Myrmecoleon

Variations: Myrmecoleo, Myrmekoleon, Mermecoleon, Mermecolion, Mirmicaleon, Mirmicoleon, Murmecoleon, Formicaleon, Ant-Lion, Antlion

Myrmecoleon

The Myrmecoleon, or Ant-lion, is a tale of two creatures and many translation errors. Druce distinguishes between the Eastern myrmecoleon, a hybrid of lion and ant, and the Western myrmecoleon, a carnivorous insect. These are one and the same, but the vagaries of translation led them down separate paths.

The Eastern myrmecoleon is found primarily in Greek, Arabian, Armenian, Ethiopian, and Syrian bestiaries. Its pedigree can be traced back to the giant gold-digging ants originally described by Herodotus. Further additions were added to the account as it evolved away from its origin. Nearchus claimed that the skins of the ants were as large as those of leopards. Pliny said that the horns of an Indian ant at the Erythraean temple of Hercules were remarkably large. Agatharchides, Aelian, and Strabo tell of Arabian and Babylonian lions called “ants” (myrmex) that have gleaming golden fur and reversed genitals (probably hyraxes, which have a distinctive dorsal gland).

The translators of the Septuagint were faced with the unfamiliar term lajisch or layish in Eliphaz’s phrase “the old lion perishes for lack of food” (Job 4:11). In the Vulgate it was rendered as tigris, and modern translations use “old lion”, but the Septuagint, drawing on obscure Classical species of lion, arbitrarily used the term myrmekoleon. Its name presupposes a hybrid of ant and lion; as the Bible is inerrant, this led led to the necessary existence of a creature whose father was a lion and whose mother was an ant. The fruit of this improbable union is a lion in front and an ant behind, and dies of starvation since the ant half cannot digest what the lion half eats, while the lion half cannot eat the plants the ant half requires. Thus “the myrmecoleon perishes for lack of food” became a logical statement, and was expounded upon in the Physiologus.

Myrmecoleon antlionThe Western myrmecoleon originally appeared in Latin sources and subsequently found its way into European bestiaries. This ant-lion is both ant and lion – an insect that preys on ants as lions prey on other animals, an ant to us, a lion to ants. It is an ant with a white head and a black body marked with white spots. It appears in bestiaries as something like a large ant or spider. This is a real animal – the antlion is a larva with huge jaws that constructs funnel-shaped traps in sand to catch ants. It eventually metamorphoses into a lacy-winged fly, but both larva and adult are completely harmless to humans.

As a denizen of bestiaries the ant-lion has its own religious connotations. The Eastern myrmecoleon is two-faced, double-minded, unstable, and deceitful. The Western myrmecoleon represents Satan lying in wait for sinners.

References

Beavis, I. C. (1988) Insects and other Invertebrates in Classical Antiquity. Alden Press, Osney Mead, Oxford.

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.

Druce, G. C. (1923) An account of the Μυρμηκολέων or Ant-lion. The Antiquaries Journal, 3(4), pp. 347-364.

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

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.

Kitchell, K. F. (2014) Animals in the Ancient World from A to Z. Routledge, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon.

Newbold, D. (1924) The Ethiopian Ant-lion. Sudan Notes and Record, 7(1), pp. 133-135.

Robin, P. A. (1936) Animal Lore in English Literature. John Murray, London.

Agropelter

Variations: Anthrocephalus craniofractens (Cox), Brachiipotentes craniofractans (Tryon), Argopelter (erroneously), Widow-maker

Agropelters are violent and aggressive critters found in lumberwoods from Maine to Oregon. Injury and death blamed on freak falling branches are always the work of an agropelter, who hates lumberjacks for their invasion of its territory.

Our only description of an agropelter comes from Big Ole Kittleson, who survived an agropelter attack long enough to see the creature escape. An agropelter has the villainous face of an ape on a sinewy little body, with incredibly powerful arms like organic whips.

Agropelters use the prodigious strength of their arms to break off and fling branches. They always pelt with pinpoint accuracy, smashing or impaling their victims. Big Ole Kittleson was fortunate enough to be pelted with a rotten branch that crumbled upon impact.

Apart from their murderous activities, agropelters are highly agile climbers and brachiators, and make their home in trees by eating and hollowing out the center of a dead tree. Pups are born on February 29 and always in odd numbers. Agropelters subsist on a diet of owls and woodpeckers. As these birds are sadly being exterminated, the agropelters are getting scarce.

