Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. 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), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently 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), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

ShukerNature - http://www.karlshuker.blogspot.com

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

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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Thursday, 26 February 2009

FRILLED LIZARD FACTOID


On Friday, I posted this picture of an Australian frilled lizard and wrote that the frill is used in territorial and sexual displays and is supported by long spines of cartilage. When the lizard is frightened, it gapes its mouth, showing a bright pink or yellow lining, and the frill flares out, displaying bright orange and red scales. The frill may also aid in thermoregulation.

But I also asked: What other use, allegedly, is the frill used for?

Here is an excerpt from my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2008):


"Not long after the publication of this book’s original edition [Extraordinary Animals Worldwide, 1991], I learnt of an additional, equally controversial glider – none other than Australia’s famous frilled lizard Chlamydosaurus kingii. [...] It is renowned for the extraordinary crenated frill around its head and neck, which it expands if threatened, in order to startle and ward off any would-be attacker. However, some writers contend that it also utilizes its frill for volplaning, enabling it to glide from tree to tree.

"In his book Bunyips and Billabongs (1933), Australian scientist Dr Charles Fenner included a remarkable statement made by Queensland naturalist Mrs Adam Black concerning this distinctive reptile:

"...a pair lived outside our garden fence for years. They would run up a tree if one approached, and I’ve often seen my husband put his hand round the tree (they always climb up the opposite side to where you are) and catch one’s tail; he would then hold it and go round and stroke the lizard’s back and frill. If really alarmed when up a tree they extend their gaily-coloured frill and glide down to the root of another tree.

"Sadly, Black gave no description of the volpaning itself. I can only assume that if it does occur, the frill must act like a parachute, opening out, thence enabling the lizard to drift passively downwards.

"Summing up, Fenner stated:

"I believe that Mrs Black and other observers have produced convincing evidence that we have an Australian “flying lizard”. It is to be hoped that some zoologist will take steps to observe these volplane flights of Chlamydosaurus.

"Unfortunately, this does not seem to have happened, so for now, this intriguing subject is very much up in the air. Whether the same can be said of the frilled lizard itself, therefore, remains to be seen - literally!"

JUST FOR FUN - A FRILLED LIZARD CONUNDRUM

This is, of course, the Australian frilled lizard Chlamydosaurus kingii, so called because of the large ruff of skin that usually lies folded back against its head and neck.

The frill is used in territorial and sexual displays, and is supported by long spines of cartilage. When the lizard is frightened, it gapes its mouth, showing a bright pink or yellow lining, and the frill flares out, displaying bright orange and red scales. The frill may also aid in thermoregulation.

Now, here's a question for you. What other use, allegedly, is the frill used for? If you want to make a guess, please post your ideas here, and I'll give the answer on Sunday...

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

A PIRATE OF THE CARIBBEAN SEEN IN YEOVIL LAST SATURDAY

"Buy Dr Shuker's Book.... Savvy?"

IT AIN’T NESSIE-SSARILY SO – OR IS IT?

Jon Downes mentioned not so long ago when covering a new Nessie sighting that, until then, Britain’s most famous cryptid, good old Nessie, hadn’t received any coverage on the CFZ bloggo. This made me think about a DVD about Loch Ness and its alleged monster that I had found very interesting but which has not received much coverage within crypto circles.

Consequently, this seems as good a time and place as any for me to offer some thoughts about it, in the form of the following review, in the hope that it will encourage others to view what is definitely a very notable DVD on the subject. It is entitled ‘Loch Ness Discovered’, and was first released by the Discovery Channnel in 2005. The programme is DVD 10, plays in both PAL and NTSC machines, and has a total running time of approximately 1 hr 17 min.

The cover of this DVD prominently displays the familiar image of the surgeon's photo, purportedly depicting Nessie, but as its title suggests, the scope of the DVD's contents goes beyond Nessie to encompass Loch Ness itself. Indeed, of the four films included on it, the principal one, sharing its title with the DVD itself and lasting for 45 minutes, is primarily concerned with the loch's natural - as opposed to unnatural - history.

