Sunday, July 15, 2007

Horrendously Antiquated Illustrations

Dear Constant Readers,

I've always had a fondness for those archaic illustrations done by individuals who speculated on poorly known, extinct, or outright fictional beasties. Having nothing to compare them to and often having less than reliable sources, they imagined them as bizarre monstrosities with inconceivable features. Perhaps one of the most famous was Dürer's Rhinoceros, which is iconic enough to get its own fairly detailed Wikipedia article. Even though it was replaced as the stereotypical image for a rhinoceros in Europe, its likeness was still replicated into modern times. It's a good meme in other words. For those Lord Geekington trivia buffs out there, the Dürer's Horn is my favorite fictional anatomical feature. Re-railing here, these depictions are now often rather silly in an endearing sort of way. Early Science or proto-science was rather preliminary and simple, and we clearly have come a long way. Looking back, I can't help but wonder if some of our reconstructions and beliefs will be looked upon as being rather silly themselves in the future. I could get into posterity but I'll spare you, for now.

I have covered at least one illustration in this vein before: the surreal Cetacean Centipede of Rondelet. You can read the full blog here. This appears to be a chimera of sorts combining a perciform fish, shark, whale, polychaete worm and perhaps lobster. This is almost certainly an obscure mythological animal, although there have been vague and sporadic reports of "sea-serpents" with a plethora of appendages. It is quite possible, but unproven, that the less vague reports were inspired by memories of this image or even hoaxes based upon it. This also reminds me that surrealism-like images from the Medieval/Renaissance periods may get written upon soon enough.

Aquatic animals always seem prone to really odd depictions. This here is an imaginative illustration from Harper's Weekly in 1868. The encircling gill slits, giant mouth and size make it probable this was a basking shark. But, umm, what on earth is up with those mammalian legs that make it look ready to pounce? Did the illustrator imagine this fish bounding majestically along the sea floor? The Stronsay "beast" of six decades earlier was perhaps another instance of fins (and claspers?) getting confused for limbs on a basking shark. The vertebrae size was smaller than (but otherwise identical to) that of an above average 25 foot (7.6 m) basking shark despite the reported length of 55 feet (16.8 m). Thank you Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats. This was probably just exaggeration, but there is the remote possibility of some freak basking shark that doubled its vertebral count that somehow lived to maturity.

Mentioned in this not-too-recent post is the Carta Marina of Olaus Magnus. As far as weird and mythological aquatic creatures go, this is their holy grail. You'd better click on this and pray you don't have dialup:

You can spend a lot of time picking out crazy stuff in this map. Judging by the names the "Balena" and "Orcha" are supposed to be extant cetaceans, but you can't really tell by the weird collars, tube-like nostrils, piggish faces, and other really strange features. The "Ziphius" sounds like it could be a beaked whale, but the eagle head doesn't seem quite right. Also of note are people camping out on a big "island fish", what appears to be a devil/pan sweeping a stable, a monster with three eyes on its body, a feathery dragon, and lots of other strange things. Like Dürer's Rhinoceros, this is another one of those really iconic images/memes that symbolizes the time period. I for one miss maps that alert us to potential terrors waiting for us in exotic, far away lands. Also take note trivia buffs: the man's face in the clouds blowing wind is another one of my favorite images.

While Magnus worked in the 15th and 16th centuries, fantastic illustrations continued into the 19th century, my favorite era (for this). I recently came across an amazing flickr album (which prompted this post) on a book called Sea and Land from 1889. Not only are the illustrations fantastic and iconic but they're all in the public domain, making this all the sweeter for me. Due to many of these illustrations being fairly common in the Cryptozoology domain, plus me uncontrollably discussing the subject, I suppose the label is justified. Here are some favorites from this volume:

Crab lifting a goat, hmm. Robber crabs/Coconut crabs are pretty big for crustaceans and utterly colossal for a land arthropod (~9 lbs, ~3 foot span max) but lifting a goat? The appearance does seem accurate, but I'll assume this was based on somebody's crazy story/myth.

