As I prepare to once again move ABC into a new “season” (so to speak), I once again leave this space open for suggestions. What would you like to see sooner rather than later? What creatures are you dying to hear about?
You know what? It’s true. I was blinded to the fact earlier but I have seen the light. There’s only one person I would reliably consider for taking over ABC…
Going on indefinite hiatus. More information later?
Variations: Fall Felen
When the Fad Felen, the “Yellow Pestilence”, “Yellow Death”, or “Yellow Plague”, came to Wales in the 540s, it took the form of a column of watery cloud, one end on the ground and the other high in the air. Any living creature caught in the pestiferous pillar died or sickened to death. It was called the Yellow Pestilence because of the livid, bloodless complexion of those stricken by it. Those physicians who tried to cure the afflicted themselves took ill and died.
Taliesin the poet prophesied the death of Maelgwn Gwynedd, King of North Wales. “A strange creature will come from the marsh of Rhianedd”, he said, “to punish the crimes of Maelgwn Gwynedd; its hair, its teeth, and its eyes are yellow, and this will destroy Maelgwn Gwynedd”. This manifestation of the Fad Felen was perhaps a hideous hag with baleful eyes, in the same way as the ague is referred to as the wrach or hen wrach (the “hag” or “old hag” respectively). Other accounts speak of it as a basilisk; the poet Rhys Tenganwy mentions a scaly monster with claws and pestiferous breath.
Maelgwn Gwynedd saw the Fad Felen through the key-hole of Rhos Church, and died as a result – presumably a poetic way of saying that he died of plague in the church.
Llwyd, R. (1837) The Poetical Works of Richard Llwyd. Whittaker & Co., London.
Rees, W. J. (1840) The Liber Landavensis, Llyfr Teilo. The Welsh MSS Society, Llandovery.
Rhys, J. (1884) Celtic Britain. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London.
Rhys, J. (1892) Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion. Williams and Norgate, London.
Sikes, W. (1880) British Goblins. Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, London.
Here it is, the miraculous multi-legged animal described by Iambulus, appended to a French version of Leo Africanus, and copied probably by Thevet and unquestionably by Paré.
It’s even surrounded by severed limbs – but don’t worry, it’ll fix ‘em!
And, of course, Paré’s version. Spot the differences.
I have been requested (by someone who I hire to request) to explain how, exactly, something like “Leviathan” could end up misread and corrupted into “Kuyūtha” or even “Rakaboûna”. And I’m sure there are some people out there (presumably countable on one hand missing several fingers) who are interested in etymology, language, and how monsters evolve based on those.
Well, fear not, for here’s where it gets technical.
Arabic is tricky to read. Why? Well, for a start there’s different ways of writing it, different types, texts, font sizes (as it were). Look at this, for instance.
Nice and legible text, modern printing of al-Wardi. Easy peasy. Then you get older copies like this version of al-Qazwini.
Slightly less legible, but still readable. But then you get to this version of al-Damiri, and, well, you need to see the whole page to get the full impact.
Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. The text in the box is al-Damiri. The text in the margins is the Wonders of Creation by al-Qazwini. That’s right, two books for the price of one, all in lovely tiny crabbed handwriting!
And then of course there’s the lovely manuscripts with the flowery text which I can barely decipher.
Let’s put those aside for now and stick to more legible things.
The next issue is the language itself. There are few vowel letters in Arabic. Most vowel sounds are represented with diacritics.
And guess what? Most times they don’t even write the diacritics! So just based on that, Kuyutha, Kiyutha, Kayutha, Kuyuthan, Kayuthan, Kiyuthan are all equally valid based on the vowels assigned. The “an” at the end can be either a letter or a diacritic – if it’s a letter it’s definitely there, if it’s a diacritic it’s debatably there.
Not only that, but based on the quality of the writing, K and L can look identical, Y and B can look identical (hence Kuyuban), T and TH and N can look identical… So combine that with the average vowel movements (haw haw) and you can piece together how Leviathan could get garbled into Kuyūtha.
“But what about Rakaboûna?” I hear you say. “You even describe it as “hilarious but understandable” in your entry!”
