Cahab

Variations: Caab; Sahab (typo)

Cahab

Among Aristotle’s many references to the elephant, we are told that its five toes are not perfectly jointed, its forelegs are larger than its hind ones, and its hind legs have short ankles. It has a trunk that it can use as a hand, drinking and eating with it, pulling up trees with it, and using it to breathe when walking through water. This remarkable appendage is cartilaginous and jointless.

The 1220 Latin translation of Aristotle by Michael Scot was based off an Arabic translation from the Greek. Scot retained various Arabic words in his text, and hence Aristotle’s passage on the elephant’s appendicular anatomy became et habet duo cahab parva respect magnitudinis corporis sui – here, cahab is Arabic for “ankle”, and the phrase reads “and [the elephant] has two ankles that are short relative to the size of its body”. Scot used cahab consistently to refer to the ankle or the talus bone.

Thomas de Cantimpré did not recognize the word cahab and assumed it to be the subject of the verb habet. From that the sentence became Caab animal marinum est, ut dicit Aristotiles, parvos habens pedes respectu corporis sui, quod utique magnum est, “Caab is a sea animal, as says Aristotle, whose legs are small in proportion to its body, which is huge”. Based on that and the remainder of the Aristotelian description, Thomas says that the caab has one leg that is long and which it uses as a hand to bring vegetation to its mouth; this leg is made of cartilage. Thomas also misreads the behavior of the elephant in water and makes his caab a fully aquatic marine animal, one that breathes underwater and then, upon reaching the surface, spouts the water it swallowed while breathing. Finally, he spontaneously gives his animal the feet of a cow.

In turn, Albertus Magnus “borrows” Thomas’ account, dropping the reference to Aristotle. This time it is called cahab, and now all of its legs are cartilaginous and resemble those of a calf. Albertus also makes a logical association with the cetacean act of spouting; his cahab holds its breath underwater and spouts at the surface sicut delfinus et cetus.

The last iteration of the cahab is provided by Olaus Magnus, who transposes this odd cartilage-legged sea creature into Scandinavia. He tactfully compares the cartilaginous feet to those of both cows and calves (vaccae, aut vituli). Olaus cites Albertus Magnus as the source of the cahab in the Latin version of his Historia, but the French and English translations omit this crucial citation.

Finally, the English translation misreads the name of the cahab as “sahab”, decisively casting this elephant adrift in a sea of translation errors.

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.

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

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

Swamfisk

Variations: Swam-fisk, Swamfisck, Swamfysck, Svvamfysck, Ahunum, Hahanc

Swamfisk

The Swamfisk described by Olaus Magnus appears off the coast of Norway and is much less common than cetaceans. It is frequently hunted for its fat and oil, used primarily for treating leather and providing light during the long winter months.

Swamfisks are very fatty animals and are excellent sources of fat and oil. They have round, globulous bodies, forming a huge distensible bag that is almost entirely stomach; there is no neck to speak of. The mouth is in line with the belly and can engulf vast amounts of fish. Swamfisks are voracious eaters and convert everything they consume into additional mass until they are little more than floating bags of blubber.

When attacked by larger creatures a swamfisk will curl up on itself like a hedgehog, folding its skin and fatty tissues over its head. It will remain like this until the danger goes away. If hunger strikes while a swamfisk is curled up, it will be forced to eat part of itself to assuage its insatiable gluttony.

De Montfort believed it to be a giant octopus.

References

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.

Skeljaskrímsli

Variations: Fjörulalli (Beach Walker), Fjörulabbi (Beach Roamer), Fjörudýr (Shore Animal), Rauðkálfur (Red Calf), Saeúlfur (Sea Wolf), Skeljalabbi (Shell Roamer), Skeljalalli (Shell Walker)

Skeljaskrimsli

The name Skeljaskrímsli, “shell monster”, refers to a number of Icelandic shore animals known by a variety of names. Consistent among the accounts are the association with the beach, a hump on the back, and a coat of shells that rattle as the creature walks. Shell monsters have been sighted on the coasts of all the main regions of Iceland, and at least one report (the Glúmsstaðir farm’s in Fljótavík, Hornstrandir) describes a freshwater specimen.

