Muirdris

Variations: Muirgris (erroneously); Sínach, Sinech; Píast Uiscide (“Water Beast”); Úath (“Horror”)

muirdris

Fergus mac Léti, the King of Ulster, was an inveterate swimmer. Captured while sleeping by water-spirits, the lúchorpáin or “small bodies” (actually the first appearance of leprechauns), he was awoken by the cold water they tried to carry him into. This allowed him to turn the tables on his would-be captors, and he seized three of the lúchorpáin. Fergus demanded that the sprites grant him three wishes: the ability to breathe underwater in seas, pools, and lakes.

The sprites granted him his wish, in the form of enchanted earplugs and a tunic to wear around his head. But like all wishes granted by the Fair Folk, it came with a caveat. Fergus was not to use his gifts at Loch Rudraige (Dundrum Bay) in his own land of Ulster.

Of course, Fergus arrogantly disregards the rule and swims underwater at Loch Rudraige anyway. There he encounters the Muirdris, the “Sea Bramble” or “Sea Briar”, a huge, mysterious, undefined horror that inflates and deflates, expands and contracts like a bellows. It has features of a thorn-bush, with branches and stings, and its appearance alone is deadly.

Fergus does not take well to his encounter with the muirdris, and he is horribly disfigured after seeing it, with his mouth moving to the back of his head. His courtiers are dismayed, as a man with a blemish cannot be king, but they somehow keep this defacement a secret from Fergus for seven years. They prevent him from accessing mirrors, and surround him only with people who will protect the king’s deformity. He finds out only after Dorn, a highborn slave, taunts him about it after he strikes her with a whip. She is bisected for her troubles, and Fergus goes to face his nemesis alone.

The battle between Fergus and the muirdris lasts a day and a night, during which the water of the loch bubbles like a giant cauldron. Finally Fergus slays the monster with his bare hands, and emerges from the loch holding its head in triumph – only to collapse and die from the ordeal.

A thirteenth-century retelling of Fergus’ tribulations renames the monster sínach or sinech. In this version, it is the king’s wife who reveals his secret after an argument.

The muirdris is a monster, but is it rooted in fact? Surely the expansion and contraction, the comparison to a thornbush, and the disfiguring stings strongly suggest a large jellyfish, perhaps the lion’s mane jellyfish.

References

Borsje, J. (1996) From Chaos to Enemy: Encounters with Monsters in Early Irish Texts. Brepols Publishers, Turnhout.

MacKillop, J. (2005) Myths and Legends of the Celts. Penguin Books, London.

Ṣannāja

Variations: Ṣannājah, Ṣunnājah, Sannaja; Nubian Horse (erroneously)

Sannaja

The Ṣannāja, “Cymbalist” (!), is a gigantic, deadly, yet pathetic creature originally described by al-Qazwini. It can be found in the land of Tibet, making it an abominable snowman of sorts, although it has more in common with the Gorgons of Greek myth.

According to al-Qazwini, the ṣannāja is indescribably vast, such that no animal can compare to it in size. This largest of all beasts makes dens one league wide.

Neither al-Qazwini nor al-Damiri describe its appearance, so artistic depictions of ṣannājas vary. As it is described in the same section along with insects and reptiles, the Wasit manuscript shows it with six stubby legs and a segmented, shelled turtle-like body. Its red, vaguely spiderish head is blank except for hair and two large, staring eyes. The artist of the C.1300 manuscript gives the ṣannāja a tusked, leonine head with massive, spotted folds of skin all over its body. A third is more cautious, assigning it the looks of a dragon. Finally, one Egyptian account is a ṣannāja in name only, placing it in African rivers and giving it four duck feet, a horse’s mane, water-buffalo skin, and a huge mouth. Described as the “Nubian Horse” living in water and ruining crops on land, this is the only case where the name has been applied to the hippopotamus.

The most distinctive quality of the ṣannāja is its deadly gaze, which nonetheless has a peculiar quality. Any animal that sees the ṣannāja dies instantly, but if the ṣannāja sees the animal first, it is the one to expire. Thus animals of Tibet come up to ṣannājas with their eyes closed, such that the monster will see them and drop dead, guaranteeing them a feast for weeks to come.

Accounts of mammoth fossils from Central Asia may have inspired the enormous ṣannāja. Traditional Tibetan art and kirttimukha faces may also have had a hand in its genesis.

References

Berlekamp, P. (2011) Wonder, Image, and Cosmos in Medieval Islam. Yale University Press, New Haven.

al-Damiri, K. (1891) Hayat al-hayawan al-kubra. Al-Matba’ah al-Khayriyah, Cairo.

Jayakar, A. S. G. (1908) Ad-Damiri’s Hayat al-Hayawan (A Zoological Lexicon), vol. II, part I. Luzac and Co., London.

Komaroff, L. and Carboni, S. (eds.) (2002) The Legacy of Genghis Khan. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Rapoport, Y. and Savage-Smith, E. (eds.) (2014) An Eleventh-Century Egyptian Guide to the Universe. Brill, Leiden.

al-Qazwini, Z. (1849) Zakariya ben Muhammed ben Mahmud el-Cazwini’s Kosmographie. Erster Theil: Die Wunder der Schöpfung. Ed. F. Wüstenfeld. Dieterichsche Buchhandlung, Göttingen.

