Skvader

The Skvader is a taxidermist’s chimera found in Sundsvall, in the Swedish province of Medelpad. It is a winged hare, combining the skins of a European hare and a capercaillie.

The original skvader was made by Rudolf Granberg in 1918, based on an illustration of a hunter’s tall tale from 1874. It was preserved in a museum in Sundsvall and has since then become an unofficial symbol of Medelpad.

References

Fraser, M. (1947) In Praise of Sweden. Methuen and Co. Ltd., London.

Panafieu, J. and Renversade, C. (2014) Créatures fantastiques Deyrolle. Plume De Carotte, Toulouse.

Shuyu

Variations: Shu-fishShuyu

The Shuyu or Shu-fish can be found in abundance in China’s Peng River. It looks like a chicken with red feathers, and has four heads (or four eyes), six feet, and three tails. It caws like a magpie. Eating it cures melancholy.

The red color, multiplicity of appendages, and the triple (three-lobed?) tail combine to suggest a crayfish or lobster.

References

Mathieu, R. (1983) Étude sur la mythologie et l’ethnologie de la Chine ancienne. Collège de France, Paris.

Strassberg, R. E. (2002) A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. University of California Press.

Siéhnam

Siéhnam the deer was once the terror of the Chorote of Argentina. He would attack at night, seeking out villages after midnight, and kill people by stabbing them with his large antlers. If he found someone sleeping on their back, he would bite their throat. He killed four people every night.

The day came when the Chorote, tired of the losses incurred, asked the shaman for help. “What is it that comes at night?” they asked him.

The shaman woke up just before midnight and heard Siéhnam approaching. “Now I have caught you!” the shaman said. “I thought it was someone else, but it was you. You and I will fight!”

And fight they did, until the shaman threw Siéhnam down and the deer did not come back. The next day the shaman brought the good news to the village. “Now we can sleep peacefully! I believe the one bothering us will not return again”.

References

Cordeu, E. J.; Mashnshnek, C. O.; von Nordenskiöld, E.; Siffredi, A.; and Verna, M. A.; Wilbert, J. and Simoneau, K. eds. (1985) Folk Literature of the Chorote Indians. UCLA Latin American Center Publications, University of California, Los Angeles.

Slide-rock Bolter

Variations: Macrostoma saxiperrumptus (Cox)

The greatest hazard of the Colorado mountains is not avalanches or bears, but rather the Slide-rock Bolter. This is a colossal creature the size of a whale. Its enormous mouth, something like that of a sculpin, goes behind its small eyes and ears, and drools copious amounts of thin grease from the corners. The flipper-tail is separated into grappling hooks, which allow the slide-rock bolter to cling to the top of a ridge or mountain.

Slide-rock bolters live where the slopes are steeper than 45°. They can wait for days until prey comes within reach – typically a clueless animal such as a tourist. When a slide-rock bolter spots a tourist, it releases its hook-tail and slides down the slope, lubricated by its grease secretion. It slides like a nightmarish toboggan, bulldozing trees and obstacles, snapping up the tourist, and, carried by momentum, traveling back up to the top of another slope. There it sinks its hooks in and goes back to waiting.

Guides have become increasingly reticent about leading treks through bolter country, as entire groups of tourists can be lost to the behemoths. Slide-rock bolters can be lured away with appropriate tourist decoys – scarecrows with Norfolk jackets, knee breeches, and Colorado guidebooks. One ranger near Ophir Peaks rigged such a tourist decoy with powder and blasting caps, luring in the bolter at Lizzard Head. The detonation scattered enough bolter flesh to feed local vultures for the rest of the season.

References

Cox, W. T. (1910) Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods with a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts. Judd and Detweiler, Washington D. C.

Sasnalkáhi

Variations: Cac na’alka hi, Bear that Pursues, Tracking Bear

The fearsome Sasnalkáhi, the Bear that Pursues, was a monstrous bear that terrorized the Navajo people. As one of the Anaye, Sasnalkáhi was born from unnatural sexual practices; in this case, his “fathers” were a smooth stone and a leg sinew. He lived in a cross-shaped mountain cave at Tse’bahástsit, the “Rock that Frightens”. Once Sasnalkáhi set on a hunt, his prey had no hope of escape.

