‘Travellers see strange things,’ more especially when their writing about or delineation of them is not put under the microscope of modern scientific examination. – John Ashton
In 1890, British author John Ashton published his crypozoological classic, Curious Creatures in Zoology. A compilation that brought together the accounts of Pliny, Claus Magnus, 16th century Italian naturalist, Ulisse Aldrovandi (also known as Aldrovandus), 17th century English clergyman Edward Topsell, and Sir John Mandeville, its intention was to preserve history’s strangest animal mythologies. Mythologies that for centuries owed their resilience to the immobility of most men and women during an age of ignorance; to people who believed in what they read because who’s to say what was really going on halfway across the globe?
Thanks to Ashton, we can read about the legendary Moon-Woman, who lays eggs and hatches giants, the deliciously woolly Lamb-Tree, and something called a Swamfisck – the greatest glutton of all the Sea-Monsters. And then there’s the gulo, with the face of a cat, the tail of a fox, and the body of a dog. It eats so much – carcasses are its favourite – that it has to squeeze itself between two trees in order to violently poop it all out (kind of like in Animal Crossing when you accidentally get your snowballs caught between two trees and they burst and it suckssss). It was said that the gulo’s flexible gut could be turned into guitar strings, its blood was mixed with honey and drunk at weddings, and its hoofs could drive unwanted cats and dogs off your porch.
Along with each of Ashton’s descriptions are some of the most amazing illustrations, taken from what were considered to be scientific texts at the height of these myths. Here are a few of the best ones:
According to Ferdinand Magellan’s official chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta, and later Sir Francis Drake’s ship chaplain, Francis Fletcher, somewhere on the coast of Patagonia lived a race of giants, some standing more than four metres tall. These giants, named the Patagones, wore the skin of the Su – which according to Ashton was believed to be a “cruell, untamable, impatient, violent, ravening, and bloody beast”. Despite the best efforts of these giants and their hunting dogs, the Su was 100% impossible to catch alive.
If spotted by hunters, a mother Su would deftly manoeuvre herself past traps, pits and hurled weapons, and would use her broad, feathery tail to cover the rood of offspring that she keep nestled on her back. If cornered, she would devour her babies all at once and then fight her would-be captors to the death. A Su only ever made it to a Patagone camp as a corpse.
According to 5th Century Greek physician and historian Ctesias, the Mantichora (or manticore) was an Indian creature with the strength and body of a lion and the face and ears of a man. It also had three rows of terrible, terrible teeth. Blood-red in colour and as swift as a stag, its densely quilled tail resembled a scorpion’s, right down to its poisoned tips.
Centuries later, Pliny added his own spin to the Martichora myth, describing its azure blue eyes and ability to imitate human speech (oh god), and Topsell was careful to mention that its mouth stretched from ear to ear like an even more nightmarish Cheshire Cat.
The Mimicke Dog
Such fluff. Wow. So curls.
Otherwise known as the Getulian Dogge, Ashton assumes the legendary Mimicke Dog was a poodle, reportedly having the disposition and smarts of an ape, but the face, shape and colouring of a hedgehog. As pups, they were supposedly brought up by apes, and so could imitate anything they saw, which made them pretty good servants for poor people and could also be employed as stage actors. They were such good actors, said Plutarch, that they would be responsible for multiple human roles in the same play, and were particularly good at acting drunk or dying.
And finally, considered about as mystical in Ashton’s book as my left foot, this spiral cat is introduced as follows: “Aldrovandus gives us a picture of a curly-legged Cat, but, beyond saying that it was so afflicted (or ornamented) from its birth, he gives no particulars. Topsell, too, is singularly silent on the merits of Cats.”
It’s like something my dad would say.
While the closest we’re going to get to mythological animals these days is the Blue Mountains panther, that doesn’t stop people illustrating what could have been. Last Christmas I stumbled on an incredible book by French artist, Philippe Mignon, called Elephasme, Rhinolophon, Cameluche et autres merveilles de la nature, in the almost 200-year-old Parisian taxidermy specialist store, Deyrolle. For anyone interested in this centuries-old practice, this shop is a must-visit, because you can watch the staff mount the most incredible looking beetles, some in classical arrangements, others in odd and very beautiful patterns, at little tables right next to the cash register. Mignon stocks his book exclusively there, and it’s filled with beautiful illustrations of duckbilled shrews, monkey-faced sea birds, and saw-nosed arctic wolves, each with their own scientific name and description. I cannot recommend it enough as an obscure Christmas gift. You can buy it online here. Here’s a highlight: