Ompax

Variations: Ompax spatuloides

Ompax

What would you do if your breakfast was a species new to science? Carl Theodore Staiger, director of the Brisbane Museum, was faced with this conundrum in August of 1872. During his visit to Gayndah, Queensland, he was served an unusual duck-billed fish for breakfast. The worthy naturalist decided to have the specimen sketched. He then went ahead and ate the specimen anyway.

The entire description of Ompax spatuloides is derived from the sketch and Staiger’s recollection (sadly, we are not told of the Ompax’s gastronomical merits). Count F. de Castelnau described it as a ganoid fish something like a paddlefish, eighteen inches long and dirty mahogany in color. The spatulate beak is similar to a platypus’, the eyes are small and near the top of the head, the pectoral fins are small, and the dorsal, caudal, and ventral fins appear to be connected. It can only be found in a single water hole in the Burnett River, alongside the lungfish Ceratodus.

Ompax spatuloides was listed in several catalogues of Queensland fishes, despite immediate and scathing criticism from other ichthyologists. O’Shaughnessy remarked that “all the characters of [the Ompax] are gathered from a drawing made after and not before the repast… the Record thinks he would be scarcely justified in admitting Ompax spatuloides, sp. n., into the system.”

The mystery of the Ompax was solved by someone writing to the Sydney Bulletin under the name of “Waranbini”. The author confesses that the Gayndah locals prepared a fish for Staiger’s breakfast by assembling the head of a lungfish, the body of a mullet, and the tail of an eel (and, presumably, the bill of a platypus). It was cooked and introduced as a new species, one that might not be seen again for months, and Staiger fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Since then, unusual fish were met in the Gayndah district with an exclamation of “it must be an Ompax!”

References

Castelnau, F. L. P. (1879) On a New Ganoïd Fish from Queensland. Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, v. 3, no. 1, pp. 164-165.

Whitley, G. P. (1933) Ompax spatuloides Castelnau, a Mythical Australian Fish. The American Naturalist, v. 67, no. 713, pp. 563-567.

Devil-jack Diamond-fish

Variations: Diamond fish, Devil fish, Jack fish, Garjack, Litholepe, Litholepe adamantin, Litholepis adamantinus

Devil-jack Diamond-fish

John James Audubon is remembered today as an artist and ornithologist of considerable import. His practical jokes are less well known, and began with the unexpected arrival of Constantine Samuel Rafinesque at Hendersonville, Kentucky.

Rafinesque was a brilliant, enthusiastic, “exceedingly remarkable”, and very eccentric young naturalist who tested Audubon’s hospitality. After they had retired to bed, Audubon was roused by a commotion coming from Rafinesque’s room. As he describes it, “I saw my guest running naked, holding the handle of my favorite violin, the body of which he had battered to pieces in attempting to kill the bats which had entered the open window!” Rafinesque was convinced the bats were new species. Audubon was not amused.

Perhaps to avenge his smashed violin, Audubon decided to take advantage of Rafinesque’s credulity and eagerness to describe new species. He solemnly supplied Rafinesque with 10 drawings of completely fictitious fish, which were duly named and described in detail. The likes of the bigmouth sturgeon and the flatnose doublefin caused headaches for ichthyologists and tarnished Rafinesque’s reputation beyond repair.

The Devil-jack Diamond-fish (Litholepis adamantinus) is surely the most remarkable of those faux fishes, as evidenced by Rafinesque’s breathless description. This “wonder of the Ohio” is found only as far up as the falls and probably in the Mississippi as well. Rafinesque claimed to have seen it from a distance, and seen some of its scales, but otherwise he “principally relied upon the description and figure given [him] by Mr. Audubon”.

We are fortunate enough to have a complete and detailed description of the devil-jack. It is classified among the garfish but is quite unique. The body is blackish and fusiform, 4 to 10 feet long and up to 400 pounds in weight. The head takes up a fourth of the total length. The snout alone is large (as long as the head), convex above, and obtuse. The eyes are small and black, with the nostrils in front of them. The mouth is transverse and has large angular teeth. Dorsal and anal fins are of equal length, the tail is obtusely bilobed, and there is no lateral line. The body is covered in oblique rows of conical pentagonal brown scales, half an inch to one inch in diameter; they become the color of turtle shell when dried.

