Fad Felen

Variations: Fall Felen

Fad 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.

References

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.

Geluchart

Variations: Animal Monstrueux (Monstrous Animal) (Paré); Testudo Polypus (Gesner)

Geluchart

Iambulus the Greek sailor saw many marvels on the Islands of the Sun. One of those is an unnamed animal, small, round, and similar to a tortoise. It has two diagonal yellow stripes on its body, with an eye and a mouth at each end of the stripes, giving it four eyes and four mouths around its body. It eats with all four mouths, which all lead into a single gullet and stomach; its inner organs are likewise single. This creature also has many feet which allow it to move in any direction it wishes. Most miraculous of all is its blood, which is endowed with such healing power that it can instantly reattach severed body parts. As long as the cut is fresh and the body part is not vital (a hand, a foot, a limb, and so on), the animal’s blood will glue it back on again.

The adventures of Iambulus were recalled by Diodorus Siculus and cheerfully dismissed by Lucian as “obviously quite untrue” but a highly entertaining story nonetheless.

Temporal’s 1556 French translation of Leo Africanus’ works appends the travels of Iambulus and other seafaring yarns, lending them more credibility by association (or giving Leo’s accounts less credibility in the same manner). Translation errors have already set in, considering the adventures of Iambulus were translated into French by way of Tuscan. In Temporal’s version, the unnamed round animal now has two lines on its back in the form of a golden cross, and one eye and one ear at the end of each line, allowing it to hear and see in four directions. There is only one mouth through which the animal feeds. Its blood can cause any dismembered, still living body to come back together. The account is accompanied with a memorable image of the creature, with a long, thin tail ending in a tuft; the number of legs is fixed at twelve in the picture. Severed limbs surround the animal.

Is this the same as the Geluchart of the Caspian Sea? Thevet’s Cosmographie describes an animal called the geluchart, named after a nearby lake where it is also found in abundance. It has a head like a turtle’s (but much bigger), a small rat’s tail, and eight legs (four on each side). It is covered with scales and mottled with red and black spots. Thevet affirms that it is the tastiest fish in existence.

Thevet may have had the Iambulus creature in mind – specifically the illustration in the Temporal translation, as Thevet mentions the rat’s tail present in the image but not in the text. Either way, Vallot lumps them together, along with Gesner’s Testudo Polypus (“Many-legged Turtle”). For lack of a better term “geluchart” has been adopted as a title for this entry.

Paré’s unnamed “monstrous animal” is taken directly from Temporal’s Iambulus, with an image copied from that account. Paré erroneously credits Leo Africanus with describing the “very monstrous animal” but otherwise repeats the attributes given to it, including blood capable of sealing any wound. The description mentions several legs as well as establishing a “rather long” tail, “the end of which is heavily tufted with hair”. Its location is moved from Iambulus’ mythical island; it is now “born in Africa”.

Vallot attributes the ocellated pufferfish as the origin of this creature, but surely its origin in ancient Greek utopian fiction makes such association futile? Its wondrous properties cause Paré to wax poetic. “But who is it who would not marvel greatly on contemplating this beast, having so many eyes, ears, and feet, and each doing its office? Where can be the instruments dedicated to such operations? Truly, as for myself I lose my mind, and would not know what else to say, other than that Nature has played a trick to make the grandeur of its works be admired”.

References

Diodorus; Oldfather, C. H. trans. (1967) Diodorus of Sicily in Twelve Volumes, v. II. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Gessner, C. (1586) Historiae Animalium Liber II: Quadrupedibus Oviparis. Johannes Wecheli, Frankfurt.

Leo Africanus; Temporal, J. trans. (1556) De l’Afrique. Jean Temporal, Lyon.

Leo Africanus; Temporal, J. trans. (1830) De l’Afrique. Gouvernement de France, Paris.

Lucian; Turner, P. trans. (1961) Satirical Sketches. Penguin Books, London.

Paré, A. (1614) Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré. Nicolas Buon, Paris.

Paré, A. (1996) Des Monstres et Prodiges. Fleuron, Paris.

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

Vallot, D. M. (1834) Mémoire sur le Limacon de la Mer Sarmatique. Mémoires de L’Académie des Sciences, Arts, et Belles-Lettres de Dijon, Partie des Sciences, Frantin, Dijon.

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.

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.

name 2

“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:

name 3

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.

Kuyūtha

Variations: Behemoth; Leviathan; Kuyūban, Kuyoota, Kuyūta, Kuyootan, Kuyūtan, Kuyoothan, Kuyūthan, Quyuta; Kujata (erroneously based on mistranslation from Spanish), Rakaboûnâ (erroneously based on mistranslation from Arabic)

Kuyutha

Early Islamic cosmology tells that when God created the Earth, he saw it to be wobbly as a ship in a stormy sea. To support it he created an angel who held it by the east and west. But there was nothing below the angel, so he created a red ruby rock (or a green gemstone rock, according to al-Wardi) a with 7,000 perforations in it, from each of which issues a sea whose breadth God only knows, and the angel stood on the rock.

Then God created (or brought down from Heaven) a great bull to support the rock. This bull is enormous beyond comprehension. Al-Qazwini describes the bull as having 40,000 eyes, 40,000 noses, 40,000 ears, 40,000 mouths, 40,000 tongues, and 40,000 legs. Al-Damiri’s list gives the bull 4,000 of each of these features instead. Al-Wardi refers only to 40,000 horns and 40,000 legs. The distance between each of the bull’s pairs of legs would take 500 years to cover. The spread of his horns goes beyond the boundaries of the Earth. He breathes twice a day; as his nose is in the water, this causes the tides to ebb and flow. When he shifts he causes earthquakes.

