Tabib al-Bahr

Variations: Doctor of the Sea, Sea Doctor

Tabib-al-bahr

The mysterious Tabib al-Bahr, the “Doctor of the Sea”, is found in the writings of the alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan. Its appearance is not very clear; we know that it is a fish with a yellow gemstone in its forehead, and that it is also human in shape. This marine animal, despite its considerable magical powers, is very caring and altruistic. It derives its name from the gemstone in its head, which can heal any ailment; it attends to other sea creatures by rubbing its head twice or thrice on their injuries, healing them instantly. Perhaps because of this self-sacrificing nature, the tabibs also do not resist capture by humans, instead waiting patiently for the right time to escape.

The gemstone of a tabib al-bahr is of great value to alchemy. If the creature is slaughtered and its stone taken out of its head, it can be used to create gold out of silver. It was that gemstone that drew Jabir ibn Hayyan into seeking out the tabib al-bahr.

After enlisting the aid of a number of skilled sailors, Jabir set sail into the Indian Ocean. He eventually found a group of tabib al-bahrs near the unknown island of Sindiyyāt. The net was cast, and one of the creatures was caught. It started striking its cheeks in a feminine act of desperation, and Jabir realized that the tabib they had caught was a young woman of great beauty. She was taken on board and imprisoned in a small cabin; she seemed incapable of speech beyond mumbling in an unknown language. Jabir was given the chance to test her powers by bringing in a sailor with torticollis. After the tabib rubbed her gemstone on his arms and legs, he was immediately cured.

This situation was not to last long. One of the sailors, a young man, fell in love with the strange creature, and Jabir allowed them to live together in the cabin. Eventually she became pregnant and gave birth to a boy, human in all aspects except for a marvelous, shining forehead. As the boy grew, the mother was eventually given free reign of the boat, as she seemed attached to the crew, keeping them company, tending to their injuries, and caring for her son. Unfortunately that was not the case, and after a long inspection of all possible escape routes, she finally climbed over the railing and dove into the water. Her husband was brokenhearted, but he swore to care for the son she left behind.

Eventually the ship sailed into a storm from which there seemed to be no escape. Throwing anchors into the water did nothing to hold the ship, and it was on the verge of capsizing. That was when they saw their tabib al-bahr sitting calmly on the surface and waving to them. All the sailors begged her to save them, and in response she transformed into a colossal fish, big enough to stretch from one end of the sea to the other. By swallowing huge quantities of seawater, she lowered the sea level enough for the storm to be quelled. While the sailors worried over whether or not she’d swallow them next, her son dove into the sea after her. The next day he returned to the ship, and his forehead now had a yellow gemstone in it.

Later on Jabir had the opportunity to catch two more tabib al-bahrs, one of which was sacrificed for its gemstone. Jabir marveled at it, a wondrous artifact the likes of which humans would never make.

This tale may not be meant literally, and it has generally been taken as some kind of alchemical allegory. His scribes agreed, noting that it is “very symbolic”, with elements representative of fire and water.

The alchemist-poet Ibn Arfa’ra’sahu dedicated several verses to the tabib al-bahr, saying that “the truest of scientists have vouched for it, Plato and his student Aristotle”.

References

Mahmud, Z. N. (1961) Jabir ibn Hayyan. Maktabat Misr.

Kraus, P. (1986) Jabir Ibn Hayyan : Contribution à l’historie des idées scientifiques dans l’Islam. Société d’Édition Les Belles Lettres, Paris.

Sirānis

Variations: Sirānas, Suryānās, Sirinā, Siwānis

Siranis

According to al-Qazwini, the Sirānis can be found in the undergrowth of Kabul and Zabulistan. Its name is derived from the Greek siren, from which the sirānis evolved beyond recognition.

Originally the sirānis was believed to be a marine animal with seven openings in its mouth, and which used its seven toes to play its snout like a musical instrument. This description, in turn, came to be that of the Qaqnus or Arghun, which was known by the same name as well. Sirinā was also the name of a system of walls with holes in them that replicated the call of the sirānis, and which was used by the Byzantines to attract and capture that animal.

