Tarasque

Variations: Tarasca, Tarasco, Tarascona, Tarasconus, Tarascus, Tirasconus, Tirascurus

tarasque

The story of the Tarasque is inextricable from that of Saint Martha and the southern French town of Tarascon. It features on the coat of arms of Tarascon, and it is attended to by the Order of the Tarascaires, the Members of the Provencal Order of Knights of the Tarasque. It is part of a long and venerable tradition of French beasts associated with particular cities and usually paraded through the streets during relevant feast days.

Etymologies for the Tarasque’s name vary. Folklore attributes the name of Tarascon to the Tarasque, but it is most likely that the dragon was named after the city. Tarascon itself may have been derived from Tauriscus, a Gaulish tyrant supposedly slain by Hercules. As to the origin of the tale itself, everything from vanquished pagan religions to displaced captive crocodiles has been suggested.

The earliest elements of what was to become the tradition of Saint Martha in Provence originated in Vézelay in the 11th century. By the end of the 12th century these had been associated with Saint Martha, and developed concurrently with Tarascon. The Vita S. Marthae of the Pseudo-Marcella is the oldest reference to the Tarasque, and is dated somewhere between 1187 (the date of the discovery of Saint Martha’s relics in Tarascon) and 1220. Vincent of Beauvais and Jacobus Voragine based their accounts on the prototype of the Pseudo-Marcella and gradually brought Saint Martha into 13th century martyrologies. The tale served to strengthen the cult of Saint Martha in Provence, and further establish Tarascon’s identity as a cultural, political, and religious center.

The Tarasque was found in the woods between Arles and Avignon, near town of Nerluc (“Black Lake”), or otherwise in the Rhone, in a hole by the river. The Pseudo-Marcella gives the most complete description. The Tarasque was a dragon, half animal and half fish, larger than an ox and longer than a horse, with teeth as sharp as swords, and armored on both sides like a turtle. It had the face and head of a lion, a horse’s mane, a back sharp as an axe, spiky scales as sharp as augers, six bear-clawed legs, and a serpent’s tail. It was more than a match for a dozen lions or bears. Having come by sea from Galatia, the Tarasque hid in the river, sinking boats and devouring anyone who came near. In a flourish of erudition, we are told it was the offspring of the sea-serpent Leviathan and the onachus or bonnacon, a creature that fires burning dung as a weapon. The mechanics of such a coupling are left unexplained.

The Pseudo-Rabanus adds that the Tarasque, in addition to being an enormous dragon with hooked fangs, had pestilential smoke for breath and sulphurous sparks coming from its eyes. It whistled and roared horribly, and the mere infection of its breath was lethal. It lived along with other serpents.

The people of Nerluc entreated Martha to deliver them from this menace, so the saintly woman entered the woods in search of the Tarasque. She found the dragon halfway through eating a man. Far from being intimidated, she sprinkled the Tarasque with holy water and brandished a cross, whereupon the dragon came to her as peacefully as a lamb. Martha leashed it with her belt and delivered it to the people, who avenged themselves by tearing the Tarasque apart with lances and stones. Subsequently Saint Martha preached and converted the townsfolk to Christianity. Some modern retellings claim that the people came to regret the killing of a now-harmless creature, but there is no mention of this in the texts.

It was from then on that Nerluc became known as Tarascon, in honor of the dragon defeated by Saint Martha and the power of Christ. However, there is no indication that Tarascon was ever called Nerluc; it is more likely that the story of Saint Martha was attached to a local tradition involving the Tarasque as a symbol of fertility or destructive floods. The description in the Pseudo-Marcellus reads like an overview of the effigy, and the multiple feet brings to mind the feet of people holding and moving the dragon.

The effigy of the Tarasque has made its appearance on the streets of Tarascon on multiple occasions, including on Pentecost and on the feast day of Saint Martha (July 29th). In the former it is wild and untamed, breathing fire; in the latter it is tame, chastened, held on a leash by a little girl. Its manifestations are accompanied by celebration, games and music, including the traditional chant:

Lagadigadèu, la Tarasco, Lagadigadèu, la Tarasco de castéu!

