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!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my published books (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

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

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my Starsteeds blog's poetry and other lyrical writings (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

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

Search This Blog


PLEASE COME IN, I'VE BEEN EXPECTING YOU...

PLEASE COME IN, I'VE BEEN EXPECTING YOU...
WELCOME TO SHUKERNATURE - ENJOY YOUR VISIT - BEWARE OF THE RAPTOR!


Tuesday, 30 November 2021

MADAGASCAR'S SNAKE-EATING ANTS - FORGOTTEN FABLE, OR FASCINATING FACT?

 
A worker specimen of Aphaenogaster swammerdami, a Madagascan species of funnel ant (© AntWeb.org/Wikipedia – CC BY 4.0 licence)

While lately perusing online some 19th-Century back numbers of the Antananarivo Annual and Madagascar Magazine (a yearly periodical that has proved very fruitful in providing me with fascinating but hitherto-obscure, cryptozoologically-unreported material concerning Malagasy mystery beasts of many kinds), I chanced upon a truly bizarre report regarding ants and snakes that as far as I am aware has not been previously blogged about online.

Appearing in this periodical's Christmas 1875 issue, it consisted of the following account, from an article written by Madagascan traveller/clergyman Rev. H.W. Grainge and entitled 'Journal of a visit to Mojanga and the north-west coast':

We also noticed about this part a large number of earthen mounds, varying from one to two and a half feet in height; these were the nest of a large ant credited by the men with uncommon sagacity. We were told that they make regular snake traps in the lower part of these nests; easy enough for the snake to enter, but impossible for it to get out of. When one is caught the ants are said to treat it with great care, bringing it an abundant and regular supply of food, until it becomes fat enough for their purpose; and then, accor­ding to native belief, it is killed and eaten by them.

(Mojanga is nowadays known as Mahajanga, or Majunga in French – Madagascar is a former French colony; these names are applied to a city and administrative district on Madagascar's northwest coast.) 

 
Vintage photograph of wilderness at Mojanga during the early 20th Century (public domain)

Rev. Grainge's macabre little vignette attracted the attention of a reader named R. Toy, who duly quoted it exactly a year later, in the Christmas 1876 issue of the Antananarivo Annual and Madagascar Magazine, and then appended his own equally interesting firsthand experiences concerning this very curious affair:

It would be interesting if some missionary living in the country would test the reality of this reputed fact by digging open a few of these nests. There is no doubt but that the belief is most universal among the natives. I have been assured most confidently over and over again that it is a fact that snakes are kept and fattened by the ants as above described; and knowing the sagacity of ants, and the care they take in feeding the aphides for the sake of their honey, one would not hastily set aside the statement, so generally accepted by the natives, as devoid of truth.

Needless to say, just because a belief is widely accepted does not necessarily make it true, as the very widely accepted yet wholly fallacious belief in hoop snakes, for instance, readily demonstrates. Equally, however, as noted by Toy, the farming and milking of aphids by ants for their sweet secretions is well documented scientifically. So too is their rearing within their nests of the caterpillars of the large blue Phengaris arion, a Eurasian species of lycaenid butterfly.

 
Large blue (© PJC&Co/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

(Although in this latter instance, the ants are the unsuspecting victims of a lepidopteran version of brood parasitism, with the large blue's caterpillars actually acting as predators after having tricked the ants via morphological and pheromonal mimicry tactics into carrying them inside their nests, then feeding them there; the caterpillars also take the opportunity to prey upon the ants' own pupae).

Even so, it is an immense step up, behaviourally speaking, from ants feeding 'cuckoo' caterpillars that they have been tricked into bringing inside their nests to ants purposefully trapping snakes inside their nests, then fattening them up, before killing them specifically to devour them. Such a highly advanced strategy has no readily apparent, direct parallels elsewhere in the ant, or indeed in the entire insect, world – or does it? Read on.

In August 2019, a trio of Japanese researchers who included Teppei Jono published a fascinating Royal Society Open Science paper (click here to access it) revealing two very different but closely interacting relationships between a species of Madagascan myrmicine ant Aphaenogaster swammerdami and two species of snake, all of which was hitherto unsuspected by science and unequivocally novel. The snakes are a large ant-eating blindsnake called Mocquard's worm snake Madatyphlops decorsei, and an even larger ophiophagous (snake-eating) lampropheid called the Malagasy cat-eyed snake Madagascarophis colubrinus (also known locally as the ant mother – see later).

