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Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 
Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

4 Legendary Plant-Animal Hybrids

Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 
Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

In the Middle Ages, travelers brought home tales from all over the globe of wondrous and fantastic plants and beasts—but many of these travelers were just relaying stories they’d heard instead of things they’d actually seen. These stories, in turn, were written about by educated men who’d never traveled. And they were illustrated by artists who only had hearsay to go by. It’s no wonder they were completely misunderstood.

1. WAQ WAQ TREE

Bodleian Libraries via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

According to legend, the Waq Waq Tree, which bears human or animal fruit, grows on an island in the Indian Ocean or China Sea. In some of these stories, the fruit begins as human heads that grow into entire bodies, while in others the fruit begins as human babies that mature. Either as the fruit grows, or when it falls, it cries “Waq waq!” There's a possibility that the Waq Waq tree might have been a reference to coconut trees, which has fruit that kind of looks like a human head. The tree began appearing in Islamic art in the 12th and 13th centuries.

2. JINMENJU

Toriyama Sekien via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Jinmenju is a tree similar to the Waq Waq, but the story originates from China and was passed to Japan. According to the legend, the tree produces fruit that has the face of a human child. These faces don’t speak, but they smile and laugh all the time. If they laugh too exuberantly, they fall to the ground. The fruit is both sweet and sour, and the seeds inside also resemble human faces.

3. BARNACLE TREE

The legend of the Barnacle Tree, or Goose Tree, involves two animals and a plant, and it was an attempt to explain several odd phenomena that were observed but misunderstood. In the Middle Ages, people saw black and white geese in Ireland and Scotland in the wintertime, but in the spring, the animals disappeared. No one saw them nest or reproduce, and yet there they were, every winter. (The animals, of course, had migrated and nested elsewhere, but people didn't know about that behavior at the time.) However, small barnacles were seen clinging to driftwood that had white shells and black stalks that looked like the goose—so people came to believe that a tree produced the barnacles as fruit, which grew into the geese. Those barnacles are now known as goose barnacles (Lepas anserifera), and the geese are known as barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis).

4. VEGETABLE LAMB

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary was a legendary plant that produced an animal, native to Central Asia and Europe. Given the names Tartarica barometz (Tartar lamb) and Agnus Scythicus (Scythian lamb), the “vegetable lamb” was described as a plant between 2.5 and 3 feet tall that bore a pod at the end of a stem. The pod eventually opened to reveal a lamb inside. The lamb remained attached to the rest of the plant by its stem, but could eat the vegetation around the plant, as far as the stem reached. Once all that was eaten (or if the stem somehow broke), the lamb would die.

There’s a specimen of the vegetable lamb at the Garden Museum in London. The small picture looks as if it could be a lamb, or an animal’s paw with long claws, or a part of a plant. Once samples were relayed to naturalists in the 17th century, though, it became clear that the “lamb” was part of a plant, and not an animal. The plant was eventually identified as Cibotium barometz, an evergreen fern that produces a hairy cover.

For misunderstood animals from this period, see 20 Bizarre Beasts From Ancient Bestiaries.

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6 Shocking Stories From ‘Myths and Legends’ Host Jason Weiser 

Week after week, most of iTunes’ most popular podcasts remain the same: Serial, This American Life, Fresh Air, Radiolab. And then there’s Myths and Legends.

Call it The Little Podcast That Could: Written, produced, and performed by literature and history buff Jason Weiser in Syracuse, N.Y., this indie show about classic folklore is quickly becoming, well, a thing of legend. 

“It’s like, there are these medium-defining podcasts, and then there’s my little one,” Weiser says of his show, which consistently lands in iTunes’ top 10 and has received a five-star rating. “Honestly, it’s really unbelievable to me that it’s heard by so many people.” 

Initially recorded in his car with a $40 microphone, Myths and Legends traces tales to their surprising origins. Once it started picking up speed, Weiser was able to get enough support through Patreon and memberships to afford better equipment and, thankfully, record indoors.

