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Imaginary Zoology: Mysterious Fauna in the Reports of Ancient Travelers and Chroniclers

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A time existed when the world seemed larger and vaster, filled with mysteries, unknown places, and monstrous beings. At that time, many writers and travelers, including both merchants and mere adventurers, reported exotic places, strange people, and fabulous creatures. In those days, the world was yet to be discovered. Promises existed of gold and untold riches in distant lands, located beyond fierce seas, endless deserts, dark woods, or mystical mountains. The dream of changing one’s life and becoming wealthy was one of the main reasons for so many men being led to their death or to face the unknown in such places, only to tell us what they had found there after surviving many dangers.
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Ethnozoology
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-809913-1.00005-3 © 2018 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
53
CHAPTER
5
Imaginary Zoology: Mysterious Fauna in
the Reports of Ancient Travelers and
Chroniclers
Kleber da Silva Vieira1,2, Washington Luiz Silva Vieira2,
Rômulo Romeu Nóbrega Alves1
1Universidade Estadual da Paraíba, Campina Grande, Brazil; 2Universidade Federal da Paraíba, João
Pessoa, Brazil
INTRODUCTION
A time existed when the world seemed larger
and vaster, filled with mysteries, unknown
places, and monstrous beings. At that time,
many writers and travelers, including both mer-
chants and mere adventurers, reported exotic
places, strange people, and fabulous creatures.
In those days, the world was yet to be dis-
covered. Promises existed of gold and untold
riches in distant lands, located beyond fierce
seas, endless deserts, dark woods, or mystical
mountains. The dream of changing one’s life
and becoming wealthy was one of the main rea-
sons for so many men being led to their death
or to face the unknown in such places, only to
tell us what they had found there after surviving
many dangers.
These adventurers’ chronicles reveal a besti-
ary composed of veritable imaginary fauna in
both real and idealized places. Strange beings
were born of men’s madness and fantasy over
time and space. These creatures have always
attracted our attention, which is why areas of
human knowledge such as zoology, paleontol-
ogy, and anthropology have acquired a certain
grace and charm through their history. The
study of these monsters and beasts even came
to inspire the creation of a parallel and entirely
new branch of study, popularly known as
cryptozoology.
Cryptozoology is often defined as “the study of
animal species whose existence is not supported
by empirical evidence, but rather hypothesized via
indirect and uncertain information, including oral
traditions, eyewitness accounts, and inconclusive
physical evidence” (Rossi, 2016). Cryptozoologists
consider any figure from folklore to be a “cryptid”
(from the Greek
κρύπτω
, krypto, meaning “hide”) or
“hidden animal.” A cryptid is therefore a creature
that arises from human observation or imagina-
tion and thus represents an ethnozoological entity.
5. IMAGINARY ZOOLOGY
54
Naturally, these mysterious beings are of interest
to ethnozoology too, although in these cases, we
take a more ethnozoological than mythological
perspective.
Based on this historical legacy of accounts
and chronicles, two types of geographic narra-
tives can be identified: one legendary, the other
modern. A clear line between them is difficult
to distinguish, but some authors agree that the
reports left by Venetian merchants Nicola Mafeo
and Marco Polo of their travels in the 13th cen-
tury clearly differ from those of older times
(Hyde, 1982), as is quite clear to anyone who has
ventured to read the Book of Wonders.
What is curious about these narratives,
whether they be ancient, medieval, or modern, is
the length to which the copyists went to assem-
ble reports about certain places, their geography,
people, local fauna, and flora in order to make
them known, either out of strictly academic
interest or merely to establish trade relations
through the opening of new trade routes.
Reading some of these fabulous descriptions
takes us back to an almost immemorial age, both
extraordinary and fascinating, but also makes
it clear how misleading and unbelievable lists
of fauna based solely on second-hand or even
third-hand accounts can be, especially due to the
lack of precision in the accounts or to the desire
of the storytellers and calligraphers to embel-
lish the creatures of a given place to render them
more fantastical or remarkable. Out of the inten-
tional or accidental distortions of these ancient
“naturalist geographers,” so to speak, we seek
to produce a small sample of a fabulous fauna,
always respecting the original text’s message, to
compose what we term an imaginary zoology,
both to honor the memory of these intrepid and
creative adventurers or copyists and to recall
the infancy of what in the future would become
geography and zoology.
A GARDEN IN THE ORIENT
Although the records are not at all specific,
we can induce that the fauna were varied and
perhaps even picturesque in what is known in
the Judeo-Christian tradition as Eden (edinu
in Akkadian, edin in Sumerian, or Kden of
Hebrew), a word meaning pleasure or delight
(Wikicristiano, 2016).
Eden is the mythological name of the volcanic
plateau bordered by the rivers Tigris,1 Euphrates,
Pisom, and Gihon, where Yahweh planted a gar-
den to the east (Autores et al., 1990). According to
the tradition, the Book of Genesis tells the story of
“Moses,” about the origins of the world, of man,
and of living beings. The place was, in theory,
located in the valleys of modern-day Iraq and
environs, which used to be called Mesopotamia2
(Hamblin, 1987). According to Genesis 1:20–24,
animals were abundant in the garden of Eden:
And God said: Let the waters bring forth abun-
dantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl
that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of
heaven. And God created great whales, and every liv-
ing creature that moveth, which the waters brought
forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged
fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful and mul-
tiply, and let fowl multiply in the earth. And the eve-
ning and the morning were the fifth day. And God
said: Let the Earth bring forth the living creature after
his kind, cattle, and creeping thing and beast of the
earth after his kind; and it was so.
According to the biblical account, the gar-
den located east of Eden was filled with aquatic
reptiles; various flying birds; cattle; terrestrial
beasts; and also whales–apparently swimming
in the Persian Gulf–as well as, of course, the
human species itself. Medieval representations
of this garden (Figs. 5.1 and 5.2), such as those
painted by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450–1516)
2 From ancient Greek
Μεσοποταμία
; composed of
μέσοσ
, “middle,” and
ποταμόσ
, “river,” i.e., “[land] between rivers.”
