Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com/index.htm

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my ShukerNature blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

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Friday, 7 August 2020

A TRIO OF MEDITERRANEAN MYSTERY SNAKES


A horned viper – the identity of Tunisia's tantalizing taguerga? (public domain)

Many mystery serpents have been reported from remote, little-explored, inaccessible and/or inhospitable regions of the world – but not all. Down through the ages, a number of mysterious, unidentified forms have also been documented from various countries and islands lying on either side of the Mediterranean Sea, including the following thought-provoking threesome.


THE COLOVIA – A MEDITERRANEAN MEGA-SNAKE?

In various of his writings, veteran cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans referred to the alleged presence in the Mediterranean provinces within France, Spain, northern Italy, and Greece of an unidentified snake claimed by observers to be 9-12 ft long (and occasionally ever longer).

Other mystery beast investigators have also reported this serpentine enigma, which is often said to be dark green in colour, and in Italy is referred to as the colovia. One such snake was actually responsible for a traffic accident when it unexpectedly crossed a busy road near Chinchilla de Monte Aragón, in Spain's Albicete Province, on 22 July 1969. Back in December 1933, a colovia was tracked down and killed in a marsh close to the Sicilian city of Syracuse, but its carcase was not preserved.

Eastern Montpellier snake (Barbod Safaei/released into the public domain)

If we assume that the colovia's dimensions may well have been somewhat exaggerated or over-estimated by eyewitnesses, a plausible identity for it is the Montpellier snake Malpolon monspessulanus. Named after a city in southern France, this mildly-venomous rear-fanged colubrid is common through much of the Mediterranean basin. It is quite variable in colour, from dark grey to olive green, and can grow up to 8.5 ft long, possibly longer in exceptional specimens. Its presence has not been confirmed in Sicily nor anywhere in mainland Greece (its eastern subspecies, M. m. insignitus, deemed a separate species by some workers, occurs on a number of Greek islands, as well as on Cyprus), but these areas are certainly compatible with its survival.

So perhaps reports from there of unidentified colovia-type mystery snakes indicate that the Montpellier snake's distribution range within Europe's Mediterranean lands is even greater than presently recognised.


THE VIRGIN MARY SNAKES OF CEPHALONIA

Cephalonia is the largest of western Greece's seven principal Ionian islands, lying in the Ionian Sea - which is in turn an elongated embayment of the Mediterranean Sea. Every year on 16 August – known here as the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady (the Virgin Mary) – the small southeastern village of Markopoulo hosts a Marian celebration, but its most famous, and mystifying, attendants are not of the human variety. Virtually every year for more than two centuries, during the fortnight leading up to this festival considerable numbers of snakes mysteriously appear at the foot of the Old Bell Steeple by Markopoulo's Church of Our Lady, and just as mysteriously vanish again when the festival ends.

Their unusual behaviour has earned these serpents the local names of 'Virgin Mary snakes' and 'Our Lady's snakes'. This religious association is heightened by the small black cruciform mark that they allegedly bear on their heads and also at the forked tip of their tongues. They all appear to belong to the same single species, but which one this is does not seem to have been formally ascertained by herpetologists. However, they have attracted the attention and interest of several correspondents of mine, as first revealed in my book Mysteries of Planet Earth and now in greater detail here.

Four-striped snake (public domain)

According to one of them, Cephalonia chronicler Victor J. Kean, these snakes are non-venomous, are said to have "skin like silk", and are popularly believed by the villagers to possess thaumaturgic powers. One plausible candidate is the four-striped snake Elaphe quatuorlineata, a non-venomous constricting species of colubrid that occurs on Cephalonia, and whose head can bear a variety of dark markings, especially in its bolder-marked juvenile form. Moreover, herpetologist Dr Klaus-Dieter Schulz has pointed out that this species is known to be associated with Christian traditions elsewhere in southern Europe, including the annual snake procession at Cucullo, Italy, in honour of St Dominic.

When he paid a visit to Markopoulo on 16 August one year during the mid-1990s, Alistair Underwood from Preston, in Lancashire, England, observed the Virgin Mary snakes congregating outside the Church of Our Lady, where they were freely handled by the local villagers, who even draped them fearlessly around their necks. The villagers also allowed them to enter the church, and to make their way towards a large silver icon of the Virgin Mary. Some websites that I have seen in which this ceremony is described (e.g. here) claim that the species in question is the European cat snake Telescopus fallax. This is a colubrid that is indeed native to Cephalonia and several other Greek islands too. Moreover, it is actually venomous, but because it is rear-fanged its venom is rarely injected in defensive biting, so it is not deemed to be a threat to humans.

