Physeter

Variations: Physeterus, Physalus, Pistris, Pistrix, Prister. Pristes, Pristis, Capax (“roomy”, referring to its huge mouth), Capidolio (Italy), Mular, Peis Mular (Languedoc), Senedectes, Senedette (Saintonge), Spouter, Whirlpool, Whirl-pool, Whirlepoole

Physeter

The Physeter, “blower”, Prister, or Whirlpool, is an enormous, monstrous whale. The name, originally associated with a spouting sea monster, has today become the scientific name of the sperm whale or cachalot (Physeter macrocephalus).

Pliny states that the largest animals in the Indian Sea are the Pristis (shark) and the Balaena (whale). The largest animal in the Ocean of Gaul is the physeter. It lifts itself up like an enormous column, towering higher than the masts of ships, and spouts a flood of water.

The most notable reference to the physeter as a monster comes from Olaus Magnus. He describes the physeter as two hundred cubits long, with a large, round mouth like that of a lamprey, a tough black hide, and a prehensile tail about 15 or 20 feet wide. It uses its mouth to suck in massive quantities of water which it then spouts violently onto its prey from the blowholes on its head. Its tail can coil around ships and crush them.

Two different images are given by Olaus for the physeter. One is an upright, spouting monster with a horselike head, a gaping, toothless mouth, an erect mane running down its long neck, and a ribbed belly. The other is the tusked, frilled whale which appears in multiple places on the Carta Marina. Münster copies the first version and gives it more canine features, including large fangs and floppy ears; the second he refers to as the trolual or teuffelwal, the “devil-whale”.

Physeters are cruel, malicious creatures that will sink ships for sport. As a physeter’s hide and thick fat are too thick for conventional weapons to penetrate, sailors must resort to other means to ward off the whale’s attentions. One way is to blow trumpets or fire artillery; the loud noises can startle and scare off the physeter. Another is to throw barrels or smaller boats in the path of the whale to distract it.

Rondelet describes the physeter as so named because when it blows it projects a massive amount of water like a mist, which can fill and overturn smaller boats. It is spectacularly large, with a huge mouth, sharp teeth, a large fleshy tongue, and a breathing tract much larger than that of any other animal. It differs from the orca in that it is longer and lacks a fin on its back. One physeter was taken in Italy was placed by the Duke of Florence in front of his palace, but it had to be removed due to its stench. By this point the draconic seahorse of Olaus Magnus has been abandoned; this is the sperm whale as we know it today.

The greatest contribution the physeter has made to literature is in the pages of Rabelais’ epic tale of giants. In Pantagruel, the titular giant and his friends encounter a massive physeter roaring and spouting water, rising higher than the masts of the ship. Panurge immediately wails, comparing it to the Leviathan and the monster that attacked Andromeda, and fears that “it will swallow us all, men and ships, like pills”! But Pantagruel chides him, saying he is better off fearing the horses of the Sun, which snort fire, instead of this monster, which merely blows water. Pantagruel duly peppers the physeter with arrows until it expires and “turned belly up, as do all dead fish”.

De Montfort believed Olaus Magnus’ physeter (apart from the sperm whale) to be a colossal octopus.

References

Aldrovandi, U. (1613) De Piscibus, Libri V. Bologna.

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

Magnus, O. (1555) Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus. Giovanni M. Viotto, Rome.

Magnus, O. (1561) Histoire des pays septentrionaus. Christophle Plantin, Antwerp.

Magnus, O. (1658) A compendious history of the Goths, Swedes, and Vandals, and other Northern nations. J. Streater, London.

de Montfort, P. D. (1801) Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particuliere des Mollusques, Tome Second. F. Dufart, Paris.

Münster, S. (1552) La Cosmographie Universelle. Henry Pierre.

Nigg, J. (2013) Sea Monsters: A Voyage around the World’s Most Beguiling Map. University of Chicago Press.

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

Rabelais, F. (1858) Oeuvres de Rabelais, t. II. Firmin Didot Freres, Fils, et Cie, Paris.

Rondelet, G. (1558) L’Histoire Entiere des Poissons. Mace Bonhome, Lyon.

Sainéan, L. (1921) L’histoire naturelle et les branches connexes dans l’oeuvre de Rabelais. E. Champion, Paris.

Bayfart

Bayfart

The Bayfart is an animal whose existence is reported by the inhabitants of Finnmark. It is something like a seal, roughly the same size and shape. Its fur is greyish. It has small ears and a single horn on its head surrounded by hair, and hog-like bristles around its nose. Its forelegs have claws as long as a lion’s, while its has two flippers for hind legs.

Thevet received a bayfart skin from a Scotsman, who obtained it in Denmark in 1570. It had been caught in the Northern Sea.

References

Thevet, A. (1575) La Cosmographie Universelle. Guillaume Chaudiere, Paris.

