Cactus Cats once lived in the wide-open Southwestern deserts. They were once found in saguaro country between Prescott and Tucson and in the Sonoran Desert as far south as the cholla hills of Yucatan. Nowadays the species is practically extinct following the exploitation and destruction of its desert home.
A cactus cat has thorny hair, with especially long, rigid spines on its ears and tail. The tail is branched like a cactus with scattered thorny hair. There are sharp bony blades on the forearms above the forefeet.
Cactus cats use their forearm-blades to cut deep slanting slashes at the base of giant cacti. One of those cats will travel in a wide circular path, 80 chains long, slashing every cactus it sees. By the time it returns to the first cactus, the sap oozing from the cuts has fermented into mescal. The cactus cat laps this alcoholic brew up hungrily. By the end of the second circuit the cat is thoroughly drunk and waltzes off in a drunken stupor. It yowls and rasps its bone blades together, a sound which carries through the desert night.
It is this fondness for liquor that was the downfall of the species. By following a cactus cat around, one could collect the mescal and deprive the cat of its sustenance. This was not an activity without risk, however. Thieves caught in the act were flogged to death with the cat’s spiny tail, leaving red welts deceptively similar to the effects of heat rash.
Cox, W. T. (1910) Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods with a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts. Judd and Detweiler, Washington D. C.
Tryon, H. H. (1939) Fearsome Critters. The Idlewild Press, Cornwall, NY.
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.
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.
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
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
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,
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.
Aristotle, Cresswell, R.
trans. (1862) Aristotle’s History of
Animals. Henry G. Bohn, London.
and Riches, A. (1971) A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts. The Boydell
de Cantimpré, T. (1280)
Liber de natura rerum. Bibliothèque municipale de Valenciennes.
Cuba, J. (1539) Le iardin de santé. Philippe le Noir,
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.
(1920) De Animalibus Libri XXVI.
Aschendorffschen Verlagbuchhandlung, Münster.
(1555) Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus. Giovanni M. Viotto, Rome.
(1561) Histoire des pays septentrionaus. Christophle Plantin, Antwerp.
(1658) A compendious history of the
Goths, Swedes, and Vandals, and other Northern nations. J. Streater,
Rose, C. (2000) Giants, Monsters, and Dragons. W. W. Norton and Co., New York. Unknown. (1538) Ortus Sanitatis. Joannes de Cereto de Tridino.
of Exceedingly Lofty Mountain in China are home to the Chouyu. It is like a
rabbit but has a bird’s beak, owl’s eyes, and the tail of a snake. It falls
asleep (i.e. plays dead) when it sees people. If a chouyu is seen it is an omen
of a locust plague.
identifies this animal as the armadillo, but admits with impressive
understatement that China is a bit far from the neotropics…
(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.
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.
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.
The Chang Nam, or “water elephant”, is native to the jungle streams of Thailand. Its equivalent in Myanmar is called the Ye Thin.
A chang nam looks like a miniature replica of an elephant. It is no bigger than a rat but has a trunk and sharp little tusks and all the hallmarks of elephants.
These water elephants are extremely dangerous. Merely seeing a chang nam’s shadow causes instant death. A chang nam will also stab footprints and reflections in the water with its tusks, bringing about the death to the owner of the footprint or reflection.
It seems uncertain whether the chang nam has a purely supernatural origin or if it has some real animal as its basis. Nonetheless, stuffed chang nam skins are available for sale to gullible tourists; these are manipulated frog or rodent skins with tusks attached.
Wood, W. A. R. (1965) Consul in Paradise: Sixty-nine Years in Siam. Souvenir Press, London.
Chemosit is a demonic bogey that prowls the lands of the Nandi in Kenya. Half man, half bird, Chemosit stands on a single leg and has nine buttocks. Its mouth is red and shines brightly at night like a lamp. A spear-like stick serves as a means of propulsion and as a crutch.
People are Chemosit’s food, but it loves the flesh of children above all else. At night it sings a song near places where children live, its mouth glowing in the darkness. Unwary children seeing the light and hearing the song believe it to be a dance. They head out into the night to find the party and are never seen again.
