Kranokolaptes

Variations: Kephalokroustes, Sklerokephalon

kranokolaptes

Nicander classified the Kranokolaptes, the “Head Striker”, as a phalangion or spider. This is all the more puzzling because the description has nothing arachnoid about it. No doubt its deadly bites were seen as reason enough to list it after wolf spiders and malmignattes.

The kranokolaptes is an insect found in Egypt, and which develops in the persea tree (perhaps Mimusops). It has the appearance of a moth, with four downy felt-textured wings that leave an ashy dust behind. Philoumenos described it as green in color, but that is apparently a misreading of Nicander. The head of the kranokolaptes is hard, heavy, and nodding; its abdomen is thick and fat. It has a deadly stinger located below its head.

A kranokolaptes will use its stinger to attack the heads and necks of humans and cause instant death. Kranokolaptes stings are deadly unless victims are treated with its antidote – a kranokolaptes drowned in oil.

It has been suggested that hawkmoths (Sphingidae), with their impressive sizes, thick abdomens, and prominent probosces, are at the root of the kranokolaptes tale. The vampire moth Calyptra thalictri is even more compelling. Having evolved from fruit-piercing moths, vampire moths use the same methods to puncture skin and drink blood – and they rock their heads back and forth as they penetrate, explaining the “nodding” aspect. The similarities end here, however, as a bite from Calyptra merely causes swelling and irritation.

References

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

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

Scytale

Variations: Scytalis (Latin), Scytall, Scicalis, Sciscetalis, Seyseculus, Picalis, Situla; Caecilia (erroneously)

scytale

The Scytale (Greek) or Scitalis (Latin), probably derived from scintilla (“spark” or “glimmer”), is one of the many venomous snakes born from the blood of Medusa in the Libyan desert. It was mentioned in the catalogue of snakes that plagued Lucan and his men, but does not get more than a cursory description.

A scytale shares a lot of characteristics with amphisbaenas: earth-colored, heavy-bodied, blunt-headed and blunt-tailed. But while the amphisbaena has two heads, the scytale only looks like it has two heads. Its tail is rounded, flatter, and thicker than the rest of its body, but the scytale only slithers in one direction. More notably, a scytale has scales, markings, or spots on its back that shimmer and gleam in the colors of the rainbow. Its body generates a lot of heat.

Slow and sluggish, the scytale has no means of running down prey. Instead, it uses the gleaming, iridescent markings on its back to mesmerize onlookers, causing them to draw near and within striking range.

The intense inner heat of the scytale allows it to emerge in the winter to shed its skin, even with frost still on the ground. It shares this cold tolerance with the amphisbaena.

Scytale venom is indistinguishable from amphisbaena and viper venom, and remedies for it are the same.

References

Aldrovandi, U. (1640) Serpentum, et Draconum Historiae. Antonij Bernie, Bologna.

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

Lucan, trans. Rowe, N. (1720) Pharsalia. T. Johnson, London.

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Serpents. E. Cotes, London.

Shādawār

Variations: Shadhahvar, Shadhahwar, Shādhahvār, Shad-hawar, Shād-hawār, Shad-havar, Shadhawar, Shadahvar, Shadahwar, Shadawar, Sadahvar, Sadahwar, Sadhavvar, Sadhazar, Sadhazag, Sadhuzag, Aras, ‘rs, ‘rsh

Shad-hawar

The earliest references to the musical-horned unicorn are given by Jabir Ibn Hayyan, around 900 A.D., where it is referred to as the Aras. It was given its most popular incarnation as the Shādawār by Al-Qazwini, which was subsequently copied with modifications by Al-Damiri and Al-Mustawfi. It was found in the farthest reaches of Bilad al-Rum, the Byzantine Empire, a vague location which to Al-Qazwini must have sounded remote.

Exactly how the shādawār’s name should be written and pronounced is unclear. Its writing has varied from author to author and manuscript to manuscript, sometimes starting with a Sā instead of a Shā, with the middle consonant being either a d or a dh (pronounced “the”), and ending in wār (Arabic) or vār (Persian). The spelling chosen here is ultimately arbitrary and based on Ettinghausen and Jayakar’s recommendations, and the most prevalent transliterations. The name is of unknown origin, but Hayyan’s aras is probably derived from “oryx”.

Unlike the more rhinocerine karkadann, the shādawār is an antelope-like ungulate with a single horn, but in this case it is long and hollow. There are forty-two hollow branches in the horn, and wind whistling through these flute-like holes results in beautiful, stirring melodies, so lovely that other animals will gather around to listen. Shādawār horns were offered to kings, who would hang them up as musical intruments. Depending on the angle they were held at, they would produce an enthralling tune or a sad dirge that moved all listeners to tears.