Al-Qazwini, however, places the sirānis firmly on land as a carnivorous mammal with 12 openings in its snout. When it breathes, those orifices produce a pleasant sound like that of the mizmar or flute; indeed, it is said that it was the inspiration for the musical instruments.

A sirānis uses its musical prowess to capture prey. It produces a melody so entrancing that animals gather around it and swoon in wonder, giving the sirānis an open buffet to choose from. If none of the animals present are satisfactory, it lets out an earsplitting screech that scares its audience away.

In time, the proximity of the sirānis to the shādawār in al-Qazwini’s text led later authors to combine them, granting the more iconographically defined shādawār the predatory nature of the sirānis.

References

Contadini, A. Musical Beasts: The Swan-Phoenix in the Ibn Bakhtishu’ Bestiaries. In O, Kane, B. (2005) The Iconography of Islamic Art. Edinburgh University Press.

Contadini, A. (2012) A World of Beasts: A Thirteenth-Century Illustrated Arabic Book on Animals (the Kitab Na’t al-Hayawan) in the Ibn Bakhtishu’ Tradition. Brill, Leiden.

Ettinghausen, R. (1950) The Unicorn. Studies in Muslim Iconography, Freer Gallery of Art Occasional Papers Vol. 1, No. 3, Washington.

al-Qazwini, Z. (1849) Zakariya ben Muhammed ben Mahmud el-Cazwini’s Kosmographie. Erster Theil: Die Wunder der Schöpfung. Ed. F. Wüstenfeld. Dieterichsche Buchhandlung, Göttingen.

Shahmat al-Ard

Variations: Kharȃti

Shahmat-al-ard

Shahmat al-Ard, the “fat of the earth” or “grease of the earth”, is a worm that contracts into a bead if touched. Al-Qazwini, who called it the Kharȃti, said that it was long, red, and lived in damp areas. On the other hand, al-Zamakshari believed it to be small, white, speckled with red spots, and resembling both a white fish and the hand of a woman. Hurmus said that it smelled good, and was immune to fire, being capable of crawling through a bonfire unharmed.

Its primary value is in the variety of medicinal benefits it provides. Its fat, if painted onto one’s skin, will protect from fire. The entire worm, dried and eaten, cures jaundice and scrofula; dried and taken with water, causes immediate delivery in the case of a difficult birth. Roasted and eaten with bread, it dissolves bladder-stones. A shahmat al-ard reduced to ashes, mixed with oil, and applied to the head will cure alopecia and restore hair growth.

Nonetheless it is not generally eaten, since as a filthy worm it is unclean and unfit for human consumption.

References

al-Damiri, K. (1891) Hayat al-hayawan al-kubra. Al-Matba’ah al-Khayriyah, Cairo.

Jayakar, A. S. G. (1908) Ad-Damiri’s Hayat al-Hayawan (A Zoological Lexicon), vol. II, part I. Luzac and Co., London.

Shādawār

Variations: Shadhahvar, Shadhahwar, Shādhahvār, Shad-hawar, Shād-hawār, Shad-havar, Shadhawar, Shadahvar, Shadahwar, Shadawar, Sadahvar, Sadahwar, Sadhavvar, Sadhazar, Sadhazag, Sadhuzag, Aras, ‘rs, ‘rsh

Shad-hawar

The earliest references to the musical-horned unicorn are given by Jabir Ibn Hayyan, around 900 A.D., where it is referred to as the Aras. It was given its most popular incarnation as the Shādawār by Al-Qazwini, which was subsequently copied with modifications by Al-Damiri and Al-Mustawfi. It was found in the farthest reaches of Bilad al-Rum, the Byzantine Empire, a vague location which to Al-Qazwini must have sounded remote.

Exactly how the shādawār’s name should be written and pronounced is unclear. Its writing has varied from author to author and manuscript to manuscript, sometimes starting with a Sā instead of a Shā, with the middle consonant being either a d or a dh (pronounced “the”), and ending in wār (Arabic) or vār (Persian). The spelling chosen here is ultimately arbitrary and based on Ettinghausen and Jayakar’s recommendations, and the most prevalent transliterations. The name is of unknown origin, but Hayyan’s aras is probably derived from “oryx”.