Well, yes. Yes it is. This misreading is unique to Perron, and he attributes his translation to al-Damiri, which you may remember as being teeny-tiny-textual. I’ll admit I couldn’t figure out how he got “Rakaboûna” out of “Kuyūtha”, until I saw it in context and it all made sense. Here’s the actual part:
I’ve highlighted “and the name of the bull [is] Kuyūtha”. See how cramped the text is? Turns out Perron glued the last letter of “bull” (thawr), which is an R, to the name of the bull. Then he proceeded to read the Y as B and the TH as N, giving “Rakaboûna”. Here’s how the magic happened:
And there you have it. The poor cosmic bull got saddled with increasingly bizarre monikers, when in reality it should have just been called Behemoth, poor bovine.
Not Appearing in ABC: The Ol-maima
While searching for information on the dingonek, I found that it’s been synonymized with a whole bunch of other creatures. These include, for instance, the Lukwata (a far more “legitimate” creature), the Ndamathia, and the Olmaima or Ol-umaina. That last one piqued my curiosity, and further research into it serves as a cautionary tale – one that cryptozoologists would do well to heed.
The original reference is Hobley (1913):
At the time this story appeared it was considered that this [Bronson’s account] was probably a traveller’s tale, told to entertain a newcomer, but I have since met a man who a few years back wandering about the Mara River or Ngare Dubash which rises in Sotik, crosses the Anglo-German boundary and runs into Lake Victoria in German territory. He emphatically asserts that he saw the beast [i.e. the Dingonek]. He was at the time where the Mara River crosses the frontier, and the river was in high flood. The beast came floating down the river on a big log, and he estimated its length at about sixteen feet, but could not certain of its length as its tail was in the water. He describes it as spotted like a leopard, covered with scales, and having a head like an otter; he did not see the long fangs described by Mr. Jordan. He fired at it and hit it; it slid off the log into the water and was not seen again.
I made inquiries of the District Commissioner, Kisii, Mr. Crampton, and he wrote recently and said he had visited the Amala River and made inquiries from the Masai in the neighbourhood, and they knew of the beast, which they called Ol-umaina, and described it as follows: About fifteen feet long, head like a dog, small ears marked somewhat after the fashion of a puff adder, has claws, short legs, short neck, is said to lie in the sun on the sand by the river-side and to slip into the water when disturbed; when in the water only its head is visible. This story does not radically disagree with the others…
There are a few conclusions to draw here. First, the author believes the dingonek, the unnamed Mara River creature, and the ol-umaina to be one and the same. Second, the features shared by all three are notable size, scales, spots like a leopard, and possibly a long tail.
Heuvelmans (1958) quotes Hobley (1913) (in fact, almost exactly the previous quote) and concurs that the “description agrees fairly well with the dingonek”. However, he has a comment on the ol-umaina’s description:
The puff-adder has no external ears. Perhaps Hobley means the small horns on the horned viper, but the text is by no means clear.
The ears thing confused me as well, but the most logical conclusions I can come up with is that a) like the puff adder, it has markings by its ears, or b) like the puff adder, it has no visible ears, or c) both of the above.
Finally Karl Shuker, in his In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), straight-up refers to the Mara River creature as a dingonek, and makes a correction to the ol-umaina’s name: it is now the ol-maima.
So what are we to make of all this? Turns out there is a creature that answers to the descriptions given. A normal, unremarkable creature, but not as big as it is claimed to be.
That’s right, it’s the humble Nile monitor lizard (Varanus niloticus). Note the scales, the “leopard” spots, the tail, an otter- or dog-like head without long fangs, sharp claws, short neck and legs, and a long tail. It basks in the sun and dives into the water when threatened.
Of course, Nile monitors don’t grow 15 feet long, but this can be chalked up to exaggeration and/or honest overestimation.
The final nail in the coffin is the name ol-maima or ol-umaina. Looking up a reputable Maa dictionary, we discover that ɔl-máɨ́má is the Maa word for a) a cripple and b) a Nile monitor lizard.
There is no need to invoke aquatic walruses, relict dinosaurs, or crocodiles with missing jaws. If the dingonek and the ol-maima are the same animal, then they are no more than fanciful descriptions of Nile monitors. The Dingonek gets a full entry because its description is so unusual, but the ol-maima, literally “Nile monitor lizard” in Maa, will not be so lucky.
Another “fun” trivia game with ABC! Here’s another description taken from a certain well-known book on creatures. What (real, even prosaic) animal is this?