Lakúma

Variations: Lucooma

lakuma

According to the Yamana, the Lakúma are the most dangerous sea creatures of Tierra del Fuego. These water spirits have been known to tip canoes over, pull their occupants out, and drag them under to consume, leaving their entrails to float to the surface. They can also create huge waves, summon whirlpools, and whip up storms to damage larger vessels.

Lakúma have been compared to whales, squids, and giant worms, making their exact appearance hard to pin down. What is known is that they like to flatten themselves out on the water’s surface, letting their back protrude like a small island. Their broad and flat backs are covered with encrustations of unusually large mussels.

Sometimes there are so many lakúma in one spot that they can be used as stepping-stones. A group of Yamana on a desert island saw countless wide, flat lakúma rise to the surface, forming a living bridge to a bountiful island. “If we run quickly, we’ll get to the other side!” said one man, running over the backs of the lakúma and reaching the other shore. But the others were too slow, and the lakúma dove, taking them to a watery grave. The one survivor recruited enough men to slay many lakúma in retaliation, and their bodies can still be seen today in the form of large, flat stones at the bottom of the sea.

Lakúma will also attack people breaking taboos. It is known that a menstruating girl or túrikipa should not eat berries, but one girl thought she could circumvent the rule by sucking out the juices and spitting the solid outer part. Alas, her canoe was attacked by a lakúma, and it refused the offerings tossed at it until it took the girl and devoured her. It then flattened itself out on the surface and rested. The túrikipa’s people went onto the lakúma’s back, took some of the mussels, and used their sharp shells to dismember the lakúma. But that was small comfort for the túrikipa, whose entrails served as a grisly reminder of her fate.

For all their malevolence, lakúma can be tamed by a powerful yékamuš or shaman, and can become obedient servants. One yékamuš was with his wife in their canoe while she scolded him. “I thought you were a powerful yékamuš, but you can’t even strand a whale, or fetch birds to eat!” In response the yékamuš slept and summoned two lakúma, who raised the canoe’s bow up in the air. “Wake up! Help me!” cried his wife, and the yékamuš stirred and spoke nonchalantly. “I thought you said I was powerless”, he taunted, before telling her to paint the lakúma with white paint. She did as she was told, and the lakúma did not resist. Then they dove and created a good breeze to send the canoe effortlessly to its destination. “I had always made fun of you”, admitted the wife, “but now I know you are truly a capable yékamuš!”

References

Gusinde, M.; Schütze, F. trans. (1961) The Yamana; the life and thought of the water nomads of Cape Horn. Human Relations Area Files, New Haven.

Gusinde, M.; Wilbert, J. ed. (1977) Folk Literature of the Yamana Indians. University of California Press, University of California, Los Angeles.

Saratan

Variations: Zaratan (erroneously), Sarathan

Saratan

Saratan is Arabic for crab. It also means cancer, in the same way as cancer is Latin for crab. Hence, every use of the word saratan here can be replaced with “crab”.

Al-Jahiz knows what crabs are. He talks about how crabs have eight legs and two “teeth” which give the appearance of ten legs. They have eyes on their back. They live in water or burrows on the shore, where they lay their eggs, and feed out of greed instead of necessity.

But the “crab” he describes at one point is enormous in size and lives in the open ocean. Vegetation grows on its back as it rests on the surface. Cracks and crevices in its shell look like gullies and rivers. It is this monster that sleeps in the middle of the ocean until sailors land on it, mistaking it for an island. Then it awakens and dives underwater, drowning anyone incapable of swimming back to ship.

Al-Jahiz does concede that he cannot find anyone who claims to have seen this monster.

“What is the most wondrous thing you have ever seen?” Al-Jahiz and a group of friends ponder this question. “The elephant”, comes one response. “The soul”. “Sleep and awakening”. “Forgetfulness and memory”. “Fire”. “The belly of the cosmos”. Another of the scholars present expresses his amazement with the elephant. Finally, Ma’bad bin ‘Omar states “The saratan and the ostrich are greater miracles than the elephant”.

Elsewhere Al-Jahiz goes on to add “The greatest of God’s creations are the snake and the saratan and the fish”, and “The greatest animals created are the fish and the saratan”.

It is strange that the saratan is popularly known as “zaratan”, and described as a whale or turtle. The blame for this lies with Borges, who describes the saratan’s activities but neglects to mention that it is a gigantic crab. He quotes a Spanish translation of Al-Jahiz by Palacios which converts saratan to “zaratan”. Oddly enough, the English translation of Palacios’ text uses the more reasonable transliteration of “sarathan”. In either case, Palacios does describe this monster as a “certain crustacean of the sea” (“cierto crustaceo maritimo”), a fact that Borges omits.

References

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

Al-Jahiz, A. (1966) Kitab al-Hayawan. Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi wa Awladihi, Egypt.

Palacios, M. A. (1919) La escatologia musulmana en la Divina Comedia. Estanislao Maestre, Madrid.

Palacios, M. A.; Sunderland, H. trans. (1926) Islam and the Divine Comedy. John Murray, London.

Trolual

Variations: Trolwal, Trolval, Teufelwal, Teuffelwal, Devil Whale

Trolual

The Trolual or “devil whale” is one of the more familiar sights on ancient ocean maps. These malevolent cetaceans are mostly found in the northern Atlantic around Scandinavia.

Troluals are depicted as enormous whales with prominent tusks, frills, paws, and large scales on their body. They are as big as mountains, and may have vegetation growing on their backs.

A sleeping trolual on the surface of the ocean looks deceptively like a small island. Sailors will land on it, walk around, even start a fire – and then the whale awakens and sinks below the waves, drowning anyone unfortunate enough to remain on it. Unlike most other island monsters, troluals will also take a more proactive approach by crushing and overturning ships, making them a significant navigational hazard.

Fortunately, troluals can be distracted from their murderous intentions. One strategy is the sounding of trumpets, which are loud enough to momentarily startle and confuse the trolual. Barrels thrown overboard will also divert the whale’s attention. As the trolual plays with its new toys, the ship can sail to safety.

Even the great troluals are not immune to exploitation by humans. Munster states that the inhabitants of Iceland build their houses out of the bones of these whales.

The only major literary appearance of a trolual is in the fabulous tale of Alector, where one surfaces off the coast of the Asian Tangut Empire and ravages harbors every full moon. It is defeated and slain with the help of a magical flying hippopotamus.

References

Aneau, B. (1560) Alector, Histoire Fabuleuse. Pierre Fradin, Lyon.

van Duzer, C. (2013) Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps. The British Library, London.

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

Munster, S. (1552) La Cosmographie Universelle. Henry Pierre.

Nigg, J. (2013) Sea Monsters: A Voyage around the World’s Most Beguiling Map. University of Chicago Press.