 
A Madatyphlops blindsnake or worm snake (© Bernard Dupont/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

Native to much of the world (sub-Saharan Africa, much of South America, and Antarctica being the only major exceptions), there are approximately 200 species of Aphaenogaster ant, which belong to the taxonomic subfamily Myrmicinae, and produce just a single caste of worker. They are famous for their large funnel-shaped nests (more about which later), earning them the common name of funnel ants. In Madagascar, a major predator of these ants is Mocquard's worm snake Madatyphlops decorsei, endemic to this mini-island continent, and formally described by French herpetologist Dr François Mocquard in 1901, who named it in honour of Gaston-Jules Decorse, a French army physician.

Mocquard assigned this newly-revealed species to the nominate blindsnake genus Typhlops, where it remained until 2014 when a new genus, Madatyphlops, was specifically created for the blindsnakes of Madagascar and the Comoros (14 species are currently recognised), and to which it was duly transferred (and of which it is the largest species). Dark shiny grey-brown dorsally, paler ventrally, this species spends its life underground, explaining why it only has vestigial eyes.

As for the Malagasy cat-eyed snake or ant mother Madagascarophis colubrinus, this species is an active predator of Mocquard's worm snake and is a member of the taxonomic family Lampropheidae. The latter was long considered to be merely a subfamily of Colubridae, but was elevated to the level of a family in its own right in 2010 when a molecular-based study revealed that in reality its member species were more closely allied to the elapids than to the colubrids. Very variable in colour and markings, M. colubrinus is one of five species housed within its genus, endemic to Madagascar, and all are mildly venomous, but they are capable of constriction too if their venom proves insufficient to subdue their prey. This consists of other small reptiles, including snakes as already noted, plus rodents. They have large eyes with vertical, superficially cat-like pupils, hence their common name.

 
Malagasy cat-eyed snake Madagascarophis colubrinus, aka the ant mother (© Dawson/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.5 licence)

According to a publicity release (click here to access it) issued on Scimex when the Japanese team's August 2019 paper was published:

A Madagascan ant species can tell whether marauding snakes are friend or foe. When ant-eating blind snakes approach an ant nest, the worker ants run back to evacuate their young, leaving a few behind to mount a biting attack on the intruder. But they also have a second line of defence. The ants allow one of the few known predators of the blindsnake - a snake-eating snake - into their nest, in what the authors say is a symbiotic relationship where the ants get protection and the snake gets a cosy place to hide. Instead of biting the snake-eating snake when it approaches, the ants touch them with their antenna - a well-known form of communication between ants.

In the past, differences in reactions by ants to other species had only occurred relative to different insect predators or aggressors. Consequently, as noted by University of York researcher Dr Eleanor Drinkwater in a Naked Scientists website interview on 20 August 2019 concerning this study by Jono et al., the latter might be the first study to show that ants react differently to different vertebrate predators too. When the researchers conducted experiments to determine the ants' reactions to these snakes, presenting to various nests of this ant species a specimen of each of the two snakes plus one of a third, control snake species, the ants ignored the ant mother snake, but attacked the blindsnake and also the control snake. However, the only snake that sent the ants fleeing back inside their nest to evacuate it was the blindsnake.

 
Another worker specimen of Aphaenogaster swammerdami (© AntWeb.org/Wikipedia – CC BY 4.0 licence)

Reading this remarkable discovery has made me wonder whether it may have influenced the native Madagascan belief in ants trapping, fattening up, and then killing snakes. After all, the reason why the local tribespeople refer to M. colubrinus as the ant mother is that they are well aware of its frequent presence around the nests of this particular species of ant, and that it preys upon the blindsnakes preying upon the ants, thereby indirectly protecting the ants.

Also, the nests of some Aphaenogaster ants are both funnel-shaped and deep, conceivably giving a false impression that they have been specially created as inescapable traps for snaring creatures. (Having said that, it is possible that in certain Australian Aphaenogaster species, their nests' funnel-shaped entrances do act as traps for surface foraging arthropods.)

Could it be, therefore, that the Madagascan locals knew of the ants' different specific reactions to these two snakes too, long before the researchers scientifically revealed them recently, but that down through many generations of verbal retellings the true nature of these reactions and also of their nests had become distorted and elaborated upon, eventually yielding an imaginative but wholly incorrect scenario whereby the ants do not merely attack the blindsnakes but actually trap, feed, and then feed upon them?