Weiser says he hasn’t scratched the surface of all the tales he wants to spotlight (“I haven’t even touched Robin Hood!”), and in April he’ll launch a second podcast devoted to Shakespearean stories. In the meantime, below are a few myths and legends Weiser finds particularly entertaining—and somewhat shocking: 

1. KOSCHEI THE DEATHLESS (EPISODES 5A AND 5B)

“He’s kind of like the original Voldemort,” Weiser says of this character from Russian folklore. “Parts are completely ridiculous and parts are really kind of tragic: He has his soul trapped inside an egg, inside a chicken, inside a rabbit, inside a chest buried under a tree on a magical island. He can live forever … but it’s a human story, because he’s extremely lonely. And he kidnaps princesses, but as far as I can tell, he doesn’t hurt them; it’s just for company.”

2. THE PIG-FACED WOMEN (EPISODE 12)

“It sounds bad, but people actually thought in the 1600s through the 1800s that women in England, France, and the Netherlands were hiding in the upper echelons of society and were cursed with the heads of pigs—like, literally having the heads of pigs,” Weiser says. “It was this huge craze for years; people were stopping carriages of rich ladies and peeking in to see if they were hiding pig-faced ladies. At carnivals, people would get bears drunk and shave them and put them in dresses and be like, ‘Come see the pig-faced ladies!’ I’m really surprised by these stories, but I’m also surprised by how much of an impact some of them have had in society.” 

3. JAPANESE FAIRY TALES (EPISODES 11 AND 26)

Weiser’s show encompasses folklore from all over the world, and he’s particularly fond of the episodes he has devoted to Japanese tales. “They’re really well-told little stories that surprised me; they were funny but kind of scary, too,” he says. (For example, it’s safe to say few listeners have heard the ancient tale about the boy who liked to draw cats—but once they do, it’s hard to forget.)

4. Şüräle, AKA THE GUY WHO TICKLES PEOPLE TO DEATH (EPISODE 13A)

“He’s a strange, wooly man with long fingers,” Weiser says of this creature from Turkic folklore. “You’ll run into him in the forest and he’ll challenge you to a tickle fight. … [He’s] a great example of just how bizarre and interesting mythology can be.” 

5. MULAN (EPISODE 4)

Several episodes of Myths and Legends trace Disney-fied characters to their very different origins. “The whole movie is built around her not revealing herself, and the modern adaptations are so inspirational,” Weiser says. “But the original was actually a lot darker. One [adaptation in] a 16th century play is more chiding the men of the audience, like, ‘If a woman can do this … what’s your excuse?’ That was kind of depressing, because Mulan is essentially a really powerful and uplifting story. But it has been different things to different cultures.” 

6. SLEEPING BEAUTY (MEMBERS-ONLY EPISODE)

“I don’t know the Disney story that well, but I’m sure this isn’t in there,” Weiser says, warning me he’s about to get really grim. “In one of the early Sleeping Beauty stories, Prince Charming comes in, finds her asleep, and actually rapes her. She wakes up when she has babies.” He adds, “And the prince is actually married himself. His wife finds out and wants to have Sleeping Beauty burned at the stake," Weiser sighs. “It’s such a dark tale.” 

New episodes of Myths and Legends are released weekly. For more info, head to mythpodcast.com. To read more of Whitney Matheson’s podcast coverage, head to the archive.

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10 Legendary (and Probably Made-Up) Islands
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iStock

Often, islands come to represent places of extremes: they serve as utopias, purgatories, or ultimate dream vacation destinations. When it comes to mythological islands, utopias are especially popular. The Greeks had their Fortunate Islands, or Islands of the Blessed, where the luckiest mortals whiled away their time drinking and sporting. The Irish had a similar concept with their Mag Mell, or Plain of Honey, described as an island paradise where deities frolicked and only the most daring mortals occasionally visited. 

