Gorillas emerge from the mists

When it comes to reports of mythological creatures from far away lands, it is interesting to look at a real-life creature and see how difficult it was for information about its existence to travel. Take for example, the Gorilla. The earliest report outside of Africa of what could possibly be gorillas comes from the Greek explorer Hanno, who travelled the Western coast of Africa, and spoke of “an island filled with savage people, most of them women, and covered on hair. Our interpreters call them gorillae.” Hanno was from Carthage (modern day Tunisia) and had sailed around the coast down to modern day Sierra Leonne or even the Gulf of Guinea. Hanno goes on to say that he tried to capture some of them alive, but on failing to do, he returned with three dead females. [ref] https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg18825192-200-histories-gorillas-i-presume/ [/ref] It is not certain though if Hanno actually came across Gorillas or Chimpanzees on his journey, and afterwards there is little further information in the European literature until the bestselling adventure of Andrew Battel published in 1613. Battel was an English sailor who was held prisoner by the Portuguese in Africa for many years.  He speaks of two kinds of ape,… Continue reading

Vikings Pedal Narwhal Tusks as Unicorn Horns

It can be confusing to us now how people could accept anything coming from a narwhal as belonging to a unicorn. The mythological unicorn was meant to be a beautiful horse, with a single horn out of the middle of its head. Meanwhile, the very real narwhal is a toothed whale, growing up to 5.5 meters long. The males of the species have a large swordlike, spiral tusk, which is actually an extended tooth. [ref] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/n/narwhal/ [/ref] Yet people paid large sums of money for the tusk of the narwhal thinking they were buying the horn of a unicorn. However, the unicorn was thought to come from a land far away from Europe, and the narwhal certainly did come from a place difficult for most Europeans to reach. The narwhale dwells in arctic waters, in northern Greenland, Canada and Russia, [ref] http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/13704/0 [/ref]. These arctic waters would be beyond the reach of most sea going vessels. However, the Vikings did fish in these waters, and would catch narwhals themselves and would also trade with Indigenous populations in the far north for tusks. [ref] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/in-search-of-the-mysterious-narwhal-124904726/ [/ref] The tusks were then traded through the Vikings’ vast network throughout Europe as unicorn horn.… Continue reading

The Unicorn, a wild donkey from India?

The early description of Unicorns from the ancient Greek writers differs significantly from that of a pristine white horse with a long horn. Take for instance this description by Ctesias, a Greek philosopher writing in the 4th century BC. “In India there are wild asses as large as horses, or even larger. Their body is white, their head dark red, their eyes bluish, and they have a horn in their forehead about a cubit in length. The lower part of the horn, for about two palms distance from the forehead, is quite white, the middle is black, the upper part, which terminates in a point, is a very flaming red.” [ref] excerpt of Ctesias by Byzantium scholar Photius reproduced in Indica, translation J.H. Freese [/ref] The ancient Greeks thought the Unicorn came from India, just like they thought the Griffin did. This was a place a little too far away for a person to verify the details themselves, so they had to rely on second hand information. There is a theory that the idea of the unicorn came from stories of the Indian rhinoceros. Ctesis was travelling in Persia when he heard travellers’ stories of the creatures of India, and… Continue reading

The gentle Oarfish – The real-life Inspiration for a thousand sea serpents

The Oarfish is a real life bony fish that lives in oceans around the world. Their long, elongated bodies can grow up to 17 meters long. Typically they dwell in the deep ocean at depths up to 1000 meters, but during storms they can be found near the surface or washed up on shore. [ref] http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/190378/0 [/ref] They swim with an undulating motion through the water and feed not on sailors but deep sea shrimp and planktonic crustaceans. Even in our modern era, we have little footage of the Oarfish in its natural habitat, though Oarfish have been found washed onshore [ref] https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/10/131022-giant-oarfish-facts-sea-serpents/ [/ref] And though oarfish may only prove dangerous to tiny creatures in the deep ocean, their presence is thought to have inspired myths of great sea serpents a thousand times more fearsome than the actual creature. Reports of sea serpents occur again and again throughout the mythology of different cultures [ref] https://www.britannica.com/topic/sea-serpent [/ref] Similarly as shipping expanded, so too did reports of sea serpents around the world, including nova scotia [ref] http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/sea-monster-sightings-off-ns-ebook-1.3314028 [/ref] and on passage from Australia [ref] Strange Creatures of the Sea, The courier-mail 15/08/1934, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/36732071[/ref] Of course, sighting something in the water from off… Continue reading