19th-Century engraving of a European cat snake (public domain)

According to Cephalonian researcher Spyros Tassis Bekatoros, the only years in which the Virgin Mary snakes have not made an appearance at Markopoulo's Marian festival are those spanning the German occupation of Cephalonia in World War II (during which period the occupying forces may have banned the Marian festival after learning about its ophidian participants), and the year 1953, when much of the island was devastated by an earthquake. This latter information may hold clues concerning the link between these snakes and the festival.

Although snakes are generally deaf to airborne vibrations (i.e. sounds), they respond very readily to groundborne ones. Consequently, Alistair Underwood suggested that the increased human activity and its associated groundborne vibrations during the Marian festival and its preceding preparations may explain the coincident appearance of the Virgin Mary snakes during those periods. If so, then the exceptional terrestrial reverberations that occurred during the 1953 earthquake would have greatly disturbed the snakes, disrupting their normal behaviour and obscuring the lesser vibrational stimuli emanating from human activity at the Marian festival that year.


THE HORNED TAGUERGA OF TUNISIA

In the first volume of his scholarly publication Exploration Scientifique de la Tunisie (1884), French archaeologist and diplomat Charles Tissot reported the alleged occurrence of a very sizeable Tunisian mystery snake known as the taguerga, which supposedly bears a pair of short but sharp horns on its head. Vehemently believed by the locals to be extremely venomous, this greatly-feared reptile is said to be as thick as a man's thigh, and to attain a total length of 7-12 ft. It reputedly frequents the mountains of southern Tunisia's Sahara region.

Horned viper (Patrick Jean, released into the public domain)

The locals consider taguergas to be specimens of the common horned viper Cerastes cerastes (a species that is indeed native to Tunisia) but which have attained an exceptionally venerable age and have continued growing throughout this abnormally-extended period of time, thus explaining their great size, as horned vipers do not normally exceed 3 ft long. Conversely, Dr Bernard Heuvelmans speculated that it may be a puff adder Bitis arietans, which sometimes bears horn-like scales upon its head. However, this species only rarely exceeds 5 ft long, and is not known to occur in Tunisia, although it is recorded from Morocco.



For an additional Mediterranean mystery snake, please click here to access my ShukerNature blog article investigating the possible taxonomic identity of St Paul's mystifying Maltese viper.

St Paul bitten by Malta's alleged viper, engraving by Hendrik Goltzius, c1580 (public domain)




Friday, 31 July 2020

THIS CRYPTID WORLD: A GLOBAL SURVEY OF UNDISCOVERED BEASTS - BOOK #31 IS NOW PUBLISHED!


This Cryptid World: A Global Survey of Undiscovered Beasts (© Dr Karl Shuker/Brian Rau/Herb Lester Associates)


I'm very happy to announce that This Cryptid World, my 31st book, is now published, and I'm equally excited to reveal that in terms of its format it is totally unlike any publication that I have ever been involved with before. This is because instead of being a conventional book or bookazine, it is a double-sided fold-out poster guide-book!

Scientists estimate that more than 90 per cent of nature's species have yet to be discovered. With that in mind, this enthralling, unique cryptozoological publication asks you to set aside any scepticism, and allow it be your guide on a fascinating global tour of cryptids - creatures whose existence has yet to be formally substantiated by science.

Shocking desert worms, mystery cats, sea and lake monsters, man-beasts of many kinds, and countless other cryptids have been sighted across the globe, and reports continue. Some accunts seem credulous, others are more authoritative, yet all present us with the same question: can it be true?

This sumptuous fold-out double-sided poster guide with text by yours truly and illustrations by Brian Rau documents an extremely diverse range of mystery beasts, outlining their characteristics, location, and sightings, all illustrated and charted on a world map. Its large format works equally effectively as a fold-out guide-book or as a double-sided poster, and comes in its own very elegant bespoke folder together with an additional stand-up 'tent' postcard depicting a jackalope.

Available to order from all good bookstores, and directly from the publisher, Herb Lester Associates, in quantities or singly. NB – it is not currently available directly from Amazon (their required discount was felt to be too substantial).

A few of Brian Rau's very stylish, diagrammatic cryptid illustrations featured on the reverse of my text and annotated world globe (© Dr Karl Shuker/Brian Rau/Herb Lester Associates)




Tuesday, 28 July 2020

MONSTERS, MINI-REVIEWS, AND MORE! WELCOMING 'SHUKER IN MOVIELAND', MY NEWEST BLOG

The banner from my newest blog, Shuker In MovieLand (© Dr Karl Shuker)

On this spinning speck of cosmic dust that we call Planet Earth, if I'm known for anything it's probably as a zoologist, media consultant, and author specialising in cryptozoology and animal mythology – at least that what it says on my website and also here on my ShukerNature blog! In addition, however, I've always had a passionate interest in the movies, watching and enjoying a diverse range of cinematic genres down through the decades that include (but are by no means confined to) monster movies, animation (especially Disney), musicals, science fiction, fantasy, classic comedies, super-hero franchises, and much more too. Such themes also characterise my TV viewing tastes.

During the isolating but very necessary Covid-19 lockdown measures that began in England during March 2020 and which meant spending virtually all of my time indoors at home, I found myself not only watching many more movies than I normally do but also preparing mini-reviews of them that I posted for fun on Facebook and elsewhere. To my surprise but great delight, these have attracted considerable interest, enthusiasm, and countless Likes from social media friends. So much so, in fact, that it has finally occurred to me that it might be worthwhile preserving them and adding to them in a blog of their own. There they will be permanently and readily accessible for reading by all interested online movie fans, together with various movie (plus a few TV) mini-reviews that I'd written and posted in earlier pre-Covid times, as well as those that I shall be writing in the future in what I hope will be a long-running ongoing series.

Risking an attack of the acklays – monstrous alien life forms from Star Wars, Episode 2, Attack of the Clones (© Dr Karl Shuker)

So here it is – Shuker In MovieLand – please click here to access it directly. As noted above, its scope is the entire spectrum of film genres that are of interest to me, but prominent among these genres is monster movies, especially those featuring a cryptozoological plot (which is why I am posting about this new movie-based blog of mine here on ShukerNature). Consequently, I shall definitely be including on Shuker In MovieLand a sizeable, ongoing selection of mini-reviews of such films, both classic and obscure, box-office blockbusters and less successful but no less fascinating features, plus those that fit somewhere in between these diametric opposites. And here, as a taster of what is to come, is my first review of a cryptozoology-themed monster movie on my new blog. Moreover, I also plan to produce some crossover articles that will appear both here on ShukerNature and on Shuker In MovieLand, so that followers from both blogs can access and read them.

I hope that you will enjoy visiting this brave new world of mine in blog form, and browse through my movie contemplations, commendations, criticisms, witticisms (should you happen to find any!), and other assorted film-related fun and folderol. Also, please do feel free to post any thoughts and comments of your own beneath my mini-reviews, plus any relevant information that you would like to share concerning the movies under consideration. Last of all, but by no means least of all, please don't forget to follow and subscribe to my new blog, because it will feel so lonely out here by itself in this big old bloggerverse if you don't. Thank you kindly!

One is a black-hearted, totally merciless scourge of the Universe – and the other is the Predator… (© Dr Karl Shuker)




Saturday, 25 July 2020

CYNOCEPHALI AND OTHER DOG-HEADED DENIZENS OF LEGEND AND LORE

A cynocephalus, as depicted on p. 22 of Monstrorum Historia (1642), written by Italian naturalist Ulisse Androvandi (public domain)

In medieval times, scholars firmly believed in the reality of all manner of extraordinary semi-human entities, supposedly inhabiting exotic lands far beyond the well-explored terrain of Europe. Prominent among these tribes of 'half-men' were the cynocephali or dog-headed people, popularly referred to by travellers and chroniclers. Their domain's precise locality, conversely, depended to a large extent upon the opinion of the specific traveller or chronicler in question, as few seemed to share the same view.

CYNOCEPHALI FROM FAR-DISTANT SHORES
Among the many legendary feats romantically attributed to Alexander III of Macedon, better known as Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), was his successful battle against a 40,000-strong army of cannibalistic cynocephali after he had invaded India, sending them fleeing and howling in terror in his wake. Some, however, were not swift enough and therefore fortunate enough to escape Alexander's merciless wrath, and were duly captured by him, their dismal fate being to be walled up alive beyond the mountain peaks at the furthest reach of the world.

Alexander the Great fighting cynocephali, painted by an unknown Flemish artist and dating from the late 15th Century (public domain)

A century earlier, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (c.484-c.425 BC) had claimed that a race of Ethiopian dog-heads termed the kynokephaloi not only barked instead of speaking, but also could spew forth flames of fire from their mouths! Another Greek historian from this same time period, Ctesias, claimed that cynocephali existed in India.