As usual, marine creatures, in this case reptiles, are depicted rather oddly. The long-tailed fellow with a puppy-dog expression is a plesiosaur with the head placed on the wrong end. Despite the traditional swan-neck pose which is common even today, plesiosaurs and elasmosaurs could not (and probably had no reason to) assume that position. The ichthyosaurs were also portrayed as being rather crocodile-like as opposed to fish like. An actual marine crocodile does seem fairly reasonable, undoubtedly due to living relatives. The small beaked swimmer in the bottom left-hand corner is something is a mystery to me, perhaps a rhynchosaur erroneously depicted as swimming?

[Correction thanks to Matt Celeskey: The "plesiosaur" is actually a mosasaur, and the beaked creature is actually the turtle Osteopygis. See "comments" for more.]

My favorite depiction of the "Kraken" sinking a ship. This is a wonderfully dark and moody piece, or wait no, dark and disturbing, muhaha. I remember as a much younger Crypto-enthusiast I was tantalized by what appear to be two small fins low on the mantle on this cephalopod. Y'see, there was this theory that the St. Augustine monster was in fact a cirrate octopus. Here is a depiction of "Otoctopus giganteus" from Michael Raynal's Institut Virtuel de Cryptozoologie.

An image supposedly representing the St. Augustine carcass. Both the description and drawing in the Pennsylvania Grit were horrendously naive, more like something out of the middle ages than 1896. It actually is a pretty cool monster design though, I'll have to steal it. The carcass wasn't a cephalopod/fish hybrid or a giant octopus, but in fact a sperm whale. I'll discuss globsters some other day.

The best source on the Internet for strange science is, well, Strange Science. Their website has the cream of the crop of all this weird stuff, as well as biographies and an excellent primer on evolution. I'd love to post everything, but, I can't. Here are some of my favorites:

Very very strange things were thought about the appearance of a mammoth. It was assumed to be a burrower and was compared to an ox for size and, well, there you have it.

Very strangely, Japetus Steenstrup realized that two reported instances of a "sea monk" bore a remarkable resemblance to a recently captured squid. If this is in fact the case, it demonstrates that people had some horrendously overactive imaginations in that time period. This is why anecdotal evidence, even (or especially) today can never be used as proof of anything. The squid might be the Octopoteuthid Taningia danae.

I am really lost for an explanation on this one.

So there you have it, a sampling of some of the strangest drawings I've ever seen. Some of these, such as the marine reptiles, were taken seriously; but I wonder about some of the others. Regardless, for some people a bestiary-like mindset lives on in their personal take on cryptozoology. They still think that there are fantastic monsters lurking in the mysterious and not-so-mysterious reaches of the globe. As a kid, I myself depicted bestiary scenes of aquatic cryptids I read about. Consequently, Darren Naish at about the same age made a far-superior depiction...sigh. Older now, I learned that value of critical thinking and realized that upon closer inspection, many of these beasts are most certainly figments of the imagination, modern day mythological creatures. What truly astounds me is that actual discoveries are often more strange than fiction. Take the cnidarian worm (!) Buddenbrockia for example. Coming up with your own world and your own fiction is difficult considering how fantastic our world already is.

I've got a lot of options for posting now, hopefully I'll squeeze something out soon here.


[Addendum 7/15/07: As per suggestion of Kevin Z, I'll talk about the Anthropomorpha of Linneus here. This excellent website was used as a source.

Carolus Linnaeus (born Carl von Linné) as you all known, is the great father of taxonomy. Sure his system is rather antiquated right now thanks to cladistics, but it was definitely a step in the right direction. In another interesting move, Linnaeus chose to classify humans among the animals. Despite being a creationist (like everybody back then) he recognized the obvious similarity between primates and man. His classifications (quite confusingly) changed with publications, and in one scheme he broke the genus Homo into two sub-genera: Homo diurnus and Homo nocturnus. H. diurnus included our species which was (unfortunately) divided into four races. Feral humans were considered a separate species (H. ferus) and a wastebin taxa of various monsters was called H. monstrosus. This included mythical Patagonian giants, Alpine dwarfs, and very real (but not one-testicled) "Hottentots".

