Liqimsa

Variations: Dhuga

Liqimsa

The Borana Oromo people of Ethiopia were once in thrall to the Liqimsa, “swallowers”. These were two vile man-eating monsters that looked like elephants, and they demanded a daily tribute of human flesh.

At this rate, the Borana knew they would be exterminated before long. Some fled their tormentors, settling in different areas and starting new lineages. Others went south, but the liqimsa followed them and swallowed them all.

Only thirty warriors survived and took refuge on the Namdur hill. Among those were two brothers – the elder was known for his cunning, and the younger renowned for his courage.

The older of the brothers faced the liqimsa and announced “By the grace of Waaqa, whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will become immortal!” The two monsters began to argue, then fight, each claiming to more deserving of the gift of immortality. Soon they were uprooting trees and bludgeoning each other in their fury. This was the perfect opportunity for the younger brother to seize two lances, heat their points in fire, and run the monsters through their bellies.

With the liqimsa dead the Borana were free to repopulate and recolonize the areas they had lost, as well as conquer new regions and drive out their inhabitants.

Huntingford saw the legend of the liqimsa as a mythologizing of a historical event – namely, a series of military defeats inflicted by the Sidama people on the Borana.

The tale of Dhuga is probably derived from the liqimsa. Dhuga (“he drinks”) was bigger than an elephant and as tall as the Mega escarpment. A man would be sacrificed to him every day as food. This ended when a passing stranger released Dhuga’s current victim and attacked the monster while it was rolling in the dust to scratch its back and remove parasites. The stranger ran Dhuga’s belly through with a lance whose tip had been heated red-hot in fire, and that was the end of the monster.

References

Bader, C. (2000) Mythes et legendes de la Corne de l’Afrique. Editions Karthala, Paris.

Huntingford, G. W. B. (1955) The Galla of Ethiopia – The Kingdoms of Kafa and Janjero. International African Institute, London.

Myrmecoleon

Variations: Myrmecoleo, Myrmekoleon, Mermecoleon, Mermecolion, Mirmicaleon, Mirmicoleon, Murmecoleon, Formicaleon, Ant-Lion, Antlion

Myrmecoleon

The Myrmecoleon, or Ant-lion, is a tale of two creatures and many translation errors. Druce distinguishes between the Eastern myrmecoleon, a hybrid of lion and ant, and the Western myrmecoleon, a carnivorous insect. These are one and the same, but the vagaries of translation led them down separate paths.

The Eastern myrmecoleon is found primarily in Greek, Arabian, Armenian, Ethiopian, and Syrian bestiaries. Its pedigree can be traced back to the giant gold-digging ants originally described by Herodotus. Further additions were added to the account as it evolved away from its origin. Nearchus claimed that the skins of the ants were as large as those of leopards. Pliny said that the horns of an Indian ant at the Erythraean temple of Hercules were remarkably large. Agatharchides, Aelian, and Strabo tell of Arabian and Babylonian lions called “ants” (myrmex) that have gleaming golden fur and reversed genitals (probably hyraxes, which have a distinctive dorsal gland).

The translators of the Septuagint were faced with the unfamiliar term lajisch or layish in Eliphaz’s phrase “the old lion perishes for lack of food” (Job 4:11). In the Vulgate it was rendered as tigris, and modern translations use “old lion”, but the Septuagint, drawing on obscure Classical species of lion, arbitrarily used the term myrmekoleon. Its name presupposes a hybrid of ant and lion; as the Bible is inerrant, this led led to the necessary existence of a creature whose father was a lion and whose mother was an ant. The fruit of this improbable union is a lion in front and an ant behind, and dies of starvation since the ant half cannot digest what the lion half eats, while the lion half cannot eat the plants the ant half requires. Thus “the myrmecoleon perishes for lack of food” became a logical statement, and was expounded upon in the Physiologus.

Myrmecoleon antlionThe Western myrmecoleon originally appeared in Latin sources and subsequently found its way into European bestiaries. This ant-lion is both ant and lion – an insect that preys on ants as lions prey on other animals, an ant to us, a lion to ants. It is an ant with a white head and a black body marked with white spots. It appears in bestiaries as something like a large ant or spider. This is a real animal – the antlion is a larva with huge jaws that constructs funnel-shaped traps in sand to catch ants. It eventually metamorphoses into a lacy-winged fly, but both larva and adult are completely harmless to humans.

As a denizen of bestiaries the ant-lion has its own religious connotations. The Eastern myrmecoleon is two-faced, double-minded, unstable, and deceitful. The Western myrmecoleon represents Satan lying in wait for sinners.

References

Beavis, I. C. (1988) Insects and other Invertebrates in Classical Antiquity. Alden Press, Osney Mead, Oxford.

Borges, J. L.; trans. di Giovanni, N. T. (1969) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Clarke, Irwin, & Co., Toronto.

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

Druce, G. C. (1923) An account of the Μυρμηκολέων or Ant-lion. The Antiquaries Journal, 3(4), pp. 347-364.

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

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.

Kitchell, K. F. (2014) Animals in the Ancient World from A to Z. Routledge, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon.

Newbold, D. (1924) The Ethiopian Ant-lion. Sudan Notes and Record, 7(1), pp. 133-135.

Robin, P. A. (1936) Animal Lore in English Literature. John Murray, London.

Opimachus

Variations: Chargol, Ophiomachis, Ophiomachus, Opimacus, Opymachus, Ibis, Snake-eater; Attachus (probably); Opinicus, Epimacus (probably)

Opimachus

There is only one Biblical mention of the insect called chargol, in Leviticus 11:22, as one of the four insects that are safe for consumption. It has been assumed to mean “beetle” in some translations. Other identifications include a katydid or bush cricket, a species of Gryllus cricket, or the wart-eating cricket.