According to the Roman naturalist and scholar Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), the mysterious country of Ethiopia, which he mistakenly assumed was one and the same as India, was home both to the cynocephali and to the similarly dog-headed cynamolgi. Numbering 120,000 in total, the cynamolgi wore the skins of wild animals, conversed only via canine barks and yelps, and obtained milk, of which they were very fond, not from cows but by milking female dogs.

Cynocephali from the Andaman Islands, in a 15th-Century Book of Wonders (public domain)

Later authors also often stated that India and/or certain Asian island groups were populated by cynocephali. The 13th-Century Venetian traveller Marco Polo, who could never be accused of letting a good story slip by unpublicised, soberly announced that the Andaman Islands off Burma (now Myanmar) were home to a race of milk-drinking, fruit-eating (and occasionally human-devouring) dog-heads who engaged in peaceful trade with India.

During the early 15th Century,, a travelling Italian missionary monk named Friar Odoric of Pordenone, writing in his Itinerarium (produced c.1410-1412),  relocated these entities to the nearby Nicobar Islands. In the previous century, conversely, the writings of Catalonian Dominican missionary/explorer Friar Jordanus had deposited them rather unkindly in the ocean between Africa and India.

Cynocephali of the Nicobar Islands, in the Itinerarium of Odoric of Pordenone (public domain)

Cynocephali living in India itself were also reported by 17th-Century English theologian and geographer Peter Heylyn. He travelled widely and write extensively during the reign of Charles I, the Interregnum, and the Restoration of Charles II.

Nor should we forget Sir John Mandeville, even though his (in)famous supposed journeys to incredible faraway lands in Africa and Asia during the 14th Century owe considerably more to imagination than to peregrination. In his tome Travels, he averred that a tribe of hound-headed people inhabited a mysterious island of undetermined location called Macumeran. Here, curiously, they venerated an ox, and were ruled by a mighty but pious king, who was identified by a huge ruby around his neck and also wore a string of 300 precious oriental pearls.

Cynocephalus in Mandeville's tome The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (public domain)

There are even reports of cynocephali being seen, and shown, in Europe. For example, according to an entry and picture in the Tractatus de Signis, Prodigiis et Portentis Antiquis et Novis, Cod. 4417, folio 9v (1503), which was an illustrated script dealing with signs and miracles reported up to 1503, and produced by Austrian historian Jakob Mennel (c.1460-c.1525), a living captured cynocephalus had been brought before Louis the Pious (778-840 AD), King of the Franks and co-emperor with his father Charlemagne.

In addition, the Kiev or Spiridon Psalter, a very famous East Slavic illuminated manuscript produced in 1397 by Archdeacon Spiridon in Kiev, included among its more than 300 miniature illustrations a very striking, brightly-coloured depiction on folio 28r of two pairs of aggressive-looking cynocephali armed with spears and swords flanking at the centre of the picture a haloed human figure (Jesus?). This illustration can be seen at the end of the present ShukerNature blog article. Although Spiridon definitely wrote the text of the Kiev Psalter, at least some of its miniatures may have been added by others at later dates.

Louis the Pious witnessing the living cynocephalus brought before him, as pictured in Jakob Mennel's Tractatus de Signis, Prodigiis et Portentis Antiquis et Novis (public domain)

CYNOCEPHALI OF THE CELTIC KIND
Less well known than the above-mentioned examples is the fact that dog-headed entities also feature in Celtic lore and mythology. As pointed out by Professor David Gordon White in his definitive book, Myths of the Dog-Man (1991), Irish legends tell of several cynocephalic people.

Perhaps the most notable of these legends concerns a great invasion of Ireland from across the western sea by a race of dog-headed marauders known as the Coinceann or Conchind, who were ultimately vanquished by the demi-god warrior Cúchulainn. Moreover, a tribe of dog-heads opposed King Arthur, and were duly fought by him (or by Sir Kay in some versions of this tale).

Myths of the Dog-Man, by Prof. David Gordon White (© Prof. David Gordon White/University of Chicago Press - reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Irish legends also claim that St Christopher, a Canaanite who became the patron saint of travellers, was originally a giant cynocephalus, standing 5 cubits (7.5 ft) tall, who could only bark and howl, but prayed to God to grant him the power of speech so that he could defend Christians and spread the Christian word. God answered his prayer, and St Christopher later carried the infant Jesus safely across a swiftly-flowing river, possibly his most famous deed.

Interestingly, certain Byzantine iconography also depicts St Christopher as a cynocephalus. However, in his book Medieval Art: A Topical Dictionary (1996), Leslie Ross speculated that this perhaps resulted from confusion between the Latin words 'cananeus' (meaning 'Canaanite') and 'canineus' (meaning 'canine').

