Bonnacon

Variations: Bonasus, Bonasos, Monassos, Monops; Bison, Maned Bison, European Bison, Aurochs, Urus, Urus Bonasus

Bonnacon

The Bonnacon’s range extends from Scythia in the east to Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Germany in the West. It would be a fine prize for hunters were it not for its remarkable flatulent defenses.

A bonnacon looks like a bull, but is squatter, with reddish fur shading to black, a short tail, and the shaggy mane of a horse. Its horns curl inwardly towards the head, making them of no use in self-defense.

When attacked, the bonnacon voids the contents of its intestines over an area of 3 acres (Aristotle gives a more conservative estimate of 4 fathoms). The noxious, acrid dung ignites and burns anything it touches, leaving a trail of flame in its wake.

The European bison (Bison bonasus) is generally believed to be the basis of the bonnacon.

References

Aelian, trans. Scholfield, A. F. (1959) On the Characteristics of Animals, vol. II. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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

Pliny; Holland, P. trans. (1847) Pliny’s Natural History. George Barclay, Castle Street, Leicester Square.

Sainéan, L. (1921) L’histoire naturelle et les branches connexes dans l’oeuvre de Rabelais. E. Champion, Paris.

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

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

Butatsch Cun Ilgs

Variations: Butatsch-ah-ilgs (erroneously, apparently a typo in Rose’s encyclopedia)

Butatsch Cun Ilgs

The Lüschersee, a small Swiss alpine lake nestled in the heather-covered hills of Graubünden, seems tranquil enough on the surface. Yet it is said that the lake’s waters reach down to the center of the Earth, where eternal fires rage. This is the home of the Butatsch Cun Ilgs, the “Cow’s Stomach”.

Long ago, during a more feudal time, the shepherds of Graubünden were in a constant struggle for freedom from the cruel barons and lords of the land. Their masters were prone to treating them unjustly, and even harming them for sport. A group of noblemen once returned from an ibex hunt to find herds of cattle and sheep grazing peacefully by the Lüschersee. Naturally they decided to kill them. With loud whoops and peals of laughter, they drove the animals before them, hacking at them with their swords and forcing them into the lake to drown. The peasants could only watch as the lords mocked them.

It was then that the water started to foam and bubble, and the Butatsch cun ilgs heaved itself onto the shore. It had the appearance of an enormous cow’s stomach, and was covered with thousands of eyes. The eyes had hypnotic powers, and if they focused on one point, bone-melting flames would erupt.

Mesmerized by the Butatsch cun ilgs, the lords stood dumbly as the enormous mass trampled and crushed them. Butatsch cun ilgs slipped back into the water after killing them all, leaving the shepherds terrified but unharmed.

Since then Butatsch cun ilgs has only reappeared twice, in 100-year intervals. The second time it came out of the Lüschersee, it gouged the rapids of the Nolla along its path. The third time was during a terrifying thunderstorm, when the monster of the Lüschersee slithered through a rivulet, tearing out the banks, causing massive landslides, and creating ravines.

After this last appearance – the starmentusa notg or “Night of Terror” – the Butatsch cun ilgs was not seen again. Yet sometimes a distant, unearthly bellowing can be heard over the still waters of the lake… “The Lüschersee roars”, say the shepherds, and bring the hay in.

References

Burde-Schneidewind, G. (1977) Historische Volkssagen Aus Dem 13. Bis 19. Jahrhundert. Akademie-Verlag, Berlin.

Derichsweiler, W. Das Safiental. In Schweizer Alpenclub (1919) Jahrbuch das Schweizer Alpenclub. Stämpfl & Co., Bern.

Jecklin, D. (1874) Volksthümliches aus Graubünden. Orell Füssli & Co., Zürich.

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

Bocarin

Variations: Manati

Bocarin

Thevet’s visit to the island of Hispaniola turned up a number of unusual and exotic creatures, one of which is a grass-eating fish known as the Bocarin or Manati.

