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20 Bizarre Beasts From Ancient Bestiaries

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The first true bestiaries—exhaustive anthologies of the natural world—appeared in Ancient Greece. Originally, they were just a means of cataloguing and describing all known animals and plants (both real and mythical), and in particular those that had curative or otherwise noteworthy uses. But by the Medieval period, when bestiaries became hugely popular, these descriptions had become overtly religious and allegorical, with many creatures listed as having miraculous powers, or depicted as symbols of redemption, salvation, and rebirth: the humble pelican, for instance, was once said to have the ability to bring its dead offspring back to life by piercing its side and feeding them its own blood (according to one 13th century French scholar at least).

One thing all bestiaries had in common, however, was that they mixed fact with fiction. Genuine accounts of real-life animals, birds, insects, plants, and gemstones were listed alongside ludicrous descriptions of bizarre, legendary animals—from magical birds that produced light-emitting feathers to bulls that could spray furlong-long jets of scalding poop. Twenty fantastic beasts precisely like these are listed here.

1. BONNACON

According to the Roman naturalist and scholar Pliny the Elder, the bonnacon or bonasus was a bull-like creature that lived in the ancient kingdom of Paeonia (modern-day Macedonia) that had a horse’s mane and backward-facing horns that were curled in on themselves in such a way that they were essentially useless. Instead, in order to defend itself, the bonnacon was supposedly able to spray flaming hot dung out of its behind, leaving a stinking trail as long as 300 feet behind it. Anyone who was unlucky enough to touch or be struck by the dung was burned as if they’d touched fire—although some descriptions claim that the dung actually set fire to anything it touched.

2. ECHENEIS

The echeneis, or “sucking-fish,” was described in a number of ancient bestiaries as a fish that, although small in size, was so strong that if it were to latch its flattened head onto the hull of a ship, it could hold it in place like an anchor. Some accounts claim the echeneis had feet, but according to Aristotle, this was incorrect—their fins just looked like feet. Pliny the Elder, meanwhile, claimed that it had the power to “hinder litigations in court,” stop “fluxes of the womb in pregnant women” (thereby “holding back the offspring till the time of birth”), and was even responsible for Marc Antony’s defeat at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. Although Pliny might have been exaggerating things a little, the legendary echeneis was nevertheless based on a real-life sea creature: the remora, or “sharksucker,” a bizarre eel-like fish whose dorsal fin has been modified into a flat suction pad, allowing it to attach itself to the undersides of larger marine animals. 

3. PARANDRUS

The parandrus was an ox-sized, hoofed animal of Ethiopia with a stag’s head, large branching horns, and long shaggy brown fur. It didn’t stay brown for long, however, as the parandrus could apparently change the color of its fur to blend in with its environment. 

4. HERCINIA

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The hercinia was a legendary bird believed to inhabit the Hercynian Forest surrounding the River Rhine in southern Germany. What made the hercinia special was its glowing plumage, which produced so much light that anyone walking through the forest at night could use the bird or one of its feathers as a lantern.

5. SCITALIS

The scitalis was an iridescent serpent whose scales glistened so amazingly that they would stun anyone or anything that saw it, thereby stopping them in their tracks so that they could be caught or bitten. All that iridescence came with a cost, however: the scitalis often became so hot that its skin would burn, forcing it to shed its skin even in winter when all other snakes are hibernating. 

6. ALERION

A popular image in heraldry, the alerion was said to be the king of all birds. Fire-colored and larger than an eagle, its wings were as sharp as razors. Supposedly, only one pair of alerions were ever alive at one time: When she was 60 years old, the female would lay two eggs that would then take 60 days to hatch, whereupon the parents would immediately fly far out to sea to drown themselves. The two chicks would then be reared by all the other birds until they reached adulthood. 

7. CYNOCEPHALUS

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Cynocephalus literally means “dog head,” and according to some ancient writers was the name of a species of dog-faced apes native to Ethiopia. According to Aesop, they always give birth to twins, one of which the mother was always destined to love and the other to hate. The apes are such affectionate mothers, however, that they could hug their babies to death if they were not careful. 

8. CALADRIUS

The caladrius was a pure-white bird said only to live in kings’ houses. Among its many bizarre qualities, the caladrius supposedly had the ability to diagnose (and cure) illness: If it were to look at you while you were unwell, then you could rest assured that you would eventually recover (the bird takes the sickness into itself and flies up to the sun, where the sickness gets burned off); but if it looked away, you were destined to die of your illness. And as if that weren’t useful enough for medieval physicians, the caladrius’ poop was also said to be able to cure cataracts.