1 Heb. jiddeqel, or Tigra in ancient Persian and gr. Tigris: fast Tigris; heb. Perâth; pers. Ufr tu; gr. Eufráts: large; heb.
Pîshôn: flowing and heb. Gîjôn: surging.
A GARDEN IN THE ORIENT 55
and Lucas Cranach (1472–1553), depicted highly
unusual creatures like the unicorn and other
very strange or even deformed creatures consti-
tuting the fauna of this mythical place.
Beyond Eden, mysterious wilderness crea-
tures, such as the Djinn, lemurs, and giants,
appear in Semitic mythology, as well as in Islamic,
Arabic, and Persian mythology (Adam, 1881;
El Hayek, 2006). According to legend, these beings
could have inhabited the Land of Nod, to the east
of Eden (Gn. 4:16), as well as the Kāf Mountains,
places where strange beings had lived for millen-
nia, long before the birth of Adam (Sayce, 1888).
According to ancient Muslim tradition, the
Kāf Mountains (from the Persian qaafkuh
or the Arabic jabal qaf), were the most dis-
tant points on Earth and home to the Simurgh
(Figs. 5.3 and 5.4) and Roc (de Vasconcellos,
2008; Muhawi and Kanaana, 1989), huge winged
creatures often related to the eagle, oddly similar
to the Phoenix (Ethiopia), Garuda (India), Peng
(China), and thunderbirds (North America).
The Roc birds () when there appeared in the air,
at a considerable distance from us, two great clouds.
() each of them carried between their talons, stones,
or rather rocks, of a monstrous size. When they came
directly over my ship, they hovered, and one of them
let fail a stone () threw the stone so exactly upon the
middle of the ship, that it split in a thousand pieces.
The mariners and passengers were all killed by the
stone, or sunk. Fifth Voyage of Sinbad, the Sailor.
FIGURE 5.1 Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus
Bosch (c. 1450–1516). The country scene portrayed by the
Dutch artist shows various strange and even deformed or
hybrid animals. Prado Museum, Madrid.
FIGURE 5.2 Eden in the eyes of German artist Lucas
Cranach (1472–1553). Although many familiar animals
are depicted, the scene also includes other very odd ones.
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (1908 A).
FIGURE 5.3 Heraldry of Simurgh, Simorgh, Senmurv, a
winged hybrid beast of Persian mythology, described as large
enough to carry an elephant or a whale in its lion’s claws.
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5. IMAGINARY ZOOLOGY
56
The Kāf Mountains seem to correspond to the
mountain range located in the far north of the
Caucasus, northeast of Turkey and northwest of
Iran, including the mythical Mt. Alborz (Hara
Berezaiti?), which, coincidentally, may be the
same place where Prometheus was chained and
subjected to an eagle (Ethon) feeding on his liver
every day until finally being freed by Heracles
(Abrão et al., 2000).
SOMETHING MORE IN SONG OF
THE MUSES
Myths suggest the existence of many other
places beyond paradisiacal Eden, including
far more dangerous places filled with equally
terrible beasts. In ancient times, to oppose
such creatures was not merely a heroic deed
but a necessity, as they represented true pub-
lic disasters. The Labours of Heracles (Fig. 5.5),
or Hercle in Etrusca (Gual, 2003), for example,
suggests the presence of fabulous animals that
inhabited the Peloponnese, in particular, com-
ing into serious conflict with the local popula-
tion. A certain dose of exaggeration aside, the
existence of this creature seems quite believ-
able as an ancient Hellenic fauna, which prob-
ably existed between approximately 1200 and
700 BC, as once noted by the Austrian writer
Norman Douglas (1928).
The mythological accounts of the deeds of
Heracles depict, for example, the presence of
lions in Argolis (Nemea), boars and deer in
Arcadia (Erymanthus and Ceryneia) and strange
birds of prey in Lake Stymphalia (Arcadia).
Other tales tell of bulls and wild goats in Crete
(Minus, Aix, and Amalteia); great mountain pigs
in Aetolia (Meleager); bears in Arcadia (Callisto);
and strange giant snakes dwelling in caves and
mountains in Cilicia, the Peloponnese or Syria
(Echidna), Mount Parnassus (Python), or even
in Delphi and Libya (Lamia).
One creature that was rather notorious in
Greek culture, as well as in some other mytholo-
gies, with an apparently wide territorial dis-
tribution, is the griffin (Fig. 5.6) or the uccello
grifone (griffin bird) according to Marco Polo
FIGURE 5.4 A Simurgh in the form of a phoenix in a dec-
orative motif on the exterior of the madrassa Nadir Divan-
Beghi Uzbekztão, Bukhara.
FIGURE 5.5 Hercules facing the Nemean lion, statue in
marble. Rome, 2nd century. The State Hermitage Museum,
Saint Petersburg. Photo: S. Sosnovskiy.
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SOMETHING MORE IN SONG OF THE MUSES 57
(1985), the Venetian merchant who ended up
confusing it with the Roc bird while in the area
of Madeigastar (Madagascar).
() in those other Islands (), which the ships are
unable to visit because this strong current prevents
their return, is found the bird Gryphon, which appears
there at certain seasons. The description given of it is
however entirely different from what our stories and
pictures make it. For persons who had been there and
had seen it told Messer Marco Polo that it was for all
the world like an eagle, but one indeed of enormous
size; so big in fact that its wings covered an extent of
30 paces, and its quills were 12 paces long, and thick
in proportion. And it is so strong that it will seize an
elephant in its talons and carry him high into the air,
and drop him so that he is smashed to pieces; having
so killed him the bird gryphon swoops down on him
and eats him at leisure. Marco Polo, The Book of India,
Part XXIII, 192.