 
A predominantly black specimen of the Malagasy cat snake (© Bernard Dupont/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

After all, it wouldn't be the first time that garbled, orally-transmitted recollections of elusive animals and unusual animal behaviour by non-scientific observers has resulted in the evolution of memorable yet entirely erroneous folk beliefs.

Finally: after discovering the two above-quoted reports in two successive early volumes of the Antananarivo Annual and Madagascar Magazine, I painstakingly checked through every succeeding volume of it, and also widely elsewhere online, but I have been unable to uncover any additional reports on this most curious subject.

Consequently, it presently remains a herpetological enigma – unless anyone reading this ShukerNature blog article of mine has further information? If so, I'd love to hear from you!

 
Madagascar's ophidian ant mother Madagascarophis colubrinus (© Axel Strauss/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

 

Saturday, 20 November 2021

THE ISLE OF WIGHT MEGA-FOOTPRINTS – A CAUTIONARY CRYPTOZOOLOGICAL TALE

My cast of one of the set of Isle of Wight mega-sized animal footprints from April 1994 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Here's a cautionary little tale for cryptozoology that I included during a lecture presented by me on modern-day mystery beast reports at the very first Fortean Times UnConvention, held in London during 18-19 June 1994. However, I've never previously documented it anywhere online – so it's high time that I did.

In April 1994, naturalist Martin Trippett from the Isle of Wight (a large island situated off southern England) informed me that a garden in the IOW town of Ride had recently received an unusual visitor. The garden had been freshly dug on the day in question by its owners, who then placed their garden rubbish in some bin-liners. The garden was completely enclosed by a 3-ft-high wall and its only entrance was via a gate, which they locked that night.

The next morning, they found that some unidentified animal had been in their garden, ripping the bin liners to shreds and leaving huge footprints all over the freshly dug soil. The photograph opening this present ShukerNature article is of a cast of one set of those prints (later described to me over the phone by some IOW newspaper reporters), which Martin very kindly posted to me for my examination and permanent retention.

 
Diagrams comparing dog and cat spoor – typical examples (click to enlarge for reading purposes) (© Trevor Beer reproduced with his kind permission in my 1989 book Mystery Cats of the World and in its updated 2020 edition Mystery Cats of the World Revisited)

Measuring 4.5 in long and 4 in across, the prints had no claw marks at all, which ostensibly leaned towards a huge cat as an identity. However, when the casts were sent to me, I could see from the shape of the heel pad and the diverging placement of the toe pads that they were in fact dog prints, albeit from a very large and extremely well-manicured dog – so this is what I told the reporters.

Inevitably, they were rather disappointed, as this dashed any hopes for them of dramatic headlines concerning giant cats on the loose. Nevertheless, they then confessed to me that they had actually been informed by the police that a Great Dane dog had been loose in this particular area for the past week, a huge breed that could very easily scale a 3-ft-high wall if it so chose (more details here).

All of which proves that however tempted you may be to give the media the story that it wants, regardless of your own personal opinion, it is not a good idea to do so. Cryptozoology has a nasty knack of coming back to haunt those who flirt with its favours.

 
Vintage photograph from 1910 of a Harlequin Great Dane (public domain)

 

Monday, 18 October 2021

A LIKING FOR THE (MISNAMED) LAKE OF ALLIGATORS

 
Vintage engraving depicting a lake of crocodiles (public domain)

What's in a name? Not a lot, sometimes. Or, to put it more poetically: the naming of books – and animals – is a difficult matter, it isn't just one of your holiday games, as T.S. Eliot almost said.

Take, for instance, a book written by English diplomat, Conservative MP, and Oriental scholar Edward Backhouse Eastwick (1814-1883), published in 1849, and entitled Dry Leaves From Young Egypt. With a title like that, one might well be forgiven for assuming it to be a volume devoted to the land of the pyramids and sphinx, but in reality its subject is the author's journey in 1839 through Sindh, the most southeasterly of Pakistan's four provinces. Similarly, a section within this same book entitled 'Magar Taláo – the Alligator Lake' is not about alligators at all, which are not native to Pakistan, but concerns crocodile instead, which are native here.