Found in both rivers and the ocean, the bocarin looks primarily like a full wineskin tapering from the navel to the end of the tail. This corpulent monster is 20 feet long and 10 feet wide, and has grey skin with sparse hair. It has two legs at its shoulders, which it uses to swim with, and round, four-toed elephant’s feet with prominent nails. Its head is like that of an ox, except with a smaller face, much smaller eyes, and a much larger and fleshier chin. Females bocarins give birth to live young, and suckle them from teats much like whales do.

Thevet deemed it to be the most deformed and grotesque fish he had ever seen in that part of the world, but for all its ugliness it did have its uses. Its flesh tasted more like veal than like fish, and was fine to eat. Its skin was used to make shoes, its fat was used in leather-making and as ointment. Stones known as enar-onacpy in a bocarin’s head, ground into powder and taken with white wine, were remedies against kidney and bladder stones.

A Spaniard swore to Thevet that a bocarin had been kept for 20 or 30 years in a pond, and eventually became so tame that it would let people scratch its back and ride on it. But Thevet saw that as absurd, as who could imagine a fish being tamed in such a way, let alone a monstrously ugly one like the bocarin?

References

Lestringent, F. (1997) Le Brésil d’André Thevet. Éditions Chandeigne, Paris.

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

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

Bo

Variations: Poh

Bo

According to the Guideways through Mountains and Seas, the animal known as Bo can be found around Mount Winding-Center (identified as Mount Xue), where Huai-trees grow and where jade, realgar, and metals are plentiful. It can also be found on the plains of Mongolia and on islands in the Northern Sea. The existence of bo in the district of Shen Su was unknown to its residents, until a man called Leu Chang informed them by quoting the Shan Hai Jing for good measure.

A bo looks like a horse with a white body and a black tail, with a single horn on its head. It has tiger’s feet and saw-like tiger’s teeth, and makes a sound like a rolling drum. Bo are strict carnivores that feed upon tigers and leopards, although other sources state that leopards eat bo, and bo in turn eat tigers. A bo will protect against weapons if its flesh is eaten, or if tamed and used as a soldier.

Bo are just and honorable animals, and will reward virtuous behavior accordingly. When the wise magistrate Chung Wa of the Kingdom of Peh Chi faced an invasion by a large number of carnivorous wild animals, six bo appeared and slaughtered the beasts in thanks for the magistrate’s goodness. Duke Huan of Qi’s horse looked like a bo, according to his prime minister Guan Zhong, but presumably did not eat tigers.

References

Gould, C. (1886) Mythical Monsters. W. H. Allen and Co., London.

Mathieu, R. (1983) Étude sur la mythologie et l’ethnologie de la Chine ancienne. Collège de France, Paris.

Strassberg, R. E. (2002) A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. University of California Press.

Binaye Ahani

Variations: Bina’ye Ayani, Nayie A’anyie, Bina’yeagha’ni, Eye Killers, Evil Eyes

Binaye Ahani

The Binaye Ahani, or “Eye Killers”, were among the many Anaye that were slain by Nayenezgani. As with the other original Anaye or “Alien Gods”, they were born from human women who had resorted to unnatural practices. Their “father” was a sour cactus.

The Binaye Ahani were twins born at Tse’ahalizi’ni, or “Rock With Black Hole”. They were round with a tapering end, no limbs, and depressions that looked like eyes. Their horrified mother abandoned them on the spot, but they survived to grow into monsters; as they were limbless, they remained where they were born. Instead of hunting prey actively, they could fire lightning from their eye sockets and fry anyone who approached them. In time eyes developed in the depressions on their head, and they could kill with their eyes as long as they kept them open. Magpie was their spy, and they had many children who took after them in the worst way.

