Syndicated from the Web

GETTING AHEAD (OR TWO?) WITH VIETNAM’S VIKING DEER – THE LONG-RUNNING SAGA OF A SLOW-RUNNING MYSTERY BEAST

by on Jun.02, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

The mounted trophy head of a quang khem in Vietnam’s Central Highlands Animal Museum (© Copyright holder unclear – the photograph appears uncredited in the 2010 Vietnamese article cited below, and also uncredited here on the It’s Something Wiki site; reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/research/review purposes only)
During the 1990s, an astonishing array of new artiodactyl (even-toed) ungulate species was revealed in Vietnam and its neighbouring Asian countries of Laos and Cambodia. These included (most famously) the saola or Vu Quang ox Pseudoryx nghetinhensis, an extraordinary buffalo-like beast but sporting long slender antelope-like horns and legs; the aptly-named giant muntjac Muntiacus (originally Megamuntiacus) vuquangensis, by far the largest species of muntjac known to exist today; several smaller muntjac species, and, most controversial of all, the holy goat (aka kting voar) Pseudonovibos spiralis, a creature so elusive that it is still known only from native descriptions and a series of preserved tightly-spiraled horns, some (but NOT all) of which have been shown to be fakes, merely the deftly modified horns of domestic cattle, leading certain skeptics to speculate whether it is a real animal at all (click here for more details on ShukerNature regarding this much-disputed mammal).
An extensive account of all of these new species and their respective discoveries can be found in my book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals(2012).
Also reported during that momentous decade of Indochinese ungulate unveilings was a mysterious deer known to the local Vu Quang hunters as the quang khem, and said by them to be very different indeed from all other deer native to this remote Vietnamese location. Yet unlike all of the other ungulates name-checked here, more than 20 years later this particular one remains scientifically undescribed and unnamed.
First page of an unidentified, undated Vietnamese magazine article featuring drawings illustrating the heads of the giant muntjac (left), the saola (centre), and the quang khem (right) (© Copyright holder(s) currently unknown to me – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/research/review purposes only)
Here’s what I wrote about the quang khem (aka Chinh’s deer, honouring its discoverer) in my above-cited encyclopaedia:
In 1994, Vietnamese biologist Nguyen Ngoc Chinh visited Pu Mat, just north of Vu Quang, in search of Vu Quang oxen [saola]. He didn’t find any, but returned instead with local reports of a strange deer known to hunters as the quang khem – ‘slow-running deer’. One hunter had also given him the skull of a quang khem, which was very unusual, on account of its bizarre antlers – for these were nothing more than primitive unbranched spikes that bore a startling resemblance to the horns on a Viking’s helmet!
Technically, this odd-looking deer had actually been discovered three decades earlier – but no-one had realised! Shortly after Chinh’s findings, MacKinnon [saola discoverer Dr John MacKinnon] spotted some quang khem skulls in a box of bones at Hanoi’s Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources – bones that had been collected as long ago as the late 1960s, but which had not previously been examined or sorted. DNA samples were sent to [zoologist Dr Peter] Arctander at Copenhagen University, who was unable to match them with the DNA of any known species. Nevertheless, the elusive Vietnamese slow-running deer has still to be scientifically described and named.
In an e-mail of 15 December 1999, Prof. Colin Groves mentioned to me that he hadn’t heard anything more concerning this deer from Arctander or anyone else. He remained unsure of its likely zoological identity, being “unable to decide whether it was just sambar with undeveloped antlers (i.e. very young or very old, “going back”), or a sort of paedomorphic sambar. Certainly the evidence indicated Cervus (Rusa)”. Clearly, therefore, whatever it does prove to be, the quang khem is one mystery deer that is not a muntjac.
And that was where matters concerning this most cryptic of cryptozoological deer have remained ever since (ignoring a few inaccurate mentions of it online in which it has regrettably been confused with the saola) – or so I thought, until yesterday. That was when I was contacted by British writer/journalist Fergus Blair, who shares my interest in the above-listed new ungulates – so much so that he had succeeded in uncovering (and very kindly sharing with me – thanks Fergus!) an online article documenting the quang khem that was completely new to me. Please click here to access it (although spasmodically, and for reasons entirely unknown to me, it won’t always open, but fortunately I downloaded and retained on file a copy at a time when it was accessible – hence a screenshot of its quang khem section is included further down in this present ShukerNature blog article of mine). Having said that, my lack of knowledge concerning this article was due in no small part to the fact that it was written entirely in Vietnamese and had only appeared in a Vietnamese publication.
Vietnam map showing location of Central Highlands region (© Dr Blofeld/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
Much as I wish it were otherwise, I freely confess that whatever linguistic talents I may possess do not encompass Vietnamese, so I resorted to Google Translate in the hope of obtaining at least some degree of enlightenment concerning its contents. Happily, the result was by no means as garbled as I’d feared it may be. So here, for what may be the first time in any English publication, is the basic information concerning the quang khem as contained in that Vietnamese article.
Published on 8 May 2010 by a local Vietnamese government website entitled Lâm Đng(but no specific author details given), the article is entitled ‘Phát hin loài mang ln và loài quang khem có Lâm Đng ‘.
This title loosely translates as ‘Detecting large deer [giant muntjac] and khem deer [quang khem] in Lâm Đng’. Lâm Đng is a province in Vietnam’s Central Highlands region, the only Central Highland province that does not share a border with Vietnam’s lower left-hand neighbour Cambodia.
Map showing location of Lâm Đng province within Vietnam (© TUBS/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
The quang khem was the second of the two species to be documented in the article (following an account of the giant muntjac’s presence in Lâm Đng), and here is the information concerning it as contained in the article.
The quang khem account opens with the heading ‘ LOÀI NAI ĐAU ĐINH’, seemingly the local name in Lâm Đng for this creature, and which loosely translates as ‘painful-nail deer species’. Reiterated a little later here, ‘nail’ is a descriptive term originating from local hunters that refers to this deer’s unbranched antlers, which the hunters liken to large nails (as in tacks used for hanging pictures on walls, etc, rather than fingernails or toenails), so presumably the ‘painful’ adjective suggests that these antlers’ distal points are very sharp and therefore painful to touch?
Anyway, the article then states that in a survey on Pu Mat forest (Nghe An) in December 2002, a joint survey team between the Forest Inventory and Planning Institute (FIPI) [Vin điu tra quy hoch rng, in Vietnamese] and Nghe An Forest Protection Department collected a pair of antlers and some skull fragments from a specimen of a strange ungulate species that local hunters called the quang khem.  Realizing that this specimen had many new features, the survey team gathered its components together to study them and the specimen has been sent to a number of leading animal experts of Vietnam and abroad (none of which was named in the article) for inspection. Experts have confirmed that this is a specimen of a species that has differences from all species of the genera Cervus (such species being known in Vietnamese as Nai) and Muntiacus (such species being known in Vietnamese as Hoanh) of the deer family (Cervidae) that are known in Vietnam and around the world. This may be a new species of the deer family, but the sample collected, consisting only of a pair of antlers and a few skull fragments, is probably insufficient to confirm this.
Just in case the 2010 Vietnamese article proves inaccessible when the above link to it is clicked, here is a screenshot of its quang khem section – please click image to enlarge it for reading purposes, assuming that you can read Vietnamese (© www.lamdong.gov.vn – included here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/research/review purposes only)
Based on documents regarding the quang khem published by Nguyen Ngoc Chinh in Forestry Journal [the full reference to this paper is: Nguyen Ngoc Chinh, ‘Opinions About Quang Khem, a Newly Discovered Deer, Forestry Journal, no. 6, 1993 – which I wish to track down and read if at all possible], and upon comparisons made with samples of the quang khem currently stored in the Animal Division of FIPI, we also identified this species in Lâm Đng.
Evidence of this province’s quang khem specimens is currently stored in the Central Highlands Animal Museum, including two complete heads (mounted as trophies [a colour photograph of one of these trophy heads is included in this article]), one skull and antlers, and three pairs of antlers . The first two samples were provided by Mr Nguyen Minh Tu (Bao Loc), and skull samples and pairs of antlers provided by Mr Tran Van Thuan (Da Lat).
Through investigation, it was known that strange deer were found in Di Linh, Bao Loc, Cat Tien (Lâm Đng) and that hunters called this strange deer ‘nail head’. This is because its antlers did not branch, thus resembling two big nails.
Adult male sambar Cervus (=Rusa) unicolor, exhibiting branched antlers typical of adult specimens (© Sks2610/Wikipedia – CC  BY-SA 4.0 licence)
The body weight of this deer is about 90-100 kg for adult males. Its fawn colour is similar to that of the sambar Cervus unicolor, so it is difficult to distinguish between these two deer types when they eat grass on the edge of the forest during the period when the males are without antlers. Specimens of this deer being stored at the Central Highlands Animal Museum allow a closer study of it to confirm whether it is a new species of deer and give a scientific name to it. All work is waiting for the conclusion of the animal experts.
That account was published in 2010, but a decade later the quang khem seemingly remains an enigma, in taxonomic limbo, because it has yet to receive any formal recognition either as a valid new species or as merely a freak form of the sambar.
Perhaps as Prof. Groves had suggested in his email of December 1999 to me, it may constitute a paedomorphic anomaly. That is to say, it consists of developmentally-abnormal individuals in which the simple unbranched spike-like antlers normally seen only in young deer specimens have been retained by sexually-mature adult deer, rather than having been replaced by the developed branched antlers typical of adult deer.
Juvenile male sambar sporting unbranched spike-shaped antlers (© Michael Mayer/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
Of course, there is always the possibility – as evidenced by the existence of the above-translated Vietnamese article from 2010 but ostensibly unpublicised outside Vietnam until now – that new research and findings have indeed been published, perhaps including full details of who the unnamed experts were to whom the quang khem antlers and skull fragments collected by the survey team in December 2002, and what their considered conclusions concerning the quang khem’s identity were, but not in Western publications, only in Vietnamese ones that have been overlooked in the West. Even so, had any such publications contained a formal scientific description and taxonomic name for the quang khem as a recognised new species, it seems highly unlikely that this very notable news would not have become known internationally in mammalogical circles. Groves in particular would definitely have learnt of it, as he maintained countless contacts with leading researchers globally.
Certainly, it would appear very likely that DNA samples could be extracted from the two mounted trophy heads and compared with samples from the sambar and other deer native to Vietnam and beyond to determine whether or not they did indeed differ and, if so, by a sufficient degree to warrant the quang khem being officially recognised as a valid new species. So why has this not been attempted – assuming that it hasn’t?
Similarly, comparative morphometric analyses conducted upon the retained skulls could surely provide morphological clues as to just how similar or otherwise they are to those of other deer species. Yet once again, nothing appears to have been done (unless it has been, but the findings are currently concealed within Vietnamese articles not readily accessible to Western researchers?). All very mysterious – every bit as mysterious, in fact, as the quang khem itself!
Bill Rebsamen’s painting of the giant muntjac, the other deer species documented in the 2010 Vietnamese article (© William M. Rebsamen)
Needless to say, an obvious way of investigating this mystery within a mystery is to contact Vietnam’s FIPI and its Central Highlands Animal Museum, collectively holding these quang khem specimens – but finding current contact details has not proven easy so far. I did unearth an email contact from 2007 for FIPI, so I emailed to it an enquiry concerning FIPI’s quang khem specimens and any current news concerning the latter cryptid’s scientific status, only to obtain by speedy return one of the dreaded MAILER-DAEMON Failure Notices informing me that the recipient email address in question was no longer valid. Consequently, I am presently seeking a more recent FIPI contact, as well as one for the Central Highlands Animal Museum.
The situation concerning the latter museum is particularly curious, inasmuch as I have been unable to locate any confirmation of its existence! The most notable museum in the Central Highlands region would seem to be Dak Lak Museum, situated in the heart of Buon Ma Thuot City, but this establishment is not located in Lâm Đng, and is by no means devoted entirely or even predominantly to animals. On the contrary, it displays a wide range of exhibits, from ethnic culture, archaeology, and history, as well as biodiversity, and includes films and documentaries, not just physical objects. Another possible identity for this ‘missing museum’ is, as suggested to me by Fergus Blair, the Tay Nguyen Biological Institute (originally Vietnam’s Redemptorist monastery), situated on Tung Lam hill in Lâm Đng. The second of its five floors serves as a biology museum. If anyone reading this article of mine has any information or suggestions concerning or for contacting FIPI and/or whichever museum the so-called Central Highlands Animal Museum is (or was – perhaps it did exist at the time of the 2010 Vietnamese article’s appearance online but has since closed down?), I would greatly appreciate details.
So, to quote Sherlock Holmes, the game is afoot! If I do succeed in obtaining additional details concerning Vietnam’s veritable Viking deer, I shall of course reveal all here on ShukerNature, thereby adding, I hope, a new chapter to the long-running saga of the slow-running deer. Watch this space!
My sincere thanks to Fergus Blair for most kindly bringing the 2010 online Vietnamese article to my attention and sharing his associated thoughts with me.

