Onniont

Onniont

The Onniont is a huge serpent of Huron folklore that looks like an armored fish. When it travels, it breaks through everything in its path. Rocks, trees, and bears are all grist to its mill. An onniont is unstoppable. Any small part of it would make a potent talisman.

Nobody ever saw an onniont. According to Jesuit missionaries, however, neighboring Algonquin merchants claimed to sell pieces of onniont, and publicized the legend themselves.

References

Vimont, B. (1858) Relations des Jésuites, v. II. Augustin Coté, Quebec.

Ahuna

Variations: Ahune, Ahunum, Hahanc, Hahane, Hahune, Hahanie, Channa, Cestreus, Fastaroz, Mullet, Swam-fisk, Swamfisck, Swamfysck, Svvamfysck

Swamfisk final - Copy

The long journey of the Ahuna begins in Aristotle, where the cestreus (mullet) is described as the most greedy of all fish, with a frequently distended abdomen. It is edible only when its belly is empty. When threatened it hides its head, convinced that its whole body is hidden that way. In the same sentence Aristotle then mentions the sinodon (dentex) that is carnivorous and eats squid, and the following sentence deals with the channa (grouper) that lacks an oesophagus and whose mouth opens directly into its stomach.

Michael Scot’s translation from the Arabic gives fastaroz for the mullet, theaidoz for dentex, and hahanie for grouper. He also mistranslates the phrase “the dentex is carnivorous and eats squid”, instead assuming that the adjective “carnivorous” applies to the previously-mentioned mullet – not only that, but it becomes self-carnivorous. Now the mullet hides its head when frightened, and consumes itself. Another lapse creates the hahune or ahuna, which exists only as a comparison to the mullet (“the mullet is more voracious than the other fishes and especially that which is known as ahuna”).

By the time Cantimpré compiled his bestiary, mullet, dentex, and grouper were all combined into one creature, the ahuna or hahuna. This sea monster is highly voracious and will feed until its belly swells beyond the size of its own body. Its mouth connects directly to its stomach; in fact, it has no neck or stomach to speak of. When attacked it tucks its head and limbs away in its body like a hedgehog, folding its skin and tissues over itself. It will remain like this until the danger goes away. If hunger strikes while the ahuna is curled up, it will be forced to eat part of itself to assuage its insatiable gluttony.

We are not given any physical description of the ahuna besides its chubbiness. One of Cantimpré’s depictions gives it an avian beak and horizontal wavy stripes; the Ortus Sanitatis, on the other hand, makes the ahuna a literal sea-hedgehog, complete with a curly tail.

The swamfisk described by Olaus Magnus appears off the coast of Norway and otherwise follows the exact description given by Cantimpré. It is much less common than cetaceans and is frequently hunted for its fat and oil, used primarily for treating leather and providing light during the long winter months. If Olaus Magnus was plagiarizing wholesale, the name he uses is unique.

De Montfort, unaware of its origins, believed the swamfisk to be a giant octopus.

References

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.

de Montfort, P. D. (1801) Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particuliere des Mollusques, Tome Second. F. Dufart, Paris.

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

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

Trochus

Variations: Rota

Trochus

The Trochus, “wheel”, or Rota is a huge sea-monster known to swim close to shore in large groups. Schools (pods?) of these have been seen off Athos and Sigeum.

A trochus is fortunately timid, despite having a crest and spines of great size that show above the water. It revolves and contracts and dives deep, uncoiling and rolling and returning to the surface.

The wheel-like resemblance suggests a jellyfish or ray, but the size and behavior makes it clear that the trochus is a whale surfacing and diving.

References

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

Pira-nu

pira-nu

The Pira-nu, “black fish”, is born in old timber canoes lost in the rapids. This Argentinian fish is of great size, with a horse-like head and big eyes. It swims at the surface of the water to capsize canoes, and it quickly devours humans and livestock that have fallen into the water.

References

Ambrosetti, J. B. (1917) Supersticiones y Leyendas. La Cultura Argentina, Buenos Aires.

Abaia

Abaia

There is a lake in British New Guinea. It is deep and full of fish, and Abaia, the magic eel, dwells at the bottom. Abaia does not like to be disturbed. Like many snakes and eels in Melanesian beliefs, it is closely associated with weather, storms, and floods.

Once a man found Abaia’s lake and caught many fish. Then he invited the other inhabitants of his village to share in the endless bounty. They too filled their nets, and one woman caught Abaia himself, but the eel managed to escape.

In retaliation for this affront, Abaia caused it to rain that night. The lake water rose and everyone drowned – everyone, save for one old woman who sought refuge in a tree. She was the only one who had not eaten any of the fish.