Nayenezgani prepared for his fight with the Binaye Ahani by taking a bag of salt with him, and found the old twins in a hogan with their offspring. The monsters immediately stared at him, lightning shooting from their bulging eyes, but Nayenezgani’s armor deflected the beams. He responded by throwing salt into the fire, which spluttered and sparked into their eyes, blinding them. With the Binaye Ahani in disarray, Nayenezgani waded in and killed all but the two youngest. He took the eyes of the first Binaye Ahani as trophies.

“If you grew up here, you would only become things of evil”, he told the survivors, “but I shall make you useful to my people in years to come”. To the older one, he said “You will warn men of future events, and tell them of imminent danger”, and it became a screech owl. To the younger he said “You will make things beautiful, and the earth happy”, and it became a whippoorwill.

In other versions the surviving children become a screech owl and an elf owl, while the parents are turned into cacti.

References

Locke, R. F. (1990) Sweet Salt: Navajo folktales and mythology. Roundtable Publishing Company, Santa Monica.

Matthews, W. (1897) Navaho legends. Houghton Mifflin and Company, New York.

O’Bryan, A. (1956) The Diné: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians. Bulletin 163 of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C.

Reichard, G. A. (1950) Navaho Religion: A Study of Symbolism. Bollingen Foundation Inc., New York.

Bosch

Bosch

Sometimes criminals face supernatural retribution for their crimes. In the Finistère region of Brittany, it is the victim that suffers instead. Crimes committed on board develop a life of their own and linger long after the guilty party has left the ship. Acts of greed summon evil spirits that populate the ship, bringing bad luck to the crew. In such cases humid straw must be burned to fumigate the ship. The demons can become small enough to hide in a thimble, so the smoke must reach every part of the ship. This must be performed before heading out to sea to avoid potential disaster.

In Audierne, committing a maritime theft actually guarantees good luck. The creature left behind is a Bosch, the physical manifestation of onboard theft. They have no clear appearance, and probably vary depending on the nature of the crime they embody. These wretched creatures come into existence after a theft occurs on a ship, and have a lifespan of a few months to a few years, at the end of which they weaken and disappear. During this time they hide in the bow of the ship and make life on board absolutely miserable. As long as a bosch is present, the nets will be empty, the wind will not blow, and bad luck will hound the crew.

Simply waiting for a bosch to die is therefore impractical. If a ship finds itself afflicted with a bosch, there are two ways to get rid of it. One is to steal an object from a “happy” ship, one whose crew is satisfied and whose catches are always plentiful. The ship should be moored near it, and during the following night the captain sneaks on board the other ship to steal some small object, usually a pair of oarlocks. The bosch will then go to other ship and become their problem.

If one does not wish to inflict the misery of a bosch on an innocent ship, the demon can be exorcised instead. The captain must steal a quantity of hay and hide it in the boat. At night he should set fire to the hay near the mizzenmast and yell “Devil on board!” The sailors, startled, will grab anything within reach and lash out randomly, beating every corner of the ship. Surrounded and beaten, faced with choking smoke and scorching flames, the terrified bosch dives into the sea.

References

van Hageland, A. (1973) La Mer Magique. Marabout, Paris.

Basilisk

Variations: Cockatrice, Basilisco, Basiliscos, Basiliscus, Basili-coc, Basilicok, Regulus (Small Prince), Codrille, Cocodrille, Cocadrille, Coquatrix, Harmena, Sibilus (Hisser), King of Serpents, Crested Crowing Cobra (potentially)

Basilisk

The Basilisk, the “little king” or “king of snakes”, is best known as a creature whose looks kill. Its primary claim to fame is a gaze that instantly kills anyone who sees it, or even anyone it looks at. The basilisk has appeared under a number of guises throughout the centuries, but there are at least a few constants. It is always deceptively small. It is a snake, or at least part snake, with or without rooster characteristics. It always has a crown – whether a white mark, a ring of hornlets, a rooster’s comb, or even a literal crown on its head. And finally, it is always extraordinarily virulent.

bas 1The basilisk is first and foremost a snake, born from the blood of Medusa as were all venomous snakes. It is found in the North African deserts – its very presence causes the desert, and it becomes frantic in the presence of water. At half a foot long, it is far from the biggest snake, but it is the king of snakes, traveling proudly with its head off the ground. It has a white spot or a crown on its head, and white markings down its back.

