jason his revenge. She told the usurper's daughters that she could make the old young once more. To prove it, she slew an old ram, cut him up and placed the pieces into a boiling pot. When she began to recite an incantation, a lamb sprang from the pot and ran away. Medea said that she would help the daughters rejuvenate anyone that they wanted. Of course the daughters wanted to make the aging usurper young, and while he slept they slew him and cut up his body and put the pieces in a boiling pot. When they turned to Medea for the incantation, she was gone, having fled the land with Jason.
Although most of the Greek gods were portrayed as physically idealized versions of humans, the god Pan was an exception. Pan had goat's horns and ears and from the waist down was made like a goat, right down to the cloven hoofs. This minor god was in charge of wild places and woods, and was a sort of patron for goatherds and shepherds. He was a superb musician who played the reed pipes, one type of which bears his name. He played so the wood nymphs might dance and was portrayed as always in love with, but rejected by, one or another of them. He was the leader of a race of beings which looked like him called satyrs, wildmen who, like the centaurs, were known for sexual excess. Roman mythology also had these beings; here they were known as fauns. Strange noises in wild places, especially at night, were often attributed to Pan, and his name gives us the English word "panic" which was the typical reaction to the unknown noises. By way of sexual terminology, the name for these wildmen has given us the word "satyr" which is a label for a lecher, and the word "satyriasis" means an excessive and uncontrollable sexual appetite in men.
Also from classical Greek myth, there is the story of Polyphemus and Odysseus. There was a beautiful land were grapes grew unplanted and grain could be harvested without the slightest labor in cultivating or planting the fields. Here, too, was grazing land for any number of goats and sheep. This wondrous land, in later stories identified as Sicily, was given to a race of giant workmen called the Cyclopes or the "wheel-eyed" by Zeus. In exchange, the workmen ran forges and made thunderbolts for the great storm god. Despite the easy life which the huge, one-eyed Cyclopes enjoyed, they remained fierce and bloodthirsty monsters. One day Odysseus and his men landed on the shore of the enchanted land on their way home from the Trojan War. They were amazed by the plenty they saw and decided to rest there before continuing their journey. Taking a large skin filled with strong wine with which to barter, Odysseus and twelve of his men went off to explore. They found a large cave which contained many pens of lambs and kids, jugs of milk, and wheels of cheese; once they had eaten their fill, they decided to await the return of the shepherds and promptly fell asleep. Instead of a group of human shepherds, Odysseus was startled to see one gigantic shepherd driving the sheep and goats into the cave. Once all were in, the giant, called Polyphemus, closed the entrance to the cave with a huge boulder. When Polyphemus realized he was not alone, he demanded to know the identity of the intruders. Odysseus, thinking quickly said he was called "no-man". Odysseus began to tell Polyphemus that they were under Zeus' protection, but this only angered the giant who seized two of the men and, tearing them apart, ate them. This gruesome spectacle was repeated in the morning and again the following evening when the Cyclops returned to his captives after grazing the sheep and goats all day. Meanwhile, Odysseus had devised a plan; while the giant was away, the men sharpened and fire hardened a pole they had found in the cave. After the giant's evening feast of human flesh, Odysseus offered Polyphemus the wine he had brought to barter with. Polyphemus drank it and was soon asleep. This was the chance the men had been waiting for, and they plunged the sharpened pole into the giant's single eye.
The monster let out such a scream that his brother Cyclopes came to the entrance of the cave and called, "Polyphemus, who torments you that you yell out so?"
Polyphemus answered, "No-man, no-man torments me!" With this, his brothers left him alone. He stretched his arms this way and that around the cave in a fury, but he was unable to catch any of the nimble men. At dawn when the vast herd assembled at the entrance to the cave to be let out, each man lashed three large rams together with any leather belts, straps, and ties that he had, then he grasped the shaggy wool on the belly of the center ram and waited for Polyphemus to roll back the boulder. When Polyphemus finally released the herd, he sat in the entrance with arms outstretched, feeling anything that came by, but he could not locate the hidden men who made their escape.
The vast and fertile herd is very important to the telling of the myth. The natural plenty represented by the lambs, kids, milk, and cheese serves to emphasize the sickening horrors to which the men are subjected by the unnatural monster, Polyphemus. The flock is here a symbol of goodness, purity, and wholesome sustenance which stands against the vile anthropophagy(20) of the giant Cyclops. The monster rejects the fruits of his flock in favor of human flesh, and this is the unforgivable sin which brings on his punishment at the hands of man.
Let us now turn to some of the Judeo-Christian symbolism of the flock. As was already stated, the Passover lamb was an adaptation from a Canaanite fertility festival. Eventually, this lamb took on the symbolic imagery of a pure and spotless victim which dies so that others may live. St. John in turn applies this symbolism to Christ when, unlike the synoptic Gospels, he has Jesus being sacrificed on the cross at the same time that the lambs are being slaughtered in anticipation of the Passover. For John, Jesus has become the Lamb of God, the one pure, spotless victim of the one true sacrifice. John continues to use this imagery of Lamb of God in the Book of Revelation(21) as well. In Matthew 25, Jesus describes the last judgment as a shepherd separating the sheep and the goats. The two walk together, eat together, live together as members of the same flock, as do good and wicked men. The time will come when the flock will be pulled apart, however, and the good and evil separated. Such symbols as the splitting of the flock and the Lamb of God continue to be used in Christian art even today.
Domestic swine are descended from two subspecies of wild boar. These are the European wild boar (Sus scrofa scrofa ) and the Asian wild boar (Sus scrofa vattatus ). Of the two, the European subspecies seems to be a bit more trim and agile, but both are formidable wild creatures having nine inch tusks, called tushes , and the determination to use them when cornered.(22) The earliest known human depiction of wild boars is to be found on the cave walls of Altamira in Spain with an age of about 30,000 years. When Neolithic culture swept into Europe from Asia about 10,000 years ago, it probably brought domestic pigs with it. Archeological artifacts from Anau, Turkestan relating to domestic hogs have been dated to 6500 B.C. Produced more recently, there are artifacts and art objects from China, Egypt, Greece, and eventually, virtually everywhere else. Swine had been mentioned in official documents of both China and Egypt by about 5000 years ago, and they appear in Greek literature attributed to Homer which dates to about 3000 years ago.
According to some scholars, an extremely ancient version of the god Osiris was intimately associated with swine. In this cult, hogs were thought to be so unapproachable that to touch them meant the need for instant ritual bathing by entering into the Nile fully clothed, before coming into contact with anyone else. Once a year hogs were ritually slain and eaten in honor of the god, probably as a symbolic stand-in for the god himself. As it was so closely associated with Osiris, the pig was also probably considered a sacred animal, its sacredness responsible for the fact that it was to be untouched by man. Over time the original reason for the taboo was forgotten, and the avoidance of contact with hogs was eventually attributed to uncleanliness and impurity. Later, when hogs continued to be slaughtered in sacrifice to Osiris despite the taboo, the misconception arose that the hog must be an enemy of Osiris rather than his image on earth. This occurred despite the fact that in other Egyptian cults animals continued to stand in for the gods on earth, as was the case with the Apis bull.
The natives in the area which became known as Greece are said to have worshipped a gray goddess before hitting upon the Greek pantheon. This goddess was often depicted as a sow, an animal symbolizing fertility and motherhood. Pigs and humans were both sacrificed to the sow goddess in spring rites which were both dark and chilling. According to one theory, Greek myths which contain hogs and wild boars, especially those in which the animals are subdued, are allegorical statements about the rejection and suppression of the more ancient religion by the followers of the new pantheon. Such a rejection and suppression may have eventually added to the strong taboo placed upon the killing of the innocent and upon human sacrifice written into the new myths.
In the Greek myth which explains the changing seasons based on the presence or absence of Demeter's daughter, Persephone, Demeter the grain goddess searches high and low for her daughter but finds only the tracks of a herd of swine where Persephone had been standing before her abduction by the king of the underworld, Hades. Swine then become ritual animals in the cult of Demeter, and live hogs are thrown into deep caverns to die each year. The following year, the planting of a part of one of the decayed carcasses of the sacrificed hogs with the grain would ensure a bountiful crop.
Circe, the witch of Aeaea, turned many of Odysseus' men into swine; with the help of Hermes, her potion was rendered ineffective on Odysseus himself and she quickly agreed to free his men from the spell. Hercules' fourth labor was to capture the gigantic wild boar of Mount Erymanthus; this he accomplished by first chasing the beast to exhaustion and then trapping it in the deep snow. Another famous boar hunt occurred when the goddess Artemis sent a great wild boar to ravage the land of Calydon because of a slight received at the hands of its king. Years before, when the king's son was just born, the Fates told the baby's mother that her son would live no longer than a certain brand in the fireplace would burn. At once she saved the brand which she extinguished and put away for safe keeping. When the boy was grown, all the greatest heroes of Greece, many of whom would serve as crew on the Argo with Jason, came to participate in the extermination of the monstrous boar. Atalanta, the woman huntress, participated with the rest. The king's son, Meleager, fell in love with Atalanta as soon as he saw her. When the boar was surrounded, it lashed out at the hunters with such fury that it killed two of their number outright, and a third was wounded by a comrade's javelin in the excitement. Atalanta's arrow was the first to find its mark, but the wound did not kill the boar. On seeing the beast struck, Meleager rushed in and slew the beast with his knife. Once the boar was dead, Meleager awarded the hide to Atalanta, but the other heroes objected since she had not actually killed the monstrous creature. A deputation, made up of Meleager's two uncles, went to him to protest the gift of the hide to Atalanta. Meleager was furious and killed his mother's two brothers there and then. With that, Meleager's mother threw the brand into a fire, causing the death of her own son. Thus, the boar, a symbol of cruel death and destruction, ruined not only the land of Calydon, but its royal house as well.
The symbolic significance of pigs is not restricted to ancient Egypt and Greece, however. In Hindu myth, Kali is often depicted as a ravenous black sow. She is the mother goddess who gives both life and death to her children. That is, she is acknowledged as initiating life, and this in itself means that she condemns what she creates to death. Death is the natural consequence of having been alive; life cannot be begun without the inevitability of death following. Therefore, this ever-hungry black sow, the mother of life, must be the mother of death as well; she ultimately consumes those to whom she gives birth. On the Pacific island of Malekula in the New Hebrides, a ceremony called a Maki is performed whenever anyone dies. In this ceremony a boar, which has been specially raised, is offered to the goddess of the underworld to eat in place of the deceased person. The boar's circular tusks represent the waxing and waning of the moon, which has a death/resurrection or cyclical symbolism. Without the stand-in boar, the dead can neither enter the land of the dead nor be reborn at the appointed time. In both the Cameroons and in Gaboon in Africa, natives hold that a man's spirit can be shared with a wild hog, and some other animals. If the wild pig host dies, so does the man. In Ireland the son of the great giant Finn MacCool was approached by a woman enchanted by a Druidic curse; she had the head of a pig. She explained that the head would become normal only if she would marry a son of MacCool, and the son, Oisin, married her. The curse was broken at once, and the two ruled as king and queen of the Land of Youth ever afterward. In a British spin on the same theme, there is the legend of Sir Parzival who met a woman with a boar's snout and coarse whiskers, but because he was pure of heart, he could see only her beauty.
Despite the well-known restriction on eating the flesh of animals which do not both chew the cud and have cloven hoofs, some scholars hold that there was a secret rite performed by some Israelites which entailed the consumption of pork and of rodents as a symbolic representation of various gods. It is said that this secret rite persisted at least until the time of Isaiah. Perhaps this sort of ritual added to the condemnation of hogs as unclean in the customs of Israel. After all, such polytheistic ceremonies go strongly against the grain of the determinedly monotheistic mainstream Jews.
There is one final porcine symbol which is worthy of note. Rather than coming from an ancient legend or practice, it comes to us from the pages of a piece of fiction written after World War II. Still, it seems to echo universal themes in swine mythology which go back to the ancient sow goddess herself. The symbol comes from William Golding's Lord of the Flies , a story about the best of British young boys and the effects of their being stranded on a island; many have seen the novel as an allegory of human nature itself. At this point in the story, the boys have been on the island for some time, and without the constraints of adult society, their behavior has begun to move toward the cruel and savage. Golding writes:
"The pigs lay, bloated bags of fat, sensuously enjoying the shadows under the trees. There was no wind and they were unsuspicious; and practice had made Jack silent as the shadows. He stole away again and instructed his hidden hunters. Presently they all began to inch forward sweating in the silence and heat. Under the trees an ear flapped idly. A little apart from the rest, sunk in deep maternal bliss, lay the largest sow of the lot. She was black and pink; and the great bladder of her belly was fringed with a row of piglets that slept or burrowed and squeaked.
Fifteen yards from the drove Jack stopped, and his arm, straightening, pointed at the sow. He looked round in inquiry to make sure that everyone understood and the other boys nodded at him. The row of right arms slid back.
