Songòmby

Variations: Songomby, Songaomby, Tsiombiomby, Tsongomby, Bibiaombe; Brech, Brek (probably); Habeby, Fotsiandre (probably); Mangarsahoc (probably); Tòkantòngotra, Tòkandìa. Tokatomboka (probably)

Songomby

The Songòmby is an unusual carnivorous animal from the folklore of Madagascar. The name may be derived from sònga, “having the upper lip turned upwards”, and òmby, “ox” according to Sibree. The word songòmby is taken to mean “lion-hearted” or “courageous”. Another name, bibiaombe , means “ox-animal”. Molet offers two derivations for songòmby:  from the Swahili songo ngomby, “snake ox”, or a corruption of the alternative name tsiombiomby (“looks like an ox”). Domenichini-Ramiaramanana gives a popular etymology as derived from the question many ask when seeing it: Sangoa omby re izany? (“Isn’t that just an ox?”), and a more serious one from songo and omby where songo refers to virgin land allowed to go wild; in this case, the reference is to a feral ox.

Consistent across the descriptions is that the songòmby is the size of an ox or a horse, exceedingly fast, burdened with floppy ears, and a man-eater. It looks something like a horse, a mule, or an ox. It has flaring nostrils and terrible incisors. Its prominent ears dangle over its eyes and can distract it at crucial moments.

Gabriel Ferrand says it has the body of an ox and a hornless horse’s head. It lives in forests and eats plants, insects, and humans. Its speed is beyond compare – a distant songòmby can reach its prey immediately. If its human prey tries to escape by climbing a tree, it will wait at the base of the tree and try to bring the human down by ruse. If that fails it directs a jet of urine at its prey. The victim loses their grip, falls, and is devoured by the songòmby.

R. P. Callet says the songòmby looks like a donkey with spots. It eats grass but if it sees people it chases them. It comes out at night to graze. When climbing mountains they are fast as horses, but when they go down they move slowly because their ears flop over their eyes.

Domenichini-Ramiaramanana describes the songòmby as white in color, very fast, like both a horse and an ox, and with a single horn. It sprinkles itchy hair (lay) from its nostrils. If its prey tries to escape by climbing a tree, the itchiness brought on by the lay will make the victim try to scratch itself, falling out of the tree. Thus, if climbing a tree to avoid a songomby, one must be sure to tie oneself to the branches with lianas. The creature is patient though and will wait till morning at the foot of the tree.

In northern Madagascar the songòmby is like the donkey or the mouflon. It has tufts of hair at its feet. It may have backswept horns or no horns at all. Its hooves are so hard they strike sparks from the ground. Most unusually of all, “it is only seen in profile and looking behind it”. This final clue suggests to Molet that the songòmby evolved from the decorative ch’i-lin on Chinese plates, which is often depicted in profile and looking backwards. The people of Madagascar would have seen those on Chinese plates brought by Arab traders – a trade which was stopped by the Portuguese, leaving the origin of the songòmby to distant history.

To catch a songòmby, a child is tied up in front of the songòmby’s den while a net is put over the entrance. The child’s crying attracts the songòmby, which is snared in the net. Worse than that, children were punished by putting them outside and telling them the songòmby would eat them. But this was not without its risks. A child was once put outside, and the parents called out “Here’s your share, Mr. Songòmby!” As luck would have it, a songòmby was passing by. “Oh, he really is here!” cried the child, but the parents ignored him, replying “Let him eat you!” thinking the child was mistaken. After a while they opened the door to find their child was gone. They followed the trail of blood all the way to the entrance of the songòmby’s cave.

Fortunately the songòmby is not invincible. A man going out by night once met a songòmby, but as he was strong and brave, fought it all night without being hurt. The hero Imbahitrila once defeated a songòmby by arming himself with two magical eggs from the angavola bird. They answered his wish to overcome the songòmby by causing it to trip and fall. Once on the ground the songòmby was easily slain by Imbatrihila’s spear.

The Tòkantòngotra or Tòkandìa (“single-hoof”) is very similar to the songòmby. It is white in color, large (but smaller than the songòmby). Its feet are single hooves, like those of a horse (but not one foot in front and one in the back, as some authors have interpreted). Like the songòmby, it is very fast, travels by night, and is a man-eater.

Flacourt describes an animal called the Mangarsahoc. It is a large beast with a horse’s round hooves and long dangling ears. When it comes down from the mountains, the ears cover its eyes and impair its vision. It brays like a donkey – and, indeed, Flacourt decides that it must be some kind of wild donkey. A mountain 20 leagues from Fort Dauphin is named Mangarsahoc after the animal. Flacourt also mentions an animal called the Brech or Brek, about the size of a goat kid and with a single horn on its forehead. It is very wild in nature. Flacourt determines that “it must be a unicorn”. Both of those seem close enough to the songòmby to be worth mentioning.

