Ompax

Variations: Ompax spatuloides

Ompax

What would you do if your breakfast was a species new to science? Carl Theodore Staiger, director of the Brisbane Museum, was faced with this conundrum in August of 1872. During his visit to Gayndah, Queensland, he was served an unusual duck-billed fish for breakfast. The worthy naturalist decided to have the specimen sketched. He then went ahead and ate the specimen anyway.

The entire description of Ompax spatuloides is derived from the sketch and Staiger’s recollection (sadly, we are not told of the Ompax’s gastronomical merits). Count F. de Castelnau described it as a ganoid fish something like a paddlefish, eighteen inches long and dirty mahogany in color. The spatulate beak is similar to a platypus’, the eyes are small and near the top of the head, the pectoral fins are small, and the dorsal, caudal, and ventral fins appear to be connected. It can only be found in a single water hole in the Burnett River, alongside the lungfish Ceratodus.

Ompax spatuloides was listed in several catalogues of Queensland fishes, despite immediate and scathing criticism from other ichthyologists. O’Shaughnessy remarked that “all the characters of [the Ompax] are gathered from a drawing made after and not before the repast… the Record thinks he would be scarcely justified in admitting Ompax spatuloides, sp. n., into the system.”

The mystery of the Ompax was solved by someone writing to the Sydney Bulletin under the name of “Waranbini”. The author confesses that the Gayndah locals prepared a fish for Staiger’s breakfast by assembling the head of a lungfish, the body of a mullet, and the tail of an eel (and, presumably, the bill of a platypus). It was cooked and introduced as a new species, one that might not be seen again for months, and Staiger fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Since then, unusual fish were met in the Gayndah district with an exclamation of “it must be an Ompax!”

References

Castelnau, F. L. P. (1879) On a New Ganoïd Fish from Queensland. Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, v. 3, no. 1, pp. 164-165.

Whitley, G. P. (1933) Ompax spatuloides Castelnau, a Mythical Australian Fish. The American Naturalist, v. 67, no. 713, pp. 563-567.

Devil-jack Diamond-fish

Variations: Diamond fish, Devil fish, Jack fish, Garjack, Litholepe, Litholepe adamantin, Litholepis adamantinus

Devil-jack Diamond-fish

John James Audubon is remembered today as an artist and ornithologist of considerable import. His practical jokes are less well known, and began with the unexpected arrival of Constantine Samuel Rafinesque at Hendersonville, Kentucky.

Rafinesque was a brilliant, enthusiastic, “exceedingly remarkable”, and very eccentric young naturalist who tested Audubon’s hospitality. After they had retired to bed, Audubon was roused by a commotion coming from Rafinesque’s room. As he describes it, “I saw my guest running naked, holding the handle of my favorite violin, the body of which he had battered to pieces in attempting to kill the bats which had entered the open window!” Rafinesque was convinced the bats were new species. Audubon was not amused.

Perhaps to avenge his smashed violin, Audubon decided to take advantage of Rafinesque’s credulity and eagerness to describe new species. He solemnly supplied Rafinesque with 10 drawings of completely fictitious fish, which were duly named and described in detail. The likes of the bigmouth sturgeon and the flatnose doublefin caused headaches for ichthyologists and tarnished Rafinesque’s reputation beyond repair.

The Devil-jack Diamond-fish (Litholepis adamantinus) is surely the most remarkable of those faux fishes, as evidenced by Rafinesque’s breathless description. This “wonder of the Ohio” is found only as far up as the falls and probably in the Mississippi as well. Rafinesque claimed to have seen it from a distance, and seen some of its scales, but otherwise he “principally relied upon the description and figure given [him] by Mr. Audubon”.

We are fortunate enough to have a complete and detailed description of the devil-jack. It is classified among the garfish but is quite unique. The body is blackish and fusiform, 4 to 10 feet long and up to 400 pounds in weight. The head takes up a fourth of the total length. The snout alone is large (as long as the head), convex above, and obtuse. The eyes are small and black, with the nostrils in front of them. The mouth is transverse and has large angular teeth. Dorsal and anal fins are of equal length, the tail is obtusely bilobed, and there is no lateral line. The body is covered in oblique rows of conical pentagonal brown scales, half an inch to one inch in diameter; they become the color of turtle shell when dried.

The scales are the devil-jack’s main claim to fame, as they are hard as flint, completely bulletproof, and repel hooks. They produce sparks when struck against steel. Only nets or the strongest hooks can take a devil-jack. It is inedible and a voracious hunter, usually seen lying motionless at the surface like a log. The scales are a miracle of nature, for “they strike fire with steel! and are ball proof!” [sic]

References

Jordan, D. S. (1886) Rafinesque. The Popular Science Monthly, June 1886.