Unlike the more rhinocerine karkadann, the shādawār is an antelope-like ungulate with a single horn, but in this case it is long and hollow. There are forty-two hollow branches in the horn, and wind whistling through these flute-like holes results in beautiful, stirring melodies, so lovely that other animals will gather around to listen. Shādawār horns were offered to kings, who would hang them up as musical intruments. Depending on the angle they were held at, they would produce an enthralling tune or a sad dirge that moved all listeners to tears.

The shādawār has been incorrectly described as a flesh-eater, using its music to attract potential prey. In fact, Al-Qazwini makes no mention of any carnivorous tendencies. Al-Mustawfi, however, combines Al-Qazwini’s account of the shādawār with that of the carnivorous Sirānis immediately preceding it. It is the sirānis that lures prey to it with its music, and not the herbivorous shādawār.

Al-Damiri and Bochart give it seventy-two branches on its horn. Flaubert goes further and describes his “sadhuzag” as a black deer with the head of a bull, and a thicket of white horns on its head. It speaks to Anthony, describing its unique powers. “My seventy-four antlers are hollow as flutes. When I turn towards the South wind, sounds come out that attract enraptured beasts. Snakes coil around my legs, wasps cling to my nostrils, and parrots, doves, and ibises roost in my branches. – Listen! … But when I turn to the North wind, my antlers, thicker than a battalion of lances, exhale a howl; forests shudder, rivers retreat, fruit bulbs burst, and grasses stand on end like the hair of a coward. – Listen!”

References

Bochart, S. (1675) Hierozoicon. Johannis Davidis Zunneri, Frankfurt.

el-Cheikh, N. M. Byzantium through the Islamic Prism from the Twelfth to the Thirteenth Century. In Laiou, A. E. and Mottahedeh, R. P. (2001) The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim World. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D. C.

Contadini, A. Musical Beasts: The Swan-Phoenix in the Ibn Bakhtishu’ Bestiaries. In O, Kane, B. (2005) The Iconography of Islamic Art. Edinburgh University Press.

Contadini, A. (2012) A World of Beasts: A Thirteenth-Century Illustrated Arabic Book on Animals (the Kitab Na’t al-Hayawan) in the Ibn Bakhtishu’ Tradition. Brill, Leiden.

al-Damiri, K. (1891) Hayat al-hayawan al-kubra. Al-Matba’ah al-Khayriyah, Cairo.

Ettinghausen, R. (1950) The Unicorn. Studies in Muslim Iconography, Freer Gallery of Art Occasional Papers Vol. 1, No. 3, Washington.

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

Jayakar, A. S. G. (1908) ad-Damiri’s Hayat al-Hayawan (A Zoological Lexicon). Luzac and Co., London.

Kraus, P. (1986) Jabir Ibn Hayyan : Contribution à l’historie des idées scientifiques dans l’Islam. Société d’Édition Les Belles Lettres, Paris.

al-Qazwini, Z. (1849) Zakariya ben Muhammed ben Mahmud el-Cazwini’s Kosmographie. Erster Theil: Die Wunder der Schöpfung. Ed. F. Wüstenfeld. Dieterichsche Buchhandlung, Göttingen.

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.

Aksar

Aksar

Among the cavalcade of creatures Anthony faces in the Temptation is Aksar, described as “the python Aksar, sixty cubits long, who terrified Moses”. Thompson, drawing heavily from Flaubert, uses the basilisk of the Temptation for the appearance of Aksar, describing him as seventy cubits long, violet-colored, with a three-lobed crest and a single tooth in each jaw. He repeats Moses’ fear of Aksar, making him “the avatar of God’s red justice flaming far” and “the visible embodiment of all that is horrible, the incarnation of a desolation not merely physical, but of the soul.”

Flaubert derived Aksar from Bochart’s Hierozoicon. The original Aksar is far stranger than Flaubert leads us to believe.

Aksar is a monster of the apocalypse from Arabian legend. He is sixty cubits (almost 30 meters) long, and has the head of an ox, the eyes of a pig, the ears of an elephant, the antlers of a stag, the neck of an ostrich, the forequarters of a lion, the hindquarters of a cat, the tail of a ram, the legs of a camel, and the color of a leopard. There is no mention of any python characteristics.

