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

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

13 Incredible Facts About Frederick Douglass

Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock
Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock

The list of Frederick Douglass's accomplishments is astonishing—respected orator, famous writer, abolitionist, civil rights leader, presidential consultant—even more so when you consider that he was a former slave with no formal education. In honor of his 201st birthday, here are 13 incredible facts about the life of Frederick Douglass.

1. He bartered bread for knowledge.

Because Douglass was a slave, he wasn't allowed to learn to read or write. A wife of a Baltimore slave owner did teach him the alphabet when he was around 12, but she stopped after her husband interfered. Young Douglass took matters into his own hands, cleverly fitting in a reading lesson whenever he was on the street running errands for his owner. As he detailed in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he'd carry a book with him while out and about and trade small pieces of bread to the white kids in his neighborhood, asking them to help him learn to read the book in exchange.

2. He credited a schoolbook with shaping his views on human rights.

Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

During his youth, Douglass obtained a copy of The Columbian Orator, a collection of essays, dialogues, and speeches on a range of subjects, including slavery. Published in 1797, the Orator was required reading for most schoolchildren in the 1800s and featured 84 selections from authors like Cicero and Milton. Abraham Lincoln was also influenced by the collection when he was first starting in politics.

3. He taught other slaves to read.

While he was hired out to a farmer named William Freeland, a teenaged Douglass taught fellow slaves to read the New Testament—but a mob of locals soon broke up the classes. Undeterred, Douglas began the classes again, sometimes teaching as many as 40 people.

4. His first wife helped him escape from slavery.

Portrait of Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick Douglass's first wife.
First published in Rosetta Douglass Sprague's book My Mother As I Recall Her, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Anna Murray was an independent laundress in Baltimore and met Douglass at some point in the mid-1830s. Together they hatched a plan, and one night in 1838, Douglass took a northbound train clothed in a sailor's uniform procured by Anna, with money from her savings in his pocket alongside papers from a sailor friend. About 24 hours later, he arrived in Manhattan a free man. Anna soon joined him, and they married on September 15, 1838.

5. He called out his former owner.

In an 1848 open letter in the newspaper he owned and published, The North Star, Douglass wrote passionately about the evils of slavery to his former owner, Thomas Auld, saying "I am your fellow man, but not your slave." He also inquired after his family members who were still enslaved a decade after his escape.

6. He took his name from a poem.

He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, but after escaping slavery, Douglass used assumed names to avoid detection. Arriving in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Douglass, then using the surname "Johnson," felt there were too many other Johnsons in the area to distinguish himself. He asked his host (ironically named Nathan Johnson) to suggest a new name, and Mr. Johnson came up with Douglas, a character in Sir Walter Scott's poem The Lady of the Lake.

7. He was deemed the 19th century's most photographed American.

Portrait of Frederick Douglass
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There are 160 separate portraits of Douglass, more than Abraham Lincoln or Walt Whitman, two other heroes of the 19th century. Douglass wrote extensively on the subject during the Civil War, calling photography a "democratic art" that could finally represent black people as humans rather than "things." He gave his portraits away at talks and lectures, hoping his image could change the common perceptions of black men.

8. He refused to celebrate Independence Day.

Douglass was well-known as a powerful orator, and his July 5, 1852 speech to a group of hundreds of abolitionists in Rochester, New York, is considered a masterwork. Entitled "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July," the speech ridiculed the audience for inviting a former slave to speak at a celebration of the country who enslaved him. "This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine," he famously said to those in attendance. "Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?" Douglass refused to celebrate the holiday until all slaves were emancipated and laws like the Compromise of 1850, which required citizens (including northerners) to return runaway slaves to their owners, were negated.

9. He recruited black soldiers for the Civil War.

The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Douglass was a famous abolitionist by the time the war began in 1861. He actively petitioned President Lincoln to allow black troops in the Union army, writing in his newspaper: "Let the slaves and free colored people be called into service, and formed into a liberating army, to march into the South and raise the banner of Emancipation among the slaves." After Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass worked tirelessly to enlist black soldiers, and two of his sons would join the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, famous for its contributions in the brutal battle of Fort Wagner.