Obviously, the griffin described by Marco
Polo bears a greater resemblance to the birds
of the Kāf Mountains, perhaps even to Haast’s
eagle (Harpagornis moorei), than to the actual grif-
fin of Greco-Roman mythology (Jonston, 1808).
Although it has been associated with fossils of
Protoceratops andrewsi (Mayor, 2000), the griffin
was formerly seen as a type of bird sacred to the
god Apollo, originally inhabiting areas slightly
south of Hyperborea (whose people had a close
relationship with the gods), a region located
somewhere in the northern extremities of the
Earth (Heródoto, 2006), rather than in the far
south as reported by Marco Polo.
Caüstrobius () visited the Issedones; beyond
these (he said) live the one-eyed Arimaspians, beyond
whom are the griffins that guard gold, and beyond
these again the Hyperboreans, whose territory
reaches to the sea. Herodotus, Book IV, XIII, XXVII.
According to Mandeville (1900), the animal
was abundant in regions of Bacharia (Bactria),
today in Afghanistan, where it cohabited with
weird hippotaynes (hippopotami).
In that country (Bacharia) be many hippotaynes
that dwell sometime in the water and sometime on
the land. And they be half man and half horse ().
And they eat men when they may take them. And
there be rivers of waters that be full bitter, three sithes
more than is the water of the sea. In that country be
many griffins, more plenty than in any other coun-
try. Some men say that they have the body upward
as an eagle and beneath as a lion; and truly they say
sooth, that they be of that shape. But one griffin hath
the body more great and is more strong than eight
lions, of such lions as be on this half, and more great
and stronger than an hundred eagles such as we have
amongst us. For one griffin there will bear, flying to
his nest, a great horse, if he may find him at the point,
or two oxen yoked together as they go at the plough.
For he hath his talons so long and so large and great
upon his feet, as though they were horns of great
oxen or of bugles or of kine, so that men make cups
of them to drink of. And of their ribs and of the pens
of their wings, men make bows, full strong, to shoot
with arrows and quarrels. Sr. John Mandeville, Cap.
XXIX, 177.
Descriptions of hybrid animals, such as
Mandeville’s account of hippotaynes, are always
very curious and also raise similarly interest-
ing questions about creatures of this nature:
If the hippotaynes were seen as half man and
half horse, then to what do accounts of griffins,
striges, lemures, and sphynxes actually refer?
Human faces, especially female faces, seen in
certain animals, may in fact suggest the image of
faces with almond-shaped, disproportionately
FIGURE 5.6 Fresco depicting a griffin. Royal Throne
Room, Palace of Knossos, Bronze Age, Crete.
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5. IMAGINARY ZOOLOGY
58
large eyes with elongated outer corners and eye-
brows (similar to Egyptian eye makeup) on a
fairly flat forehead. This bears many similarities
to owls, for example, or even many monkeys
and medium-sized or large wild cats, whose
manes may have been mistaken for long locks
hanging from their delicate heads in the eyes of
a very creative or very near-sighted observer.
In light of this, in many regions of ancient
Rome, reports exist of a flying beast that preyed
on children; the beast was similar to an owl but
had the head of a woman (Figs. 5.7 and 5.8) and
was known as a strige (Latin Strix; gr. Strígks,
ggós). Similar to Greek harpies and sometimes
associated with the Jewish mythological figure
Lilith or even the Sumerian Inanna (Hurwitz,
2009), the striges were said to have long beaks
and sharp talons that were used to suck the blood
and tear the flesh of their victims, children in cra-
dles (Abrão et al., 2000). Many accounts depicted
them as having bat wings or four legs and inhab-
iting ruins and abandoned places where they
would rest for 3 days after feeding.
The unicorn is another creature that seems
to enjoy wide popularity (Fig. 5.9). Although
represented in the paradisiacal gardens of
Mesopotamia, the unicorn is known through
mythical accounts since 400 BC. The Greek
author Ctesias reported such an animal inhab-
iting the kingdoms of Hindustan (India). His
account is considered the first Western descrip-
tion of this fabulous creature (Llewellyn-Jones
and Robson, 2010).
The Indians have wild asses the body is white
in colour, the head purple, the eyes dark blue. On the
forehead they have a horn, one cubit long, the lower
part of which is pure white, while the uppermost
part, which is pointed, is dark purple, and the middle
is black. Indica 48b, p. 33.
His typical depiction, popularized in the
Middle Ages, is of a small horse with the hind
legs of an antelope, the beard of a goat and a
long spiral horn on his forehead (O’Connell
FIGURE 5.7 Winged creature with a female face carrying
off a small child. Bas-relief of Xanthus, Lycia.
FIGURE 5.8 Harpy according to Jonston’s Theathrum
Universale (1808), Tab. 62.
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SOMETHING MORE IN SONG OF THE MUSES 59
and Airey, 2009). In his Natural History, Pliny
describes it in a somewhat nontraditional way:
There are in India oxen also with solid hoofs and a
single horn and a wild beast called the axis, which has
a skin like that of a fawn, but with numerous spots on
it, and whiter; this animal is looked upon as sacred
to Bacchus. The Orsasan Indians hunt down a kind
of ape, which has the body white all over; as well as
a very fierce animal called the monoceros, which has
the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the
tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that
of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has
a single black horn, which projects from the middle
of its forehead, two cubits in length. This animal, it
is said, cannot be taken alive. Pliny the Elder, Livro
III, Cap. 31.
In popular belief, healing power was attrib-
uted to the powder of the unicorn’s horn and
heart, which is why its figure is shown in some
insignia related to pharmacies (de Rosa, 2009;
Jackson, 2004).
In many ancient and medieval texts, the uni-
corn is described as a specific, though unique,
animal, but in his Anthologie raisonnée de la lit-
terature chinoise, Margoulès (1948) provides a
vague description of this creature according to a
19th-century writer:
() even children and village women know that
the unicorn constitutes a favorable presage. But this
animal does not figure among the domestic beasts, it
is not always easy to find, it does not lend itself to clas-
sification. It is not like the horse or the bull, the wolf or
the deer. In such conditions, we could be face to face
with a unicorn and not know for certain what it was.