God dragged Aksar out from his lair and brought him before Moses, who was greatly alarmed and requested the beast be removed from his sight. At the end of days, it is said Aksar will fly out with Moses’ staff, using it to mark people’s faces as “believers” or “unbelievers”.

There are some who say there is more than one of these creatures. Those people are hopefully mistaken.

References

Bochart, S. (1675) Hierozoicon. Johannis Davidis Zunneri, Frankfurt.

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

Seznec, J. (1943) Saint Antoine et les Monstres: Essai sur les Sources et la Signification du Fantastique de Flaubert. PMLA, Vol. 58, No. 1, pp. 195-222.

Thompson, J. W. (1921) The Lost Oracles: a Masque. W. M. Mill, Chicago.

Davalpa

Variations: Devalpa, Dawal-bay, Himantopus, Himantopode, Sciratae, Shaikh al-Bahr, Old Man of the Sea, Tasma-pair, Nasnas (erroneously)

Davalpa

“Would you be so kind as to carry me across the river?” The Davalpa, or “strap-leg”, looks up at you as he begs in a wheedling voice. It’s hard to deny the old man this one favor. He’s hunched, frail, and withered, dressed in rags which cover his entire body. It can’t hurt to help him, and you easily lift him up onto your shoulders. It is then that his legs appear – long, leathery straps that burst out of his clothes and wrap themselves around your neck. You find yourself barely able to breathe, staggering under your charge’s weight, all while the davalpa cackles and whips you, ordering you to move where he wishes. You’re his prisoner now, and will remain so until your death.

That is how davalpas catch their victims. Their legs, while 3 meters long and powerful, do not let them move around normally, and so they use unwilling humans as their mounts. Sometimes they have multiple long snakelike legs that erupt out of their belly, and a tail they use to whip their mounts. Sometimes they constrict their victims to death, a merciful fate compared to the slavery they impose.

Davalpas can be found in the Iranian deserts and on uncharted islands in the Indian Ocean, where they sit by the side of the road and wait for potential rides to show up. The most famous davalpa was the Old Man of the Sea, which Sindbad the Sailor met on his fifth voyage. The Old Man successfully enslaved Sindbad, forcing him to do his bidding, but Sindbad managed to escape the creature’s clutches by fermenting grape juice and offering it to him. After getting drunk, the Old Man’s grip loosened and he fell off; Sindbad smashed his head with a rock.

Sindbad’s adventure with the Old Man of the Sea is almost an exact copy of previous accounts. Al-Qazwini locates the davalpas on Saksar Island, which they share with the cynocephali. A sailor tells the story of how a strange person wrapped his legs around his neck and enslaved him, forcing him to pick fruits. He escaped by fermenting grapes and inebriating the davalpa; the experience left him with scars on his face.

Al-Jahiz refers to the creature as dawal-bay in Arabic. As with the Waq-waq, he believes it to be a cross between plants and animals.

Oddly enough, the davalpa is not of Persian origin. The earliest mention of davalpas is from Alexander’s Romance, where they are called the “savage Himantopodes” and share their land with Cynocephali, Blemmyes, Troglodytes, and other strange races. Himantopus means “strap foot”, and is currently in use today for the black-winged stilt, a shorebird with long slender legs. Pliny specifies that those strap-foots are incapable of walking, and get around by crawling; later he describes the snub-nosed, bandy-legged Sciratae, which seem to be one and the same.

One possibility is that the davalpa was inspired by apes, which can cling tightly and whose shorter legs might be less apparent at first glance. More intriguingly, Tornesello suggests that the various monstrous races of Hellenic myth arose from recollections of foreign soldiers during the Greco-Persian wars. The Sagartians in Xerxes’ army rode horses and used twisted leather lariats to entangle and kill enemies. The parallels with them and the davalpas include the leather-strap weapon, its use in strangling people, and the apparent incapability of walking (the Sagartians were always on horseback). Sagartioi can also be seen as the linguistic ancestor of Skiratoi.