The exact nature of the basilisk’s deadliness is uncertain, as it is known to kill via venom, odor, and gaze. Murrus, one of Lucan’s soldiers, transfixed a basilisk with his spear, only to see the venom travel up his weapon and start corroding his hand. He survived by amputating his arm before the venom could reach his body. A basilisk can spit its venom skyward, frizzling up birds in flight. Its very gaze is deadly, as it can kill a man merely by looking at him with its gleaming red eyes. The regal nature of the basilisk and its propensity for projecting its venom suggest that cobras or spitting cobras were the origin of the legend.

Basilisks feared only three things: weasels, the crowing of roosters, and their own lethal gaze. The weasel was the only animal immune to the basilisk’s gaze and venom, making it the only natural predator of the king of snakes. Weasels were often sent into caves believed to harbor basilisks. This interaction also recalls that of the cobra and the mongoose. Basilisks also convulsed and died instantly upon hearing the crowing of a rooster. Travelers in the Libyan desert would be well advised to bring a rooster along with them. Topsell denied the possibility of basilisks perishing upon seeing each other, as “it is unpossible that any thing should hurt itself”; nonetheless, a basilisk in Vienna was killed by showing it a mirror.

With the passing of time the nature of the basilisk grew more and more confused. Various Biblical serpents were translated as basilisks. The basilisk gained more avian characteristics, including an origin in rooster eggs, and was confused with Cocodrillus (the crocodile); both of them were dangerous reptiles with small adversaries (the weasel for the basilisk, the hydrus for the crocodile). Further garbling of “cocodrillus” resulted in “cockatrice”. Wycliffe’s Bible had “cockatrice” as a translation of “basilisk”. Chaucer referred to the “basilicok”. With the accumulation of translation, grammar, and etymological errors, the basilisk (or cockatrice) became a hybrid of snake and rooster, with clawed wings, a rooster’s head, and a long serpentine tail (sometimes with an additional head at the end). This is the familiar cockatrice (or basilisk) of bestiaries, and an incarnation of the Devil himself. It further evolved into the alchemical cockatrice, holding its tail in its mouth, symbolizing the alchemical cycle and its mixed nature. The same nomenclatural confusion also gave rise to the Codrille, a basilisk from central France.

Despite efforts to separate the basilisk and the cockatrice – for example, making the basilisk a snake or lizard and the cockatrice a snake-rooster hybrid, or making them both snake-rooster hybrids, one with a snake head and the other with a rooster head – the fact remains that the names basilisk and cockatrice are interchangeable, and refer to the same animal. It is best to accept T. H. White’s statement that the cockatrice is “a medieval muddle” and leave it at that.

bas 2Cardano reported a basilisk found in the ruins of a demolished building in Milan. This particular specimen was wingless and featherless, with an egg-sized head that looked too large for its body. It had viper fangs, a bulky lizard-like body similar to that of the stellion, and only two stubby legs with catlike claws. The tail was as long as the body, with a swelling at its tip the size of the head. When standing up, it looked like a leathery, naked rooster.

Aldrovandi was apparently inspired by this animal for one of his images of the basilisk, helpfully giving it six more legs. Based on the description and appearance, it appears to have been inspired somewhat by scorpions. Ironically, while this eight-legged depiction has proven particularly enduring, Aldrovandi himself was apparently doubtful of its authenticity, placing this presumed African creature just before a couple rays preserved in the shape of basilisks. The true, snake-like basilisk is given a full-page spread. Aldrovandi also produces a couple of purported basilisk eggs.