EPILOGUE: Today, the Lâm Đng local government website’s 8 May 2010 article re the quang khem and giant muntjac appears to have vanished. Whenever I’ve attempted to access the article online this morning, I’ve simply received an automatic 404 NOT FOUND message. How fortunate, therefore, that I downloaded a copy of it yesterday when it was still accessible online! The ephemeral nature of the internet strikes again!

The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals, featuring on its front cover Bill Rebsamen’s beautiful close-up painting of Vietnam’s saola (foreground) in the company of the Congo’s okapi (background) – two of the 20th Century’s most significant and iconic cryptozoological success stories (© Dr Karl Shuker/William M. Rebsamen/Coachwhip Publications)

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THE GREEN CHILDREN OF WOOLPIT – INVESTIGATING A MEDIEVAL MYSTERY

by on May.04, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Vintage colourised illustration recreating the Green Children of Woolpit (public domain)
This morning, I received a communication from a longstanding ShukerNature reader asking me why I had never blogged about the Green Children of Woolpit, one of the most perplexing unresolved mysteries of medieval times. In fact, as I mentioned in my reply, I have blogged about them – but not on ShukerNature.
Instead, a detailed article by me investigating this fascinating, highly controversial subject from many different angles appears in a lesser-known blog of mine, The Eclectarium of Doctor Shuker, which I set up several years ago in order to document a very diverse – indeed, decidedly eclectic – range of unusual subjects that interest me but which generally (although not always) fall outside the scope (cryptozoology, animal anomalies, zoomythology, and mainstream natural history) covered on ShukerNature.
Subjects covered so far in my Eclectarium include the biblical Nephilim, living dolls, the giant animate bronze man Talos from Greek mythology, the history of circus clowns, haunted machines, the head of Ozymandias, dragons in Heavy Metal music, James Dean, cloud-busters, devil’s hair and steam devils, eccentric British folk festivals, divination, the porcelain tower of Nanking, and much more besides.
I confess that work commitments and other matters, not to mention the sad fact that it has attracted far less attention from readers than ShukerNature has done, have seen my contributions to my Eclectarium blog fall off almost entirely in recent times (something that I plan to remedy). But perhaps various of you who may never have visited it (or even known about it) will now seek it out, especially as in order to fill a Green Children-sized gap in ShukerNature’s content I am now linking directly to my Eclectarium article concerning them – so please click hereto read it.
And who knows, once you’ve done so you may find other Eclectarium articles of mine there that will interest you too, especially during these grim times of international lockdown tedium. You can thank me later!
Standing by the famous sign in the village of Woolpit, Suffolk, depicting the Green Children, during a visit that I paid there on 14 July 2008 (© Dr Karl Shuker)
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JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL – DARE TO BE DIFFERENT, DARE TO DARE!

by on May.02, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

On wings of inspiration and life (© José Moutinho/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)
The book of the film, as they say, took Bach eight years to complete.
He maintains that the story came to him in a vision.
“I was walking home one night in 1959. I heard a voice say ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull.’ I was scared to death and ran home, locking the door behind me,” said Bach.
“As I sat on the bed a bright vision of a seagull flying alone suddenly appeared. The bird started talking about his life.
“I wrote down every word he told me. Then he disappeared.
“I thought I had a great story to write. But I realised I only had half of it. I could not finish it.
“It was eight years before the seagull returned and talked to me again. I got the rest of the story, dug out the old manuscript and finished the book.”
          Interview with Richard Bach, in Daily Mail (London), 17 January 1973
It was during the late 1970s as a university undergraduate zoology student when I first read Richard Bach’s bestselling short novella Jonathan Livingston Seagull, originally published in 1970, followed three years later by a movie version. The novella was truly magical and inspirational, greatly influencing my outlook on life ever afterwards, and I have re-read it many times since then.
My original copy of Richard Bach’s bestselling novel Jonathan Livingston Seagull (Pan paperback edition, 12th printing, 1976) (© Richard Bach/Pan Books – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Yet until last night I had never seen the movie version, due not only to it being released several years before I’d read the book but also to it being neither a box-office nor a critical success and consequently sinking without trace afterwards. Many years later, I happened upon this long-forgotten film in VHS videocassette format, which I duly purchased, but although I fully intended to watch it, somehow I never did – probably put off by the negative reviews that it had received when released – until last night, and what a revelation it proved to be.
My VHS videocassette of the 1973 movie version of Jonathan Livingston Seagull (© Hall Bartlett/Paramount Pictures – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Live-action throughout, the movie stays close both in content and in style to the book, telling the story of a gull named Jonathan Livingston Seagull who is not content simply to be one of the flock, to be satisfied with mediocrity, suppressed by conformity, and never to exhibit any trace of individuality. Instead, fascinated with flight, he pushes himself both physically and spiritually to fly ever faster and soar ever higher, to see the whole world, not just the very limited portion of it occupied by his flock. Unfortunately, however, this does not endear him to the flock’s Elders, who initially issue him with stern warnings to conform, not to stand out from his fellow gulls, but, when Jonathan chooses to ignore them in his Olympianesque quest to be faster, higher, without equal, formally banish him from the flock forever, an outcast alone and unprotected thereafter – but also free at last to pursue his goals, his dreams, his ambitions, unhindered and unsuppressed.
After travelling to parts of the globe never visited by other seagulls, such as deserts and snowy forests, and surpassing all of his previous speed and altitude records, in the movie’s second half Jonathan is visited by some radiant, shimmering-white gulls from a higher plane of existence, semi-divine and capable of flying feats far exceeding even his own awesome abilities, but who are nonetheless very impressed by what he has achieved and by his refusal to allow his individuality to be denied by the flock. So they become his teachers, his mentors, enabling Jonathan to achieve ever greater successes in his quest for perfection, until eventually he in turn becomes a teacher, and with a small flock of acolytes, including one particular protégé named Fletcher, he returns to his old flock and tries to teach them what he has learnt. However, the repressive Elders are outraged and command the flock to kill him and his followers. So they fly away, but not before their words have incited in a few members of the flock a passion to discover their own unique selves and uncover their own unique abilities.
Semi-divine and shimmering (© Новинская Г.А/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
The cinematography of this very unusual yet truly evangelical movie, entirely bereft of humans but featuring breathtaking footage of gulls both in flight individually and gathering together in cacophonous bickering flocks to seize fishes drawn up in trawlers’ nets, is absolutely stunning even today, almost 50 years after this movie was first released, so just how incredibly spectacular it must have looked on the big screen in its cinema release back in 1973 can scarcely be imagined. And on top of all of this is an extremely evocative, melodic soundtrack whose music and songs were written and performed by none other than Neil Diamond, and which achieved commercial success worldwide following its release in 1974.
The soundtrack album from the movie version of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, with all music and songs composed and performed by Neil Diamond (© Neil Diamond/Columbia – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
With so much going for it, what went wrong – why did this marvellous movie flop? To my mind, the only tenable answer is that not a great deal happens in it – as can be seen from my above précis of its plot, a plot that is as much metaphorical as it is literal, just as it is in the book. But whereas the book is very short (just 93 pages in total, and which include many full-page illustrations), the movie was originally 120 minutes long (cut to 90 minutes in the video version that I watched), and whereas I absolutely loved its beautiful panoramic shots, exquisite scenery, and extremely tranquil ambience throughout, not to mention its plot’s inspirational theme and stirring music, to audiences more accustomed to action and adventure it may conceivably have come across as uneventful to the point of being dull. (Indeed, presumably fearing such an outcome, the movie’s makers insisted upon inserting a scene in which Jonathan is attacked by a hawk for invading what the hawk considers to be its very own section of sky – a scene that does not appear in the book and which Bach reputedly hated.)
Yet if this opinion of mine is indeed correct, it means that such audiences entirely misunderstood what this magical film (and book) is all about. It is NOT in any way, shape, or form a conventional animal movie, simply portraying the adventures or life story of some cute creature. Instead, it is a glorious pictorial paean to individuality – to be yourself, not subdued or repressed by the strictures of society to conform, but instead to pursue your own dreams, to create and follow your own pathway through life, ever striving to achieve your own goals, neither hindered nor lured by mediocrity or mundanity. Dare to be different, dare to be daring and uncaring of criticism or jealousy from those who cannot or will not accept anything that challenges their rigid, inflexible status quo, their blinkered worldview, their comfortable conservatism.
A lesser black-backed gull Larus fuscus, the species that Jonathan is portrayed as in the movie (Having said that, there is one scene in which he briefly, inexplicably, changes between consecutive shots from a lesser black-backed gull into a herring gull L. argentatus and then back into a lesser black-backed again – but hey, what’s a little interspecific interchange among friends!) (© Marek Szczepanek-Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
Watching this wonderful, life-affirming movie, I recalled so vividly how my mother Mary Shuker had always encouraged me to embrace these very same ideals – to be myself, to pursue what interested me, to dismiss those who sought to discredit or denigrate my passions, possessions, and passage through life on my own terms in my own way, and above all else, just as this movie and book also exhort, to dare to be different. This probably explains why instead of spending a life of tedium ticking boxes of conventionality and filling in the forms of conformity, I can look back upon what for me has been an unconventional, non-conformist, but thoroughly fascinating career in cryptozoology, with side-helpings of poetry, world travel, and quizzing.
I urge you to watch this movie if you can find it (sadly, it’s not readily accessible either in DVD or videocassette format nowadays, but maybe it can be streamed?), and above all else to read the original book. It might just change your life – it certainly changed mine.
An article concerning this movie, published on 17 January 1973 by London’s Daily Mail newspaper in one of the scrapbooks that I used to compile as a youngster and which were the predecessors of what became my ever-expanding archive of cryptozoology and (un)natural history (© Daily Mail – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only) – please click on image to enlarge for reading purposes.
POSTSCRIPT
The original novel consisted of three parts, each one concerned with a different stage in Jonathan’s personal voyage of discovery, but in 2014 it was republished with a new, fourth part added, set 600 years after the previous events and portraying a further dimension in the never-ending odyssey of his sublime, immortal life. So I definitely need to read this now-complete edition, and once again enable my soul to soar heavenward on the bright wings of a seabird who dared.
Quotes from Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach (© Richard Bach / image found online, © unknown to me – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
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JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL – DARE TO BE DIFFERENT, DARE TO DARE!