Rafinesque, C. S. (1820) Ichthyologia Ohiensis. W. G. Hunt, Lexington, Kentucky.

Ambisiangulo

Variations: Ambize Angulo, Negulla Omasa; Pezze-Mouller, Piexe Molhar (Portuguese), Meermin (Dutch), Sirene (French), Hog-fish, Ambize (erroneously), Angulo (erroneously)

Ambisiangulo

The travelers’ accounts of Purchas and Dapper include the unlikely Ambize Angulo or Ambisiangulo. This creature can be found in several bodies of water, including the Quansa and Zaire Rivers and a number of lakes in the Congo and Angola. Its name is derived from the Kikongo mbisi (“fish”) and ngulu (“pig”); here, preference has been given to Dapper’s name, as it is closer to the original words. It is also known as Pesiengoni, Pezze-Mouller, Meermin, and Sirene in various languages, several translating to “mermaid”.

Mermaid or not, an ambisiangulo is a homely creature. Tipping the scales at 500 pounds, it measures eight feet long and four feet wide, and is a uniform dull grey-brown. The females have a pair of teats and the males have a horse’s member, but they are otherwise indistinguishable. The forehead is high, the head and eyes oval, the mouh large but chinless, the ears reduced to thin, flat skin. The ambisiangulo’s two arms are short, and end in fingers that are long, and triple-jointed like those of humans – but they cannot be flexed. The tail is rounded and shaped like a target.

Ambisiangulos feed on grass growing on the sides of rivers, and never leave the water. Purchas claimed that an ambisiangulo hunt was perilous, but Dapper describes a far more leisurely approach. The ambisiangulos are easily captured and slain with barbed harpoons, despite the lugubrious, eerily human cries of pain they emit. An injured ambisiangulo is allowed to escape, as its slow flight can be followed in a canoe. The flesh is fatty and tastes of pork, earning it its common name. The ear bones cure malaria, and the powdered skull of male ambisiangulos is a remedy against kidney stones. The ribs on the animal’s left side can be prepared into blood-staunching bracelets and protective amulets.

References

Dapper, O. (1676) Naukeurige Beschrijvinge der Afrikaensche Gewesten. Jacob van Meurs, Amsterdam.

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

Etambala, M. Z. La faune du Royaume de Congo et de l’Angola dans les récits de voyage et les journaux missionnaires de la fin du XVIe et du XVIIe siècle. In Stols, E.; Werner, T.; and Verberckmoes, J. (2006) Naturalia, Mirabilia & Monstrosa en los Imperios Ibéricos (Siglos XV-XIX). Leuven University Press, Leuven.

Marsy, F. M. (1764) Histoire moderne des chinois, des japonnois, des indiens, des persans, des turcs, des russiens etc. Tome douzieme: histoire des africains occidentaux. Desaint & Saillant, Paris.

Purchas, S. (1626) Purchas His Pilgrimage: or Relations of the World and the Religions observed in all Ages and Places discovered, from the Creation unto this Present. William Stansby, London.

Swan, J. (1643) Speculum Mundi. Roger Daniel, Cambridge.

Bakunawa

Variations: Baconaua (Hiligaynon)

Bakunawa

The Asian eclipse monster has analogues in China, India, Malaysia, Mongolia, Thailand, and the South Sea Islands. In the Philippines, where the legend is widespread, it is usually a dragon or serpent or even an enormous bird. Bakunawa, “Eclipse”, is one of the best-known.

The Bakunawa of the Cebuano, or Baconaua as it is known to the Hiligaynon, is a colossal, fishlike dragon as large as the Negros and Cebu islands. It resembles a shark, with gills, a lake-sized mouth, and a striking red tongue. Whiskers one palmo long adorn its mouth. In addition to its powerful ash-gray wings, it has smaller wings along its sides.

Long ago there were seven moons in the sky. Bakunawa gobbled them up one by one until it came to the last and largest moon. It failed to swallow it, and tried to bite it into manageable chunks, sinking its teeth deep into the moon’s surface. To this day the bakunawa’s teeth-marks can still be seen on the moon. Every now and then the bakunawa will take to the sky and attempt to finish the job it started by swallowing the moon, causing an eclipse. To make it release the moon, utensils are clanged loudly together to startle it.

The bakunawa’s den is in the deepest parts of the sea. In January, February, and March its head faces north and its tail south; in April, May, and June its head faces west and its tail east, in July, August, and September its head points south and its tail north; and in October, November, and December its head is east and its tail west. The positions of the bakunawa during those four phases are used to divine the best time to build houses.