Hollis, A. C. (1909) The Nandi, their Language and Folk-lore. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
The Chimalcoatl, “shield snake”, is a long, thick Mexican snake. It earns its name from the fleshy, colorful shield on its back. Its appearance is an omen of death or prosperity and fortune in war, depending on the occasion.
Nuttall, Z. (1895) A Note on Ancient Mexican Folk-lore. The Journal of American Folklore, v. 8, no. 29, pp. 117-129.
Chicheface is as starved as its counterpart Bigorne is satisfied. This etiolated creature was said to feed solely on wives who obeyed their husbands, and as such was skeletal and malnourished. Of French origin, it featured in a number of facetious works from the 15th century and on. Both Bigorne and Chicheface are notably represented in frescoes at the Chateau de Villeneuve, in Auvergne, by Rigault d’Aurelle.
Some confusion has resulted over the name. Chiche face means “thin face”, possibly derived from the Spanish chico, “small” (although Chapoulaud suggests a separate derivation from the patois chichou, “puppy”). Corruption of this word through intermediaries like chichefache has led to the alternate spelling of chichevache, “thin cow”, popularized in English.
There is very little of the bovine in Chicheface. It is somewhat like a terrifyingly thin werewolf, barely skin and bones. Its head and body are those of a wolf, its forelegs are clawed and its hindlegs are hooved.
Satire featuring Chicheface revolves around the lack of good and submissive women, and usually begs wives to remain independent and willful. Le dit de Chicheface (“The say of Chicheface”), preserved in the Auvergne mural, depicts Chicheface with its prey in its mouth. Chicheface laments its lot in life – Moy que lon appelle Chiche Face / Très maigre de coleur et de face (“I who am called Chiche Face / Very thin of color and face”). The woman held in its jaws is the only thing it’s found to eat in ten thousand years. Des ans il y a plus de deux cens / Que ceste tiens entre mes dens / Et sy ne lose avaler / De peur de trop longtemps jeuner (“For more than two hundred years / I’ve been holding her between my teeth / And I dare not swallow her / For fear of fasting too long”). As for the long-suffering woman, she regrets her decisions in life, having done everything her husband told her to do, and begs wives not to do the same – Vous qui vivez au demourant / Ne veulez pas come moi faire (“You who live at home / Do not do as I did”).
Jubinal’s satirical poem on the life of Saint Genevieve mentions Chicheface in a warning addressed to the saint: Gardez-vous de la Chicheface / El vous mordra, s’el vous rencontre (“Beware of the Chicheface / It will bite you, if it meets you”). In the Life of Saint Christoffle, we are given the curse Va, que tu soys confondu / Orde, sanglante chiche face! (“Go, may you be confounded / Vile, bloody chiche face!”). Chaucer mentions “Chichevache” but not its plump companion. In the Clerk’s Tale, “noble wives full of high prudence” are warned not to imitate the good and patient Griselda “lest Chichevache you swallow in her entrail”. In Lydgate’s Of Bycorne and Chichevache it is “Bycorne” who eats submissive wives, inverting the roles.
The skinnier Chicheface has proven more enduring than its rotund companion. Various carved grotesques have been described as the Chiche without further elaboration. In all likelihood Chicheface’s existence may have preceded the misogynistic legend attached to it, and it continued to exist in the popular mind as a sort of hideous bogey.
Allou, C. N. (1821) Description des Monumens des Differens Ages. F. Chapoulaud, Limoges.
Barber, R. and Riches, A. (1971) A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts. The Boydell Press, Ipswich.
Jannet, P. (1849) Bigorne et Chicheface. Journal de L’Amateur de Livres, t. I, P. Jannet, Paris.
Jubinal, A. (1837) Mystères Inédits du Quinzième Siècle, t. II. Téchener, Paris.
Michel, F. (1856) Études de philologie comparée sur l’argot. Firmin Didot Freres, Fils, et Cie, Paris.
de Montaiglon, A. (1855) Recueil de poésies francoises des XVe et XVIe siécles, t. II. P. Jannet, Paris.
de Soultrait, G. (1849) Notice sur le Chateau de Villeneuve en Auvergne. Bulletin Monumental, s. 2, t. 5, Derache, Rue du Bouloy, Paris.
Tyrthwitt, T. (1868) The Poetical Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. George Routledge and Sons, London.
Carbunclo (Spanish) and carbuncle (English) are both derived from the Latin carbunculus, “little coal”. This has been used historically to refer to the garnet and the ruby, medically to a type of abscess, and teratologically to a glowing South American creature associated with riches.
Sightings of the carbunclo come from the southernmost countries – Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay. Multiple accounts of its appearance are given, and it may vary from area to area. A carbunclo has a shining mirror on its head, like a glowing coal, from which it gets its name. The creature itself produces a bright bluish-white glow from its body, easily distinguishable from wood fires and visible from over a league away. A carbunclo is larger than a mouse, perhaps cat-sized, and has a segmented body shaped like a small corn cob. The light is produced from within and shines out through junctures in the body segments. A bivalved shell resembling a rock is present. If an enemy is detected, the shell clamps shut, extinguishing the light and camouflaging the creature as an ordinary stone. Father Narciso y Barcel wrote in 1791 that the “lid” is covered in exquisite plumage, and there are beautiful spots on its breast. Carbunclos are also capable of leaping and running swiftly. Eulogio Rojas, observing a carbunclo from one meter away in 1879, noted more than four legs. In Chiloé carbunclos guard treasure and are cat-sized quadrupeds with glowing beards on their chins.
Carbunclos move about at night like enormous glow-worms in search of food and water. They have keen senses and are quick to escape or close their shells at the slightest sound. During the drought of 1925, flashing lights were seen descending the hill of Tulahuén to the valley of the Rio Grande; this was interpreted as a family of carbunclos desperate for water.
These glowing creatures have long been sought by miners and prospectors, as they are believed to hold untold riches within their bodies. Nobody as yet has succeeded in capturing one. Martin del Barco Centenera hunted the carbunclo in vain, and said that whoever could obtain the creature’s stone would be assured joy and fortune. By virtue of their excellent camouflage, sharp hearing, and impenetrable habitat, the carbunclos have kept their secrets, and no amount of careful searching has shed further light on them.
Aguirre, S. M. (2003) Mitos de Chile. Random House, Editorial Sudamericana Chilena.
Borges, J. L.; trans. di Giovanni, N. T. (1969) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Clarke, Irwin, & Co., Toronto.
Centenera, M. B. (1836) La Argentina o la Conquista del Rio de la Plata. Imprenta del Estado, Buenos Aires.
Cifuentes, J. V. (1947) Mitos y supersticiones (3rd Ed.). Editorial Nascimento, Santiago, Chile.
Oviedo, G. F. (1852) Historia General y Natural de las Indias, v. II: 1. Imprenta de la Real Academia de la Historia, Madrid.
Southey, R. (1812) Omniana, or Horae Otiosiores, v. II. Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, Paternoster Row, London.
The only description of the piscivorous Camphruch is provided by Thevet, who places this unusual unicorn in the Maluku Islands. Paré copies Thevet’s account but locates his “camphur” in Ethiopia, on the Isle of Molucca (!). Aldrovandi refers to the “camphurch”.
The camphruch is amphibious, living on land and in water like a crocodile. It is as big as a doe and has a thick grayish mane around the neck. The single horn on its forehead is three and a half feet long, as thick as a man’s arm at its thickest, and is movable like an Indian rooster’s comb. The forelegs are cloven deer’s hooves. The hindlegs are webbed like those of a goose. Camphruchs feed on fish and swim in both fresh and salt water.
Some believe that it is a species of unicorn, and that its horn neutralizes poisons. It is held in high regard in the islands, and the king of one island proudly bears the name of Camphruch – his courtiers have to make do with the names of lesser beasts, fish, and fruits.
Many of Thevet’s accounts were second or third hand. It is entirely possible that the camphruch was born from a muddle of multiple descriptions – narwhal, fur seal, beaver, goose, and antelope may have contributed. A much later dictionary entry dispenses with all that and describes the “camphur” as a single-horned Arabian donkey.
Paré, A. (1582) Discours d’Ambroise Paré – De la Licorne. Gabriel Buon, Paris.
Thevet, A. (1575) La Cosmographie Universelle. Guillaume Chaudiere, Paris.
Vallot, D. M. (1821) Explication des Caricatures en Histoire Naturelle. Mémoires de l’Academie des Sciences, Arts, et Belles-lettres de Dijon.