The Shuyu or Shu-fish can be found in abundance in China’s Peng River. It looks like a chicken with red feathers, and has four heads (or four eyes), six feet, and three tails. It caws like a magpie. Eating it cures melancholy.
The red color, multiplicity of appendages, and the triple (three-lobed?) tail combine to suggest a crayfish or lobster.
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.
The Nkala is one of several sorcerous familiars associated with witchcraft in Zambia. A nkala kills people by eating their shadows. Anyone in possession of a nkala, therefore, has obtained it for criminal purposes.
It takes the form of a crab, 4 feet long, almost as wide as it is long. It has a head at either end, each head resembling that of a hippo, complete with the lumps by the eyes. Sometimes those are described as “nose-like projections”. It eats shadows with both heads at the same time.
To kill a nkala, medicine is prepared from nkala remains and placed in a duiker horn sealed with wax. A second duiker horn is partially filled and used as a whistle to attract the nkala. Once the creature shows itself in response to the whistle, it is shot. The “noses”, large claws, and some of the other claws are taken for use in medicine.
Melland, F. H. (1923) In Witch-bound Africa. J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia.
Turner, V. (1975) Revelation and Divination in Ndembu Ritual. Cornell University Press, Ithaca.
White, C. M. N. (1948) Witchcraft, Divination and Magic among the Balovale Tribes. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 18(2), pp. 81-104.
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.
The Traîcousse, also known as Trécouche (pronounced tré-coutche) is a vile creature that can be found lurking in the ponds and waterways of the Southwestern Ardennes and the Semois, especially Hautes-Rivières in France and Bohan in Belgium. As a water bogey, it is invoked to discourage children from entering rivers.
In appearance the traîcousse is most like a large crab, a meter in diameter, with a flattened, rounded body covered with palm-sized brownish scales. Its bloodshot eyes are the size of a human fist. Its mouth is huge and bristles with sharp shark-like teeth, while countless pincer-tipped legs allow it to move and grasp its prey. In some areas the traîcousse has become an ugly river witch.
The deepest part of the river, where the current is fastest, is where the traîcousse lives. It digs itself into small cavities and rocky ledges as it waits for prey to come near. Anything that approaches is seized and dragged under, never to be seen again. Missing livestock, fishermen, and children are its doing.
Every now and then the traîcousse will vomit up the skin and bones of its prey, which rise to the surface in a macabre mix of foam and blood.
Lambot, J. (1987) L’Ardenne. Pierre Mardaga, Brussels.
Tijskens, J. (1965) Les Noms du Croquemitaine en Wallonie. Enquêtes du Musée de la Vie Wallonne, nos. 117-120, tome X, pp. 257-391.
Saratan is Arabic for crab. It also means cancer, in the same way as cancer is Latin for crab. Hence, every use of the word saratan here can be replaced with “crab”.
Al-Jahiz knows what crabs are. He talks about how crabs have eight legs and two “teeth” which give the appearance of ten legs. They have eyes on their back. They live in water or burrows on the shore, where they lay their eggs, and feed out of greed instead of necessity.
But the “crab” he describes at one point is enormous in size and lives in the open ocean. Vegetation grows on its back as it rests on the surface. Cracks and crevices in its shell look like gullies and rivers. It is this monster that sleeps in the middle of the ocean until sailors land on it, mistaking it for an island. Then it awakens and dives underwater, drowning anyone incapable of swimming back to ship.
Al-Jahiz does concede that he cannot find anyone who claims to have seen this monster.
“What is the most wondrous thing you have ever seen?” Al-Jahiz and a group of friends ponder this question. “The elephant”, comes one response. “The soul”. “Sleep and awakening”. “Forgetfulness and memory”. “Fire”. “The belly of the cosmos”. Another of the scholars present expresses his amazement with the elephant. Finally, Ma’bad bin ‘Omar states “The saratan and the ostrich are greater miracles than the elephant”.
Elsewhere Al-Jahiz goes on to add “The greatest of God’s creations are the snake and the saratan and the fish”, and “The greatest animals created are the fish and the saratan”.
It is strange that the saratan is popularly known as “zaratan”, and described as a whale or turtle. The blame for this lies with Borges, who describes the saratan’s activities but neglects to mention that it is a gigantic crab. He quotes a Spanish translation of Al-Jahiz by Palacios which converts saratan to “zaratan”. Oddly enough, the English translation of Palacios’ text uses the more reasonable transliteration of “sarathan”. In either case, Palacios does describe this monster as a “certain crustacean of the sea” (“cierto crustaceo maritimo”), a fact that Borges omits.
Borges, J. L.; trans. Hurley, A. (2005) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Viking.
Al-Jahiz, A. (1966) Kitab al-Hayawan. Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi wa Awladihi, Egypt.
Palacios, M. A. (1919) La escatologia musulmana en la Divina Comedia. Estanislao Maestre, Madrid.
Palacios, M. A.; Sunderland, H. trans. (1926) Islam and the Divine Comedy. John Murray, London.