The Habeby or Fotsiandre (“white sheep”) looks like a white sheep with long, dangling ears, staring eyes, and short wool. Reclusive and shy, it is not carnivorous, but the description once again recalls the songòmby.

When the horse was first brought to Madagascar, it was believed to be a songòmby (it was eventually saddled with the name soavaly, derived from the French cheval).

References

Domenichini-Ramiaramanana, B. (1983) Du ohabolana au hainteny: langue, littérature et politique à Madagascar. Karthala, Paris.

de Flacourt, E. (1661) Histoire de la Grande Isle Madagascar. Francois Clouzier, Paris.

Molet, L. (1974) Origine Chinoise Possible de Quelques Animaux Fantastiques de Madagascar. Journal de la Soc. des Africanistes, XLIV(2), pp. 123-138.

Sibree, J. (1896) Madagascar Before the Conquest. Macmillan, New York.

Cu Sith

Variations: Fairy Dog

Cu Sith

The Cu Sith (pronounced coo-shee), “fairy dog”, is a great beast associated with the fairies of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Fairy dogs are almost always malevolent and implacable with no love for humans. There are some stories of fairy dogs treating humans with kindness, but these are best regarded with suspicion.

A fairy dog is hideous in appearance. It appears as an enormous dog the size of a two-year-old stirk, with paw-prints as broad as a man’s outspread hand. The fur is dark green, lightening downwards to the paws. The ears are a deeper green in color. The tail may be flat and plaited, or long and coiled over the dog’s back.

During the day the fairies keep their dogs tied up to keep watch, and even untethered fairy dogs will hide in caves by day. Night-time is when they roam free and are at their most dangerous. They run in straight lines, silently; sometimes they make a sound like a galloping horse. They are deadly to humans and beasts, although at least one tale has them driven off by ordinary, mortal dogs.

Most dreaded of all is the cu sith’s bark. A fairy dog will bark three times, with an interval between each bark. The first and second barks are warnings; after the third bark the dogs appear and tear their victims to pieces. On the island of Tiree, those who hear the first baying of a cu sith know to immediately go indoors to safety.

Finding a cu sith tooth, on the other hand, is a sign of very good luck. The tooth itself can be placed in drinking water to cure the illnesses of cows, or in milk to cleanse it of a witch’s influence. The teeth tend to be found in odd places and are abandoned after the animal feeds. MacGregor tells of a farmer in Lewis whose potatoes were being stolen on a nightly basis. Yet stakeouts accomplished nothing – he could never catch the thief in the act. Then one day he found a fairy dog’s tooth sticking out of one of the potatoes. The tooth was passed down in the family for generations.

Cu sith can be avoided. A man traveling near Kennavara Hill, Tiree, saw a large dog (Campbell describes it as black in color) resting on a sand-dune. He gave it a wide berth and made for home. The next day he revisited the dune and found prints as large as his spread palm. These prints made a trackway leading to and disappearing on the plain. The dog had ignored him.

A shepherd from Lorn, Argyll, came upon two cu sith puppies curled up in their lair behind some rocks. They had green backs and sides and – most worryingly – were larger than his own hulking sheepdogs. The shepherd and his dogs wisely left before the parents showed up.

References

Briggs, K. M. (1976) An Encyclopedia of Fairies. Pantheon Books, New York.

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.

MacGregor, A. A. (1937) The Peat-Fire Flame: Folk-tales and Traditions of the Highlands and Islands. The Moray Press, Edinburgh.

Markupo

Variations: Macupo, Marcupo

Markupo

The Markupo is a serpent known to the Hiligaynon of the Philippines. It lives in the highest mountains of the historical province of Bulgas, between Marapara and Canlaon.

In appearance the markupo is a huge snake with a distinctive red crest. Its long tongue has thornlike hairs. It has sharp tusks and a forked tail.

The markupo sings sonorously on clear days. Its exhaled poison is instantly lethal to the touch. If sprinkled on plants, this poison withers the plant, kills any birds that land on it, and kills any beast touched by its shadow.

References

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.

Teakettler

Teakettler

This small Northwoods denizen makes a sound like the whistle of a boiling teakettle. It walks backwards by choice, and clouds of steam come out of its nostrils. Nothing else is known of its appearance as few have ever seen it.

References

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

Brown, C. E. (1935) Paul Bunyan Natural History. Madison, Wisconsin.

