Myrmecoleon

Variations: Myrmecoleo, Myrmekoleon, Mermecoleon, Mermecolion, Mirmicaleon, Mirmicoleon, Murmecoleon, Formicaleon, Ant-Lion, Antlion

Myrmecoleon

The Myrmecoleon, or Ant-lion, is a tale of two creatures and many translation errors. Druce distinguishes between the Eastern myrmecoleon, a hybrid of lion and ant, and the Western myrmecoleon, a carnivorous insect. These are one and the same, but the vagaries of translation led them down separate paths.

The Eastern myrmecoleon is found primarily in Greek, Arabian, Armenian, Ethiopian, and Syrian bestiaries. Its pedigree can be traced back to the giant gold-digging ants originally described by Herodotus. Further additions were added to the account as it evolved away from its origin. Nearchus claimed that the skins of the ants were as large as those of leopards. Pliny said that the horns of an Indian ant at the Erythraean temple of Hercules were remarkably large. Agatharchides, Aelian, and Strabo tell of Arabian and Babylonian lions called “ants” (myrmex) that have gleaming golden fur and reversed genitals (probably hyraxes, which have a distinctive dorsal gland).

The translators of the Septuagint were faced with the unfamiliar term lajisch or layish in Eliphaz’s phrase “the old lion perishes for lack of food” (Job 4:11). In the Vulgate it was rendered as tigris, and modern translations use “old lion”, but the Septuagint, drawing on obscure Classical species of lion, arbitrarily used the term myrmekoleon. Its name presupposes a hybrid of ant and lion; as the Bible is inerrant, this led led to the necessary existence of a creature whose father was a lion and whose mother was an ant. The fruit of this improbable union is a lion in front and an ant behind, and dies of starvation since the ant half cannot digest what the lion half eats, while the lion half cannot eat the plants the ant half requires. Thus “the myrmecoleon perishes for lack of food” became a logical statement, and was expounded upon in the Physiologus.

Myrmecoleon antlionThe Western myrmecoleon originally appeared in Latin sources and subsequently found its way into European bestiaries. This ant-lion is both ant and lion – an insect that preys on ants as lions prey on other animals, an ant to us, a lion to ants. It is an ant with a white head and a black body marked with white spots. It appears in bestiaries as something like a large ant or spider. This is a real animal – the antlion is a larva with huge jaws that constructs funnel-shaped traps in sand to catch ants. It eventually metamorphoses into a lacy-winged fly, but both larva and adult are completely harmless to humans.

As a denizen of bestiaries the ant-lion has its own religious connotations. The Eastern myrmecoleon is two-faced, double-minded, unstable, and deceitful. The Western myrmecoleon represents Satan lying in wait for sinners.

References

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

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

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

Druce, G. C. (1923) An account of the Μυρμηκολέων or Ant-lion. The Antiquaries Journal, 3(4), pp. 347-364.

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

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

Newbold, D. (1924) The Ethiopian Ant-lion. Sudan Notes and Record, 7(1), pp. 133-135.

Robin, P. A. (1936) Animal Lore in English Literature. John Murray, London.

Bès Jě’la Kòy

Variations: Hantu Kepala Berduri (Malay), Spiky-head Spirit

The Bès Jě’la Kòy, “spiky-head spirit”, is one of many bès or spirits from the folklore of the Jah Hut people of Malaysia. It lives on top of termite hills and knows how long every person will live. If it judges that a person’s lifespan is too short, it will take them into the termite hill to be friends with it forever.

A spiky-head spirit takes one person a year into its termite hill.

References

Werner, R. (1975) Jah-hět of Malaysia, Art and Culture. Penerbit Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.

Quvdlugiarsuaq

Variations: Auseq

Tales from Greenland, notably Aasiaat, tell of a gigantic maggot called Quvdlugiarsuaq. It is so big that the legend of Aqigsiaq tells of a dwelling place that survived an entire winter on the blubber of one quvdlugiarsuaq.

The Auseq is a similar creature described as a giant caterpillar. It is dangerous to humans.

References

Birket-Smith, K. (1924) Ethnography of the Egedesminde District. Bianco Lunos Bogtrykkeri, Copenhagen.

Opimachus

Variations: Chargol, Ophiomachis, Ophiomachus, Opimacus, Opymachus, Ibis, Snake-eater; Attachus (probably); Opinicus, Epimacus (probably)

Opimachus

There is only one Biblical mention of the insect called chargol, in Leviticus 11:22, as one of the four insects that are safe for consumption. It has been assumed to mean “beetle” in some translations. Other identifications include a katydid or bush cricket, a species of Gryllus cricket, or the wart-eating cricket.

The Septuagint’s translators borrowed heavily from Aristotle in an effort to give names to all the animals in the Bible. An Aristotelian account of locusts fighting and killing snakes (perhaps based on stories of insects feeding on dead snakes?) gave the chargol the name of ophiomachus, “snake fighter”. This in turn became the opimachus or opimacus, described by Thomas de Cantimpré and subsequently Albertus Magnus as a worm that attaches itself just below a snake’s head. It cannot be removed and kills the snake.

