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

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’s 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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iStock
18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer
iStock
iStock

Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

1. ROSÉ WINE GLASSES; $60

Rosé Wine Glass
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Wine not? When the temperature rises and beer isn’t your thing, reach for the rosé. Riedel’s machine-blown SST (see, smell, taste) wine glasses will give the sparkly stuff ample room to breathe, making every refreshing sip worthwhile.

Find It: Amazon

2. NERF N-STRIKE ELITE SURGEFIRE; $25

Nerf SurgeFire
Hasbro

Why It’s Cool: The N-Strike Elite SurgeFire (say that five-times-fast) sports a pump-action rotating drum for maximum foam-based firepower and holds up to 15 Nerf darts in its arsenal.

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3. BUSHEL & BERRY PLANTS; $34

plant
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: You don’t need to have a green thumb to create a brag-worthy garden this summer. Besides producing snackable mid-season berries, these open-growing bushes can be planted immediately for easy set-up to make you look like a botanical pro.

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4. INFLATABLE DONUT; $17

Doughnut float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When the only dunking you’re doing is taking a dip in the pool, a 48-inch inflatable donut is the perfect way to stay afloat.

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5. STAR SPANGLED SPATULA; $21

American flag spatula
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: O say can you see by your grill’s charcoal light / Meats so proudly we cooked ... with a star spangled spatula. Depending on the specific model, these all-American grilling tools (designed in New Jersey and made in Chicago) are made of a combination of walnut and stainless steel or nylon. As an added bonus: 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Penn Abramson Cancer Center.

Find It: Amazon

6. MLB HOT DOG BRANDERS; $8 AND UP

MLB San Diego Padres Hot Dog BBQ Brander
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Take your hot dogs, sausages, brats, and more out to the ballgame without ever leaving your grill. These branders from Pangea Brands are dishwasher-safe and made of ceramic-coated cast iron.

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7. UNA GRILL; $139

grill
MoMA Shop

Why It’s Cool: This portable charcoal-heated grill is as efficient as it is stylish. The compact size lets you cook at the park, after hitting up MoMA, or anywhere in between.

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8. HAMBURGER GRILLING BASKET; $21


Why It’s Cool: Made of steel and finished with a non-stick coating, this grilling tool flips four burgers at once and maintains perfect burger proportions to guarantee nobody stays hungry for long.

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9. COPPER FIRE PIT; $121

metal fire pit
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: The grill isn’t the only place for a roaring fire this summer. This 100 percent solid copper fire pit makes for the perfect gathering spot at your next BBQ, or just to warm up after a cool summer evening.

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10. BENDY STRAW POOL NOODLE FLOAT; $10

Bendy Straw Inflatable Pool Float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Inflatable pool floats shouldn’t be boring, and this bendy straw float definitely does not suck. This unique spin on traditional pool noodles is sure to make for some cheesy jokes, but at least you’ll be comfortable floating in the pool or at the beach.

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11. GRIDDLER DELUXE; $111

Cuisinart GR-150 Griddler Deluxe
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

Find It: Amazon

12. VINTAGE SNOW CONE MAKER; $30

Vintage Snow Cone Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: With its old-timey design, dual cone shelf, and endless flavor options, this snow cone maker is guaranteed create a cool treat.

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13. DACHSHUND CORN ON THE COB HOLDERS; $7

Dog Corn Holders
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: While meat-lovers will inevitably scarf down a lot of hot dogs this summer, vegetarians who happen to love another kind of dog will be smitten with these stainless steel, Dachshund-shaped corn on the cob prongs. They’re a fun spin on a summer grilling favorite.

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14. ICE CREAM SANDWICH MAKER; $16

Ice Cream Sandwich Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Four sandwiches are better than one, especially when they're of the ice cream variety. Make four ice cream sandwiches at once with this homemade spin on a classic cold treat.

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15. UE WONDERBOOM; $68

Bluetooth speaker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

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16. ROLLORS GAME; $38

Rollors Backyard Game
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When you’re sick of bocce, hate horseshoes, and you’re over cornhole, you might want to take up “rollors,” a family-friendly game that combines your favorite traditional backyard festivities into one game for people of all ages.

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17. HAMMOCK; $174

hammock
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Rest easy knowing that this 100 percent hand-woven and hand-dyed cotton hammock contributes to artisan job-creation in Thailand.

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18. VSSL SURVIVAL ESSENTIALS; $59

Emergency Survival Tent Outdoors
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Compact, convenient, and durable, the VSSL Shelter can come in handy when things don’t go quite as planned. The device—which features a lightweight emergency shelter all within the handle of a compact, weather-resistant aluminum LED flashlight—is designed to keep you safe under the worst conditions.

Find It: Amazon

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Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
11 Things You Might Not Know About Johann Sebastian Bach
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. PEOPLE DISAGREE ABOUT WHEN TO CELEBRATE HIS BIRTHDAY.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. HE WAS THE CENTER OF A MUSICAL DYNASTY.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. BACH TOOK A MUSICAL PILGRIMAGE THAT PUTS EVERY ROAD TRIP TO WOODSTOCK TO SHAME.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. HE BRAWLED WITH HIS STUDENTS.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. BACH SPENT 30 DAYS IN JAIL FOR QUITTING HIS JOB.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. THE BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS WERE A FAILED JOB APPLICATION.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. HE WROTE ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST COFFEE JINGLES.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. IF BACH CHALLENGED YOU TO A KEYBOARD DUEL, YOU WERE GUARANTEED TO BE EMBARRASSED.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. SOME OF HIS MUSIC MAY HAVE BEEN COMPOSED TO HELP INSOMNIA.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. HE WAS BLINDED BY BOTCHED EYE SURGERY.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. NOBODY IS 100 PERCENT CONFIDENT THAT BACH IS BURIED IN HIS GRAVE.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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