Originally released in 1993, Film #1 follows Project Urquhart, featuring the researches of two scientific teams working at Loch Ness, studying its complex but hitherto little-investigated underwater ecosystem. One team, from the Freshwater Biological Association (FBA), is particularly interested in the intriguing fact that Loch Ness is to all intent and purposes two separate lakes, comprising a warmer layer, where little lives, above a colder, wilder underlayer containing fauna and dramatic underwater weather. The second team, from London's Natural History Museum, is surveying global pollution, which it is investigating at Loch Ness by examining its microscopic but pollution-sensitive nematode worms.

Interspersed with coverage of these ongoing mainstream studies are cryptozoologically-interesting segments focusing on various aspects of the Loch Ness monster phenomenon - such as Peter MacNab's 1955 photo of a Nessie-type form close to Urquhart Castle, the underwater flipper photos of Dr Robert Rines, the surgeon's photo, Tim Dinsdale's film, assorted eyewitness accounts, and psychologist Dr Susan Blackmore's theories of what may be influencing such accounts. Along the way, some intriguing data and findings emerge.

For example, in the past, sonar has found a series of strange regular prints on the loch bed, nicknamed 'the footprints', whose origin has never been explained, but which may be related to wartime military exercises here. During the two teams' studies, a remote-controlled unmanned craft, the Sea Owl, filled with cameras, is sent down to investigate one of these prints, but reveals it to be nothing more startling than a submerged wheelbarrow. Surely, however, as aptly queried by the narrator, submerged wheelbarrows couldn't explain all of these 'footprints', but then he seems to run out of investigative steam, ending with the weak comment that scientists can only speculate. Why can they only speculate? Bearing in mind that the Sea Owl had successfully unveiled the identity of one of these prints, how little more time, trouble, and money would it have required simply to have taken this craft along the loch bed a bit further while it was already there, in order to spy on a few more of these prints and find out what they were too? Surely this was a superb opportunity to solve at least one Loch Ness mystery that instead was lost?

A very notable, unexpected find made by the Natural History Museum team's fish expert, Dr Colin Bean, was that, contrary to a previous estimate, in 1973, that the loch contained 3 tons of fish (and which had been deemed sufficient to support a higher predator), it now appears that a much more realistic estimate is 27 tons. That is, 9 times more fish than hitherto assumed, thereby substantially increasing the possibility that the loch could sustain a large-sized species of top predator - a loch which, incidentally, contains as much water as in all of England and Wales combined.

Following this discovery, the film proceeds to consider the biology of plesiosaurs, deemed the best fit for most Nessie sightings, as well as Rines's flipper photos. Using the computer enhancement expertise of Brian Reece Scientific Ltd with the original unenhanced photos, the researchers attempt to duplicate the final rhomboid flipper images widely publicised by the Rines team, but are unable to do so. Moreover, when they examine the surgeon's photo, they notice a curious white spot just in front of the neck, which may indicate the presence of something towing the neck along, but equally may just be a blemish on the negative.

The most interesting find made when applying computer enhancement expertise, however, occurs with a frame depicting a very large object moving across the loch from the famous film shot by Tim Dinsdale in 1960. First of all, the team examines not just the frame's positive but also its negative image, and are surprised to see in the negative a shadow behind the object. Furthermore, when the positive is cleaned up by enhancement techniques, a very large underwater shadow directly beneath the object can clearly be seen - implying that whatever this object is, it possesses an extremely sizeable hitherto-unsuspected portion present beneath the water surface, and thereby arguing against the possibility that it is merely a surface vessel such as a boat.

The climax of the film, however, comes with the FBA's sonar work aboard their research vessel Calanus. During the evening of 19 July 1993, a massive underwater storm is recorded by their sonar equipment as it rages beneath the vessel, an event rarely witnessed before, and guaranteed to disturb the loch's fauna. The following day, while examining the sonar traces recorded during that storm, Dr Colin Bean and other members spot a very large, unidentified sonar trace deep in the water with a second one close by (and perhaps even a third and fourth), which do not appear to be shoals of fish because they are followed by quite a pronounced wake (whereas shoals of fish do not cause wakes). The team members are perplexed, unable to explain these anomalous traces.

The film ends in celebration - what appears to be a totally new species of microscopic nematode worm has been discovered during the research work. Cryptozoologists, however, may wish that the unexplained sonar traces had elicited as much interest and attention.

Film #2, entitled 'PaleoWorld: The Loch Ness Secret', and lasting 25 minutes, is probably of more direct cryptozoological pertinence, as it attempts to uncover the possible identity of Nessie, by examining three supposed contenders from prehistory - ichthyosaurs, mosasaurs, and plesiosaurs. British palaeontologist Dr Michael Benton discusses the anatomy and lifestyle of each one, supplemented by various specialists from elsewhere around the world and some stunning film of preserved fossils, as well as a reconstruction of pioneering fossil hunter Mary Anning's discovery at Lyme Regis, Dorset, during the 1800s of the first complete ichthyosaur and plesiosaur skeletons.

Personally, I found the ichthyosaur segment superfluous, as this remarkably fish-like or even dolphin-like reptile bore little if any resemblance to eyewitness accounts of Nessie. Indeed, the most memorable part of it came at the very end, with the narrator's chilling closing line - noting that if ichthyosaurs do indeed exist in Loch Ness, it could be the most dangerous place in the world to go fishing! Other than Lake Champlain, perhaps?

Sandwiched between the ichthyosaur and mosasaur segments is a reconstruction of the mystifying land sighting by chauffeur Alfred Cruickshank, which occurred at dusk one evening in summer 1934 according to this film (but normally given by other sources as early morning in April 1933) as he was driving along the north bank of the loch. At the crest of a hill, his car's headlights picked out a big animal crossing the road. It had a large humped body, estimated at 4 ft high and around 25 ft long, and waddled away on two pairs of legs, its belly on the ground, and its head close to its body, with very little neck. Later, summing up the mosasaur section, the novel question is posed as to whether Cruickshank's mystery beast was a female mosasaur that had come on land to lay her eggs and was now returning to the loch, just as sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs before going back into the sea.

The third, and most popular, reptilian contender for Nessie is then discussed - the plesiosaur. Included here is an eyewitness reconstruction from 1 June 1994, when, after seeing a mysterious object above the water surface while driving alongside the loch, Fiona Mackay and her friend Errol David jumped out of their car and ran along the bank for a clearer view. The object had a long tall neck and moved swiftly in the water, then suddenly dived, creating such a splash that its two observers had to jump back to avoid being soaked. Moreover, other eyewitnesses saw it that night. However, the film ends with no firm suggestions as to what Nessie may be, always assuming that such a creature does exist.

Films #3 and #4 are no more than a few minutes long. The first of these is a brief interview with Adrian Shine at the onset of Operation Deepscan back in 1987, and the second, less than 2 minutes long, is a montage of film clips of early Nessie expeditions, and images as to what it may look like.

All in all, this DVD is an interesting survey not just of Loch Ness as a famous 'monster' lake, but also as a body of water that is actually as puzzling to mainstream zoology as it is to cryptozoology (though it should be borne in mind that as these films were made during the 1990s, their findings are not current). If you are hoping for an exclusively cryptozoological package, you may be disappointed, but worthy of note here is that the cryptozoological coverage is presented in a relatively optimistic, open-minded manner - in stark contrast to the depressing tendency by so many of the more recent LNM documentaries to rule out of hand with smug self-assurance even the faintest possibility of a cryptozoological mystery existing here.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

SEEKING MEGA-CAECILIANS


The minhocão as envisaged by Lance Bradshaw (Lance Bradshaw)