The Deep Ocean Holds Many Mysteries

When some strange ocean creature becomes washed up on the shore, it seems always to whet people’s appetites for mystery. As Oceanographer, Paul Snelgrove said “We know more about the surface of the Moon and about Mars than we do about [the deep sea floor], despite the fact that we have yet to extract a gram of food, a breath of oxygen or a drop of water from those bodies.” The deep ocean is probably the one place left on our planet that is truly unexplored. Even in the modern era, there are reports about supposed unidentified creatures that wash up on the shore. For example, a “fanged, faceless sea creature” was found on a beach after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 [ref] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-41256922 [/ref]. Eel specialist Dr Kenneth Tighe, believed it was a fangtooth snake-eel. Other scientists believe it was a tusky eel or stippled spoon-nose eel[ref] https://www.livescience.com/60419-hurricane-harvey-washes-mystery-eel-ashore.html [/ref]. All three eel species normally live at a depth of greater than 30 meters in the gulf waters, so it would be rare that any could be easily identified by a non-specialist. What’s more, anything washed up on shore is pretty much already in an advanced state of decay which makes… Continue reading

Griffin bones emerge out of the rock

Aelian, a natural philosopher in the 3rd century AD, gives a wonderfully naturalistic description of the Griffin in his encyclopedia of animals, De Natura Animalium: ‘Men commonly report that it is winged and that the feathers along its back are black, and those on its front are red, while the actual wings are neither but are white. And Ctesias records that its neck is variegated with feathers of a dark blue; that it has a beak like an eagle’s, and a head too, just as artists portray it in pictures and sculpture. Its eyes, he says, are like fire. It builds its lair among the mountains, and although it is not possible to capture a full-grown animal, they do take the young ones.‘ [ref] Aelian, On the Characteristics of Animals, translated A. F. Scholfield Loeb Classical Library [/ref] Close to a millennium later, Adrienne Mayor in her book, The First Fossil Hunters [ref] Adrienne Mayor, The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (Princeton University Press 2000) revised 2011 with new introduction. [/ref] presents an intriguing theory that it was actually people coming across the fossilized bones of protoceratops in the mountains of central Asia, that gave rise… Continue reading

The Bishop Erik Pontopiddian collects eyewitness reports

The Natural History of Norway, is a comprehensive two-volume work published by the Bishop Erik Pontopiddian between 1751 and 1753. It is a study of the animal life and geography of Norway and contains many insights.  There are chapters on Norway’s soils and mountains, sea-vegetables, birds, fish and fisheries among many other topics. Pontopiddian states the care he has taken to assemble the volumes, and there is good reason, as he goes on to say “I foresee that when some readers come to read the contents of the eighth chapter, concerning the Mer-maid, the great Sea-snake, of several hundred feet long and the Krake[n], whose uncommon size seems to exceed belief, they may suspect me of too much credulity.” [ref] The natural history of Norway : containing a particular and accurate account of the temperature of the air,the different soils, waters, vegetables, metals, minerals, stones, beasts, birds, and fishes : together with the dispositions, customs, and manner of living of the inhabitants : interspersed with physiological notes from eminent writers, and transactions of academics : in two parts by Pontoppidan, Erich, 1698-1764; translated Berthelson, Andreas, b. ca. 1716; 1755  [/ref] Pontopiddian tries to be as scientific as possible, and goes… Continue reading

Coconut Shells and Griffin Eggs

When it comes to wealth, very little has changed over the centuries. Jewellery, works of art and exquisite furniture have filled collections from early times to the current day. In modern times, a list of the items in a collection might be assembled  for insurance purposes. In the past, sometimes a list was required just to know everything that a King had acquired and where it was kept, such as the 1379-80 inventory of King Charles V of France’s collection.[ref] https://www.history.ac.uk/richardII/use.html Interpreting Objects and Collections Susan M. Pearce – Psychology Press, 1994 [/ref] Inventories of Noble families collections in the past occasionally reveal strange objects. One thing that was deemed valuable was a drinking cup crafted from the coconut shell. These days you can buy a coconut at the local supermarket, but during the middle ages, to reach Europe, a coconut would have to travel thousands of miles via the trans-Asian silk roads, making it an extremely scarce commodity. [ref] https://www.aramcoworld.com/en-US/Articles/January-2017/Cracking-Coconut-s-History [/ref] Even by the 16th century when the Portuguese were importing coconuts via sea, they were still a rare and expensive object. The shells were fashioned into goblets and decorated with jewels and metalwork. But an even rarer object was… Continue reading