Circhos

Variations: Cricos, Crichos

The story of the Circhos is one fraught with misunderstandings, mistranslations, and general confusion. It should serve as a morality tale on the importance of accurate information transmission.

Aristotle describes the habits of hermit crabs in detail. The carcinium (“small crab”) is soft-bodied after the thorax, resembling a spider, with two red horns and forward-pointing eyes. The mouth has hair-like appendages and two divided feet that it uses to catch prey. There are two additional smaller pairs of feet beside them.

Of the hermit crabs, the kind that lives in the nerita or brita shell is unusual because its right divided foot is small while the left one is large. It walks more on the left foot than the right. The nerita itself, Aristotle adds, has a large, smooth, rounded shell, and a red hepatopancreas, as opposed to the ceryx and its black hepatopancreas. During a storm the crabs hide under a rock, and the gastropods attach themselves to the rock and close their opercula.

All of the preceding information is stated consecutively. Michael Scot’s translation of Aristotle gives the name of kiroket to the nerita shell. Thomas de Cantimpré takes Scot’s kiroket and his descriptions of the hermit crab and gastropod, but omits connecting names and details to combine them into a single confused account. It is likely that Scot’s jargon and neologisms threw Thomas off.

Thomas de Cantimpré’s cricos (corrupted from kiroket) now has two fissures at the end of its feet, giving it three fingers and three nails on each foot (Thomas’ “common-sense” addition). Its left foot is big and its right foot is small, and it carries its weight on its left foot. The comparison of hepatopancreas colors becomes the shell of the cricos, colored black and red. In good weather, the cricos moves around; in bad weather, it attaches itself to rocks and doesn’t move.

Albertus Magnus takes up Thomas’ account, but drops the confusing details of the feet. The Ortus Sanitatis, on the other hand, creates some additional features out of whole cloth. The circhos or crichos has the head of a man and the body of a sea-dog (i.e. a dogfish or shark); it is healthy in good weather, but weakens and turns ill in bad weather.

Olaus Magnus borrows the circhos of the Ortus Sanitatis to populate his Scandinavian sea. The physical description of a human-headed fish is wisely redacted. Whether it was meant to represent an actual Scandinavian animal, or is merely plagiarism, remains unclear.

It is Olaus Magnus’ account that is best known today. Concept drift in modern retellings have led to fabrications such as a limping gait that forces the circhos to move only in fine weather and cling to rocks during storms, and even a “humanoid” appearance.

References

Aristotle, Cresswell, R. trans. (1862) Aristotle’s History of Animals. Henry G. Bohn, London.

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

de Cantimpré, T. (1280) Liber de natura rerum. Bibliothèque municipale de Valenciennes.

Cuba, J. (1539) Le iardin de santé. Philippe le Noir, Paris.

Gauvin, B.; Jacquemard, C.; and Lucas-Avenel, M. (2013) L’auctoritas de Thomas de Cantimpré en matière ichtyologique (Vincent de Beauvais, Albert le Grand, l’Hortus sanitatis). Kentron, 29, pp. 69-108.

Magnus, A. (1920) De Animalibus Libri XXVI. Aschendorffschen Verlagbuchhandlung, Münster.

Magnus, O. (1555) Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus. Giovanni M. Viotto, Rome.

Magnus, O. (1561) Histoire des pays septentrionaus. Christophle Plantin, Antwerp.

Magnus, O. (1658) A compendious history of the Goths, Swedes, and Vandals, and other Northern nations. J. Streater, London.

Rose, C. (2000) Giants, Monsters, and Dragons. W. W. Norton and Co., New York. Unknown. (1538) Ortus Sanitatis. Joannes de Cereto de Tridino.

Sermilik

The Sermilik, “ice-clad”, is an enormous and highly dangerous polar bear found in the seas around Aasiaat in Greenland. Unlike the bears it resembles, it has very long fur completely covered with ice. Four lumps of ice at the surface are in fact the four paws of a sermilik lying in wait, and young hunters are warned never to paddle near those.

References

Birket-Smith, K. (1924) Ethnography of the Egedesminde District. Bianco Lunos Bogtrykkeri, Copenhagen.

Cahab

Variations: Caab; Sahab (typo)

Cahab

Among Aristotle’s many references to the elephant, we are told that its five toes are not perfectly jointed, its forelegs are larger than its hind ones, and its hind legs have short ankles. It has a trunk that it can use as a hand, drinking and eating with it, pulling up trees with it, and using it to breathe when walking through water. This remarkable appendage is cartilaginous and jointless.

The 1220 Latin translation of Aristotle by Michael Scot was based off an Arabic translation from the Greek. Scot retained various Arabic words in his text, and hence Aristotle’s passage on the elephant’s appendicular anatomy became et habet duo cahab parva respect magnitudinis corporis sui – here, cahab is Arabic for “ankle”, and the phrase reads “and [the elephant] has two ankles that are short relative to the size of its body”. Scot used cahab consistently to refer to the ankle or the talus bone.