I was very interested to read Richard Freeman’s recent blogs review on the CFZ bloggo, because one of them mentioned by him discusses the possibility that a South American subterranean cryptid known as the minhocão is a giant lungfish. This is a very early suggestion, long abandoned, but reminds me of when I first suggested a new identity for this cryptid back in 1995 within my book In Search of Prehistoric Survivors - namely, a giant caecilian. Prior to then, the prevailing view, as discussed by Dr Bernard Heuvelmans in his own book On the Track of Unknown Animals (1958), had been that it may be a surviving glyptodont – one of those tank-like, mace-tailed, prehistoric relatives of armadillos.

Following the publication of my idea, however, the caecilian theory soon supplanted the latter notion. Indeed, a year after my book had appeared in print, Heuvelmans himself abandoned his glyptodont identity for the minhocão in favour of my caecilian suggestion within his updated cryptozoological checklist - published in French in 1996 by Cryptozoologia as a special paper, and also constituting Chapter 8 of an unpublished Heuvelmans book entitled The Natural History of Hidden Animals.

Sadly, Heuvelmans failed to credit my book within his paper in relation to the caecilian identity, even though its preparation and publication had notably preceded his paper. However, I suppose I should not complain. After all, he did do me the very significant honour of sending me a personally signed copy of his paper, on the first page of which he had written:

“To Karl Shuker, the most brilliant of my disciples, B Heuvelmans” (see photo below).



And no – just in case anyone is thinking of asking – this is one cryptozoological item that I shall NOT be placing on eBay!!

Incidentally, during his many communications with me by letter (mostly) and phone in his later years, Heuvelmans came over to my way of thinking with regard to the putative identity of several cryptids, including not only my identification of the minhocão as a giant caecilian, but also the New Guinea devil pig as a palorchestid, my thoughts regarding certain mystery birds, and – returning, spookily, to giant lungfishes - my proposal that the buru was indeed a giant lungfish rather than either a lizard or a crocodile (thus relinquishing views expressed previously by him in his cryptozoological checklists). Had Heuvelmans lived longer, it would have been interesting to see how such changes of view would have been incorporated in his planned series of volumes documenting the mystery beasts of the world. Tragically, however, he was not able to complete most of them before his death, so we shall never know.

Returning to the minhocão: for those of you who may not have seen my coverage of this fascinating cryptid within my book In Search of Prehistoric Survivors, here is what I wrote:

THE MINHOCÃO - AN ANOMALY IN ARMOUR

Until the close of the Pleistocene, the armadillos in South America and southern North America shared their world with a group of distant relatives called the glyptodonts. These resembled armadillos to a certain extent - but on a gigantic scale, measuring up to 13 ft long. Their body armour was also of colossal proportions, comprising as much as 20% of these animals' entire weight. Consisting of a huge domed shell of fused polygonal bony plates on their back, with a bony covering on top of their head too, it undoubtedly conferred upon these beasts a distinct similarity to an armoured tank. As for their tail, this was positively medieval - long and armour-encircled, and additionally armed in some species with a mace-like, spike-bearing ball of solid bone at the tip, which was probably used in the same way as a mace too - flailing it at potential attackers.

According to the fossil record, the glyptodonts died out around 10,000 years ago, but if they had lingered into the present, we might expect their unique appearance to be sufficiently memorable for anyone spying these animals to provide a readily recognisable description. In reality, although there is evidence on file that has at one time or another offered hope to cryptozoologists that the glyptodonts are indeed still with us, the morphological comparability between the beasts seen and bona fide glyptodonts is of very varying quality.

The inhabitants of southern Brazil and Uruguay have often spoken of anomalous, furrow-like trenches of great depth that have suddenly appeared in the ground for no apparent reason (but often near to some sizeable lake or river), and which they claim to be the work of a mysterious serpentine creature called the minhocão.