The scales are the devil-jack’s main claim to fame, as they are hard as flint, completely bulletproof, and repel hooks. They produce sparks when struck against steel. Only nets or the strongest hooks can take a devil-jack. It is inedible and a voracious hunter, usually seen lying motionless at the surface like a log. The scales are a miracle of nature, for “they strike fire with steel! and are ball proof!” [sic]

References

Jordan, D. S. (1886) Rafinesque. The Popular Science Monthly, June 1886.

Rafinesque, C. S. (1820) Ichthyologia Ohiensis. W. G. Hunt, Lexington, Kentucky.

Ambisiangulo

Variations: Ambize Angulo, Negulla Omasa; Pezze-Mouller, Piexe Molhar (Portuguese), Meermin (Dutch), Sirene (French), Hog-fish, Ambize (erroneously), Angulo (erroneously)

Ambisiangulo

The travelers’ accounts of Purchas and Dapper include the unlikely Ambize Angulo or Ambisiangulo. This creature can be found in several bodies of water, including the Quansa and Zaire Rivers and a number of lakes in the Congo and Angola. Its name is derived from the Kikongo mbisi (“fish”) and ngulu (“pig”); here, preference has been given to Dapper’s name, as it is closer to the original words. It is also known as Pesiengoni, Pezze-Mouller, Meermin, and Sirene in various languages, several translating to “mermaid”.

Mermaid or not, an ambisiangulo is a homely creature. Tipping the scales at 500 pounds, it measures eight feet long and four feet wide, and is a uniform dull grey-brown. The females have a pair of teats and the males have a horse’s member, but they are otherwise indistinguishable. The forehead is high, the head and eyes oval, the mouh large but chinless, the ears reduced to thin, flat skin. The ambisiangulo’s two arms are short, and end in fingers that are long, and triple-jointed like those of humans – but they cannot be flexed. The tail is rounded and shaped like a target.

Ambisiangulos feed on grass growing on the sides of rivers, and never leave the water. Purchas claimed that an ambisiangulo hunt was perilous, but Dapper describes a far more leisurely approach. The ambisiangulos are easily captured and slain with barbed harpoons, despite the lugubrious, eerily human cries of pain they emit. An injured ambisiangulo is allowed to escape, as its slow flight can be followed in a canoe. The flesh is fatty and tastes of pork, earning it its common name. The ear bones cure malaria, and the powdered skull of male ambisiangulos is a remedy against kidney stones. The ribs on the animal’s left side can be prepared into blood-staunching bracelets and protective amulets.

References

Dapper, O. (1676) Naukeurige Beschrijvinge der Afrikaensche Gewesten. Jacob van Meurs, Amsterdam.

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

Etambala, M. Z. La faune du Royaume de Congo et de l’Angola dans les récits de voyage et les journaux missionnaires de la fin du XVIe et du XVIIe siècle. In Stols, E.; Werner, T.; and Verberckmoes, J. (2006) Naturalia, Mirabilia & Monstrosa en los Imperios Ibéricos (Siglos XV-XIX). Leuven University Press, Leuven.

Marsy, F. M. (1764) Histoire moderne des chinois, des japonnois, des indiens, des persans, des turcs, des russiens etc. Tome douzieme: histoire des africains occidentaux. Desaint & Saillant, Paris.

Purchas, S. (1626) Purchas His Pilgrimage: or Relations of the World and the Religions observed in all Ages and Places discovered, from the Creation unto this Present. William Stansby, London.

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

Falajitax

Variations: Leile, Leile, Liwo

Falajitax

The Falajitax snakes are both violent ogres and benevolent rain-bringers. The Makka of Paraguay believe that they come from humid areas and bring the water with them wherever they go. Most falajitax live in the Chaco forests.