 
A 19th-Century painting (artist unknown to me) of Edward Backhouse Eastwick (public domain)

I first learned about Magar Taláo about 30 years ago, from a thoroughly fascinating, exquisitely illustrated compendium volume from 1885 entitled The World of Wonders: A Record of Things Wonderful in Nature, Science, and Art that I'd recently purchased at a book fair, and which was packed with the most intriguing, unusual, and sometimes truly bizarre subjects, often excerpted from earlier works that nowadays are all but forgotten. In the case of Magar Taláo, this compendium's coverage consisted of what turned out upon my later checking of it to be a direct quote of the entire relevant passage from Eastwick's afore-mentioned book.

Moreover, as it is such an interesting but nowadays rarely read passage, I have decided to do the same with it here on ShukerNature, because I feel sure that it will interest my blog's readers just as much as it did with me when I first read it all those years ago in The World of Wonders, and then subsequently re-read it in its original source. So here it is, quoted in full directly from Eastwick's Dry Leaves From Young Egypt (but please bear in mind that the so-called alligators referred to in it are actually crocodiles, and that it is set in Pakistan, not Egypt!):

One of my first expeditions after reaching Caráchi [Karachi] was a visit to the Magar Taláo, as it is called, or Lake of Alligators. This curious place is about eight miles from Caráchi. and is well worth inspecting to all who are fond of the monstrous and grotesque. A moderate ride through a sandy and sterile track varied with a few patches of jungle, brings one to a grove of tamarind trees, hid in the bosom of which lie the grisly brood of monsters. Little would one ignorant of the locale suspect that under that green wood in that tiny pool, which an active leaper could half spring across, such hideous denizens are concealed. "Here is the pool," I said to my guide rather contemptuously, "but where are the alligators?" At the same time I was stalking on very boldly with head erect, and rather inclined to flout the whole affair, naso adunco. A sudden hoarse roar or bark, however, under my very feet, made me execute a pirouette in the air with extraordinary adroitness, and perhaps with more animation than grace. I had almost stepped on a young crocodilian imp about three feet long, whose bite, small as he was, would have been the reverse of pleasant. Presently the genius of the place made his appearance in the shape of a wizard-looking old Fakir, who, on my presenting him with a couple of rupees, produced his wand in other words, a long pole, and then proceeded to "call up his spirits." On his shouting "Ao! Ao!" "Come! Come!" two or three times, the water suddenly became alive with monsters. At least three score huge alligators, some of them fifteen feet in length, made their appearance, and came thronging to the shore. The whole scene reminded me of fairy tales. The solitary wood, the pool with its strange inmates, the Fakir's lonely hut on the hill side, the Fakir himself, tall, swart, and gaunt, the robber-looking Bilúchi by my side, made up a fantastic picture. Strange, too, the control our showman displayed over his "Lions." On his motioning with the pole they stopped (indeed, they had already arrived at a disagreeable propinquity), and, on his calling out "Baitho," "Sit down," they lay flat on their stomachs, grin­ning horrible obedience with their open and expectant jaws. Some large pieces of flesh were thrown to them, to get which they struggled, writhed, and fought, and tore the flesh into shreds and gobbets. I was amused with the respect the smaller ones shewed to their overgrown seniors. One fellow, about ten feet long, was walking up to the feeding ground from the water, when he caught a glimpse of another much larger just behind him. It was odd to see the frightened look with which he sidled out of the way evidently expecting to lose half a yard of his tail before he could effect his retreat. At a short distance (perhaps half a mile) from the first pool, I was shewn another, in which the water was as warm as one could bear it for complete immersion, yet even here I saw some small alligators. The Fakirs told me these brutes were very numerous in the river about fifteen or twenty miles to the west. The monarch of the place, an enormous alligator, to which the Fakir had given the name of "Mor Saheb," "My Lord Mor," never obeyed the call to come out. As I walked round the pool I was shewn where he lay, with his head above water, immoveable as a log, and for which I should have mistaken him but for his small savage eyes, which glittered so that they seemed to emit sparks. He was, the Fakir said, very fierce and dangerous, and at least twenty feet in length.

What a fascinating if frightening vista the Lake of Alligators must have been to the previously imperious, unimpressed Eastwick, and, echoing his own viewpoint afterwards, how surreal a scene it must have seemed – the product of some fevered nightmare, no less – featuring a primeval phantasmagorical world bedeviled by the deadliest of dragons who remain lulled only by the spellbinding skills of the almost mystical, magical fakir in their midst, a veritable crocodile whisperer, in fact!