by on May.02, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

On wings of inspiration and life (© José Moutinho/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)
The book of the film, as they say, took Bach eight years to complete.
He maintains that the story came to him in a vision.
“I was walking home one night in 1959. I heard a voice say ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull.’ I was scared to death and ran home, locking the door behind me,” said Bach.
“As I sat on the bed a bright vision of a seagull flying alone suddenly appeared. The bird started talking about his life.
“I wrote down every word he told me. Then he disappeared.
“I thought I had a great story to write. But I realised I only had half of it. I could not finish it.
“It was eight years before the seagull returned and talked to me again. I got the rest of the story, dug out the old manuscript and finished the book.”
          Interview with Richard Bach, in Daily Mail (London), 17 January 1973
It was during the late 1970s as a university undergraduate zoology student when I first read Richard Bach’s bestselling short novella Jonathan Livingston Seagull, originally published in 1970, followed three years later by a movie version. The novella was truly magical and inspirational, greatly influencing my outlook on life ever afterwards, and I have re-read it many times since then.
My original copy of Richard Bach’s bestselling novel Jonathan Livingston Seagull (Pan paperback edition, 12th printing, 1976) (© Richard Bach/Pan Books – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Yet until last night I had never seen the movie version, due not only to it being released several years before I’d read the book but also to it being neither a box-office nor a critical success and consequently sinking without trace afterwards. Many years later, I happened upon this long-forgotten film in VHS videocassette format, which I duly purchased, but although I fully intended to watch it, somehow I never did – probably put off by the negative reviews that it had received when released – until last night, and what a revelation it proved to be.
My VHS videocassette of the 1973 movie version of Jonathan Livingston Seagull (© Hall Bartlett/Paramount Pictures – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Live-action throughout, the movie stays close both in content and in style to the book, telling the story of a gull named Jonathan Livingston Seagull who is not content simply to be one of the flock, to be satisfied with mediocrity, suppressed by conformity, and never to exhibit any trace of individuality. Instead, fascinated with flight, he pushes himself both physically and spiritually to fly ever faster and soar ever higher, to see the whole world, not just the very limited portion of it occupied by his flock. Unfortunately, however, this does not endear him to the flock’s Elders, who initially issue him with stern warnings to conform, not to stand out from his fellow gulls, but, when Jonathan chooses to ignore them in his Olympianesque quest to be faster, higher, without equal, formally banish him from the flock forever, an outcast alone and unprotected thereafter – but also free at last to pursue his goals, his dreams, his ambitions, unhindered and unsuppressed.
After travelling to parts of the globe never visited by other seagulls, such as deserts and snowy forests, and surpassing all of his previous speed and altitude records, in the movie’s second half Jonathan is visited by some radiant, shimmering-white gulls from a higher plane of existence, semi-divine and capable of flying feats far exceeding even his own awesome abilities, but who are nonetheless very impressed by what he has achieved and by his refusal to allow his individuality to be denied by the flock. So they become his teachers, his mentors, enabling Jonathan to achieve ever greater successes in his quest for perfection, until eventually he in turn becomes a teacher, and with a small flock of acolytes, including one particular protégé named Fletcher, he returns to his old flock and tries to teach them what he has learnt. However, the repressive Elders are outraged and command the flock to kill him and his followers. So they fly away, but not before their words have incited in a few members of the flock a passion to discover their own unique selves and uncover their own unique abilities.
Semi-divine and shimmering (© Новинская Г.А/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
The cinematography of this very unusual yet truly evangelical movie, entirely bereft of humans but featuring breathtaking footage of gulls both in flight individually and gathering together in cacophonous bickering flocks to seize fishes drawn up in trawlers’ nets, is absolutely stunning even today, almost 50 years after this movie was first released, so just how incredibly spectacular it must have looked on the big screen in its cinema release back in 1973 can scarcely be imagined. And on top of all of this is an extremely evocative, melodic soundtrack whose music and songs were written and performed by none other than Neil Diamond, and which achieved commercial success worldwide following its release in 1974.
The soundtrack album from the movie version of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, with all music and songs composed and performed by Neil Diamond (© Neil Diamond/Columbia – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
With so much going for it, what went wrong – why did this marvellous movie flop? To my mind, the only tenable answer is that not a great deal happens in it – as can be seen from my above précis of its plot, a plot that is as much metaphorical as it is literal, just as it is in the book. But whereas the book is very short (just 93 pages in total, and which include many full-page illustrations), the movie was originally 120 minutes long (cut to 90 minutes in the video version that I watched), and whereas I absolutely loved its beautiful panoramic shots, exquisite scenery, and extremely tranquil ambience throughout, not to mention its plot’s inspirational theme and stirring music, to audiences more accustomed to action and adventure it may conceivably have come across as uneventful to the point of being dull. (Indeed, presumably fearing such an outcome, the movie’s makers insisted upon inserting a scene in which Jonathan is attacked by a hawk for invading what the hawk considers to be its very own section of sky – a scene that does not appear in the book and which Bach reputedly hated.)
Yet if this opinion of mine is indeed correct, it means that such audiences entirely misunderstood what this magical film (and book) is all about. It is NOT in any way, shape, or form a conventional animal movie, simply portraying the adventures or life story of some cute creature. Instead, it is a glorious pictorial paean to individuality – to be yourself, not subdued or repressed by the strictures of society to conform, but instead to pursue your own dreams, to create and follow your own pathway through life, ever striving to achieve your own goals, neither hindered nor lured by mediocrity or mundanity. Dare to be different, dare to be daring and uncaring of criticism or jealousy from those who cannot or will not accept anything that challenges their rigid, inflexible status quo, their blinkered worldview, their comfortable conservatism.
A lesser black-backed gull Larus fuscus, the species that Jonathan is portrayed as in the movie (Having said that, there is one scene in which he briefly, inexplicably, changes between consecutive shots from a lesser black-backed gull into a herring gull L. argentatus and then back into a lesser black-backed again – but hey, what’s a little interspecific interchange among friends!) (© Marek Szczepanek-Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
Watching this wonderful, life-affirming movie, I recalled so vividly how my mother Mary Shuker had always encouraged me to embrace these very same ideals – to be myself, to pursue what interested me, to dismiss those who sought to discredit or denigrate my passions, possessions, and passage through life on my own terms in my own way, and above all else, just as this movie and book also exhort, to dare to be different. This probably explains why instead of spending a life of tedium ticking boxes of conventionality and filling in the forms of conformity, I can look back upon what for me has been an unconventional, non-conformist, but thoroughly fascinating career in cryptozoology, with side-helpings of poetry, world travel, and quizzing.
I urge you to watch this movie if you can find it (sadly, it’s not readily accessible either in DVD or videocassette format nowadays, but maybe it can be streamed?), and above all else to read the original book. It might just change your life – it certainly changed mine.
An article concerning this movie, published on 17 January 1973 by London’s Daily Mail newspaper in one of the scrapbooks that I used to compile as a youngster and which were the predecessors of what became my ever-expanding archive of cryptozoology and (un)natural history (© Daily Mail – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only) – please click on image to enlarge for reading purposes.
POSTSCRIPT
The original novel consisted of three parts, each one concerned with a different stage in Jonathan’s personal voyage of discovery, but in 2014 it was republished with a new, fourth part added, set 600 years after the previous events and portraying a further dimension in the never-ending odyssey of his sublime, immortal life. So I definitely need to read this now-complete edition, and once again enable my soul to soar heavenward on the bright wings of a seabird who dared.
Quotes from Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach (© Richard Bach / image found online, © unknown to me – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
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THE PHOENIX AND THE PARADISE BIRDS