10. He served under five presidents.

Later in life, Douglass became more of a statesman, serving in highly appointed federal positions, including U.S. Marshal for D.C., Recorder of Deeds for D.C., and Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti. Rutherford B. Hayes was the first to appoint Douglass to a position in 1877, and Presidents Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison each sought his counsel in various positions as well.

11. He was nominated for Vice President of the United States.

As part of the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872, Douglass was nominated as a VP candidate, with Victoria Woodhull as the Presidential candidate. (Woodhull was the first-ever female presidential candidate, which is why Hillary Clinton was called "the first female presidential candidate from a major party" during the 2016 election.) However, the nomination was made without his consent, and Douglass never acknowledged it (and Woodhull's candidacy itself is controversial because she wouldn't have been old enough to be president on Inauguration Day). Also, though he was never a presidential candidate, he did receive one vote at each of two nomination conventions.

12. His second marriage caused controversy.

Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.
Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.

Two years after his first wife, Anna, died of a stroke in 1882, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white abolitionist and feminist who was 20 years younger than him. Even though she was the daughter of an abolitionist, Pitts's family (which had ancestral ties directly to the Mayflower) disapproved and disowned her—showing just how taboo interracial marriage was at the time. The black community also questioned why their most prominent spokesperson chose to marry a white woman, regardless of her politics. But despite the public's and their families' reaction, the Douglasses had a happy marriage and were together until his death in 1895 of a heart attack.

13. After early success, his Narrative went out of print.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, his seminal autobiography, was heralded a success when it came out in 1845, with some estimating that 5000 copies sold in the first few months; the book was also popular in Ireland and Britain. But post-Civil War, as the country moved toward reconciliation and slave narratives fell out favor, the book went out of print. The first modern publication appeared in 1960—during another important era for the fight for civil rights. It is now available for free online.

This article originally ran in 2018.

The 15 Best Documentaries on Netflix Right Now

A still from Ava DuVernay's 13th (2016)
A still from Ava DuVernay's 13th (2016)
Netflix

Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it’s frequently more entertaining. Thanks to the Netflix acquisition team, the streaming service offers hundreds of documentaries that chronicle everything from riveting tales of true crime to stories about bare-knuckle fighters and custody battles over amputated legs. To help you sort through their formidable selection, we’ve selected 15 films currently streaming that will either make your jaw drop, bring a tear to your eye, or both.

1. Finders Keepers (2015)

If an appendage is removed from your body, are you still its lawful owner? That’s the question posed by this irreverent investigation of Shannon Whisnant, a junk trader who successfully bids on a storage locker and discovers the mummified remains of a severed leg. The stump once belonged to John Wood, a man injured in a plane crash. When his leg was amputated as a result, he decided to keep it as a memento, storing it in a grill inside the locker. The argument over who has rightful possession of this fleshy trophy is at the center of the film, which sees the men try to resolve their differences in a variety of ways, including an appearance on Judge Mathis.

2. Long Shot (2017)

Juan Catalan is that most compelling of true crime clichés: an innocent man being railroaded for a murder he didn’t commit. With law enforcement dismissing his alibi, his lawyers make a last-ditch effort to prove that Catalan was at a Los Angeles Dodgers game at the time of the assault. How they do that—and which famous comic actor plays a role—is best left to discover on your own.

3. Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee (2016)

Anti-virus software tycoon John McAfee was one of the internet’s biggest success stories. Flush with money, power, and a desire to reinvent himself, McAfee relocated to Belize, where his story began to take on echoes of Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. When all of McAfee’s whims are tended to by locals, questions over a neighbor’s murder take on sinister connotations. Michael Keaton is set to play McAfee in a feature film version.

4. Brother’s Keeper (1992)

The bonds of brotherhood are explored in this arresting feature about siblings Delbert, Roscoe, and Lyman Ward, farmers in upstate New York who close ranks when police begin to suspect one of them murdered their other brother, William.

5. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)

When Jim Carrey stepped into the role of the late comedian Andy Kaufman for director Milos Forman’s 1999 biopic Man on the Moon, he didn’t so much imitate Kaufman as become him. That process was documented in behind-the-scenes footage that was buried in studio vaults for years and revealed here for the first time. Executives feared people would consider Carrey—who alternately charms and antagonizes people on the set by never behaving as “Jim”—as being exceptionally difficult to work with. Perhaps, but Carrey’s modern-day reflections on inhabiting the eccentric Kaufman even when the film cameras weren’t rolling are a fascinating study of both the performer’s commitment and the nature of identity.