Finally, for everyone reading this blog article of mine who shares my passion for titillating trivia: the first recorded use in English of the Arabic word 'kismet', meaning destiny, fate, or simply luck, was by none other than a certain Edward Backhouse Eastwick (who spelled it 'kismat'), in – yes, you've guessed it – Dry Leaves From Young Egypt. There's a future quiz question lurking in there somewhere!

 
A congregation of pool-dwelling crocodiles (public domain)

 

Friday, 15 October 2021

HOW TO LOSE A CHIMAERA, IN ONE EASY LESSON!

 
Vintage picture postcard depicting the famous Chimaera of Arezzo bronze statue; it was originally part of a group, with Bellerophon and Pegasus fighting it (public domain)

How to lose a chimaera in one easy lesson? Simply see it, then promptly forget all about it, until far too much time has passed to make amends. See, I told you that it was easy! Confused? I was too, for a while – but let's begin at the beginning.

The year was 1980-ish, sometime in that decade anyway. It was during an afternoon in the Midlands town of Stratford-upon-Avon, famous not only in England but also internationally as the birthplace of a certain playwright, one William Shakespeare, to be precise. I was there with my family, as this was a favourite visiting locale for us on Sundays, because unlike in many other English towns back then, most shops in Stratford were open on the Sabbath due its huge popularity with overseas tourists.

 
Chimaera fountain at Arezzo, vintage postcard, 1952 (public domain)

And so it was on that fateful afternoon that I found myself in a large two-storey shopping complex in the centre of Stratford's shopping area, a complex that specialized in antiques. Its very spacious interior was divided up into numerous stalls, each stall rented out to a different antiques seller, so it collectively offered a vast range of objets d'art, curiosities, and exotica of every conceivable kind – in other words, a fascinating place in which to spend time browsing, at least for anyone like me with a decidedly eclectic range of interests.

In one corner of the downstairs storey was a stall whose lady vendor could usually be found whiling away the hours by knitting as potential purchasers eyed her wares. I can still vividly recall spotting on the floor amidst some other figurines a Jack Russell terrier-sized black sculpture in metal of what seemed to me to be a somewhat odd-looking lion, with a spiky mane, unusually slender haunches, and a long tail that curved up over its back instead of downwards. There also seemed to be something peculiar sticking up from its shoulders, but as I wasn't overly interested in this ostensibly misshaped, confusing creature, I never bothered to peer closer to see what that 'something peculiar' was. Instead, my gaze fell elsewhere, peering at other items in her stall before moving on to various stalls nearby – this complex contained a great many stalls, so in order to visit all or most of them, it paid not to linger or loiter too long at any single one.

 
An inordinately elaborate chimaera, by Jacopo Ligozzi, created between 1590 and 1610 AD (public domain)

I thought nothing more of that strange-looking leonine statue for a long time, some years in fact, until one day I was idly flicking through a Larousse-published encyclopaedia of art that I'd lately purchased, and there, to my great surprise, was a photograph of a statue that looked exactly like the odd, spiky-maned lion that I'd seen during that long-gone Sunday afternoon visit to Stratford – except that it wasn't a lion after all. Instead, it was a chimaera (=chimera), and no ordinary chimaera either, always assuming of course that any chimaera can ever be considered ordinary. But what exactly IS a chimaera?

If you're unversed in Greek mythology, you may not have encountered the stirring legend of Bellerophon, Pegasus, and the Chimaera, so here are its edited highlights. The hideous semi-human monster Echidna had given birth to a number of horrific beasts, including the three-headed hell hound Cerberus, the two-headed monster hound Orthos, the many-headed Lernaean hydra, and the chimaera, which was yet another multi-headed horror.

 
An animatronic large-scale model of the chimaera (© Dr Karl Shuker)

This terrifying beast took the form of a huge lion, but unlike any normal member of the leonine pride, the chimaera bore a second head, in the form of a horned goat's, sprouting forth from between its shoulders or its upper back (recollections may vary, as I believe someone once said recently…?), and a third head, in the form of a venomous snake's, at the end of its long, ever-thrashing tail. Moreover, as if all of that were not already more than sufficiently deadly for anyone to deal with, the chimaera also breathed fire, jetting forth great flames of destruction from the jaws of its primary, leonine head.