We know that such and such an animal with horns is
a bull. But we do not know what the unicorn is like.
As with other fabulous creatures, descrip-
tions of the unicorn almost always differ from
each other, which is curious. If rather than attrib-
uting these features to the daydreams of their
narrators, we take differences in descriptions as
morphological variations, we could assume the
existence of at least three different varieties (spe-
cies) of unicorns in antiquity, with distribution
from continental Europe to the eastern regions
of Asia. This distribution and these descriptions
lead some to assert that the unicorn may have
been a real animal, the result of confusing local
reports of the Rhinoceros unicornis or even the
Oryx leucoryx (Davies, 2015; Jackson, 2004).
In northernmost lands, a variant existed of the
unicorn that was called a k’i-lin, which according
to legend, may have inhabited the regions of Tibet,
China, and Mongolia (Fig. 5.10). Apparently, the
FIGURE 5.9 Maiden with unicorn. Tapestry, 15th cen-
tury. Cluny Museum, Paris.
FIGURE 5.10 The k’i-lin visits Yan Zheng Zai,
Confucius’s mother and first teacher, shortly before the
future philosopher’s conception.
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5. IMAGINARY ZOOLOGY
60
k’i-lin is not much different from a common uni-
corn except for a few peculiar characteristics, in
particular, the nature of its horn and the scales that
cover a good part of its body (Borges, 2007):
The k’i-lin has the body of a deer, the tail of an ox,
and the hooves of a horse. Its short horn, which grows
out of its forehead, is made of flesh; its coat, on its
back, is of five mixed colors, while its belly is brown
or yellow. It is so gentle that when it walks it is careful
not to tread on the tiniest living creature and will not
even eat live grass but only what is dead.
() the spirits of the five planets brought her an
animal with the shape of a cow, scales of a dragon,
and a horn on its forehead. The Birth of Confucius.
Travelers to the Orient have always
described it as a place remarkable for its strik-
ing beauty, the oddness of its peoples, and the
existence of equally exotic creatures. According
to the Hellenistic ethnographer and explorer
Megasthenes (McCrindle, 1877), in his work
Indika, in addition to describing unicorns,
tapirs, monkeys, tigers, and elephants stron-
ger than those of Libya, also described a type
of strange winged scorpion, a flying snake, and
the satyr that could be found there (Ashton,
1890).
There are winged scorpions in India of enormous
size, which sting Europeans and natives alike. There
are also serpents which are likewise winged. These do
not go abroad during the day, but by night, when they
let fall urine, which if it lights upon any one’s skin at
once raises putrid sores thereon. Fragm. XIV. Ælian,
Hist. Anim. XVI.41. Aelianus (1832)
Among the mountainous districts of the eastern
parts of India, in what is called the country of the
Catharcludi, we find the Satyr, an animal of extraordi-
nary swiftness. They go sometimes on four feet, and
sometimes walk erect; they have, also, the features of
a human being. On account of their swiftness, these
creatures are never to be caught, except when they are
aged, or sickly () the Satyr stow away food in the
pouches of their cheeks, after which they will take out
piece by piece in their hands, and eat it. John Ashton
(1890, p. 53)
Indian satyrs, like their African,
Mediterranean, or Polynesians counterparts,
were a sort of savage men whose descriptions
varied according to the region where they
were sighted, the witnesses or the chroniclers.
Although descriptions vary, males and females
of all “species” were frequently described as
being covered with hair (Figs. 5.11 and 5.12).
Topsell (1658) draws a direct relation between
Indian satyrs and those of classic Greco-Roman
mythology, giving the impression of some type
of hostile and aggressive wild creature:
The Satyrcs are in the Islands Satiridae, which
are three in number, right over against India on the
farther side of the Ganges; of which Euphemus Car
rehearseth this history: that when he sailed unto Italy,
by the rage of winde and evill weather, they were
FIGURE 5.11 Edward Topsell’s satyr, The History of Four-
footed Beasts (1658, p. 8).
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THE GIFTS OF THE NILE 61
driven to a coast unnavigable, where were many
desart Islandes, inhabited of wild men, and the mar-
riners refused to land upon some Islands, having
heretofore had triall of the inhumaine and uncivill
behaviour of the inhabitants, so that they brought
us to the Satyrian Islands, where we saw the inhab-
itants red, and had tayles joyned to their backs, not
much lesse than horsses. These, being perceived by
the marriners to run to the shippes, and lay hold on
the women that were in them, the shipmen, for fearc,
took one of the Barbarian women, and set her on the
land among them, whom in most odious and filthy
manner, they abused, whereby they found them to be
very bruit beasts.
In later texts, it becomes evident that these
wild men, the satyrs, actually have a strange
relation with certain types of monkeys:
Under the Equinoctiall toward the East and
South, there is a kind of ape called Aegopithecus,
an Ape like a goate. For there are apes like
beares, called Arctopitheci, and some like lyons,
called Leontopitheci, and some like dogs, called
Cynocephali.
Amongst the rest there is a beast called Pan; who
in his head, face, horns, legs, and from the loynes
downward resembleth a goat, but in his belly, breast,
and armes, an ape: such a one was sent by the King
of Indians to Constantine, which, being shut up in a
cave or close place, by reason of the wildnesse thereof,
lived there but a season, and when it was dead and
bowelled, they pouldred it with spices, and carried it
to be scene at Constantinople: the which beast having
beene scene of the ancient Grecians, were so amazed
at the strangenesse thereof, that they received it for
a god, as they did a Satyre, and other strange beasts.
The curious relation drawn by Topsell
between wild men, such as satyrs, and cer-
tain varieties of monkeys is also noted by John
Ashton, who graciously concedes the detail of
the former’s notes and descriptions.