by on Apr.27, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Exquisite vintage chromolithograph depicting three different bird of paradise species – greater, six-wired, and little king (public domain)
In the Garden of Paradise, beneath the Tree of Knowledge, bloomed a rose bush. Here, in the first rose, a bird was born: his flight was like the flashing of light, his plumage was beauteous, and his song ravishing.
But when Eve plucked the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, when she and Adam were driven from Paradise, there fell from the flaming sword of the cherub a spark into the nest of the bird, which blazed up forthwith. The bird perished in the flames; but from the red egg in the nest there fluttered aloft a new one – the one solitary Phoenix bird. The fable tells us that he dwells in Arabia, and that every hundred years he burns himself to death in his nest; but each time a new Phoenix, the only one in the world, rises up from the red egg.
The bird flutters round us, swift as light, beauteous in colour, charming in song. When a mother sits by her infant’s cradle, he stands on the pillow, and, with his wings, forms a glory around the infant’s head. He flies through the chamber of content, and brings sunshine into it, and the violets on the humble table smell doubly sweet.
But the Phoenix is not the bird of Arabia alone. He wings his way in the glimmer of the Northern Lights over the plains of Lapland, and hops among the yellow flowers in the short Greenland summer. Beneath the copper mountains of Fahlun and England’s coal mines, he flies, in the shape of a dusty moth, over the hymn-book that rests on the knees of the pious miner. On a lotus leaf he floats down the sacred waters of the Ganges, and the eye of the Hindoo maid gleams bright when she beholds him.
The Phoenix bird, dost thou not know him? The Bird of Paradise, the holy swan of song! On the car of Thespis he sat in the guise of a chattering raven, and flapped his black wings, smeared with the lees of wine; over the sounding harp of Iceland swept the swan’s red beak; on Shakespeare’s shoulder he sat in the guise of Odin’s raven, and whispered in the poet’s ear “Immortality!” and at the minstrels’ feast he fluttered through the halls of the Wartburg.
The Phoenix bird, dost thou not know him? He sang to thee the Marseillaise, and thou kissedst the pen that fell from his wing; he came in the radiance of Paradise, and perchance thou didst turn away from him towards the sparrow who sat with tinsel on his wings.
The Bird of Paradise – renewed each century – born in flame, ending in flame! Thy picture, in a golden frame, hangs in the halls of the rich, but thou thyself often fliest around, lonely and disregarded, a myth – “The Phoenix of Arabia.”
In Paradise, when thou wert born in the first rose, beneath the Tree of Knowledge, thou receivedst a kiss, and thy right name was given thee – thy name, Poetry.
   Hans Christian Andersen – ‘The Phoenix Bird’, in Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales
Native to New Guinea, its outlying islands, and (in the case of four species known as riflebirds) the north-eastern perimeter of Australia, the dazzling, flamboyantly plumed birds of paradise first became known to a greater portion of the world during the 16th Century, when skins of these exquisite species were brought to Europe by one of Ferdinand Magellan’s vessels. That, at least, is the official history of these birds.
Less well-publicised, however, is fascinating evidence which strongly implies that the birds of paradise were known beyond Australasia many centuries before this, and also that they may well hold the key to the identity of a spectacular, much-celebrated bird of ancient mythology.
The Egyptian phoenix must surely be the most famous of all fabulous birds. According to its legend’s most familiar version, every 500 years (or every century in certain other versions) it would construct its nest from twigs, cinnamon, myrrh, and perfumed herbs; then, as the heat from the intense Eastern sun ignited its nest, transforming it into a blazing pyre of conflagration, the phoenix would raise its outstretched wings and dance, before perishing utterly amidst the flames, which would flicker and burn as the years passed by until only ash remained. From this spent mass of cinders, a new phoenix would rise, reborn and whole, and wrap the remains of its nest in myrrh enclosed within aromatic leaves; it would then fashion this into an egg, and fly triumphantly to the temple of the Sun King at Heliopolis, Egypt, to place its egg on the temple’s altar, before departing to construct a new nest and begin the cycle of self-immolation and resurrection all over again.
Traditional concept of the phoenix and its burning nest, dramatically depicted here in an early engraving (public domain)
Most of this has traditionally been dismissed as imaginative fiction. Admittedly, scholars have attempted to identify the phoenix with various known species, ranging from the peacock, flamingo, and golden pheasant Chrysolophus pictus to (with somewhat less conviction) certain exotic parrots and other brightly plumaged cage-birds imported from the tropics, but none of these identifications is very satisfactory. Alternatively, certain species of perching bird, particularly some crows, seemingly experience a pleasurable sensation from fanning their wings over burning straw or twigs; sightings of this could have contributed to the phoenix legend – discussed by Dr Maurice Burton in Phoenix Reborn(1959).
As documented by Texas University researcher Thomas Harrison (Isis, 1960), there had even been suggestions by some of the early naturalists and poets that the phoenix could have been based upon a bird of paradise, but as the phoenix legend considerably precedes these birds’ ‘official’, 16th-Century debut in the West, this possibility received short shrift – until 1957. But before we investigate this further, we should recall how the birds of paradise themselves first came to Western attention.
It was September 1522 when the survivors of the once-mighty expeditionary fleet of renowned Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan returned home to Europe, arriving in Seville, Spain, and bringing with them all manner of exotic treasures and relics from far-flung corners of the globe. Among these was a series of truly exceptional bird skins, which had been purchased from natives of New Guinea and various of its outlying islands. Their most immediately-striking features were their extravagantly flamboyant feathers – spectacular flourishes of gauzy, rainbow-hued plumes that billowed like dazzling fountains from beneath their wings and tail.
Bestiary compiler Conrad Gesner’s famous woodcut of an ostensibly footless bird of paradise from his Historia Animalium(1551-1558) (public domain)
When examined more closely, however, these resplendent specimens revealed an even more remarkable characteristic – they were wholly devoid of flesh, blood, and bones. Their heads came complete with eyes and a beak, and their bodies had wings, but otherwise it seemed that these extraordinary birds were composed entirely of feathers – they did not even possess any feet! Yet there were no recognisable signs that the skins had been in any way tampered with, so the possibility of a hoax was discounted.
The belief in fabulous sylph-like creatures such as these recurs in mythology throughout the world, but never before had science obtained any hard evidence in support of their reality. Needless to say, therefore, zoologists were totally bemused, but at the same time thoroughly captivated, by these astonishing specimens, and concluded from their near-weightless, fleshless, and footless forms that they undoubtedly lived an exclusively aerial existence – spending their entire lives, from birth to death, drifting ethereally through the heavens, and presumably sustained solely upon an ambrosial diet of nectar and dew imbibed in flight.
To quote one zoologist of that time, they were nothing less than “…higher beings, free from the necessity of all other creatures to touch the ground”. Not surprisingly, as birds that seemed to have originated from Paradise itself, their species ultimately became known as the bird of paradise, and also as the manucodiata (‘bird of God’), the latter name preserved today by several bird of paradise species that are referred to zoologically as manucodes.
Early engraving of a manucodiata (public domain)
Subsequent expeditions to New Guinea brought back more skins, again purchased directly from native tribes, and it soon became obvious that these exquisite creatures comprised many different species, delineated from one another by their distinct but all equally splendid plumages. No living specimens, however, were captured, and it was not until the 19th Century that Western scientists penetrated the dark New Guinea jungles to spy these gorgeous birds for themselves – one such encounter calling forth a paean of praise and wonder from the pen of naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who wrote in his diary:
The feelings of a naturalist who at last sees with his own eyes a creature of such extraordinary beauty and rarity so long sought after, would require a touch of the poet to reach full expression. I found myself on a remote island, far from the routes of the merchant fleets, I wandered through luxuriant tropical forests…And here, in this world, I gazed upon the bird of paradise, the quintessence of beauty. I thought of the long vanished ages during which generation after generation of this creature…lived and died – in dark, gloomy forests, where no intelligent eye beheld their loveliness. And I wondered at this lavish squandering of beauty.
Only then did scientists finally expose these extraordinary birds’ long-hidden secret. The skins that had been arriving back in Europe were incomplete ones – the New Guinea natives had developed to a fine art the immensely skilled process of skin preparation whereby the flesh, blood, bones, and feet of these birds were removed without leaving behind any readily-noticeable signs of their former presence. In short, the birds of paradise were not ethereal, everlastingly-airborne beings at all.
19th-Century bird painter John Gould’s superb illustration of a male and female greater bird of paradise Paradisaea apoda – ‘apoda’ translating as ‘footless’, derived from the earlier mistaken belief that this and related species did indeed lack feet (public domain)
In fact, as ornithologists swiftly discovered when at last able to examine complete specimens, they were nothing more than gaudy relatives of the sombrely-garbed rooks and ravens. Happily, however, their wonderful feathers were genuine (although in most cases it was only males that sported such sumptuous plumage), therefore offering at least a measure of consolation and compensation to scientists and poets alike for the otherwise traumatic transformation of the miraculous manucodiata into first-cousins (albeit very beautiful ones) of the crow family!
Upon the arrival of the first bird of paradise skins in Europe, their unparalleled beauty attracted equally unparalleled attention, not only from the scientific world, however, but also from the fashion industry, whose wealthier patrons yearned to be as glamorously decorated in these extravagantly beautiful plumes as the birds of paradise themselves. During the 19th Century, when Wallace and others finally spied living specimens in their native homelands, this insatiable demand set in motion a traffic in bird of paradise skins on so great a scale that it soon became evident to all that, if this trade continued for much longer, many species would become extinct within a very short space of time.
Accordingly, many countries banned all import of these skins, and in the 1920s New Guinea banned their export, thereby freeing the most famous and magnificent members of its avifauna from any further massacres in the name of fashion, and enabling their much-depleted numbers to recover. Nevertheless, a certain degree of skin trade still occurred within New Guinea, and in 1957 a team of Australian scientists set out to discover the extent of this traffic – never dreaming that one of the outcomes of their investigations would be the disclosure of a hitherto unknown facet of the Egyptian phoenix myth.
Phoenix with wings outstretched amidst its fiery nest, illustration from Kinderbuch by Friedrich Justin Bertuch, 1806 (public domain)
According to a detailed account in Purnell’s Encyclopedia of Animal Life (1968-70, edited by British zoologists Dr Maurice Burton and Robert Burton), the scientists learned to their astonishment that the New Guinea native tribes had been killing the birds of paradise to obtain their skins for trade with visiting Western seafarers long before the 16th Century. In fact, this had been taking place as far back as 1000 BC, when bird of paradise skins were transported thousands of miles westwards to Phoenicia – birthplace of the phoenix legend. But that was not all.
To preserve the skins’ delicate plumes during their long sea journey from New Guinea to Phoenicia, the tribesmen had presented them to the sailors carefully wrapped in a covering of myrrh skilfully fashioned into an egg-shaped capsule, in turn enclosed within a parcel of burnt banana leaves. If we equate the banana leaves of reality with the aromatic leaves of legend, the result is an extraordinarily close correspondence with the famous myth of the phoenix.
All that is missing is the blazing fire encompassing the bird on all sides – but this is the easiest aspect of all to explain via the bird of paradise hypothesis. One of the most magnificent and also one of the most abundant species (even during the height of the fashion trade, and even though it was especially sought-after due to its sumptuous plumes) is Paradisaea raggiana, Count Raggi’s bird of paradise.
John Gould’s gorgeous painting of a male Count Raggi’s bird of paradise Paradisaea raggiana exhibiting its spectacular fiery plumage (public domain)
A crow-sized species, the male is a truly resplendent sight during the breeding season, set apart by the breathtaking brilliance of the scarlet plumes that surge from each side of its breast, cascading all around like a blazing eruption of scorching flames. During the male’s pre-mating display, moreover, it expands and elevates these huge sprays of plumes, and vibrates its body, so that the resulting effect is uncannily like that of a bird dancing in the midst of a coruscating inferno of flame!
Considering that the abundance, the gorgeous appearance, and the notable popularity among plume-hunters of Count Raggi’s bird of paradise would ensure that it was well-represented in all series of skins sold by the natives to the Phoenicians, and that the natives undoubtedly regaled them with vivid descriptions of its striking courtship display, need we really look any further for the origin of the Egyptian phoenix, and its dramatic dance of death in the fiery heart of its blazing nest?
Additionally, in his book Fabulous Beasts (1951) Peter Lum stated that the Roman emperor Heliogabalus (reigned 218-222 AD) is said to have dined upon a bird of paradise. Also, as V. Kiparsky noted in an Arsbok-Societas Scientiarum Fennica paper from 1961, basing his ideas upon accounts in ancient Russian literature tantalizingly comparable to bird of paradise descriptions (most notably the famous Russian firebird or zhar ptitsa), a trade in their plumes may have been taking place at a very early date in eastern Europe.
Stealing a plume from the Russian firebird (public domain)
Finally: Well worth pointing out here is that trade in bird of paradise plumes was also taking place at an early age between New Guinea and China – as long ago as China’s Bronze Age (3100-300 BC), in fact, according to a fascinating section in Civilisation Recast: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives by Stephan Feuchtwang and Michael Rowlands, in which they state:
…tropical forest products and most importantly birds of paradise feathers were being sought by the Bronze Age ‘civilisations’ of the China Sea.
(Incidentally, China does of course have its very own phoenix, the feng-huang, but this avian entity seemingly has a totally separate folkloric origin from Egypt’s version, being widely believed to have been inspired by various species of Asian pheasant and peafowl.) Moreover, I recently learned from Australian Facebook friend Yarree Denamundinna that some bird of paradise plumes had allegedly been discovered inside an ancient Egyptian tomb. I asked Yarree if he could supply me with any published sources confirming this fascinating claim, and if he can do so I shall publish details here.
A pair of blue birds of paradise Paradisornis rudolphi (my favourite species), painted by okapi-discoverer Sir Harry Johnston (aka Sir Henry Hamilton Johnston), from Marvels of the Universe, Vol I (public domain)
This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and adapted from my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited.

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THE BEAST IN THE BOAT – STILL NO FURTHER AHEAD WITH A MONSTROUS MYSTERY FROM ANCIENT EGYPT