It was a paper by zoologist Prof. Auguste de Saint Hilaire, published by the American Journal of Science in 1847, that first brought the minhocão to Western attention. Revealing that its name is derived from 'minhoca' - Portuguese for 'earthworm' - he stated:

"...the monster in question absolutely resembles these worms, with this difference, that it has a visible mouth; they also add, that it is black, short, and of enormous size; that it does not rise to the surface of the water, but that it causes animals to disappear by seizing them by the belly."

In his paper, de Saint Hilaire gave several instances in which horses, cattle, and other livestock had been supposedly pulled beneath the water to their doom when fording the Rio dos Piloes and Lakes Padre Aranda and Feia in Goyaz, Brazil. He believed that the minhocão was probably a giant version of Lepidosiren, the eel-like lungfish of South America.

Thirty years after de Saint Hilaire, German zoologist Dr Fritz Müller, residing in Itajahy, southern Brazil, provided further details regarding the minhocão, when in 1877 his account of its activities appeared in the journal Zoologische Garten - later reiterated and recycled in other European publications, including the eminent English journal Nature. Here it was revealed that the channels excavated by the minhocão are so deep that the courses of entire rivers have been altered, roads and hillsides have collapsed, and orchards have fallen to the ground - and it also offered some new insights into this enigmatic excavator's morphology.

In the region of the Rio dos Papagaios, in the province of Paranà, circa 1840s:

"A black woman going to draw water from a pool near a house one morning, according to her usual practice, found the whole pool destroyed, and saw a short distance off an animal which she described as being as big as a house moving off along the ground. The people whom she summoned to see the monster were too late, and found only traces of the animal, which had apparently plunged over a neighbouring cliff into deep water. In the same district a young man saw a huge pine suddenly overturned, when there was no wind and no one to cut it. On hastening up to discover the cause, he found the surrounding earth in movement, and an enormous worm-like black animal in the middle of it, about twenty-five metres [75 ft] long, and with two horns on its head."

In 1849, Lebino José dos Santos, a wealthy proprietor, was travelling near Arapehy in Uruguay when he learnt about a dead minhocão to be seen a few miles off, which had become wedged into a narrow cleft of rock and consequently died. Its skin was said to be: "...as thick as the bark of a pine-tree, and formed of hard scales like those of an armadillo".

And in or around 1870, one of these beasts visited the environs of Lages, Brazil:

"Francisco de Amaral Varella, when about ten kilometres distant from that town, saw lying on the bank of the Rio das Caveiras a strange animal of gigantic size, nearly one metre in thickness, not very long, and with a snout like a pig, but whether it had legs or not he could not tell. He did not dare to seize it alone, and whilst calling his neighbours to his assistance, it vanished, not without leaving palpable marks behind it in the shape of a trench as it disappeared under the earth."

In a detailed letter, published by the Gaceta de Nicaragua (10 March 1866), Paulino Montenegro included accounts of a similar creature from Nicaragua. Said to be covered with a skin clad in scales or plates, it: "...is described in general as a large snake, and called 'sierpe,' on account of its extraordinary size, and living in chaquites [pools or ponds]".

In his summary of this fascinating cryptozoological case, Nature's editor offered two possible identities for the minhocão. One, echoing de Saint Hilaire, was a giant lungfish. The other, which no doubt by virtue of its more sensational potential has attracted much more attention during subsequent years, was a living glyptodont.

Fossil skeleton of a glyptodont, showing its extraordinary degree of body armour (Dr Karl Shuker)

I have always viewed this latter theory with more than a little scepticism, for several reasons. First and foremost, I cannot believe that anyone would liken a beast as bulky and tank-like as a glyptodont, with a domed carapace on its back, to a giant worm or snake. Anything less serpentine than a glyptodont would be hard to imagine! In contrast, Lepidosiren is a notably elongate, anguinine (and anguilline) beast.

Although the description of horns and upturned nose could refer to the ears and snout of a glyptodont, it could equally apply to the slender, anteriorly-positioned pectoral fins of Lepidosiren, which also has a somewhat pig-like snout.

