Aspidochelone

Variations: Aspido-chelone, Aspidochelon, Aspidocalon, Aspidoceleon, Aspidodeleon, Aspidodelone, Aspischelone, Aspido-tortoise, Asp-tortoise, Asp-turtle, Fastitocalon, Shield-tortoise, Sea-monster, Sea-tortoise, Sea-turtle, Sulhafat, Turtle

Aspidochelone

The motif of the island-turtle or island-whale is one of the most common and pervasive of maritime yarns. Whether it is a turtle, a whale, a fish, or a crab, the story is the same. A great sea creature raises its back out of the water. Sea-sand and vegetation gather in on its rough back, until it looks like a small island. Sailors anchor their ship to the deceptive “island”, disembark, and light a fire. The monster, feeling the fire on its back, immediately dives, taking the sailors and their ship down to a watery grave.

Prototypes of the gigantic fish are in the Indian Zend-Avesta, the supposed 3rd-Century letter of Aristotle to Alexander, and the Babylonian Talmud composed around CE 257-320.

The monster in al-Jahiz’s account is a crab (saratan) – surely confusion with the similarly shelled turtle? In al-Qazwini’s entry on the turtle (sulhafat), he distinguishes between the terrestrial tortoise and the sea turtle. The sea turtle is of great size, and sailors believe it to be an island in the middle of the sea, landing on it and lighting a fire until the turtle stirs, whereupon those aboard the ship call out “Come back, for it is a turtle that felt the heat of the fire, come back that you may not go down with it!” Sindbad the Sailor encountered this creature in his first Voyage, but managed to escape with his life.

The Account repeated in the Physiologus and bestiaries such as the Exeter Book, and the monster is identified with the whale that swallowed Jonah. The original Greek versions of the bestiary talk of the Aspidochelone – a name of uncertain etymology. Chelone refers to a turtle or tortoise, but aspido has been assumed to mean “shield” or “asp” (as in, the snake). The “shield” origin may stem from the turtle’s shell, but it seems like a redundant descriptor for a turtle. Another possibility is that the turtle was originally more of a serpent, or that this is a reference to the aspidochelone’s evil.

Whatever the meaning, the name aspidochelone became corrupted over time to become the “fastitocalon”, and the turtle supplanted with the more familiar whale (although the description of a rough back sounds more like a turtle’s shell).

The Physiologus or Bestiary adds further moralizing elements to the story. The aspidochelone will exhale a pleasant odor from its mouth, attracting fish that are then swallowed. Thus the aspidochelone is an allegory for Satan. Sinners who anchor themselves to the Devil are doomed to go to Hell, and sinful pleasures are enticing as perfume.

The aspidochelone entry is preceded by the panther entry. Both use fragrant breath to attract other animals, but the aspidochelone is evil while the panther is an allegory for Christ. The juxtaposition is probably intentional. The fragrant smell of the aspidochelone may also be derived from the odorous cetacean substance known as ambergris.

Aspidochelones are minor subjects in medieval woodcarvings, visible at Kidlington, Great Grandsden, Isleham, Swaffham Bulbeck, and Norwich Cathedral. They can be distinguished by the presence of ships and cooking-pots on their back, or with their mouths open to attract fish.

References

Barber, R. (1993) Bestiary. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge.

Borges, J. L.; trans. di Giovanni, N. T. (2002) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Vintage Classics, Random House, London.

Cook, A. S. (1821) The Old English Physiologus. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Cook, A. S. (1894) The Old English ‘Whale’. Modern Language Notes, 9(3), pp. 65-68.

Curley, M. J. (1979) Physiologus. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Druce, G. C. (1914) Animals in English Wood Carving. The Third Annual Volume of the Walpole Society, pp. 57-73.

Gordon, R. K. (1957) Anglo-Saxon Poetry. J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London.

Hippeau, C. (1852) Le Bestiaire Divin de Guillaume, Clerc de Normandie. A. Hardel, Caen.

Iannello, F. (2011) Il motive dell’aspidochelone nella tradizione letteraria del Physiologus. Considerazioni esegetiche e storico-religiose. Nova Tellus 29(2), pp. 151-200.