by on Apr.24, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

The skull of a common hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius, revealing just how huge its lower canine and incisor teeth are in proportion to the rest of it (public domain)
During the past three-and-a-half decades, I have investigated countless previously unexplained or unexamined cryptozoological mysteries, and more often than not I have sooner or later succeeded in solving the riddles posed by them. Every now and then, however, I have encountered one that has defied all of my attempts to elucidate it, and the hitherto-obscure case presented below on ShukerNature is a prime example. I’ve been intermittently seeking information concerning it for well over 20 years now, yet all to no avail – but by duly revealing its sparse details here, I am fervently hoping that these will trigger memories with, and/or elicit information from, my readers that will at last enable its mystery to be conclusively resolved. In the meantime, I shall present my own thoughts regarding this enigmatic entity, and then await, gentle readers, your own.
During the 1990s, Fortean writer/researcher Janet Bord (who has co-authored with her husband Colin numerous classic, bestselling books on mysteries of Britain and also overseas) kindly sent me some photocopied pages of cryptozoological content from a short but exceedingly hard-to-find book written by famous British mysteries author Harold T. Wilkins and published in 1947. For a book of only 30 pages, it had a disproportionately long (albeit comprehensive) title – Monsters and Mysteries of America, the Jungles, the Tropics, and the Arctic Wastes – and contained some fascinating reports of mystery beasts that were previously unknown to me.
Harold T. Wilkins (public domain)
These reports included the following example, whose all-too-brief relevant portion I am quoting here in full:
FIND MADE NEAR PYRAMID IN BURIED EGYPTIAN BOAT
Another reminder of strange and unknown monsters which ancient Africa once possessed…was the discovery in May, 1935, by the Egyptian professor, Selim Hassan, of “day and night boats” used by the ancient Pharaohs in rites connected with the Egyptian underworld of the dead, or solar ceremonialism. Close to the pyramid of Chephren, Professor Selim Hassan found a boat in which was the head of a gigantic animal with huge teeth. Its identity has not been established. The boat was found buried north of the temple of the ancient pyramid.
Intrigued by this report, and owning several other books authored by Wilkins, I carefully checked through all of them, and found the following, very similar snippet in Secret Cities of Old South America (1952):
Again, in 1935, Professor Selim Hassan, when excavating round the pyramid of Chephren, found some ancient boats in one of which was the head of a gigantic animal with huge teeth, whose identity no one could establish.
Also known as the Pyramid of Khafre or Khafra, the Pyramid of Chephren is the second-tallest pyramid of the famous ancient Egyptian pyramids at Giza, and constitutes the tomb of the Fourth-Dynasty pharaoh Chephren (aka Khafre/Khafra), who ruled c.2558-2532 BC. Prof. Selim Hassan (1886-1961) was a leading Egyptologist, who supervised the excavation of many ancient Egyptian tombs on behalf of Cairo University. He was also the author of the definitive 16-volume Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. And solar boats were boats constructed as representations of the mythical day boat that according to traditional ancient Egyptian lore the sun god Amen-Ra navigated through the sky and also through the underworld, which were buried with deceased kings to enable them to do the same. So far, so good.
The Pyramid of Chephren aka Khafre and the Great Sphinx at Giza (© Hamish2k/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
After deciding to seek out further information concerning the body-bereft head of this mystifying ‘Beast in the Boat’, my first action was to check whether there were any source references to it in the respective bibliographies of Wilkins’s two above-cited books. Unfortunately, however, the first, short book did not contain a bibliography at all, and although the second, longer book did have one, it did not contain any references that seemed likely to be the source(s) of this case.
With the coming of the internet and its ever-expanding content, however, I was eventually able to conduct online a far more comprehensive search for Wilkins’s source material than I’d ever have been able to do in physical libraries, and it was not long before I uncovered a publication that I felt certain would contain the precious information that I’d been looking for. Published in 1946 by the Government Press in Cairo, and written by Prof. Hassan, the 341-page treatise in question was entitled Excavations at Giza: The Solar-Boats of Khafra, Their Origin and Development, together with the Mythology of the Universe which they are supposed to traverse. Vol. VI – Part 1: 1934-1935.
Prof. Selim Hassan (© Mikerin/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
Yes indeed, if the information concerning the giant animal head found inside a solar-boat by Hassan in 1935 near the pyramid of Chephren/Khafra was to be contained anywhere, surely it would be contained in this publication. And so I painstakingly scanned through it, read through it, and used likely search words to seek out the required details – but found nothing, not even the barest, briefest of mentions of such a find anywhere within this extensive, immensely comprehensive  document  – a document, moreover, that was concerned specifically with not only the precise location and the precise year but also the precise structures (solar boats) and the precise researcher included in Wilkins’s report. In other words, if this treatise didn’t contain anything of relevance to the Beast in the Boat (which it didn’t), then what publication ever would? And indeed, despite several subsequent online searches spaced out across the 23 years since I first went online way back in 1997, and taking into account the enormous and continuing expansion of information that has been added to the Net during that extremely long time period, I have still not found any data relating to this most mystifying report in Wilkins’s books.
In the absence of such material, therefore, all that I can do is speculate on what the bodiless Beast in the Boat may have been, based upon the minimal morphological details of its head as provided by Wilkins – and always assuming, of course, that his report was both genuine and accurate. Four very different identities, but all sharing toothy infamy, come readily to mind – the Nile crocodile Crocodylus niloticus, the common hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius, the African bush elephant Loxodonta africana, and any one in a wide taxonomic range of large fossil species with very sizeable teeth.
Artistic representation of Sebek, ancient Egypt’s crocodile-headed god of fertility and military might (© Jeff Dahl/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
In ancient Egyptian times, the Nile crocodile was very common in this country, frequenting the River Nile from Upper Egypt and the Delta northward to the Mediterranean coast. It was also venerated – among the extensive pantheon of animal-headed deities worshipped in ancient Egypt was the crocodile-headed god Sebek (=Sobek), associated with fertility, power, and military strength, and invoked to provide protection from the dangers of the Nile itself. Many mummified crocodiles dedicated to Sebek have been unearthed during excavations of ancient Egyptian temples and other sites. Yet in spite of its exalted position in this ancient culture, the Nile crocodile was also extensively hunted, millennium after millennium, until by the 1950s it was virtually extinct in Egypt, nowadays existing in this country only within Lake Nasser and the lands directly to the south of it, having been exterminated in Lower Egypt following the building of the Aswan Dam during the 1960s.
The Nile crocodile typically measures 11-12 ft long in total, but exceptional specimens more than 19 ft long have been documented, and the largest Nile crocodile skulls on record are up to 27 in long, with a mandibular (lower jaw) length of up to 34 in, Yet if just the head of one were discovered, entirely without body, would the size of the entire animal if estimated by extrapolating from just the head really be big enough to warrant being described as gigantic? I’m by no means convinced that it would. Equally, by no stretch of the imagination can a Nile crocodile’s teeth, which number 60-64, be described as huge – big, certainly, but huge? Personally, I don’t think so.
Nile crocodile’s head (© Leigh Bedford/Wikipedia – CC  BY 2.0 licence)
The second identity on offer here is the common hippopotamus. Just like the Nile crocodile, this massively large aquatic mammal was very common in ancient Egypt, was represented in the pantheon of animal-headed deities – this time by Taueret, the ferocious hippo-headed goddess of pregnancy and childbirth – and was also extensively hunted. Apparently, this species could still be found along the Damietta branch (an eastern tributary of the Nile Delta) after the Arab conquest in 639 AD, but eventually it became entirely extinct in Egypt.
Exceeded in overall stature only by the elephants and white rhinoceros among modern-day mammals, the common hippopotamus attains a total length of up to 17 ft, and a head length of up to 3 ft (with an amazing 4-5-ft vertical mouth gape!). Most spectacular of all, however, are its teeth, particularly its greatly enlarged lower canines (tusks) and lower incisors, the former measuring as much as 20 in and the latter as much as 16 in.
A pair of common hippopotamus tusks (lower canines) (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Consequently, in my opinion the preserved head or skull of a sizeable hippopotamus specimen containing such huge teeth as these provides a very plausible identity for the big-toothed mystery beast head found by Hassan in an ancient Egyptian solar boat. And because the hippopotamus was a species venerated in this culture, the presence of such a specimen in such a boat would by no means be inexplicable or even unexpected. Indeed, the only mystifying aspect that is not readily explained by such a solution is why the specimen’s identity as the head – or skull – of a creature as zoologically familiar in modern times as the hippopotamus was not swiftly established. But perhaps it was, unbeknownst to Wilkins?
Incidentally, the reason why I have included here the alternative possibility that what Wilkins described as a head was in reality merely a skull is that if it were truly a head, how had it been preserved so as to survive intact for more than four millennia? There is no mention of it being mummified. To my mind, therefore, it makes far more sense for this specimen to have been a skull, which, with no covering of skin, would also fully expose its teeth and therefore make them look even more dramatic, especially if the skull were that of a common hippo.
Artistic representation of Taureret – ancient Egypt’s hippo-headed goddess of pregnancy and childbirth (© Jeff Dahl/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
Moving on to the third identity contender, I wonder if the head (or skull) might conceivably be from some exotic, non-Egyptian species, perhaps a gift from a wealthy visiting potentate in ancient times, explaining why it had been preserved and clearly deemed significant enough to have been placed inside one of the solar boats. The skull of an African bush elephant Loxodonta africana with tusks retained, possibly? Having said that, this species did actually exist in ancient Egypt as a native species some 6000 years ago, during pre-dynastic times, before being hunted to extinction there, after which specimens were imported for military purposes and as exotic pets. Such a skull could certainly lend itself to yielding via extrapolation a complete animal fully deserving of being described (accurately) as gigantic, and its tusks described as huge teeth.
Moreover, as publicly revealed in January 2019, skull fragments from a young elephant were found in a rubbish dump within a 2300-year-old Egyptian fortress on the Red Sea coast. This confirms that such creatures were being maintained in Egypt at least two millennia after the time of Chephren. Equally, within the ancient cemetery of Hierakonpolis, dating back over 5000 years and therefore preceding the time of Chephren, excavations made public in 2015 revealed the skeletons of several exotic animal specimens, including two elephants. These twin discoveries in turn lend support to the prospect of elephants being kept in Egypt during Chephren’s reign. Once again, however, if the Beast in the Boat head/skull had truly been that of an elephant, in the 1930s such a specimen – most especially one that possessed tusks – would surely have been swiftly identified, more so even than a hippo skull, in fact.
African bush elephant skull (© JimJones1971/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
The fourth – but in my view the least likely – of the four identity contenders proffered here for consideration is a fossil skull from some large to very large prehistoric mammal or reptile that sported sizeable teeth, e.g. some species of mammoth or other long-vanished proboscidean, a mosasaur, a theropod dinosaur. There are some notable precedents for such specimens having attracted significant attention in bygone times, as documented by me in a number of my previous writings. Created in 1590, the famous lindworm-shaped fountain in Klagenfurt, Austria, for instance, was based upon a supposed dragon skull, but when scientifically examined in modern times it proved to be the fossilized skull of an Ice Age woolly rhinoceros. An ancient Corinthian vase depicting the Homeric legend of Greek hero Heracles rescuing Hesione from a giant sea beast dubbed the Monster of Troy seemingly used a skull of the prehistoric giraffid Samotheriumas a model for the monster’s head. And from an illustration prepared of it in 1673 by Johannes Hain, an alleged dragon skull discovered in a cave in eastern Europe’s Carpathian Mountains is readily identifiable as that of the extinct cave bear Ursus spelaeus.
Consequently, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a fossilized skull of some such beast was gifted to Chephren on the assumption that it was from a mighty monster, and was subsequently retained for posterity by being placed in a solar boat. Moreover, as prehistoric animal species are by no means as easy to identify by non-specialists as are modern-day ones, if the head was a skull from a somewhat obscure fossil creature this could even explain why its zoological identity allegedly had not been established following Hassan’s discovery of the head in the solar boat during 1935.
Klagenfurt lindworm fountain (© Winfried Weithofer/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
How I wish that I could trace some additional documentation of the Beast in the Boat head, and even, perhaps, its current location, as I naturally assume that it was preserved after having been uncovered by Hassan. Yet if so, why does his definitive account of his excavations in the very same location where (and also in the very same year when) Wilkins stated this tantalizingly elusive specimen was found contain not the merest mention of it?
As I said at the beginning of the present ShukerNature article, perhaps someone reading this has information concerning the specimen that they are willing to share with me, and, in so doing, enable me at last to get ahead (pun intended!) with this mystery. Over to you – or, to put it another way (and speaking figuratively here, not literally, obviously) – bring me the head of the Beast in the Boat!
Alongside a statue of a common hippopotamus at Marwell Zoo in Hampshire, England (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Please feel free to post any thoughts, information, etc concerning this crypto-case in the comments section below this ShukerNature blog article, or email them to me directly. Many thanks indeed!

Mom and I in Giza, 2006, with the Great Sphinx and (partly visible behind it) the Pyramid of Chephren aka Khafre (© Dr Karl Shuker)
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THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM VS THE LEGEND OF THE LAMBTON WORM

