Mokele-mbembe

Variations: Mokéle-mbêmbe, Mokele Mbembe, Monstrous Animal; Nsanga; Emela-ntouka, Emia-ntouka, Aseka-moke, Ngamba-namae, Killer of Elephants, Water Elephant; Nguma-monene, Badigui, Ngakoula Ngou, Diba, Songo; Mbielu-mbielu-mbielu

Mokele-mbembe

Tales of the Mokele-mbembe, “One Who Stops the Flow of Rivers” (or, more simply, “River-Shutter”), come from the Congo River Basin, around the Ikelemba, Sanga, and Ubangi rivers and Lake Tele. It is the most discussed and well-known of the “African mystery beasts” primarily due to the cryptozoological interpretation that defines it as a surviving sauropod dinosaur. It – or its unnamed predecessor, at any rate – was initially described as hailing from Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).

There is nothing unique about the mokele-mbembe. It is at least four notable mythic creatures: the river-shutter, the pachyderm slayer, the unicorn, and the giant reptile. River-shutters are sub-Saharan creatures with an aptitude for withholding or releasing a river’s water; in communities dependent on life-giving water, this can mean the difference between life and death. The pachyderm slayer – a creature so mighty and dangerous that it routinely kills the biggest and scariest animals known – is a far broader category that has been famously applied to the dragon and the unicorn. The presence of a single horn is a recurring feature of monsters, most notably the unicorn. Finally, giant reptiles (often irresponsibly called “dragons”) are a worldwide theme.

The first to suggest the existence of a large dinosaurian creature was big-game hunter and zoo supplier Carl Hagenbeck. Hagenbeck reports a huge animal, half elephant and half dragon, from deep within Rhodesia (not the Congo, where the mokele-mbembe eventually took up residence). He said that there are drawings of it on Central African caves but provides no further detail on that angle. All in all it is “seemingly akin to the brontosaurus [sic]”. Hans Schomburgk, one of Hagenbeck’s sources, stated that the lack of hippos on Lake Bangweulu was due to a large animal that killed hippos. An expedition sent by Hagenbeck to investigate the creature’s existence found nothing. Tantalizing as it may be, the entire episode with the nameless saurian is no more than an aside in Hagenbeck’s book, an attempt to attract potential investors by capitalizing on the contemporary “dinomania” sweeping the globe.

The first decade of the twentieth century saw a vast increase in public interest in dinosaurs. In 1905 the mounted skeleton of Apatosaurus was unveiled at the American Museum of Natural History and London’s Natural History Museum inaugurated its Diplodocus. Soon museums across the world were receiving their own gigantic sauropod skeletons courtesy of Andrew Carnegie, industrialist and patron of the sciences. In 1907 the skeletons of enormous sauropods emerged in German East Africa; these eventually formed a hall of titans in Berlin’s Natural History Museum. Hagenbeck’s account of a living sauropod was not written in a vacuum, but was – consciously or not – drawing on contemporary massive interest in massive reptiles.

E. C. Chubb of the Rhodesia Museum dismissed Hagenbeck’s claim. To him, this creature was no more than another example of the “land edition of the Great Sea Serpent”. He received further accounts of the Rhodesian creature, a large beast with flippers, rhinoceros horns, a crocodile’s head, a python’s neck, a hippo’s body, and a crocodile’s tail; a three-horned creature from Lake Bangweulu, Zambia, that killed hippos.

The next step came with Lieutenant Paul Graetz in 1911. He wrote about the Nsanga of Lake Bangweulu, a “degenerate saurian” like a crocodile but without scales and armed with claws on its feet. Graetz supposedly came by strips of nsanga skin but saw nothing more tangible.

The account that concretized the mokele-mbembe and gave it its name was that of German officer Ludwig Freiherr von Stein zu Lausnitz. His report places the mystery beast firmly in the Congo, around the Likouala rivers. The mokele-mbembe has smooth, brownish-grey skin. It is approximately the size of an elephant, or a hippopotamus at the smallest. Its neck is long and flexible. It has only one tooth, but that tooth is very long; “some say it is a horn” adds Stein (this feature is usually ignored, as it does not conform to the sauropod narrative). It has a long, muscular tail like a crocodile’s. It attacks canoes and kills its occupants without eating them. The mokele-mbembe is vegetarian and it feeds on a type of liana, leaving the water to do so. It lives in caves dug out by the sharp bends in the river. Stein was shown a supposed mokele-mbembe trackway but could not make it out among the elephant and hippo tracks.

