Catoblepas

Variations: Katoblepas, Catablepon, Katoblepon, Catobleponta, Gorgon (erroneously)

Catoblepas

The Catoblepas, “that which looks downwards”, is probably the most hideous and repulsive of living things, so horrid that its mere glance is lethal. Pliny locates it in Ethiopia, around the source of the Nile, Aelian puts it in Libya, and Topsell gives a range of Hesperia and Lybia.

According to Pliny, the body of a catoblepas is of small size, and its limbs are heavy, but its massive head is too heavy to be held up and always looks downwards. This is a good thing, as anyone who saw the eyes of a catoblepas died.

Aelian gives more detail, describing it as the size of a bull, but with a grim expression, shaggy eyebrows, and small bloodshot eyes. It looks downwards, and has a horselike mane that starts on its head and covers its face. The catoblepas feeds on poisonous plants; when threatened, it shudders and raises its mane in warning before opening its mouth and belching a foul, toxic gas. This gas poisons the air around it, and anything that breathes it loses its voice, collapses in convulsions, and dies. Other animals give it a wide berth because of this. There is no mention of a deadly gaze.

Topsell combines the catoblepas with the Gorgon, stating that the myth of Perseus originated from a war with African Amazons led by Medusa. The snake-hair of the gorgons was inspired by the catoblepas’ messy mane. His fanciful description borrows liberally from gorgons and adds thick eyelids, scales like a dragon, tusks like a boar, no hair on the head, wings, human hands, and a size between that of a bull and a calf. He also denies that a catoblepas can kill with its breath, which is unheard of in the animal world; it is far more likely to kill with its eyes like the well-known cockatrice. He gives as proof an anecdote of Marius’ soldiers encountering a catoblepas and thinking it a sheep, only to die immediately when it looked up at them. It was eventually killed in an ambush by spear-men, and its skin was sent to the temple of Hercules in Rome.

It is in Flaubert’s Temptation that we get the most nightmarish vision of the catoblepas. Here it is a sprawling, long-maned black buffalo with the head of a pig dragging on the ground. Its neck is long and thin like an emptied intestine. It is also granted the power of speech, addressing Anthony. “Fat, melancholy, wild, I perpetually feel the warmth of mud under my belly, hiding infinite rot under my armpit. My skull is so heavy that I cannot lift it. I roll it around me, slowly; – and, jaws opened, I tear with my tongue poisonous herbs watered with my breath. Once, I ate my paws by accident. No-one, Anthony, has ever seen my eyes, or those who have seen them are dead. If I lifted my eyelids – my pink and swollen eyelids, straight away, you would die”.

Cuvier suggested that this maned, hoofed, and downward-looking abomination of nature was inspired by the harmless gnu or wildebeest.

References

Aelian, trans. Scholfield, A. F. (1959) On the Characteristics of Animals, vol. II. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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

Flaubert, G. (1885) La Tentation de Saint Antoine. Quantin, Paris.

Pliny; Holland, P. trans. (1847) Pliny’s Natural History. George Barclay, Castle Street, Leicester Square.

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Four-footed Beasts. E. Cotes, London.

Chimera

Variations: Chimaera, Chimaira

Chimera

The Chimera or Chimaera (“goat”) was the daughter of Typhon and Echidna. She was the terror of Lycia in southern Turkey, killing people and livestock and torching crops.

Homer describes her as being a lion in front, a serpent behind, and a goat in the middle, with the power of breathing fire. Hesiod specifies that she had three heads. The lion’s head was in its customary place, the snake’s head was on the end of the tail, and the goat’s head emerged tumorously from the middle. Hyginus gives all three heads the ability to breathe fire, while Apollodorus states that only the goat head could do so, functioning as some kind of shoulder-mounted flamethrower.

While Homer’s description might suggest a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a snake’s tail, the Chimera has been consistently represented in Greek art with multiple heads. Usually she is mostly lion with a snake tail; the goat has proven tricky to depict convincingly, ranging from a head to the entire front half of a goat. Some Etruscan renditions add wings. The iconography behind the Chimera may go back farther, and may be of Asian origin. The term has also been used to describe various unrelated hybrid animals, with or without multiple heads.

She was finally slain by Bellerophon, who had been sent to Lycia to die. The wife of King Proitos had fallen madly in love with him; after he rejected her advances, she told her husband that Bellerophon had tried to seduce her. Enraged, the king dispatched Bellerophon to Iobates of Lycia, bearing a message requesting him to kill the messenger. Iobates sent him to battle the Chimera – surely an impossible task.