by on Apr.22, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Publicity poster for ‘The Lair of the White Worm’ (© Ken Russell/White Lair/Vestron Pictures – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Last night I watched the 1988 British horror movie ‘The Lair of the White Worm’, directed by the infamous Ken Russell (who also wrote its screenplay), and what a surreal, hilarious romp it was. Loosely inspired by Dracula creator Bram Stoker’s final, same-titled novel (first published in 1911), it also drew even more heavily than that latter novel did upon the famous northern England legend of the Lambton Worm – a huge limbless serpent dragon laying waste to the countryside until it was eventually slain by Lord Lambton. Indeed, in the movie version, Caswall, the surname of the local aristocrat in Stoker’s novel, has been changed to the Lambton-soundalike surname D’Ampton. Set in rural Derbyshire, England, it stars a young Hugh Grant as Lord James D’Ampton whose ancestor reputedly slew a huge serpent dragon known in this area as the D’Ampton Worm; an also young Peter Capaldi as visiting Scottish archaeology student Angus Flint who unearths a giant snake-like skull during some local excavations; the regal Catherine Oxenberg as Eve Trent, the co-owner (with her sister Mary) of a countryside bed-and-breakfast hotel near to where the skull was found; and, above all others, a fabulously OTT Amanda Donohoe as the serpentine (in more ways than one) and seductively evil Lady Sylvia Marsh (changed from Lady Arabella March in the novel).
Lady Arabella March, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith in the original 1911 edition of The Lair of the White Worm, published a year before Bram Stoker’s death (public domain)
In deliciously (forked) tongue-in-cheek style, Donohoe plays the part of an immortal, sexually-charged snake priestess, secretly serving a gigantic male ophidian deity named Dionin who has been lurking unseen for untold ages within the vast underground cave system not far from D’Ampton’s castle and Marsh’s stately home. Moreover, Lady Marsh is capable of transforming into a blue-skinned, venom-fanged humanoid snake whenever the need to ravish and abduct an unsuspecting local for sacrificial purposes arises, which it does on a very regular basis throughout this manic movie. And as if all of that wasn’t enough, anyone bitten by her is transformed, vampire-like, into a befanged snake-human themselves.
The White Worm rears up above the forest, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith in the original 1911 edition of The Lair of the White Worm (public domain)
Yet another of the movie’s multitude of plot lines is that centuries earlier, in this very same location and currently the subject of Angus’s digs, a convent had been built upon the site where in Roman times a pagan temple devoted to serpent worship had existed, and this confrontation of religions is visualised very dramatically via a series of hallucinations interspersed through the film, in which, as was his wont, Russell left nothing to the imagination – intertwining and juxtapositioning in shocking, eyeball-shattering fantasy sequences all manner of Christian, ophiolatreian, and explicit sexual symbols and images in often deeply disturbing, overtly offensive scenes. These aside, however, the film is mostly played for laughs, strewn with the kind of saucy double entendres and phallic allusions that would make a Carry On star blush, plus a neat twist at the very end. Very much a cult classic and an absolute must for monster-movie buffs like me.
My 1960 Arrow Books paperback edition of The Lair of the White Worm, which I first read just a few years before the movie version was released(public domain/Arrow Books)
But what was the story of the Lambton Worm that so influenced this movie? I retold its legend in my book Dragons: A Natural History (1995), so here, as a ShukerNature exclusive, is my never-before-seen original version of that retelling, before it was edited down in order to fit the space allocated to it in the published book.
Dragons: A Natural History (© Dr Karl Shuker/Aurum Press)
Curse of the Lambton Worm
It was Easter Sunday morning in 1420, and everyone from the village of Washington, close to the River Wear in County Durham, England, was hurrying to church – everyone, that is, except for John Lambton, the young, dissolute heir to Lambton Castle nearby.
Eschewing spiritual solace and observation of the Sabbath for more material, disrespectful pleasures, he was fishing in the river, ignoring the disapproving glances of churchgoers passing by. As the morning drew on with not a single fish taking his bait, however, Lambton’s mood darkened, and he cursed aloud with blasphemous abandon at his ill-fortune.
As if bidden by this profane outburst, a sudden ripple shivered across the river’s surface. Moments later, Lambton felt something tug sharply at his line, but it was not a fish. When he hauled it up out of the water, he thought at first that it was some form of aquatic worm or leech, small yet very elongate with black slimy skin. Then it raised its head, and looked at him – and even the brash Lambton caught his breath in horror, for his unexpected catch had the head of a dragon…and the face of a devil!
Its jaws were very slender, brimming with long needle-like teeth, and evil-smelling fluid oozed from nine gill-like slits on either side of its neck, but all that Lambton saw were its eyes. Like icy coals they glittered, snaring his own in a glacial, mesmeric trance – and as he gazed helplessly into them, all the sins of his misspent, wasted youth danced amid their malevolent darkness like mocking, accursed wraiths.
Lambton Worm illustration by John Dickson Batten, from More English Fairy Tales (1894)  (public domain)
Lambton had initially planned to keep whatever he caught, but all that he wanted to do now was to rid himself of this loathsome creature, and he lost no time in casting it down into a nearby well. From that moment on he was a changed person, seeking redemption and salvation for his former misdeeds, a mission that led him a few years later to participate in the Crusades. And so he left Lambton Castle far behind – but he also left behind a monstrous manifestation of his former wickedness.
Unbeknownst to Lambton, his vermiform captive had thrived within the well’s gloomy confines, growing steadily and stealthily larger, and ever more powerful. One morning, some Washington villagers spied a strange trail glistening with acidic slime, leading from the well to a hill close by. Intrigued, they followed the trail – and a terrible sight met their eyes.
So huge that its snake-like body had enfolded it nine times within its mighty coils, a hideous limbless dragon of the type known as a worm or orm lay basking upon the hill. Livid slime seared the grass beneath its body, and poisonous vapour spiralling out of its mouth withered the leaves of the surrounding trees.
Thus began the Lambton Worm’s grisly reign of terror – during which it laid waste to Washington’s once-verdant countryside, devoured livestock and even small children with impunity, and turned the villagers into captives within their homes, frightened to set foot outside their door for fear of encountering their land’s deadly despoiler. In desperation, they attempted to pacify the monster with an offering of milk – an ancient, customary gesture when faced with a marauding dragon – and so a huge trough was filled with fresh milk and placed in Lambton Castle’s courtyard where it could be readily seen by the worm.
Coloured vintage illustration of Lambton doing battle in his spike-bearing armour with his virulent namesake public domain)
As anticipated, the creature rapidly slithered forth, and gleefully lapped up the creamy offering with its viperine tongue. For the rest of that day and all through the night, it remained passively wrapped around its chosen hillside retreat – but when no further milk was forthcoming on the following morning, it rampaged in fury, with the terrified villagers cowering in their houses. So from that day on, every village cow was milked exclusively to provide a sufficient daily tribute to satisfy the worm.
Every so often, one or more brave villagers attempted to dispatch their serpentine enslaver with sword or lance, but even if they succeeded in slicing the beast in half, the halves immediately joined together again – yielding a fully-intact, highly-irascible worm that rarely gave its attackers the opportunity either to repeat their ploy or to flee the fray.
Years passed by, until at last John Lambton returned home from the Crusades, and was horrified to discover the worm’s baneful presence. Determined to rid his land of this animate evil that had been inflicted upon it by his own youthful decadence, he sought the advice of a wise old witch. She informed him that he would only succeed in killing the monster if he wore a special suit of armour surfaced in sharp blades, and if he confronted it in the middle of the river where he had originally caught it.
There was, however, a price to pay for success. After slaying the worm, he must also slay whoever was first to meet him afterwards. If he failed to do this, the Lambton lineage would be cursed, and for nine generations no Lambton heir would die in his own bed.
Lambton Worm illustration by CE Brock, from English Fairy and Other Folk Tales (1890), edited by Edwin S Hartland (public domain)
Heeding all that the witch told him, Lambton arranged for the spike-adorned armour to be prepared at once, and promptly set forth in it to engage in battle with his dreadful foe. By swift and subtle sword-play, Lambton enticed the worm into the fast-flowing water of the River Wear. Once there, however, the worm seized him in its coils – but the more that it sought to crush him, the more severely his suit’s razor-sharp blades pierced its body. Aided by his own sword’s ready thrusts, the blades eventually sliced the worm into several segments – and before they could recombine, the river’s swift current bore them away. Thus was the fearsome Lambton Worm destroyed.
Joyfully, John Lambton returned home to his castle – but although he had vanquished the worm, its curse lingered on. His old father, ecstatic to see that his son had survived his formidable encounter, was the very first living thing to run out and greet him. At this, Lambton became pale with fear, knowing that if he were to secure the safety of his descendants he must kill his own father – but he simply couldn’t do so. Instead, he killed his most faithful dog, in the hope that this sacrifice would be sufficient – but it was not.
For the next nine generations, every heir to Lambton Castle met a tragic end. The worm had gone, but for ever afterwards the legend of this terrible serpent dragon would be irrevocably intertwined with the name of Lambton.
Finally: for further details regarding the Lambton Worm, be sure to check out Paul Screeton’s comprehensive coverage in his book Whisht Lads and Haad Yor Gobs: The Lambton Worm and Other Northumbrian Dragon Legends (1998), for which I was delighted to write a foreword. Its main title is a line from a famous folk song retelling the Lambton Worm legend – click here to listen to ex-Animals member Alan Price singing it on YouTube, with its full lyrics provided below the video.
Whisht Lads and Haad Yor Gobs (© Paul Screeton/Northeast Press Ltd)
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THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM VS THE LEGEND OF THE LAMBTON WORM

by on Apr.22, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Publicity poster for ‘The Lair of the White Worm’ (© Ken Russell/White Lair/Vestron Pictures – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Last night I watched the 1988 British horror movie ‘The Lair of the White Worm’, directed by the infamous Ken Russell (who also wrote its screenplay), and what a surreal, hilarious romp it was. Loosely inspired by Dracula creator Bram Stoker’s final, same-titled novel (first published in 1911), it also drew even more heavily than that latter novel did upon the famous northern England legend of the Lambton Worm – a huge limbless serpent dragon laying waste to the countryside until it was eventually slain by Lord Lambton. Indeed, in the movie version, Caswall, the surname of the local aristocrat in Stoker’s novel, has been changed to the Lambton-soundalike surname D’Ampton. Set in rural Derbyshire, England, it stars a young Hugh Grant as Lord James D’Ampton whose ancestor reputedly slew a huge serpent dragon known in this area as the D’Ampton Worm; an also young Peter Capaldi as visiting Scottish archaeology student Angus Flint who unearths a giant snake-like skull during some local excavations; the regal Catherine Oxenberg as Eve Trent, the co-owner (with her sister Mary) of a countryside bed-and-breakfast hotel near to where the skull was found; and, above all others, a fabulously OTT Amanda Donohoe as the serpentine (in more ways than one) and seductively evil Lady Sylvia Marsh (changed from Lady Arabella March in the novel).
Lady Arabella March, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith in the original 1911 edition of The Lair of the White Worm, published a year before Bram Stoker’s death (public domain)
In deliciously (forked) tongue-in-cheek style, Donohoe plays the part of an immortal, sexually-charged snake priestess, secretly serving a gigantic male ophidian deity named Dionin who has been lurking unseen for untold ages within the vast underground cave system not far from D’Ampton’s castle and Marsh’s stately home. Moreover, Lady Marsh is capable of transforming into a blue-skinned, venom-fanged humanoid snake whenever the need to ravish and abduct an unsuspecting local for sacrificial purposes arises, which it does on a very regular basis throughout this manic movie. And as if all of that wasn’t enough, anyone bitten by her is transformed, vampire-like, into a befanged snake-human themselves.
The White Worm rears up above the forest, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith in the original 1911 edition of The Lair of the White Worm (public domain)
Yet another of the movie’s multitude of plot lines is that centuries earlier, in this very same location and currently the subject of Angus’s digs, a convent had been built upon the site where in Roman times a pagan temple devoted to serpent worship had existed, and this confrontation of religions is visualised very dramatically via a series of hallucinations interspersed through the film, in which, as was his wont, Russell left nothing to the imagination – intertwining and juxtapositioning in shocking, eyeball-shattering fantasy sequences all manner of Christian, ophiolatreian, and explicit sexual symbols and images in often deeply disturbing, overtly offensive scenes. These aside, however, the film is mostly played for laughs, strewn with the kind of saucy double entendres and phallic allusions that would make a Carry On star blush, plus a neat twist at the very end. Very much a cult classic and an absolute must for monster-movie buffs like me.
My 1960 Arrow Books paperback edition of The Lair of the White Worm, which I first read just a few years before the movie version was released(public domain/Arrow Books)
But what was the story of the Lambton Worm that so influenced this movie? I retold its legend in my book Dragons: A Natural History (1995), so here, as a ShukerNature exclusive, is my never-before-seen original version of that retelling, before it was edited down in order to fit the space allocated to it in the published book.
Dragons: A Natural History (© Dr Karl Shuker/Aurum Press)
Curse of the Lambton Worm
It was Easter Sunday morning in 1420, and everyone from the village of Washington, close to the River Wear in County Durham, England, was hurrying to church – everyone, that is, except for John Lambton, the young, dissolute heir to Lambton Castle nearby.
Eschewing spiritual solace and observation of the Sabbath for more material, disrespectful pleasures, he was fishing in the river, ignoring the disapproving glances of churchgoers passing by. As the morning drew on with not a single fish taking his bait, however, Lambton’s mood darkened, and he cursed aloud with blasphemous abandon at his ill-fortune.
As if bidden by this profane outburst, a sudden ripple shivered across the river’s surface. Moments later, Lambton felt something tug sharply at his line, but it was not a fish. When he hauled it up out of the water, he thought at first that it was some form of aquatic worm or leech, small yet very elongate with black slimy skin. Then it raised its head, and looked at him – and even the brash Lambton caught his breath in horror, for his unexpected catch had the head of a dragon…and the face of a devil!
Its jaws were very slender, brimming with long needle-like teeth, and evil-smelling fluid oozed from nine gill-like slits on either side of its neck, but all that Lambton saw were its eyes. Like icy coals they glittered, snaring his own in a glacial, mesmeric trance – and as he gazed helplessly into them, all the sins of his misspent, wasted youth danced amid their malevolent darkness like mocking, accursed wraiths.
Lambton Worm illustration by John Dickson Batten, from More English Fairy Tales (1894)  (public domain)
Lambton had initially planned to keep whatever he caught, but all that he wanted to do now was to rid himself of this loathsome creature, and he lost no time in casting it down into a nearby well. From that moment on he was a changed person, seeking redemption and salvation for his former misdeeds, a mission that led him a few years later to participate in the Crusades. And so he left Lambton Castle far behind – but he also left behind a monstrous manifestation of his former wickedness.
Unbeknownst to Lambton, his vermiform captive had thrived within the well’s gloomy confines, growing steadily and stealthily larger, and ever more powerful. One morning, some Washington villagers spied a strange trail glistening with acidic slime, leading from the well to a hill close by. Intrigued, they followed the trail – and a terrible sight met their eyes.
So huge that its snake-like body had enfolded it nine times within its mighty coils, a hideous limbless dragon of the type known as a worm or orm lay basking upon the hill. Livid slime seared the grass beneath its body, and poisonous vapour spiralling out of its mouth withered the leaves of the surrounding trees.
Thus began the Lambton Worm’s grisly reign of terror – during which it laid waste to Washington’s once-verdant countryside, devoured livestock and even small children with impunity, and turned the villagers into captives within their homes, frightened to set foot outside their door for fear of encountering their land’s deadly despoiler. In desperation, they attempted to pacify the monster with an offering of milk – an ancient, customary gesture when faced with a marauding dragon – and so a huge trough was filled with fresh milk and placed in Lambton Castle’s courtyard where it could be readily seen by the worm.
Coloured vintage illustration of Lambton doing battle in his spike-bearing armour with his virulent namesake public domain)
As anticipated, the creature rapidly slithered forth, and gleefully lapped up the creamy offering with its viperine tongue. For the rest of that day and all through the night, it remained passively wrapped around its chosen hillside retreat – but when no further milk was forthcoming on the following morning, it rampaged in fury, with the terrified villagers cowering in their houses. So from that day on, every village cow was milked exclusively to provide a sufficient daily tribute to satisfy the worm.
Every so often, one or more brave villagers attempted to dispatch their serpentine enslaver with sword or lance, but even if they succeeded in slicing the beast in half, the halves immediately joined together again – yielding a fully-intact, highly-irascible worm that rarely gave its attackers the opportunity either to repeat their ploy or to flee the fray.
Years passed by, until at last John Lambton returned home from the Crusades, and was horrified to discover the worm’s baneful presence. Determined to rid his land of this animate evil that had been inflicted upon it by his own youthful decadence, he sought the advice of a wise old witch. She informed him that he would only succeed in killing the monster if he wore a special suit of armour surfaced in sharp blades, and if he confronted it in the middle of the river where he had originally caught it.
There was, however, a price to pay for success. After slaying the worm, he must also slay whoever was first to meet him afterwards. If he failed to do this, the Lambton lineage would be cursed, and for nine generations no Lambton heir would die in his own bed.
Lambton Worm illustration by CE Brock, from English Fairy and Other Folk Tales (1890), edited by Edwin S Hartland (public domain)
Heeding all that the witch told him, Lambton arranged for the spike-adorned armour to be prepared at once, and promptly set forth in it to engage in battle with his dreadful foe. By swift and subtle sword-play, Lambton enticed the worm into the fast-flowing water of the River Wear. Once there, however, the worm seized him in its coils – but the more that it sought to crush him, the more severely his suit’s razor-sharp blades pierced its body. Aided by his own sword’s ready thrusts, the blades eventually sliced the worm into several segments – and before they could recombine, the river’s swift current bore them away. Thus was the fearsome Lambton Worm destroyed.
Joyfully, John Lambton returned home to his castle – but although he had vanquished the worm, its curse lingered on. His old father, ecstatic to see that his son had survived his formidable encounter, was the very first living thing to run out and greet him. At this, Lambton became pale with fear, knowing that if he were to secure the safety of his descendants he must kill his own father – but he simply couldn’t do so. Instead, he killed his most faithful dog, in the hope that this sacrifice would be sufficient – but it was not.
For the next nine generations, every heir to Lambton Castle met a tragic end. The worm had gone, but for ever afterwards the legend of this terrible serpent dragon would be irrevocably intertwined with the name of Lambton.
Finally: for further details regarding the Lambton Worm, be sure to check out Paul Screeton’s comprehensive coverage in his book Whisht Lads and Haad Yor Gobs: The Lambton Worm and Other Northumbrian Dragon Legends (1998), for which I was delighted to write a foreword. Its main title is a line from a famous folk song retelling the Lambton Worm legend – click here to listen to ex-Animals member Alan Price singing it on YouTube, with its full lyrics provided below the video.
Whisht Lads and Haad Yor Gobs (© Paul Screeton/Northeast Press Ltd)
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IN PURSUIT OF THE PATAGONIAN PLESIOSAUR

