Aspidochelone

Variations: Aspido-chelone, Aspidochelon, Aspidocalon, Aspidoceleon, Aspidodeleon, Aspidodelone, Aspischelone, Aspido-tortoise, Asp-tortoise, Asp-turtle, Fastitocalon, Shield-tortoise, Sea-monster, Sea-tortoise, Sea-turtle, Sulhafat, Turtle

Aspidochelone

The motif of the island-turtle or island-whale is one of the most common and pervasive of maritime yarns. Whether it is a turtle, a whale, a fish, or a crab, the story is the same. A great sea creature raises its back out of the water. Sea-sand and vegetation gather in on its rough back, until it looks like a small island. Sailors anchor their ship to the deceptive “island”, disembark, and light a fire. The monster, feeling the fire on its back, immediately dives, taking the sailors and their ship down to a watery grave.

Prototypes of the gigantic fish are in the Indian Zend-Avesta, the supposed 3rd-Century letter of Aristotle to Alexander, and the Babylonian Talmud composed around CE 257-320.

The monster in al-Jahiz’s account is a crab (saratan) – surely confusion with the similarly shelled turtle? In al-Qazwini’s entry on the turtle (sulhafat), he distinguishes between the terrestrial tortoise and the sea turtle. The sea turtle is of great size, and sailors believe it to be an island in the middle of the sea, landing on it and lighting a fire until the turtle stirs, whereupon those aboard the ship call out “Come back, for it is a turtle that felt the heat of the fire, come back that you may not go down with it!” Sindbad the Sailor encountered this creature in his first Voyage, but managed to escape with his life.

The Account repeated in the Physiologus and bestiaries such as the Exeter Book, and the monster is identified with the whale that swallowed Jonah. The original Greek versions of the bestiary talk of the Aspidochelone – a name of uncertain etymology. Chelone refers to a turtle or tortoise, but aspido has been assumed to mean “shield” or “asp” (as in, the snake). The “shield” origin may stem from the turtle’s shell, but it seems like a redundant descriptor for a turtle. Another possibility is that the turtle was originally more of a serpent, or that this is a reference to the aspidochelone’s evil.

Whatever the meaning, the name aspidochelone became corrupted over time to become the “fastitocalon”, and the turtle supplanted with the more familiar whale (although the description of a rough back sounds more like a turtle’s shell).

The Physiologus or Bestiary adds further moralizing elements to the story. The aspidochelone will exhale a pleasant odor from its mouth, attracting fish that are then swallowed. Thus the aspidochelone is an allegory for Satan. Sinners who anchor themselves to the Devil are doomed to go to Hell, and sinful pleasures are enticing as perfume.

The aspidochelone entry is preceded by the panther entry. Both use fragrant breath to attract other animals, but the aspidochelone is evil while the panther is an allegory for Christ. The juxtaposition is probably intentional. The fragrant smell of the aspidochelone may also be derived from the odorous cetacean substance known as ambergris.

Aspidochelones are minor subjects in medieval woodcarvings, visible at Kidlington, Great Grandsden, Isleham, Swaffham Bulbeck, and Norwich Cathedral. They can be distinguished by the presence of ships and cooking-pots on their back, or with their mouths open to attract fish.

References

Barber, R. (1993) Bestiary. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge.

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

Cook, A. S. (1821) The Old English Physiologus. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Cook, A. S. (1894) The Old English ‘Whale’. Modern Language Notes, 9(3), pp. 65-68.

Curley, M. J. (1979) Physiologus. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Druce, G. C. (1914) Animals in English Wood Carving. The Third Annual Volume of the Walpole Society, pp. 57-73.

Gordon, R. K. (1957) Anglo-Saxon Poetry. J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London.

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

Iannello, F. (2011) Il motive dell’aspidochelone nella tradizione letteraria del Physiologus. Considerazioni esegetiche e storico-religiose. Nova Tellus 29(2), pp. 151-200.

Al-Jahiz, A. (1966) Kitab al-Hayawan. Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi wa Awladihi, Egypt.

Al-Qazwini, Z. (1849) Zakariya ben Muhammed ben Mahmud el-Cazwini’s Kosmographie. Erster Theil: Die Wunder der Schöpfung. Ed. F. Wüstenfeld. Dieterichsche Buchhandlung, Göttingen.

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

Wiener, L. (1921) Contributions toward a history of Arabico-Gothic culture, volume IV: Physiologus studies. Innes and Sons, Philadelphia.

Lukwata

Variations: Lokwata, Luquata; Balukwata (pl.)

Victoria Nyanza is home to the Lukwata. The deeds and misdeeds of this great sea-serpent are told on both sides of the lake, from Uganda to the Kavirondo (Winam) Gulf in Kenya. The lukwata is commonly lumped with the dingonek, but the lukwata’s pedigree is far older. Lukwata is also the name of a Baganda clay charm which, when hidden in the king’s house, presents theft in the village, but this seems unrelated.