In other words, this was an exceptionslly formidable beast for anyone to contend with, but most especially for the poor benighted inhabitants of  Caria in northern Anatolia, Turkey – because this is where the chimaera had taken up residence and was terrorizing the helpless populace, who had no answer to the perilous threat posed by an enormous monstrosity with three different heads and infernal flame-throwing capabilities.

Two vintage engravings of the Chimaera of Arezzo bronze statue (top and bottom); and a vintage b/w photograph of it (middle) – note the dedicatory inscription to the god Tinia carved upon its right foreleg (all public domain)

In such a dire situation, the usual plan of action is for the terrified locals to send out for a hero to dispatch their hideous persecutor, but in this instance they did not have to do so, because just such a man had already been sent there, by his scheming uncle, King Iobates of Lycia in Anatolia, who fervently hoped that his heroic nephew would be killed by the chimaera, thereby foiling a prophecy claiming that his nephew would kill him instead.

The nephew in question was a mighty, fearless warrior-hero named Bellerophon, who arrived in Caria astride his equally mighty, fearless steed. Nor was this just any mighty, fearless steed either – in fact, it was none other than the magnificent winged horse Pegasus, previously untamed, but whom Bellerophon had successfully captured using the goddess Athena's enchanted golden bridle while it was drinking from a sacred spring on the citadel of Corinth in Greece, unaware of Bellerophon's stealthy approach.

 
Bellerophon on Pegasus slaying the chimaera – from Walter Crane's A Wonder Book For Girls and Boys (public domain)

Riding Pegasus, Bellerophon swiftly entered into battle with the chimaera, but even though his winged steed possessed the significant advantage of flight, it was a long and physically grueling onslaught before Bellerophon and Pegasus finally wore down this immensely powerful monster's vast reserves of strength. Doing so, however, finally enabled Bellerophon to slay it, by firing a spear tipped with a block of lead down its throat, whose fire melted the lead, thereby suffocating the chimaera, and freeing the people of Caria from its tyranny forever.

Encouraged by his great success, Bellerophon then decided to attempt an even more daring feat – to fly up through the sky upon Pegasus until he reached the very home of the gods themselves, who had hitherto remained forever concealed from human eyes in their lofty cloud-shielded domain at the very summit of Mount Olympus. This was something that no mortal had ever even attempted before, let alone achieved, but Bellerophon was intent upon doing so, and promptly set off, riding Pegasus ever upwards towards the divine dwelling place of the Greek deities.

 
An exquisite illustration from 1914 of Bellerophon riding Pegasus (public domain)

Zeus, however, was far from pleased about this. He had watched with pleasure as Bellerophon had dispatched the dreaded chimaera, but now his brow was creased with fury, his eyes thunderous with rage, as he witnessed Bellerophon's blasphemous ascent through the skies towards their rarefied Olympian home. Suddenly, Zeus had an idea – he sent forth a biting gadfly, down towards Bellerophon and his winged steed. When it reached them, the gadfly savagely bit Pegasus on his rump – which caused him to rear up in shock and pain, throwing an unsuspecting Bellerophon off his back, who plummeted headlong back down to Earth.

Miraculously, however, Bellerophon survived, by landing on a thorn bush that cushioned his fall, but its thorns blinded him, and he spent the rest of his days wandering the land piteously like a beggar, in abject misery – a sorry end indeed for a former hero and slayer of monsters.

 

Modern-day photographs depicting both sides of the Chimaera of Arezzo bronze statue (public domain / Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Back now to my afore-mentioned Larousse-published encyclopaedia of art, and the photograph that I had seen in it was of a bronze statue of the chimaera, which had been unearthed by construction workers on 15 November 1553 at Arezzo, an ancient Etruscan and Roman city in Tuscany, Italy, and which dated back to approximately 400 BC.

Nowadays known officially as the Chimaera of Arezzo, and widely deemed to be the finest example ever uncovered of ancient Etruscan artwork, this spectacular statue is believed to have been a votive offering to the sky god Tinia – the supreme deity in Etruscan mythology. It stands 78.5 cm (2.5 ft) high, measures 129 cm (4.25 ft) in total length, and after passing through several different owners and holding locations it has been on permanent display at Florence's National Archaeological Museum in Tuscany since 1870.