by on Apr.19, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Front cover of sheet music for the El Plesiosaurio tango, featuring an amusing caricature of Dr Clemente Onelli riding a plesiosaur (public domain)
Several lake-dwelling cryptids of the long-necked persuasion have been reported from South America down through the years. However, the most publicised of these freshwater mystery beasts was unquestionably the so-called Patagonian plesiosaur, which at the height of its fame even received coverage in the august journal Scientific American.
In January 1922, Dr Clemente Onelli, Director of Buenos Aires Zoo in Argentina, received a letter from a Texan adventurer called Martin Sheffield, who had spent a number of years as an itinerant prospector living off the land in Patagonia. In his letter, Sheffield claimed that some nights previously, after pitching his hunting camp close to a mountain lake near Esquel, he had encountered a strange animal:
…in the middle of the lake, I saw the head of an animal. At first sight it was like some unknown species of swan, but swirls in the water made me think its body must resemble a crocodile’s.
Dr Clemente Onelli (public domain)
Not surprisingly, Sheffield’s description conjured up images of plesiosaurs in Onelli’s mind, and also reminded him of a somewhat earlier report. In 1897, he had spoken to a farmer living on the shores of Patagonia’s White Lake, who informed him that a strange noise was frequently heard there at night, resembling the sound that a cart would make if dragged over the lake’s pebbly shore – but that was not all. On moonlight nights, a huge beast could be seen in the lake, with a long reptilian neck that would rise high above the water, unless disturbed – whereupon it would instantly dive and disappear into the depths.
Heartened by these and other reports, Onelli organised an expedition to follow them up, which duly set forth on 23 March 1922, led by José Cihagi, superintendent of Buenos Aires Zoo. It eventually reached the lake where Sheffield had experienced his sighting (and which is known accordingly today as Laguna del Plesiosaurio – ‘Lagoon of the Plesiosaur’), but with the approach of winter further explorations were abandoned and the expedition returned to Buenos Aires.
President Theodore Roosevelt (public domain)
Interestingly, Sheffield had also previously contacted former American president Theodore Roosevelt concerning the swan-necked beast that he had seen in the mountain lake. As a result of this, Roosevelt, who was famed for his hunting skills, had apparently pondered over whether to launch a search for it himself, but he never actually did so, and he died in 1919, three years before Onelli’s expedition set out.
And so it was that apart from a jaunty tango entitled El Plesiosaurio (composed in 1922 by Rafael D’Agostino, with lyrics by Amilcar Morbidelli, and sheet music depicting on its cover a caricature of Onelli riding a plesiosaur) plus a brand of cigarettes also named after it, nothing else of note emerged regarding the putative plesiosaur of Patagonia for many years – until the 1980s. Since then, however, numerous reports have been aired by the media concerning a similar water beast, nicknamed Nahuelito, which is said to inhabit Nahuel Huapi, a 204-square-mile Argentinian lake ensconced amid the Andes winter-sport resort of Bariloche.
Nahuel Huapi Lake (© David/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)
Auyan-tepui is a lofty tepui (table mountain) in Venezuela, one of the inspirations for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic cryptozoological novel The Lost World – an exciting work of fiction in which the plateau at the summit of one such tepui is populated by dinosaurs, pterosaurs, plesiosaurs, and other prehistoric survivors.
In 1955, however, during an expedition to Auyan-tepui, naturalist Alexander Laime allegedly sighted some creatures that gave the more optimistic zoologists reason for believing that the theme of Conan Doyle’s novel may not be wholly fictitious after all.
Auyan-tepui (public domain)
As documented in my book Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016), Laime had been searching for diamonds in one of the rivers at the summit of this isolated tepui when he spied three very strange beasts sunbathing on a rocky ledge above the water. Superficially seal-like, closer observation revealed that they had reptilian faces with disproportionately long necks, and two pairs of scaly flippers. Drawings that he made of them at that time are reminiscent of plesiosaurs. There is, however, one very unexpected feature – none of them was more than 3 ft long.
Could they have been young specimens? Laime believed that they were adults, but belonging to some pygmy species of plesiosaur, whose small size has enabled it to persist into the present day without disturbing the ecological balance of this enclosed system. More conservative opinions favour some long-necked type of otter as a more plausible identity, whereas others have even likened them to a crocodile.
Plesiosaurs (© Dmitry Bogdanov/Wikipedia – CC BY 3.0 licence)
In 1990, Auyan-tepui played host to an expedition led by biologist Fabian Michelangeli and including scientific reporter Uwe George, for whom this was his sixth exploration of a South American tepui. During their visit, Michelangeli and his brother Armando spied a silhouette of a beast closely resembling those reported by Laime, but as they drew nearer to investigate, the beast plunged into the river and disappeared from view. As for various German TV reports claiming that one had actually been captured, these were inspired by the procurement of nothing more spectacular than a common species of lizard.
So for now, at least, we have only the distant refrain of a long-forgotten tango to remind us of how a US President had almost set forth in South America to seek a putative prehistoric survivor.
Theodore Roosevelt as Badlands hunter in 1885 (public domain)
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JASON AND THE GOLDEN FLEECE – MORE THAN A MYTH?