Left to Right: "Trogloodyte", "Lucifer", "Satyr", "Pygmee"

The poorly named Homo nocturnus (aka troglodytes) made up the other half of the Anthropomorpha. Linnaeus was far from rigorous in some instances, and despite trying to "de-mythologize" some creatures, ended up making a mess. The above depicted apes were not created with specimens, but with heresy and second-hand accounts of a medieval bestiary quality. For instance, the first one is evidently supposed to be an orangutan! Probably because of him, depictions of apes were very, well, strange for a while and also still have rather peculiar scientific names (Pan troglodytes, Pongo pygmaeus). Eventually this convoluted mess got (mostly) ironed out into neat little families, sub-families and tribes today. Let this be a lesson to cryptozoologists who want to describe and classify with secondhand knowledge!

Even though he did not classify them as Homo monstrosus or even talk about them, that category reminded me of some of my favorite humanoid bestiary monsters.

The giant cyclopes probably* originated from elephants skulls perhaps mixed with observations of the actual disease cyclopia. I find images of that very disturbing, I warn you in advance of googling that. The cynocephali (dog-headed fellow) is evidently based on baboons and perhaps soon-to-be-extinct giant lemurs. The foot-parasol fellow is baffling, perhaps based on elephantiasis? The Strong Mad-esque Anthropophagi is unexplainable, for me at least. The book Curious Creatures in Zoology by John Ashton is online here for more bestiary fun.

*As in probably not. Darren Naish will some day explain this...

Phew, and I'm spent]


Anonymous said...

But they really do exist! Why would the map be lying to us?

Amazing blog post, you sure know a lot about very strange things.

Anonymous said...

Well, the Rhinoceros of Dürer looks in fact strange with its scaly skin and the little horn on the shoulders, but on the other hand, it looks surprisingly acurate in its proportions and the positions of the skin wrinkles.
BTW, I made a short post about faked monsters from the 19th century on my blog, perhaps it could interest you.

Anonymous said...

Cool images! I really like the goat-eating crab, hadn't heard of that one before.

I think I can shed some light on a couple of the characters in the Kansas Monsters vignette: both the puppy-faced reptile and the little beaked critter are copied from Cope's 2nd installment of "Fossil Reptiles of New Jersey" (transcribed here). The former is Cope's interpretation of Mosasaurus (with a long, snake-like neck "towering above the waves"). The beaked critter is a poor copy of Cope's rendering of the turtle Osteopygis.

Cameron McCormick said...

Sordes: Nice blog, you've been listed. I kinda wish I was able to take German in High School though...

Matt: Dang, how come I never saw this part of your site before? Anyways, thanks for the correction.

Kevin Zelnio said...

Great post! The history of science illustration is quite amazing. In honor of Linnaeus' 300 anniversary this year, You should highlight some of his great drawings of "species" of Anthropomorpha.

Anonymous said...

Great post. And love your blog.

Darren Naish said...

Nice stuff. The giant fish-type thing with plants growing on it might be a version of the island-monster/kraken: that's right, contra what it says in most of the literature, kraken is NOT synonymous with 'giant squid/octopus/cephalopod'. The original kraken was an immense island-like creature that, after spending time on the surface, became covered in plants and came to look like land. The pairing up of the kraken with big mysterious cephalopods came later, though of course the real story is more twisted than this. The real root of the kraken legend remains unknown [these comments are mostly based on the research of Charles Paxton: google his name to get an idea of what he works on].

Another thing: the cyclops myth was NOT based on elephant skulls. Again, this is a recent (in this case, 20th century) suggestion. I plan to cover this on the blog some time ... yeah, and the rest :)

Cameron McCormick said...

IIRC Monsters of the Sea by Richard Ellis commented that the Kraken/Kraxen/Krabben/Hafgufa moniker was used more freely than is normally thought. "Krabben" perhaps hints at relation/confusion with the mysterious giant lobster-monster as well. Is Paxton's Kraken research published anywhere? I previously read his "Pelagic Peculiarities" and the "Egede Account" papers and loved them; sea monsters are in dire need of a fresh take. Too bad his page doesn't seem to have been updated in years.

Well I got pwned on the cyclops/elephant connection, I should have used weasel words more extensively! I recall hints that Polyphemus originally had two eyes in (really) original depictions, hmm. Now to play the waiting game...

Anonymous said...

Thumbs up on the site! Have you tried to put together some sort of pre-rational claasification system for these "alleged" mythical creatures? ;)

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