 
Apart from its bright red colour, this is an identical replica of the Chimaera of Arezzo bronze statue, and was cast by the Ferdinando Marinelli Artistic Foundry (© Piero Paoletti/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

 
Modern outdoor chimaera statue in stone inspired by the Chimaera of Arezzo bronze statue (© Thomas Shahan/Wikipedia CC BY 2.0 licence)

I now realized that what I had seen in that antiques stall at Stratford was a modern-day replica of this historically highly significant statue, a faithful facsimile of the Chimaera of Arezzo no less. Unfortunately, however, I hadn't realized back then what it was, so I hadn't thought to ask its price. True, the price may have been more than I could have afforded, but I’ll never know, because I never asked.

All that I do know is that in the 30-40 years that have passed since that monumental miss on my part, I have never once seen another contemporary reproduction of the Chimaera of Arezzo statue for sale, anywhere. But I live in hope…

 
My mother Mary Shuker and I being scrutinized by an animatronic chimaera at an exhibition of monsters held in Birmingham's art gallery during August 2008 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Finally: The 2012 fantasy movie Wrath of the Titans, albeit playing fast and loose with classical Greek mythology as is Hollywod's wont,  contains an undeniably thrilling battle sequence between Perseus (as opposed to Bellerophon) and a winged chimaera - check out its sneaky serpentine tail in the following video clip:


Wednesday, 13 October 2021

MYSTERY BEASTS SERVED UP ON A PLATE, GREEK STYLE!

 
My newly-purchased modern-day Greek wall plate featuring some very mysterious creatures depicted upon it please click photograph to enlarge it for close-up viewing purposes (© Dr Karl Shuker)

On Tuesdays and Fridays, the (very) small outdoor market in my West Midlands, England, home town is largely devoted to bric-a-brac and collector's stalls, selling all manner of curiosities and exotica amidst the more traditional DVDs, stamps, books, medals, toys, records, ornaments, and suchlike – so naturally I'm a frequent visitor!

Yesterday, the very first stall that I walked up to included among its varied array of objects for sale the large and very ornately decorated terracotta Greek wall plate whose photograph opens this present ShukerNature article. Although only a modern-day creation, unsigned and unstamped, its sizeable 11-inch diameter coupled with its striking portrayal of several different animals in classical Greek style rendered this exquisite wall plate an extremely eyecatching item of artwork very worthy of being displayed, and its previous owner had evidently thought so too, because a wall-hanger frame was still attached to its reverse side.

What attracted me to this plate most of all, however, was the precise nature of the animals depicted upon it, because whereas some were readily identifiable, others were much more mysterious. Consequently, I decided to ask its price, although I strongly suspected that such a beautiful object, especially one that was in excellent condition too, would not be cheap.  When I asked the seller, a look of intense concentration immediately fixed itself upon his face, and he proceeded to stand there for several moments, in deep, rapt contemplation. How much would he decide to ask for it, I wondered - £5, £10, possibly even more? After what seemed like an eternity, the seller finally reached a decision and turned slowly towards me, as I awaited with quiet dread the size of the figure that he was about to quote me.

"20p," he said.

Never had a 20p coin ever exited anyone's pocket and found itself in someone else's hand as rapidly as did the 20p coin that I used to purchase this absolute bargain!

Picking up the surprisingly heavy but thoroughly wonderful wall plate that was now mine, all mine, I placed it gingerly inside a plastic carrier bag and then that inside another one, to ensure that nothing else that I may purchase there would knock against it and possibly chip its beautiful surface, and then I walked happily away, another item of potential cryptozoological interest to add to my collection.

When I arrived back home, I unwrapped the plate and spent some time perusing its portrayed beasts. First and foremost to attract my attention was the gorgeously-detailed fabulous beast depicted at its centre, which I readily recognized to be a Greek sphinx, combining a lion's body with a woman's head, and winged. Egyptian sphinxes, conversely, combine a lion's body with a man's head, and are not winged.

 
Close-up of the Greek sphinx depicted at the centre of my Greek wall plate (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Turning now to the various beasts decorating the plate's perimeter, I could see straight away that two of them were a pair of maned lions, depicted near to bottom-left and bottom-right of the plate:

The two maned lions depicted on my Greek wall plate (© Dr Karl Shuker)

This left four other creatures still to identify, and this is where it became rather more difficult, at least initially. Three of these – positioned bottom-centre, near top-left and near top-right – were depictions of a very distinctive, unusual type of bird. It sported a long swan-like or goose-like neck, but its plumage's form and colouration did not match that of any swan or goose native to either Greece or its environs that I could think of. And yet it did seem strangely familiar somehow.