Stein’s account is the basis for the modern mokele-mbembe legend. The report was never officially published, but was publicized by Willy Ley (who inexplicably linked the mokele-mbembe to the dragon of the Ishtar Gate).

This in turn led to successive expeditions to the Congo by James H. Powell Jr. and Roy Mackal. Mackal determined the mokele-mbembe to be 5 to 10 meters long, most of which is neck and tail. It has smooth brown-grey skin and a very long neck with a snakelike head on the end. Sometimes there is a frill, like a rooster’s comb, on the back of the head. The legs are short and stout, with three claws on the hind legs, and leave 30-centimeter-wide prints. The malombo plant is the staple of the creature’s diet. While herbivorous, the mokele-mbembe is very aggressive and will destroy any canoes that approach it. It does so by tipping the vessels, then biting and lashing out with its tail.

In addition to the mokele-mbembe, Mackal is responsible for bringing to light a whole menagerie of prehistoric survivors and some unusually-sized modern reptiles as well. The Emela-ntouka, for instance, is larger than an elephant. Its skin is smooth, hairless, and wrinkly, brown to grey in color. Its legs are thick and columnar to support its weight. The tail is heavy and similar to a crocodile’s. There is a single horn on the front of the head. These creatures are herbivorous and kill buffaloes and elephants by goring them with their single horns. If all this sounds familiar, it’s because none of it is distinguishable from what has been said about the mokele-mbembe (including the horn, no longer an inconvenient detail). Mackal optimistically proposes that the emela-ntouka is a late-surviving ceratopsian dinosaur.

Nguma-monene, “large python” (from nguma, “python”, and monene, “large”) is reported from the Dongou-Mataba river area. It is a large, serpentine reptile, some 40 to 60 meters long, with a saw-toothed ridge down its back. The head is snake-like with a forked tongue that flicks in and out. It is greyish-brown like just about every other large reptilian cryptid. It is indistinguishable from the badigui, ngakoula ngou, diba, or songo of the Ubangi-Shari. All of these are giant snakes which kill hippos and browse on tree branches without leaving the water. They leave tracks behind like those of a lorry. All of them are indistinguishable from the mokele-mbembe. Mackal describes them as enormous monitor lizards.

The Mbielu-mbielu-mbielu, or “animal with planks growing out of its back”, is restricted to the Likouala-aux-Herbes in the Congo. It is known solely as a large animal that has large “planks” on its back with algae growing between them. The rest of its appearance is unknown. Only one informant reported the mbielu-mbielu-mbielu. Mackal makes a surviving stegosaur out of it.

Finally there is the Ndendecki (a giant turtle), the Mahamba (a giant crocodile), and the Ngoima (a giant eagle). None of these are any more believable than the mokele-mbembe and its host of synonyms.

It would be tedious to list all subsequent expeditions (all unsuccessful) or the anthropological procedures used (all unprofessional). It should however be noted that the hunt for the mokele-mbembe has been coopted by the creationist movement. For some reason these people have decided that the discovery of the mokele-mbembe will be enough to destroy the entire theory of evolution (it won’t) because a surviving dinosaur would be a lethal paradox to science (it isn’t).

There is nothing unique about the mokele-mbembe, but as a vaguely defined reptilian river-shutter it is a sort of Rorschach test that viewers can project their preconceptions onto. Far from a detailed local legend, the myth of the mokele-mbembe evolved to suit the needs of the visitors who sought it, whether zoo suppliers, colonialists, cryptozoologists, or creationists. Any underlying folklore about river-shutting reptiles has long been abandoned and discarded, relegated to an etymological footnote. It does not fit the narrative.

References

Hagenbeck, C., Elliot, S. R. and Thacker, A. G. trans. (1911) Beasts and Men. Longmans, Green, And Co., London.

Ley, W. (1959) Exotic Zoology. The Viking Press, New York.