The drove of pigs started up; and at a range of only ten yards the wooden spears with fire-hardened points flew toward the chosen pig. One piglet, with a demented shriek, rushed into the sea trailing Roger's spear behind it. The sow gave a gasping squeal and staggered up, with two spears sticking in her fat flank. The boys shouted and rushed forward, the piglets scattered and the sow burst the advancing line and went crashing away through the forest.
They raced along the pig-track, but the forest was too dark and tangled so that Jack, cursing, stopped them and cast among the trees. Then he said nothing for a time but breathed fiercely so that they were awed by him and looked at each other in uneasy admiration. Presently he stabbed down at the ground with his finger.
Before the others could examine the drop of blood, Jack had swerved off, judging a trace, touching a bough that gave. So he followed, mysteriously right and assured, and the hunters trod behind him.
He stopped before a covert.
They surrounded the covert but the sow got away with the sting of another spear in her flank. The trailing buts hindered her and the sharp, cross-cut points were a torment. She blundered into a tree, forcing a spear still deeper; and after that any of the hunters could follow her easily by the drops of vivid blood. The afternoon wore on, hazy and dreadful with damp heat; the sow staggered her way ahead of them, bleeding and mad, and the hunters followed, wedded to her in lust, excited by the long chase and the dropped blood. They could see her now, nearly got up with her, but she spurted with her last strength and held ahead of them again. They were just behind her when she staggered into an open space where bright flowers grew and butterflies danced round each other and the air was hot and still.
Here, struck down by the heat, the sow fell and the hunters hurled themselves at her. This dreadful erruption from an unknown world made her frantic; she squealed and bucked and the air was full of sweat and noise and blood and terror. Roger ran round the heap, prodding with his spear whenever pigflesh appeared. Jack was on top of the sow, stabbing downward with his knife. Roger found a lodgment for his point and began to push till he was leaning with his whole weight. The spear moved forward inch by inch and the terrified squealing became a high-pitched scream. Then Jack found the throat and the hot blood spouted over his hands. The sow collapsed under them and they were heavy and fulfilled upon her. The butterflies still danced, preoccupied in the center of the clearing.
At last the immediacy of the kill subsided. The boys drew back, and Jack stood up, holding out his hands.
He giggled and flicked them while the boys laughed at his reeking palms. Then Jack grabbed Maurice and rubbed the stuff over his cheeks. Roger began to withdraw the spear and boys noticed it for the first time. Robert stabilized the thing in a phrase which was received uproariously.
'Right up her ass!'"
The sow can easily be seen as a symbol of the maternal side of nature; she is fertile, productive, life-giving. The sow is engorged with the very life-essence of the jungle. She is hugely fat, and her teats bestow the largesse of nature's bounty on the piglets which can be seen as representing the children of nature. The quiet natural scene of the sleeping sow erupts into chaos with the arrival of the hunters. The symbolic mother is assaulted by them, injured by them, pursued by them, and eventually murdered by them in an extremely bloody and sexually charged and orgiastic climax. Nowhere in literature can a better description of the consequences of a "laissez faire" attitude toward natural resources be found. This episode is truly a mythic depiction of man's selfish rape of the natural world.
The domestic cock and hen are the descendants of one or more species of the jungle fowl of Asia. The predominant bloodline seems to be that of the red jungle fowl, Gallus gallus,(23) but the green jungle fowl, Gallus varius , and Sonnerat's jungle fowl, Gallus sonnerati , and Lafayette's jungle fowl, Gallus lafayettei , may have contributed genes. It should be noted that some breeds of domestic chickens, especially a breed called the old English game fowl, are almost identical to the wild red jungle fowl, and this species must figure very heavily in the ancestry of these breeds. Cockfighting is, perhaps, the oldest spectator sport in the world, and it was for the sake of this sport, according to one theory, that chickens were first bred in captivity and not for meat or egg production. It was discovered only later that when a hen's eggs are taken from her, she will continue to lay over a very extended season; in the wild she will usually only lay as many eggs as she can incubate comfortably. This means that hens have gone from laying something like twenty eggs per year to a staggering average of over 200 eggs for a hen of a commercial laying breed. These "egg machines" hit their peak in March with an average of 21 eggs and hit their lowest point of production in October with an average of 6 eggs for the month. If artificial lighting and temperature control are used, however, seasonal production variability can be kept to a minimum.
Just when the domestication of chickens began is a matter of debate, but experts agree that it took place in southern Asia where the jungle fowl are native. The breeding of chickens for sport alone had certainly given way by about four thousand years ago. By that time the Egyptians had incubators capable of hatching ten to fifteen thousand chicks at a time. The clay brick incubators were manned by attendants who lit fires when necessary in order to ensure a constant temperature of about 105 degrees Fahrenheit. This was done without any thermometer other than the attendants' skin. Once the chicks hatched they continued to live in the incubators which did double duty as brooder houses as well. What makes this system of chicken hatching so remarkable is the extent of social cooperation and sophistication which made the raising of so many chickens necessary. Egyptian society was in the pyramid mode at the time, and the chickens were required to feed countless workers on building projects of an unprecedented scale. The Egyptians also maintained a vast nation-wide irrigation system which added to their ability to mass produce food.
In ancient China it is believed that great numbers of chickens were raised to feed the workers required to build the many construction projects culminating in the Great Wall of China which was built about 2200 years ago. By about 1300 years before that, chickens were mentioned in official imperial documents, and chicken has been an important part of Chinese cuisine from early times. The mass production, preservation, and exportation of eggs has been a major industry in China for thousands of years.
In ancient Egypt the chickens were not just a food source for hungry builders, but they where also sacred animals. The cock was a sacrificial animal in the rites of Osiris. By the fourteenth century B.C., chickens were so much a part of the religious symbolism of Egypt as to feature in one of Akenhaten's liturgical songs of praise to the sun. A few hundred years later, Homer used the cock as a symbol of courage in his writings. Socrates, while he died of the numbing effects of the hemlock he was required to take, reminded Crito, "We owe a cock to Asklepios. Pay it and do not neglect it." Asklepios was the god of medicine, who eased suffering in his patients, and also, therefore, he was the god of a painless death. The twin temples of the deified Hercules and his wife Hebe, a daughter of Zeus, were separated by a small river. Cocks were the sacred bird of Hercules and hens of his wife, and a flock of cocks kept watch in Hercules' temple precincts and a flock of hens kept watch at Hebe's. After breeding with the hens, it was thought, the cocks would be purified by flying back across the river on their way to Hercules' temple.
The Greeks would commonly sacrifice a cock to that most virile of gods, Zeus. And, in fact, in ancient Greece and Rome the sexual potency of the cock became its most dominant symbolic characteristic.(25) The Greeks went so far as to depict cocks with phallus in place of neck and head, making the symbolism inescapable. The intention was not to create pornography or to encourage eroticism but to celebrate life, to see sexuality as a share in the divine creative powers. The image of the phallic cock was a religious object which represented man's cooperation in the creation of life; his sexual power, like the cock's, was life-giving. As an extension of the potency symbolism, cocks were said by the ancients to produce stones within their bodies which where smooth, round, and black or black and white. These stones were called alectorii (see the myth of Alectryon below) and were used to increase one's vigor for love making and strength in battle.
In addition to the sexual symbolism of the cock, there is also his well-known belligerence. Cocks had been "pitted" (that is, placed in specially constructed pits or rings) against one another in contests of fighting ability long before they came to Europe, and the practice continued with the Greeks and Romans. In Greece, a victorious fighting or game cock was sometimes carved onto the sarcophagus of a loved one as a symbol of the overcoming of death itself. The cock met death head on, grappled with it, and defeated it in the game pit. Along with his life-giving virility and his defeat of death, the cock is also known for his crowing. He is a symbol of watchfulness in the ancient world.
According to a Roman myth, when Mars had an adulterous affair with Venus, he set Alectryon to guard the chamber door and to summon the god at daybreak. Alectryon fell asleep, and when Mars discovered this, he changed Alectryon into a cock so that he would be perpetually vigilant ever after. The cock, according to the myth, calls out to Mars at each daybreak. Others claim that the cock has a sacred relationship with the sun itself and that his crowing announces and, in some way, brings in the day. The Greeks called him hemerophonos or "day-sounding". The cock "gives new life" to each day in announcing it. The cock, therefore, becomes a resurrection symbol in his virility, victory, and voicing of the new day.
A sort of father of the study of natural history in Rome was a man called Varro who lived from 116 B.C. to 27 B.C. Having sided with Pompey in the civil war, he was eventually pardoned by Julius Caesar after Pompey's defeat. Caesar knew how to read the abilities of men and gave Varro charge of the vast Roman library; not only did he turn out to be a great librarian, he personally added to the collections by writing something like 650 volumes himself. Varro, Columella, and Pliny the Elder (the last two were writers of the first century A.D.) form a Roman triad of experts when it comes to every aspect of natural history, including chickens. Each of these men wrote inventories of the breeds available in Rome in their day as well as recorded facts on cock fighting and egg laying and gave husbandry tips also. Perhaps the main reason that the Romans were so concerned with the proper care of chickens was that flocks of these birds were maintained at public expense to be used in augury. Healthy, active cocks which ate well predicted success for any military campaign, while cocks which would not feed pointed toward defeat. In addition, the birds would be ritually slaughtered and the condition of their internal organs read for the purposes of divination. Pliny even said that the flocks of chickens were the real rulers of Rome because they determined the actions of the government.
Another topic that the Roman experts addressed was the production of so-called "wind eggs". This was a phenomenon recorded by the Greeks whereby some hens laid infertile eggs which did not show evidence of the male germ; the Greeks, among them Aristotle, believed that the hen was stimulated by the wind to lay such eggs and called them hypenemia oa or wind eggs. Varro agreed with the Greeks while Pliny held that these eggs were conceived due to mutual but unconsummated lust on the part of the cock and the hen. The otherwise careful and accurate Albertus Magnus, writing in the thirteenth century, also agreed with Aristotle. He added that such eggs were most likely to occur in the autumn when the south wind, "opens the bodies of the birds, moistens and fecundates them."
The cock and his hen were held in high esteem by the ancients of Greece and Rome, but they figured into the mythology of other places as well. In south Asia the cock was the announcer of the new day who drove off the demons and other terrors of the night. For such people as the Thai and the Khmer the cock was a sacred bird and messenger of the gods. One tribe even required its women to abstain from eating hens which laid their eggs "here and there" because it was thought eating them would cause the women to be promiscuous. In the Zoroastrian Persia of 4000 years ago, the cock was described as, "the admonisher of mankind to discard sloth, and to wake up early to lead an industrious life." In the vast Pacific, Polynesians traveled with three animals: dogs, pigs and chickens. The chickens they called mo'a 'oviri (mo'a or moa being a generic label for terrestrial birds in Polynesian). According to Tahitian myth, the chickens were created by the god Taarva at the same time that man was made. The cocks were used for fighting, and Polynesians had special gods for the sport. There is a legend on the Tahitian island of Moorea about the Moorean's favorite god, the god of petty theft.(26) It seems the god of petty theft got himself into trouble by stealing once too often from a more powerful god than himself. The greater god was a fierce god of the night and wildly pursued the thief across the midnight island. The thief, whose sacred animal was the cock, was exhausted by the chase and would soon be caught. But the cocks of Moorea, seeing the plight of their master, all began to crow at once. The god of night was deceived into thinking that the dawn was approaching and gave up the pursuit. To this day, according to the Mooreans, the cocks of the island crow at night to confuse the god of night and to protect the god of petty theft.
In the Jewish Talmud it recommended having a cock and hen carried before a bridal couple to encourage fertility. Orthodox Jews use cocks and hens in a ceremony called kapparah or atonement two days before Yom Kippur . Selections from the Book of Psalms are read. The fowls are circled over the heads of the men and women while prayers are said transferring the guilt of the people onto the offerings. The rite is followed by the ritual slaughter of the birds as a sin offering on behalf of the people. Next the entrails are thrown on the roof so that they will be consumed by birds which eat carrion, such as vultures, kites, or crows, and the meat of the sacrificed fowls is given to the poor.
In Christian myth, the cock represents watchfulness and diligence and the awakening to new life in Christ. The cock reminds Peter of his denial of Christ and is, therefore, intimately tied to the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus as well. According to the Venerable Bede, eighth century monk and writer of The History of the English People, the cock deserves special recognition as a symbolic animal. He wrote:
"I think the cock is one of the saints who in the night and in the shadow of the world receive intelligence through faith and constancy of the virtue of crying out to God that He should watch over them when the day arrives and that the shadows of their present life should be dispelled..."