Flaubert, taking considerable creative liberties, describes the basilisk as a huge violet snake with a three-lobed crest and two teeth, one on each jaw. It speaks to Saint Anthony, warning him that “I drink fire. I am fire – and I breathe it in from mists, pebbles, dead trees, animal fur, the surface of swamps. My temperature sustains volcanos; I bring out the gleam of gems and the color of metals.”

Finally, Hichens’ “crowing crested cobra” of sub-Saharan Africa appears to be some kind of basilisk. It resembles a cobra, but with a crest on its head and the call of a rooster.

bas 3The life cycle of the basilisk is involved and complicated. The Egyptians believed it to be born from the egg of the ibis, while Neckham blames chickens. Basilisks are born from round shell-less eggs laid by old roosters in the summer (on a dungheap, in some accounts). Those eggs have to be incubated by a snake, a toad, or the rooster itself, eventually producing little terrors ready to kill at birth. As roosters may develop concretions that resemble eggs, and hens may look like roosters, any such fowl that seemed to be a male chicken laying an egg was immediately put to death. In 1474, one such heretical chicken was burned at the stake in Basle, in front of a large crowd.

The only plant immune to the withering gaze of the basilisk is rue, which is consumed by weasels to protect themselves from their enemies. Remedies for basilisk envenomation will always contain rue. A dead basilisk will ward away spiders, and one such basilisk carcass in Diana’s temple kept swallows at bay.

Borges quotes Quevedo as giving the paradox of the basilisk: its existence cannot be proven, as anyone who sees it and survives is a liar, and anyone who sees it and dies will not tell the tale.

The basilisk of biology, or Jesus Christ Lizard (Basiliscus) is a completely harmless South American lizard, known for walking on water. The lethal powers of the basilisk were also transposed by European settlers onto rattlesnakes, and the Mexican West Coast rattlesnake still bears the name of Crotalus basiliscus.

References

Aelian, trans. Scholfield, A. F. (1959) On the Characteristics of Animals, vol. I. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Aldrovandi, U. (1640) Serpentum, et Draconum Historiae. Antonij Bernie, Bologna.

Barber, R. (1993) Bestiary. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge.

Borges, J. L.; trans. Hurley, A. (2005) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Viking.

Breiner, L. A. (1979) The Career of the Cockatrice. Isis, vol. 70, no. 1, pp. 30-47.

Breiner, L. A. (1979) Herbert’s Cockatrice. Modern Philology, vol. 77, no. 1, pp. 10-17.

Brown, T. (1658) Pseudodoxia Epidemica. Edward Dod, London.

Bulfinch, T. (1997) The Age of Fable. Macmillan, New York.

Cardano, G.; le Blanc, R. trans. (1556) Les Livres de Hierome Cardanus Médecin Milannois. Guillaume le Noir, Paris.

Evans, E. P. (1987) The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. Faber and Faber, London.

Flaubert, G. (1885) La Tentation de Saint Antoine. Quantin, Paris.

Hargreaves, J. (1983) The Dragon Hunter’s Handbook. Armada.

Hichens, W. (1937) African Mystery Beasts. Discovery (Dec): 369-373.

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.

Lemnius, L. (1658) The Secret Miracles of Nature. Jo. Streater, London.

Liss, A. R. (1987) A Basilisk by Any Other Name… Teratology 35, pp. 277-279.

Lucan, trans. Rowe, N. (1720) Pharsalia. T. Johnson, London.

Pliny; Holland, P. trans. (1847) Pliny’s Natural History. George Barclay, Castle Street, Leicester Square.

de la Salle, L. (1875) Croyances et légendes du centre de la France, Tome Premier. Chaix et Cie., Paris.

Sax, B. (1994) The Basilisk and Rattlesnake, or a European Monster Comes to America. Society and Animals, vol. 2, no. 1.

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Serpents. E. Cotes, London.

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