Thomas de Cantimpré did not recognize the word cahab and assumed it to be the subject of the verb habet. From that the sentence became Caab animal marinum est, ut dicit Aristotiles, parvos habens pedes respectu corporis sui, quod utique magnum est, “Caab is a sea animal, as says Aristotle, whose legs are small in proportion to its body, which is huge”. Based on that and the remainder of the Aristotelian description, Thomas says that the caab has one leg that is long and which it uses as a hand to bring vegetation to its mouth; this leg is made of cartilage. Thomas also misreads the behavior of the elephant in water and makes his caab a fully aquatic marine animal, one that breathes underwater and then, upon reaching the surface, spouts the water it swallowed while breathing. Finally, he spontaneously gives his animal the feet of a cow.

In turn, Albertus Magnus “borrows” Thomas’ account, dropping the reference to Aristotle. This time it is called cahab, and now all of its legs are cartilaginous and resemble those of a calf. Albertus also makes a logical association with the cetacean act of spouting; his cahab holds its breath underwater and spouts at the surface sicut delfinus et cetus.

The last iteration of the cahab is provided by Olaus Magnus, who transposes this odd cartilage-legged sea creature into Scandinavia. He tactfully compares the cartilaginous feet to those of both cows and calves (vaccae, aut vituli). Olaus cites Albertus Magnus as the source of the cahab in the Latin version of his Historia, but the French and English translations omit this crucial citation.

Finally, the English translation misreads the name of the cahab as “sahab”, decisively casting this elephant adrift in a sea of translation errors.

References

Aristotle, Cresswell, R. trans. (1862) Aristotle’s History of Animals. Henry G. Bohn, London.

de Cantimpré, T. (1280) Liber de natura rerum. Bibliothèque municipale de Valenciennes.

Cuba, J. (1539) Le iardin de santé. Philippe le Noir, Paris.

Gauvin, B.; Jacquemard, C.; and Lucas-Avenel, M. (2013) L’auctoritas de Thomas de Cantimpré en matière ichtyologique (Vincent de Beauvais, Albert le Grand, l’Hortus sanitatis). Kentron, 29, pp. 69-108.

Magnus, A. (1920) De Animalibus Libri XXVI. Aschendorffschen Verlagbuchhandlung, Münster.

Magnus, O. (1555) Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus. Giovanni M. Viotto, Rome.

Magnus, O. (1561) Histoire des pays septentrionaus. Christophle Plantin, Antwerp.

Magnus, O. (1658) A compendious history of the Goths, Swedes, and Vandals, and other Northern nations. J. Streater, London.

Unknown. (1538) Ortus Sanitatis. Joannes de Cereto de Tridino.

Utelif

Variations: Uletif (Paré), Pristis, Saw-fish, Sawfish

Utelif

Thevet describes the monstrous Utelif as a fish found along the African coast, from Guinea to Ethiopia. It has a three-foot long, four-finger wide saw on its forehead. This weapon is very sharp on both sides. It is much like a killer whale, but its skin is scaly instead of leathery. Thevet includes a drawing of it and contrasts it with that of Rondelet, who was sadly mistaken in putting the saw on the creature’s nose.

Ambroise Paré predictably copies Thevet’s account but changes the name to uletif. Like Thevet, he is in possession of the remarkable saw, a serrated horn weighing five pounds with fifty-one sharp teeth divided on either side (25 on one, 26 on the other). It is colored like a sole above and is white below. As the uletif is believed to be a marine unicorn, its horn has the same antivenomous qualities as that of the unicorn. He dismisses the popular claim that the saw is a snake’s tongue.

Aldrovandi includes the likeness of the utelif in his discussion of the Pristis or sawfish.

References

Aldrovandi, U. (1613) De Piscibus, Libri V. Bononiae.

Paré, A. (1582) Discours d’Ambroise Paré – De la Licorne. Gabriel Buon, Paris.

Thevet, A. (1575) La Cosmographie Universelle. Guillaume Chaudiere, Paris.

Rondelet (1554) Libri de Piscibus Marinis. Matthiam Bonhomme, Lyon.

Vallot, D. M. (1821) Explication des Caricatures en Histoire Naturelle. Mémoires de l’Academie des Sciences, Arts, et Belles-lettres de Dijon.

Serra

Variations: Serre, Pristis, Vivella, Sawfish, Saw-fish, Flying Fish

Serra

The Serra (“saw”) or Saw-fish is a mainstay of bestiaries. Traditionally identified with the sawfish, it also includes features of the flying fish and comes with a ready moral message for the benefit of faithful readers.

Pliny mentions a fish named Pristis which is two hundred cubits (over 90 meters) long, is viviparous, and seemingly covered with hair. Pristis was also a common name given by Romans to ships. Isidore of Seville gives us the ur-description of the serra as a fish with a serrated (serratus) crest which cuts through boats as it swims under them.

Later additions expanded on this account. The serra is a huge seagoing fish or monster with gigantic fins. When it sees a ship, it spreads its fins, catching the wind, and chases after the vessel in an attempt to outspeed it. After two hundred yards the serra gets bored, folds its wings, and sinks back into the ocean. The ship represents the Righteous, who press on in the face of adversity, while the serra represents fickle and lazy people who start out trying to be Christians but discourage easily.