Skoffín

Variations: Skoffin; Skuggabaldur, Finngalkn, Fingal; Urdarköttur, Naköttur; Modyrmi

Skoffin

The Skoffín is one of a complex of Icelandic fox-cat hybrids with a lethal gaze, combining the cunning of the fox with the cruelty of the cat. This group also includes the Skuggabaldur, Urdarköttur, and Modyrmi, all of which are variations on the same theme; they are also linked to the “demon harriers”, foxes sent by sorcerers to maul livestock.

A skoffín is born from the union of a male Arctic fox and a female tabby cat, and resembles both of them. Its gaze is so deadly that everything it looks at dies immediately, without needing to see it. Its exact appearance varies; it may even change color with the seasons like the Arctic fox does. Reports suggest that skoffíns are short-haired, with bald patches of skin throughout.

Skoffín kittens are born with their eyes wide open. If not destroyed immediately, they sink into the ground and emerge after 3 years of maturation. It is therefore imperative to kill sighted kittens before they can disappear into the ground. When a litter of three sighted kittens was born at a farm in Súluholt, they were placed in a tub of urine to prevent their descent into the earth, and were drowned by placing turf on top of them. The entire tub was then tossed onto a pile of manure and hay and set on fire. The mother cat was also killed.

Skoffíns are irredeemably vile and malicious, and satisfy their appetite for destruction by killing humans and livestock alike. They are best shot from a safe distance, ideally with a silver bullet and after having made the sign of the cross in front of the barrel, or having a human knucklebone on the barrel. Hardened sheep dung makes equally effective bullets.

Thankfully, skoffíns are not immune to their own gaze. An encounter between two skoffíns will lead to the death of both of them. As with basilisks, mirrors are their bane. Once a skoffín stationed itself on the roof of a church, and the parishioners started dropping dead as they left the building. The deacon understood what was going on, and had the rest of the congregation wait inside while he tied a mirror to a long pole and extended it outside to the roof. After a few minutes he gave the all-clear, and they were able to leave the church safely, as the skoffín had perished immediately upon seeing its reflection.

Eventually, confusion with the basilisk of the mainland muddled the skoffín’s image, leading to some accounts claiming it was hatched from a rooster’s egg.

The skuggabaldur (“shadow baldur”) or finngalkn has the same parentage as the skoffín, but is born of a tomcat and a vixen. It has very dark fur shading to black, sometimes has a deadly gaze, and preys on livestock. It may be killed in the same way as the skoffín. One particularly destructive skuggabaldur in Húnavatnssýslur was tracked down and killed in a canyon; with its last breath, it exhorted its killers to inform the cat at Bollastadir of its death. When a man repeated that incident at a Bollastadir farm, a tomcat – no doubt the skuggabaldur’s father – jumped at him and sank its teeth and claws into his throat. It had to be decapitated to release its hold, but by then the man was dead.

The urdarköttur (“ghoul cat”) or naköttur (“corpse cat”) is of less certain parentage. It may be a hybrid, but other accounts state that any cat that goes feral in Iceland eventually becomes an urdarköttur, and all-white kittens born with their eyes open will sink into the ground and re-emerge after three years in this form. Shaggy, white or black furred, growing up to the size of an ox, these felines kill indiscriminately and dig up corpses in graveyards. It may be killed in the same way, and is attached to the same story as the Bollastadir cat. Gryla’s pet, the Yule Cat, is most likely an urdarköttur.

The modyrmi (“hay wormling”) is a canine variant, created when puppies born with their eyes open sink into the ground and reappear after three years as wretched, virulent monsters. The specifics are the same as with the skoffín.

References

Boucher, A. (1994) Elves and Stories of Trolls and Elemental Beings. Iceland Review, Reykjavik.

Hermansson, H. (1924) Jon Gudmundsson and his Natural History of Iceland. Islandica, Cornell University Library, Ithaca.

Hlidberg, J. B. and Aegisson, S.; McQueen, F. J. M. and Kjartansson, R., trans. (2011) Meeting with Monsters. JPV utgafa, Reykjavik.

Stefánsson, V. (1906) Icelandic Beast and Bird Lore. The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 19, no. 75, pp. 300-308.

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.

Catoblepas

Variations: Katoblepas, Catablepon, Katoblepon, Catobleponta, Gorgon (erroneously)

Catoblepas

The Catoblepas, “that which looks downwards”, is probably the most hideous and repulsive of living things, so horrid that its mere glance is lethal. Pliny locates it in Ethiopia, around the source of the Nile, Aelian puts it in Libya, and Topsell gives a range of Hesperia and Lybia.

According to Pliny, the body of a catoblepas is of small size, and its limbs are heavy, but its massive head is too heavy to be held up and always looks downwards. This is a good thing, as anyone who saw the eyes of a catoblepas died.