References

Dixon, R. B. (1916) The Mythology of All Races v. IX: Oceanic. Marshall Jones Company, Boston.

Beisht Kione Dhoo

Variations: [Yn] Beisht [y] Kione Dhoo ([The] Beast of [the] Black Head); [Yn] Beisht Kione ([The] Beast of Head) (erroneously)

Beisht Kione Dhoo

Fishermen on the Isle of Man have traditionally observed a number of customs. Whistling on board “bothers the wind” and is discouraged. Sticking a knife in the mast on the appropriate side causes the wind to blow from that direction. Losing items on board is bad luck; borrowing items from “lucky” boats brings good luck. Four-footed land animals should not be mentioned by name, but instead by a circuitous sea-name – rats, for instance, are “long-tailed fellows”. Cold iron is a remedy to most acts of bad luck.

Then there is a number of sea creatures that can wreak havoc on fishing vessels. Of the the Beisht Kione Dhoo, the Beast of Black Head, is the most terrifying. It makes its home in the sea-caves on Black Head, near Spanish Head at the southern tip of the Isle of Man. The few who have seen it say it has a head like that of a large horse, and it can be heard roaring by fishermen off Spanish Head. Some say it is the soul of a man killed by pirates in order to protect their treasure hidden in the headland’s caves. Nobody has attempted to claim that treasure.

To placate the Beisht and bring on good luck, rum is left in the cave at Spanish Head. Fishermen heading out to sea would throw a glassful of rum overboard in hopes that the Beisht will grant them a bountiful catch.

References

Broderick, G. (1984) A Handbook of Late Spoken Manx: Grammar and Texts. Max Niemeyer, Tübingen.

Killip, M. (1976) The Folklore of the Isle of Man. Rowman and Littlefield, New Jersey.

Rose, C. (2000) Giants, Monsters, and Dragons. W. W. Norton and Co., New York.

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.

Serra

Variations: Serre, Pristis, Vivella, Sawfish, Saw-fish, Flying Fish

Serra

The Serra (“saw”) or Saw-fish is a mainstay of bestiaries. Traditionally identified with the sawfish, it also includes features of the flying fish and comes with a ready moral message for the benefit of faithful readers.

Pliny mentions a fish named Pristis which is two hundred cubits (over 90 meters) long, is viviparous, and seemingly covered with hair. Pristis was also a common name given by Romans to ships. Isidore of Seville gives us the ur-description of the serra as a fish with a serrated (serratus) crest which cuts through boats as it swims under them.

Later additions expanded on this account. The serra is a huge seagoing fish or monster with gigantic fins. When it sees a ship, it spreads its fins, catching the wind, and chases after the vessel in an attempt to outspeed it. After two hundred yards the serra gets bored, folds its wings, and sinks back into the ocean. The ship represents the Righteous, who press on in the face of adversity, while the serra represents fickle and lazy people who start out trying to be Christians but discourage easily.

Why the serra chases after the ship is uncertain. The moral suggests jealousy, but the propensity of the serra to slice up ships with its saw-crest implies a more malevolent motive. Other accounts describe it as more bloodthirsty, sinking ships to feast on sailors, while some (perhaps confused with dolphins?) are said to take pity on sinking ships and lift them out of the waves.

The serra does not fly, instead using its massive fins move like a sailboat, but medieval artists commonly show it flying above ships anyway. Eventually the serra’s iconography was muddled with the dragon’s, and it became another dog-like or reptilian winged monster.

The position of the saw has also been a subject of contention. Isidore of Seville’s crest (crista) was interpreted in ways ranging from a rooster’s comb to a saw-edged dorsal fin. None of them locate the saw on the end of the nose.

Buel regards the sawfish as an innocent and inoffensive creature. The occasional attacks on boats are attributed to parasitic copepods, whose burrowing into the sawfish’s flesh drives the creature into delirious agony and causes it to lash out at anything nearby.

References

Aldrovandi, U. (1613) De Piscibus, Libri V. Bononiae.

Buel, J. W. (1887) Sea and Land. Historical Publishing Company, Philadelphia.

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

Druce, G. C. (1919) On the Legend of the Serra or Saw-fish. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, Second Series, v. 31.

Hippeau, C. (1852) Le Bestiaire Divin de Guillaume, Clerc de Normandie. A. Hardel, Caen.

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.

Pliny; Bostock, J. and Riley, H. T. trans. (1900) The Natural History of Pliny, v. II. George Bell and Sons, London.

White, T. H. (1984) The Book of Beasts. Dover Publications, New York.

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.