Loxton, D. and Prothero, D. R. (2013) Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and other Famous Cryptids. Columbia University Press, New York.

Mackal, R. (1987) A living dinosaur? E. J. Brill, New York.

Naish, D. (2016) Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths. Arcturus, London.

Weishampel, D. B.; Dodson, P.; and Osmolska, H. (2004) The Dinosauria, 2nd Edition. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Dard

Dard

The Dard is peculiar to the department of Vienne in France, but its physiognomy recalls that of the alpine dragons – and, like them, it probably evolved from mustelid accounts. It is a serpent with four legs and a short viper’s tail. It has the head of a cat and a mane running down its dorsal spine.

Dards drink milk from cows and can produce a terrifying whistle. They are nonvenomous, but bite viciously when provoked.

Peasants in Vienne claimed to recognize the dard’s likeness in the carvings of certain churches.

References

Ellenberger, H. (1949) Le Monde Fantastique dans le Folklore de la Vienne. Nouvelle Revue des Traditions Populaires, 1(5), pp. 407-435.

Arassas

Arassas

The Arassas hails from the folklore of Lagrand in the Hautes-Alpes region of France. It is a greyish-colored animal with the head of a cat and the body of a lizard. It lives in ruined houses and old crumbling walls. Its gaze kills immediately.

Like other European mountain dragons, it is likely derived from superstitions about otters and martens.

References

van Gennep, A. (1948) Le folklore des Hautes-Alpes, Tome II. J. P. Maisonneuve et Cie, Paris.

Cathach

Variations: Cáthach

Cathach

Ireland’s three dragon sisters Dabran, Farbagh, and Cathach were the offspring of the gatekeeper of Hell and the all-devouring sow; they were nursed by the red demon of West Ireland. Cathach, the youngest of the three, made her home on Inis Cathaig (now Scattery Island).

A horrible sight she was to see, a great dragon bigger a small isle, with a back like a round island covered with scales and shells. A rough bristly mane like a boar’s covered her foreparts. When she opened her cavernous mouth filled with a double row of sharp teeth, her entrails could be seen. A cruel eye gleamed in her head. Her body stood on two short, thick, hairy legs armed with iron nails that struck sparks on the rocks as she moved. Her belly was like a furnace. The tail of a whale she had, a tail with iron claws on it that ploughed furrows in the ground behind her. Cathach could move on land and swim with equal ease, and the sea boiled around her.

Dabran and Farbagh were both slain by Crohan, Sal, and Daltheen, the three sons of Toraliv M’Stairn. When Cathach sensed the loss of her siblings, she went on a rampage, laying waste to the lands around the Shannon Estuary from Limerick to the sea, sinking ships and paralyzing commerce for a year. When the three brothers returned and saw the destruction wreaked by Cathach, they were so distraught that they flung themselves into the sea to their deaths.

Cathach herself was defeated by a far more humble and unassuming hero. When Saint Senan made landfall on Inis Cathaig, Cathach prepared to devour him whole. But the holy man made the sign of the cross in front of her face, and she was quieted. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, leave this island, and hurt no one here or wherever you leave to”. And Cathach did as she was told. She disappeared into the estuary and went to Sliab Collain without harming anyone; and if she is still alive, she has remained obedient to Senan’s command.

The ruins of the church of Saint Senan can still be seen to this day on Scattery Island.

References

Hackett, W. (1852) Folk-lore – No. I. Porcine Legends. Transactions of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, 2(1), pp.

O’Donovan, J. (1864) The Martyrology of Donegal. Alexander Thom, Dublin.

Stokes, W. S. (1890) Lives of Saints from the Book of Lismore. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Stokes, W. (1905) The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee. Harrison and Sons, London.

Watts, A. A. (1828) The Literary Souvenir. Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, & Green, London.

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.

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.

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.

Bakunawa

Variations: Baconaua (Hiligaynon)

Bakunawa

The Asian eclipse monster has analogues in China, India, Malaysia, Mongolia, Thailand, and the South Sea Islands. In the Philippines, where the legend is widespread, it is usually a dragon or serpent or even an enormous bird. Bakunawa, “Eclipse”, is one of the best-known.