17th-Century depiction of St Christopher as a cynocephalus, at Kermira (Germir), in Cappadocia, Turkey (public domain)

Shetland folklore tells of a supernatural entity known as the wulver, which has the body of a man but is covered in short brown hair and has the head of a wolf. According to tradition, this semi-human being lives in a cave dug out of a steep mound halfway up a hill, and enjoys fishing in deep water. Despite its frightening appearance, however, the wulver is harmless if left alone, and will sometimes even leave a few fishes on the windowsill of poor folk. A similar wolf-man entity is also said to exist in Exmoor's famous Valley of the Doones. Click here for further information on ShukerNature concerning British dogmen.

DOG-HEADED DEITIES AND RULERS
Cynocephalic deities are not infrequent in mythology, but the most familiar example must surely be Anubis – ancient Egypt's traditionally jackal-headed god of the dead, but now needing a taxonomic makeover, as the Egyptian jackal has lately been revealed to be a species of wolf, not a jackal at all. Originally, Anubis was the much-dreaded god of putrefaction, but in later tellings he became transformed into a guardian deity, protecting the dead against robbers, and overseeing the embalming process. His head's form was derived from the canine scavengers in Egyptian burial graves during the far-distant age preceding the pyramids when graves were shallow and hence readily opened.

Statue of Anubis (© Dr Karl Shuker)

The Furies or Erinnyes – the terrifying trio of avenging goddesses from Greek mythology – were the three hideous daughters of the Greek sky god Uranus and Gaia (Mother Earth), consisting of Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone. Although they are more commonly depicted wholly as women, in early traditions they were described as possessing canine heads, as well as leathery bat-wings, fiery bloodshot eyes, foul breath, and hair composed of living serpents (like the trio of gorgons). Their allotted task was to harangue and punish evil-doers, especially parent-killers and oath-breakers, but eventually they were transformed into the kinder Eumenides.

Another figure in Greek mythology who underwent a canine transformation, although this time in reverse, was Lycaon. This wicked, foolhardy king of Arcadia served up the roasted flesh of his own son, Nyctimus, to Zeus, in order to test whether the supreme Greek deity would recognise it. Needless to say, Zeus did, and as a punishment he changed Lycaon into a wolf. Interestingly, however, Lycaon is often portrayed not as a complete wolf, but rather as a wolf-headed man.

16th-Century engraving of Lycaon depicted as a cynocephalus (public domain)

REAL-LIFE CYNOCEPHALI
Zoologists seeking to nominate real animals as the inspiration for the legends of cynocephali generally offer two principal candidates. The first of these is the baboon, of which there are several species. The heads of these large monkeys are certainly dog-like.

Indeed, the yellow baboon is actually known scientifically as Papio cynocephalus. Moreover, the sacred baboon P. hamadryas is native to Ethiopia – source of the earliest cynocephalus myths. An alternative name for a third species, the olive baboon, is the anubis baboon, and it has the taxonomic name P. anubis.

A beautiful 19th-Century engraving depicting the olive or anubis baboon (public domain)

The second candidate is the indri Indri indri [once Indri brevicaudatus] – one of the largest modern-day species of lemur, and indigenous to Madagascar. Measuring over 3 ft, but only possessing a very short, inconspicuous tail (hence brevicaudatus), and often spied sitting upright in trees, this highly distinctive creature does look remarkably like a short dog-headed human.

The indri did not formally become known to science until 1768, when French naturalist Pierre Sonnerat arrived in Madagascar. Even so, when other, earlier travellers visiting this exotic island returned home to Europe and regaled their listeners with much-embellished accounts of their journeys, these may well have included exaggerated tales about the indri.

Indri illustration by Pierre Sonnerat, in Johann von Schreber's series of tomes Die Saugthiere in Abbildungen nach der Natur mit Beschreibungen (1775-92) (public domain)

Certainly, it would not take a sizeable stretch of the imagination to convert a dog-headed lemur into a fully-fledged cynocephalus – thus breathing life into a being that never existed in reality, yet which would be faithfully chronicled by a succession of relatively uncritical scholars for many centuries.Of such, indeed, are legends all too often born.

This ShukerNature blog article is expanded and updated from my book The Beasts That Hide From Man.

Cynocephali depicted in a miniature illustration on folio 28r of the Kiev Psalter, a medieval illuminated manuscript dating from 1397  - in close-up on left, in situ on right (public domain)