As specified by Hlidberg and Aegisson, the skeljaskrímsli proper is a quadrupedal marine creature, bulky and powerfully built. It is the size of a winter’s old bull calf or a huge horse. The neck is broad, the jaws and teeth impressive, and the eyes reddish. There may be a phosphorescent glow coming from the mouth. The skeljaskrímsli’s tail is long and armed with a lump at the end. The short, strong legs end in circular feet armed with large claws.

The skeljaskrímsli earns its name from the thick reflective coat of shells (or flaky scales) that covers its body. These rattle and scrape against each other as the creature moves, giving warning of its arrival. As the shell monster approaches, its powerful stench also becomes apparent. There is little good to say about the shell monster – even its blood is toxic.

Skeljaskrímslis live in the sea and haul themselves onto shore in the dark moonless nights of the northern winter. Often they can be seen before or after spells of bad weather and storms. They are attracted to light and will leave deep gouges in farmhouse doors. Suffice to say that anyone who encounters one of these surly brutes will be in for a bad time.

Most weapons are useless against a skeljaskrímsli’s formidable defenses. One farmer who battled a skeljaskrímsli managed to keep it at bay until the monster tired and returned to the sea; the farmer was stricken with leprosy for his trouble. Another farmer managed to wound a skeljaskrímsli, but some of its poisonous blood spattered onto him, and he died in agony soon after.

To harm a skeljaskrímsli one must resort to alternative ammunition. Shooting silver buttons, grey willow catkins, or lamb droppings from a gun are the only ways to injure and kill this beast.

The Fjörulalli is the best-known variant of the skeljaskrímsli. It is also the size of a winter’s old bull calf, and has been reported as being smaller, about as big as a dog. A tail may or may not be present, and the head is a small, rounded outgrowth. It is covered with shells or lava fragments that scrape together as it moves. Unlike the larger shell-monsters, these smaller ones are usually harmless. They will, however, tear the udders off sheep, and pregnant women should avoid them lest they negatively affect their unborn babies.

References

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

Trochus

Variations: Rota

Trochus

The Trochus, “wheel”, or Rota is a huge sea-monster known to swim close to shore in large groups. Schools (pods?) of these have been seen off Athos and Sigeum.

A trochus is fortunately timid, despite having a crest and spines of great size that show above the water. It revolves and contracts and dives deep, uncoiling and rolling and returning to the surface.

The wheel-like resemblance suggests a jellyfish or ray, but the size and behavior makes it clear that the trochus is a whale surfacing and diving.

References

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

Beisht Kione Dhoo

Variations: [Yn] Beisht [y] Kione Dhoo ([The] Beast of [the] Black Head); [Yn] Beisht Kione ([The] Beast of Head) (erroneously)

Beisht Kione Dhoo

Fishermen on the Isle of Man have traditionally observed a number of customs. Whistling on board “bothers the wind” and is discouraged. Sticking a knife in the mast on the appropriate side causes the wind to blow from that direction. Losing items on board is bad luck; borrowing items from “lucky” boats brings good luck. Four-footed land animals should not be mentioned by name, but instead by a circuitous sea-name – rats, for instance, are “long-tailed fellows”. Cold iron is a remedy to most acts of bad luck.

Then there is a number of sea creatures that can wreak havoc on fishing vessels. Of the the Beisht Kione Dhoo, the Beast of Black Head, is the most terrifying. It makes its home in the sea-caves on Black Head, near Spanish Head at the southern tip of the Isle of Man. The few who have seen it say it has a head like that of a large horse, and it can be heard roaring by fishermen off Spanish Head. Some say it is the soul of a man killed by pirates in order to protect their treasure hidden in the headland’s caves. Nobody has attempted to claim that treasure.

To placate the Beisht and bring on good luck, rum is left in the cave at Spanish Head. Fishermen heading out to sea would throw a glassful of rum overboard in hopes that the Beisht will grant them a bountiful catch.