The shādawār has been incorrectly described as a flesh-eater, using its music to attract potential prey. In fact, Al-Qazwini makes no mention of any carnivorous tendencies. Al-Mustawfi, however, combines Al-Qazwini’s account of the shādawār with that of the carnivorous Sirānis immediately preceding it. It is the sirānis that lures prey to it with its music, and not the herbivorous shādawār.

Al-Damiri and Bochart give it seventy-two branches on its horn. Flaubert goes further and describes his “sadhuzag” as a black deer with the head of a bull, and a thicket of white horns on its head. It speaks to Anthony, describing its unique powers. “My seventy-four antlers are hollow as flutes. When I turn towards the South wind, sounds come out that attract enraptured beasts. Snakes coil around my legs, wasps cling to my nostrils, and parrots, doves, and ibises roost in my branches. – Listen! … But when I turn to the North wind, my antlers, thicker than a battalion of lances, exhale a howl; forests shudder, rivers retreat, fruit bulbs burst, and grasses stand on end like the hair of a coward. – Listen!”

References

Bochart, S. (1675) Hierozoicon. Johannis Davidis Zunneri, Frankfurt.

el-Cheikh, N. M. Byzantium through the Islamic Prism from the Twelfth to the Thirteenth Century. In Laiou, A. E. and Mottahedeh, R. P. (2001) The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim World. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D. C.

Contadini, A. Musical Beasts: The Swan-Phoenix in the Ibn Bakhtishu’ Bestiaries. In O, Kane, B. (2005) The Iconography of Islamic Art. Edinburgh University Press.

Contadini, A. (2012) A World of Beasts: A Thirteenth-Century Illustrated Arabic Book on Animals (the Kitab Na’t al-Hayawan) in the Ibn Bakhtishu’ Tradition. Brill, Leiden.

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

Ettinghausen, R. (1950) The Unicorn. Studies in Muslim Iconography, Freer Gallery of Art Occasional Papers Vol. 1, No. 3, Washington.

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

Jayakar, A. S. G. (1908) ad-Damiri’s Hayat al-Hayawan (A Zoological Lexicon). Luzac and Co., London.

Kraus, P. (1986) Jabir Ibn Hayyan : Contribution à l’historie des idées scientifiques dans l’Islam. Société d’Édition Les Belles Lettres, Paris.

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.

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.

Chimera

Variations: Chimaera, Chimaira

Chimera

The Chimera or Chimaera (“goat”) was the daughter of Typhon and Echidna. She was the terror of Lycia in southern Turkey, killing people and livestock and torching crops.

Homer describes her as being a lion in front, a serpent behind, and a goat in the middle, with the power of breathing fire. Hesiod specifies that she had three heads. The lion’s head was in its customary place, the snake’s head was on the end of the tail, and the goat’s head emerged tumorously from the middle. Hyginus gives all three heads the ability to breathe fire, while Apollodorus states that only the goat head could do so, functioning as some kind of shoulder-mounted flamethrower.

While Homer’s description might suggest a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a snake’s tail, the Chimera has been consistently represented in Greek art with multiple heads. Usually she is mostly lion with a snake tail; the goat has proven tricky to depict convincingly, ranging from a head to the entire front half of a goat. Some Etruscan renditions add wings. The iconography behind the Chimera may go back farther, and may be of Asian origin. The term has also been used to describe various unrelated hybrid animals, with or without multiple heads.

She was finally slain by Bellerophon, who had been sent to Lycia to die. The wife of King Proitos had fallen madly in love with him; after he rejected her advances, she told her husband that Bellerophon had tried to seduce her. Enraged, the king dispatched Bellerophon to Iobates of Lycia, bearing a message requesting him to kill the messenger. Iobates sent him to battle the Chimera – surely an impossible task.

But Bellerophon had the favor of the gods, and the aid of the winged horse Pegasus. Mounted on Pegasus’ back, he easily flew out of range of the Chimera’s fiery breath, and shot her to death with arrows. Some accounts add that he rammed a lump of lead into her throat, where it melted and suffocated her.

Chimera bwChimera was a study in contradictions. Her three components did not make any sense together. Her name meant “goat”, but the goat was the least coherent part of her, reduced to a mere head in an anatomically dubious position. Evidently something so contradictory as the Chimera needed a rational explanation, even to the ancient Greeks. Plutarch believed she was inspired by a pirate captain, whose ship was decorated with the three component animals. Servius Honoratus said she was a loose interpretation of the Lycian landscape. Mount Chimera was a volcano, with snakes at its base, goats wandering around its heights, and a pride of lions at the top. Bellerophon, arriving on his ship Pegasus, set fire to the mountain and eradicated the dangerous animals.

The Etruscans dedicated the Chimera to the supreme god Tinia. The Etruscan Arezzo bronze of the Chimera remains the most enduring image produced of her. As a hybrid she was both celestial and chthonic, representing the year and the seasons. The lion, hot and strong, was summer; the snake, cold and ground-dwelling, was winter; and the transitory goat was spring and summer.