The bull held the rock on his back and horns, and he stands on the back of a great fish (with or without a layer of sand between the bull and the fish). The fish is so large that all the seas would be like a grain of mustard in his nostril. Below the fish are varying combinations of water, earth, suffocating wind, sand, darkness, and mist, and that is as far as human knowledge goes.

Spectacular as it may be, this cosmology was apparently never taken too seriously. Al-Qazwini relegates it to his section on “Differing Opinions of the Ancients on the Shape and Location of Earth”; the cosmological sections of the Wonders of Creation are much less poetic. It inspired the Persian expression az mah ta mahi, “from the moon to the fish”, i.e. the whole of creation.

What are the names of the bull and the fish? Logically, a giant land creature and a giant sea creature in an Abrahamic religion would be Behemoth and Leviathan, respectively. Indeed, Guest and Ettinghausen attribute the oldest rendition of this cosmology to Ahmad-e Tūsi’s Wonders of Creation, where the bull is Behemoth and the fish Leviathan. But textual corruption sets in around the time al-Qazwini cites Wahb bin Munabbih in his own Wonders of Creation, and by then the two godbeasts had swapped names. The fish became Behemoth (Bahamut or Bahemut in Arabic) while the bull was saddled with increasingly garbled misreadings of Leviathan – Kuyūban or Kuyūthan in al-Qazwini, Kuyūtha or Kuyūthan in al-Damiri, Kuyūthan in al-Abshihi, and so on.

Older English translations of Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings incorrectly translate the bull’s name to “Kujata”. Borges apparently would have pronounced “j” as “y”, so newer editions of the Book use the more accurate “Quyuta”.

Perron gives the name of the bull as Rakaboûnâ, a hilarious but entirely understandable translation error.

References

al-Abshihi, C. (2008) Al-Mustatraf fi kul Fann Mustadhraf. Dar Al-Marefah, Beirut.

Borges, J. L.; trans. di Giovanni, N. T. (1969) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Clarke, Irwin, & Co., Toronto.

Borges, J. L.; trans. Hurley, A. (2005) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Viking.

Al-Damiri, K. (1891) Hayat al-hayawan al-kubra. Al-Matba’ah al-Khayriyah, Cairo.

Guest, G. D. and Ettinghausen, R. (1961) The Iconography of a Kashan Luster Plate. Ars Orientalis, v. 4, pp. 25-64.

Lane, E. L. (1883) Arabian Society in the Middle Ages. Chatto and Windus, London.

Al-Mundir; Perron, N. trans. (1860) Le Nâċérî: La Perfection des Deux Arts. Bouchard-Huzard, Paris.

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.

Al-Wardi, S. (2007) Kharidat al-‘ajaib wa faridat al-gharaib. Maktabat al-Thaqafa al-Diniyya, Cairo.

Bès Kěmwar

Variations: Hantu Ulat (Malay), Maggot Spirit, Riverside Maggot Spirit, Tip-of-Leaf Maggot Spirit, Caterpillar Spirit; Bès Kěmwar Jě’la, Hantu Ulat Duri, Thorny Maggot Spirit; Bès Kěmwar Sòk, Hantu Ulat Bulu, Hairy Caterpillar Spirit; Bès Kěmwar Těrbang, Hantu Ulat Terbang, Flying-Maggot Spirit

Bes Kemwar

The Bès Kěmwar, “maggot spirit”, is one of the many bès or disease spirits known to the Jah Hut of Malaysia. A polyvalent spirit, it is depicted as a maggot or caterpillar, with variants distinguished by hair, thorns, wings, and other details. It eats rice, vegetables, and other crops. It is responsible for aches in bones, joints, and muscles. If its caterpillar hair falls into water and that water is drunk, it causes coughing and bleeding in the throat. Maggot spirits are also known to live in rotten tree trunks and feed in them. Anyone who approaches the fallen tree will be bitten in the leg by the spirit, causing redness, swelling, and itching. All the toenails fall off but the swelling will be gone by two or three months.

The riverside maggot spirit lives by the river and appears only during the jungle-fruit season in February. It flies onto the heads of old people and causes all their hair to fall off.

The tip-of-leaf maggot spirit feeds on the leaves of coconut and rice. To prevent this attack on crops, a pawang must bless the plants with a pounded mixture of daun setawa and kunyit mulai, which is burned to ashes and scattered over the plantation.

Bès Kěmwar Jě’la, the thorny-maggot spirit, lives on leaves. It causes restlessness and rheumatism.

Bès Kěmwar Sòk, the hairy caterpillar spirit, lives on the tips of tree branches. Its hair drops into drinking water and causes irritation and swelling in the throat. This affliction can be cured by a poyang while in its early stages, but untreated victims will eventually die as they cannot eat or drink.

Bès Kěmwar Těrbang, the flying-maggot spirit, lives in bushes and eats the leaves of the daun mengkirai tree. Its urine and stool falls on anyone who passes under the tree, causing the victim to become bald and swollen. In the evening it flies onto the roofs of houses and opens them up. Children seeing its eyes reflecting like mirrors will be terrified into crying. Burning daun-kesim keeps this nocturnal nuisance away.

References

Werner, R. (1975) Jah-hět of Malaysia, Art and Culture. Penerbit Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.