References

Broderick, G. (1984) A Handbook of Late Spoken Manx: Grammar and Texts. Max Niemeyer, Tübingen.

Killip, M. (1976) The Folklore of the Isle of Man. Rowman and Littlefield, New Jersey.

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

Utelif

Variations: Uletif (Paré), Pristis, Saw-fish, Sawfish

Utelif

Thevet describes the monstrous Utelif as a fish found along the African coast, from Guinea to Ethiopia. It has a three-foot long, four-finger wide saw on its forehead. This weapon is very sharp on both sides. It is much like a killer whale, but its skin is scaly instead of leathery. Thevet includes a drawing of it and contrasts it with that of Rondelet, who was sadly mistaken in putting the saw on the creature’s nose.

Ambroise Paré predictably copies Thevet’s account but changes the name to uletif. Like Thevet, he is in possession of the remarkable saw, a serrated horn weighing five pounds with fifty-one sharp teeth divided on either side (25 on one, 26 on the other). It is colored like a sole above and is white below. As the uletif is believed to be a marine unicorn, its horn has the same antivenomous qualities as that of the unicorn. He dismisses the popular claim that the saw is a snake’s tongue.

Aldrovandi includes the likeness of the utelif in his discussion of the Pristis or sawfish.

References

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

Paré, A. (1582) Discours d’Ambroise Paré – De la Licorne. Gabriel Buon, Paris.

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

Rondelet (1554) Libri de Piscibus Marinis. Matthiam Bonhomme, Lyon.

Vallot, D. M. (1821) Explication des Caricatures en Histoire Naturelle. Mémoires de l’Academie des Sciences, Arts, et Belles-lettres de Dijon.

Serra

Variations: Serre, Pristis, Vivella, Sawfish, Saw-fish, Flying Fish

Serra

The Serra (“saw”) or Saw-fish is a mainstay of bestiaries. Traditionally identified with the sawfish, it also includes features of the flying fish and comes with a ready moral message for the benefit of faithful readers.

Pliny mentions a fish named Pristis which is two hundred cubits (over 90 meters) long, is viviparous, and seemingly covered with hair. Pristis was also a common name given by Romans to ships. Isidore of Seville gives us the ur-description of the serra as a fish with a serrated (serratus) crest which cuts through boats as it swims under them.

Later additions expanded on this account. The serra is a huge seagoing fish or monster with gigantic fins. When it sees a ship, it spreads its fins, catching the wind, and chases after the vessel in an attempt to outspeed it. After two hundred yards the serra gets bored, folds its wings, and sinks back into the ocean. The ship represents the Righteous, who press on in the face of adversity, while the serra represents fickle and lazy people who start out trying to be Christians but discourage easily.

Why the serra chases after the ship is uncertain. The moral suggests jealousy, but the propensity of the serra to slice up ships with its saw-crest implies a more malevolent motive. Other accounts describe it as more bloodthirsty, sinking ships to feast on sailors, while some (perhaps confused with dolphins?) are said to take pity on sinking ships and lift them out of the waves.

The serra does not fly, instead using its massive fins move like a sailboat, but medieval artists commonly show it flying above ships anyway. Eventually the serra’s iconography was muddled with the dragon’s, and it became another dog-like or reptilian winged monster.

The position of the saw has also been a subject of contention. Isidore of Seville’s crest (crista) was interpreted in ways ranging from a rooster’s comb to a saw-edged dorsal fin. None of them locate the saw on the end of the nose.

Buel regards the sawfish as an innocent and inoffensive creature. The occasional attacks on boats are attributed to parasitic copepods, whose burrowing into the sawfish’s flesh drives the creature into delirious agony and causes it to lash out at anything nearby.

References

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

Buel, J. W. (1887) Sea and Land. Historical Publishing Company, Philadelphia.

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

Druce, G. C. (1919) On the Legend of the Serra or Saw-fish. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, Second Series, v. 31.

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

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.

Pliny; Bostock, J. and Riley, H. T. trans. (1900) The Natural History of Pliny, v. II. George Bell and Sons, London.

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