Muscaliet

Variations: Muscardin; Dormouse; Musquelibet, Musquelibus, Musquilibet (possibly)

Muscaliet

Nobody is quite sure what a Muscaliet is. Our only source for this unusual rodent is found in the bestiary of Pierre de Beauvais, and it appears to have been cobbled together from multiple unrelated accounts.

The muscaliet is found in India, in the land of the three talking trees that predicted the death of Alexander the Great. This by itself is suspect, as the accounts of Alexander in India only mention two trees, consecrated to the sun and moon. Then again, the sun-tree was said to have spoken twice and the moon-tree once, making for three tree speeches. The life of a copyist was a thankless one.

Beauvais gives the muscaliet a body like a hare, but smaller. Its legs, feet, and tail are like those of a squirrel, but the tail, while held in a squirrel-like manner, is larger. It uses the strength in its tail to jump from tree to tree. Its head is rounded, its ears small and weasel-like, and its nose long and pointed like a mole. There is a tooth sticking out of its mouth on either side, like a boar’s tusks, and it has bristles around its snout like the bristles on a boar’s back.

A muscaliet is a highly adept climber. No animal can catch it in the trees, and its claws are so sharp that it can cling to any surface. It eats fruits, leaves, and flowers and digs out its dens in the roots of trees. It is so “hot by nature” (calde de nature) that the tree it lives in eventually rots, withers, and dies as the muscaliet gnaws away at the roots.

This is a moral lesson. The tree represents a human; its leaves and flowers are good deeds, and its fruits are the soul. But the muscaliet is Pride, its sharp teeth are cutting words that Cruelty brings, and its feet show that cruelty is tenacious. Once Pride takes up residence within us, Beauvais warns, it rots us from the inside out.

The term “muscaliet” itself is an archaic French term for the common dormouse or muscardin (Muscardinus), that which Buffon described as “the least ugly of all the rats”. Its name is derived from its presumed musky odor; whether this attribution came before or after Beauvais’ usage is unclear. The –caliet part of the name superficially suggests heat, which would have inspired our bestiarist to describe it as “hot by nature”. Alternative, “muscaliet” may have been derived from the musquelibet, a creature like a roe deer in size, with an abscess-like growth that produces musk. This is the musk deer Moschus moschiferus, which does have tusks like a boar but little connection to the muscaliet otherwise – not even musk is mentioned.

Is this the fox-sized mouse described by Aristotle? It was a wonder of India found by Alexander, a mouse the size of a fox and with a noxious bite that harmed animals and humans. This sounds like a rat, and perhaps an early allusion to the diseases carried by those animals – rats were unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans, with black rats appearing in late antiquity and brown rats showing up in the 16th century. Tales of rats with toxic bites combined with dormouse and musk-deer anecdotes are likely the basis for the tree-poisoning muscaliet, which exists as a moral warning and not a zoological account.

References

de Beauvais, P.; Baker, C. ed. (2010) Le Bestiaire. Honoré Champion, Paris.

Buffon, G. L. L. (1775) Oeuvres completes de M. le Cte. De Buffon, t. II. Imprimerie Royal, Paris.

Cahier, C. (1856) Bestiaires. Melanges d’Archeologie, 1856(IV), pp. 55-87.

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

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

Godefroy, F. (1901) Lexique de l’Ancien Francais. H. Welter, Paris.

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

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

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

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

Dard

Dard

The Dard is peculiar to the department of Vienne in France, but its physiognomy recalls that of the alpine dragons – and, like them, it probably evolved from mustelid accounts. It is a serpent with four legs and a short viper’s tail. It has the head of a cat and a mane running down its dorsal spine.

Dards drink milk from cows and can produce a terrifying whistle. They are nonvenomous, but bite viciously when provoked.

Peasants in Vienne claimed to recognize the dard’s likeness in the carvings of certain churches.

References

Ellenberger, H. (1949) Le Monde Fantastique dans le Folklore de la Vienne. Nouvelle Revue des Traditions Populaires, 1(5), pp. 407-435.

Arassas

Arassas

The Arassas hails from the folklore of Lagrand in the Hautes-Alpes region of France. It is a greyish-colored animal with the head of a cat and the body of a lizard. It lives in ruined houses and old crumbling walls. Its gaze kills immediately.

Like other European mountain dragons, it is likely derived from superstitions about otters and martens.

References

van Gennep, A. (1948) Le folklore des Hautes-Alpes, Tome II. J. P. Maisonneuve et Cie, Paris.