But mythology isn't the only engine creating islands that don't actually exist—some of these legendary land masses popped up on maps after miscalculations by early explorers who interpreted icebergs, fog banks, and mirages as real islands. Some of these cartographic “mistakes” may have been intentional—certain islands depicted on medieval maps might have been invented so they could be named after the patrons who funded the explorations. Even explorer Robert E. Peary wasn't immune: Some say he invented "Crocker Land," a supposedly massive island in the Arctic, to secure funding from San Francisco financier George Crocker. Crocker Land didn’t exist, although that didn’t prevent major American organizations (including the American Museum of Natural History) from sponsoring a four-year expedition to find it.

Much like the fictional Crocker Island, here are 10 more imaginary isles, all of which have a place in world history, literature, or mythology—despite not having a place on the map.

1. Isle of Demons 

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Supposedly located off the coast of Newfoundland, this landmass (sometimes depicted as two islands) appeared on 16th century and early 17th century maps, and was named for the mysterious cries and groans mariners reported hearing through the mist.

The island was given a somewhat more solid identity after 1542, when nobleman and adventurer Jean-François Roberval was instructed by the King of France to found settlements along the North Atlantic coast. He brought his niece, Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval, along for the voyage, but she began a passionate affair with one of Roberval's officers. Annoyed, Roberval put his niece (and maybe the officer—accounts differ), as well as her nurse, ashore on an otherwise unspecified "Isle of Demons" in the St. Lawrence River. Marguerite gave birth on the island, but the child died, as did Marguerite’s lover and nurse. However, the plucky Marguerite survived alone for several years, using her firearms against the wild beasts. After being rescued by Basque fishermen and returning to France, she reported that she had been beset "by beasts or other shapes abominably and unutterably hideous, the brood of hell, howling in baffled fury."  

Marguerite’s story appears in several historical accounts, including versions by Franciscan friar André Thevet and the Queen of Navarre. Still, the location of the “Isle of Demons” on which she landed has never been found for certain. Maritime historian and veteran Atlantic sailor Donald Johnson thinks he has identified it as Fichot Island, close to the Strait of Belle Isle at the northern tip of Newfoundland. Johnson notes that Fichot Island lies on Roberval's course, and is home to a breeding colony of gannets—a type of seabird whose guttural cries, heard only while breeding, may have been taken for the sounds of demons.

2. Antillia 

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Also known as the Isle of Seven Cities, Antillia was a 15th century cartographic phenomenon said to lie far west of Spain and Portugal. Stories about its existence are connected to an Iberian legend in which seven Visigothic bishops and their parishioners fled Muslim conquerors in the eighth century, sailing west and eventually discovering an island where they founded seven settlements.  The bishops burned their ships, so they could never return to their former homeland. 

According to some versions of the legend, many people have visited Antillia but no one has ever left; in other versions of the tale, sailors can see the island from a distance, but the land always vanishes once they approach. Spain and Portugal even once squabbled over the island, despite its non-existence, perhaps because its beaches were said to be strewn with precious metals. By the late 15th century, once the North Atlantic was better mapped, references to Antillia disappeared—although it did lend its name to the Spanish Antilles.

3. Atlantis 

iStock

First mentioned by Plato, Atlantis was supposedly a large island that lay "to the west of the Pillars of Hercules" in the Atlantic Ocean. It was said to be a peaceful but powerful kingdom lost beneath the waves after a violent earthquake was released by the gods as punishment for waging war against Athens. There have been many attempts at identifying the island, although it may have been entirely a creation of Plato’s imagination; some archeologists associate it with the Minoan island of Santorini, north of Crete, whose center collapsed after a volcanic eruption and earthquake around 1500 BC. 

4. Aeaea 

In Greek mythology, Aeaea is the floating home of Circe, the goddess of magic. Circe is said to have spent her time on the island, gifted to her by her father, the Sun, waiting for mortal sailors to land so she could seduce them. (Afterwards, the story goes, she would turn them into pigs.) Some classical scholars have identified Aeaea as the Cape Circeium peninsula on the western coast of Italy, which may have been an island in the days of Homer, or may have looked like one because of the marshes surrounding its base.  

5. Hy-Brasil 

Also known as Country o'Breasal, Brazil Rock, Hy na-Beatha (Isle of Life), Tir fo-Thuin (Land Under the Wave), and by many other names, Brasil (Gaelic for "Isle of the Blessed") is one of the many mythical islands of Irish folklore, but one that nevertheless made several appearances on real maps.   

Like the Mediterranean's Atlantis, Brasil was said to be a place of perfect contentment and immortality. It was also the domain of Breasal, the High King of the World, who held court there every seven years. Breasal had the ability to make the island rise or sink as he pleased, and normally only let the island be visible when his court was in full swing.  

According to legend, Brasil lay "where the sun touched the horizon, or immediately on its other side—usually close enough to see but too far to visit." It first appeared on a map made in 1325 by Genoese cartographer Daloroto, who depicted it as a large area to the southwest of Ireland. (Later maps placed it farther west.) Its shape was usually drawn as a near-perfect circle, bifurcated by a river. Numerous explorers searched for the island, and some, including Italian navigator John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), even claimed to have found it. 

Today, scholars think Brasil may have been a reference to Baffin Island, or to now-sunken lands visible only when sea levels were lower during the last Ice Age, or else an optical illusion produced by layers of hot and cold air refracting light rays.  

6. Baralku 

Among the indigenous Australians of the Yolngu culture, Baralku (or Bralgu) is the island of the dead. The island holds a central place in the Yolngu cosmology—it's where the creator-spirit Barnumbirr is said to live before rising into the sky as the planet Venus each morning. Baralku is also the spot where the three siblings who created the landscape of Australia, the Djanggawul, originated. The island supposedly lies to the east of Arnhem Land in Northern Australia, and the Yolngu believe their souls return there after death.

7. Saint Brendan's Isle  


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

This piece of land was said to have been discovered by Irish abbot and traveler Saint Brendan and his followers in 512, and to be located in the North Atlantic, somewhere west of Northern Africa. Brendan became famous after the publication of the Latin Navigation of St Brendan, an 8th/9th century text that described his voyage in search of the wonderful "Land of Promise" in the Atlantic Ocean. The book was a medieval best-seller, and gave the saint his nickname, "Brendan the Navigator." The island was said to be thickly wooded, filled with rich fruit and flowers. Tales of St. Brendan's Isle inspired Christopher Columbus, among others, and had an important influence on medieval cartography. Sightings were reported as late as the 18th century.

8. Avalon 

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

First mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century Historia regum Britanniae, Avalon is the place where the legendary King Arthur's sword is forged, and where he is sent to recover after being wounded in battle. The island was said to be the domain of Arthur's half-sister, sorceress Morgan le Fay, as well as her eight sisters. Starting in the 12th century, Avalon was identified with Glastonbury in Somerset, in connection with Celtic legends about a paradisiacal “island of glass.” Twelfth century monks at Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have discovered Arthur’s bones—although later historians believe their “discovery” was a publicity stunt to raise money for Abbey repairs. 

9. Island of Flame 

In ancient Egyptian mythology, the Island of Flame (also known as the Island of Peace) was the magical birthplace of the gods and part of the kingdom of Osiris. It was said to have emerged out of primeval waters and to lay far to the East, beyond the boundaries of the world of the living. Associated with the rising sun, it was a place of everlasting light.  

10. Thule

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

For the Greeks and Romans, Thule existed at the northernmost limit of their known world. It first appears in a lost work by the Greek explorer Pytheas, who supposedly found it in the 4th century BC. Polybius says that "Pytheas ... has led many people into error by saying that he traversed the whole of Britain on foot … and telling us also about Thule, those regions in which there was no longer any proper land nor sea nor air, but a sort of mixture of all three of the consistency of a jelly-fish in which one can neither walk nor sail, holding everything together, so to speak." Later scholars have interpreted Thule as the Orkneys, Shetlands, Iceland, or possibly Norway, while the Nazis believed Thule was the ancient homeland of the Aryan race.  

Bonus: People Used to Think California was an Island  

Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, many Europeans believed that California was an island. Like other islands on this list, the place was reported as being a kind of paradise. In fact, the name "California" first appears in a romantic novel penned by Spanish author Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo, who described it as an island filled with gold and precious gems, populated by a race of Amazons who rode griffins.  

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