References

Brown, C. E. (1935) Paul Bunyan Natural History. Madison, Wisconsin.

Cox, W. T. (1910) Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods with a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts. Judd and Detweiler, Washington D. C.

Tryon, H. H. (1939) Fearsome Critters. The Idlewild Press, Cornwall, NY.

Jarjacha

The Jarjacha is a nocturnal Peruvian beast, quadrupedal, with a long neck and glowing eyes. It lives on a diet of human flesh, but has very specific preferences: it feeds solely on incestuous men and women, or those who have committed carnal sins towards their spiritual compadres. It itself may be born from the soul of an incestuous person or taboo-breaker.

A jarjacha manifests primarily in its call, a loud rattling cry that echoes through the hills. “Jar-jar-jar-jar-jar”… It repeats, over and over. The villagers shiver, cross themselves, and lock their doors.

By morning the atmosphere is tense. Everyone knows there is a sinner among them, some incestuous wretch who has brought judgment down on themselves. The parish priest decries the existence of the son of Satan in their midst, one who will be punished by divine retribution. Eventually the shamed culprit is brought to light, and given an auto-da-fé in the public square.

Jarjacha is the worst insult that can be leveled at someone.

References

Bustamante, M. E. (1943) Apuntes para el folklore Peruano. La Miniatura, Ayacucho.

Chouyu

Variations: Jiuyu, Jiyu

The slopes of Exceedingly Lofty Mountain in China are home to the Chouyu. It is like a rabbit but has a bird’s beak, owl’s eyes, and the tail of a snake. It falls asleep (i.e. plays dead) when it sees people. If a chouyu is seen it is an omen of a locust plague.

Mathieu identifies this animal as the armadillo, but admits with impressive understatement that China is a bit far from the neotropics…

References

Mathieu, R. (1983) Étude sur la mythologie et l’ethnologie de la Chine ancienne. Collège de France, Paris.

Strassberg, R. E. (2002) A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. University of California Press.

Sermilik

The Sermilik, “ice-clad”, is an enormous and highly dangerous polar bear found in the seas around Aasiaat in Greenland. Unlike the bears it resembles, it has very long fur completely covered with ice. Four lumps of ice at the surface are in fact the four paws of a sermilik lying in wait, and young hunters are warned never to paddle near those.

References

Birket-Smith, K. (1924) Ethnography of the Egedesminde District. Bianco Lunos Bogtrykkeri, Copenhagen.

Dingonek

The Dingonek is a creature that lives in the Maggori River in Kenya, as well as in Lake Nyanza. Our primary source for the dingonek comes from big-game hunter John Alfred Jordan, as recorded by Edgar Beecher Bronson. As a tale told by one big-game hunter to another, there is no reason to believe there was any embellishment or exaggeration involved.

Legends of aquatic monsters predate Jordan’s account, but they describe a generic large water python. Clement Hill claimed to have seen one in Lake Nyanza that attempted to seize a man on the prow of his boat. It had a dark, roundish head.

The dingonek as described by Jordan is a cross between a sea serpent, a leopard, and a whale. It is fourteen or fifteen feet long. Its head is similar in shape and markings to that of a leopard, but is the size of a lioness’ head. There are two long white fangs protruding downwards from the upper jaw. The back is broad like that of a hippo, patterned and colored like a leopard, and “scaled like an armadillo”. The tail, used for aquatic propulsion, is broad and finned. When ashore, the dingonek leaves behind prints as wide as a hippo’s but with reptilian claw-marks.

A .303 shot behind the ear had no effect on the dingonek. It reared straight up out of the water, and Jordan ran for his life. The dingonek was not seen again.

Hobley tells of another man who swears he saw a dingonek. When the Mara River was in flood, the eyewitness said he saw a creature floating down the river on a big log. It had its tail in the water, but its length was estimated to be sixteen feet. It had scales, spots like a leopard, and a head like an otter, but no long fangs. When shot at, it slipped into the water and disappeared. Apart from the (surely inaccurate) length given, this is a good account of a Nile monitor lizard.

Finally, rock art from a cave in Brakfontein Ridge, South Africa, has been claimed to depict a walrus-like dingonek, but the location is far from the dingonek’s habitat, and the association is arbitrary.

Heuvelmans initially believed the dingonek to be an odd species of prehistoric crocodile. Later he revised this to create an aquatic saber-toothed cat whose wet fur clumped and gave the appearance of scales.