A thirteenth century cardinal named de Vitry topped Bede by saying that Christ himself was a cock who awoke the sleeping and, "pricks and stimulates them with the spurs(27) of His admonishments." There is a famous Christian myth from the Middle Ages about a group of pilgrims on its way to the shrine of St. James at Compostela. There was an elderly couple accompanied by their handsome young son. The weary travelers stopped at an inn. As soon as she had seen the youth, the innkeeper's daughter was attracted to him and did everything she could to get the young man into her bed. The pious youth resisted, which infuriated the girl. In order to exact revenge, the girl hid a silver plate in the bag of the boy. After the pilgrims left the inn, she called the soldiers and claimed that the plate had been stolen. The youth was taken prisoner and executed on the evidence given by the girl. The elderly parents then continued on their pilgrimage. When they arrived at the shrine they prayed fervently for their son. On their way home they were forced to pass the same inn, but much to their surprise, they saw their son there fully restored. They went to inform the officials of the place of the miracle that had happened, and they found the mayor just sitting down to eat at the inn. The mayor, who had witnessed the execution himself, told the elderly couple that their son was no more alive than the cock on the platter before him. With that, the youth entered the inn, and the cock immediately raised himself from the platter and began to crow; then the cock flew to the floor fully feathered and walked to the door of the inn to be let out to scratch in the yard. The girl confessed her guilt, and the cock was venerated by the people of the place from then on.
Although it may seem odd to include the canary in this collection of creatures with such long relationships with man, I have done so because even though the canary has been in captivity only since about the conquest of the Canary Islands by the Spanish in about 1495 A.D., an interesting mythology has already begun to grow around the little bird. In addition, the human custom of keeping songbirds and ornamental birds in captivity goes back quite a long way in such ancient cultures as the Roman and the Chinese. Although most or all of the Roman and Chinese cagebirds seem to have been trapped wild specimens, the canary makes a fine symbolic stand in for his caged predecessors, and in some ways he serves as a logical culmination of the ancient art of cagebird keeping. The wild canary, Serinus canaria, is called the sugar bird by Canary natives because of its fondness for the sugar cane grown there. In appearance the wild bird is small and is colored a streaky gray-brown with yellow splashes over forehead, breast, and rump. Although its appearance did not draw much notice from the Spanish conquistadors, its song did. And it was for this quality alone that the first of these birds were exported back to Spain. That much is fact, but from here legend begins. The first part of the legend involves the breeding of the little birds. According to the legend, the Spanish discovered the secrets of breeding the birds and jealously guarded them, thereby maintaining a monopoly on supplying the songsters to the courts of Europe. Because only the males sang, they were the birds in demand, and all the females could be kept for breeding, ensuring that the monopoly would continue indefinitely. It is said that the Spanish monks and friars were so skilled in breeding the birds that the religious houses of the land began to grow quite rich. Soon, the Gregorian chant of every major cloister and monastery was accompanied by the song of the little birds. At that time, it is said, it became popular for a wealthy lover to present a singing canary in a golden cage to the object of his affection. According to the story, the cage was a trifling accessory when compared to the price of the bird within. According to the second part of the legend, a chance occurrence changed everything. When returning from the Canary Islands, a Spanish ship laden with pens of the birds was blown off course by a terrible storm. When the storm was over, the sailors found themselves stranded on the island of Elba near the coast of Italy; the little birds escaped or were released and soon populated the small island. The Italians soon learned the secrets of breeding the canaries as well, and eventually Italy and then Germany were breeding centers and suppliers of canaries right along with Spain. From these three sources canaries began to be sold for lower and lower amounts until one did not have to be a prince to own one. They were common enough to be described in Conrad Gesner's Natural History of Birds in about 1550, and Hervieux, the superintendent of aviaries and poultry yards for the Duchess de Berry, writing in 1709, identified 29 breeds of canaries under his care. A third part of the canary legend describes the artistic know-how and expertise of the German breeders of the Tyrol and the Harz Mountains. By the time Hervieux's book, Traite des Serins de Canarie,(28) was written, breeding had already begun in the Tyrol. Tyrol mining was in decline, and the mine workers searched for another way to make a living. They tried canary breeding to supplement their incomes and hit upon a wining combination of luck and artistry. In the Tyrol, the breeders had been selecting their breeding males based on a slight genetic modification of song. This modification tended to emphasize the flowing parts of the song and de-emphasize the choppy bits. Generation after generation, this selection went on, and this is where the artistry came in. Where most breeders of livestock depend on what their eyes tell them, the German canary breeders, according to the legend, used their superior ears and musical sense. At this time the breeders would sell their song birds to a dealer who carried as many as 200 cages stacked on his back and who would bring the birds to market in far away places. There is even an operetta titled Der Vogelhandler ("The Bird Dealer") about this time in the Tyrol. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, work for miners became available in the Harz region of Germany and many of the bird breeders from the Tyrol moved there. They continued to select their birds for clear, smooth songs, and the canaries they produced became world famous as the Harz roller breed. Although breeding took place around the world by that time, it was these German songsters which were in demand and for which higher prices were paid.
Other Cage Birds
At least two other European birds had a lot of attention paid to them as subjects of aviary collections as well as myth and symbolism. These were the European goldfinch, kept in captivity since at least the late Middle Ages and probably long before that, and the nightingale, admired for its song from the time of ancient Greece.
Goldfinches, due to the fact that they make their living by acrobatically hanging on to the seed heads of large thistle plants, are extremely agile and graceful little birds which are able to use their beaks and feet like little hands, something that most other finches are unable to do. It is remarkable to see them climb strait up a cage side using feet and beak just like a parrot can do. The fact that the feet of the goldfinch are somewhat smaller in proportion to the rest of the bird, when compared to other finches, keeps it from being stuck on the thorns of the thistle since it can merely clasp onto the stalk between the thorns; at the same time the beak is much longer and finer than that of most finches which allows the goldfinch to pry out the seeds of the thistle without being impaled. By the time of the Renaissance, the goldfinch was kept chained to pairs of little willow hoops mounted one above the other against the wall where they entertained their keepers by doing back flips between the two perches as well as by singing a remarkably varied and pretty little song based on whistling, twittering, and buzzing. Because of the ability of the goldfinch to use its feet and beak in unison to get to food in the wild, it was easily taught to pull strings which hung from the perch and had treats fastened at the other end; the bird would pull the string upward with its beak and then hold the string under its feet and would repeat the process over and over until the treat was in reach.
Although the goldfinch was (and still is) kept throughout its range, it seems to be the Mediterranean region where this was most prevalent. When my father was a boy in Sicily, practically every house had a goldfinch in a small song cage hanging on the wall just outside the door or window. Today they are not so widely kept, but can still be seen here and there, especially in the countryside courtyards.
Because of its association with thistles and thorns as well as its blood-red facial markings, it became associated with the crowning of Christ with thorns by the Roman soldiers during the Passion. In the many depictions of the goldfinch with Madonna and Child, the goldfinch represents the foreknowledge of the Crucifixion by Virgin and Child or, at the very least, a foreshadowing of the Passion and Death of Jesus. In addition, the goldfinch is willing to sit calmly in the scene which shows Jesus’ mastery over all of nature, including suffering and death. Just as the cock which triumphs over death comes to symbolize not only the Resurrection, but also Christ Himself, so too does the goldfinch which is associated with the Passion come to symbolize Christ as well.
I am also informed that in Greece there is a widespread legend which says that the goldfinches got the blood of the crucifixion on their faces when, because of their familiarity with the thorns of the thistle, they were chosen from among the birds to try to remove the crown of thorns from Christ’s head at the crucifixion.
For Christians, any association with the Blood of Christ carries with it a further symbolic connection to the Eucharist.
Because of the wild, untilled, and thorny places that the goldfinch could be found in, the superstitious in some parts of Europe thought of it as a magical being and friend of the elves and fairies. It was used as a charm to ward off the Black Death during the Middle Ages.
The nightingale has become the quintessential songbird for most Europeans, and its song, if not the bird itself, has graced the aviaries of man for hundreds of years. How, you ask, can the song of a bird be present without the bird before the age of recording? Back as far as 1713 Belgian breeders have raised a breed of canary once called the “nachtegalslager” or nightingale singer; today it is known as the “waterslager” or water singer. This breed was developed, according to its breed myth, by Dutch and French refugees who came into Belgium to escape religious persecution at the hands of the King of France and King of Spain. The birds, showing an uncanny knack for picking up the notes of other birds, were raised in the company of captive nightingales. The canaries were soon able to imitate many of the watery and metallic sounds produced by the master songsters. Why go through all this trouble? You may well ask. Nightingales, being softbilled insectivores which also eat a bit of fruit, were not easy to keep alive in captivity; canaries, on the other hand, thrive on seeds, and a bit of cooked egg and breadcrumb will help them to easily raise their young.
In classical Greek Mythology, the nightingale is the human mother who has slain her son, Itys, either out of jealousy or revenge, depending on the story; now she wanders the night in the form of a bird calling his name, “Itys! Itys!”, in remorse for her violation of the sacred relationship between mother and child.
Among Aesop’s tales can be found the story of the “Laborer and the Nightingale”. In the fable the bird is captured by a laborer who demands that the bird sing for him. The nightingale responds that it is unable to sing in cages (perhaps this is an allusion to failed attempts to keep these birds in captivity). Meaning to come out ahead anyway, the laborer plans to eat the bird. The bird next tells the man that it will tell him three very valuable lessons if it is set free. Always desiring to profit, the laborer opens the cage door. At this, the bird flies high into a nearby tree and gives the following pieces of wisdom to the laborer: “Never believe a captive’s promise; hold on to what you possess; do not sorrow over what you have lost.”
The nightingale is associated with the tales of secret love which is hidden by cover of darkness. Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” wonder aloud if the bird they hear is the nightingale which gives them more time together or if it is the lark which heralds the dawn that will part them.
The nightingale’s habit of singing at night gave rise to a medieval legend which says that the bird sings all night with its breast pressed against a thorn in order to keep itself awake least some serpent might devour it in the night; this is a reference to Christian watchfulness and a reminder for the good to keep up their guard even in the dark of night. The nightingale was also thought of as a symbol of the joy of the Blessed because of its beautiful song, and since the song seemed to increase in its joy as dawn approached, it was also a symbol of Christian hope. St. Bonaventure, that good Franciscan, taught that the nightingale’s last song was always its gladdest and most exquisite because it looked forward to release from this limiting life.
Finally, Oscar Wilde weaves many of these threads of nightingale lore together in his poem, “The Nightingale and the Rose”. Wilde uses the bird as a symbol for those who are willing to die for love. In the poem, a nightingale learns of a young philosophy student who longs for a fair maiden. The maiden refuses him unless he bring her a single red rose. These being scarce, the nightingale resolves to press its breast against the thorn on a white rose bush as it sings its last, willingly giving its life for the student to win his prize. All night the bird sang; he sang “of the Love that is perfected by Death, of the Love that dies not in the tomb”. As the bird sings its last, the nearest rose is stained red. In the morning the lad discovers the rose and brings it to his beloved. However, in Wilde’s misogynistic mind the only way for the story to end is for the girl to once again reject the lad in favor of wealthier suitors. (29)
The best known animals of human experience have been deeply incorporated into the ongoing myth life of humanity. These beings which share our world and our lives have become meaningful to us on a deeply symbolic level. Their symbolic appeal is both ancient and new; the myths and magic surrounding our domestic animals can be as old as our pre-agricultural past or as modern as tomorrow's headline about a rescue dog's success. Despite the fact that our history lengthens out behind us like one interminable quest for human self-reliance and self-confidence, we continue to make myth and to require the symbolic company of our animal traveling companions.
Notes For Chapter 8:
(1) Before beginning my research for this book, I would have been willing to bet that the dog was first by far, but it seems that at least some experts are claiming an equal or sometimes longer period of domestication for the goat and sheep. The fourth longest period of domestication, by the way, seems to be that of the reindeer. All of the three herd animals may have had a long period of semi-domestication wherein nomadic humans followed them about, culling the herds for food in a just slightly closer relationship than hunter/prey.
(2) Most contemporary experts now hold that domestic dogs are descended entirely from gray wolves, perhaps of various subspecies.
(3) According to Dale-Green (see p. 8), some of the features which distinguish domestic dogs from wolves may include: erect tails, outward-turned elbows, shorter legs, short and straight backs, modified head and facial structure, drooping ears, smaller teeth, and round eyes. Many of these would correspond to the puppy stage of the wolf and other wild canids.
(4) In the same order as they appear in the text, these subspecies have been labeled: Canis familiaris palustris, Canis familiaris inostranzevi, Canis familiaris leineri, Canis familiaris intermedius, and Canis familiaris metris optimae.
(5) This may be a reference to the dogs' color pattern rather than anything else. Dogs with colored spots over their eyes, such as the rottweiler or Doberman pinscher patterns have, were called four-eyed in some parts of Asia (see Dale-Green, p. 125).
(6) Some claim that it was not the jackal but a breed of dog called the pharaoh hound which served as model; this, however, seems unlikely.
(7) It is interesting to note that all five, Anubis, Hermes, Hermanubis, Eastern Christopher, and Western Christopher, were thought of as guides and as protectors of the traveler.
(8) The main source for this section is Dale-Green, pp. 47-84.
(9) The name Shuck is derived from the Anglo-Saxon Soucca which means Satan, according to Dale-Green, p. 52.
(10) Although Dale-Green describes this as a predominantly Chinese practice, the name inu-gami is Japanese and so are some of the geographical locations she gives.
(11) There is a Greek myth about Lycaon, the man who civilized Arcadia and brought the worship of Zeus there. When a disguised Zeus came to Lycaon and his sons, the sons persuaded Lycaon that the disguised traveler was indeed Zeus and devised a test. They killed one of their number and put some of his flesh into a stew of other meats and offered it to Zeus. He was outraged, and turned Lycaon and his sons into wolves. The term lycanthropy comes from lyc or lukos (Lycaon or wolf) + anthropos (man) and means Lycaon-man or wolf-man. The term cynanthropy comes from cyn or kuon (dog) + anthropos (man) and means dog-man. It should be noted that both of these terms are also applied to psychiatric conditions wherein the victim seems to behave like a wolf or a dog.
(12) Wild wheat and other grains were harvested by man as long as 12,000 years ago in upland areas near the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates rivers, and by 8000 years ago permanent villages appear in these areas. So, 6000 B.C. seems to be a reasonable date to assign to the first intentional cultivation of grains in this area. By that time the pumpkin and gourd may have been under cultivation in Central America for a thousand years, but it would be another thousand before maize would be cultivated. In northern China millet and soybeans were grown from at least 4000 B.C. For more information see Hall, pp. 14-24.
(13) There seems to be some debate over the exact form of Egyptian religion . It was originally described to us by the polytheistic Greeks and Romans, who saw it against the backdrop of their own mythical traditions. Some modern scholars, however, claim that it was not a polytheistic religion at all but one in which a single divine spirit could be thought of in many aspects or facets, much as is seen in Hinduism.
(14) Presumably, there would be an analogous drop in brain mass among other domestic species almost across the board, but this would be difficult to prove as at least some of the ancestors are now extinct while other domestics are hybrids of more than one species or subspecies which throws a whole other element into the mix.
(15) The source for the birman cat myth, Mohammed's cat, and Elizabeth I are Caras pp. 164, 163, and 162 respectively.
(16) According to The Oxford Classical Dictionary, p. 441, at least the Athenian horse was a poor creature, both stubborn and vicious.
(17) In Greek mythology, Athena is attributed with the invention of the bridal and as the goddess who first tamed the horse for man's use. In addition, she is the goddess of city life and of civilization. She is said to have created the all-important olive tree and was thought of as the wise and the pure virgin goddess.
(18) Ovis ammon rams have very large curved horns and are, no doubt, named after the Egyptian god who is depicted with a horned ram's head (see text).
(19) There are some obvious parallels with the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac.
(20) Anthropophagy is the eating of human flesh: anthropos (man) + phagos (eating).
(21) Although the Church Fathers identified the author of the Book of Revelation as the Apostle John, both it and the Gospel which bears his name may have been composed by various other hands from the Apostle's teachings. Although there are stylistic differences between the two writings, there are important agreements in theology.
(22) The major source for this section is Hedgepeth pp. 36-37 and 183-196.
(23) According to one theory, the name gallus is a reference to the cock's comb. Presumably, the connection would be to the Latin word galea (helmet) or galerum (hood); but the reference is a doubtful one.
(24) The major source for this section is The Chicken Book by Smith and Daniel.
(25) According to Smith and Daniel, the name for the male chicken and the name of the penis is the same in many cultures. It is asserted by them that "cock" is an Anglo-Saxon word for the penis. The Latin coco (imitative of the sound made by the birds) is probably the ultimate source of the English word "cock" as it applies to the male chicken. The American usage of the word "rooster" probably originated in Victorian times and is most likely drawn from the "roost" or chicken house; thus, he who rules the roost is called the rooster.
(26) By the way, as the guide told me the story he was also stealing fruit from roadside trees.
(27) A cock's spurs are the horny projections on his legs which grow with maturity. In cock fighting these are sharpened or, more often, replaced by artificial metal ones. Today cock fights are strictly illegal in the U.S., but the practice persists in many areas; and steel spurs sharpened to a point are most often used. In the past other metals such as bronze, silver, and gold were used and were formed into shapes with names like: "sickle", "launcet", "penknife", and "fair".
(28) Treatise on the Serins of the Canary Islands.
(29) The Bestiary by Suzetta Tucker is the main source for this section.
PART II: FANTASY
Zoology in Myth-- Creatures of Fantasy and Cryptozoology
By creatures of fantasy, in the purest sense, is meant those completely imaginary "creatures" which have no basis in fact, but it is extremely difficult to determine any cases for which this is so. For the purposes of this chapter, animals with little or no obvious parallel or foundation in nature will be included in this category.
Cryptozoology is generally defined as, "the study of hidden animals." Although some would classify it as, at best, an obscure off-shoot of mainstream zoology, its principal advocates and luminaries are both men with scientific training. The first is Willy Ley, whom we have met in a previous chapter. Ley spent many hours in the Museum of Natural History in Berlin as a boy, and pursued studies in zoology, geology, and rocketry. In addition to his books on cryptozoology, Ley also wrote on rockets, missiles, and space travel in the 1940's and 1950's. The other father of cryptozoology is Bernard Heuvelmans; he received his doctorate in zoology in Belgium in 1939 and remains active as a scientific fellow of natural history societies around the world. He continues to seek out rumors and legends about animals still unknown to science.
The cryptozoologist is, in effect, a zoological detective; from strange accounts and myths he attempts to discover creatures hidden from Western science. Occasionally the animals are very well known to the local people but are rare enough or cagey enough to have escaped the notice of mainstream science. At other times the accounts of animals take on a life of their own; this is especially true when the stories spread over a large geographical area or over a long period of time before the actual animal is seen by zoologists. By the time the actual creature is identified, it may not be recognized as the basis for the myth at all. Thus, even after a perfectly authentic animal is classified and labeled, a legendary one may persist without the two being obviously linked. This puts an added twist on the designation "creatures of fantasy." How many of these actually started life as myths about, or inadequate descriptions of, animals now known to science? A good example of a being which seems pure fantasy but has actual animal foundations is the unicorn.
The most interesting and beautiful of the animal myths of the Middle Ages is probably based on one of the most ugly of animals.(1) There had been stories of a horse-like animal which bore a single horn on its head since at least the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Ctesias was a Greek physician, a member of the priestly caste of Asklepios, who began working for the Persian royal court of Darius II in 416 B.C. While he was there, he wrote two books, only one of which has survived in an abridged and edited form; this book is known as the Indica and is a collection of tales and descriptions of life in nearby India. The original work seems to have been treated as a sort of "Mandeville's Travels" of its day with most readers thinking of it as pure fancy. But for our purposes, there is an interesting description found in what remains of the book. Ctesias wrote:
"There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length. The dust filed from this horn is administered in a potion as a protection against deadly drugs. The base of this horn, for some two hands'-breadth above the brow, is pure white; the upper part is sharp and of a vivid crimson; and the remainder, or middle portion, is black. Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease [epilepsy]. Indeed, they are immune even to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from these beakers. Other asses, both the tame and the wild, and in fact all the animals with solid hoofs, are without the ankle-bone and have no gall in the liver, but these have both the ankle-bone and the gall. This ankle-bone, the most beautiful I have ever seen, is like that of an ox in general appearance and in size, but it is as heavy as lead and its colour is that of cinnabar through and through. The animal is exceedingly swift and powerful, so that no creature, neither the horse nor any other, can overtake it."(2)
Three Romans, Aelian, writing in Greek, our old friend Pliny the Elder, who would later perish studying the eruption of Vesuvius at the time Pompeii was destroyed, and Julius Solinus, author of the Polyhistoria , all had similar descriptions of the beast. Aelian spoke of the Indian unicorn which the natives called cartazonos(3) ; it was a swift horse-sized creature. Pliny added that the natives of India hunted this beast, which he called monoceros, that its black horn was two cubits long, and that the creature made a deep lowing sound. Julius Solinus, managed to write a pretty good description of it, though none of these men had ever seen the beast themselves; Solinus' description was translated into English by Arthur Golding in 1587:
"...the cruellist is the Unicorne, a monster that belloweth horrible, bodyed like a horse, footed like an elephant, tayled like a Swyne, and headed like a Stagge. His horn sticketh out of the midds of hys forehead, of a wonderful brightness about foure foote long, so sharp, that whatsoever he pusheth at, he striketh it through easily. He is never caught alive; kylled he may be, but taken he cannot bee."
Over the centuries, a very detailed mythology evolved around the unicorn. This mythology included medicinal uses for the horn, a strange relationship between the unicorn and virgin maidens, and a ritualized method of capture. The unicorn came to be described as a beautiful, slim, white, horse-like creature with a long slender horn in the middle of its forehead. This horn, called alicorn was said to be darker at the base, light in the middle and red at its tip. Alicorn, said to render any poison into which it was dipped harmless, in keeping with Ctesias' Eastern account, and to give any man added virility, was stocked in pharmacies as late as 1741. This substance was supposedly very powerful indeed. It was generally of two types, terrestrial and marine.(4) The terrestrial variety was usually ground mammoth tusk, and the marine variety was the long tusk of the narwhal, a variety of Arctic porpoise. These "unicorn" horns were sold for a king's ransom in gold. The fact that they really didn't work against poisons seemed to upset no one but the patients! But the most interesting part of the myth was the unicorn's attraction to virgins and the resulting method given for capturing the animal. Although Solinus had said that the creature couldn't be taken alive, Europeans of the Middle Ages added an exception to the rule. They held that the animal could be taken alive by the purest of the pure, a virgin maiden. If she went into the forest and sat quietly, the unicorn would come and put its horn into her lap, loose its power and fierceness, and fall asleep. Then, hidden hunters could come out and capture the beast. Aside from the fairly obvious sexual connotation of the red-tipped "horn" loosing its animal power in a maiden's lap, the mysterious truth behind the myth is the overcoming of wildness and fierceness by purity. This is the same Christian theme set forth in the legends of the Gubbio wolf and Reprobus.
The actual animal that the myth seems to be centered on is the Asian rhinoceros, a lumbering, seemingly dull-witted giant wearing wrinkled, over-sized skin. Still, the myth was enlarged by the existence of three other factual animals as well. We have already met two of these: the extinct mammoth and the narwhal. The third is the re'em or rim of ancient Babylon. This beast is beautifully depicted on the Ishtar Gate, but because of the stylized nature of Babylonian art, the identity of the animal model was in some doubt. The muscular creature depicted on the gate is shown in a flattened profile and, therefore, seems to have only one horn. But, more than any other beast, the artfully depicted re'em seems to be the wild bull of Europe and Asia, the aurochs. Nevertheless, the creature depicted on the Ishtar Gate was thought to be a unicorn for some time and doubtless fanned the flames of the unicorn myth.
When James I ascended to the throne of England, he brought with him the unicorn from the Scottish Royal Arms. For generations, the British Royal Arms had a lion as one of its supporters, but the second supporter was changed to meet the tastes or symbolic sensibilities of the ruling monarchs. Henry VI used the lion and the heraldic antelope; Edward IV used the lion and the bull; Richard III used the lion and the boar; Henry VII and Henry VIII used the lion and the dragon; Mary I and Elizabeth I used the lion and the greyhound. In Scotland, the unicorn was as consistently present as the lion in England. Today the British Royal Arms bears the lion as its left-hand supporter and the unicorn as its right-hand supporter, and has done so since the time of James. But the unicorn is widely used on both British and other coats of arms as well, and it has been a popular heraldic symbol since the age of chivalry.
The knights of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance did much to popularize the unicorn. After all, the symbolic connection between the chivalrous knight and the unicorn was great. The unicorn had an obvious kinship to the horse, an animal intimately associated with the knight.(5) The unicorn had an attraction to the pure virgin maiden, and we are told, it was the height of chivalry for the knight to protect the damsel in distress. The unicorn, like the knight, was fierce and proud and dangerous to his foes. He was also a gentle lover of solitude, beautiful and strong, all characteristics which were desirable for the knightly way of life. But most of all, he was a protector and champion of others, just as a knight should be; the unicorn was said to come and dip his horn into poisoned waters so that the other animals might drink, and this, above all the symbolic animals of European heraldry, made the unicorn the exceptional ideal of chivalry.(6)
The unicorn is but one of numerous examples of creatures around which myth grew in such a way that science didn't recognize the flesh and blood creature underneath it. In yet other cases, the myths seemed to be such obvious fiction as to not admit even the possibility of their being about real creatures at all. One such myth was about a monstrous devil fish or octopus so large that it could attack and sink fleets of full sized vessels at will. This blood thirsty demon was called the kraken(7) by terrified sailors who spoke of it in hushed whispers. Since ancient times, accounts of such creatures have been written; some would even claim that the description of the Scylla in the Odyssey is a mythologized version of the kraken. She is described as having twelve tentacle-like arms which reach out to grab dolphins, dogfish, and other large creatures of the sea, and no ship could sail past her without loss and grief, for she took one man for each of her six gullets from every ship that passed within her long reach..