Thus the davalpa concluded its journey. Inspired by Greek distortions of Persian warriors, it found its way back to Persia where it had lost all of its previous subtext and gained entirely new meaning. Today modern Iranian satirists and cartoonists have used the davalpa to represent greedy, parasitic institutions – especially helpful if those institutions disapprove of direct criticism.

References

Browne, E. G. (1893) A Year Amongst the Persians. Adam and Charles Black, London.

Christensen, A. (1941) Essai sur la Démonologie Iranienne. Ejnar Munksgaard, Copenhagen.

del Hoyo, J.; Elliott, A.; Sargatal, J.; Christie, D.A.; & de Juana, E. (eds.) (2013) Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

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

Marashi, M. (1994) Persian Studies in North America. Iranbooks, Bethesda.

Masse, H. (1954) Persian Beliefs and Customs. Behavior Science Translations, Human Relations Area Files, New Haven.

Al-Qazwini, Z. (1849) Zakariya ben Muhammed ben Mahmud el-Cazwini’s Kosmographie. Erster Theil: Die Wunder der Schöpfung. Ed. F. Wüstenfeld. Dieterichsche Buchhandlung, Göttingen.

Ricks, T. M. (1984) Critical Perspectives on Modern Persian Literature. Three Continents Press, Washington D. C.

Tornesello, N. L. (2002) From Reality to Legend: Historical Sources of Hellenistic and Islamic Teratology. Studia Iranica 31, p. 163-192.

Palis

Variations: Pālīs, Pa-lis, Pali (erroneously)

Palis

The Palis (“foot-licker”; rhymes with “police”) can be encountered in the deserts of Iran. There is no description given for this creature, but its appearance is presumably as vile as its habits.

A palis is a vampiric creature that preys on sleeping travelers. It locates their feet and proceeds to lick the soles, steadily draining blood away until the host dies.

Most means of thwarting a palis revolve around concealing one’s feet. The palis is thankfully rather stupid, and can be easily convinced to give and go elsewhere. The best-known method of dealing with a palis was pioneered by two muleteers from Isfahan, who went to sleep in the desert with the soles of their feet touching, blanketing themselves so that only their heads were visible. When a palis arrived, it circled for hours, searching vainly for their feet all night long. By daybreak it slunk away, lamenting its bad luck. “I have wandered through a thousand and thirty-three valleys, but I have never seen a man with two heads!”

References

Browne, E. G. (1893) A Year Amongst the Persians. Adam and Charles Black, London.

Christensen, A. (1941) Essai sur la Démonologie Iranienne. Ejnar Munksgaard, Copenhagen.

Dubois, P.; Sabatier, C.; and Sabatier, R. (2005) The Complete Encyclopedia of Elves, Goblins, and Other Little Creatures. Abbeville Press.

Masse, H. (1954) Persian Beliefs and Customs. Behavior Science Translations, Human Relations Area Files, New Haven.

Zabraq

Variations: Zabrak; Rukh (al-Marwazi); Phalmant (Bochart)

Zabraq

The Zabraq is one of the many exotic animals found in India. Bochart gave its location as the region of Dasht or Dist, the “gateway to Tartary”, and so presumably in the vicinity of Iran. It is also variously known as the Rukh and the Phalmant, although only the last term has seen use.

It is relatively modest in size, smaller than a cheetah, yellowish-red in color with flashing eyes and capable of leaping thirty to fifty cubits or more in one jump. Al-Marwazi makes it look like a camel, with two humps, tusks, and a large, membraneous tail, and adds that it is incredibly fast. Bochart, perhaps confusing its leaping distance with its size, makes it vast, prodigious, hideous, and forty cubits long, with bristling claws and teeth. Most importantly, it has highly acidic, weaponized urine and feces.

Zabraqs prey on animals up to the size of elephants, and kill them by flinging their caustic urine onto them with their tail. The tail of a zabraq can flatten and deform into a shovel shape to hold urine and dung before throwing it. The only animal zabraqs will avoid is the rhinoceros.

They are also fond of eating humans, and the only way to escape one is to climb a teak tree, which the zabraq cannot scale. Even that isn’t necessarily a safe place. When faced with treed prey, a zabraq will try to leap upwards and seize it before spouting its urine skyward, burning anything it touches like fire. However, if it cannot reach its prey through this stratagem, it turns towards the roots of the tree, roars in frustration until clots of blood erupt from its mouth, and expires.