Another problem with the glyptodont identity arises when contemplating the exceedingly fossorial (burrowing) nature of the minhocão. It seems extremely unlikely that anything bearing such an immense amount of body armour - evidently for protection from attack by predators - would have either the need or the inclination for a fossorial mode of existence.

Creatures sharing this lifestyle, such as earthworms and moles, are conspicuously devoid of body armour - because they are not likely to encounter predators as frequently as if they spent their lives on the surface, and also because such armour would greatly impede burrowing activity. Fossil remains of glyptodonts provide no evidence at all for any extensive degree of underground activity. On the contrary, the excessive development of their carapace and the mace-like construction of their tail in some species clearly imply an expectation of frequent confrontation by large surface-dwelling predators equipped with fangs and claws.

True, the comparison by some eyewitnesses of the minhocão's scales to those of armadillos might seem to favour a glyptodont identity - but in reality, the reverse is true. Whereas the armadillos' armour is composed of a series of rings, in the glyptodonts those rings became fused, to yield their characteristic domed carapace, which consists of an elaborate mosaic of plates that bear no resemblance to armadillo armour. As recently as the late Pleistocene, there was a group of creatures somewhat midway in form between armadillos and glyptodonts, called pampatheres. Native to South America and also the southern U.S.A., some attained glyptodont dimensions, but their armour was of the ringed, armadillo form. Once again, however, they did not seem to be principally fossorial.

In contrast, although Lepidosiren lacks external scales this is a modern development, as the more primitive Australian lungfish Neoceratodus is profusely scaled, like ancestral lungfishes. Hence its scales do not exclude the minhocão from the lungfish identity.

Even its burrowing activity is consistent with a lungfish. Like some African lungfishes (Protopterus), during the dry season Lepidosiren aestivates - i.e. it secretes a protective cocoon around itself, and remains buried in the mud at the bottom of ponds or river beds in a self-induced state of suspended animation until the rainy season begins, whereupon it breaks out of its encapsulating cocoon and swims away.

According to the Nature report, the minhocão's deep trenches mostly appear after continued rain, and seem to start from marshes or river beds. This is just what one would expect of a giant lungfish - emerging from its subterranean seclusion with the rainy season's onset. Conversely, although armadillos can swim they only do so when required to - they are not normally aquatic; the same was probably true for the armour-laden glyptodonts.

19th-Century illustration of Lepidosiren, the South American lungfish

In short, although the size estimates for the minhocão are certainly exaggerated, taken as a whole I feel that its description is more applicable to an extremely large lungfish than to a glyptodont. I do have misgivings concerning the minhocão's supposed propensity for hauling livestock down into its watery domain - this is hardly what one might expect from a lungfish, even a giant one. In reality, however, it may simply be an effect of turbulence or a type of localised vortex for which the minhocão is being wrongly held responsible.

There is a further identity, however, that offers an even closer correspondence to the minhocão, yet which has never been previously suggested - an enormous form of caecilian.

Native to the tropics of Africa, Asia, Mesoamerica, and South America, and spending virtually their entire lives burrowing underground, the caecilians are little-known limbless amphibians with outwardly segmented bodies that are extraordinarily similar in external appearance to earthworms - except for their readily visible mouth, and a pair of sensory tentacles on their head that resemble horns or ears when protruded. This description corresponds perfectly with the minhocão's as penned by de Saint Hilaire.

In addition, although their skin feels smooth and slimy, many caecilians do possess scales (unlike other modern-day amphibians), embedded within the skin.

The largest caecilian known to science, Colombia's Caecilia thompsoni, is marginally under 5 ft long. However, a giant species with well-developed scales and a capacity for excavation matching its great size would make an extremely convincing trench-gouging minhocão. And if its scaling mirrored its body's external segmentation, it would resemble the ringed armour of armadillos - clarifying why eyewitnesses liken the minhocão's scaly skin to this armour.

