Ompax

Variations: Ompax spatuloides

Ompax

What would you do if your breakfast was a species new to science? Carl Theodore Staiger, director of the Brisbane Museum, was faced with this conundrum in August of 1872. During his visit to Gayndah, Queensland, he was served an unusual duck-billed fish for breakfast. The worthy naturalist decided to have the specimen sketched. He then went ahead and ate the specimen anyway.

The entire description of Ompax spatuloides is derived from the sketch and Staiger’s recollection (sadly, we are not told of the Ompax’s gastronomical merits). Count F. de Castelnau described it as a ganoid fish something like a paddlefish, eighteen inches long and dirty mahogany in color. The spatulate beak is similar to a platypus’, the eyes are small and near the top of the head, the pectoral fins are small, and the dorsal, caudal, and ventral fins appear to be connected. It can only be found in a single water hole in the Burnett River, alongside the lungfish Ceratodus.

Ompax spatuloides was listed in several catalogues of Queensland fishes, despite immediate and scathing criticism from other ichthyologists. O’Shaughnessy remarked that “all the characters of [the Ompax] are gathered from a drawing made after and not before the repast… the Record thinks he would be scarcely justified in admitting Ompax spatuloides, sp. n., into the system.”

The mystery of the Ompax was solved by someone writing to the Sydney Bulletin under the name of “Waranbini”. The author confesses that the Gayndah locals prepared a fish for Staiger’s breakfast by assembling the head of a lungfish, the body of a mullet, and the tail of an eel (and, presumably, the bill of a platypus). It was cooked and introduced as a new species, one that might not be seen again for months, and Staiger fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Since then, unusual fish were met in the Gayndah district with an exclamation of “it must be an Ompax!”

References

Castelnau, F. L. P. (1879) On a New Ganoïd Fish from Queensland. Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, v. 3, no. 1, pp. 164-165.

Whitley, G. P. (1933) Ompax spatuloides Castelnau, a Mythical Australian Fish. The American Naturalist, v. 67, no. 713, pp. 563-567.

Devil-jack Diamond-fish

Variations: Diamond fish, Devil fish, Jack fish, Garjack, Litholepe, Litholepe adamantin, Litholepis adamantinus

Devil-jack Diamond-fish

John James Audubon is remembered today as an artist and ornithologist of considerable import. His practical jokes are less well known, and began with the unexpected arrival of Constantine Samuel Rafinesque at Hendersonville, Kentucky.

Rafinesque was a brilliant, enthusiastic, “exceedingly remarkable”, and very eccentric young naturalist who tested Audubon’s hospitality. After they had retired to bed, Audubon was roused by a commotion coming from Rafinesque’s room. As he describes it, “I saw my guest running naked, holding the handle of my favorite violin, the body of which he had battered to pieces in attempting to kill the bats which had entered the open window!” Rafinesque was convinced the bats were new species. Audubon was not amused.

Perhaps to avenge his smashed violin, Audubon decided to take advantage of Rafinesque’s credulity and eagerness to describe new species. He solemnly supplied Rafinesque with 10 drawings of completely fictitious fish, which were duly named and described in detail. The likes of the bigmouth sturgeon and the flatnose doublefin caused headaches for ichthyologists and tarnished Rafinesque’s reputation beyond repair.

The Devil-jack Diamond-fish (Litholepis adamantinus) is surely the most remarkable of those faux fishes, as evidenced by Rafinesque’s breathless description. This “wonder of the Ohio” is found only as far up as the falls and probably in the Mississippi as well. Rafinesque claimed to have seen it from a distance, and seen some of its scales, but otherwise he “principally relied upon the description and figure given [him] by Mr. Audubon”.

We are fortunate enough to have a complete and detailed description of the devil-jack. It is classified among the garfish but is quite unique. The body is blackish and fusiform, 4 to 10 feet long and up to 400 pounds in weight. The head takes up a fourth of the total length. The snout alone is large (as long as the head), convex above, and obtuse. The eyes are small and black, with the nostrils in front of them. The mouth is transverse and has large angular teeth. Dorsal and anal fins are of equal length, the tail is obtusely bilobed, and there is no lateral line. The body is covered in oblique rows of conical pentagonal brown scales, half an inch to one inch in diameter; they become the color of turtle shell when dried.

The scales are the devil-jack’s main claim to fame, as they are hard as flint, completely bulletproof, and repel hooks. They produce sparks when struck against steel. Only nets or the strongest hooks can take a devil-jack. It is inedible and a voracious hunter, usually seen lying motionless at the surface like a log. The scales are a miracle of nature, for “they strike fire with steel! and are ball proof!” [sic]

References

Jordan, D. S. (1886) Rafinesque. The Popular Science Monthly, June 1886.