By the time the opimachus or opymachus was described in the Ortus Sanitatis (citing Thomas), it had become confused beyond recognition. While Thomas and Albertus list it among the insects, it is now placed with the birds as a small fowl. It is depicted as a quadrupedal griffin with a long pointed beak and large rabbit’s ears. It has longer hind legs to permit it to jump. It may or may not be the same as the bird known as attachus.

Dapper says that the ophiomachi or ibides (ibises) are birds that live in Ethiopia and are so named because they eat snakes.

Finally, the long journey of the snake-fighter comes to an end with the opinicus or epimacus, a variety of generic heraldic griffin whose name is almost certainly derived from a Levitical insect.

References

de Cantimpré, T. (1280) Liber de natura rerum. Bibliothèque municipale de Valenciennes.

Coogan, M. D.; Brettler, M. Z.; Newsom, C.; Perkins, P. (eds.) (2010) The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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

Dapper, O. (1686) Description de l’Afrique. Wolfgang, Waesberge, Boom, & van Someren, Amsterdam.

Harris, T. M. (1833) A Dictionary of the Natural History of the Bible. T. T. and J. Tegg, London.

Magnus, A. (1920) De Animalibus Libri XXVI. Aschendorffschen Verlagbuchhandlung, Münster.

Unknown. (1538) Ortus Sanitatis. Joannes de Cereto de Tridino.

Vinycomb, J. (1906) Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art, with Special Reference to their Use in British Heraldry. Chapman and Hall, London.

Pinaviztli

Pinaviztli

The Pinaviztli is an insect of ill-omen known to the Aztecs. It looks like a spider the size of a mouse, smooth and hairless and fat-bodied, red and black in color.

The entrance of a pinaviztli into a house is a bad omen. It can be countered in one of two ways. The first is to draw a cross on the floor pointing to the four cardinal directions. The pinaviztli is placed in the middle, spat on, and asked, “Why did you come? I want to know, why did you come?” If it goes north, it is a sign of coming death. Any other direction heralds a lesser affliction. The insect is told “Go your way, I don’t care about you”, and it is dropped off at the nearest crossroads.

The second ritual consists of passing a hair through the pinaviztli’s body and tying it to a stick, leaving it dangling for a day. If it is gone by the next day, then harm is sure to befall the household. If it is still there, the people spit on it and are reassured that nothing will happen.

Sometimes a pinaviztli foretells the gift of good food.

References

Nuttall, Z. (1895) A Note on Ancient Mexican Folk-lore. The Journal of American Folklore, v. 8, no. 29, pp. 117-129.

Wingoc

Variations: Wing (obsolete), Wingocak (pl.), Wingwak (pl.)

Wingoc

The Wingwak are the Algonquian spirits of sleep. A wingoc appears as a somniferous fly or butterfly, with greater numbers appearing to bedevil people into sleep (they typically show up five per person). The term wingoc is also used for sleep; compare ingwac, to be sleepy, and ingwam, to sleep.

A man playing in the sky once fell through a hole to land on Earth. There he found people sleeping, and one man sleeping more than the others. The heavenly visitor fashioned himself a small bow and arrows and started shooting at the clouds of flies above the sleeper. With some of the wingwak killed and others set to flight, the sleeper awoke. The celestial man then imparted his wisdom to the Algonquians, warning them of the arrival of the bearded men who would be the end of their race.

Expressions include ni nisigok wingwak (“the wingwak kill me”, i.e. “I am overwhelmed with sleepiness”) and wingwak ondjita manek (“there are so many wingwak”, i.e. “everyone’s asleep”).

References

Chamberlain, A. F. (1900) Some Items of Algonkian Folk-Lore. The Journal of American Folklore, 13(51), pp. 271-277.

Cuoq, J. A. (1886) Lexique de la Langue Algonquine. J. Chapleau et Fils, Montreal.

Lemoine, G. (1909) Dictionnaire Francais-Algonquin. G. Delisle, Chicoutimi.

Qinyuan

Variations: Qinyuan-bird, Yuanyuan, Zhiyuan

Qinyuan

Mount Kunlun is the Pillar of Heaven, a place of great energy and endowed of a fiery brilliant aura. Four rivers – Black, Red, Yellow, and Oceanic – flow from Mount Kunlun, and the mountain is administered by the god Luwu, or the Queen Mother of the West Xi-Wangmu in later texts.

Many wonderful birds and beasts dwell on Mount Kunlun, including the Qinyuan or Qinyuan-bird. It looks like a bee, but is the size of a mandarin duck. Its sting is venomous enough to kill other animals and to wither trees.

Despite the classification as a “bird”, Mathieu believes it to be simply a large stinging insect.

References

Mathieu, R. (1983) Étude sur la mythologie et l’ethnologie de la Chine ancienne. Collège de France, Paris.

Strassberg, R. E. (2002) A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. University of California Press.