Aelian gives more detail, describing it as the size of a bull, but with a grim expression, shaggy eyebrows, and small bloodshot eyes. It looks downwards, and has a horselike mane that starts on its head and covers its face. The catoblepas feeds on poisonous plants; when threatened, it shudders and raises its mane in warning before opening its mouth and belching a foul, toxic gas. This gas poisons the air around it, and anything that breathes it loses its voice, collapses in convulsions, and dies. Other animals give it a wide berth because of this. There is no mention of a deadly gaze.

Topsell combines the catoblepas with the Gorgon, stating that the myth of Perseus originated from a war with African Amazons led by Medusa. The snake-hair of the gorgons was inspired by the catoblepas’ messy mane. His fanciful description borrows liberally from gorgons and adds thick eyelids, scales like a dragon, tusks like a boar, no hair on the head, wings, human hands, and a size between that of a bull and a calf. He also denies that a catoblepas can kill with its breath, which is unheard of in the animal world; it is far more likely to kill with its eyes like the well-known cockatrice. He gives as proof an anecdote of Marius’ soldiers encountering a catoblepas and thinking it a sheep, only to die immediately when it looked up at them. It was eventually killed in an ambush by spear-men, and its skin was sent to the temple of Hercules in Rome.

It is in Flaubert’s Temptation that we get the most nightmarish vision of the catoblepas. Here it is a sprawling, long-maned black buffalo with the head of a pig dragging on the ground. Its neck is long and thin like an emptied intestine. It is also granted the power of speech, addressing Anthony. “Fat, melancholy, wild, I perpetually feel the warmth of mud under my belly, hiding infinite rot under my armpit. My skull is so heavy that I cannot lift it. I roll it around me, slowly; – and, jaws opened, I tear with my tongue poisonous herbs watered with my breath. Once, I ate my paws by accident. No-one, Anthony, has ever seen my eyes, or those who have seen them are dead. If I lifted my eyelids – my pink and swollen eyelids, straight away, you would die”.

Cuvier suggested that this maned, hoofed, and downward-looking abomination of nature was inspired by the harmless gnu or wildebeest.

References

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

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

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

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

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

Mi-ni-wa-tu

Mi-ni-wa-tu

The Mi-ni-wa-tu, or “sea monster”, is known from the folklore of the Tetons, and may be found in the Missouri River.

A mi-ni-wa-tu is an amphibious creature with a body like that of a buffalo, and covered with red hair. It has a single horn in its forehead, and a single eye. Its back is notched like a saw or gear.

The mi-ni-wa-tu may be safely seen at night when it swims powerfully up the river, churning the water and glowing like fire; in the spring, it breaks up river ice. Seeing a mi-ni-wa-tu during the day causes confusion and loss of sight. Madness sets in; after a day of convulsions, the unfortunate victim dies.

References

Dorsey, J. O. (1889) Teton Folklore Notes. Journal of American Folklore, Vol. II, No. IV, pp. 133-139.

Codrille

Variations: Cocadrille, Cocodrille, Coquadrille, Cocatris

Codrille

The Codrille, Cocadrille, or Codrille is a variety of basilisk or dragon native to central France, notably Berry, Maine, Poitou, Sologne, and Vendée. It combines features of basilisks and vouivres but without the redeeming aspects of either.

The name of the codrille was derived from the same etymological confusion that spawned the “cockatrice”. Starting with Crocodylus, the crocodile, practically a mythical creature in its own right, the name became progressively more garbled, becoming Cocodrillus, Cocodrille, Cocadrille, and Codrille. However, de la Salle derives it from coco and drille, meaning “rooster’s child”.

Unlike true basilisks, codrilles can grow to impressive size, becoming leathery-winged dragons at the last stage of their life cycle. The “crown” characteristic of basilisks manifests in the form of a brilliant gem on top of the codrille’s head. Codrilles can kill merely by looking at their victims, and emit an aura of disease and plague.

A codrille’s life is a complicated succession of metamorphoses. It hatches from a yolkless egg laid by a rooster, and incubated by the heat of the sun or of manure. To prevent those eggs from hatching, one must plant sprigs of ash in potential codrille breeding grounds. This should be done on the first day of May. Having other roosters around also helps, as they will devour the offspring of a codrille.

The codrille starts out its life as a very long, string-like snake. It is capable of killing right out of the egg – anyone who cracks a codrille egg and is seen by the newborn codrille dies instantly, but if they see the snake first, it dies instead. After a while, the juvenile codrille sprouts legs and becomes a salamander. During this stage of its life it will still die if seen first by humans, so it hides in deep wells, ruined tombs, and the masonry of houses, bringing bad luck to everyone living there and whistling ominously at night. It can debilitate a bull merely by crawling under it.

At the end of seven years the codrille reaches the adult stages. It grows spectacularly, sprouts wings, and metamorphoses into an enormous dragon. It spreads its wings and migrates towards the Tower of Babylon, breathing death and pestilence along its way. Its passage in the air dims the sun, and epidemics and plagues follow in its wake.

References

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

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

Sébillot, P. (1906) Le Folk-lore de France, Tome Troisième: La Faune et la Flore. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.