THE GIFTS OF THE NILE
When one advances up the Nile to the east,
traveling through the Empire of Axum, inhab-
ited by the heirs of Solomon and the Queen of
Sheba, and passing through the realm of Cuche,
inhabited by the sons of Khan or the men with
burnt faces, strange people can be seen who have
animal heads, in this case, the head of a dog.
They state also that the island of Gagaudes lies at
an equal distance from Syene and Meroe, and that it
is at this place that the bird called the parrot was first
seen; while at another island called Articula, the ani-
mal known as the sphingium was first discovered by
them, and after passing Tergedus, the cynocephalus.
Pliny the Elder, Book VI, Cap. 35.
Some notes in Pliny’s Natural History refer to
the Cynocephali as being in truth baboons (Papio
cynocephalus), while the sphyngium (sphynga)
were small monkeys favored as pets by Roman
FIGURE 5.12 The classic Greco-Roman satyr as shown
by John Ashton (1890, p. 55).
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5. IMAGINARY ZOOLOGY
62
ladies (Fig. 5.13), who paid high prices for them
in the market (Ashton, 1890; Pliny, 1855). These
animals were thus very similar to the Asian
cynomolgus monkey (Macaca fascicularis) and
were described at different times as having
human or canine faces and were sometimes
confused with the Saudi bird of the same name,
which builds its nest from branches of the cin-
namon tree (Pliny, 1855; Solinus, 1895).
It is clear that the Cynocephali (Fig. 5.14) and
Pliny’s sphynx were creatures with “human
or canine heads” and were, despite their simi-
larities, distinct from the figure of the Kalystrii
described by Ctesias and Megastenes in India
(Migne, 1859):
() although they have canine features and speak
no language, they communicate very well among
themselves, fully understand the languages of other
Indians and interact with them through gestures.
They have laws, survive by hunting and have never
worked at anything else. They bake the specimens
they catch under the sun, drink goat milk and include
fruit in their diet, especially some sweet fruit that they
dry and store in baskets together with some purple
flowers that they then sell every year to Indians or ()
offer to the king in exchange for flour, bread, cotton,
swords, bows and arrows that they use to hunt. They
live in rugged mountains () and in caves. Women
bathe only once a month, after their period. The men
never bathe and wash only their hands. However,
three times a year they anoint their bodies with an
oil extracted from milk. They wear garments made of
skin, identical for both sexes and the richer ones (who
are few in number) wear linen garments. All of them
sleep on leaves. The one with the most camels is con-
sidered the richest, but the majority of their property
is divided communally. Men and women have a tail,
like dogs, but longer and furrier. They have sexual
relations from behind like dogs, and it is considered
dishonourable to do it differently. They are pleasant,
love justice and live long lives, sometimes as long as
two hundred years. Migne, Patrologiae Graeca 103,
col. 222s (text adapted).
These dog-headed creatures are in no way
similar to the Hundigar of Germanic medieval
legend, nor even to Hesiod’s Hemican, and thus
FIGURE 5.13 The sphyngium was a simian that could
appear at times to have a rounded face and a bust similar to
a woman. Illustration presented by John Ashton (1890, p. 62).
FIGURE 5.14 Depiction of Cynocephali in a psalter,
Kiev, 1397.
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THE GIFTS OF THE NILE 63
should not be confused with them, although
they are referred to as Cynocephali in various
texts and reports (Anônimo, séc. XIII, 2009;
Baring-Gould, 2008; Tolkien, 2009):
() Then Sigmund rushed at him so hard that
he staggered, and Sigmund bit him in the throat.
Now that day they might not come out of their
wolf-skins: but Sigmund lays the other on his back,
and bears him home to the house, and cursed the
wolf-gears and gave them to the trolls. Völsunga
Saga, Ch. 8.
() but the land west of this (Triton River), where
the farmers live, is exceedingly mountainous and
wooded and full of wild beasts. In that country are
the huge snakes and the lions, and the elephants and
bears and asps, the horned asses, the dog-headed and
the headless men that have their eyes in their chests,
as the Libyans say, and the wild men and women,
besides many other creatures not fabulous. Herodotus,
Book IV, CXCI.
Ancient citations exist for many creatures
with canine heads in classical texts found
well beyond the area of Egypt, for example, in
Serbia, the mythical island of Nacumera (in the
Atlantic Ocean), Burgundy, Arcadia, Iceland,
and Norway. In most cases, the descriptions can
be attributed to birth defects (Eberly, 1988), folk-
lore, and misidentification of certain animals,
rather than to true primate species, as in the
example of Pliny.
Deep within Ethiopia, in the lands from which
the Nile originates another, more terrible animal
exists, whose gaze is able to kill any person who
looks directly at it (Fig. 5.15):
Among the Hesperian Aethiopians is the foun-
tain of Nigris, by many, supposed to be the head of
the Nile. I have already mentioned the arguments
by which this opinion is supported. Near this foun-
tain, there is found a wild beast, which is called the
catoblepas3; an animal of moderate size, and in other
respects sluggish in the movement of the rest of its
limbs; its head is remarkably heavy, and it only car-
ries it with the greatest difficulty, being always bent
down towards the earth. Were it not for this circum-
stance, it would prove the destruction of the human
race; for all who behold its eyes, fall dead upon the
spot. Pliny the Elder, Book VIII, Cap. 32.
Pliny’s description of the Catoblepas can be
augmented by additional features, such as those
described by Flaubert (1904):
The Catoblepas appears, a black buffalo, with a
pig’s head hanging to the earth, and connected with
his shoulders by a slender neck, long and flabby as
an empty gut. He is wallowing on the ground; and
his feet disappear under the enormous mane of hard
hairs that descend over his face. Gustave Flaubert,
The Temptation of Saint Antony, p. 151.
