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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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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Balloon/Poe, iStock
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When Edgar Allan Poe Pranked New York City—And Inspired Jules Verne
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Balloon/Poe, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Balloon/Poe, iStock

On April 13, 1844, a special extra of the New York Sun announced: “ASTOUNDING NEWS! … THE ATLANTIC CROSSED IN THREE DAYS! SIGNAL TRIUMPH OF MR. MONCK MASON’S FLYING MACHINE!!!” According to the article, a balloon heading from England toward Paris had been blown off-course and landed safely near Charleston, South Carolina. The “report” was submitted by a journalist who was also a well-known short-story writer: Edgar Allan Poe.

There was just one problem. He had made the whole thing up.

“The Balloon Hoax,” as it later became known, was Poe’s idea of a calling card. He had just moved to Manhattan, looking for work as a journalist. What better way to announce you’ve arrived than to prank an entire city?

The possibility of balloon travel had ignited the popular imagination since the 1780s, when the Montgolfier brothers built the first balloon to carry a man into the air. By the 1830s, balloonists had successfully crossed the British Channel, and they had begun talking about attempts to cross the Atlantic in earnest.

Newspapers were often full of the exploits of daring aeronauts, and the interest in ballooning apparently led to some fictional takes on the pursuit. Poe’s story in The Sun wasn’t the first: In 1835, Richard Adams Locke published a widely credited account of a balloon reaching the moon. The success infuriated Poe, who had just two months earlier published a story about a man returning from the moon in a balloon, “Hans Pfaall—A Tale.” Poe was certain Locke had plagiarized him, but Locke received all the glory for his “Moon Hoax.” (Ironically, Poe’s own hoax included long sections from the aeronaut Thomas Monck Mason’s 1836 account of his balloon voyage from England to Germany.) Poe decided he would do a little self-promotion while outdoing his old enemy: He submitted the hoax to the same paper that had published Locke’s. The paper published the account with glee, completely unaware that it was fake.

According to Poe's report, a balloon called the Victoria held eight people and made the crossing in 75 hours. At the time, it took two weeks to cross the Atlantic by boat, so the potential for a voyage in which “the broad Atlantic becomes a mere lake,” as one of the passengers supposedly remarked, created quite a stir. Poe later claimed that when the Sun first announced the special Extra with details of the fantastic voyage, “the whole square surrounding the Sun building was literally besieged … I never witnessed more intense excitement to get possession of a newspaper. As soon as copies made their way into the streets, they were bought up, at almost any price, from the newsboys.”

Poe included an abundance of scientific detail to give the article an air of authority, from precise measurements of key components, down to the screws and steel wires, to the combined weight of the fictional passengers (1200 pounds). His main characters were also based on real people: Poe named the pilot after Monck Mason, the famed aeronaut whose accounts he had liberally borrowed from.

The report was picked up in the next day's New York Sunday Times (no connection to The New York Times, which had yet to be founded) and Baltimore Sun. Other papers were less convinced of the report's veracity, and seemed to realize that further news should have come up from Charleston. (One contemporary account suggests that Poe himself revealed the hoax by drunkenly boasting about it in front of the crowd at the newspaper’s headquarters.)

Two days after the hoax first appeared, the New York Sun published a retraction. "The mails from the South last Saturday night not having brought a confirmation of the arrival of the Balloon from England ... we are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous," the paper said. However, they added, "We by no means think such a project impossible." Astoundingly, balloonists would not truly accomplish a trans-Atlantic flight until 1978.

Poe believed his little trick would demonstrate his mastery of scientific description and artful writing. He was so assured of his skill, he didn’t seem to realize that publishing known misinformation would hurt his chances of finding work as a journalist—which is exactly what happened.

But the hoax did inspire someone else: Jules Verne later read it and began working on the adventure that would first bring him fame, Five Weeks in a Balloon, published in 1863. That tale was an immediate success, earning him the financial independence that would allow him to go on to write blockbusters such as A Journey to the Center of the Earth and Around the World in Eighty Days. Whether Poe would have appreciated Verne’s achievements, so heavily influenced by his own work, is another matter.

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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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