When Nayenezgani set out to slay Sasnalkáhi, he carried yucca fruit in his left hand and hard oak twigs in his right hand. Those medicinal plants warded off Sasnalkáhi’s attentions.

Eventually Nayenezgani found the bear’s head emerging from a hole. He inspected the east, south, and west entrances; when he got to the north, Sasnalkáhi’s head immediately withdrew, and the bear headed for the south entrance. This time Nayenezgani was waiting for him, and when Sasnalkáhi stuck his head out, Nayenezgani decapitated him.

“You were a bad thing in life”, proclaimed Nayenezgani to the head. “You caused nothing but mischief. But now I will make you useful to the people; you will feed them, clean them, and clothe them in the future”. Sasnalkáhi’s head was chopped into three pieces. One piece was thrown east, where it became tsási (Yucca baccata). One piece was thrown west, becoming tsásitsoz (Yucca angustifolia). The last piece was thrown south, to become nóta (mescal). The nipples became pinyon nuts, while two pieces of fat cut from around the tail became a bear and a porcupine. The left forepaw, gall, and windpipe were taken as trophies.

References

Locke, R. F. (1990) Sweet Salt: Navajo folktales and mythology. Roundtable Publishing Company, Santa Monica.

Matthews, W. (1897) Navaho legends. Houghton Mifflin and Company, New York.

Reichard, G. A. (1950) Navaho Religion: A Study of Symbolism. Bollingen Foundation Inc., New York.

Songòmby

Variations: Songomby, Songaomby, Tsiombiomby, Tsongomby, Bibiaombe; Brech, Brek (probably); Habeby, Fotsiandre (probably); Mangarsahoc (probably); Tòkantòngotra, Tòkandìa. Tokatomboka (probably)

Songomby

The Songòmby is an unusual carnivorous animal from the folklore of Madagascar. The name may be derived from sònga, “having the upper lip turned upwards”, and òmby, “ox” according to Sibree. The word songòmby is taken to mean “lion-hearted” or “courageous”. Another name, bibiaombe , means “ox-animal”. Molet offers two derivations for songòmby:  from the Swahili songo ngomby, “snake ox”, or a corruption of the alternative name tsiombiomby (“looks like an ox”). Domenichini-Ramiaramanana gives a popular etymology as derived from the question many ask when seeing it: Sangoa omby re izany? (“Isn’t that just an ox?”), and a more serious one from songo and omby where songo refers to virgin land allowed to go wild; in this case, the reference is to a feral ox.

Consistent across the descriptions is that the songòmby is the size of an ox or a horse, exceedingly fast, burdened with floppy ears, and a man-eater. It looks something like a horse, a mule, or an ox. It has flaring nostrils and terrible incisors. Its prominent ears dangle over its eyes and can distract it at crucial moments.

Gabriel Ferrand says it has the body of an ox and a hornless horse’s head. It lives in forests and eats plants, insects, and humans. Its speed is beyond compare – a distant songòmby can reach its prey immediately. If its human prey tries to escape by climbing a tree, it will wait at the base of the tree and try to bring the human down by ruse. If that fails it directs a jet of urine at its prey. The victim loses their grip, falls, and is devoured by the songòmby.

R. P. Callet says the songòmby looks like a donkey with spots. It eats grass but if it sees people it chases them. It comes out at night to graze. When climbing mountains they are fast as horses, but when they go down they move slowly because their ears flop over their eyes.

Domenichini-Ramiaramanana describes the songòmby as white in color, very fast, like both a horse and an ox, and with a single horn. It sprinkles itchy hair (lay) from its nostrils. If its prey tries to escape by climbing a tree, the itchiness brought on by the lay will make the victim try to scratch itself, falling out of the tree. Thus, if climbing a tree to avoid a songomby, one must be sure to tie oneself to the branches with lianas. The creature is patient though and will wait till morning at the foot of the tree.