Because of its peculiar appearance, except for
the fantastical powers attributed to it by classic
texts, Cuvier believed the Catoblepas was actu-
ally a species of wild African bovine–the gnu
(Connochaetes gnou)—mixed with the image of
the Basilisk (Borges, 2007). More detailed infor-
mation about the Catoblepas can be found in the
writings of Aelianus (1832) in his book Animals.
In the mysterious and distant lands beyond
the sources of the Nile, where the mountains
faded into an almost infinite indigo horizon,
peoples ceased to be human and became bestial
and savage, and animals even more dangerous
FIGURE 5.15 Catoblepas, Der Naturen Bloeme manu-
script, 1350. National Library of the Netherlands.
3 From the ancient Greek , “to look downwards.”
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5. IMAGINARY ZOOLOGY
64
than the Catoblepas were seen and described
by adventurous chroniclers who risked crossing
the plains in the heart of the black continent. In
these regions of the fantastic Ethiopia, an animal
known to the locals as Crocota or Leucrocota (Fig.
5.16) lived; this animal was much better known to
the Persians as the Manticore (Topsell, 1658).
By the union of the hyaena with the Aethiopian
lioness, the corocotta is produced, which has the same
faculty of imitating the voices of men and cattle. Its
gaze is always fixed and immoveable; it has no gums
in either of its jaws, and the teeth are one continuous
piece of bone; they are enclosed in a sort of box as it
were, that they may not be blunted by rubbing against
each other. Juba informs us, that the mantichora of
Aethiopia can also imitate the human speech. Pliny
the Elder, Book VIII, Cap. 45.
The corocotta, an animal which looks as though
it had been produced by the union of the wolf and
the dog, for it can break any thing with its teeth, and
instantly on swallowing it digest it with the stomach;
() The leucrocotta, a wild beast of extraordinary
swiftness, the size of the wild ass, with the legs of a
stag, the neck, tail, and breast of a lion, the head of
a badger, a cloven hoof, the mouth slit up as far as
the ears, and one continuous bone instead of teeth;
it is said, too, that this animal can imitate the human
voice. Pliny the Elder, Book VIII, Cap. 30.
The region known as Ethiopia, while beauti-
fully fantastic and fabulous in mythical descrip-
tions, lacks historical precision (Dworacki,
2009). For the Mediterranean peoples of the
4th century BC, Ethiopia ( ) could be any
country inhabited by black people along the
east bank of the Nile (Snowden, 1948) or even a
specific place associated with a hero of a similar
name with ties to the peculiar island of Lesbos in
the Aegean Sea (Safo, 2011).
In this exotic region of Ethiopia, strange
hybrid animals similar to the Manticore were
first seen but were never found. Among these
animals were the strange Sphinx and the deadly
Basilisk, which resembled the Catoblepas.
Several varieties of Sphinxes were said to
be distributed throughout the Mediterranean
(Thebes), Mesopotamia (Assyria), and the
“north–central and northeast” of Africa
(Ethiopia). The Greek Sphinx (Fig. 5.17), best
known for having been killed by Oedipus
(Sófocles, 1990), had the head and breasts of a
FIGURE 5.16 Manticore according to Edward Topsell’s
The History of Four-footed Beasts (1658).
FIGURE 5.17 Oedipus and the Sphinx by Gustave Moreau,
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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THE GIFTS OF THE NILE 65
4 An ancient Greek colony in modern Libya. This colony is said to have been founded by Apollo in tribute to Cyrene,
daughter of Hypseus, kidnapped by the god because of the young girl’s magnificent beauty.
woman, the wings of a bird, and the feet and
body of a lion. Some even claim it had the tail
of a snake and the body of a dog. The African
or Egyptian Sphinx, however, also called the
Androsphynx by Herodotus, was a lion with
the head of a man, very similar to the Middle
Eastern version.
Aethiopia produces the lynx in abundance, and
the sphinx which has brown hair and two mammae
on the breast, as well as many monstrous kinds of a
similar nature; horses with wings, and armed with
horns, which are called pegasi () There are oxen,
too, like those of India, some with one horn, and oth-
ers with three. Pliny the Elder, Book VIII, Cap. 30.
Like other hybrid beasts of antiquity, Sphinxes
could be the result of confusing real animals,
especially some medium-sized and large mon-
keys or felines found throughout the ancient
territories of Africa, Europe, and Asia. This pos-
sibility can be perceived in some relief images in
which the Sphinx has no wings and more closely
resembles a stately lion, although with a human
head.
While Perseus was carrying the head of the
deadly Gorgon in his hand, the blood of the
monster generated other monsters equally ter-
rible as the blood fell to the ground and, thus,
were born all the snakes of Libya: the asp,
the amphisbaena, and the ammodytes were
among them (Lucan, 1820). Luckily, this fact
was noticed by the young hero before he was
dazzled by the beauty of Andromeda, who was
chained to a rock in the land of Ethiopia with
the waves bathing her beautiful feet (Vernant,
2008). This mythological explanation for the
origin of the snakes of the Old World may also
be the origin of many dragons and other fierce
beasts that managed to survive into postdilu-
vian times. This beautiful and lyrical origin did
not go unnoticed by the ancient scholars, which
is worth noting.
In addition to common snakes and to the
Chrysaor and Pegasus, yet another creature gen-
erated by the blood of Medusa was the Basilisk
(Fig. 5.18), whose power to kill with a glance
may have been inherited from its mother. The
Basilisk is so named because it was considered
the king of snakes (“little king”) and it was
described as a snake, albeit a fabulous one, by
Pliny:
There is the same power (as the catoblepas) also
in the serpent called the basilisk. It is produced in
the province of Gyrene,4 being not more than twelve
fingers in length. It has a white spot on the head,
strongly resembling a sort of a diadem. When it
hisses, all the other serpents fly from it: and it does
not advance its body, like the others, by a succession
of folds, but moves along upright and erect upon
the middle. It destroys all shrubs, not only by its
contact, but those even that it has breathed upon; it
burns up all the grass too, and breaks the stones, so
tremendous is its noxious influence. It was formerly
a general belief that if a man on horseback killed one
of these animals with a spear, the poison would run
up the weapon and kill, not only the rider, but the
horse as well. To this dreadful monster the effluvium
of the weasel is fatal, a thing that has been tried with
FIGURE 5.18 Medieval conception of the basilisk in its
form as a rooster published by Johann Heiden for a German
version of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis and illustrated by Jost
Amman (1584).