The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, called the kraken teuthos to distinguish it from the small local squid called teuthis . The Roman natural historian, Pliny the Elder, gave quite an account of the presence of the vile beast on the shores of Spain. According to his story, a polyp(8) came from the sea to steal fish from the brine ponds on the seashore. The monster's head was as large as a ninety-gallon cask, and its legs were thirty feet long. The guards were, Pliny wrote:
"...astounded by its strangeness: in the first place its size was unheard of and so was its color as well, and it was smeared with brine and had a terrible smell; who would have expected to find a polyp there, or who would recognize it in such circumstances? They felt they were pitted against something uncanny, for by its awful breath it also tormented the dogs, which it now scourged with the ends of its tentacles and now struck with its longer arms, which it used as clubs, and with difficulty they succeeded in dispatching it with a number of three-pronged harpoons."
Many of the details of the account have led to speculation that the description is authentic, although it would be the only account of such a creature doing anything on the shore besides dying. The distinction between longer and shorter arms, the strange color, and the stench all lead to the conclusion that this was a giant squid or Architeuthis.(9) But, such creatures remained unidentified by science until as late as 1771,(10) and it wasn't until more than 100 years later, in 1873, that the first specimen was scientifically examined on land. Meanwhile, myth and legend flourished.
The kraken once again makes its way into the literature in 1555 in the writings of the chronicler of sea monsters, Olaus Magnus:
"Their forms are horrible, their Heads square, all set with prickles, and they have long sharp horns round about like a Tree rooted up by the Roots: They are ten or twelve Cubits(11) long, very black with huge eyes...the Apple of the Eye is of one Cubit, and is red and fiery coloured, which in the dark night appears to Fisher-men in the afar off under Waters, as a burning fire, having hairs like goose feathers, thick and long, like a beard hanging down; and the rest of the body, for the greatness of the head, which is square, is very small, not being above 14 or 15 Cubits long(12); one of these Sea-Monsters will drown easily many great ships provided with many strong Marriners."
The description seems to be of a giant cuttlefish rather than of a giant squid. Known cuttlefish are fairly small; the so-called "cuttlebone" used in bird cages to supplement calcium are the internal pens of this creature. Squid pens are a sort of vestigial shell for these mollusks, but they are found inside the bodies of the creatures and vary widely from 1/2 inch in the smallest species to over four feet in Architeuthis. Almost exactly 200 years after Olaus' gigantic cuttlefish, a bishop named Pontoppidan gave an account of a beast he called, "the largest and most surprising of all the animal creation." He said it was, "incontestably the largest Sea-monster in the world." In his book, The Natural History of Norway, he wrote:
"It is called Kraken or Kraxen, or, as some name it, Krabben... He shows himself sufficiently, although his whole body does not appear, which in all likelihood no human eye ever beheld (excepting the young of this species) its back or upper part, which seems to be in appearance an English mile and a half in circumference (some say more, but I choose the least for greater certainty), looks at first like a number of small islands, surrounded with something that floats and fluctuates like sea weeds...at last several bright points or horns appear, which grow thicker and thicker the higher they rise above the surface of the water, and sometimes they stand as high and large as the masts of middle-siz'd vessels."
If this description is based on "eye-witness" accounts at all, it must represent a huge school of Architeuthis (or other large creatures) rather than a single animal. Even so, the reporting must be a great exaggeration, stretched almost beyond all recognition. Yet we now know that the kraken (under the name giant squid or Architeuthis) is real and appeared in certain coastal areas periodically when a few would occasionally come near the shore to die. Interestingly, sightings of such monsters as sea serpents also occur in clusters in specific coastal areas. There may be nothing for a century, then a cluster of numerous sightings over the course of months, even years, and then nothing again. Could this pattern, shared with the squid die-offs, be a link between the kraken and the sea serpent?
Accounts of sea serpents are also quite ancient and figure into Greek and Roman mythology. When the Trojan priest of Poseidon, Laocoon, warned his countrymen about accepting the wooden horse, he and his sons were attacked and killed by a pair of gigantic sea serpents. The monsters were described by the Roman poet Virgil in the Aeneid as:
"...breasting the sea together and plunging towards the land. Their fore-parts and their blood-red crests towered above the waves; the rest drove through the ocean behind, wreathing monstrous coils, and leaving a wake that roared and foamed. And now, with blazing and blood-shot eyes and tongues which flickered and licked their hissing mouths, they were on the beach."
Whether most ancients thought of such descriptions as accurate or as artful expressions of literary license is unknown.
At around the same time as fishermen had seen the kraken and reported their story to Bishop Pontoppidan, the bishop also recorded the testimony of a Captain von Ferry who claimed to have seen a sea serpent, also off the coast of Norway.(13) The captain's monster had a head about the size of a horse's, which it lifted to about two feet from the surface of the water; trailing behind were seven or eight thick coils with a distance of about a fathom between each. Yet another witness, Governor Benstrup, told the bishop that he saw a sea serpent with coils that seemed like, "a string of buoys." This seems to agree with the captain's sighting. Assuming the captain's estimates are close (he was an experienced seaman), the overall length of the beast described would be something over 44 feet, a measurement which falls within the adult size range of Architeuthis. Norway was not the only area where large clusters of sightings occurred, however.
Between the years 1817 and 1847 sea serpents were spotted all along the North American coast of the Atlantic. There was a significant cluster of sightings in the Gloucester, Massachusetts area in the summer of 1817. It seems that almost everyone who got near the water saw a sea serpent that summer. The Gloucester sightings slowed after that summer but continued until 1819 and beyond. Most descriptions corresponded more or less with those related by Bishop Pontoppidan in Norway except that a method of locomotion was included. The serpent was said to undulate in an up-and-down motion, like a caterpillar, rather than in a side-to-side motion like all known snakes or like an eel or other fish. Similar monsters were reported off the coast of Maine and Nova Scotia. Virtually all of these places fall within areas where dead and dying squid have been found. In fact, the coastline and islands of eastern Canada, have so many squid strandings that bills advertising a reward for giant squid are posted by the biology department of Memorial University of Newfoundland.
Sea serpent sightings continued through the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century as well. In September of 1946, in the Vike Bay region of Norway, sea serpent sightings had been reported by locals for weeks. A large head and the tell-tale coils again appeared in the accounts. Then, tellingly, a giant squid carcass was discovered on shore by Bjorn Myklebust, a teacher at the Technical College of Fisheries at Aukra. The animal measured 30 feet overall with tentacles of 23.5 feet in length.
But if the giant squid is the real animal behind the legends of such monsters as sea serpents in Norway and along North America's Atlantic shore, what about elsewhere, places where the giant squid does not usually turn up? It must be admitted that the descriptions of the sea serpent vary widely enough around the world that it is unlikely that the giant squid could be the explanation for all of the sightings. Certainly other animals, perhaps even some still unknown to science,(14) are partly responsible for the sea serpent legends. For example, a 16 foot long creature was found washed up on the beach at Bermuda in 1860. In addition to being long and thin it also had a bright red crest running down its back much like Virgil's account of Laocoon's sea serpents in the Aeneid. But this creature has been identified as a specimen of the oar-fish or ribbon-fish. Known to reach a length of 22 feet and reputed to grow to 50 feet, the oar-fish would make a very good prime suspect in at least some of the other sea serpent sightings. Another plausible sea serpent may be mistakenly seen when a basking shark is observed feeding near the surface of the water. In addition, collected samples from other alleged sea serpents and sea monsters, which were found dead on beaches, have turned out to belong to badly decomposed basking shark corpses. The most famous case was the Stronsa beast, which washed ashore on the Shetland Island known as Stronsa at the time of the event in 1808. The basking shark seems to rot from the gills first, leaving behind what appears to be a small head and slender neck. Although the carcass seemed to be of a 55-foot long sea monster with long, thin neck and slim body, the remaining preserved tissue samples are certainly basking shark vertebrae. Another similar case occurred near Eastport, Maine in 1868; this time the creature was only 30 feet long.
Unfortunately, whenever tales of unknown creatures are told and physical evidence is presented, there is always the possibility of the hoax. Just such a hoax was perpetrated on the American public in 1845 when Albert Koch, a German collector of animal oddities, displayed a fossil skeleton of what he called Hydrarchos sillimani.(15) He claimed to have found the articulated(16) and complete skeleton in Clarksville, Alabama. But when real experts examined the skeleton, the fact that it was comprised of no less than five fossil whales soon came to light. Koch quickly took his prize on a European tour, but it was soon uncovered as a hoax there as well.
Phineas Taylor Barnum, however, was the king of the animal oddity, whether natural or artificial, and in 1842 the greatest of these, the so-called Feejee mermaid, came into his collection. Barnum then began one of the greatest publicity campaigns ever conceived. Starting with Montgomery, Alabama, Barnum ran stories in the newspapers of cities closer and closer to New York about a Dr. Griffin, of the London Lyceum of Natural History, who had made a great discovery. As stories appeared in closer cities, more details were revealed. Then in New York newspapers Barnum complained that he had tried to purchase the mermaid for his American Museum on Broadway but had failed. Then Barnum rented a hall across from his museum and advertised that Dr. Griffin was displaying the creature there for one week only. During the week, thousands filed past, and after the week was up, the Feejee mermaid moved across the street to become part of P. T. Barnum's permanent collection, and the crowds continued to come. The specimen was an obvious Jenny Haniver; that is, it was manufactured from bits of other animals. It apparently had a monkey's head and upper body which was attached to a fish tail, then the whole thing had been dried to preserve it. In his autobiography, Barnum described the thing as an "ugly, dried-up, black-looking specimen about three feet long...that looked like it had died in great agony." A third hoax was believed by some for years and years to be true.
This hoax involves the famous kelpie(17) or water horse of Loch Ness. "Nessie," as the monster of Loch Ness is called, was first described in an account about the sixth-century holy man, St. Columba. Columba had witnessed the burial of someone supposedly killed by the monster, but then sent a companion swimming to fetch him a boat. According to the record:
"...the beast, not so much satiated by what had gone before [the attack on the first man] as whetted for prey, was lurking at the bottom of the river. Feeling the water above it disturbed by the swimming, and suddenly coming up to the surface, it rushed with great roaring and with a wide open mouth at the man swimming in the middle of the stream-bed."
As the man swam, St. Colomba could see the great beast; he blessed the stream with the sign of the cross and said, "think not to go further, touch not that man." With that, the monster fled. The area around Loch Ness remained fairly quiet, sightings of the monster being only irregular events, after that blessing through the beginning of the twentieth century. Then, sightings began to increase.
As the story became newsworthy, a British newspaper, the Daily Mail, sponsored an expedition to the Loch, headed by "Duke" Wetherell, a big game hunter. At once, Wetherell claimed to have physical evidence of the monster; the evidence consisted of a very clear footprint. The newspaper sent for experts who, much to Wetherell's annoyance, immediately identified the print as that of a desiccated hippo's foot, much like those which are turned into trophy umbrella stands by big game hunters. The expedition was pulled; the clumsy hoax and its author were ridiculed in most British papers, and Wetherell's reputation was ruined. For almost 60 years, that was the end of the story. But before his death in 1993, Wetherell's step son, Christian Spurling, added to it. It seems that in 1934, Wetherell conspired with his step son and others to fake a picture of the monster. Spurling actually made the monster out of plastic and molded it to the top of a toy submarine which had a lead keel to keep it upright in the water. A photograph was taken, but the toy monster was ground down into the mud when they thought someone was coming. Wetherell next passed the photographic plate on to a respected London surgeon named Wilson, who apparently enjoyed practical jokes. Wilson took the plate to be developed in Inverness, claiming to have taken the picture himself. The picture appeared in newspapers around the world, and Wetherell had his revenge. This was the famous "surgeon's photograph" which is the head and neck shot that practically everyone has seen reproduced. This single picture placed Nessie firmly in the world's imagination in the 1930's, and she remains there to this day. Today, dozens of photographs and films exist which allegedly record monster sightings. Official scientific theories used to explain Nessie range from wave and wake patterns to clumps of floating vegetation or debris to stray harbor seals. Although one has described Nessie as a giant orm, looking like a huge dark-colored slug, many more pro-Nessie monster hunters are holding out for some "escapee" from extinction such as the plesiosaur, a long-necked and paddle-limbed marine reptile, which is thought to have died out with the other giant reptiles at the end of the Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago.
It is interesting to note that monstrous reptiles fascinate people, and it is not just the wonderful fossil finds of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that have caused this. Reptiles have been cosmic symbols of good or evil throughout human myth. In China and the Far East the ancient and benevolent turtle bears the weight of the world on its back; without it, the earth would sink into the vast waters of nothingness. Likewise, the Chinese dragon is a symbol of courage, greatness, and good fortune. On the other hand, Near Eastern and Western attitudes are quite different from those of the Far East. The serpent of the Garden of Eden is an evil trickster, bent on the ruination of mankind. In an Indian myth, the serpent continued to destroy the men that God formed from clay until God made the dog to guard them. But the most evil reptile of all is the European version of the dragon; this monster became so closely associated with the devil himself that the word draco or dragon became a synonym for devil. At first glance, the Western dragon seems to be a purely mythical beast without any natural foundation. Yet it is known that the Chinese had been harvesting what they called dragon bones from the ground since antiquity in order to make potions and cures from them. These so-called dragon bones are now assumed to have been the fossilized bones of dinosaurs and other creatures. The fossils would serve as a concrete foundation for the Chinese myths, but what about the Western dragon? It is now known that there existed a Eurasian trading network which was vastly more extensive than ever imagined. This network was in operation at least as far back as Roman times. Could the dragon myths, perhaps even samples of the physical evidence, have traveled the network as well? Or for that matter, there are rich fossil beds to be found in Europe too; could it be that some of these were discovered and Europeans drew their own conclusions?
Ley traces the dragon in some detail. According to his work, the current idea of the dragon as a large, winged lizard which was able to breathe fire originated in Northern Europe in about 1500 A.D. A large skull had been discovered locally in about 1470, and this skull served as a model for a statue called the Dragon Monument of Klagenfurt, Austria. The statue depicts a giant slaying a winged lizard-like dragon with a club. After the statue was completed, the skull was preserved in the town hall. The skull remained there until after World War I, and was identified as that of an extinct European rhinoceros at that time. A second myth may have served as a source for the Klagenfurt legend, but it, in turn, borrowed heavily from classical myth. This legend is called the Foundation of the Monastery of Wilten. Near Wilten is found a source of natural bitumen or tar which can be used to treat various skin conditions. It is locally called "giant's blood", but given the story, "dragon's blood" would be more appropriate. According to the tale, a brave giant named Heymo came upon a miraculous orchard which bore golden fruit and was surrounded by a wall of silver. Guarding the orchard was a fierce dragon which Heymo killed at once. As a thanksgiving offering to God, Heymo used part of his new wealth to found the monastery at Wilten. In 1250 it was claimed that the skeleton of the giant rested within the monastery, but when the skeleton later disappeared, the prior had a statue of Heymo made to take its place. 200 years later the monks produced another relic of the battle: the tongue of the monster encased in a silver shrine. The shrine was melted down in 1734, and within it was found the bill or rostrum of a normal Mediterranean swordfish.
Writing in the 1500's, Konrad Gesner produced his Historia Animalium. By the time he got to the fifth volume, however, he had done only a preliminary survey of the materials to be included when he died. The half-finished work, along with the author's notes on the subject were edited by another hand and published as Doctor Konrad Gesner's Snake-book. This book begins with an analysis of the word draco which comes from the Greek term for "seeing with keen eyes." According to Gesner, the term was used exclusively to denote large snakes by the Greek writers. Gesner's notes also included material about the German label for dragons, Lindwurm; this, he points out, comes from the ancient German word Lint which also meant snake. Even the classical Latin use of the word draco by Pliny referred to the Indian python. Gesner's notes, unfortunately, did not reveal his ideas on how scholarly agreement among the ancients that draco was a large snake shifted so radically to the opinions of his own time, When draco had become a two or four-legged and winged monster.
Perhaps the artistic whim of the sculptor of the Klagenfurt monument is partially responsible for the shift; after all, any description of the monument would have been accompanied by the account that it was based on actual remains. There is, however, another possibility; by at least the time of Gesner, certain dried specimens of "baby dragons" were being exhibited in such large cities as Paris. These specimens seem to have been the dried and sometimes modified bodies of the gliding lizards of Java. The species is now commonly called the flying dragon but grows to only about four inches in length. In the 1700's, Linnaeus named it Draco volans in memory of its mythical connections, and this tiny lizard jumps from tree to tree using skin supported by false ribs on its side as a sort of parachute, interpreted in the dried specimens as dragon's wings.
An author named Athanasius Kircher, whose book appeared in 1678, included an illustration of the Draco volans in his work, but the illustration was alleged to depict the famous Rhodes dragon which was said to have been slain by Deodatus of Gozen in 1345. A skeleton was found in a nearby cave which supposedly proved the legend was true. As we have seen, however, fossils were often misinterpreted at the time. Kircher was famous for his theory of where dragons come from. According to his theory, the Earth is honeycombed with caves which house countless monsters, including dragons; Those which are seen by men are merely out-of-place wanderers.(18)
Where wings would seem more fitting, they are lacking. The wingless Chinese dragon is, without doubt, a creature of the heavens who plays benevolently among the clouds. He is depicted as twisting and winding his way through the sky, chasing a great flaming pearl, like a kitten gamboling with a ball of string. By artistic convention, only the dragon which serves as the Chinese imperial emblem has five claws on its paws; all others in Chinese iconography have but three or four. The dragon was an object of veneration and artistic excellence in China, rather than the object of fear and loathing it had become in Europe. There are even Chinese myths about artists who so realistically depicted these sacred creatures that they dared not paint pupils into their eyes for fear that the great beings would fly off of the building on which they were being painted.
According to Ley, the principal biological model for the mythical dragon is the venomous snake. With its deadly bite, it can harm out of all proportion to the wounds it produces. It is a mysterious agent of death to even the strongest and bravest, and it is the object of fear, awe, and cultic practice in many cultures around the world. As the resulting myths and legends were exchanged and spread, the snake grew to truly mythic dimensions as the dragon; biological specimens, such as fossils and dried lizards, only served to add to the mystique.
The famous American paleontologist John Horner, in his work Dinosaur Lives, presents evidence of the influence of fossils on the myths of pre-Cuvier(19) man. According to Horner, back before the modern notion of natural history was invented, fossils were interpreted as the bones of animals which still existed. Hence, the fossils of prehistoric creatures were thought to be the skeletons of much more recently killed animals and were used as indisputable proof of the existence of such creatures as dragons. Horner presents a specific example by outlining the research of classical folklorist, Adrienne Mayor. Mayor traced the legend of the griffin back through Greek mythological material(20) and from thence to Central Asia. The ultimate source seems to have been seventh century B.C. stories about Altai Mountain creatures who guarded secret caches of gold there. These creatures were represented as being part mammal and part bird of prey. Griffins were thought of as winged quadrupeds with sharply hooked beaks like those of eagles, single horns arising from the top rear of their heads. As Mayor dug further, it was discovered that the Altai Mountain region was a very productive source of gold in Central Asia and that it bordered the Gobi Desert where the American paleontologist, Roy Chapman Andrews, mounted a great expedition in 1922. One of the fossil creatures discovered on this expedition was Protoceratops, a small dinosaur. This dinosaur's fossils are fairly common (Andrews excavated about 100 specimens in a short time) and easy to find since the white fossils stand out against the red desert rock matrix from which they are weathering. Specimens can often be easily seen by casual passers by. Protoceratops fossils show an animal that had a prominent, curved beak as well as large shoulder blades which could look like wing anchors to those unfamiliar with basic skeletal anatomy. In addition, the bony structure which supported a fringe at the back of the creature's skull is often broken in such a way as to appear to be a horn.
Horner points out that the notion of extinction did not exist 2700 years ago and that fossils would have been automatically assumed to represent living animals. This view persisted into the 1600's when a few European naturalists speculated about extinction because living specimens were not discovered to match all the fossils that had been found even then. The modern idea of the extinction of species developed gradually until the middle of the next century when it became accepted by mainstream science. Today science realizes that most of the species which have ever existed since the beginning of life on Earth are now extinct, although this was not always understood.
The Asian continent is the source for many interesting myths which depict what one might be tempted to call "combination" creatures. One of the most intriguing is the Babylonian sirrush which is depicted on the Ishtar Gate along with the re'em(21) and the Asiatic lion. The sirrush appears to have a long reptilian head and neck and body and tail, feline front legs and feet, and avian talons at the rear; it also sported a single sword-like horn on its forehead. Since the re'em has been virtually proven to depict a real animal, the aurochs, cryptozoologists like Ley and Heuvelmans have wondered out loud about the sirrush as well. Heuvelmans points out that if one were to describe a large unknown reptile with horn, long neck, and powerful feet to an artist who had never seen such a creature, one would end up with something very much like the sirrush image. Both Ley and Heuvelmans have the same mythical creature in mind when it comes to a candidate for a "flesh and blood" model for the sirrush. Heuvelmans refers to it as the Congo or African "dragon."(22) According to this theory, the Ishtar Gate image is the artistic interpretation of a "traveler's tale" version of a real animal from Africa, the animal serving as the source for various tribal myths and legends. The native names for the legendary beast vary by location. It is known as mokele-mbembe or badigui north of the Congo basin and as isiquaqumadevu or chipekwe and nsanga to the south. Native descriptions include a long neck, large size, and aquatic lifestyle for this strange creature. A composite picture, which takes various accounts into consideration, also includes a long tail, a triangular and snake-like head with a small horn, a body a little larger than that of a hippopotamus, sprawling lizard legs, and a smooth brownish-gray skin that has a large dark pattern to it. This animal oddity is said to live in large holes in the bank but to emerge from the water to graze on vegetation. According to the locals, it kills other large animals that it comes in contact with, such as the hippos which would be its competitors for forage; its territorial behavior has allegedly caused it to attack canoes full of men as well.
After examining such possibilities as giant catfish, short-nosed crocodiles, water elephants, and even giant monitor lizards to explain the enigmatic legends, Heuvelmans' discussion turns toward the possible survival of a dinosaur species in Africa. He seems to lean toward one of the ornithopod (bird-footed) dinosaurs, a group which included the genus Iguanodon and the duck-billed dinosaurs, based on the assumption that the real animal behind the legend is that depicted on the Ishtar Gate and that the depiction is somewhat accurate as to the detail of the rear legs. Heuvelmans, therefore, uses the Ishtar Gate as a sort of second-hand physical evidence for the Congo "dragon" in identifying it as an ornithopod. Still, he allows, the sauropod (lizard-footed) dinosaurs like the genus Brontosaurus (more properly called Apatosaurus) are also possible identities for it if the Ishtar Gate's bird-footed depiction is inaccurate.
Another mythical creature whose existence was supported by "physical evidence" was the notorious basilisk (see Ley, pp. 42-45). The basilisk was claimed to be the king of serpents, a little monster which was poisonous to the eye and to the lung. The mere sight of the basilisk was so horrible that it was said to render any on-locker powerless; the fumes which escaped from its mouth were claimed to be deadly by the scholars of the Middle Ages. At first, the basilisk was depicted as a crowned serpent, but after the events of 1202 A.D. in Vienna, he took on a truly horrible shape indeed.(23) At the time in question, there lived a terrible man, a baker, who was angry at life. He had a beautiful daughter who fell in love with his apprentice. When the baker found out, he sent away the unfortunate apprentice sarcastically saying, "When that cock," indicating a particularly old and scrawny bird, "lays an egg, you may return and marry my daughter!" Needless to say, the young couple was devastated, and the apprentice's prospects were lowered considerably. A new well had just been dug near the baker's shop, and when the baker's maid went to fetch water, she found a vile odor coming from the well and saw a shining object within. The baker ordered his new apprentice into the well to see what was wrong, but the boy was soon unconscious. The neighbors managed to hoist the boy out of the well. The mayor of Vienna and some troops now showed up, but they were unable to do anything about the situation. When a scholar came near to see what all the fuss was about, he was questioned by the mayor. The scholar's opinion was that the overwhelming odor must be caused by a basilisk,(24) which could only be killed by forcing it to look at its own reflection. This remedy was instantly acclaimed as the only reasonable course by the crowd. The baker's first apprentice, eager to show himself worthy of the baker's daughter, got a mirror and descended into the well. When he returned from the well's darkness, he bore a stone shape which looked like a sloppy carving of a cock; presumably, this stone shape was thought to be the effect of the basilisk seeing its own form in the mirror. The lad's bravery was immediately rewarded by the baker's blessing of the marriage of his daughter to this former apprentice. The well was soon filled in, due to the lingering toxic breath.
