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.

Sinad

Variations: Sinād, Sénad, Senad

Sinad 2

The Sinad is an Indian creature of uncertain appearance and dubious maternal instinct, described by Al-Jahiz, Al-Qazwini, and a number of other Muslim authors. Its primary characteristics – also attributed to the karkadann – were its sharp, thorny tongue and its unusual method of giving birth.

Al-Qazwini describes the sinad as similar to but smaller than an elephant, and larger than an ox. When the female is ready to give birth, the young sinad would stick its head out of its mother’s womb, feeding on grass and waiting until it was mature enough to run away. This was because the mother sinad, following her parental instincts, would attempt to lick her calf clean – in the process flaying the flesh off its bones. Once it was large enough, the calf would squirm out and gallop to safety.

This lethal tongue was also associated with the karkadann, and representations of them became blurred. Some images of the sinad are elephantine, while others came to follow the established iconography of the karkadann, giving it one or two horns. Al-Gharnati stated that the kings of China tortured people by having a karkadann lick them. Marco Polo, in his disillusioned report on the unicorn, said that its deadliest weapon was its tongue.

Flaubert, in his Temptation of Saint Anthony, makes an allusion to the Sénad as a three-headed bear that tears its cubs apart with its tongue. Here he conflates the sinad as described by Bochart with Pliny’s description of the bear licking its amorphous newborn cubs into shape. The three heads are a Flaubertian flourish.

References

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.

Pliny; Holland, P. trans. (1847) Pliny’s Natural History. George Barclay, Castle Street, Leicester Square.

Polo, M. (1965) The Travels. Penguin Classics, London.

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.

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.