As armadillos are New World animals, modern reconstructions have assumed the armadillo “scales” to be those of a pangolin instead. Other recent additions include a single horn and a stinger tail, neither of which have any basis.

References

Bronson, E. B. (1910) In Closed Territory. A. C. McClurg & Co., Chicago.

Bryant, A. T. (1948) The Zulu People. Shuter and Shooter, Pietermaritzburg.

Conway, J.; Kosemen, C. M.; and Naish, D. (2013) Cryptozoologicon Vol. I. Irregular Books.

Heuvelmans, B.; Garnett, R. trans. (1958) On the Track of Unknown Animals. Rupert Hart-Davis, London.

Hobley, C. W. (1913) On Some Unidentified Beasts. The Journal of the East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society, III(6), pp. 48-52.

Oswald, F. (1915) Alone in the Sleeping-Sickness Country. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London.

Stow, G. W. and Bleek, D. F. (1930) Rock-paintings in South Africa. Methuen & Co. Ltd., London.

Cahab

Variations: Caab; Sahab (typo)

Cahab

Among Aristotle’s many references to the elephant, we are told that its five toes are not perfectly jointed, its forelegs are larger than its hind ones, and its hind legs have short ankles. It has a trunk that it can use as a hand, drinking and eating with it, pulling up trees with it, and using it to breathe when walking through water. This remarkable appendage is cartilaginous and jointless.

The 1220 Latin translation of Aristotle by Michael Scot was based off an Arabic translation from the Greek. Scot retained various Arabic words in his text, and hence Aristotle’s passage on the elephant’s appendicular anatomy became et habet duo cahab parva respect magnitudinis corporis sui – here, cahab is Arabic for “ankle”, and the phrase reads “and [the elephant] has two ankles that are short relative to the size of its body”. Scot used cahab consistently to refer to the ankle or the talus bone.

Thomas de Cantimpré did not recognize the word cahab and assumed it to be the subject of the verb habet. From that the sentence became Caab animal marinum est, ut dicit Aristotiles, parvos habens pedes respectu corporis sui, quod utique magnum est, “Caab is a sea animal, as says Aristotle, whose legs are small in proportion to its body, which is huge”. Based on that and the remainder of the Aristotelian description, Thomas says that the caab has one leg that is long and which it uses as a hand to bring vegetation to its mouth; this leg is made of cartilage. Thomas also misreads the behavior of the elephant in water and makes his caab a fully aquatic marine animal, one that breathes underwater and then, upon reaching the surface, spouts the water it swallowed while breathing. Finally, he spontaneously gives his animal the feet of a cow.

In turn, Albertus Magnus “borrows” Thomas’ account, dropping the reference to Aristotle. This time it is called cahab, and now all of its legs are cartilaginous and resemble those of a calf. Albertus also makes a logical association with the cetacean act of spouting; his cahab holds its breath underwater and spouts at the surface sicut delfinus et cetus.

The last iteration of the cahab is provided by Olaus Magnus, who transposes this odd cartilage-legged sea creature into Scandinavia. He tactfully compares the cartilaginous feet to those of both cows and calves (vaccae, aut vituli). Olaus cites Albertus Magnus as the source of the cahab in the Latin version of his Historia, but the French and English translations omit this crucial citation.

Finally, the English translation misreads the name of the cahab as “sahab”, decisively casting this elephant adrift in a sea of translation errors.

References

Aristotle, Cresswell, R. trans. (1862) Aristotle’s History of Animals. Henry G. Bohn, London.

de Cantimpré, T. (1280) Liber de natura rerum. Bibliothèque municipale de Valenciennes.

Cuba, J. (1539) Le iardin de santé. Philippe le Noir, Paris.

Gauvin, B.; Jacquemard, C.; and Lucas-Avenel, M. (2013) L’auctoritas de Thomas de Cantimpré en matière ichtyologique (Vincent de Beauvais, Albert le Grand, l’Hortus sanitatis). Kentron, 29, pp. 69-108.

Magnus, A. (1920) De Animalibus Libri XXVI. Aschendorffschen Verlagbuchhandlung, Münster.

Magnus, O. (1555) Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus. Giovanni M. Viotto, Rome.

Magnus, O. (1561) Histoire des pays septentrionaus. Christophle Plantin, Antwerp.

Magnus, O. (1658) A compendious history of the Goths, Swedes, and Vandals, and other Northern nations. J. Streater, London.

Unknown. (1538) Ortus Sanitatis. Joannes de Cereto de Tridino.