by on Apr.16, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

The front cover of the issue of Fate Magazine (vol. 42, no. 9, issue #474, September 1989) containing my original article on the possible reality behind the classic Greek legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece (© Fate Magazine – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational and review purposes only)
One of my very first articles published by Fate Magazine concerned the exciting possibility that the classic Greek legend of the hero Jason and his epic quest aboard his ship the Argo for the magical Golden Fleece at Colchis may have been based at least to a degree upon reality, especially with regard to the Fleece itself. It appeared in the September 1989 issue of Fate, whose front cover, depicting this famous story, opens the present ShukerNature article. Eight years later, my article was republished in my compendium book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings(1997), containing an extensive selection of my Fate articles. Now, 23 years on again, and this time expanded and partly rewritten, my investigation of Jason and the Golden Fleece finally makes its long-awaited debut on ShukerNature.
The grim shadow of a raised sword fell across the pale, tensed body of Prince Phryxus as he lay upon the sacrificial slab, awaiting certain death at the hand of his own father, King Athamas of Orchomenus. This city in ancient Greece had once been rich and prosperous, but that year its crop of corn had failed, and its people were starving. Due to a false prophecy originating from Queen Ino, Phryxus’s wicked stepmother who hated him, Athamas mistakenly believed that his city’s crop failure was a curse inflicted by the gods and could only be lifted by the sacrifice to them of his beloved son, Phryxus. Happily, however, Ino’s evil plan was known to the gods, who chose to thwart it in a most spectacular manner.
Phryxus striving to hold on to Helle as she falls from Chrysomallus’s back into the sea – depicted in an ancient Roman fresco, 45-79 AD, Pompeii (© Stefano Bolognini/Wikipedia, copyright-free for private or commercial use when copyright owner is attributed)
Suddenly, as Athamas’s sword was poised to strike the fatal blow that would slay Phryxus, a golden stream of light poured forth from the clouds directly overhead. The king and the gathered congregation of spectators stared up in surprise, and as they did so the clouds parted and a magnificent winged ram with a shimmering fleece of pure gold appeared. The ram was Chrysomallus, sent by the messenger god Hermes to rescue the boy prince. As soon as Chrysomallus alighted on the ground, Phryxus ran to him and sat astride his broad woolly back. So too did Phryxus’s young sister, Helle, whom Ino also hated.
Moments later, like a brilliant golden meteor, Chrysomallus was soaring speedily through the sky, journeying eastwards. Just as they were flying over the narrow stretch of sea dividing Europe and Asia, however, Helle looked down, and became so giddy that she fell off Chrysomallus’s back, plummeting into the waves where she drowned. From then on, this sea was called the Hellespont. Chrysomallus, meanwhile, flew onwards with Phryxus until they reached the land of Colchis, in what is today the republic of Georgia. There, Phryxus was welcomed by Aeëtes, king of Colchis, but Chrysomallus died, and his glorious golden fleece was hung in a sacred grove, guarded by a dragon. Many years later, the fleece would be the focus of an epic quest by a Greek prince called Jason and his bold crew, the Argonauts, sailing from Iolcus to Colchis via the Black Sea aboard their famous ship the Argo, and assisted by Aeëtes’s own daughter Medea in their successful bid to steal the fleece, sailing back to Iolcus with it afterwards.
Children’s book illustration from 1902 or earlier, depicting Phryxus and Helle, based upon the above-reproduced Pompeii fresco (public domain)
Down through the ages, many ideas have been aired with regard to the Golden Fleece not having been a literal, physical sheep fleece of any kind, but rather a metaphor or a figurative description for something else entirely. Suggestions have included such diverse options as royal power, a book on alchemy, a technique of writing in gold on parchment, the forgiveness of the Gods, a rain cloud, a land of golden corn, the spring-hero, the sea reflecting the sun, the gilded prow of Phryxus’s ship, the riches imported from the East, the wealth of technology of Colchis (see later here), a covering for a cult image of Zeus in the form of a ram, a fabric woven from sea silk, and a symbol representing the trading of fleeces dyed with the valuable, highly-prized pigment Tyrian purple (procured from the purple dye murex Bolinus brandaris, and various related species) for Georgian gold. Each of these, and more, has its own supporters, but none has achieved a consensus of scholarly acceptance.
Moreover, most people assume that this entire story is nothing more than a fanciful Greek myth anyway, dating back 3000 years but with no basis in fact. Quite apart from the ostensible fairytale aspect of a golden-fleeced ram, there was no firm evidence to suggest that Greek ships could even have reached the Black Sea prior to the 7th Century BC, when they are known to have colonised this region. However, not everyone has dismissed the legend quite so readily.
Purple dye murex Bolinus brandaris (public domain)
In May 1984, a classics scholar called Tim Severin and a team of modern-day Argonauts set out aboard their own Argo, sailing from Volos (site of Iolcus) in Thessaly, Greece, to Vani (site of Colchis) in western Georgia. Their goal was to recreate Jason’s alleged voyage – and thus prove that such a journey could truly have taken place in those far-off days. In order to achieve as intimate a degree of verisimilitude as possible, Severin’s specially-designed Argo was patterned on ancient Aegean vessels by naval architect Colin Mudie. It was then built by Greek shipwright Vasilis Delimitros, who crafted it from the same Aleppo pine used by Bronze Age Greek seafarers. When complete, it measured 54 ft in length.
Spanning 1500 nautical miles from the Aegean Sea through the Dardanelles (Hellespont), the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus, and thence along the Black Sea’s Turkish perimeter to his Georgian destination at its eastern limit, Severin’s voyage in this new Argo took three months. It was often arduous, but it was also successful – thereby indicating that Jason and the Argonauts’ epic journey aboard the Argo was indeed possible even back in those bygone times of ancient Greece. Moreover, as revealed in his fascinating book The Jason Voyage (1986), Severin also learned some interesting items of information relevant to the Golden Fleece.
Tim Severin (© Aaron D Linderman/Wikipedia – GNU Free Documentation Licence)
This legend is very popular in Georgia even today – where it is taught in schools, and even commemorated in product names, such as a ‘Golden Fleece’ brand of cigarettes. In addition, western Georgia once harboured a thriving cult of ram worshippers that lasted from the middle Bronze Age into the modern era – as confirmed by such archaeological finds as a bronze ram’s head totem dating from the 18th Century BC, and ram’s head bracelets moulded from gold that date from the 4th Century BC. There is even an old Georgian folktale of a golden ram tethered by a golden chain in a mountain cave filled with golden treasure.
Severin also learned that the traditional method of prospecting for gold in Georgia, a method dating back countless centuries, is to anchor in a gold-rich stream bed the fleece of a sheep – because the fleece’s wool is very effective at trapping particles of gold. After it has been left in the stream for a time, the result will be a fleece impregnated with gold – in other words, a golden fleece! True, it will hardly compare to its magnificent legendary counterpart, but it may have been sufficient to inspire such a legend long ago.
Two Georgian gold coins commemorating the Golden Fleece legend (public domain)
The possibility that this activity is the origin of the Golden Fleece account is certainly intriguing, but it is not a recent revelation. As far back in time as the 1st Century BC, the Greek geographer/historian Strabo had made the same suggestion. He suggested that it may have been an ordinary fleece that had been used to trap gold washed down the River Phasis. Particles of gold would have remained ensnared among its fibres, resulting in a fleece that at least upon casual observation might well have appeared to be composed of gold-bearing wool. Although a most ingenious idea, it is surely unlikely that such a superficially deceptive artefact could not only have retained its illusion intact during inevitable closer examination but also have become sufficiently famous to engender one of Greek mythology’s most enduring legends.
Dr George Hartwig mentioned in The Subterranean World (1875) that modern-day gold prospectors still use sheep fleeces for this purpose in several different gold-bearing countries. However, he also noted that this was not taken by many authorities as proof that the Golden Fleece was itself a fleece with gold-ensnared fibres. On the contrary, many felt that the quest by Jason and his Argonauts to Colchis was not for a Golden Fleece at all, but for this wealthy city’s gold itself, with the fleece being nothing more than a means of obtaining such gold and having no significance of its own. In short, the Golden Fleece’s present-day prominence in mythology might be due to erroneous telling and retelling of the ancient myths down through the ages, with the object of Jason’s quest (the gold of Colchis) becoming confused with the means of obtaining it (an ordinary sheep fleece).
Strabo – 19th-Century engraving (public domain)
Although both of these theories are undoubtedly compelling in their simplicity, they are not the only explanations on offer for the origin of the Golden Fleece legend. Another solution, offered by several different researchers, is one that seeks to explain the Golden Fleece in a very different manner – as a misinterpreted and/or mythified reference to fine-wooled fleeces. There are three principal classes of wool:
1)  Carpet wool (very coarse, and hair-like; used for making carpets and rugs).
2) Cross-bred wool (familiar, weaving-quality; produced by the majority of British sheep breeds).
3) Fine wool (valuable and lustrous, with exceedingly fine fibres lacking a central medulla; generally obtained today from Merino sheep).
Vintage illustration of a Merino ram (public domain)
In a paper published by the British scientific journal Nature on 13 April 1973, Dr M.L. Ryder and Dr J.W. Hedges from the ARC Animal Breeding Research Organisation at Edinburgh, Scotland, noted that the legend of the Golden Fleece may actually refer to fine wool. Moreover, in their paper they documented a sample of cloth composed of fine wool that was obtained from a Scythian tomb in the Crimea, and which dated back to the 5th Century BC. If their reconciliation of the Golden Fleece legend with fine wool is correct, this Scythian sample is thus of particular significance. Its age and Crimean locality collectively confirm that fine wool was indeed associated with the Black Sea region, and at a time near that of the Golden Fleece’s appearance and Jason’s quest for it.
Nevertheless, in 1932 a paper had already appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Society (of London) that was destined during the 1980s to suggest a much more literal solution to the Golden Fleece mystery than a gold-bearing artefact, a substitute for gold itself, or a mythification of early fine-woolled sheep.
Jason with the Golden Fleece, depicted upon a tin-glazed earthenware plate created in c.1540 AD (public domain)
The paper in question was written by Drs Claude Rimington and A.M. Stewart of the Wool Industries Research Association of Leeds, in West Yorkshire, England, and concerned itself with a previously uninvestigated pigment. Raw wool comprises the wool fibres and ‘yolk’. This latter component in turn consists of ether-soluble grease (secreted by the sheep’s sebaceous skin glands), and a water-soluble substance known as suint (secreted by the sheep’s sweat glands). In their paper, Rimington and Stewart recorded that a golden-brown colouration existed in varying intensities within the suint of certain sheep, its intensity of colour depending upon the animals’ diet and age, and also influenced by conditions stimulating sweat.
Following their analysis of the composition and secretion of this mysterious pigment (which they termed lanaurin – meaning ‘golden wool’), Rimington and Stewart concluded that it was a pyrrolic complex. That is to say, a compound whose chemical structure is based upon a ring of four carbon atoms and one nitrogen atom. Moreover, they believed it to be related to the bile pigment bilirubin – a reddish substance originating via the breakdown of the well-known respiratory pigment haemoglobin, and normally secreted into the bile by the liver in many mammalian species.
Modern-day sculpture of the Golden Fleece hanging in its sacred grove and protected by a dragon, on display at Sochi in Russia (public domain)
Rimington and Stewart suggested that the appearance of lanaurin resulted from an enhanced destruction of haemoglobin within the sheep so afflicted; they also confirmed that it was conveyed through the skin of such sheep into their wool via the sweat glands. Furthermore, not only did this compound occur within the woolof golden-coloured sheep, it was also found within their urine, which in turn was excessively pigmented. Comparisons were drawn between golden-woolled sheep and inherited acholuric jaundice in humans, with the suggestion that as with this type of human jaundice, the golden-wool condition in sheep may be genetically based.
Further researches into this intriguing area of biochemistry took place in the years to come. Chemical analyses became more precise, and chemical nomenclature diversified – substances inducing jaundice becoming known as icterogenic agents. By the early 1960s, examples of abnormal golden colouration had been reported and studied not only in sheep but also in rabbits (see the series of papers by Rimington and colleagues published during this period in the Royal Society’s Proceedings), and it emerged that a number of natural and synthetic icterogenic agents belonged to a group of chemicals known as the pentacyclic triterpenoids. In other words, they are organic compounds produced in animals and also plants by combination into larger molecules of units each containing five carbon atoms arranged in the characteristic pattern present in isoprene (a simple-structured substance used in the manufacture of rubber).
‘The Golden Fleece’ by Herbert James Draper, 1904, oil on canvas (public domain)
By 1963 and in partnership with J.M.M. Brown and Barbara Sawyer, Rimington’s continuing researches in this field had uncovered some important new information. They revealed that the golden-wool condition in sheep could also be induced by environmental means – namely, the ingestion by sheep of leaves from certain plants (especially shrubs of the genus Lantana). These plants contained pentacyclic triterpenoids that poisoned the liver of such sheep, thus preventing the normal excretion of bilirubin into the bile – resulting instead in its passage (together with that of various related pigments) into the skin and wool suint of those animals, thereby bestowing upon their wool the golden appearance reported in Rimington’s earlier studies.
So here we have an environmentally-stimulated phenomenon that produces sheep (and rabbits!) with golden-coloured wool. Not surprisingly, therefore, it was only a matter of time before this circumstance was mooted as the solution to the fabled Golden Fleece itself. And in a letter to Naturepublished on 23 June 1987, this was indeed proposed in that context by Dr J. Smith, a researcher in physical chemistry at Melbourne University, Australia.
Jason bringing Pelias the Golden Fleece and a winged victory prepares to crown him with a wreath – Side A from an Apulian red-figure calyx crater, in the Louvre, Paris (public domain)
In his letter, Dr Smith recalled an earlier portion of the Golden Fleece legend. Namely, the section in which its ovine bearer appeared during a period of severe famine in Greece, having been sent by Hermes to rescue two children due to be sacrificed by their evil stepmother Ino, in an attempt to appease the gods and thereby end the famine. Smith noted that during modern-day periods of famine in New Zealand, sheep there were often fed upon leaves from trees by their distraught farmer owners. He then postulated that under similar conditions in Greece, farmers may well have fed their sheep upon leaves from the extensively cultivated olive tree Olea europea. And it just so happens that the olive tree’s leaves contain great amounts of oleanolic acid, which is the basic substance from which the known icterogenic pentacyclic triterpenoids are derived.
Tests carried out with rabbits by Brown, Rimington and Sawyer in the 1960s had readily revealed that small amounts of oleanolic acid did not induce any icterogenic activity. Conversely, as argued by Smith, when present in much greater concentrations – as in the leaves of the olive tree (and particularly in those subjected to draught stress, as experienced in famine conditions) – oleanolic acid could exert a deleterious effect upon the liver of sheep, and in turn bring about abnormal golden discolouration of wool. In short, the Golden Fleece legend may have been based upon sightings of sheep that, during the famine periods experienced by Greece in earlier days, had been fed upon olive tree leaves, whose high triterpenoid content had ultimately caused their fleeces to be stained with golden bile pigments.
A 5,000-year-old European olive tree (© Mujaddara/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
Although, as Smith himself admitted, this is all speculative, there is no doubt that it offers an exceedingly beguiling solution to the legend – and one, moreover, that actually corresponds very closely not just with its principal but also with its more peripheral portions.
At the same time, however, some contrary evidence also exists – which was brought to attention via a follow-up letter published in Nature on 5 November 1987 and written by research chemists Drs Patrick Moyna and Horacio Heinzen from the Faculty of Chemistry in Uruguay’s Universidad de la Republica. They reported that oleanolic acid is contained in even greater concentrations in certain other plant sources – for example, it accounts for up to 50% of the content of grapes’ epicuticular wax. Yet this does not appear to have any toxic effect upon humans consuming the grapes – in contrast to the outcome that one would have predicted, judging from the arguments offered with sheep and olive leaves. However, Moyna and Heinzen did not provide any references in relation to sheep and grapes, and it is well known that the gastrointestinal tract and its associated organs in humans differ very considerably in morphology and physiology from those of sheep.
The Golden Fleece, depicted upon an ancient Greek vase (public domain)
The concept of liver-damaged sheep with discoloured yellowish wool stained by bile pigments certainly fails to conjure forth the romantic image evoked by the stirring legend of the Golden Fleece. However, the prosaic practicality of science is rarely able to match the imaginative wonder of illusory fable and fairytale.
In March 1991, yet another theory was highlighted, again by Dr ML. Ryder. In an Oxford Journal of Archaeology paper, he discussed evidence not only for the two afore-chronicled theories concerning fine wool and the using of fleeces to collect gold from water, but also for the possibility that the legend stemmed at least in part from fleeces sporting genetically-induced tan-coloured fibres rather than white ones. Clearly, the allure and intrigue of the Golden Fleece is as much alive in modern times as it was 3000 years ago in ancient times. Not bad for a mere myth…?
The Colchis princess Medea, the Golden Fleece, and its dragon guardian – plate from an old Russian children’s book (public domain)
A final scientific curiosity linking sheep and gold that is well worth mentioning here is the occurrence of reports from many parts of the world down through the years concerning sheep that supposedly possess teeth plated with gold! These still appear spasmodically in the media even today, yet as far back as 25 August 1920 in a paper published by the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, Thomas Steel revealed that the golden colour was due merely to the reflection of light from the overlapping of thin films of encrusting tartar, deposited on the teeth by the animals’ own saliva. As for the tartar – far from being gold, or even iron pyrites (‘fool’s gold’), this had been conclusively shown to be nothing more exciting (or valuable!) than impure calcium phosphate and organic matter. In Crete, it is widely believed that sheep there sporting golden teeth have been eating the herb nevrida Polygonum ideaum over a lengthy period of time, as investigated in an online article herethat contains photographs of gold-stained sheep teeth.
It was Shakespeare who said: “All that glisters is not gold”, and judging from the subjects investigated in this article, he certainly had a point!
Erasmus Quellinus II – ‘Jason with the Golden Fleece’, 1630 (public domain)
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