South America's Typhlonectes caecilians inhabit rivers and lakes, so even the minhocão's aquatic inclinations are not incompatible with these apodous amphibians. Moreover, terrestrial caecilians often emerge above ground after heavy rainstorms - another minhocão correspondence. Also, caecilians are carnivorous, and grab their prey from below - a giant species with comparable behaviour might therefore resolve reports of livestock pulled under the water when crossing rivers and lakes reputedly frequented by minhocãos.

All in all, the identity of a giant caecilian for the minhocão provides so intimate a correspondence, not only morphologically but also behaviourally, that I personally see little (if any?) reason for looking elsewhere for an explanation of this mysterious subterranean monster.

Finally, as a piece of personal trivia, the first words that I ever read in Heuvelmans’s classic book On the Track of the Unknown Animals were those quoted above from the report that described the minhocão as a creature as big as a house. That was when I first saw the Paladin paperpack edition of his book in a shop as an early teenager, opened it at random, and read the first lines that I saw. However, the concept of a beast as big as a house seemed so ludicrous that I actually put the book back on the shelf and forgot about it. Fortunately, my mother had watched me reading it, and secretly bought the book for me as a birthday present. Who knows - had she not done so, I may never have become interested in cryptozoology, my writings and researches in this field would therefore never have occurred, and I would have never experienced the lifelong fascination and enjoyment with which cryptozoology has filled me. So I have a lot to thank the minhocão – and my mother – for!



19th-Century colour engraving of a Siphonops caecilian





Sunday, 8 February 2009

DEITIES OF THE CANINE KIND


Anubis statue, Cairo (Dr Karl Shuker)

The worship of the cat as a god in ancient Egypt and elsewhere is well known, but less familiar is the diversity of canine deities that have also been venerated in various cultures.


ANUBIS - JACKAL-HEADED GOD OF ANCIENT EGYPT

Probably the most famous canine deity of all is Anubis - the jackal-headed son of Osiris, god of the underworld, and Nebthet, a funeral goddess. Sometimes represented as a coal-black, bushy-tailed jackal or pointed-eared dog in a crouched or lying down position, Anubis was worshipped in Egypt from c.2700 BC to the close of ancient Egyptian history in c.400 AD, and was venerated extensively at the necropolis in Memphis. He originated as a god of putrefaction, but eventually emerged with a more specific (and less unappetising) role - as the mortuary god who presided over embalming. Indeed, Egyptian priests supervising official embalmers wore jackal-headed masks to signify the presence of Anubis during these preparations. Moreover, according to traditional Egyptian lore, Anubis invented funeral rites, presiding over the funeral and mummification of his own father, Osiris.

Once mummification of a dead person is complete, it is Anubis who leads the dead into the presence of his father, Osiris, in the underworld, to be judged by him. Anubis also weighs the dead person's heart, in the Hall of the Two Truths, to determine its ultimate fate.

Another, less familiar canine-headed deity of Egyptian mythology is Upuaut. Originally a warrior god, Upuaut is variously represented as a dog-headed, jackal-headed, or even wolf-headed man who leads the funeral cortege at the festivals of Osiris. He also steers the boat of the sun as it journeys through the dark realm of the night between dusk and dawn.

HERMANUBIS AND THE ORIGIN OF THE WEREWOLF MYTH?

After the Greeks and Romans took over Egypt, the cult of Anubis became assimilated with that of the Greek messenger god, Hermes, and a new, combined deity was created - Hermanubis. Just like Anubis, Hermanubis was represented as a canine-headed man, but his functions changed. Instead of being strongly associated with funeral rituals and embalming, emphasis was placed upon his role as a guide, leading the souls of the dead through the underworld. Moreover, just like Hermes, Hermanubis came to be portrayed with winged sandals, and held a staff or caduceus, with two snakes entwined around it, in his hand.