The lukwata has been around from time immemorial and makes occasional appearances. It is a huge and terrifying lake demon, a serpent, a cetacean, or perhaps a giant fish. It is associated with whirlpools in the lake. Ja-Luo fishermen have tales of the lukwata attacking their canoes. The Baganda, Kavirondo, and Wasoga of the north shore of lake Nyanza used to sacrifice livestock to it. The lukwata’s disappearance coincided with the sleeping-sickness epidemic, and it was believed that the muzungu (foreigners) caused the disease by killing the lukwata, thus bringing its wrath upon the people.

W. Grant, Provincial Commissioner of Jinja, saw a lukwata swimming down the Napoleon Gulf; its head was out of the water but it was too far to make out its features. Clement Hill of the Foreign Office had a far closer encounter when a lukwata off Homa Mountain tried unsuccessfully to seize a man on the bow of Hill’s ship. He saw a lizard-like head, roundish and dark-colored, on a four-foot-long neck attached to a large, rounded mass that formed the body. Some sort of tail seemed to be trailing behind.

E. G. Wayland, head of the Geological Survey of Uganda, claimed to have heard the lukwata’s distant bellowing. He was shown pieces of lukwata bone, and was told that the lukwata fought epic battles with crocodiles. Pieces of skin lost in those struggles were used for potent amulets.

The most complete account of a lukwata’s appearance is recorded by H. Bell, who shot one on the western border of Uganda near the Semliki River and Lake Albert. The creature, which was identified as a small lukwata by a native boy, was deemed to resemble Hill’s serpent. It had a snakelike head, a neck several inches long, a tail a few inches long, and flippers like a sea turtle’s. Instead of a hard shell, the lukwata had a thick, soft, rubbery carapace. Bell believed that the lukwata – evidently an odd species of turtle – would, at the surface, give the impression of a bulky, long-necked animal.

Balukwata are not particularly smart. A Baganda folktale tells of the friendship between a lukwata and a monkey. It came to pass that the King of the balukwata took ill, and his wizard told him to eat the heart of a monkey as a cure. The King offered great rewards to any of the balukwata who would bring him the heart of a monkey. So the lukwata went to the home of his friend the monkey and hailed him. “How are you? You should come visit me, my wife and sons want to see you”. “But I cannot swim”, said the monkey. “I’ll carry you on my back”, said the lukwata, and they were off. Halfway across the lake, the lukwata, having a crisis of conscience, decided to tell the monkey the truth. “I’m really sorry, but our King is sick and needs your heart”. The monkey thought fast. “You silly thing”, he told the lukwata, “I don’t have my heart with me. I leave it behind so I can jump through the trees. Take me back and I’ll fetch my heart from the branch where I left it”. Of course, the unsuspecting lukwata swam back, and the monkey escaped to safety in the trees – but not before mocking his erstwhile friend’s intelligence.

References

Bell, H. (1948) Witches & Fishes. Edward Arnold & Co., London.

Bronson, E. B. (1910) In Closed Territory. A. C. McClurg & Co., Chicago.

Cunningham, J. F. (1905) Uganda and its peoples. Hutchinson & Co., London.

Hattersley, C. W. (1900) An English Boy’s Life and Adventures in Uganda. The Religious Tract Society, London.

Heuvelmans, B.; Garnett, R. trans. (1958) On the Track of Unknown Animals. Rupert Hart-Davis, London.

Hobley, C. W. (1913) On Some Unidentified Beasts. The Journal of the East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society, III(6), pp. 48-52.

Johnston, H. (1902) The Uganda Protectorate. Hutchinson & Co., London.

Pilkington, G. L. (1911) A Hand-book of Luganda. Richard Clay & Sons, Limited, London.

Ilomba

Variations: Malomba (pl.); Mulombe, Mulolo, Sung’unyi (Kaonde); Ndumba (Alunda); Man-Snake

The Ilomba is one of several familiar spirits associated with sorcerers and witchcraft in Zambia. Malomba appear as snakes with human heads and share the features and emotions of their owners. As malomba are obtained through deliberate sorcery in order to kill enemies or steal food, anyone suspected of having an ilomba is up to no good. That said, powerful chiefs and hunters are said to have their own malomba to protect them from witchcraft. Owners of malomba are usually male.

Evil sorcerers can make malomba in a number of ways. Most commonly, a mixture of certain medicines and water is made and placed on a piece of bark. Five duiker horns are placed next to this. A plait of luwamba or mbamba (spiky grass) is made to about 15-18 inches long and 0.5-1 inch wide; the duiker horns are placed at one end of this plait. Fingernail parings from the client are put in the horns, and blood taken from the client’s forehead and chest are mixed with the medicine. Some of the concoction is drunk by the client, while the rest is sprinkled onto the plait with a second luwamba plait. After the first sprinkling, the plait turns ash-white. The second sprinkling turns it into a snake. The third gives it a head and shoulders that resemble the client in miniature, including any jewelry present. The shoulders soon fade away to leave only the head.