In northern Madagascar the songòmby is like the donkey or the mouflon. It has tufts of hair at its feet. It may have backswept horns or no horns at all. Its hooves are so hard they strike sparks from the ground. Most unusually of all, “it is only seen in profile and looking behind it”. This final clue suggests to Molet that the songòmby evolved from the decorative ch’i-lin on Chinese plates, which is often depicted in profile and looking backwards. The people of Madagascar would have seen those on Chinese plates brought by Arab traders – a trade which was stopped by the Portuguese, leaving the origin of the songòmby to distant history.

To catch a songòmby, a child is tied up in front of the songòmby’s den while a net is put over the entrance. The child’s crying attracts the songòmby, which is snared in the net. Worse than that, children were punished by putting them outside and telling them the songòmby would eat them. But this was not without its risks. A child was once put outside, and the parents called out “Here’s your share, Mr. Songòmby!” As luck would have it, a songòmby was passing by. “Oh, he really is here!” cried the child, but the parents ignored him, replying “Let him eat you!” thinking the child was mistaken. After a while they opened the door to find their child was gone. They followed the trail of blood all the way to the entrance of the songòmby’s cave.

Fortunately the songòmby is not invincible. A man going out by night once met a songòmby, but as he was strong and brave, fought it all night without being hurt. The hero Imbahitrila once defeated a songòmby by arming himself with two magical eggs from the angavola bird. They answered his wish to overcome the songòmby by causing it to trip and fall. Once on the ground the songòmby was easily slain by Imbatrihila’s spear.

The Tòkantòngotra or Tòkandìa (“single-hoof”) is very similar to the songòmby. It is white in color, large (but smaller than the songòmby). Its feet are single hooves, like those of a horse (but not one foot in front and one in the back, as some authors have interpreted). Like the songòmby, it is very fast, travels by night, and is a man-eater.

Flacourt describes an animal called the Mangarsahoc. It is a large beast with a horse’s round hooves and long dangling ears. When it comes down from the mountains, the ears cover its eyes and impair its vision. It brays like a donkey – and, indeed, Flacourt decides that it must be some kind of wild donkey. A mountain 20 leagues from Fort Dauphin is named Mangarsahoc after the animal. Flacourt also mentions an animal called the Brech or Brek, about the size of a goat kid and with a single horn on its forehead. It is very wild in nature. Flacourt determines that “it must be a unicorn”. Both of those seem close enough to the songòmby to be worth mentioning.

The Habeby or Fotsiandre (“white sheep”) looks like a white sheep with long, dangling ears, staring eyes, and short wool. Reclusive and shy, it is not carnivorous, but the description once again recalls the songòmby.

When the horse was first brought to Madagascar, it was believed to be a songòmby (it was eventually saddled with the name soavaly, derived from the French cheval).

References

Domenichini-Ramiaramanana, B. (1983) Du ohabolana au hainteny: langue, littérature et politique à Madagascar. Karthala, Paris.

de Flacourt, E. (1661) Histoire de la Grande Isle Madagascar. Francois Clouzier, Paris.

Molet, L. (1974) Origine Chinoise Possible de Quelques Animaux Fantastiques de Madagascar. Journal de la Soc. des Africanistes, XLIV(2), pp. 123-138.

Sibree, J. (1896) Madagascar Before the Conquest. Macmillan, New York.

Sermilik

The Sermilik, “ice-clad”, is an enormous and highly dangerous polar bear found in the seas around Aasiaat in Greenland. Unlike the bears it resembles, it has very long fur completely covered with ice. Four lumps of ice at the surface are in fact the four paws of a sermilik lying in wait, and young hunters are warned never to paddle near those.

References

Birket-Smith, K. (1924) Ethnography of the Egedesminde District. Bianco Lunos Bogtrykkeri, Copenhagen.

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.

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.

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.