 
The three mystery birds depicted on my Greek wall plate (© Dr Karl Shuker)

After giving the matter some thought, I then gave thanks to the fact that I was not only a lover of classical mythology but also a stamp collector, because an image had suddenly popped into my mind – the image of one specific postage stamp featuring the classical Greek demi-god hero Heracles (aka Hercules) battling a flock of avian man-eaters known as the Stymphalian birds (click here to access my detailed investigation of these creatures elsewhere on ShukerNature).

In 1982, Monaco had commemorated the famous Greek legend of Heracles by issuing a series of postage stamps that each illustrated one of his twelve great labours. And among those labours was his slaying of the ferocious lake-dwelling Stymphalian birds, which reputedly possessed long necks and huge wings of brass. Moreover, the three birds depicted on that particular stamp definitely bore a marked resemblance to the tantalizing trio portrayed upon my Greek wall plate.

 
The Monaco postage stamp depicting Heracles fighting the Stymphalian birds (© Monaco Postal Service – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Consequently, although I cannot be absolutely certain, it seems reasonable to assume that my plate's mystery birds are indeed representations of these mythological feathered monsters. Indeed; the plate's modern-day Greek artist may even have been directly inspired by that particular Greek-themed Monaco stamp when designing his birds for it.

All that now awaited my attention and attempts to identify it was the very intriguing animal portrayed at top-centre on my plate. Looking closely at it, I felt that it most closely resembled some form of big cat. Unquestionably, its face, body shape, and paws were all decidedly feline, but if so, which cat could it be?

For whereas the creature's chest was very noticeably spotted, like that of a leopard, its tail was just as noticeably tufted, like that of a lion. Yet it did not possess a mane like the instantly recognisable pair of lions portrayed elsewhere on the plate both sported. Perhaps it was meant to be a lioness rather than a lion, but if so, why was its chest spotted? Equally, why only its chest, why not the remainder of its body as well, which is what you would expect if, tufted tail notwithstanding, it was intended to be a representation of a leopard? All very mystifying.

And a day later it remains very mystifying, because despite having given the matter much thought during the interim period between then and now, I am still unable to offer a plausible identity for this semi-mottled mystery beast. Perhaps it was simply an invention of the artist, a fictitious entity playfully added to the plate's panoply of authentic classical Greek fauna from reality and mythology (back in early times, lions did exist here). Alternatively, might it even be an attempt by him to portray a leopon, a hybrid of lion and leopard? Or could it be some fabled Greek beast unfamiliar to me? I shall continue to investigate this pictured puzzle, but if any ShukerNature reader can offer me any suggestions of their own, I'd greatly welcome receiving them.

 
The unidentified mystery beast depicted on my Greek wall plate, ostensibly combining morphological features of the lion and the leopard (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Finally: this particular example is one of several modern-day Greek wall plates decorated with exquisite depictions of mythological beasts and deities that I have purchased down through the years at various bric-a-brac markets and car boot sales.

I recently featured one of them, depicting a famous statue portraying the horrific death of the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons at the jaws and coils of a pair of giant snakes sent forth from the sea by Poseidon, in a ShukerNature article of mine examining this famous Greek/Trojan legend (click here to access it). Here it is again:

 
Modern-day Greek wall plate depicting the famous statue 'Laocoön and His Sons' (© Dr Karl Shuker)

And below are some of the others:

 
Modern-day Greek wall plate depicting a pair of beautiful winged steeds pulling the sun chariot of Apollo across the sky (© Dr Karl Shuker)

 
Modern-day Greek wall plate depicting the slaying of the minotaur by Theseus (© Dr Karl Shuker)

 
Modern-day Greek wall plate depicting Odysseus bound to the mast of his ship to prevent him from being lured to his death by the deadly singing of the three sirens surrounding the vessel (© Dr Karl Shuker)

 
Modern-day Greek wall plate depicting Hermes, Artemis, and Apollo, with one of Artemis's sacred deer beside her (© Dr Karl Shuker)

 
Modern-day Greek wall plate depicting Zeus, Hera, and Nike (© Dr Karl Shuker)

 
Lastly, just to be different, my resin statuette of the Greek sea god Poseidon (© Dr Karl Shuker)