A children’s game called Bakunawa for 10 or more players involves one player as Buan, the moon, while another is Bakunawa. The remainder form a circle, holding hands and facing inwards. The moon starts inside the circle and Bakunawa is outside. The goal of the children in the circle is to prevent Bakunawa from entering the circle and capturing the moon – the moon itself cannot leave the circle. Bakunawa can ask individual players “What chain is this?” and they can answer that it is an iron, copper, abaca, or any material they can think of. When Bakunawa captures the moon, the players exchange roles or swap with players in the circle.

References

Jocano, F. L. (1969) The Traditional World of Malitbog. Bookman Printing House, Quezon City.

de Lisboa, M. (1865) Vocabulario de la Lengua Bicol. Establecimento Tipografico del Colegio de Santo Tomas, Manila.

Ramos, M. D. (1971) Creatures of Philippine Lower Mythology. University of the Philippines Press, Quezon.

Ramos, M. D. (1973) Filipino Cultural Patterns and Values. Island Publishers, Quezon City.

Ramos, M. D. (1990) Tales of Long Ago in the Philippines. Phoenix Publishing House, Quezon City.

Reyes-Tolentino, F. and Ramos, P. (1935) Philippine Folk Dances and Games. Silver, Burdett and Company, New York.

Beathach Mòr Loch Odha

Variations: Big Beast of Loch Awe, Big Beast of Lochawe

big-beast

Like so many other lake monsters, the true nature and appearance of the Beathach Mòr Loch Odha, the “Big Beast of Loch Awe”, is shrouded in mystery. Some say it resembles a giant horse, while others describe a colossal eel. What is known for certain is that the Big Beast is a large and powerful creature with twelve legs. It can be heard in the dead of winter, breaking the ice on the frozen loch.

It has been a long time since the Big Beast was last seen. Its existence is all but forgotten on the shores of Loch Awe, and a resident of Ford interviewed by Fleming in 2001 had nothing to say on its subject.

References

Campbell, J. G. (1900) Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. James MacLehose and Sons, Glasgow.

Fleming, M. (2002) Not of this World: Creatures of the Supernatural in Scotland. Mercat Press, Edinburgh.

Chipfalamfula

chipfalamfula

Chipfalamfula, “River-Shutter”, is an enormous aquatic creature found in Ronga Bantu tales and waterways of Mozambique, notably in the bay of Delagoa. It is of indeterminate gender and species, being either a whale or rather a colossal catfish. Chipfalamfula has control over all water, and can provide or withhold it as it pleases, causing droughts and floods alike. It is so large that its belly is a world on its own, with fertile fields, livestock, and communities of people living there happily and wanting for nothing. Tales of young girls living inside Chipfalamfula before returning to the surface may be regarded as coming-of-age stories.

Chichinguane, the youngest daughter of Chief Makenyi, was beloved by her father, but envied and hated by her older sisters. When the young women went to the riverbank to fetch clay for plastering walls, the eldest sister ordered Chichinguane to stay at the bottom of the clay pit and hand her the clay. She did as she was told, only to be left behind by her older sister to face a rising tide.

She had just about given up hope when Chipfalamfula surfaced next to her and opened its cavernous mouth. “Come inside, my daughter”, it told her reassuringly. “Come inside me where you will live in peace and comfort”. So Chichinguane did as she was told, and lived inside Chipfalamfula, sharing the river-shutter’s bounties with its other children.

Years passed, and the outside world caught up with Chichinguane as it was bound to do. Makenyi’s daughters came down to the river again, balancing pitchers of water on their heads and singing “We are the group who puts pitchers on their heads… She who killed her sister killed her in the swamp, where the reeds are tall…” The youngest of the group lagged behind. She was the new youngest member of the family, and now received the same hate the presumed-dead Chichinguane did. She wasn’t good at balancing a pitcher either. She sat down and wept, when lo and behold Chichinguane appeared, attracted by the singing. Her stay in Chipfalamfula had metamorphosed her, and she was now covered in glistening silvery scales. She also wasn’t particularly pleased with the lyrics of the song. “You tried to kill your sister?” she shouted, striking her younger sister. But the girl didn’t even recognize her, whereupon Chichinguane relented, and helped her little sister carry her pitcher. However, she did not follow her into the village, instead diving back into the river.

Soon Chichinguane and her youngest sister were meeting every day, and eventually Chichinguane told her sibling the truth about her and why she lived in the river. The sister returned and told her mother, who followed her to the river and tried to embrace her long-lost daughter. But Chichinguane warned her “Do not try to hold me, mother, I am now a fish and I must live in the water”. She slipped out of her mother’s arms like a greased eel and disappeared underwater again.