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5. IMAGINARY ZOOLOGY
66
success, for kings have often desired to see its body
when killed; so true is it that it has pleased Nature
that there should be nothing without its antidote. The
animal is thrown into the hole of the basilisk, which
is easily known from the soil around it being infected.
The weasel destroys the basilisk by its odour, but dies
itself in this struggle of nature against its own self.
Pliny the Elder, Book VIII, Cap. 33.
The image described by Pliny underwent
profound changes over time, and by the Middle
Ages, the Basilisk had gradually lost its tradi-
tional form and more closely resembled a four-
legged rooster or even an eight-legged scaly
beast (Aldrovandi, 1640).
Many Christian encyclopedists sought ratio-
nal explanations for the origin of the Basilisk
and completely rejected the ideas contained
in the Pharsalia. These scholars were unable to
discard their belief in this creature, as the Latin
Vulgate tied it closely to the Tsepha (venom-
ous reptile), so they suggested the basilisk must
have been born from a deformed or counterfeit
egg laid by a rooster and hatched by a frog or a
snake (Borges, 2007).
The Basilisk was considered a very danger-
ous animal, mainly because everything around
it was laid waste, died or rotted, and the rivers
from which it drank were poisoned for centu-
ries. Therefore, travelers were advised to carry
a rooster with them, or at least a mirror, when
passing through unknown lands because the
basilisk was known to detest its own reflected
image and the sound of a cock’s crow; these
beliefs later melded to yield the terms (or new
animals) basilicock, cockatrice, and cocodrille
(Sánchez, 1978).
Leaving aside exaggerations and eccentrici-
ties, Pliny may, in fact, have been referring to
some type of African snake of the genus Naja
when he described the Basilisk. Some species of
mongoose are known to fight some varieties of
snakes. Furthermore, references in the Roman
naturalist’s text indicate the use and applica-
tion of musk from certain mammal species as an
effective way to repel or even kill snakes, and
especially Basilisks, a word that seems to be
used as a collective term referring to any ven-
omous serpent rather than to a specific animal.
A WORLD OF IMAGINATION AND
FANTASY
When we think of pioneering conquerors, we
generally imagine them as intrepid men, brave
and thirsting for adventure, and this is certainly
the romanticized portrayal produced by the
popular Western imagination for the purpose of
transforming their past ghosts into bold heroes.
This portrayal is as mythical and fabulous as
the very monsters and adventures depicted
in the oldest tales, behaviour that can perhaps
only be explained by the analytical psychology
of Jungian or Freudian psychoanalysis. Seen
thus, this portrayal could be one more partially
frustrated attempt to confront the terrors of the
unconscious (Salles, 1998).
This portrayal of fearless characters does not
fit, for example, with the terror that was culti-
vated with regard to the equatorial regions or
the ends of the earth, where it was believed that
damnation lay, where one might be consumed
by flames or tumble into a vast and deep abyss.
This same fear could at times only be overcome
by the feeling of hope or greed that sought
enrichment and a drastic change in life’s oppres-
sive and miserable conditions (Loyn, 1997).
Therefore, many explorers threw themselves
into danger, motivated not by a taste for adven-
ture or courage but by dreams of enrichment or
the simple human desire for a brighter future for
themselves or their families, whether through
commerce or less noble means.
In many cases, then, the chronicles—whether
classical, medieval, or contemporary—were nar-
rated and written by men guided by the fantas-
tical, feeding their hyperbolic distortions with
improbable facts, creating beings and things
so out of proportion that only in the wildest
of dreams could such absurdities make sense
A WORLD OF IMAGINATION AND FANTASY 67
(Waugh, 2010). This is how apes turn into hairy
wild men, serpents become famished and are
seen as terribly poisonous dragons, humans
take on canine visages, real animals become
bloodthirsty creatures, and deformities are inter-
preted as divine punishments or sorcerers’ and
witches’ spells; these tales were not limited to
ignorant people, for learned men were the prin-
cipal consumers and transmitters of fabulous
tales, and they gave these compendia of beasts
their “rational” explanations (Del Priore, 2000;
Sánchez, 1978).
The bestiaries—for they were not yet called
zoological treati—sesillustrate the outcome of
many of these expeditions and contain descrip-
tions of creatures and people who lived far
beyond the pale of the “civilized” world. These
encyclopedic compendia attempts to make
known what was inaccessible even to the doc-
tors themselves, much less the copyists, because
much of what we observe in these classical texts
are copies, notes, and interpretations of things
seen and witnessed by others in far-off places.
Even in the later voyages of the great 15th-
century and 16th-century expeditions, more
than two millennia after Herodotus, we can
still find monsters inhabiting what came to be
called the New World. This can be observed, for
example, in the writings of Cardim (1583–1601),
Gabriel Soares de Sousa (1587), and Gândavo
(1576) with regard to the sea men and strange
marine creatures of Brazil (Fig. 5.19):
These sea men are called Igpupiara in the local
language; the natives are in such fear of them that
many die just upon seeing them, and none that see
them escape; some die immediately, and when asked
about the cause, they say they have seen this monster;
they have the appearance of reasonably tall men, but
with very deep-set eyes. The females have the appear-
ance of women with long hair and are beautiful; these
monsters are found on the sandbars at the mouths of
freshwater rivers. Many of them have been found in
Jagoarigpe, seven or eight leagues from Bahia; and
in the year ‘82, an Indian who had gone fishing was
chased by one, and taking refuge on his raft, he told
his master about it; in order to encourage the Indian,
his master wanted to go and see the monster, and
while carelessly hanging a hand outside the canoe,
he was seized, taken and never again seen; in the
same year Francisco Lourenço Caeiro’s other Indian
died. Several have been seen in Porto Seguro, and
they have killed several Indians. The way it kills is by
embracing the person very strongly, kissing them and
squeezing them so tightly that it breaks them without
tearing them apart; when it senses they are dead, it
emits several groans, as if from emotion, and flees,
leaving them behind. If it takes any, it eats only the
eyes, nose, fingertips and toes, and genitalia, and so
they are found on the beach looking ordinary except
for the missing parts. Fernão Cardim, pp. 151–152.
() it also happened to some negroes from
Guinea; at times the ghosts or sea men killed five
of my Indians; and once a monster took two Indian
fishermen off a raft and one was taken away and the
other escaped but was frightened to death, and some
FIGURE 5.19 Sea monster killed by Baltasar Ferreira in
the province of Vera Cruz in 1564. Gândavo—History of the
Province of Vera Cruz.
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5. IMAGINARY ZOOLOGY
68
of them do die of it. And a sugar master at my mill
stated that he was looking out the window of the mill
which is above the river and that some negro women
who were cleaning sugar moulds screamed, and
he saw a shadow bigger than a man on the bank of
the river but it soon dove in; and the negro women
told the sugar master that the ghost had come to get
them and that it was the sea man, of which they were
frightened for days; and that these happenings occur
a lot in the summer; in the winter, no negroes are ever
missing. Gabriel Soares de Sousa, p. 268.
In the Captaincy of São Vicente, it being already
late at night when everyone would surrender them-
selves to sleep, an Indian woman slave of the cap-
tain decided to leave the house; casting her eyes on
the floodplain that lies close to the sea and close to
the village of the captaincy, she saw a monster mov-
ing about from one side to the other, with unusual
gait and movements and from time to time letting
out such ugly screams that she was terrified and,
beside herself, she went to the son of this same cap-
tain, whose name was Baltasar Ferreira, and told him
what she had seen, which seemed to her some sort of
diabolic vision. But as he was no less stern than he
was industrious, and since these local people are not
very credible, he did not pay much heed to her words
but remained in bed and ordered her to go back out
and make certain what it was. And, obeying his order,
the Indian woman went out, and she came back even
more frightened, repeatedly affirming that something
so ugly was walking around that it could only be a
demon. Pedro de Magalhães de Gândavo, pp. 117–118.
According to a note by Ricardo Martins Valle
(p. 119, the 2008 edition), the terrible demonic
sea monster described in Gândavo’s work was
probably a sea lion, a carnivorous pinniped that
occasionally came ashore following a cold cur-
rent from the South Atlantic.
Even today, in the age of technology and
information, we find reports very similar to the
ones transcribed above, so that they would be
almost indistinguishable from those of a millen-
nium ago:
Looking at us was this thing (Sasquatch) that had
the appearance of man, although it was three times
the size of the average man (). It turned to face us,
staring into the headlights (). It was covered with
hair and there was a flat-profiled face (). The most
striking feature was the creature’ s eyes. They were
really sunk in. John Bindernagel, p. 58.
() a Mapinguari, that huge monkey, hairy as a
spider monkey, with feet of a donkey, turned back-
wards, carried under its arm it poor companion, dead,
strangled, dripping blood. With claws like a jaguar,
the monster began to rip pieces from the unfortunate
fellow, stuffing them into its big maw, torn up to the
stomach. Câmara Cascudo, p. 427, about the version of
Mapinguari of the Rio Purus, Amazonas.
The identification of these fabulous creatures
in this New World is not strange. After all, far
beyond the Pillars of Hercules, past the mystical
Indika or the marvelous Aethiopia, far to the west,
lay a magical land inhabited by fantastic beings,
called centuries earlier in the Gaelic-Irish tradi-
tion by the name Hy-Breasil, well before being
changed by European conquistadors to simply
Brasis, the place of the red wood (Tolkien, 1964).
A LOOK AT PARADISE
Thinking in a fabulous way is without doubt a
human trait. To say that this virtue or virtuosity
is among the main characteristics that separate
us from other animals is not an exaggeration.
Obviously, other animals do not speak, at least
not like us. However, if they were able to tell
stories, what would they say? We suppose that
they would embellish their own deeds and that
they would distort, intentionally or not, what
they saw and did in their own stories, as do we.
Every event that caused someone astonish-
ment would undergo various distortions, to a
greater or lesser extent, as it was narrated or
described, such that the story’s construction
would be able to transmit a message capable of
stirring in the listener equally startling sensa-
tions and perceptions; otherwise, they would not
be fabulous in and of themselves, unless nature
proved more fantastic than human fantasy, which
is not entirely untrue.
Human perception and ingenious ways
of seeing the world gave birth to imaginary
REFERENCES 69
zoology in all cultures, thereby giving rise to
frightening creatures of the most varied and
incredible sort. From Amerindian totemic ani-
mals, to the beasts of classical Western mythol-
ogy and the mystical Orient, to the would-be
scientific cryptozoology of the 21st century, we
see fantastic but credible beings inhabiting no
less fabulous landscapes, principally when we
propose to understand them through an open
and honest gaze, glimpsing them through the
paradise of human fantasy.
From the times before Pliny until the pres-
ent day, humanity has been fascinated by the
unknown, and even with the entire technologi-
cal revolution of the modern age, imaginary
creatures, unlike real animals, run no risk of
becoming an endangered species. Some dis-
tant unexplored place will always exist that is
inhabited by savage people, monsters, and fierce
beasts, all of them manifestations of the human
psyche, the externalization of our own perplex-
ity at what cannot be internalized or adequately
explained by science or common sense.
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