The Bakunawa of the Cebuano, or Baconaua as it is known to the Hiligaynon, is a colossal, fishlike dragon as large as the Negros and Cebu islands. It resembles a shark, with gills, a lake-sized mouth, and a striking red tongue. Whiskers one palmo long adorn its mouth. In addition to its powerful ash-gray wings, it has smaller wings along its sides.

Long ago there were seven moons in the sky. Bakunawa gobbled them up one by one until it came to the last and largest moon. It failed to swallow it, and tried to bite it into manageable chunks, sinking its teeth deep into the moon’s surface. To this day the bakunawa’s teeth-marks can still be seen on the moon. Every now and then the bakunawa will take to the sky and attempt to finish the job it started by swallowing the moon, causing an eclipse. To make it release the moon, utensils are clanged loudly together to startle it.

The bakunawa’s den is in the deepest parts of the sea. In January, February, and March its head faces north and its tail south; in April, May, and June its head faces west and its tail east, in July, August, and September its head points south and its tail north; and in October, November, and December its head is east and its tail west. The positions of the bakunawa during those four phases are used to divine the best time to build houses.

A children’s game called Bakunawa for 10 or more players involves one player as Buan, the moon, while another is Bakunawa. The remainder form a circle, holding hands and facing inwards. The moon starts inside the circle and Bakunawa is outside. The goal of the children in the circle is to prevent Bakunawa from entering the circle and capturing the moon – the moon itself cannot leave the circle. Bakunawa can ask individual players “What chain is this?” and they can answer that it is an iron, copper, abaca, or any material they can think of. When Bakunawa captures the moon, the players exchange roles or swap with players in the circle.

References

Jocano, F. L. (1969) The Traditional World of Malitbog. Bookman Printing House, Quezon City.

de Lisboa, M. (1865) Vocabulario de la Lengua Bicol. Establecimento Tipografico del Colegio de Santo Tomas, Manila.

Ramos, M. D. (1971) Creatures of Philippine Lower Mythology. University of the Philippines Press, Quezon.

Ramos, M. D. (1973) Filipino Cultural Patterns and Values. Island Publishers, Quezon City.

Ramos, M. D. (1990) Tales of Long Ago in the Philippines. Phoenix Publishing House, Quezon City.

Reyes-Tolentino, F. and Ramos, P. (1935) Philippine Folk Dances and Games. Silver, Burdett and Company, New York.

Vouivre

Variations: Vaivre, Givre, Guivre, Wivre

Vouivre

Vouivres, the great fiery serpents of France, have been reported primarily from remote, mountainous regions, where they haunt springs, wells, caves, deep ponds, and ruined castles. They are known from Bourgogne, Franche-Comté, Savoie, the Jura mountains, and neighboring areas, with possible relatives in the Aosta Valley and Switzerland.

The word “vouivre” is derived from the Latin vipera, or “viper”. Vouivres themselves are the spiritual descendants of Mélusine, stripped of her human features. They have been described as dragons, serpents, and fairies in the form of great reptiles; they are always the guardians of priceless treasures.

In its most simple definition, a Vouivre is a female dragon. Vouivres vary wildly in appearance, but are always female and associated with fire and water. The classic vouivre, as observed in Faverges, Fleury-la-Tour, Mont-Beuvray, Rosemont, Solutré, and Thouleurs, is an immense winged serpent covered with fire. Instead of eyes, a vouivre has a single large diamond or ruby in its head that guides it through the air. She removes it when bathing, leaving it blind and vulnerable to theft. Possession of a vouivre’s eye-stone would bring riches and happiness to anyone who stole it. The immense vouivre of Boëge guards treasure and wears a priceless golden necklace. In La Baume she is 4 meters long and covered in gems and pearls. She sometimes leaves gems behind where she lands. The Lucinges vouivre is a glowing red viper that whistles eerily in flight. The Gemeaux vouivre, which appeared between 2 and 3 in the afternoon, was hooded like a cobra.

In Brizon, she is equally likely to appear as a bird or a winged beech marten with a brilliant necklace as she is to have the form of a great serpent with wings and a diamond on its tail. Vouivres may not even look like animals. In Chevenoz she appears as a burning fireball streaking across the sky, in Saint-Jean-d’Aulps and Vallorcine she is a single-eyed tongue of fire, and in Le Biot she is a star whose appearance foretells war and strife. The Orgelet Castle vouivre looks like a red-hot iron bar in flight, and the vouivre of Sixt-Fer-À-Cheval is a plumed golden necklace that flies through the air.

One of the more effective ways of slaying a vouivre has been making a spiked barrel to hide in. At Condes, a man managed to steal a vouivre’s diamond and hide in a nail-studded washtub; the infuriated, blinded dragon killed herself trying to get to him. While another man at the Aosta Valley slew a vouivre in a similar manner, other prospective thieves have not been so lucky. The vouivre of Reyvroz had a necklace of great value, which was stolen by a man in a spiked barrel; she died and the thief died soon after. The vouivre of Samoëns had her pearl necklace stolen in the same manner, but she constricted the barrel anyway and made the thief return the necklace; she then disappeared and was never seen again. In Manigod, where grass would not grow for a couple of years after the vouivre’s passage, a man who stole her diamond was killed, his barrel smashed, and the gem retrieved.

Finally, as with all dragons, vouivres are vulnerable to the power of saints and other holy persons. The vouivre of Saint-Suliac was cast into a deep cave by Saint Suliac after she killed one of his monks. The location became known as the Trou de la Guivre, the Guivre’s Hole.

In Thollon-Les-Mémises, among other places, “vouivre” has become a byword for an unpleasant, nasty woman.

Modern versions of the vouivre, perhaps conflating her with Mélusine, have embellished with her the features of a seductive woman. Marcel Aymé makes her a wild girl of the forest with an entourage of vipers, and Dubois makes her a beautiful fairy who sheds her dragon skin when bathing.

References

Aymé, M. (1943) La Vouivre. Gallimard.

Dontenville, H. (1966) La France Mythologique. Tchou, Paris.

Dubois, P.; Sabatier, C.; and Sabatier, R. (1996) La Grande Encyclopédie des Fées. Hoëbeke, Paris.

Joisten, C. (2010) Êtres fantastiques de Savoie. Musée Dauphinois, Grenoble.

Monnier, D. (1819) Essai sur L’Origine de la Séquanie. Gauthier, Lons-Le-Saunier.

Sébillot, P. (1905) Le Folk-Lore de France, Tome Deuxième: La Mer et les Eaux Douces. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Păl-raí-yûk

Pal-rai-yuk

Long ago, the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers were far warmer than they are today, and the winters shorter, with the snow melting and the birds returning as early as February. This allowed for large stretches of creeks, lakes, and marshland, and the Păl-raí-yûk haunted the waterways between the two rivers. They were most common around the temperate Kuskokwim, and they fed on humans and animals alike.

Păl-raí-yûk was one of Raven’s many creations, one that would lie in wait, submerged, to attack anyone coming to the water’s edge. It would also attack boats that entered its territory. For this reason Raven warned First Man to be cautious about approaching lakes and rivers.

The păl-raí-yûk has been compared to the crocodile or alligator, which it resembles in both form and habit, but it is also very similar to the muskox. It is typically represented on umiaks, masks, and dishes as an elongated, stylized reptilian creature with a long, narrow head and six legs. “Cutaway views” above the legs show human remains, indicating the grisly nature of its meals. One păl-raí-yûk that was killed by the Sky People had six legs, the hind ones long, the fore ones short, and the small middle ones hanging from the abdomen. It had small eyes and fine, dense, very dark fur on its body, like that of a shrew, that was longest on its feet. A pair of horns, extending forward, out, and curving back, are present on the head.

Păl-raí-yûk are large and bulky, but can lie on grass without bending the stems. On the other hand, a dead păl-raí-yûk would become so heavy that its body would sink into the ground if not supported. Many hunters were usually required to kill one, usually by holding it down with logs while smashing its head with clubs.

The last known păl-raí-yûk was slain by a hunter after it killed and ate his wife who was fetching water from a lake.

References

Nelson, E. W. (1900) The Eskimo about Bering Strait. Extract from the Eighteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office, Washington.