6. Amanda Knox (2016)

College student Amanda Knox seized headlines in 2007 and beyond for being the prime suspect in the murder of fellow student and roommate Meredith Kercher while both were studying in Perugia, Italy. The competency and motives of Italian police are examined in this documentary, which features the first time Knox has spoken at length about her trials (yes, there was more than one) and struggles in a foreign justice system. Plenty of ink was spilled in the American media over her suspected guilt: Knox’s unflinching stare into the camera as she tells her side of the story will likely persuade you to think otherwise.

7. Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (2019)

Sun. Models. Booze. Would-be mogul Billy McFarland promised a lot and delivered little more than cold cheese sandwiches in his 2017 music festival debacle, which collected a small fortune in admission and ancillary profits and then wound up leaving hundreds of guests stranded on an island to fend for themselves. Pairing Netflix’s examination of the debacle and its fallout with Hulu’s Fyre Fraud makes for a fine double feature (even if you might be left with more questions than answers).

8. The Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (2017)

Toy and nostalgia fans will get a kick out of this rewind to the early 1980s, when Mattel’s He-Man dominated retail stores and syndicated television. The feature examines the toy line’s origins—which involved dueling toy designers and a failed attempt to secure a Conan license—and its later incarnation as a low-budget 1987 movie. (Yes, Dolph Lundgren makes an appearance.)

9. 13th (2016)

Director Ava DuVernay delivers a powerful (and Oscar-nominated) indictment of the U.S. justice system and takes a closer look at how incarceration and sentencing feeds into widespread inequality. Peering through DuVernay’s lens, viewers may feel the scales of justice are tipped in favor of privatized and profiteering prisons.

10. Icarus (2017)

The cat-and-mouse game between drug testing agencies and cheating athletes is put under a microscope in director Bryan Fogel’s Oscar-winning documentary, which uncovers the lengths competitors will go to in order to push past their physical limits. As Fogel digs deeper into the world of pro cycling and its high-ranking political influences, you may discover that drugs are so pervasive that athletes aren’t necessarily looking to cheat—they’re simply looking to even the playing field.

11. Senna (2010)

Sports documentaries don’t come much better than this portrait of Ayrton Senna, a Brazilian Formula One racer who became a national hero for his obsessive commitment to being the best. That passion conflicts with the inherent danger of his sport, which undergoes a technological metamorphosis in the 1980s and 1990s that threatens the safety of drivers. Those risks are on display in the film’s kinetic, heart-in-throat race sequences.

12. The Seven Five (2014)

There are bad cops, there are dirty cops, and then there’s Mike Dowd, a Brooklyn officer who used his badge to siphon money from criminals and exploit the very community he was charged with protecting. Dowd’s downfall ushered in one of the biggest police corruption scandals of the 1990s. The film features Dowd’s unabashed account of his dirty deeds.

13. Voyeur (2017)

Acclaimed journalist Gay Talese stumbles upon what he thinks is the story of a lifetime: A Colorado motel owner named Gerald Foos who modified his guest rooms so he could spy on his occupants. Not all of Foos’s recollections of his voyeur’s playground hold up to scrutiny, and the film sometimes wonders who’s really in control of the narrative—the directors, Talese, or the enigmatic Foos.

14. The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014)

In the 1970s, Kurt Russell’s father, Bing Russell, started a rogue minor league baseball team, the Portland Mavericks. Playing without any Major League affiliation, the ragtag team barnstormed their way through several seasons, with an electric group of MLB castoffs making up the roster. It’s a fun look at a group that rivals the Bad News Bears in dropping the ball.

15. Dawg Fight (2015)

Florida native Dhafir “Dada5000” Harris tries to keep gangs and drugs from destroying his neighborhood by hosting a series of bare-knuckle fighting events in his mother’s backyard. The action is raw, but Harris’s intentions are pure. In orchestrating violence rather than letting it explode on the streets, Harris provides an outlet for young men to find some peace.

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