For centuries the stone shape was preserved, and a plaque recounting the tale appeared fastened to the baker's shop, but the structure was eventually torn down and the plaque lost. Modern philologists were amazed to find that the story did indeed date back to the thirteenth century with almost no changes. The stone shape survived to the beginning of this century and was found to be a natural sandstone formation with only slight artistic modifications. The plaque, stone, and accompanying story did much to keep the legend of the basilisk alive throughout Europe. As far as natural explanations are concerned, it seems that Vienna is known for the tell-tale scent of rotten eggs in its ground water, indicating the presence of hydrogen-sulfur compounds. This could account for the toxic (or at least extremely unpleasant) fumes from the newly dug well, which must have had an extra large concertration of the compounds.
Although the basilisk is, strictly speaking, neither "fish nor fowl," it does provide a somewhat smooth transition into the avian realm. In that realm there are interesting myths which come to us from many cultures. Many of these myths share common themes. And just as there is a certain amount of prejudice against those reptiles that drag themselves along the dusty ground, there is a corresponding bias in favor of the birds which soar through the heavens on gentile breezes. Keeping this in mind, the first common theme is that of the giant flying birds. Perhaps the most famous of these is the roc or rukh of The Arabian Nights fame. According to the story, the roc was large enough to carry off an entire ship with its crew.(25) Sinbad the Sailor reached a mysterious Indian Ocean island in this tale from the fifteenth century A.D. On the island, Sinbad saw what he took to be a large white dome, but when he got closer, he realized that the dome was actually an enormous egg. Sinbad concluded that any chick hatched from such an egg would have to be fed upon elephants by its mother. In order to escape the island, Sinbad hid under the egg and waited for the roc to return. When it did, he lashed himself to the great bird's leg and was carried away.(26) The natives of the place were in the habit of throwing the carcasses of slaughtered animals into a steep ravine which contained both vast numbers of uncut diamonds as well as swarms of deadly serpents. The diamonds stuck to the carcasses which the roc brought back to its nest to consume. The natives were then able to collect the diamonds from the nest when the roc flew off once more. Although some details differ, the roc legend is quite similar to a sixth-century A.D. Chinese myth, a tale told by a bishop on Cypress two centuries before that, and one told by Lucian, a Greek satirist, two centuries earlier still.
All of these Eurasian tales of enormous flying birds seem to have a common ancient source. This source may have been a sacred myth about the bird-steed of the divine Vishnu of Indian Hinduism. This illustrates how an originally religious story may be taken over by other cultures for its entertainment value alone. This mythical bird of ancient India was called the garuda.(27) In Cambodia's venerable and formerly jungle-choked Angkor Wat temple complex, a stone image of the garuda stands guard beside a gateway; it holds the tails of cobras in its hooked beak and stands menacingly over the stone shape of a man. According to the various Asian stories, the garuda (or his descendants in legend) is the mighty king of birds, the storm-bringer, the flyer whose wings can eclipse the sun, and the cause of the wind. The garuda myth also seems to be related to a legend from the Jatakas of India, a third-century B.C. collection of folklore. Here an enormous bird with shape-shifting ability makes its nest on an Indian Ocean island, just like the roc. What may be significant here is that the largest of the Indian Ocean islands, Madagascar, was home to gigantic birds. According to Alan Feduccia (see pp. 122-123), radiocarbon dating of eggshells show that the birds were widespread on the island as late as the tenth century A.D., and European visitors claimed that natives occasionally encountered the birds into the mid 1800's. There is, however, one stumbling block in the way of identifying the giant bird of Madagascar with the garuda or the roc: the giant bird of Madagascar was flightless. It had a basically ostrich-like shape and stance, but it was much stouter. While the ostrich stands about eight feet tall and weighs 300 pounds, the Aepyornis maximus or great elephant bird stood about ten feet tall and weighed in at something like 1000 pounds. A striking feature of the bird was its elephantine legs and broad, thick feet. Despite the elephant bird's flightlessness and mere half-ton bulk, I feel there is ample evidence to link it to the roc legend, and possibly to the older myths.
In a Genoese prison in 1295 A.D., a Pisan prisoner named Rustigielo recorded the recollections of a Venetian named Marco Polo. The resulting book, called The Travels of Marco Polo, gives the following account in chapter 36 of the second book:
"The people of the island (Madagascar) report that at a certain season of the year, an extraordinary kind of bird, which they call a ruhk, makes its appearance from the southern region. In form it is said to resemble the eagle, but it is incomparably greater in size; being so large and strong as to seize an elephant with its talons, and to lift it into the air, from whence it lets it fall to the ground, in order that when dead it may prey upon the carcass. Persons who have seen this bird assert that when the wings are spread they measure sixteen paces in extent, from point to point; and that the feathers are eight paces in length, and thick in proportion. (...) The grand khan having heard this extraordinary relation, sent messengers to the island, on the pretext of demanding the release of one of his servants who had been detained there, but in reality to examine the circumstances of the country, and the truth of the wonderful things told of it. When they returned to the presence of his majesty, they brought with them a feather of the ruhk."
Modern analysis of this story has shown that the so-called feather was probably a frond from a palm of the genus Raphia, another native of Madagascar. To me it seems likely that the presence of both elephant bird and Raphia "feather" on the same island did, indeed, influence the mythical literature of southern Asia in combination. After all, if a traveler's tale tells of a giant bird, it seems natural for listeners to assign the power of flight to it, a power which seems almost a sine qua non to our avian psychological imagery. The Raphia would serve as a secondary source for the tale of the flighted giant, a sort of frosting on the cake, because of its simple similarity to a giant feather.
In North America many native tribes had myths about a gigantic bird as well. This god-like being was known as the thunderbird. The belief was widespread, and tribes from Mexico to Hudson's Bay spoke of a bird which shot lightning from its eyes and caused thunder with the rustling of its vast wings. In one version of the story, the bird was so immense that it carried a lake on its back. Whenever the thunderbird flew, he spilled water from this lake and caused the great downpours of the thunderstorms. Among the natives of the Pacific Northwest, the thunderbird was thought of as the mighty creator of the world. Here, when the salmon run was small, the natives prayed to the thunderbird who was said to carry off the natives' main competitor for the fish, the killer whale. In Northwest native art, the thunderbird is depicted as a huge bird of prey. As a probably unrelated parallel to the North American thunderbird, the thunder was associated with birds in Asia as well: in China it was the springtime call of the pheasant cock and his drumming wings which brought the thunderstorm, and in northern Asia the thunder was depicted in art as a swan.
Also in the Pacific Northwest, raven, the trickster, played a major role in myth. He coaxed the first people out of the primordial clam shell and onto the beach to experience the new-made world, and, as a result of his cunning, he hung the sun and moon in the sky for everyone to enjoy. In European myth, the raven was also an important character. For the Norsemen, two ravens spied on the world and reported the day's events to Odin each night. To this day, an English legend claims that when the ravens leave the Tower of London, the White Tower will colapse as will the monarchy; a small flock of these birds is, therefore, nurtured at the Tower, fed at the public expense as were the fowls of ancient Rome.(28)
Perhaps due to the automatic sense of mystery and shadowiness associated with nocturnal creatures of all sorts, the bird of night, the owl, holds a place of honor among birds about which myths and superstitions revolve. The owl is thought to be, alternately, wise sage and learned fool, magic persecutor and blinking, sun-blind victim. The feats and characteristics of the owl are legendary in many cultures from around the world.
In Italy, the word for owl, barbagianno, is used to denote a comically dull-witted person, on the other hand, an owl calling on one's rooftop can cause panic and the fear of an immanent death in the family. In many other cultures the owl is associated with death as well. According to Sierra tribes of Native Americans in California, the great horned owl was thought to accompany the souls of the dead to the next world.(29) The owl often stands in the place of the souls themselves in both Europe and America, and seeing an owl after a death is often thought of as a communication that all is well from beyond the grave. Sometimes, however, seeing the soul-owl means that the person's death needs to be avenged, as in the case of the beliefs of the Arab world. Because of their association with the dead, owls are often sacred to a culture's god of death; this is the case with Yama, the Indian god, who uses both the owl and the pigeon as his messengers. In West Africa, and elsewhere, the owl is linked to sorcery and witchcraft. In some myths the owl is helpful to mankind as well. According to a legend of the Achomawi people of northern California, all the fires had gone out due to a great flood. The owl flew to the highest point of Mount Shasta to see if he could see smoke in any direction. He was gone for what seemed ages to the cold and wet people who waited for news. When he finally returned, the owl brought the news that he had seen men in the west who had a fire lit in a sweathouse where they purified themselves after the ordeal of the flood. The next day, all of the men and women of the tribe assembled with pieces of cedar bark in their hands and went in search of the sweathouse. The people used the bark to bring fire back to their hearths.
In ancient Greece, the owl was the sacred bird of Athena and the emblem of good fortune in battle for the soldiers who honored her. Despite the respect that most people showed to the owl in ancient Greece because of the divine association, a slave who is known by the name Aesop(30) told an amusing tale at the owl's expense. It seems that a self-important owl had made his home in the ruins of a temple precinct, and had pored so often over moldy manuscripts and scrolls, the unintelligible relics and scraps of a sacred library, that he fancied himself to be a deserving member of the highest priestly order of learning and wisdom. As he sat upon his sacred perch, lost in lofty thought, he was interrupted by the melodious song of a nearby nightingale. The owl immediately screeched for the singer to stop. He yelled, "Be gone and disturb me no further with your song; for harmony and truth lie in study and not in singing." At this the nightingale replied, "Your wisdom lies in your muffled, feathered face alone and not within; music is a natural and rational thing, relished by the truly wise."
A number of ancient avian myths were later "baptized" by Christian Europe. A noteworthy example is the legend of the phoenix. The myth seems to have originated with the bird referred to by the ancient Egyptian word bennu. The bennu was an actual wading bird of the Nile which was intimately tied to the great river's annual flood cycle, a symbol of rebirth and renewal. Eventually the wading bird became the phoenix, and the river's life-giving symbolism was adapted to fit the new creation. From there the myth grew to include a marvelous regeneration story: the phoenix was said to build a spice-laden nest and then die; the result was the birth of a new phoenix who then burned its parent on the altar of the sun. A Greek collection of beast tales, called the Physiologus, contained a version of the phoenix story. Copies of the Physiologus were eventually owned by most monasteries and were often used by preachers to find examples of natural parallels to theological truths. The resulting Christianized version of the story held that the bird came to Egypt from Asia and landed on a spice-covered altar. Here the bird immolated itself. After three days, a new phoenix had grown out of the ashes and flew away, making an unmistakable parallel to Christ's Resurrection.
Next, there was the legend of the kladrius or the caladrius, the bird of sickness and cures. It was thought that a sick man who was strong enough to recover was strong enough to return the gaze of the caladrius from his sick bed. If the man looked into the eyes of the bird, the bird would take on the man's illness, fly with it to the sun, and disperse it harmlessly into the heavens. Here the caladrius, which takes on the physical illness of mankind, probably represents Christ who takes on our spiritual ills. The natural model on which the mythical caladrius is based is probably one of the carrion birds like ravens, vultures, or kites, which are attracted to sickness and death.
Yet another example of a Christianized bird myth is the pelican which was usually depicted in Christian art as "in her piety," that is, as tending her chicks. Other than the fact that this mythical bird is more recently portrayed as looking somewhat like the bird, "whose beak can hold more than its belly can," it has nothing in common with the bird now known as the pelican. The ancient mythical pelican was probably based on the actual vulture who feeds its young on bloody scraps. These scraps were misidentified by the ancients as blood from the vulture's own body. This gave rise to an interesting myth which was later sanitized to be more in line with Christian theology. Originally, the ancient myth asserted that the pelican killed its own young, then, feeling compassion for them, tore open its own side to dribble life-giving blood on the corpses; the young were thus revived.(31) In later "corrected" versions of the story, the chicks were killed by a serpent and brought to life with the pelican's saving blood. Here the chicks represent mankind, and the pelican is Christ Himself, sharing His own life-blood with the Church, an allusion to the Eucharist.
Another interesting set of animal myths originated in Asia. The first of these we have already seen. The unicornum verum which provided terrestrial alicorn was probably the mammoth.(32) The corpses of these huge creatures were occassionally found thawing out of the icy ground of northern Asia, and these provided tusks for the world's pharmacies. Although, according to the story, the tusks allegedly came from unicorns in unknown lands, the local Asiatic tribesmen had their own explanations. They held that the ivory tusks came from two sources which they didn't bother to clearly distinguish. One source was appearently the walrus, and the other was a mysterious creature which they believed lived its life completely underground, like an enormous mole. They held that this second creature died if it was ever hit by the rays of the sun. After all, they reasoned, whenever they encountered the beast it was partially uncovered from the soil and was certainly dead. The tribesmen called their giant tusked mole xolhut or mammut.(33) Although the trade-minded tribesmen were not averse to collecting a stray tusk or two, their superstition held that to find a whole speciman of the creature meant death to the discoverer and his whole family. Needless to say, this discouraged the tribesmen from examining the mammut carcasses too carefully. Any found tusks were traded to the outside world, and stories of the huge mole made their way to Russia in the west and to China in the east.(34) Through the Russian connection, Western scientists traced the tusks back to their source and identified the mammoth as identical to the Elephas primigenius, a wooly cousin of the modern Indian elephant, which was named by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, using European fossil material in 1799. Blumenbach also traveled around Europe examing various collections of "giants' bones" housed in churches, castles, and town halls; these he realized were all mammoth bones as well.
Because the Siberian mammoth seems to have survived until quite recently, and scientists are having difficulty in putting their fingers on what exactly caused the beast's final extinction, there are those who insist that a few remaining bands of these creatures may still exist in the vastness of Asia. Heuvelmans points out that contrary to the frozen tundra where most dead mammoths have been found, living mammoths may be happily hidden in the vastness of the taiga, huge tracts of conifer and birch forest where such browsers would find plenty of feed and shelter. The taiga is the largest forest in the world, covering over 7 million kilometers, more than enough space to hide a mammoth or two. Heuvelmans even goes so far as to report the following account, told by a hunter to whom the events allegedly happened in 1918:
"The second year that I was exploring the taiga, I was very much struck to notice tracks of a huge animal, I say huge tracks, for they were a long way larger than any of those I had often seen of animals I knew well. It was autumn. There had been a few big snow storms, followed by heavy rain. It wasn't freezing yet, the snow had melted, and there were thick layers of mud in the clearings. It was in one of these clearings, partly taken up by a lake, that I was staggered to see a huge footprint pressed deep into the mud. It must have been about 70 cm across the widest part and about 50 cm the other way, that's to say the spoor wasn't round but oval. There were four tracks, the tracks of four feet, the first two about 4 m from the second pair, which were a little bigger in size. Then the track suddenly turned east and went into the forest of middling-sized elms. Where it went in I saw a huge heap of dung; I had a good look at it and saw it was made up of vegetable matter.
Some 10 feet up, just where the animal had gone into the forest, I saw a sort of row of broken branches, made, I don't doubt, by the monster's enormous head as it forced its way into the place where it had decided to go, regardless of what was in its path.
I followed the track for days and days. Sometimes I could see where the animal had stopped in some grassy clearing and then had gone on forever eastward.
Then, one day, I saw another track, almost exactly the same. It came from the north and crossed the first one. It looked to me from the way they had trampled about all over the place for several hundred m as if they had been excited or upset at their meeting. Then the two animals set out marching eastwards, one following some twenty m behind the other, both tracks mingling and ploughing up the earth together.
I followed them for days and days thinking that perhaps I should never see them, and also a bit afraid, for indeed I didn't feel I was big enough to face such beasts alone.
One afternoon it was clear enough from the tracks that the animals weren't far off. The wind was in my face which was good for approaching them without them knowing I was there. All of a sudden I saw one of the animals quite clearly, and now I must admit I really was afraid. It had stopped among some young saplings. It was a huge elephant with big white tusks, very curved; it was a dark chestnut colour as far as I could see. It had fairly long hair on the hind-quarters, but it seemed shorter on the front. I must say I had no idea that there were such big elephants. It had huge legs and moved very slowly. I've only seen elephants in pictures, but I must say that even from this distance (we were some 300 m apart) I could never have believed that any beast could be so big. The second beast was around, I saw it only a few times among the trees: it seemed to be the same size."(35)
This story was recorded by M. L. Gallon, the man in charge of the French Consulate in Vladivostok during the year 1920. Gallon claimed that the hunter did not understand what he meant when he referred to the beast as a mammoth, but the hunter simply maintained that it was similar to pictures of elephants he had seen. Although Gallon shared the story with friends when he returned to France later that year, he was not persuaded to publish the account until 1946.
The forests around the Gulf of Ob, where sightings of live mammoths have been reported several times, have become a haystack where the mammoth needle is being sought. Experts from the former Soviet Union have begun looking for mammoth remains in forested areas instead of the more traditional areas where mammoth finds have been made. There seems to be a new enthusiasm for the possibility that this beast was a forest dweller which only occasionally ventured into the great natural pastures of the tundra to graze on flowers; the tribesmen's more northerly finds were due to the fact that Asia was once warmer, and its forests reached farther to the north.
In the 1580's the Stroganoff family, members of which owned salt mines in Siberia, sent a band of Cossacks to hunt down a group of bandits who had been stealing from the mines' supplies. The leader of the expedition, Yermak Timofeyevitch, reported that beyond the Ural Mountains he met a "large, hairy elephant." The natives told him that the Kingdom of Sibir considered the giant animals a part of its wealth; they were valued as food and called "mountains of meat."
It seems interesting that European mammoth skeletons had been misidentified as human giants, a fact discovered by Blumenbach at the turn of the nineteenth century. This should not be attributed to the exceptional gullibility of Europeans before 1800, but to a desire to logically explain the fossils they had. After all, some modern people believe in giant, hairy men who roam around Asian mountain tops or American forests with much less hard physical evidence.
(1) See Ley, pp. 13-27.
(2) The material on Ctesias is drawn from Shepard, pp. 26-28.
(3) This may be a Greek corruption of the Sanskrit word kartajan which means "lord of the wilderness," according to Ley.
(4) These were said to come from two different creatures, unicornum verum (true unicorn) and unicornum falsum (false unicorn).
(5) The word knight descends from the Old English word cniht which meant a young male servant. In Romance languages, however, the knight is referred to by a label which comes from the Latin term caballarius or horseman, as do the English terms cavalier and chivalry.
(6) The material on heraldry is drawn from Shepard, pp. 73-75.
(7) The main source for the entire section on sea and lake monsters is Ellis.
(8) The terms used in various legends and accounts, such as: polyp, poulpe, teuthos, giant octopus, and giant squid all seem to apply to a single creature.
(9) The sixty-foot long members of the genus Architeuthis have ten arms, two of which are much longer and structured differently; they have an extremely wide range of color and express their mood through color as do other members of the cephalopod group; they are said to exude a pungent ammonia smell which would certainly be noticed by dog and man alike. These gigantic squid are usually deep water dwellers which are routinely hunted by the great sperm whales, and it was through tales told by whalers, in part, that the evidence for a real animal mounted.
(10) Although in 1735 the famed inventor of the modern scientific classification system, Linnaeus, included a huge cephalopod he called Sepia microcosmos in his book Systema Naturae, he dropped it from later editions because of a lack of credible evidence.
(11) A cubit was measured from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, a distance of about seventeen to twenty-two inches. So ten or twelve cubits would be anywhere from fourteen to twenty-two feet long.
(12) Fourteen or fifteen cubits would be about twenty to twenty-eight feet long.
(13) Because of Norway's geographic location, it is one of the sites were dead and dying giant squid periodically drift.
(14) Although it is most likely that the kraken is based on the giant squid due to the frequency with which it is encountered, one phenomenally large carcass washed ashore in Florida during 1896 which was not that of a squid. The St. Augustine Monster was what is sometimes called a "blob" or "globster" by investigators; this one was 21 feet long with an estimated weight of five tons. It appeared to be the decomposing corpse of a gigantic octopus. It had a rounded "head" end as well as the stumps of several limbs. When tissue from the beast, preserved at the Smithsonian, was finally scientifically compared to known tissue samples in 1971, it was judged to be almost identical with that of a common octopus and not like that of a giant squid, dolphin, or whale. Estimates would put a complete specimen of what has been tentatively called Octopus giganteus in the neighborhood of 100 feet in length; such an octopus would have an arm-span of about 150 feet. The largest scientifically documented species of octopus is the Pacific giant, Octopus dofleini, with an arm-span of from eight to thirty feet Needless to say, an absolute, positive scientific identification of the St. Augustine Monster seventy-five or more years after the body washed ashore is next to impossible. See Ellis p.303ff.
(15) This could be translated as Silliman's master of waters. By the way, Silliman was a respected Yale professor whose name was probably used simply to give credibility to the hoax.
(16) The skeleton was claimed to have been found in its natural order as it would be in the whole animal instead of in the jumbled state in which fossils are sometimes found. This claim was designed to give credibility to Koch's reconstruction of the creature.
(17) The kelpie or water horse legend persists in Scotland. These legendary monsters were said to drag the unwary to the bottom of the lochs and rivers in which they lived.
(18) One wonders what purpose wings serve on such cavern dwellers.
(19) That is, before the famous French anatomist Georges Cuvier began his identification of extinct species in the late 1700's based on fossil evidence.
(20) These myths, like so many Greek ideas, were later adopted by the Romans. By the 200's A.D. griffins had become associated with the goddess Nemesis and her wheel of fate (see Armstrong, p. 98). The goddess seems to be a personification of divine retribution for human arrogance. Although the griffin is not reptilian, as are the other creatures in this section of the chapter, its reptile connection will become apparent shortly.
(21) See the unicorn myth above.
(22) Heuvelmans presents a very complete exploration of this "dragon" on pp. 520-581.
(23) It was said that the basilisk was born of a cock's egg which was laid in the "dog days" of summer (the days in which Sirius, the dog star, can be seen). The egg was said to be incubated by a toad. The resulting hatchling had the combined characteristics and shape of the serpent, the cock, and the toad.
(24) Although the legendary basilisk seems to have nothing to do with the tropical lizard now known as the basilisk, Basiliscus basiliscus (also called the Jesus lizard because of its ability to run across the surface of water with its back legs for a short distance), it has a lot in common with the mythical cockatrice; the cockatrice, too, was born of a cock's egg, but this time the egg was said to be brooded by a serpent. This creature is often depicted with the body of a cock which ends in the coils of a serpent. Here again, the mythical creature was thought to have the ability to kill with a look, this time by turning its victim to stone, as well as giving off toxic fumes.
(25) See Armstrong, pp. 50-99, for a rich collection of avian myth.
(26) See the tale of the geruda bird in chapter 7.
(27) There are similar sounding names assigned to various legendary birds of southern Asia. In addition to the Indian garuda, there are the Malaysian gerda and the geruda of Java. These, no doubt, are all corruptions of the same name.
(28) It seems to me that perhaps this is a modern and sanitized interpretation of the legend. Ravens are traditionally thought of as birds of death in Europe; they were always the first scavengers on the scene whenever there was carrion to be had. They were intimately associated with capital punishment because they were always effective collectors of scraps of flesh and gore around any place of execution, including the Tower. A more ominous understanding of the legend would be that when the English monarchy will no longer severely punish traitors and criminals, it will perish itself. Admittedly, this gives quite a different spin to the idea of "feeding the ravens."
(29) For this, and the owl stories which follow, see Weinstein.
(30) The name Aesop is said to be a corruption of the word Ethiop. According to legend, Aesop was African, and he lived in Greece around 2600 years ago, the slave of Iadmon. If the legend is historically accurate, his stories were an outgrowth of the rich African tradition of animal myths and tales, just as some of the slave stories of the southern United States were.
(31) The name pelican comes from the Greek pelekan which is also the name of an ancient form of axe. Supposedly, the bird which is the current holder of the title was named in honor of its large and axe-shaped head and bill. Perhaps the mythical bird was named because it cut itself in such a bloody fashion that it reminded the teller of an axe.
(32) See Ley, pp. 149-172, and Heuvelmans, pp.397-423, for more information on the mammoth.
(33) This second name is sometimes given as maman or mamont and is the source, by way of the Russian language, for the word "mammoth." According to Robert Delort (see p. 16), mammut is related to the Estonian words maa (earth) and mutt (mole).
(34) In Manchurian, the beast was known as tai-shu (northern mole), and in other areas it was variously called fen-shu (northern undergound rat), yen-shu (self-concealing mouse), or shu-mu (the mother of mice). This beast is sometimes given its own genus, Mammuthus.
(35) This story brings up a couple of questions. First, if the hunter followed at a distance where he could not see the animals making the tracks, it would be virtually impossible to judge the distance at which one of them followed the other from the tracks alone. Yet, this is exactly what the story does; the hunter reports that one followed the other at a distance of 20 meters. Heuvelmans suggests a couple of possible solutions to this problem: a) the hunter got caught up in his tale and added some details which don't bear scrutiny, but these don't effect the basic veracity of the account b) Gallon inadvertently added details in his recording of the account. I would like to propose a third possibility; perhaps what was recorded was a misunderstanding of the hunter's observation that the two trails (not the two animals) followed each other at a distance of some 20 meters, that is, that the trails were 20 meters apart.
The second question may be more difficult to explain away. When one reads the account, one is struck by its internal structure; it reads like a well-written piece of fiction. It starts slow, with some marks in the mud, and builds and builds and builds until it reaches a climax, with the terrifying encounter with the enormous beasts. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the story had been retold many times by the hunter during the two years between the events and Gallon's hearing it. More likely, Gallon polished the tale before submitting it for publication. Of course, one must be open to a third possibility: that the story is, indeed, a fictional one.