Rafinesque, C. S. (1820) Ichthyologia Ohiensis. W. G. Hunt, Lexington, Kentucky.

Chipfalamfula

chipfalamfula

Chipfalamfula, “River-Shutter”, is an enormous aquatic creature found in Ronga Bantu tales and waterways of Mozambique, notably in the bay of Delagoa. It is of indeterminate gender and species, being either a whale or rather a colossal catfish. Chipfalamfula has control over all water, and can provide or withhold it as it pleases, causing droughts and floods alike. It is so large that its belly is a world on its own, with fertile fields, livestock, and communities of people living there happily and wanting for nothing. Tales of young girls living inside Chipfalamfula before returning to the surface may be regarded as coming-of-age stories.

Chichinguane, the youngest daughter of Chief Makenyi, was beloved by her father, but envied and hated by her older sisters. When the young women went to the riverbank to fetch clay for plastering walls, the eldest sister ordered Chichinguane to stay at the bottom of the clay pit and hand her the clay. She did as she was told, only to be left behind by her older sister to face a rising tide.

She had just about given up hope when Chipfalamfula surfaced next to her and opened its cavernous mouth. “Come inside, my daughter”, it told her reassuringly. “Come inside me where you will live in peace and comfort”. So Chichinguane did as she was told, and lived inside Chipfalamfula, sharing the river-shutter’s bounties with its other children.

Years passed, and the outside world caught up with Chichinguane as it was bound to do. Makenyi’s daughters came down to the river again, balancing pitchers of water on their heads and singing “We are the group who puts pitchers on their heads… She who killed her sister killed her in the swamp, where the reeds are tall…” The youngest of the group lagged behind. She was the new youngest member of the family, and now received the same hate the presumed-dead Chichinguane did. She wasn’t good at balancing a pitcher either. She sat down and wept, when lo and behold Chichinguane appeared, attracted by the singing. Her stay in Chipfalamfula had metamorphosed her, and she was now covered in glistening silvery scales. She also wasn’t particularly pleased with the lyrics of the song. “You tried to kill your sister?” she shouted, striking her younger sister. But the girl didn’t even recognize her, whereupon Chichinguane relented, and helped her little sister carry her pitcher. However, she did not follow her into the village, instead diving back into the river.

Soon Chichinguane and her youngest sister were meeting every day, and eventually Chichinguane told her sibling the truth about her and why she lived in the river. The sister returned and told her mother, who followed her to the river and tried to embrace her long-lost daughter. But Chichinguane warned her “Do not try to hold me, mother, I am now a fish and I must live in the water”. She slipped out of her mother’s arms like a greased eel and disappeared underwater again.

She still longed to return to her family, and finally Chipfalamfula allowed her to leave, blessing her with a magic wand to use in time of need. Chichinguane returned to her mother’s hut, where her silver scales fell off her body and become silver coins. Then she told them her story, of her older sister’s treachery, and of the land of milk and honey inside the river-shutter.

Chichinguane interceded to prevent the oldest sister’s execution by the furious Makenyi. This was a mistake, as she returned to her schemes. Talking Chichinguane and the youngest sister into climbing up a tree and sawing off branches, she then collected the branches and left, leaving them out on a limb. To make matters worse, a family of one-legged, one-armed, one-eyed, and one-eared ogres saw the two girls in the tree and started cutting it down. Fortunately, Chichinguane used the river-shutter’s wand to heal the tree every time it started to fall. The ogres grew tired and decided to rest, giving Chichinguane and her sister a window to escape. They climbed down the tree and ran with the ogres in hot pursuit, and when they reached the river, Chichinguane touched it with the wand and sang “Chipfalamfula, shut off the water”. The water parted before her and the two girls ran through to safety. The ogres were halfway through when Chipfalamfula opened the water again and drowned them. On their way back, Chichinguane and her sister found the ogres’ cave, full of untold riches, and returned home in regal finery.

The eldest sister was decapitated despite Chichinguane’s entreaties.

The name Chichinguane has confusingly been given to both the youngest and the eldest daughter. The latter is the case in Junod’s older source; Knappert’s usage of the name for the heroine has been preserved here.

References

Junod, H. A. (1897) Les Chants et les Contes des Ba-Ronga. Georges Bridel et Cie, Lausanne.

Knappert, J. (1977) Bantu myths and other tales. E. J. Brill, Leiden.

Lilyi

Variations: Lilye, Lili

lilyi

Lilyi is the second child of Ana, Queen of the Keshalyi. Like her siblings, she is responsible for an array of ailments that plague humanity, and she had her genesis in the abusive relationship between Ana and her repulsive husband, the King of the Loçolico.

After the birth of Melalo, Ana understandably refused to have another child. But this time it was Melalo himself, desirous of a wife, who told his father to cook a fish in donkey’s milk, and administer a few drops of the liquid in Ana before taking her by force. The product of this vile union was Lilyi.

Lilyi, “Viscous” or “Slimy”, is mermaid-like, part fish (some sources specify hagfish) with a human head. Nine sticky threads or barbs flow from either side of her head, and they can penetrate a human body, causing buildup of mucus. She is responsible for catarrh, coughing, dysentery, influenza, vomiting, and other diseases involving mucus and discharges.

Her union with her brother Melalo produced further demons of disease, but she was herself persecuted by her younger brother Tçulo – at least until Tçulo got a sister-wife of his own.

References

Clébert, J. P. (1976) Les Tziganes. Tchou, Paris.

Clébert, J. P.; Duff, C. trans. (1963) The Gypsies. Vista Books, London.

Meyers Brothers Druggist (1910) Demons of Disease. Meyers Brothers Druggist, v. 31, p. 141.

Pavelčík, N. and Pavelčík, J. (2001) Myths of the Czech Gypsies. Asian Folklore Studies, v. 60, pp. 21-30.

Marool

Variations: Angler-fish, Carrachan, Devil-fish, Keddle-man, Kethrie, Kettach, Kilmaddy, Marmaid, Mareillen, Marsgum, Masgum, Meermaid, Merlin-fish, Molly Gowan, Monk-fish, Plucker, Shoemaker, Toad-fish, Weever, Wide-gab

Marool

The Marool of Shetland is a malevolent marine devil, appearing in the form of a fish. It has eyes all over its head, and a crest of flame. It can be seen in mareel, or phosphorescent sea-foam. During storms the marool can be heard singing wildly with joy when a ship capsizes.

Marool is only one of a number of names that have been applied to the anglerfish or monkfish.

References

Forbes, A. R. (1905) Gaelic Names of Beasts (Mammalia), Birds, Fishes, Insects, Reptiles, Etc. Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh.

Saxby, J. M. E. (1932) Shetland Traditional Lore. Grant and Murray Limited, Edinburgh.

Mastopogon

Variations: Aegomastus, Egomastus; Houperou, Huperus (erroneously?)

Houperou

The first appearance of the Mastopogon (“breast beard”), also called the Aegomastus, is as a nameless “strange fish” observed by Thevet off the coast of South America. It has a beard resembling a goat’s udder under its chin, and the illustration provided includes a long dorsal spine and pointed fins.

Thevet also describes the Houperou as a large carnivorous fish that eats all other sea creatures, except for one small fish. The carp-like fish remains in the shadow of the houperou and enjoys the protection granted by its larger friend. The houperou has rough sandpapery skin like a dogfish, sharp teeth, and a long spine on its back. It attacks, drowns, and dismembers anyone it catches in the water, and the native people shoot it with arrows on sight. The similarity of this unlikely couple to a shark and pilot fish is clear; in fact, uperu is the local name for “shark”, appropriately converted to French pronunciation by Thevet.

Gesner takes up the descriptions of the houperou and the udder-bearded fish from Thevet, but pictures the houperou or huperus as a large pike. He also coins Mastopogon and Aegomastus for Thevet’s nameless fish.

With time the heraldic mastopogon and houperou blurred together to the point of inextricability, making it necessary to describe them together. Holme describes the mastopogon as a variety of houperou, looking like a salmon with large thorny fins, the dorsal fin reaching all the way to the tail. The houperou, on the other hand, now has the mammary wattle, along with two ear-like knobs on its head, a long-spined dorsal fin, rough scales, and a straight tail.

References

Gessner, C. (1560) Nomenclator aquatilium animantium. Christoph Froschoverus.

Holme, R. (1668) The academy of armory, or, A storehouse of armory and blazon containing the several variety of created beings, and how born in coats of arms, both foreign and domestick. Printed by the author at Chester.

de Souza, G. S. (1851) Tratado Descriptivo do Brazil. Typographia Universal de Laemmert, Rio de Janeiro.

Thevet, A. (1558) Les Singularitez de la France Antarctique. Maurice de la Porte, Paris.

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

Stella

Variations: Sea Star

Stella

Stella, or the sea star, derives its name from its unusual appearance that resembles a painted star.

Much like its namesake, a stella is so hot that it burns, liquefies, and effectively cooks anything it comes in contact with. It will intentionally touch fish in order to kill them. Evidence for this incandescent nature was found in a large stella washed up on the shores of Maguelonne. Almost a foot in diameter, it was found to have five mollusk shells inside it, two of which were half-liquefied.

References

Boaistuau, P. (1564) Histoires Prodigieuses. Vincent Norment et Iehanne Bruneau, Paris.