The Making of ABC, episode 1: Breadcrumbs

As promised, this is going to be the first in a hopefully long-running series of official Wednesday Interludes. Due to popular demand, these will be covering a number of behind-the-scenes topics, including research, bestiary reviews, and my favorite obscure pop-culture monsters.

The first Digression will be a simple one. I have often been asked* “where on Earth do you find these things?” My answer is, inevitably, I follow the breadcrumbs. As any academic will tell you, references are everything, and every claim should be taken with a grain of salt the size of Uluru**. An unreferenced book is practically useless, but as long as there’s one reference, I can follow the trail of literary references back to its estranged home. Often there’s only one ultimate origin from which all the others sprung.

Google Books and Hathitrust have been a godsend in this regard, as has access to a university library*** and fluency in three languages. I have also had a number of wonderful friends and acquaintances (you know who you are) who helped in translating different texts**** where I couldn’t. But, once again, it all involves following the breadcrumb trail to its source, even though some breadcrumbs end up taking on a life of their own.

One good example of this process was brought to me by notable monster hunter Fredrik H., who suggested:

And I wonder if you know something more about … that five-legged Celphie bovine.

Now there’s a start! A strange creature – the beginning of our breadcrumb trail. What is this Celphie*****?

Like the vast majority of creatures you can find online, the Celphie comes from Carol Rose’s Giants, Monsters, and Dragons. I will reserve my thoughts on it for the official review, but suffice to say that it’s the progenitor of most online information of this kind. And sure enough, page 71 informs us:

This is a monstrous hybrid creature in the traditions of medieval Europe. It was described as having a body resembling a cow but with five legs, each of which was human from the elbow down to the hands… said to inhabit the wastes of Ethiopia… (Rose, 2000)

That is definitely monstrous. Where is it from? Rose provides a single reference – Barber and Riches’ A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts. Following that trail gives us:

Curious Ethiopian beast which had man’s hands for its five feet; its hind-legs from the ankle to the top of the calf were also human. The rest of its body was that of an animal similar to a cow. (Barber and Riches, 1971)

Curiouser and curiouser. There is no mention of medieval Europe – and sure enough, the solitary citation directs us to The Excellent and Pleasant Work of Julius Solinus Polyhistor, translated by A. Golding in 1587. That breadcrumb is as follows, just pretend I put a [sic] after every word:

Almost about the same time also were brought from thence monsters called Celphies, whose hinder feete from the ancle upp to the toppe of the calfe, where like a mans legge, and lyke-wyse hys forefeete resembled a mans hande: notwithstanding, these were never seene of the Romaines but once. (Golding, 1587)

So apparently the good folks of Rome****** got to see Celphies brought back from the wilds of Aethiopia. Note now that Celphies have legs like a man’s legs up to the knee, and arms like a man’s arms in the same way. There is no mention of five legs, a cow’s body, and human hands everywhere. Something must have been lost in the adaptation, the breadcrumb must have crumbled somewhere along the way. But the description is getting clearer. It couldn’t be…? But there’s one more ancient, dusty breadcrumb to tackle – the original Solinus book, De Mirabilibus Mundi. There we get our final hint (with apologies for bad Latin transcription):

…exhibita monstra sunt cephos appellant quor posteriores pedes crure & uestigio humanos artus metiut, priores hominum manus referut… (Solinus, 1473)

Another translation quirk? The original Latin refers to Cephos instead of Celphies, and now it all falls together*******. Human-like limbs, taken from Africa… Celphies are unspecified primates! As further verification, Topsell provides an additional, delicious breadcrumb:

The CEPUS, or Martine Munkey. The Martin called Cepus of the Greek word Kepos, which Aristotle writeth Kebos, and some translate Caebus, some Cephus or Cepphus  or more barbarously Celphus… such being alwayes the most ingenious imitators of men… The games of great Pompey first of all brought these Martines to the fight of the Romans, and afterward Rome saw no more; they are the same which are brought out of Aethiopia and the farthest Arabia; their feet and knees being like a mans, and their forefeet like hands, their inward parts like a mans, so that some of us have doubted what kind of creature this should be… it having a face like a Lion, and some part of the body like a Panther, being as big as a wilde Goat or Roe-buck, or as one of the Dogs of Erithrea, and a long tail… (Topsell, 1658)

And there you have it. The breadcrumbs got weirder and moldier the farthest we went from home, starting with a monkey and ending with a five-legged-cow-thing. Sometimes my research does the opposite, though, and the original ends up stranger than the modern conception!

Either way, it’s all done citationally, my dear Watson.

*By people I’ve hired to ask.
**My claims too! Go out there and do your own research! Correct my misteaks!
***Disclaimer: the author no longer has access to a university library.
****Disclaimer: the author no longer has access to those friends.
*****It’s not an awkward photo of yourself, leave me alone!
******Or a bunch of lettuces. You never know.
*******I hate asterisks too. 😦


Barber, R. and Riches, A. (1971) A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts. The Boydell Press, Ipswich.

Rose, C. (2000) Giants, Monsters, and Dragons. W. W. Norton and Co., New York.

Solinus, G. J. (1473) De Mirabilibus Mundi. N. Jenson, Venice.

Solinus, G. J.; Golding, A. trans. (1587) The Excellent and Pleasant Worke of Caius Julius Solinus. Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, Gainesville, Florida.

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Four-footed Beasts. E. Cotes, London.