She still longed to return to her family, and finally Chipfalamfula allowed her to leave, blessing her with a magic wand to use in time of need. Chichinguane returned to her mother’s hut, where her silver scales fell off her body and become silver coins. Then she told them her story, of her older sister’s treachery, and of the land of milk and honey inside the river-shutter.

Chichinguane interceded to prevent the oldest sister’s execution by the furious Makenyi. This was a mistake, as she returned to her schemes. Talking Chichinguane and the youngest sister into climbing up a tree and sawing off branches, she then collected the branches and left, leaving them out on a limb. To make matters worse, a family of one-legged, one-armed, one-eyed, and one-eared ogres saw the two girls in the tree and started cutting it down. Fortunately, Chichinguane used the river-shutter’s wand to heal the tree every time it started to fall. The ogres grew tired and decided to rest, giving Chichinguane and her sister a window to escape. They climbed down the tree and ran with the ogres in hot pursuit, and when they reached the river, Chichinguane touched it with the wand and sang “Chipfalamfula, shut off the water”. The water parted before her and the two girls ran through to safety. The ogres were halfway through when Chipfalamfula opened the water again and drowned them. On their way back, Chichinguane and her sister found the ogres’ cave, full of untold riches, and returned home in regal finery.

The eldest sister was decapitated despite Chichinguane’s entreaties.

The name Chichinguane has confusingly been given to both the youngest and the eldest daughter. The latter is the case in Junod’s older source; Knappert’s usage of the name for the heroine has been preserved here.

References

Junod, H. A. (1897) Les Chants et les Contes des Ba-Ronga. Georges Bridel et Cie, Lausanne.

Knappert, J. (1977) Bantu myths and other tales. E. J. Brill, Leiden.

Lakúma

Variations: Lucooma

lakuma

According to the Yamana, the Lakúma are the most dangerous sea creatures of Tierra del Fuego. These water spirits have been known to tip canoes over, pull their occupants out, and drag them under to consume, leaving their entrails to float to the surface. They can also create huge waves, summon whirlpools, and whip up storms to damage larger vessels.

Lakúma have been compared to whales, squids, and giant worms, making their exact appearance hard to pin down. What is known is that they like to flatten themselves out on the water’s surface, letting their back protrude like a small island. Their broad and flat backs are covered with encrustations of unusually large mussels.

Sometimes there are so many lakúma in one spot that they can be used as stepping-stones. A group of Yamana on a desert island saw countless wide, flat lakúma rise to the surface, forming a living bridge to a bountiful island. “If we run quickly, we’ll get to the other side!” said one man, running over the backs of the lakúma and reaching the other shore. But the others were too slow, and the lakúma dove, taking them to a watery grave. The one survivor recruited enough men to slay many lakúma in retaliation, and their bodies can still be seen today in the form of large, flat stones at the bottom of the sea.

Lakúma will also attack people breaking taboos. It is known that a menstruating girl or túrikipa should not eat berries, but one girl thought she could circumvent the rule by sucking out the juices and spitting the solid outer part. Alas, her canoe was attacked by a lakúma, and it refused the offerings tossed at it until it took the girl and devoured her. It then flattened itself out on the surface and rested. The túrikipa’s people went onto the lakúma’s back, took some of the mussels, and used their sharp shells to dismember the lakúma. But that was small comfort for the túrikipa, whose entrails served as a grisly reminder of her fate.

For all their malevolence, lakúma can be tamed by a powerful yékamuš or shaman, and can become obedient servants. One yékamuš was with his wife in their canoe while she scolded him. “I thought you were a powerful yékamuš, but you can’t even strand a whale, or fetch birds to eat!” In response the yékamuš slept and summoned two lakúma, who raised the canoe’s bow up in the air. “Wake up! Help me!” cried his wife, and the yékamuš stirred and spoke nonchalantly. “I thought you said I was powerless”, he taunted, before telling her to paint the lakúma with white paint. She did as she was told, and the lakúma did not resist. Then they dove and created a good breeze to send the canoe effortlessly to its destination. “I had always made fun of you”, admitted the wife, “but now I know you are truly a capable yékamuš!”

References

Gusinde, M.; Schütze, F. trans. (1961) The Yamana; the life and thought of the water nomads of Cape Horn. Human Relations Area Files, New Haven.

Gusinde, M.; Wilbert, J. ed. (1977) Folk Literature of the Yamana Indians. University of California Press, University of California, Los Angeles.