The Septuagint’s translators borrowed heavily from Aristotle in an effort to give names to all the animals in the Bible. An Aristotelian account of locusts fighting and killing snakes (perhaps based on stories of insects feeding on dead snakes?) gave the chargol the name of ophiomachus, “snake fighter”. This in turn became the opimachus or opimacus, described by Thomas de Cantimpré and subsequently Albertus Magnus as a worm that attaches itself just below a snake’s head. It cannot be removed and kills the snake.

By the time the opimachus or opymachus was described in the Ortus Sanitatis (citing Thomas), it had become confused beyond recognition. While Thomas and Albertus list it among the insects, it is now placed with the birds as a small fowl. It is depicted as a quadrupedal griffin with a long pointed beak and large rabbit’s ears. It has longer hind legs to permit it to jump. It may or may not be the same as the bird known as attachus.

Dapper says that the ophiomachi or ibides (ibises) are birds that live in Ethiopia and are so named because they eat snakes.

Finally, the long journey of the snake-fighter comes to an end with the opinicus or epimacus, a variety of generic heraldic griffin whose name is almost certainly derived from a Levitical insect.

References

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

Coogan, M. D.; Brettler, M. Z.; Newsom, C.; Perkins, P. (eds.) (2010) The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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

Dapper, O. (1686) Description de l’Afrique. Wolfgang, Waesberge, Boom, & van Someren, Amsterdam.

Harris, T. M. (1833) A Dictionary of the Natural History of the Bible. T. T. and J. Tegg, London.

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

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

Vinycomb, J. (1906) Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art, with Special Reference to their Use in British Heraldry. Chapman and Hall, London.

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.

Bulgu

Bulgu

The Guji Oromo of Ethiopia tell of a brother and sister who went down to the river to fetch water. There they met a Bulgu, “cannibal”, a fearsome ogre with four eyes, a head like an axe blade, arms like axe handles, and stocky legs like pestles. Before the children could react, the bulgu seized and devoured the boy. As he licked his lips, he told the girl “If you tell anyone about what you just saw, I will eat you, you and all in your family!”

Bulgu sketchThe traumatized girl ran home in tears. When questioned by her father about her missing brother, she remembered the bulgu’s words and said “He got lost in the brush, he wandered off alone”. But all she could think of was her brother’s death and the ogre’s threat, and she refused to eat for days, wasting away. Eventually she became too weak to move, and called her father to her bedside. “Father, build me nine high, thick fences around the house, and I will tell you why my brother disappeared”. Nine palisades were constructed of juniper, and the daughter finally told all. The father was incensed. He built a platform of branches above the hut to hide his daughter, then seized his lance and went off to slay the bulgu.

It was all in vain. The bulgu had heard every word the girl said, and approached the hut after the father was gone. Ten magic formulae were mumbled, and the nine gates and the door burst open. The bulgu searched high and low for the girl, and he wouldn’t have found her if she had not broken wind in fear. When her parents returned, the only thing left of her was her middle finger.

References

Bader, C. (2000) Mythes et legendes de la Corne de l’Afrique. Editions Karthala, Paris.

Tutschek, L. (1845) Dictionary of the Galla Language, v. II. F. Wild, Munich.

Gold-digging Ant

Variations: Formica maior, Formica aurum

Gold-digging ant

Herodotus originally placed the Gold-digging Ants in the sandy deserts in the land of the Dards, in India, within the Persian Empire. Some later sources, such as the Ortus Sanitatis, move them to Ethiopia. Their story is the same regardless of location.

Gold-digging ants are smaller than dogs, but larger than foxes. Pliny specifies that they are as large as an Ethiopian wolf, and the color of a cat. Skins of those ants brought before Alexander the Great were like panther skins. In the Ortus Sanitatis, the gold-digging ant is given a form unlike any ant – indeed, unlike any living animal, with a rounded, bird-like head and four legs with long talons. These ants are exceedingly fast, strong, and dangerous.

Most importantly, gold-digging ants excavate their nests in an area rich with gold dust. The sand they bring to the surface is full of the precious metal, making them an attractive target for treasure seekers, but they also fiercely defend their gold from anyone who would dare take it.

To steal the ants’ gold, camel caravans approach the nests on hot summer mornings, when the ants are safely underground. Gold sand can be quickly scooped up into bags, but the ants soon catch the scent of the intruders and hurry to the surface. Without a head start for the camels, the ants would easily catch up and dismember them.

Whatever the nature of the gold-digging ants, it is agreed that they definitely weren’t ants, and most likely were some sort of mammal. Suggestions include the hyena, whose Persian name resembled the Greek name for the ant; and the Siberian fox, whose digging and ferocity parallel those of the ant. The most compelling argument is elaborated by Peissel, who identifies the “ants” as Himalayan marmots whose tireless digging would have brought gold to the surface. Herodotus’ usage of murmex for ant may have muddled the distinction between ant and marmot.

References

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

Herodotus, Macaulay, G. C. trans. (1890) The History of Herodotus, translated into English. Macmillan and Company, London.

Peissel, M. (1984) The Ants’ Gold. Harvill Press, London.

Pliny; Bostock, J. and Riley, H. T. trans. (1857) The Natural History of Pliny, v. III. Henry G. Bohn, London.

de Xivrey, J. B. (1836) Traditions Tératologiques. L’Imprimerie Royale, Paris.

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.