Zabraq bile and testicles make potent poison; coated on weapons, it causes immediate death. Al-Marwazi goes further and specifies that the flesh, blood, saliva, and dung of the zabraq are all deadly.

Bochart reported this creature under the name of Phalmant and attributed it to Al-Damiri, although his account is entirely al-Mas’udi’s. Flaubert mentioned the phalmant it in his Temptation as a leopard howling so hard its belly bursts. The Dictionnaire Universel inexplicably turns it into a sea monster found on the coast of Tartary.

References

Berthelin, M. (1762) Abrégé du Dictionnaire Universel Francais et Latin, Tome III. Libraires Associés, Paris.

Bochart, S. (1675) Hierozoicon. Johannis Davidis Zunneri, Frankfurt.

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

Kruk, R. (2001) Of Rukhs and Rooks, Camels and Castles. Oriens, vol. 36, pp. 288-298.

al-Mas’udi, A. (1864) Les Prairies d’Or, t. III. Imprimerie Impériale, Paris.

Seznec, J. (1943) Saint Antoine et les Monstres: Essai sur les Sources et la Signification du Fantastique de Flaubert. PMLA, Vol. 58, No. 1, pp. 195-222.

Mi’raj

Variations: Al-Mi’raj (usually erroneously), Miraj (lacking the ‘ayn), Mirag (see previous, also Egyptian pronunciation)

Miraj

When Alexander the Great visited Jazirat al-Tinnin – the Dragon’s Island – he was immediately presented with an opportunity to play the hero. The inhabitants of this unspecified island in the Indian Ocean were terrorized by a fire-breathing dragon, which would exact a tribute of two oxen a day to be left at the opening of its lair. Ever the tactician, Alexander stuffed two ox-skins with pitch, sulfur, and other unpalatable substances, and had them dropped off for the dragon; the reptile perished soon after eating them.

Among the gifts Alexander was given for this sauroctonous feat was a Mi’raj, a creature resembling a yellow rabbit with a single black horn on its forehead. It was apparently so aggressive that wild animals would flee at the sight of it – a feature it shared with the karkadann, and which may have arisen from confusion between the two unicorns. It certainly wasn’t fierce enough to avoid being captured (alive or dead).

The exact pronunciation of the name is unclear, as with the absence of diacritics, “mi’raj” may as well be “mu’raj”. It is sometimes rendered as Al-mi’raj, literally “The mi’raj”; this is unnecessary in English, and any usage of this term preceded with “the” or “an” is redundant. Bochart (and by extension Flaubert) refers to it as “mirag”, which is correct in Egyptian Arabic but drops the difficult ‘ayn.

Al-Qazwini was the first to report the story of Alexander and the mi’raj. Al-Damiri describes the mi’raj as “great [and] marvelous”.

If there is any factual basis for the existence of the mi’raj, it may well have been a rabbit with facial tumors caused by papillomaviruses. The same has been used to explain the origin of the jackalope, a North American hybrid used to fool tourists and usually created by grafting horns on a jackrabbit skin.

References

Bochart, S. (1675) Hierozoicon. Johannis Davidis Zunneri, Frankfurt.

Al-Damiri, K. (1891) Hayat al-hayawan al-kubra. Al-Matba’ah al-Khayriyah, Cairo.

Ettinghausen, R. (1950) The Unicorn. Studies in Muslim Iconography, Freer Gallery of Art Occasional Papers Vol. 1, No. 3, Washington.

Al-Qazwini, Z. (1849) Zakariya ben Muhammed ben Mahmud el-Cazwini’s Kosmographie. Erster Theil: Die Wunder der Schöpfung. Ed. F. Wüstenfeld. Dieterichsche Buchhandlung, Göttingen.

Seznec, J. (1943) Saint Antoine et les Monstres: Essai sur les Sources et la Signification du Fantastique de Flaubert. PMLA, Vol. 58, No. 1, pp. 195-222.

Zimmer, C. (2011) A Planet of Viruses. University of Chicago Press.