But Bellerophon had the favor of the gods, and the aid of the winged horse Pegasus. Mounted on Pegasus’ back, he easily flew out of range of the Chimera’s fiery breath, and shot her to death with arrows. Some accounts add that he rammed a lump of lead into her throat, where it melted and suffocated her.

Chimera bwChimera was a study in contradictions. Her three components did not make any sense together. Her name meant “goat”, but the goat was the least coherent part of her, reduced to a mere head in an anatomically dubious position. Evidently something so contradictory as the Chimera needed a rational explanation, even to the ancient Greeks. Plutarch believed she was inspired by a pirate captain, whose ship was decorated with the three component animals. Servius Honoratus said she was a loose interpretation of the Lycian landscape. Mount Chimera was a volcano, with snakes at its base, goats wandering around its heights, and a pride of lions at the top. Bellerophon, arriving on his ship Pegasus, set fire to the mountain and eradicated the dangerous animals.

The Etruscans dedicated the Chimera to the supreme god Tinia. The Etruscan Arezzo bronze of the Chimera remains the most enduring image produced of her. As a hybrid she was both celestial and chthonic, representing the year and the seasons. The lion, hot and strong, was summer; the snake, cold and ground-dwelling, was winter; and the transitory goat was spring and summer.

In The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the Chimera is a great, green-eyed, dragon-winged creature with a luxuriant mane; she is as capricious as desire and imagination. She reveals breathtaking new perspectives to humans, pours insanity, ambitions, hopes, and dreams into their minds, drives people to dangerous quests, and kills anyone content in wisdom. She is woefully incompatible with the rational, stoic Sphinx, and their attempts at copulation fail.

“Chimera” has entered our vocabulary in a number of ways, always in reference to incongruity. A chimera or something chimeric is fanciful, improbable, and imaginary. A chimera can also mean an organism with distinct cells from different zygotes. Finally, Chimaera is a genus of deep-sea fish, named after its bizarre appearance.

References

Bazopoulou-Kyrkanidou, E. (2001) Chimeric Creatures in Greek Mythology and Reflections in Science. American Journal of Medical Genetics 100:66-80.

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

Flaubert, G. (1885) La Tentation de Saint Antoine. Quantin, Paris.

Hesiod; trans. Elton, C. A. (1832) The Theogony. In Hesiod. A. J. Valpy, London.

Homer, trans. Buckley, T. A. (1851) The Iliad of Homer. Henry G. Bohn, London.

Locatelli, D. and Rossi, F. (2010) Les Étrusques: Pouvoir – religion – vie quotidienne. Série Civilisations, Hazan.

Roes, A. (1934) The Representation of the Chimaera. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 54, Part 1, pp. 21-25.

Schmitt, M. L. (1966) Bellerophon and the Chimaera in Archaic Greek Art. American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 70, No. 4, pp. 341-347.

Smith, R. S. and Trzaskoma, S. M. (2007) Apollodorus’ Library and Hyginus’ Fabulae. Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis.

Till, B. (1980) Some Observations on Stone Winged Chimeras at Ancient Chinese Tomb Sites. Artibus Asiae, Vol. 42, No. 4, pp. 261-281.

Seps

Variations: Sep, Sepedon

Seps

The Seps – “putrefaction” – is a deadly snake found in the deserts of Africa. It is especially feared for its corrosive venom, which melts flesh and bone alike to leave its victim a smear on the ground. Lucan awarded it the title of Libya’s greatest plague.

A seps is about two cubits (about a meter) long, and varicolored along its length; some say it can also change color like a chameleon. It uniquely has four hollow fangs in its lower jaw. Topsell attests to its speed, describing its motion as going “by spires and half-hoops”, possibly a reference to sidewinding. Aldrovandi gives the seps a horn on the nose and large triangular scales. Seps can be found in valleys, deserts, and under rocks. They can survive winters thanks to their natural warmth.

Seps bwSeps venom is highly virulent, causing massive necrosis and putrefaction of tissues. Skin, muscle, blood, bone – everything rots and dissolves away, and if the bite is not treated, the victim literally melts into oblivion, leaving nothing behind. Eldred points out that the original Greek seps killed in the same way as the dipsas – by inducing extreme thirst. Lucan alters that to better suit the snake’s name.