In The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the Chimera is a great, green-eyed, dragon-winged creature with a luxuriant mane; she is as capricious as desire and imagination. She reveals breathtaking new perspectives to humans, pours insanity, ambitions, hopes, and dreams into their minds, drives people to dangerous quests, and kills anyone content in wisdom. She is woefully incompatible with the rational, stoic Sphinx, and their attempts at copulation fail.

“Chimera” has entered our vocabulary in a number of ways, always in reference to incongruity. A chimera or something chimeric is fanciful, improbable, and imaginary. A chimera can also mean an organism with distinct cells from different zygotes. Finally, Chimaera is a genus of deep-sea fish, named after its bizarre appearance.

References

Bazopoulou-Kyrkanidou, E. (2001) Chimeric Creatures in Greek Mythology and Reflections in Science. American Journal of Medical Genetics 100:66-80.

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

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

Hesiod; trans. Elton, C. A. (1832) The Theogony. In Hesiod. A. J. Valpy, London.

Homer, trans. Buckley, T. A. (1851) The Iliad of Homer. Henry G. Bohn, London.

Locatelli, D. and Rossi, F. (2010) Les Étrusques: Pouvoir – religion – vie quotidienne. Série Civilisations, Hazan.

Roes, A. (1934) The Representation of the Chimaera. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 54, Part 1, pp. 21-25.

Schmitt, M. L. (1966) Bellerophon and the Chimaera in Archaic Greek Art. American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 70, No. 4, pp. 341-347.

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

Till, B. (1980) Some Observations on Stone Winged Chimeras at Ancient Chinese Tomb Sites. Artibus Asiae, Vol. 42, No. 4, pp. 261-281.

Stymphalian Bird

Variations: Stymphalide, Bird of Ares

Stymphalian bird 2

Pausanias theorized that the Stymphalian birds originated in Arabia, citing the presence of fierce desert birds known as the Stymphalides. He then admits that the population found at Stymphalos, in Arcadia, may have been the result of a few wayward birds making their way into Greece. Following this line of reasoning, Pausanias deduces that they earned the name of Stymphalides due to their fame in Greece, and the name then supplanted whatever name they originally had in Arabia!

The appearance of the Stymphalian birds is no less muddled. Their most feared weapon is the sharpened, pointed tips of their wing feathers, which they fling like darts to stab their prey. Sometimes their feathers and beaks are made of bronze or iron, the better for piercing armor. Pausanias described them as about crane-sized, but resembling the ibis in shape, but with a stronger bill; elsewhere he says they are like hawks or eagles. In Greek art they have been represented as ibises, swans, and other such waterfowl; at least one obol from Stymphalos shows a bird with a short crest and a stout, powerful bill. Finally, no doubt influenced by tales of harpies and sirens, the temple of Stymphalian Diana also has stone statues of virgins with birds’ feet.Stymphalian bird bw

It remains true that the Stymphalian birds were first and foremost associated with Lake Stymphalia. They terrorized the region, ravaging crops, killing people, and poisoning the ground with their dung. Fox suggests that the legend originated as a glamorization of a plague or pestilence rising from the marshes, which would explain their noxious qualities. While their feathered darts could pierce armor, they were powerless against a certain type of tree bark, which held them fast like quicklime. There was only so much bark to go around, though, and the birds seemed numberless.

It was this scourge that Heracles was sent to destroy. As his sixth labor, it was one of a list of impossible tasks, and indeed the vast numbers of birds seemed beyond the hero’s strength. Heracles got around this by exploiting a simple fact – despite their numbers and ferocity, Stymphalian birds were as easily spooked as sparrows. Fashioning a pair of bronze castanets, he made such a din that the flock took off in a panic; from there he shot a great number down with his arrows, while the remainder of the birds flew off and were never seen in Arcadia again.

That was not the end of the Stymphalian birds, as from Greece they made their way to the Black Sea and populated the Island of Ares, where they became sacred guardians to the god of war. It was this flock that Jason and his Argonauts encountered on their way to Colchis. While the birds of Ares managed to wound the Argonaut Oileus with a feather projectile, they were scared off once more by the noise of rattling bronze armor, but not before pelting the Argonauts with a hailstorm of feathers.

References

Aldington, R. and Ames, D. trans.; Guirand, F. (1972) New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Paul Hamlyn, London.

Ames, D. trans.; Guirand, F. (1963) Greek Mythology. From Mythologie Generale Larousse. Paul Hamlyn, London.

Apollonius, Coleridge, E.P. trans. (1889) The Argonautica. George Bell and Sons, London.

Fox, W. M. (1964) The Mythology of All Races v. I: Greek and Roman. Cooper Square Publishers, New York.

Pausanias, Levi, P. trans. (1979) Guide to Greece, volume 2: Southern Greece. Penguin Books, London.