Why the serra chases after the ship is uncertain. The moral suggests jealousy, but the propensity of the serra to slice up ships with its saw-crest implies a more malevolent motive. Other accounts describe it as more bloodthirsty, sinking ships to feast on sailors, while some (perhaps confused with dolphins?) are said to take pity on sinking ships and lift them out of the waves.

The serra does not fly, instead using its massive fins move like a sailboat, but medieval artists commonly show it flying above ships anyway. Eventually the serra’s iconography was muddled with the dragon’s, and it became another dog-like or reptilian winged monster.

The position of the saw has also been a subject of contention. Isidore of Seville’s crest (crista) was interpreted in ways ranging from a rooster’s comb to a saw-edged dorsal fin. None of them locate the saw on the end of the nose.

Buel regards the sawfish as an innocent and inoffensive creature. The occasional attacks on boats are attributed to parasitic copepods, whose burrowing into the sawfish’s flesh drives the creature into delirious agony and causes it to lash out at anything nearby.

References

Aldrovandi, U. (1613) De Piscibus, Libri V. Bononiae.

Buel, J. W. (1887) Sea and Land. Historical Publishing Company, Philadelphia.

Cuba, J. (1539) Le iardin de santé. Philippe le Noir, Paris.

Druce, G. C. (1919) On the Legend of the Serra or Saw-fish. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, Second Series, v. 31.

Hippeau, C. (1852) Le Bestiaire Divin de Guillaume, Clerc de Normandie. A. Hardel, Caen.

Isidore of Seville, trans. Barney, S. A.; Lewis, W. J.; Beach, J. A.; and Berghof, O. (2006) The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Pliny; Bostock, J. and Riley, H. T. trans. (1900) The Natural History of Pliny, v. II. George Bell and Sons, London.

White, T. H. (1984) The Book of Beasts. Dover Publications, New York.

Marool

Variations: Angler-fish, Carrachan, Devil-fish, Keddle-man, Kethrie, Kettach, Kilmaddy, Marmaid, Mareillen, Marsgum, Masgum, Meermaid, Merlin-fish, Molly Gowan, Monk-fish, Plucker, Shoemaker, Toad-fish, Weever, Wide-gab

Marool

The Marool of Shetland is a malevolent marine devil, appearing in the form of a fish. It has eyes all over its head, and a crest of flame. It can be seen in mareel, or phosphorescent sea-foam. During storms the marool can be heard singing wildly with joy when a ship capsizes.

Marool is only one of a number of names that have been applied to the anglerfish or monkfish.

References

Forbes, A. R. (1905) Gaelic Names of Beasts (Mammalia), Birds, Fishes, Insects, Reptiles, Etc. Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh.

Saxby, J. M. E. (1932) Shetland Traditional Lore. Grant and Murray Limited, Edinburgh.

Mastopogon

Variations: Aegomastus, Egomastus; Houperou, Huperus (erroneously?)

Houperou

The first appearance of the Mastopogon (“breast beard”), also called the Aegomastus, is as a nameless “strange fish” observed by Thevet off the coast of South America. It has a beard resembling a goat’s udder under its chin, and the illustration provided includes a long dorsal spine and pointed fins.

Thevet also describes the Houperou as a large carnivorous fish that eats all other sea creatures, except for one small fish. The carp-like fish remains in the shadow of the houperou and enjoys the protection granted by its larger friend. The houperou has rough sandpapery skin like a dogfish, sharp teeth, and a long spine on its back. It attacks, drowns, and dismembers anyone it catches in the water, and the native people shoot it with arrows on sight. The similarity of this unlikely couple to a shark and pilot fish is clear; in fact, uperu is the local name for “shark”, appropriately converted to French pronunciation by Thevet.

Gesner takes up the descriptions of the houperou and the udder-bearded fish from Thevet, but pictures the houperou or huperus as a large pike. He also coins Mastopogon and Aegomastus for Thevet’s nameless fish.

With time the heraldic mastopogon and houperou blurred together to the point of inextricability, making it necessary to describe them together. Holme describes the mastopogon as a variety of houperou, looking like a salmon with large thorny fins, the dorsal fin reaching all the way to the tail. The houperou, on the other hand, now has the mammary wattle, along with two ear-like knobs on its head, a long-spined dorsal fin, rough scales, and a straight tail.

References

Gessner, C. (1560) Nomenclator aquatilium animantium. Christoph Froschoverus.

Holme, R. (1668) The academy of armory, or, A storehouse of armory and blazon containing the several variety of created beings, and how born in coats of arms, both foreign and domestick. Printed by the author at Chester.

de Souza, G. S. (1851) Tratado Descriptivo do Brazil. Typographia Universal de Laemmert, Rio de Janeiro.

Thevet, A. (1558) Les Singularitez de la France Antarctique. Maurice de la Porte, Paris.

Thevet, A. (1575) La Cosmographie Universelle. Guillaume Chaudiere, Paris.