Crowing Crested Cobra

Variations: Njoka Tambala (Malawi); Bubu (Shupanga, Mozambique); Hongo (Ngindo); Indlondlo (Zulu); Inkhomi (“Killer”, Nyakyusa); Kovoko (Nyamwezi); Limba (Chitipa District, Malawi); Nguluka (Chitipa District, Malawi); Ngoshe (Bemba); Noga-putsane (“Goat-snake”, Botswana); Songo, Songwe (Yao); Black Mamba, Dendroaspis polylepis

Crowing Crested Cobra is a blanket term used for a number of crested, noise-making venomous snakes. It is one of the most widespread legends in East African folklore, and it is also known from the West Indies, especially Jamaica and Santo Domingo.

A crowing crested cobra is a snake similar to a cobra with a crest on its head and capable of making sounds like a rooster. Those sounds range from crowing to clear bell-like notes to bleating. Sometimes wattles are present as well. The snake is venomous and very dangerous.

Livingstone reported the death of a little girl in Mozambique caused by an enormous snake that dashed at the child, bit her, and made off into a hole. This snake was known as Bubu to the people of the area, and they describe it as twelve feet long, dark with a dirty blue color under its belly, and with red markings on its head like the wattles of a rooster. It will hide in a tree and strike passers-by one after the other, killing them in short order. To protect against it, a pot of boiling water or porridge should be carried on the head. The snake will try to bite that and kill itself in the process, or at least get scalded and discouraged from future attempts. Nonetheless, Livingstone admits that one “will probably recognize the Mamba in this snake”. He also makes separate mention of another, different snake that makes a sound like the crowing of a cockerel, adding that “this is well authenticated”.

Shircore claimed to have in his possession the bony skeleton of the fleshy comb as well as part of the neck with some vertebrae in it, five lumbar vertebrae, and a single 22-mm by 16-mm dorsal vertebra from a very large snake. He describes the crowing crested cobra as growing 18 to 20 feet long. It is buff-colored, with a red crest that points forward. The male has wattles as well. There is no hood like a cobra’s. The head is small for the size of the body, while the bones of the skull are denser than usual. It moves very fast and can climb trees. The male crows like a rooster, while the female clucks, te te te te. Both sexes make a warning sound, chu chu chu chu, repeated rapidly. Shircore also attributes to the crowing crested cobra or Inkhomi a diet of maggots, explaining that it kills indiscriminately to create more food for maggots. It is tolerated around villages, where mutual respect keeps it and humans apart. It is also intimately associated with sorcery and witchcraft; chieftains and witch doctors wear pieces of it, and parts of its body are used in curative preparations. Parts of the snake in mixtures amplify the potion’s effects. Shircore gives it a range of the lower Zambezi in the South to Victoria Nyanza in the North, Lake Tanganyika in the West, and the Indian Ocean in the East.

Loveridge equates the crowing crested cobra with the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis). Tellingly, he also gives songo and songwe as the native names of the black mamba – and Shircore also gives songo as the name of the crowing crested cobra.

Similarly vocal snakes are found throughout East Africa. The Limba of Malawi is crested and crows. It can be found in the Mafinga Ridge. The fierce Nguluka has the head of a snake on the body of a guineafowl. Noga-putsane, the “goat snake” or “serpent of a kid”, bleats like a goat to attract its victims. Livingstone claimed to have heard one calling from a spot where no kid could have been. The Zulu plumed viper Indlondlo is also known to bleat. Finally, even the umdlebe or dead man’s tree, said to kill anyone that approaches it and strike birds dead in flight, is said to bleat like a goat!

Rationalizations for the combinations of features include a snake trying to eat a loudly protesting rooster, and a snake that was sloughing its skin, with pieces of dead skin giving the impression of a crest and wattles around the head. The snake and rooster are strongly involved in voodoo belief, which give a cultural background to the creature. The resemblance to the basilisk is also notable.

Calls attributed to the crowing crested cobra are usually the work of rails. These are small, retiring birds with a tendency to call at dusk or at night. Flufftails in particular have particularly haunting calls. The call of the buff-spotted flufftail (Sarothrura elegans) has been connected to the crowing crested cobra, as well as to banshees, to a chameleon giving birth, to a chameleon mourning for its mother which it accidentally killed in a squabble over mushrooms, and to giant snails.

References

Collins, W. B. (1959) The Perpetual Forest. J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadephia.

Hargreaves, B. J. (1984) Mythical and Real Snakes of Chitipa District. The Society of Malawi Journal, Vol. 37, No. 1, pp. 40-52.

Hichens, W. (1937) African Mystery Beasts. Discovery (Dec): 369-373.

del Hoyo, J.; Elliott, A.; and Sargatal, J. (eds.) (1996) Handbook of the Birds of the World vol. 3. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Livingstone, D. (1857) Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. John Murray, London.

Loveridge, A. (1953) Zoological Results of a Fifth Expedition to East Africa III: Reptiles from Nyasaland and Tete. Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College, 110(3), pp. 143-322.

Parker, H. W. (1963) Snakes of the World. Dover Publications, New York.

Shircore, J. O. (1944) Two Notes on the Crowing Crested Cobra. African Affairs, 43(173), pp. 183-186.

Stuart, C. and Stuart, T. (1999) Birds of Africa. The MIT Press, Cambridge.

Waller, H. W. (1874) The Last Journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa, v. II. John Murray, London.

Questing Beast

Variations: Beste Glapissante; Beste Glatissant, Bête Glatissante, Glatisant Beast; Beste Diverse, Bête Diverse, Diverse Beste, Diverse Beast; Besta Ladrador, Besta Desasemelhada (Portuguese, from the Demanda); Barking Beast, Yelping Beast

The Questing Beast is a creature of many names, sizes, and appearances. Several features, however, are consistent throughout its appearances in Arthurian legend. First, it very noisy, its offspring within its belly baying and yelping constantly. It is also always a portentous creature, but what it symbolizes has varied from author to author. Finally, it is commonly pursued or hunted, whether by knights or by its own offspring within its belly, and often ends up giving birth in the process.

Although “Questing Beast” has been popularized in the English-speaking world by Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, the creature is more commonly known as the Beste Glatissant or Beste Glapissant (in modern French, Bête Glatissante or Bête Glapissante). Glatir or glapir refers to the sound coming from the creature’s belly, a yelping or baying sound like those of hounds chasing prey. This is also the definition of “questing”; a more accurate modern name would be the Yelping Beast or Barking Beast.

The concept of noisy animals in their mother’s womb precedes the Questing Beast. William of Malmesbury describes a dream that was had by King Eadgar. In it, the king sees a pregnant hunting dog lying at his feet. She was silent, but the pups in her womb were barking loudly. This was interpreted as meaning that after King Eadgar’s death, miscreants within his kingdom would bark against the church of God. In the Slavic Twelve Dreams of Sehachi, the titular character dreams of a foal neighing within a mare’s belly, and whelps barking in a dog’s belly; these are interpreted as mothers acting immodestly with their daughters and children rejecting the advice of their parents, respectively.

Another contributor to the genesis of the Questing Beast is the supernatural boar hunt. The most famous examples of those are the boar Twrch Trwyth and the sow Henwen. The latter is even more closely connected to the Questing Beast; like the Beast, Henwen (“Ancient White”) is white in color, and dangerously fecund. Her offspring were to be harmful to Britain, so she was hunted across the country, giving birth along the way to various young. Finally, Henwen disappeared into the sea at Penryn Awstin, similar to the stricken Questing Beast diving into a lake.

The oldest iterations of the Questing Beast have it encountered by Perceval over the course of his search for the Grail. In the Perlesvaus, Perceval finds a beautiful glade, with a red cross at the center of it. A knight dressed in white is seated at the far end of the glade, with a fair young damsel next to him. Soon a snow-white, emerald-eyed creature, between a fox and a hare in size, enters the glade. The whelps in its womb are barking like hounds, and it is terrified and agitated because of that. Perceval tries to take the small Beast onto his horse, but he is cautioned by the knight, who tells him the Beast has a destiny to fulfill. The Beast runs to the cross, where its twelve young are brought forth. They immediately tear their mother to pieces, but can only devour her head. Upon doing so, they go mad and scatter into the forest. King Pelles later explains the significance of the creature to Perceval: it represents Jesus Christ, and the twelve hounds that killed it and scattered are the twelve tribes of Israel.

Gerbert de Montreuil’s continuation of Perceval borrows from the Perlesvaus. We are not given a description of the Beast, but are instead told that it is grant a merveille (“marvelously large”). The Beast’s young are barking and yelping from within its belly, and when it comes up to the cross in the glade, they emerge violently, breaking it in two pieces. The young then devour their mother before going mad, turning on and killing each other. This bloody episode has a far more mundane meaning – Perceval is told that the loud, murderous whelps are the people who disturb church services by talking loudly and complaining about hunger!

In the Estoire du Saint Graal, there is a Beste Diverse (“Diverse Beast”) found beside a cross. No mention is made of its yelping, but it is white as snow, and has the head and neck of an ewe, the legs of a dog, black thighs, the body of a fox, and the tail of a lion. In the prose Merlin, the Diverse Beste or Beste Diverse sounds like 30 or 40 baying hounds and is moult grant (“very big”). Perceval is destined to hunt it.

In the prose Tristan, the Beste Glatissant has the legs of a stag, the thighs and tail of a lion, the body of a leopard, and the head of a snake; its yelping is equal to that of a hundred hunting hounds. The addition of snake, leopard, and lion elements grant it unsavory connotations; the combination of lion and leopard is reminiscent of the Beast of the Apocalypse, and a snake or dragon is always inauspicious.

No longer a creature of purity torn apart by its own offspring, the Questing Beast is now an evil, wretched being spawned from violence. Its mother was the daughter of King Ypomenes, who lusted for her brother. When she could not have him, she instead turned to a devil, who slept with her and convinced her to accuse her brother of attempting to rape her. He was duly sentenced to be torn apart by dogs. As he died, the brother proclaimed that his sister would give birth to a monster, one from whose belly the barking of dogs would forever remind others of his shameful death. As predicted, the daughter gave birth to the Questing Beast, and she was executed for her crimes.

The Saracen knight Palamides had particular reason to hate the Questing Beast, as its horrid shriek had killed eleven of his twelve brothers. In the Portuguese Demanda, the Questing Beast is finally slain during the last years of the Grail quest, when Palamides strikes it and it runs into a lake that immediately starts to boil. The lake has since then become known as the Lake of the Beast.

Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, the foremost mention of the Questing Beast in English literature, follows the prose Tristan in its description. The Questing Beast is said to have a head like a serpent’s, a body like a leopard’s, buttocks like a lion’s, and feet like a hart. Its belly made a noise like thirty couple hounds barking. King Arthur first sees the Questing Beast after an illicit tryst with the wife of King Lot of Orkney. Arthur had stopped to rest by a well when the Questing Beast, making a horrid din, came up to drink from it. As it drank, the noise coming from its belly was quelled, but it started up against as soon as the creature had finished and ran off. Arthur then encountered Sir Pellinore, who hunted the Questing Beast. After Pellinore’s death, the task of hunting the Questing Beast was passed on to Sir Palamides.

Merlin later revealed to Arthur the significance of the Questing Beast. The king had seen the beast because he, too, had just done something unforgivable. The wife of King Lot was in fact his sister on his mother’s side, and the child of this adulterous and incestuous union – Mordred – was destined to destroy Arthur’s kingdom.

References

Evans, S. (1903) The High History of the Holy Graal. J. M. Dent & Co., London.

Gaster, M. (1900) The Twelve Dreams of Sehachi. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, pp. 623-635.

Löseth, E. (1891) Le Roman en Prose de Tristan, analyse critique. Emile Bouillon, Paris.

Malory, T. (1956) Le Morte d’Arthur, v. I. J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London.

Malory, T. (1956) Le Morte d’Arthur, v. II. J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London.

Nitze, W. A. (1902) The Old French Grail Romance Perlesvaus, A Study of its Principal Sources. John Murphy Company, Baltimore.

Nitze, W. A. (1936) The Beste Glatissant in Arthurian Romance. Zeitschrift für Romanische Philologie, 56, pp. 409-418.

Paris, G. and Ulrich, J. (1886) Merlin: Roman en Prose du XIIIe Siècle, t. I. Librairie de Firmin Didot et Cie., Paris.

Pickford, C. E. (1959) L’evolution du Roman Arthurien en Prose vers la Fin du Moyen Age. A. G. Nizet, Paris.

Williams, M. (1925) Gerbert de Montreuil: La Continuation de Perceval, t. II. Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, Paris.

Grand’Goule

Variations: Grand’Gueule, Grande Goule, Grande Gueule; Bonne Sainte Vermine (Good Holy Vermin)

The Grand’Goule (corrupted from grande gueule, “great gullet” or more simply “big mouth”) is one of many French dragons associated with cities and their patron saints. In this case, it is linked with Poitiers. The current and best-known effigy, created by one Gargot, dates to 1677. The tradition itself goes back at least to 1466, where “the dragon” is mentioned in a list of banners and insignia carried during a rogation day procession.

As seen in its carved effigy at the abbey of Saint-Croix, the Grand’Goule is a monstrous bat-winged dragon with a gaping mouth. It is armed with hooked claws and a forked scorpion’s stinger. It is bronze green in color with a red collar around its neck.

The dragon terrorized Poitiers until it was slain. One account says that Saint Radégonde of Poitiers killed it through a fervent prayer – a prayer which literally flew like a projectile and hit the dragon like a crossbow bolt. Another tale says that a condemned criminal volunteered to slay the dragon, but he perished from its poisonous breath in his moment of triumph.

Scotsman John Lauder reported seeing the remains of a “hideous crocodile” with a huge mouth chained to a wall in a palais in Poitiers. The relic was believed to be centuries old and though to have been spontaneously generated from rotting matter in the prison, although Lauder expressed his doubt on the last matter. It killed several prisoners before being shot by a condemned man, who won his life by doing so.

Traditionally the Grand’Goule was brought out on rogation days, paraded along with the relic of the True Cross. It was decorated with ribbons and banderoles and treated with respect, with cherries, tarts, and pastries – golden-brown casse-museaux, literally “snout-breakers” – tossed into its mouth. It is affectionately referred to as the Bonne Sainte Vermine, the “Good Holy Vermin”.

References

de Chergé, C. (1872) Guide du Voyageur à Poitiers et aux Environs. Librairie Létang, Poitiers.

Clouzot, H. (1897) Spectacles Populaires en Poitou. La Tradition en Poitou et Charentes, pp. 305-317.

Clouzot, H. (1901) L’Ancien Théatre en Poitou. Bulletin et Mémoires de la Société des Antiquaires de l’Ouest, XXIV(2), pp. 153-521.

Foucart, E. V. (1841) Poitiers et ses Monuments. A. Pichot, Poitiers.

Lauder, J.; Crawford, D. ed. (1900) Journals of Sir John Lauder, Lord Fountainhall. University Press, Edinburgh.

de la Marsonnière, J. L. (1883) Un Drame au Logis de la Lycorne. H. Oudin, Poitiers.

de Plancy, J. C. (1863) Dictionnaire Infernal. Henri Plon, Paris.

Skvader

The Skvader is a taxidermist’s chimera found in Sundsvall, in the Swedish province of Medelpad. It is a winged hare, combining the skins of a European hare and a capercaillie.

The original skvader was made by Rudolf Granberg in 1918, based on an illustration of a hunter’s tall tale from 1874. It was preserved in a museum in Sundsvall and has since then become an unofficial symbol of Medelpad.

References

Fraser, M. (1947) In Praise of Sweden. Methuen and Co. Ltd., London.

Panafieu, J. and Renversade, C. (2014) Créatures fantastiques Deyrolle. Plume De Carotte, Toulouse.

Lidérc

Variations: Ludvérc, Mit-mitke, Ignis Fatuus

The Lidérc or Ludvérc is a polymorphic and polyvalent entity from Hungary. In its various guises, it appears as a will-o’-the-wisp, an astral phenomenon, a sexual vampire, a sleep nightmare, a sorcerer’s familiar, and a household spirit.

The origin of the term lidérc is unknown. It may or may not be of Slavic origin. In current Hungarian it usually refers to a flickering light or a marsh flame. It is also part of the compound words lidércfény, “will-o’-the-wisp”, and lidércnyomás, literally “lidérc pressure”, referring to nightmares and mental depression.

In its most spectacular form the lidérc is a shooting star or flame that travels through the air. In Zala County it appears as a fiery rod that excretes fire. A lidérc in Zselicség appeared as a staddle that caused outbreaks of fire and burned down pig-pens. Elsewhere a lidérc might be a marsh flame, a star, or a fiery person. It can breathe fire and make flames break out wherever it wishes.

A lidérc picks unhappy lovers as victims – widows, widowers, wives or those betrothed to soldiers, all are fair game to the lidérc. It flies into their house and takes the form of their loved one, whether male or female. It seduces them, giving them their heart’s desire while slowly draining them of their life and vitality. The victims waste away until they are literally loved to death, whereupon the lidérc becomes a star again and sets off in search of new prey.

While accomplished and silver-tongued mimics, a lidérc cannot change at least one of its legs, which is a bony, scaly leg of a goose or chicken, or even the iron shod foot of a horse. Scattering ashes at the doorstep will reveal that one foot wears a boot, while the other is that of a goose, and expose the lidérc. A lidérc can also be prevented from entering a house in the usual ways – garlic, trouser-cord, and other repellents will keep a lidérc at bay.

One such lidérc was reported from Gajcsána, as told by Jószef Jankó of Baranya County and collected by Mária Vámos in 1961. The village bell-ringer’s daughter wished to sleep in the barn, and her father set a bed for her there according to her wishes. She slept there throughout the summer. She seemed happy enough with the arrangement, but the bell-ringer and his wife couldn’t help but notice that she was losing weight and seemed constantly dizzy.

One night, the bell-ringer chanced to see a shooting star coming to Earth above his barn. Determined to understand what was going on, he confronted his daughter, asking if she had been seeing anyone recently, and she finally confessed to being in love with a handsome young man who visited her every evening. Sure enough, that night the watchful father saw the star land outside the barn, transform into a handsome lad, and walk in.

The next day, the bell-ringer decided to switch places with his daughter, despite her protests. He had her stay in the house, while he wore her clothes and ducked under the blankets in the barn. It wasn’t long before the lidérc arrived and lay in bed next to him. The father carefully ran his hand down the suitor’s leg – it was the scaly leg of a goose. Now aware of what he was up against, the bell-ringer ran out of the barn with the lidérc on his tail, and managed to enter the house and lock the door in time.

After that incident, the daughter remained safely at home, and the bed in the barn became host to a straw dummy smeared with excrement and waste. The lidérc was furious, spitting fire and throwing sparks all over the barn, but to no avail. After several more nights, the lidérc gave up and was never seen again.

The term lidérc also refers to a household spirit, one which is hatched from the first-laid egg of a black pullet that has been incubated under the armpit. The lidérc-chicken that hatches is featherless and latches onto the man who cared for it. It is intelligent and can talk. It will fetch treasure and do its master’s bidding, and subsist on butter, but in reality it is the master that has to fear the lidérc. The lidérc will constantly need new tasks to accomplish, and if its master does not provide it with such distractions, it will pester him from dawn to dusk. Eventually it will kill such an uncooperative master.

To rid oneself of a domestic lidérc, one must give it a task that is patently impossible, so impossible that the creature will be forced to quit or die of frustration. Traditional examples include fetching sand in a sieve, or squeezing themselves through a tiny hole in a tree-trunk, while one modern example is to making a telephone out of sand. Such tasks should be beyond even the most creative lidérc.

References

Dégh, L. (trans. Halász, J.) (1965) Folktales of Hungary. The University of Chicago Press.

Dömötor, T. (1982) Hungarian Folk Beliefs. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Yam Bhaya Akhoot

Variations: Abang Aku (Malay, corruption), A Bao a Qu (corruption)

The Yam Bhaya Akhoot is a mysterious, amorphous being that lives at the bottom of the stairway of the Vijay Stambha, the Tower of Victory, in Chittorgarh, India. By night it haunts the Bhimlat Kund water tank.

Normally the Yam Bhaya Akhoot is in a dormant state, and is invisible. But when visitors start climbing the tower, it follows them up the stairs, remaining on the well-worn outside the steps. It can see through its whole body. Blue light starts to glow through its skin, which is translucent and feels like the skin of a peach. With each step covered its shape becomes clearer and its blue glow stronger. Tentacular appendages appear at the halfway point of the staircase.

It will only follow a fully self-realized person to the top of the stairs. If the Yam Bhaya Akhoot realizes that the person it’s following is unworthy, it lets out a sigh like the rustling of silk and tumbles down the stairs all the way back to the first step, where it awaits the next visitor. But if the person it follows is fully self-realized and blameless, then it will reach the top with them, become their aura, and guide them to Nirvana. This event has happened only once, and sadly is probably impossible today since the top of the tower was covered by a dome in more recent times.

Ethereal and benign, the Yam Bhaya Akhoot’s origin may be more sinister. One suggestion is that it is the ghost of the leader of the Nakshatra Meenu, the giant brittle stars that invaded the Konkan Coast. It had been captured and presented generations later to the ruler of Mewar.

In Malaysia the Yam Bhaya Akhoot is known as Abang Aku, probably a corruption of its name and which can be read as “elder brother”. This is turn was further corrupted to “A Bao A Qu”, a term which was used and popularized by J. L. Borges. Furthermore, Borges also confusingly attributes it to either C. C. Iturvuru’s On Malay Witchcraft or Richard Francis Burton’s The Thousand and One Nights depending on the version of his book.

References

Bhairav, J. F. and Khanna, R. (2020) Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India. Blaft Publications, Chennai.

Borges, J. L.; trans. di Giovanni, N. T. (1969) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Clarke, Irwin, & Co., Toronto.

Borges, J. L.; trans. di Giovanni, N. T. (2002) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Vintage Classics, Random House, London.

Borges, J. L. (1978) El Libro de los Seres Imaginarios. Emece Editores, Buenos Aires.

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

Borges, J. L. (2009) Manual de Zoologia Fantastica. Fondo de Cultura Economica, Mexico.

Worm of Haftvad

Among the many stories told in the Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings, is that of Haftvad. Haftvad had seven sons, as his name indicates, and lived in a poor but hard-working town on the Persian Gulf during the reign of Shah Ardashir.

It came to pass that Haftvad’s daughter, who was busy spinning cotton, interrupted her work to eat an apple. Inside her apple there was a worm. Instead of tossing it aside in disgust, she saw it as a good omen, and put it in her spindlecase. “Thanks to this lucky worm”, she told her friends, “you will be amazed at what I’ll do”. The other girls laughed, but by the evening she had spun twice as much as she usually did.

Thus Haftvad’s daughter went on spinning, and every day she fed the worm a piece of apple, and the cotton practically spun itself into fine thread. Her industriousness did not go unnoticed by her parents, and she willingly showed them her secret. Haftvad decided to abandon all his work to care for the wondrous worm. He fed it nourishing food, and the worm grew larger and larger, outgrowing the spindlecase. Its skin was like black musk with a saffron-colored pattern on it, and Haftvad put it in a black chest.

The worm brought fortune to Haftvad and the whole town. Eventually a nobleman complained about Haftvad’s success, but Haftvad recruited an army from among his followers, took control of the town, and killed the nobleman.

By then Haftvad’s power had grown – and so had the worm. Now too big for the chest, it was relocated to Haftvad’s mountain fortress, where a specially-built stone cistern accommodated it. There it was fed on rice, milk, and honey by Haftvad’s daughter till it grew as large as an elephant.

Haftvad was unstoppable. Backed by armies, a fortune, and the good luck that the worm brought, no power on earth could stand up to him. His renown finally reached Shah Ardashir, who sent two armies to destroy Haftvad – but the power of the worm could not be undone, causing the defeat of the first army and the demoralization of the second.

It was then that Ardashir was informed of the worm’s true nature. It was no ordinary worm, but a devil in disguise, a creation – perhaps even an incarnation – of Ahriman. Only its death would allow the defeat of Haftvad.

Armed with this knowledge, Ardashir and a hand-picked group of men infiltrated the fortress disguised as merchants. They brought with them gold, jewels, wine, two chests of lead, and a bronze cauldron. “I have prospered thanks to the worm”, announced Ardashir to the guardians of the fortress, “and have come to pay homage to it”. As a further sign of good faith, he offered wine to all those that the worm commanded – and soon, the keepers were drunk.

That was when Ardashir made his move. The lead was melted in the cauldron and brought over to the worm’s cistern. The worm raised it head, opened its mouth, and stuck out its red tongue in anticipation of its meal, only to have boiling lead poured down its throat. Its death throes shook the very foundations of the fortress.

The death of the worm brought an end to Haftvad’s fortunes. His fortress was rapidly captured, and he and his eldest son were gibbeted and riddled with arrows.

References

Ferdowsi, A.; Davis, D. trans. (2006) Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. Viking, New York.

Welch, S. C. (1976) A King’s Book of Kings: The Shah-Nameh of Shah Tahmasp. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Bjarndýrakóngur

Variations: King of the Bears, Einhyrningur (Unicorn)

The Bjarndýrakóngur, the “King of the Bears”, is the undisputed monarch of the polar bears of Iceland. It is born from a female polar bear and a walrus or a bull.

A bjarndýrakóngur has red cheeks and a single horn on its forehead. The horn, which is its scepter of authority, has a sharp end and is tipped with a platinum globe. It emits a bright light in all directions such that the bjarndýrakóngur can always see its way through the darkness.

The king of the bears is as wise and noble as it is powerful. It understands human speech and demands loyalty and obeisance from other polar bears. While easily capable of killing with its horn, it only does so in self-defense or in judgment on wayward subjects.

It is said that, on a Whitsun church service in the 18th century, a procession of 12 or 13 polar bears was seen ambling from the outer parts of Iceland. They were led by a stately and benevolent bjarndýrakóngur. The clergyman greeting them in full regalia, as did the congregation, and bowed to the king, who returned the bow. The bjarndýrakóngur continued to lead his subjects through southern Iceland. At Borgamór the last bear in the line killed and ate a sheep, whereupon the king ran the offending bear through with his horn. Eventually the royal cortège reached Grenivík where they disappeared into the sea.

The only animal that will dare challenge the king of the bears is a redcheek or redjowl. This is a highly aggressive polar bear with distinctive reddish pink coloration on one cheek. Redcheeks will attack any beast or man that it encounters – but against the king of bears they meet their match.

 References

Hlidberg, J. B. and Aegisson, S.; McQueen, F. J. M. and Kjartansson, R., trans. (2011) Meeting with Monsters. JPV utgafa, Reykjavik.

Rhox

Variations: Rhax, Rhagion, Rhogalida (“grape-spider”)

The name Rhox indicates similarity to a grape. It may be the same as the spider known as rhogalida or “grape-spider” on Crete, although nobody is quite sure what a rhogalida is either. Aelian places it in Libya, but it is otherwise described as a common Mediterranean spider.

In any case the rhox, as described by Nicander, Philumenus, and Pliny, is a sort of spider or phalangion. has a toothed mouth in the middle of its stomach and short, stubby legs that move in succession – a description more reminiscent of a millipede or centipede than a spider. It is smoky or pitchy black in color. Its venom is instantaneously deadly, and known symptoms include web-like strands in the urine.

The short legs may be a misinterpretation, as the description and lethality both suggest the malmignatte or Mediterranean black widow.

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.

Cueille-Aigue Serpent

The small neighborhood of Cueille-Aigue, in the Montbernage area of Poitiers, was once witness to a reptile of extraordinary resilience. An event of this magnitude, of course, led to wildly divergent and contradictory accounts. The one reproduced here is the most implausible – and, therefore, the most correct.

One fine morning, an inhabitant of the Cueille-Aigue discovered an enormous serpent in his cellar. He called the neighbors to aid him, and, armed with spades, picks, and other gardening utensils, they attacked the monster. The snake responded by retracting its head into its body, like a turtle into its shell.

As everyone knows, a snake cut in two will regenerate unless the head is destroyed. The serpent was chopped in half, into quarters, into increasingly fine pieces until it was nothing but mincemeat. Alas, they never could find the head.

References

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