A falajitax has a head like that of a rhea. When it rears up with its body out of sight, it looks exactly like a rhea, and fools many hunters into coming too close. It wears earrings. Its massive serpent body is beautifully colored with eye-catching stripes. But a falajitax need not stick to one form, as it can assume any appearance it wishes, including human and equine guises. A falajitax disguised as a horse can tempt people into riding it, galloping with them into a lake where they drown.

At best, the falajitax are intelligent creatures that can be reasoned with by shamans. Falajitax often protect sources of honey in the forest, and the shaman can placate them by singing and soothing them with a sort of balm. A group of Makka and their shaman were permitted to harvest honey, and the falajitax next guided them to their secret stores of honey. The snakes finally appeared in the shaman’s dreams, telling him that they would live in peace with the Makka.

The falajitax that chased a rhea-hunter was much less friendly. With its head raised, it would beckon him to approach, then lie down and roll up as he came closer. When he discovered the deception, he rode off at full speed, with the falajitax following close behind, jumping from branch to branch like a monkey. When the hunter reached a burned field, the falajitax stopped moving, for such places are unpleasant to the snake. The man returned with other villagers and killed the helpless falajitax, taking its beautiful skin, but after they hung it out to dry it started to rain. The torrential downpour stopped only after they had thrown the skin away.

At worst, the falajitax are little more than anthropophagous monsters. They often swallow people alive, but victims can escape by cutting out the serpent’s heart from within – a difficult proposition, considering that a falajitax has multiple decoy hearts around its neck, with the real heart located in its tail. It took two days for one hunter to find the falajitax’s heart and slay it; by then, his hair and clothes had been dissolved and his skin was decomposing. Fortunately for him, his wife’s magic comb restored him to health. But if the falajitax decides to kill first, then there is no escape. The snake constricts its prey to death and then introduces its tail in its victim’s anus, making it walk like a macabre puppet.

References

Arenas, P.; Braunstein, J. A.; Dell’Arciprete, A. C.; Larraya, F. P.; Wilbert, J. and Simoneau, K. eds. (1991) Folk Literature of the Makka Indians. UCLA Latin American Center Publications, University of California, Los Angeles.

Bulgu

Bulgu

The Guji Oromo of Ethiopia tell of a brother and sister who went down to the river to fetch water. There they met a Bulgu, “cannibal”, a fearsome ogre with four eyes, a head like an axe blade, arms like axe handles, and stocky legs like pestles. Before the children could react, the bulgu seized and devoured the boy. As he licked his lips, he told the girl “If you tell anyone about what you just saw, I will eat you, you and all in your family!”

Bulgu sketchThe traumatized girl ran home in tears. When questioned by her father about her missing brother, she remembered the bulgu’s words and said “He got lost in the brush, he wandered off alone”. But all she could think of was her brother’s death and the ogre’s threat, and she refused to eat for days, wasting away. Eventually she became too weak to move, and called her father to her bedside. “Father, build me nine high, thick fences around the house, and I will tell you why my brother disappeared”. Nine palisades were constructed of juniper, and the daughter finally told all. The father was incensed. He built a platform of branches above the hut to hide his daughter, then seized his lance and went off to slay the bulgu.

It was all in vain. The bulgu had heard every word the girl said, and approached the hut after the father was gone. Ten magic formulae were mumbled, and the nine gates and the door burst open. The bulgu searched high and low for the girl, and he wouldn’t have found her if she had not broken wind in fear. When her parents returned, the only thing left of her was her middle finger.

References

Bader, C. (2000) Mythes et legendes de la Corne de l’Afrique. Editions Karthala, Paris.

Tutschek, L. (1845) Dictionary of the Galla Language, v. II. F. Wild, Munich.

Lebraude

Variations: Enfleboeuf, Souffle, Soufflet

Lebraude

Sometimes the toxicity of reptiles and amphibians was so powerful that their breath became a deadly weapon. The rarely-seen toads and salamanders in particular were blamed for all sorts of evil deeds.

The Lebraude is a sort of large lizard or salamander with black and yellow skin. It breathes once per day, and anything that contacts its noxious exhalation dies instantly. Humans perish, livestock expires, and even trees and grass wither up. In Puy de Dôme the Souffle (“Breath”) is a small snake or salamander whose breath kills anyone it sees first. Toads in Provence kill birds with their breath. In Vaucluse a salamander’s breath will cause humans to swell up until they die in their skin. The Souffle, Soufflet (“Bellows”), or Enfleboeuf (“Ox-sweller”) of Auvergne inflates and kills cattle.

Sometimes it is not the exhalation, but the inhalation that is feared. In the Cher, it was said that toads sucked bees out of hives, opening their mouths wide for the insects to come in. Reptiles born from a rooster’s egg in the Hautes-Pyrénées can inhale and swallow anything nearby, including birds and children.

References

Sébillot, P. (1906) Le Folk-lore de France, Tome Troisième: La Faune et la Flore. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Onchú

Variations: Enfield; Alphyn; Water-dog, Sea-dog

Onchu

The Onchú, “Water-dog”, is a peculiar Irish creature with a long history of phonetic transformation. It is better known as the Enfield or Alphyn.

Of the three variants it is the enfield that has the most defined morphotype. It has the head of a fox, the chest of a greyhound, the talons of an eagle, the body of a lion, and the hindlegs and tail of a wolf. A more simple description gives it the head of a fox, the breast and forelegs of an eagle, and the hindquarters of a wolf, combining the cunning of the first, the honor of the second, and the ferocity of the third. There may be a mane and a lion’s tail. Enfields are rarely used in heraldry, most notably appearing in green as the crest of the O’Kelly family of Ireland. This is traditionally attributed to an incident when Tadhg Mór Ua Ceallaigh, the ancestor of the O’Kellys of Hy-Many, fell in battle against the Danes at Clontarf. An enfield or dog-like creature emerged from the sea and protected Tadhg Mor’s body until it was recovered.

As for the alphyn, it vaguely resembles a tiger, sometimes with the same clawed forelimbs as the enfield. It shares its name with the term alphyn or alfin for the chess bishop, itself derived from al-fil, “the elephant”, but this is coincidental. Elephants were well-known in bestiaries long before the decidedly unproboscidean alphyn, which appears at the end of the fifteenth century.

The word onchú is more ancient than enfield or alphyn, and is probably derived from , “hound”, and on, “water” (as in onfais, “plunging”, and onfaisech, “diver”). It is synonymous with doburchú, the otter (literally “water dog”). Therefore the onchú can be inferred to be a dog or dog-like animal that lives at least partly in water. Onchú also is used to mean “banner”, or “standard”, suggesting that the use of the onchú on battle-standards was common enough that the name was transferred to the item – and that its use preceded the battle of Clontarf.

The confusion only increases with the pluralization of onchú to give onchoin or onchainn. Onchainn in turn became onfainn following the trend of ch conversion (e.g. Dunphy from Donnchaidh). Williams traces phonetic vagaries and lists a sequence of alterations: onfainn to anchainn to anfainn to anfaill to anfild to enfild. Anfaill also gave rise to the less-successful alternative name of alphyn. Further assimilation with the heraldic sea-dog gave the onchú/enfield/alphyn a mane and clawed, bird-like forelegs.

Since then onchú has been used as a term for a large water beast. It is wild, fearsome, valorous, heroic, with reptilian and venomous qualities (probably the origin of its green color). The onchú that lived between Loch Con and Loch Cuilinn killed nine men. Muiredach pursued it into the water and slew it, earning the title of Cú Choingelt, “Hound of the Pasturage”.

Williams proposes the adoption of onchú as the official Gaelic term for the animal. Enfield remains an acceptable English version.

References

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

Cooke, T. L. (1859) Proceedings, November Meeting. The Journal of the Kilkenny and South-East of Ireland Archaeological Society, v. 2. McGlashan and Gill, Dublin.

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

Williams, N. J. A. (1989) Of Beasts and Banners: The Origin of the Heraldic Enfield. The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, v. 119, pp. 62-78.