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.

Tetragnathon

Variations: Tetragnathus, Tetragnathius, Solipuga Solipaga, Salpuga, Solifuga

tetragnathon

The Tetragnathon, “four-jawed”, is described by Classical authors as a sort of phalangion, or harmful spider. It is so fearsome that the people neighboring the Akridophagi (locust-eaters) were driven away by swarms of tetragnathons emerging after heavy rain.

Philoumenos describes two forms of tetragnathon. One is flattened, whitish, rough-legged, with two growths on its head at right angles that give the impression of four jaws. The other has a line that divides its mouth across the middle, producing four jaws. Pliny specifies that the most dangerous tetragnathon is the one with two white lines crossing in the middle of the head; the other is ashen-colored shading to white towards its abdomen. Either way the tetragnathon is deadly, biting when sat upon, but its venom can be cured by fresh spring water.

The tetragnathon is probably a solifuge, a spider-like arachnid with enormous chelicerae. It is nonvenomous, but its huge pincer-like mouthparts – easily interpreted as two sets of jaws – can deliver a painful bite.

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.

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.