The ilomba then addresses its master. “You know and recognize me, you see that our faces are similar?” When the client answers both questions in the affirmative, then they are given their ilomba.

Once obtained, an ilomba will live wherever the owner desires it to, but usually this is in riverside reeds. Soon it makes its first demand for the life of a person. The owner can then designate the chosen target, and the ilomba kills the victim. It kills by eating its victim’s life, by consuming their shadow, or by simply feasting on their flesh or swallowing them whole. Then it returns and crawls over its owner, licking them. People who keep mulomba become sleek and fat and clean, are possessed of long life, and will not die until all their relatives are dead. This comes at a steep price, however, as the ilomba will hunger again, and continue eating lives. If it is not allowed to feed itself, its owner will grow weak and ill until the ilomba feeds again.

Soon the unnatural death toll will be noticed, and a sorcerer is called in to divine the hiding place of the ilomba. To kill an ilomba, a sorcerer will sprinkle nsompu medicine around its suspected lair. This causes the water level to rise and the ground to rumble. First fish, then crabs, and finally the ilomba itself appear. The snake is promptly shot with a poisoned arrow – and its owner feels its pain. They die at the same time.

References

Melland, F. H. (1923) In Witch-bound Africa. J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia.

Turner, V. (1975) Revelation and Divination in Ndembu Ritual. Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

White, C. M. N. (1948) Witchcraft, Divination and Magic among the Balovale Tribes. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 18(2), pp. 81-104.

Kongamato

Kongamato

The Kongamato, “overwhelmer of boats”, is a river-shutter of Kasempa District in northern Zambia. It is known from Kaonde folklore, and the Jiundu Swamp is one of its favorite haunts. The fact that the Jiundu has historically been a haven for thieves, murderers, and assorted lowlifes is probably relevant.

A kongamato is a kind of bird, or rather a lizard with the membranous wings of a bat. It has a wingspan of 4 to 7 feet across and lacks feathers, its body covered in skin. It is mostly red in color. The beak is armed with sharp teeth. Claims that the kongamato is a surviving pterosaur are best forgotten.

Kongamatos live downstream of river fords. There they cause the river to stop flowing and the water level to rise, overwhelming and tipping over canoes. Sometimes a canoe will slow down and come to a dead stop despite the paddler’s best efforts; this is because a kongamato has seized the boat from underneath the water.

Few people see a kongamato and live, and the kongamato itself is invulnerable and immortal, eating any projectile thrown at it and leaving no physical trace of itself behind. When it kills people it devours only the two little fingers, the two little toes, the earlobes, and the nostrils. That said, four deaths attributed to the kongamato in 1911 did not record any such mutilation; more likely, then, that a kongamato caused their deaths by the flooding of the Mutanda River near Lufumatunga.

To ward off kongamato attack, the charm known as muchi wa kongamato is used. This consists of mulendi tree root ground and mixed with water. The resulting paste is placed in a bark cup. When crossing a dangerous ford, the mixture is sprinkled onto the water using a bundle of mulendi bark strips. This wards off the kongamato and its floods.

References

Melland, F. H. (1923) In Witch-bound Africa. J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia.

Onniont

Onniont

The Onniont is a huge serpent of Huron folklore that looks like an armored fish. When it travels, it breaks through everything in its path. Rocks, trees, and bears are all grist to its mill. An onniont is unstoppable. Any small part of it would make a potent talisman.

Nobody ever saw an onniont. According to Jesuit missionaries, however, neighboring Algonquin merchants claimed to sell pieces of onniont, and publicized the legend themselves.

References

Vimont, B. (1858) Relations des Jésuites, v. II. Augustin Coté, Quebec.

Velachif

Velachif

The Velachif is a giant and hideous snake found above the lake of Tenochtitlan. It is amphibious like a crocodile, and extremely venomous; death is virtually certain if bitten by one. A velachif has a rounded head, a parrot-like beak, and a colorful, predominantly red body.

The inhabitants of Mexico frequently hunt it. Its flesh is of excellent quality.

References

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

Zoureg

Zoureg

The Zoureg is a snake, one foot in length, that lives in the Arabian desert. When it moves it goes through everything in its path like a hot knife through butter; rocks, trees, walls and human bodies are all equally powerless to stop it. Anyone who a zoureg goes through dies instantly. It can only be killed by decapitating it in its sleep.

It has proven difficult to locate de Plancy’s sources for this purported Arabian legend, considering that “zoureg” is an oddly transliterated word with multiple possible spellings in Arabic.

References

de Plancy, J. C. (1863) Dictionnaire Infernal. Henri Plon, Paris.