Nevertheless, as with the priests of Anubis, those of Hermanubis wore canine masks - a tradition leading scholar Hugh Trotti in 1990 to propose a most intriguing theory. By the first century AD, worship of Hermanubis had spread beyond Rome-ruled Egypt, reaching Rome itself - where Germanic troops recruited into the Roman armies would have seen statues of this canine god, as well as his dog-headed priests. Such sights would no doubt have been remembered and spoken of by the Germanic people after the Roman Empire's fall - and Trotti has speculated that distorted accounts of these may ultimately have inspired legends of werewolves, i.e. humans who could transform themselves into wolves.

XOLOTL - A CANINE GOD OF THE AZTECS

Another notable canine deity is Xolotl, one of the principal gods of Aztec mythology in ancient Mexico, who created mankind by leading them up from the spirit world and bestowing upon them the gift of fire. Due to his magical ability to assume any shape, Xolotl has been depicted in many forms, but is most commonly represented as an oddly-formed dog, with rear-running feet, and ears that can point backwards or forwards.

Xolotl is the twin of the sky god Quetzalcoatl, and represents the evening star, Venus, hauling the sun downwards each evening into the gloomy vault of night. A deity with varied associations, he is also the god of twins (as a twin himself) and ball games, as well as a deity of the underworld, corresponding to the Pek or lightning dog of Maya mythology. Today, Xolotl's name is still linked to dogs in zoological nomenclature, though only very indirectly - sharing it with the axolotl, a form of aquatic Mexican salamander, whose larval form is reminiscent of a dog and hence is sometimes referred to as a water-dog.

BHAIRAVA AND HIS CANINE STEED

In Hindu lore, Bhairava, a door guardian, is a fearsome canine deity. One of the forms assumed by the god Siva, he is often portrayed either as a huge black dog, or as a human riding a black dog. Terrifying to behold, Bhairava has many arms, three eyes, long matted hair, and sometimes has a serpent entwined around his body, with a collar of skulls around his neck. Food sellers plying their ware outside Indian temples dedicated to Siva sell tiny dogs carved out of sugar, which can then be presented as an offering to Bhairava.

In northern India, a canine deity was formerly worshipped by certain Dravidians. So too were dogs in Nepalese villages, during a special festival called Khicha Puja, in which a garland of flowers was deferentially placed around the neck of every dog in each village.

ST GUINEFORT - THE AMAZING STORY OF A CANINE CANONISATION

Down through the ages, many saints have been accredited with miraculous powers, or have led unusual lives, but one of the most remarkable histories on record must surely be that of St Guinefort, who may well be the only canonised greyhound!

It was in c.1250 AD when a Dominican priest called Stephen of Bourbon first learnt of the tomb of St Guinefort, located in a sacred grove within the remote Dombes region north of Lyons, France. Upon further enquiry, he was amazed to discover that this saint had actually been a greyhound, which had been wrongly blamed for the death of a local lord's infant. Only after it had been slain by the enraged lord was the discovery made that in reality the dog had been protecting the baby from a snake. Stricken with guilt and remorse for his rash action, the lord erected a tomb, in which the dog's bones were placed.

Soon, stories began to emerge of miracles occurring at the site of this tomb, featuring the inexplicable restoration to good health of sick children brought here by their parents, and the dog duly became known as St Guinefort. Stephen of Bourbon, however, was horrified by what he deemed to be this unholy, sacrilegious activity, and swiftly instigated the destruction of the tomb and its grove. Yet the cult of St Guinefort survived in secret long after Stephen of Bourbon's own demise, with a chapel dedicated to the slightly re-named Saint-Guy le Fort existing in the 17th Century on the site of the original tomb, and with the greyhound saint's name restored to its original form by the 1800s. Even today, St Guinefort's story is well known in the Dombes region, and researchers have revealed possible links between this history and the famous Welsh legend of Gelert - another noble dog that died a martyr. They do say that every dog has its day - but in St Guinefort's case, it has lasted several centuries!