Laissas la passa, la viéio masco

Laissas la passa, que vai dansa

Leissas la dounc passa, la viéio masco!

(“Lagadigadèu, the Tarasque, Lagadigadèu, the Tarasque of the castle!

Let her pass, the old mask

Let her pass, she’s going to dance

Let her pass then, the old mask!”)

In this case, lagadigadèu is an untranslatable expression, a sort of Tarasconian war-cry, a musical tally-ho.

The Tarasca, a dragon effigy paraded in Spanish cities during Corpus Christi celebrations, is a direct descendant of the Tarasque.

References

Dumont, L. (1951) La Tarasque. Gallimard, Paris.

Mistral, F.; Berthier, A. trans. (1862) Les Fetes de la Tarasque. M. E. Drujon, Tarascon.

Tilbury, G.; Banks, S. E. and Binns, J. W. (eds.) (2002) Otia Imperialia. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Véran, J. (1868) Histoire de la Vie et du Culte de Sainte Marthe. Seguin Ainé, Avignon.

Very, F. G. (1962) The Spanish Corpus Christi Procession: A Literary and Folkloric Study. Tipografia Moderna, Valencia.

Voragine, J. (2004) La Légende Dorée. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard, Paris.

Amhuluk

Variations: Amhúluk; Atunkai, Atúnkai (associated)

amhuluk

Amhuluk is a creature associated with drowning, disease, and the malarial fog that rises from the water’s surface. The Kalapuya of the Willamette River locate the Amhuluk in a lake near Forked Mountain, fifteen miles west of Forest Grove in northwestern Oregon. He originally wanted to inhabit the Atfalati plains but eventually went into the more comfortable lake. There he settled and indulged his passion – drowning others.

Amhuluk is terrible to see. He is spotted, with long spotted horns on his head, and his four legs are hairless. Various items are tied to his body so they can be carried around. He keeps several spotted dogs. Wherever he steps, the ground sinks and softens.

Everything Amhuluk sees is captured and drowned in his lake. Even the trees around the lake have their crowns upside-down around the lake, and the sky itself is drowned in the muddy water. The banks of the lake are slimy and boggy, trapping all manner of animals. Grizzly bears instinctively enter the lake when they grow old, and are changed into other beasts. The Atúnkai, an otter or seal-like water creature, is the usual product of this metamorphosis.

Three children once went out in search of adsadsh-root. There, at Forked Mountain, they met Amhuluk rising out of the ground, and marveled at his beautiful spotted horns. “Let’s take the horns”, they said, “and make digging tools out of them”. But Amhuluk impaled and lifted up two of the children on his horns while the eldest boy escaped. The child returned home in terror. “Something horrible has taken my brother and sister”, he told his father. Then he slept, and his parents could see that his body was covered in blotches. The father went out, retracing his children’s steps to the Forked Mountain. There the bodies of his children appeared out of the fog rising on the water. They were still impaled on Amhuluk’s horns, and they cried “Didei, didei, didei” (“we have changed bodies”). Five times they rose and spoke, and five times their father wailed mournfully. For five days he waited, camping near the lake and mourning his children, and each of those days they appeared, repeating their sad litany – “Didei, didei, didei”. Then they sank under the surface and were never seen again. Amhuluk had claimed them for his own.

References

Gatschet, A. S. (1888) A Migration Legend of the Creek Indians, v. II. R. P. Studley & Co., St. Louis.

Gatschet, A. S. (1891) Oregonian Folklore. Journal of American Folk-lore, v. IV, pp. 139-143.

Gatschet, A. S. (1899) Water-monsters of American Aborigines. Journal of American Folk-lore, v. 12, pp. 255-260.

Skinner, C. M. (1896) Myths and Legends of our Own Lands, v. II. J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia.

Velue

Variations: Hairy Beast, Hairy One, Shaggy Beast, Shaggy One (English); Peluda (erroneously outside of Spanish writings)

velue

The Velue, the “shaggy one” or “hairy one”, is a dragon from the Huisne River, near La Ferté-Bernard in the Sarthe. It was overlooked by Noah during the Flood but survived anyway, nursing a grudge and devoting its existence to spiteful destruction. The Velue’s egg-shaped body was the size of a large ox and covered with shaggy green fur from which pointed spikes emerged. It had the head of a nightmarish snake and the massive legs of a tortoise. Its snake’s tail could slay man and beast alike with a single swipe.

The creature breathed fire and ravaged farms and crops. It gobbled down flocks of sheep and ate shepherds for dessert. It would even be so bold as to enter the streets of the old city – moats and walls were powerless to stop it. When pursued, it would return to the Huisne, displacing enough water to cause it to flood and ruin the surrounding fields.

Women and children were the dragon’s favorite food, and it prioritized agnelles or “she-lambs”, the most beautiful and virtuous maidens of the land. This was to be the Velue’s undoing. After it took a young damsel for a meal, it was hunted down by the girl’s fiancé and tracked to its lair in the Huisne under an ivy-covered bridge. He stabbed the dragon’s tail and killed it instantly. Its death was much celebrated.

The tale of the Velue is relatively new. Its basis dates from the 15th Century and it was resurrected and expanded in the 19th Century. Much of it is in the tradition of French local dragons such as the Tarasque, but it has not had any major festivals or iconographic conventions. The oldest and only presumed historical depiction of the Velue is a terracotta fountain sculpture dated from the 17th or 18th Century, found in a ditch on the road of La Chapelle-Saint-Rémy.

If anything the use of the term agnelles for Fertois women has existed separately from the dragon. In the 16th Century La Ferté-Bernard sided with the Catholic League during the wars of Henri IV. Its governor Dragues de Comnène was a wily commander who claimed descent from the Eastern kings. During a siege led by René de Bouillé, the governor sent a detachment of soldiers out of La Ferté disguised as women. The ruse almost worked; some of the besiegers came gallantly up to the damsels and found themselves under attack, but René de Bouillé’s forces quickly sent the disguised warriors packing. The victory highly amused Henri IV and provided no end of jokes concerning “les agnelles de la Ferté, dont il ne faut que deux pour étrangler le loup” (“the she-lambs of the Ferté, only two of which can throttle a wolf”).

The term “peluda” has gained traction as a name solely because it was used by Borges. Some sources even claim it to be an Occitan word – never mind the fact that La Ferté-Bernard is nowhere near the Midi. Borges used the word as a direct Spanish translation of “velue” (much like “hairy beast” or “shaggy beast”) and has absolutely no business being used outside of a Spanish context.

References

Borges, J. L.; trans. di Giovanni, N. T. (2002) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Vintage Classics, Random House, London.

Charles, L. (1877) Histoire de La Ferté-Bernard. Robert Charles, Pellechat, Le Mans.

Clier-Colombani, F. (1991) La Fée Mélusine au Moyen Age. Le Léopard d’or, Paris.

Flohic, J. (2001) Le Patrimoine des Communes de la Sarthe, v. II. Flohic Editions, Paris.

Roy, C. and Strand, P. (1952) La France de Profil. Editions Clairefontaine, Lausanne.

Abaia

Abaia

There is a lake in British New Guinea. It is deep and full of fish, and Abaia, the magic eel, dwells at the bottom. Abaia does not like to be disturbed. Like many snakes and eels in Melanesian beliefs, it is closely associated with weather, storms, and floods.

Once a man found Abaia’s lake and caught many fish. Then he invited the other inhabitants of his village to share in the endless bounty. They too filled their nets, and one woman caught Abaia himself, but the eel managed to escape.

In retaliation for this affront, Abaia caused it to rain that night. The lake water rose and everyone drowned – everyone, save for one old woman who sought refuge in a tree. She was the only one who had not eaten any of the fish.

References

Dixon, R. B. (1916) The Mythology of All Races v. IX: Oceanic. Marshall Jones Company, Boston.

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.