Bøjg

Variations: Boyg, Bøjgen, Bojgen, Bøygen, Boygen, The Great Bøjg of Etnedal

Bojg

The Great Bøjg of Etnedal is a troll encountered by Peer Gynt in his Gutsbrandal adventures. It was memorable enough that Ibsen included it in his version of Peer Gynt, making it an even more otherworldly creature.

The Bøjg is vast, slimy, slippery, persistent, and shapeless. In the original fairytale, it has a head, which lessens its shapelessness somewhat. Ibsen describes it as a misty, slimy being, neither dead nor alive. Running into it is like running into a nest of sleepy growling bears. Its name comes from bøje, to bend, implying something twisting but also something that forces you to turn elsewhere, conquering without attacking. It coils around houses in the dark, or encircles its victims and bewilders them. Attacking the Bøjg directly is futile.

Wherever Gynt turns, he finds himself running into the clammy unpleasant mass. The Bøjg blocks his path to a mountain hut and nothing Gynt does can defeat it. In the fairytale Gynt fires three shots into the Bøjg’s head but to no avail; he eventually defeats the Bøjg through trickery. In Ibsen’s play the Bøjg is overcome by women, psalms, and church bells.

Within Ibsen’s symbolism it is seen as an insurmountable obstacle, a being of compromise and lethargy.

References

Hopp, Z.; Ramholt, T. trans. (1961) Norwegian Folklore Simplified. Iohn Griegs Boktrykkeri, Bergen.

Ibsen, H., Watts, P. trans. (1970) Peer Gynt. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.

Ahuna

Variations: Ahune, Ahunum, Hahanc, Hahane, Hahune, Hahanie, Channa, Cestreus, Fastaroz, Mullet, Swam-fisk, Swamfisck, Swamfysck, Svvamfysck

Swamfisk final - Copy

The long journey of the Ahuna begins in Aristotle, where the cestreus (mullet) is described as the most greedy of all fish, with a frequently distended abdomen. It is edible only when its belly is empty. When threatened it hides its head, convinced that its whole body is hidden that way. In the same sentence Aristotle then mentions the sinodon (dentex) that is carnivorous and eats squid, and the following sentence deals with the channa (grouper) that lacks an oesophagus and whose mouth opens directly into its stomach.

Michael Scot’s translation from the Arabic gives fastaroz for the mullet, theaidoz for dentex, and hahanie for grouper. He also mistranslates the phrase “the dentex is carnivorous and eats squid”, instead assuming that the adjective “carnivorous” applies to the previously-mentioned mullet – not only that, but it becomes self-carnivorous. Now the mullet hides its head when frightened, and consumes itself. Another lapse creates the hahune or ahuna, which exists only as a comparison to the mullet (“the mullet is more voracious than the other fishes and especially that which is known as ahuna”).

By the time Cantimpré compiled his bestiary, mullet, dentex, and grouper were all combined into one creature, the ahuna or hahuna. This sea monster is highly voracious and will feed until its belly swells beyond the size of its own body. Its mouth connects directly to its stomach; in fact, it has no neck or stomach to speak of. When attacked it tucks its head and limbs away in its body like a hedgehog, folding its skin and tissues over itself. It will remain like this until the danger goes away. If hunger strikes while the ahuna is curled up, it will be forced to eat part of itself to assuage its insatiable gluttony.

We are not given any physical description of the ahuna besides its chubbiness. One of Cantimpré’s depictions gives it an avian beak and horizontal wavy stripes; the Ortus Sanitatis, on the other hand, makes the ahuna a literal sea-hedgehog, complete with a curly tail.

The swamfisk described by Olaus Magnus appears off the coast of Norway and otherwise follows the exact description given by Cantimpré. It is much less common than cetaceans and is frequently hunted for its fat and oil, used primarily for treating leather and providing light during the long winter months. If Olaus Magnus was plagiarizing wholesale, the name he uses is unique.

De Montfort, unaware of its origins, believed the swamfisk to be a giant octopus.

References

Aristotle, Cresswell, R. trans. (1862) Aristotle’s History of Animals. Henry G. Bohn, London.

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

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

Gauvin, B.; Jacquemard, C.; and Lucas-Avenel, M. (2013) L’auctoritas de Thomas de Cantimpré en matière ichtyologique (Vincent de Beauvais, Albert le Grand, l’Hortus sanitatis). Kentron, 29, pp. 69-108.

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

Magnus, O. (1555) Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus. Giovanni M. Viotto, Rome.

Magnus, O. (1561) Histoire des pays septentrionaus. Christophle Plantin, Antwerp.

de Montfort, P. D. (1801) Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particuliere des Mollusques, Tome Second. F. Dufart, Paris.

Swan, J. (1643) Speculum Mundi. Roger Daniel, Cambridge.

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