9. LEONTOPHONE

Ancient descriptions of the leontophone ranged from a boar-like mammal to a tiny worm or serpent, but one thing was always mentioned: The leontophone was lethally poisonous to lions. If a lion ever caught one, it would tear it apart with its claws rather than its mouth, because if it ate or was bitten by a leontophone, it would die instantly. According to one 12th century bestiary, in order to kill a lion, a leontophone should first be caught and killed, then burned and its ashes sprinkled on a piece of meat. The meat should then be placed at a crossroads as bait for the lion, which would die immediately on eating it.

10. JACULUS

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The jaculus, or “javelin-snake,” was a flying viper that lived in the tops of trees and killed its prey by falling onto it, or by firing itself through the air “like a missile from a catapult,” according to Pliny.

11. COROCOTTA

The corocotta or leucrota was the legendary offspring of a hyena and a lioness. The size of an ass with a horse-like head, the back legs of a stag, and hooved feet, the corocotta had a mouth that stretched from ear to ear and, according to Pliny, “an unbroken ridge of bone in each jaw, forming a continuous tooth without any gum.” As if that weren’t strange enough, they also apparently had the ability to mimic people’s voices.

12. SAWFISH

Unlike the real-life sawfish’s bizarre saw-shaped face, the legendary sawfish took its name from a saw-toothed crest that ran along the length of its back, which it supposedly used to cut into the hulls of ships by swimming underneath them, so that it could drown and then devour the crew. When it wasn’t busy doing that, the sawfish used its enormous wings to fly clear of the sea and race ships—although it could only sustain itself for a distance of around 30-40 furlongs (3¾-5 miles/6-8km), after which it would plunge back beneath the waves.

13. ONOCENTAUR

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If a centaur had the head and torso of a man with the body and legs of a horse, then the onocentaur was its less impressive relative: it had the head and torso of a man, and the body and legs of a donkey.

14. YALE

Native to Ethiopia, the yale was described by Pliny as the size of a hippo, black or tawny-brown in color, with the tail of an elephant and two coiled horns. Its skin was so thick that it couldn’t be wounded, and when two males fought, they would hold one horn forward and the other backward depending on their needs. It was probably inspired by early descriptions of the African water buffalo.

15. WETHER

In English, a wether is a castrated ram or goat, but in the medieval bestiaries it was the name of a specific type of sheep that was much larger and stronger than all others. The Latin name for the wether was vervix, which led the 7th century Spanish scholar Isidore of Seville to theorize that the wether’s head was naturally infested with worms (the Latin for which was vermis) and when the worms started itching, they scratched the itch by butting their heads together.

16. ALLOCAMELUS

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The allocamelus (literally “other-camel”) had the head of a donkey and the body of a camel, leading the 17th-century English writer Edward Topsell to believe it to be the offspring of a camel and a mule. In fact, it was probably based on early descriptions of a llama or an alpaca.

17. CATOBLEPAS

The Ethiopian catoblepas was a described as a sluggish, cow-like creature with a head so large and heavy that it couldn’t look upward (catoblepas means “downwards-looking” in Greek), while one smell of its breath or a glance from its bloodshot eyes could kill a man immediately. Despite that fairly unflattering description, it’s thought that the catoblepas was based on the African wildebeest.

18. CERASTES

A serpent that’s so exceptionally flexible that it appears not to have a spine, the cerastes also had two or four ram-like horns on its head that it could move independently. To hunt, it buried its body in the sand or earth, leaving just its horns exposed above the ground, which it waggled around to attract its prey. (At least, that’s according to Leonardo da Vinci.) The myth of the cerastes is probably based on the north African horned viper—whose Latin name, appropriately enough, is now Cerastes cerastes.

19. MUSCALIET

The muscaliet had the body of a hare, the tail of a squirrel, a mole’s nose, and a weasel’s ears. It nested in hollows beneath the roots of trees, but produced so much heat that it would dry the tree out from the bottom upwards and kill it.

20. MANTICORE

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The sphinx-like manticore had the head of a person, with the body of a red lion, a scorpion’s stinger, a voice like a whistle, and three rows of comb-like teeth. The lampago, meanwhile, was a tiger with the face of a man, and a satyral had a lion’s body, an antelope’s horns, and the head of an old man. All three were once popular heraldic images and often appeared on medieval coats of arms.

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Food
The History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving
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Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. TURKEY

A roasted turkey on a platter.
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Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as…served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. STUFFING

Pan of breaded stuffing.
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Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. CRANBERRIES

Dish of cranberry sauce.
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Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. MASHED POTATOES

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
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Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting President to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. GRAVY

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
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Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, historian Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to created a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. CORN

Plate of corn.
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Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. SWEET POTATOES

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
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In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE

Plate of green bean casserole.
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Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you love was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. PUMPKIN PIE

Slice of pumpkin pie.
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Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. WINE

Two glasses of wine.
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Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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