Come-at-a-body

Variations: Quadrupes improvisus (Tryon)

Come-at-a-body

Bravado and surprise are the weapons of the terrifying Come-at-a-body, a native of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. According to a Mr. B. B. Bickford of Gorham, NH, this is a small, woodchuck-like animal with soft velvety fur like a kitten’s. It runs directly at unsuspecting passers-by from out of the brush and comes to a sudden halt a few inches away from its startled quarry. Then the come-at-a-body spits like a cat, emits a mink-like stench, and runs away again.

References

Tryon, H. H. (1939) Fearsome Critters. The Idlewild Press, Cornwall, NY.

Dingbat

Variations: Bunkeri edithil (Wyman)

Dingbat

The Dingbat of the Great Lakes region is a terrifying hybrid of bird and mammal. It has a short, feathered body, short antlers, and large wings.

Dingbats specialize in tormenting hunters. During the deer season they catch bullets in mid-air, drink gasoline from hunters’ cars, and otherwise play such pranks as to render the sportsmen’s lives miserable. While they have not been seen recently, it is certain that any seemingly sure-fire shot that misses its mark is the work of a dingbat.

The only known dingbat specimen was exhibited at the Buckhorn Tavern (and House of Science and Learning) in Rice Lake, Wisconsin.

Someone who is different and unusual may be referred to as a dingbat.

The Latin name honors Edith Bunker, who plays a human dingbat in a popular televised documentary.

References

Wyman, W. D. (1978) Mythical Creatures of the USA and Canada. University of Wisconsin Press, River Falls.

Calydonian Boar

Variations: Kalydonian Boar

Calydonian Boar

The tragedy of the Calydonian Boar started when King Oineus of Calydon made a sacrifice of firstfruits that left out Artemis. The vengeful goddess sent a monstrous boar to ravage Aitolia. This Calydonian boar was the size of a bull, with red eyes, a high stiff neck with bristles rising like spears, tusks as big as an elephant’s, and fire and lightning flashing from its mouth. It gored people and livestock, plundered the crops, burned the fields, and ruined the harvest.

Oineus begged all the heroes of Greece to save him from the boar. They responded. The team that was formed to hunt the boar included Oineus’ son Meleager, the twins Castor and Polydeuces, Theseus of Athens, Jason of Iolcos, Iphicles of Thebes, Eurytion of Phthia, and Atalanta of Arcadia, among many others. The presence of Atalanta, a woman and a skilled hunter, ruffled a few feathers; some of the men thought it beneath them to hunt with her. Meleager made sure to silence dissent before heading out to find the boar.

Althaia, mother of Meleager and wife of Oineus, watched her son leave without fear. Why would she be afraid for his life? Did the Moirai not foretell that he would only die once a certain log was burnt up – a log that she kept safely locked away in a chest? What could the boar possibly do to him? Her brothers, the sons of Thestios, also went with the party, but she had faith that nobody would come to harm.

It wasn’t hard to find the Calydonian boar. Its spoor was a wake of death and destruction. The sight of the hunting party drove the boar into a furious rage, and the hunters quickly became the hunted. Enaesimus tried to turn and run, but was hamstrung. Nestor narrowly escaped death by using his spear to pole-vault to safety. Hippasus’ thigh was gashed open. Peleus accidentally killed Eurytion with his javelin in the heat of battle. It was Atalanta that drew first blood with an arrow behind the boar’s ear, an action that earned Ancaios’ scorn. “A man’s weapons will always be better than a girl’s! Watch this!” Ancaios hefted his axe just in time to get disemboweled by the boar. Finally Meleager himself stabbed the boar’s flank, killing it.

In due course the boar was skinned and its magnificent hide taken, to be offered to the most valorous of the party. Meleager gave it to Atalanta without hesitation. The sons of Thestios, his uncles, were furious. “A mere woman does not deserve such a prize”, they grumbled. “If Meleager won’t take it, it is ours by right”. Tempers flared. The uncles took the skin by force, provoking Meleager to draw his sword and kill both of them.

Althaia did not take the news well. When she heard her brothers were dead, she seized Meleager’s log and tossed it into the fire in a fit of rage. Meleager was burned up from within and died in agony, envying Ancaios’ swift death at the boar’s tusks. Althaia went on to kill herself in a fit of conscience. Meleager’s sisters wept bitterly until Artemis transformed all but two of them into guineafowl.

So it goes.

References

Buxton, R. (2004) The Complete World of Greek Mythology. Thames & Hudson Ltd, London.

Ovid, Humphries, R. trans. (1955) Metamorphoses. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Smith, R. S. and Trzaskoma, S. M. (2007) Apollodorus’ Library and Hyginus’ Fabulae. Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis.