Aspidochelone

Variations: Aspido-chelone, Aspidochelon, Aspidocalon, Aspidoceleon, Aspidodeleon, Aspidodelone, Aspischelone, Aspido-tortoise, Asp-tortoise, Asp-turtle, Fastitocalon, Shield-tortoise, Sea-monster, Sea-tortoise, Sea-turtle, Sulhafat, Turtle

Aspidochelone

The motif of the island-turtle or island-whale is one of the most common and pervasive of maritime yarns. Whether it is a turtle, a whale, a fish, or a crab, the story is the same. A great sea creature raises its back out of the water. Sea-sand and vegetation gather in on its rough back, until it looks like a small island. Sailors anchor their ship to the deceptive “island”, disembark, and light a fire. The monster, feeling the fire on its back, immediately dives, taking the sailors and their ship down to a watery grave.

Prototypes of the gigantic fish are in the Indian Zend-Avesta, the supposed 3rd-Century letter of Aristotle to Alexander, and the Babylonian Talmud composed around CE 257-320.

The monster in al-Jahiz’s account is a crab (saratan) – surely confusion with the similarly shelled turtle? In al-Qazwini’s entry on the turtle (sulhafat), he distinguishes between the terrestrial tortoise and the sea turtle. The sea turtle is of great size, and sailors believe it to be an island in the middle of the sea, landing on it and lighting a fire until the turtle stirs, whereupon those aboard the ship call out “Come back, for it is a turtle that felt the heat of the fire, come back that you may not go down with it!” Sindbad the Sailor encountered this creature in his first Voyage, but managed to escape with his life.

The Account repeated in the Physiologus and bestiaries such as the Exeter Book, and the monster is identified with the whale that swallowed Jonah. The original Greek versions of the bestiary talk of the Aspidochelone – a name of uncertain etymology. Chelone refers to a turtle or tortoise, but aspido has been assumed to mean “shield” or “asp” (as in, the snake). The “shield” origin may stem from the turtle’s shell, but it seems like a redundant descriptor for a turtle. Another possibility is that the turtle was originally more of a serpent, or that this is a reference to the aspidochelone’s evil.

Whatever the meaning, the name aspidochelone became corrupted over time to become the “fastitocalon”, and the turtle supplanted with the more familiar whale (although the description of a rough back sounds more like a turtle’s shell).

The Physiologus or Bestiary adds further moralizing elements to the story. The aspidochelone will exhale a pleasant odor from its mouth, attracting fish that are then swallowed. Thus the aspidochelone is an allegory for Satan. Sinners who anchor themselves to the Devil are doomed to go to Hell, and sinful pleasures are enticing as perfume.

The aspidochelone entry is preceded by the panther entry. Both use fragrant breath to attract other animals, but the aspidochelone is evil while the panther is an allegory for Christ. The juxtaposition is probably intentional. The fragrant smell of the aspidochelone may also be derived from the odorous cetacean substance known as ambergris.

Aspidochelones are minor subjects in medieval woodcarvings, visible at Kidlington, Great Grandsden, Isleham, Swaffham Bulbeck, and Norwich Cathedral. They can be distinguished by the presence of ships and cooking-pots on their back, or with their mouths open to attract fish.

References

Barber, R. (1993) Bestiary. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge.

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

Cook, A. S. (1821) The Old English Physiologus. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Cook, A. S. (1894) The Old English ‘Whale’. Modern Language Notes, 9(3), pp. 65-68.

Curley, M. J. (1979) Physiologus. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Druce, G. C. (1914) Animals in English Wood Carving. The Third Annual Volume of the Walpole Society, pp. 57-73.

Gordon, R. K. (1957) Anglo-Saxon Poetry. J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London.

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

Iannello, F. (2011) Il motive dell’aspidochelone nella tradizione letteraria del Physiologus. Considerazioni esegetiche e storico-religiose. Nova Tellus 29(2), pp. 151-200.

Al-Jahiz, A. (1966) Kitab al-Hayawan. Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi wa Awladihi, Egypt.

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.

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

Wiener, L. (1921) Contributions toward a history of Arabico-Gothic culture, volume IV: Physiologus studies. Innes and Sons, Philadelphia.

Odontotyrannus

Variations: Arine Hayant Le Tirant, Arine Qui Het Le Tirant, Armez Hayant Le Tirant, Dentem Tyrannum, Dentirant, Dentityrannus, Dent Tyrans, Odentetiranno,  Odontatyrannum,  Odontatyrannus, Odontetiranno

odontotyrannus

The Odontotyrannus is a massive beast found in the rivers of India, whose account has been told as one of Alexander the Great’s many exploits. Its name apparently means “tooth tyrant”, but medieval reading errors led to a variety of increasingly awkward alternate names and direct translations.

When Alexander and his men made camp by a river, they were found by an odontotyrannus coming to the water to drink. It was enormous, large enough to swallow an elephant whole, and black in color, or otherwise with a head black as pitch. It had three horns on its head. When it saw the Macedonians, it went on a rampage, killing 26 and injuring 52 of the soldiers before it was brought down by Emendus, Duke of Arcadia.

The rhinoceros is a certain candidate as the progenitor of the odontotyrannus, as is the crocodile. Confusion with Indus worms – Indian, armed with two terrible teeth, and capable of swallowing prey whole – may have led to the name, as nowhere in its description are teeth ever mentioned.

References

Wauquelin, J., Hériché, S. ed. (2000) Les Faicts et les Conquestes d’Alexandre le Grand. Librairie Droz, Geneva.

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

Indus Worm

Variations: Odontotyrannus (allegedly)

indus-worm

Deep in the Indus River live worms that resemble those found in figs or rotten wood, only seven cubits (over 3 meters) in length on average, and thick enough that a ten-year-old boy could barely wrap his arms around one. They have two square teeth, one above and one below, each about 18 inches long. The skin is two fingers thick.

By day the worms remain underwater, wallowing in mud, but they emerge at night to prey on animals up to the size of a cow or camel. Victims are seized, dragged into the Indus, and devoured at leisure. The large teeth can crush their way through flesh, bone, and stone, and only the paunch is left uneaten. There have also been cases of hungry worms seizing drinking camels and oxen by the nose in broad daylight, and pulling them under.

Despite its predatory nature, it is prized by the Indians for its oil, which is highly flammable and capable of consuming wood and animals alike. Fires started by Indus worm oil can only be quenched by throwing large amounts of clay and rubbish on them. The oil is so rare that only the king of India may possess it. To obtain this oil, the worms are captured on hooks to which a lamb or kid has been chained, and slain with javelins, swords, and clubs. After landing and killing a worm, it is hung up for thirty days, with vessels underneath to catch the oil that drips from its carcass. 5 pints of oil are produced in this way. The worm is then disposed of, and the oil is sent to the king. Stored in clay vessels, it makes a formidable siege weapon.

The amphibious lifestyle, geographical location, and predatory habits of the Indus worm have led to comparisons with the Odontotyrannus, although the similarities end there.

References

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

Ctesias, McCrindle, J. W. trans. (1882) Ancient India as described by Ktesias the Knidian. Thacker, Spink & Co., Calcutta; B. E. S. Press, Bombay; Trubner and Co., London.

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

Calopus

Variations: Aeternae, Analopos, Antalope, Antholops, Aptaleon, Aptolos, Pantolops; Jachamur, Jachmur, Jamur, Yamur (Bochart); Chatloup (erroneously)

Calopus

The antelope was known to the Greeks as Analopos (and variations thereof, derived from the Coptic Pantolops according to Bochart) and to the Romans as Calopus, “pretty foot” . These creatures were believed to inhabit India, Syria, and the Euphrates basin, and were fond of drinking the cool Euphrates water.

A calopus resembled a roe deer in appearance and size, with the exception of large saw-toothed horns growing out of their heads. These horns can be used to shred branches and human limbs alike, but are also easily entangled in thickets. A calopus trapped in this way will cry out, making it easily found and killed by hunters.

Alexander the Great encountered a number of these antelopes in India, where at least one obscure account refers to them as “aeternae”. The creatures pierced the Macedonian shields with their horns, but they were no match for Alexander’s soldiers, who slew anywhere from five thousand and four hundred to eight thousand five hundred and fifty of them. This, Topsell concludes, is the reason why we barely see any more of these animals.

Possible identities for the calopus include a number of antelopes, but also the moose, whose tree-shredding behavior may have inspired the calopus’ serrated weapons.

The “chatloup” (“catwolf”) name popularized by Barber and Rose appears to be a corruption of calopus.

References

Barber, R. and Riches, A. (1971) A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts. The Boydell Press, Ipswich.

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

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

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

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Four-footed Beasts. E. Cotes, London.

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

Gold-digging Ant

Variations: Formica maior, Formica aurum

Gold-digging ant

Herodotus originally placed the Gold-digging Ants in the sandy deserts in the land of the Dards, in India, within the Persian Empire. Some later sources, such as the Ortus Sanitatis, move them to Ethiopia. Their story is the same regardless of location.

Gold-digging ants are smaller than dogs, but larger than foxes. Pliny specifies that they are as large as an Ethiopian wolf, and the color of a cat. Skins of those ants brought before Alexander the Great were like panther skins. In the Ortus Sanitatis, the gold-digging ant is given a form unlike any ant – indeed, unlike any living animal, with a rounded, bird-like head and four legs with long talons. These ants are exceedingly fast, strong, and dangerous.

Most importantly, gold-digging ants excavate their nests in an area rich with gold dust. The sand they bring to the surface is full of the precious metal, making them an attractive target for treasure seekers, but they also fiercely defend their gold from anyone who would dare take it.

To steal the ants’ gold, camel caravans approach the nests on hot summer mornings, when the ants are safely underground. Gold sand can be quickly scooped up into bags, but the ants soon catch the scent of the intruders and hurry to the surface. Without a head start for the camels, the ants would easily catch up and dismember them.

Whatever the nature of the gold-digging ants, it is agreed that they definitely weren’t ants, and most likely were some sort of mammal. Suggestions include the hyena, whose Persian name resembled the Greek name for the ant; and the Siberian fox, whose digging and ferocity parallel those of the ant. The most compelling argument is elaborated by Peissel, who identifies the “ants” as Himalayan marmots whose tireless digging would have brought gold to the surface. Herodotus’ usage of murmex for ant may have muddled the distinction between ant and marmot.

References

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

Herodotus, Macaulay, G. C. trans. (1890) The History of Herodotus, translated into English. Macmillan and Company, London.

Peissel, M. (1984) The Ants’ Gold. Harvill Press, London.

Pliny; Bostock, J. and Riley, H. T. trans. (1857) The Natural History of Pliny, v. III. Henry G. Bohn, London.

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

Tabib al-Bahr

Variations: Doctor of the Sea, Sea Doctor

Tabib-al-bahr

The mysterious Tabib al-Bahr, the “Doctor of the Sea”, is found in the writings of the alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan. Its appearance is not very clear; we know that it is a fish with a yellow gemstone in its forehead, and that it is also human in shape. This marine animal, despite its considerable magical powers, is very caring and altruistic. It derives its name from the gemstone in its head, which can heal any ailment; it attends to other sea creatures by rubbing its head twice or thrice on their injuries, healing them instantly. Perhaps because of this self-sacrificing nature, the tabibs also do not resist capture by humans, instead waiting patiently for the right time to escape.

The gemstone of a tabib al-bahr is of great value to alchemy. If the creature is slaughtered and its stone taken out of its head, it can be used to create gold out of silver. It was that gemstone that drew Jabir ibn Hayyan into seeking out the tabib al-bahr.

After enlisting the aid of a number of skilled sailors, Jabir set sail into the Indian Ocean. He eventually found a group of tabib al-bahrs near the unknown island of Sindiyyāt. The net was cast, and one of the creatures was caught. It started striking its cheeks in a feminine act of desperation, and Jabir realized that the tabib they had caught was a young woman of great beauty. She was taken on board and imprisoned in a small cabin; she seemed incapable of speech beyond mumbling in an unknown language. Jabir was given the chance to test her powers by bringing in a sailor with torticollis. After the tabib rubbed her gemstone on his arms and legs, he was immediately cured.

This situation was not to last long. One of the sailors, a young man, fell in love with the strange creature, and Jabir allowed them to live together in the cabin. Eventually she became pregnant and gave birth to a boy, human in all aspects except for a marvelous, shining forehead. As the boy grew, the mother was eventually given free reign of the boat, as she seemed attached to the crew, keeping them company, tending to their injuries, and caring for her son. Unfortunately that was not the case, and after a long inspection of all possible escape routes, she finally climbed over the railing and dove into the water. Her husband was brokenhearted, but he swore to care for the son she left behind.

Eventually the ship sailed into a storm from which there seemed to be no escape. Throwing anchors into the water did nothing to hold the ship, and it was on the verge of capsizing. That was when they saw their tabib al-bahr sitting calmly on the surface and waving to them. All the sailors begged her to save them, and in response she transformed into a colossal fish, big enough to stretch from one end of the sea to the other. By swallowing huge quantities of seawater, she lowered the sea level enough for the storm to be quelled. While the sailors worried over whether or not she’d swallow them next, her son dove into the sea after her. The next day he returned to the ship, and his forehead now had a yellow gemstone in it.

Later on Jabir had the opportunity to catch two more tabib al-bahrs, one of which was sacrificed for its gemstone. Jabir marveled at it, a wondrous artifact the likes of which humans would never make.

This tale may not be meant literally, and it has generally been taken as some kind of alchemical allegory. His scribes agreed, noting that it is “very symbolic”, with elements representative of fire and water.

The alchemist-poet Ibn Arfa’ra’sahu dedicated several verses to the tabib al-bahr, saying that “the truest of scientists have vouched for it, Plato and his student Aristotle”.

References

Mahmud, Z. N. (1961) Jabir ibn Hayyan. Maktabat Misr.

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

Zabraq

Variations: Zabrak; Rukh (al-Marwazi); Phalmant (Bochart)

Zabraq

The Zabraq is one of the many exotic animals found in India. Bochart gave its location as the region of Dasht or Dist, the “gateway to Tartary”, and so presumably in the vicinity of Iran. It is also variously known as the Rukh and the Phalmant, although only the last term has seen use.

It is relatively modest in size, smaller than a cheetah, yellowish-red in color with flashing eyes and capable of leaping thirty to fifty cubits or more in one jump. Al-Marwazi makes it look like a camel, with two humps, tusks, and a large, membraneous tail, and adds that it is incredibly fast. Bochart, perhaps confusing its leaping distance with its size, makes it vast, prodigious, hideous, and forty cubits long, with bristling claws and teeth. Most importantly, it has highly acidic, weaponized urine and feces.

Zabraqs prey on animals up to the size of elephants, and kill them by flinging their caustic urine onto them with their tail. The tail of a zabraq can flatten and deform into a shovel shape to hold urine and dung before throwing it. The only animal zabraqs will avoid is the rhinoceros.

They are also fond of eating humans, and the only way to escape one is to climb a teak tree, which the zabraq cannot scale. Even that isn’t necessarily a safe place. When faced with treed prey, a zabraq will try to leap upwards and seize it before spouting its urine skyward, burning anything it touches like fire. However, if it cannot reach its prey through this stratagem, it turns towards the roots of the tree, roars in frustration until clots of blood erupt from its mouth, and expires.

Zabraq bile and testicles make potent poison; coated on weapons, it causes immediate death. Al-Marwazi goes further and specifies that the flesh, blood, saliva, and dung of the zabraq are all deadly.

Bochart reported this creature under the name of Phalmant and attributed it to Al-Damiri, although his account is entirely al-Mas’udi’s. Flaubert mentioned the phalmant it in his Temptation as a leopard howling so hard its belly bursts. The Dictionnaire Universel inexplicably turns it into a sea monster found on the coast of Tartary.

References

Berthelin, M. (1762) Abrégé du Dictionnaire Universel Francais et Latin, Tome III. Libraires Associés, Paris.

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

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

Kruk, R. (2001) Of Rukhs and Rooks, Camels and Castles. Oriens, vol. 36, pp. 288-298.

al-Mas’udi, A. (1864) Les Prairies d’Or, t. III. Imprimerie Impériale, Paris.

Seznec, J. (1943) Saint Antoine et les Monstres: Essai sur les Sources et la Signification du Fantastique de Flaubert. PMLA, Vol. 58, No. 1, pp. 195-222.