For antivenin, Topsell recommends the same measures as with other venomous snakes, as well as sponges soaked in warm vinegar; a concoction of ashes, butter, and honey; or otherwise millet, honey, bay, oxymel, and purslane.

Lucan describes the fate of a Roman soldier after being bitten by a seps. The unfortunate Sabellus’ skin, flesh, and sinews shriveled away from the bite, exposing bare bones before they, too, succumbed to the venom. The putrefying venom worked its way upward from the bite, and the soldier melted like a candle.

While no snake has venom as powerful as that of the seps, the symptoms of seps bite seem to be an exaggeration of actual necrosis caused by snake bite.

References

Aelian, trans. Scholfield, A. F. (1959) On the Characteristics of Animals, vol. II. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Aldrovandi, U. (1640) Serpentum, et Draconum Historiae. Antonij Bernie, Bologna.

Batinski, E. (1992) Cato and the Battle with the Serpents. Syllecta Classica, Vol. 3, pp. 71-80.

Eldred, K. O. (2000) Poetry in Motion: the Snakes of Lucan. Helios 27.1, p. 63.

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.

Lucan, trans. Rowe, N. (1720) Pharsalia. T. Johnson, London.

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Serpents. E. Cotes, London.

Stymphalian Bird

Variations: Stymphalide, Bird of Ares

Stymphalian bird 2

Pausanias theorized that the Stymphalian birds originated in Arabia, citing the presence of fierce desert birds known as the Stymphalides. He then admits that the population found at Stymphalos, in Arcadia, may have been the result of a few wayward birds making their way into Greece. Following this line of reasoning, Pausanias deduces that they earned the name of Stymphalides due to their fame in Greece, and the name then supplanted whatever name they originally had in Arabia!

The appearance of the Stymphalian birds is no less muddled. Their most feared weapon is the sharpened, pointed tips of their wing feathers, which they fling like darts to stab their prey. Sometimes their feathers and beaks are made of bronze or iron, the better for piercing armor. Pausanias described them as about crane-sized, but resembling the ibis in shape, but with a stronger bill; elsewhere he says they are like hawks or eagles. In Greek art they have been represented as ibises, swans, and other such waterfowl; at least one obol from Stymphalos shows a bird with a short crest and a stout, powerful bill. Finally, no doubt influenced by tales of harpies and sirens, the temple of Stymphalian Diana also has stone statues of virgins with birds’ feet.Stymphalian bird bw

It remains true that the Stymphalian birds were first and foremost associated with Lake Stymphalia. They terrorized the region, ravaging crops, killing people, and poisoning the ground with their dung. Fox suggests that the legend originated as a glamorization of a plague or pestilence rising from the marshes, which would explain their noxious qualities. While their feathered darts could pierce armor, they were powerless against a certain type of tree bark, which held them fast like quicklime. There was only so much bark to go around, though, and the birds seemed numberless.

It was this scourge that Heracles was sent to destroy. As his sixth labor, it was one of a list of impossible tasks, and indeed the vast numbers of birds seemed beyond the hero’s strength. Heracles got around this by exploiting a simple fact – despite their numbers and ferocity, Stymphalian birds were as easily spooked as sparrows. Fashioning a pair of bronze castanets, he made such a din that the flock took off in a panic; from there he shot a great number down with his arrows, while the remainder of the birds flew off and were never seen in Arcadia again.

That was not the end of the Stymphalian birds, as from Greece they made their way to the Black Sea and populated the Island of Ares, where they became sacred guardians to the god of war. It was this flock that Jason and his Argonauts encountered on their way to Colchis. While the birds of Ares managed to wound the Argonaut Oileus with a feather projectile, they were scared off once more by the noise of rattling bronze armor, but not before pelting the Argonauts with a hailstorm of feathers.

References

Aldington, R. and Ames, D. trans.; Guirand, F. (1972) New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Paul Hamlyn, London.

Ames, D. trans.; Guirand, F. (1963) Greek Mythology. From Mythologie Generale Larousse. Paul Hamlyn, London.

Apollonius, Coleridge, E.P. trans. (1889) The Argonautica. George Bell and Sons, London.

Fox, W. M. (1964) The Mythology of All Races v. I: Greek and Roman. Cooper Square Publishers, New York.

Pausanias, Levi, P. trans. (1979) Guide to Greece, volume 2: Southern Greece. Penguin Books, London.