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

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.

White, T. H. (1984) The Book of Beasts. Dover Publications, New York.

Wiener, L. (1921) Contributions toward a history of Arabico-Gothic culture, volume IV: Physiologus studies. Innes and Sons, Philadelphia.

Lukwata

Variations: Lokwata, Luquata; Balukwata (pl.)

Victoria Nyanza is home to the Lukwata. The deeds and misdeeds of this great sea-serpent are told on both sides of the lake, from Uganda to the Kavirondo (Winam) Gulf in Kenya. The lukwata is commonly lumped with the dingonek, but the lukwata’s pedigree is far older. Lukwata is also the name of a Baganda clay charm which, when hidden in the king’s house, presents theft in the village, but this seems unrelated.

The lukwata has been around from time immemorial and makes occasional appearances. It is a huge and terrifying lake demon, a serpent, a cetacean, or perhaps a giant fish. It is associated with whirlpools in the lake. Ja-Luo fishermen have tales of the lukwata attacking their canoes. The Baganda, Kavirondo, and Wasoga of the north shore of lake Nyanza used to sacrifice livestock to it. The lukwata’s disappearance coincided with the sleeping-sickness epidemic, and it was believed that the muzungu (foreigners) caused the disease by killing the lukwata, thus bringing its wrath upon the people.

W. Grant, Provincial Commissioner of Jinja, saw a lukwata swimming down the Napoleon Gulf; its head was out of the water but it was too far to make out its features. Clement Hill of the Foreign Office had a far closer encounter when a lukwata off Homa Mountain tried unsuccessfully to seize a man on the bow of Hill’s ship. He saw a lizard-like head, roundish and dark-colored, on a four-foot-long neck attached to a large, rounded mass that formed the body. Some sort of tail seemed to be trailing behind.

E. G. Wayland, head of the Geological Survey of Uganda, claimed to have heard the lukwata’s distant bellowing. He was shown pieces of lukwata bone, and was told that the lukwata fought epic battles with crocodiles. Pieces of skin lost in those struggles were used for potent amulets.

The most complete account of a lukwata’s appearance is recorded by H. Bell, who shot one on the western border of Uganda near the Semliki River and Lake Albert. The creature, which was identified as a small lukwata by a native boy, was deemed to resemble Hill’s serpent. It had a snakelike head, a neck several inches long, a tail a few inches long, and flippers like a sea turtle’s. Instead of a hard shell, the lukwata had a thick, soft, rubbery carapace. Bell believed that the lukwata – evidently an odd species of turtle – would, at the surface, give the impression of a bulky, long-necked animal.

Balukwata are not particularly smart. A Baganda folktale tells of the friendship between a lukwata and a monkey. It came to pass that the King of the balukwata took ill, and his wizard told him to eat the heart of a monkey as a cure. The King offered great rewards to any of the balukwata who would bring him the heart of a monkey. So the lukwata went to the home of his friend the monkey and hailed him. “How are you? You should come visit me, my wife and sons want to see you”. “But I cannot swim”, said the monkey. “I’ll carry you on my back”, said the lukwata, and they were off. Halfway across the lake, the lukwata, having a crisis of conscience, decided to tell the monkey the truth. “I’m really sorry, but our King is sick and needs your heart”. The monkey thought fast. “You silly thing”, he told the lukwata, “I don’t have my heart with me. I leave it behind so I can jump through the trees. Take me back and I’ll fetch my heart from the branch where I left it”. Of course, the unsuspecting lukwata swam back, and the monkey escaped to safety in the trees – but not before mocking his erstwhile friend’s intelligence.

References

Bell, H. (1948) Witches & Fishes. Edward Arnold & Co., London.

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

Cunningham, J. F. (1905) Uganda and its peoples. Hutchinson & Co., London.

Hattersley, C. W. (1900) An English Boy’s Life and Adventures in Uganda. The Religious Tract Society, London.

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.

Johnston, H. (1902) The Uganda Protectorate. Hutchinson & Co., London.

Pilkington, G. L. (1911) A Hand-book of Luganda. Richard Clay & Sons, Limited, London.