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.

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Saturday, 16 June 2012

FLOWER-GENERATED BIRDS, AND TURTLES THAT FLY

Flying turtles illustration from Athanasius Kircher's tome China Illustrata (1667) [note also the flying dragon in the background!]


How often is it that when pursuing one line of investigation, a second, wholly unrelated but equally interesting one presents itself and is so captivating that to ignore it would be entirely futile?

So it was when I began to seek out information concerning a truly extraordinary illustration of supposed flying turtles native to Henan in China, which appeared in German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher's tome China Illustrata (1667). Or, to give it its full title, China monumentis, qua sacris qua profanis, nec non variis naturae and artis spectaculis, aliarumque rerum memorabilium argumentis illustrata.

Athanasius Kircher (1601/1602-1680)

On 15 June 2012, I had received via a clickable link placed upon my Facebook wall by New Jersey-based colleague Robert Schneck a copy of this illustration, and as I could think of few creatures less likely to have acquired a mastery of the air than a turtle, I was naturally perplexed and piqued by curiosity in equal measures. China Illustrata had originally been published in Latin, but browsing online I soon discovered an English translation of it, and sure enough, there inside I found not only the illustration but also an explanation of it by Kircher.

But before I reveal just what that explanation was, I'd like to digress for a while if I may, in order to document a separate but equally memorable entry that I chanced upon in Kircher's selfsame tome, and which shone some very welcome light upon a riddle of Nature that until then had long mystified me.

Within my library are quite a few delightful works of what I refer to as pseudozoology. Most of these are large, lavishly-illustrated books purporting to be republished tomes of arcane natural history, but which upon reading are swiftly recognised as adroitly-constructed fiction penned with tongue very firmly in cheek. An excellent example of this highly-specialised genre is a truly spectacular tome entitled Inventorum Natura: The Expedition Journal of Pliny the Elder (1979), compiled and exquisitely illustrated by celebrated fantasy writer-artist Una Woodruff.

Inventorum Natura: The Expedition Journal of Pliny the Elder (1979) by Una Woodruff.

The premise behind this very elaborate and skilfully-prepared volume is that it is a painstaking reconstruction of a supposedly long-lost work written in Latin by the real-life Roman author-naturalist Pliny the Elder (who died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD), describing the astonishing fauna and flora that he allegedly observed during a purported three-year expedition to distant lands, an incomplete version of which Woodruff happened to rediscover. The creatures documented in it include many famous legendary beasts, including the basilisk, manticore, unicorn, Eastern dragon, griffin, hydra, vegetable lamb or barometz, Chinese hua fish (depicted on the book's front cover), merman, and Western dragon. However, it also included a few examples that I had never read anything about elsewhere, so I wondered whether these may have been specially created for this book.

One of them was the bird plant, which according to Inventorum Natura was a variety of grass native to mainland Asia whose flowers transformed into small brightly coloured birds. The accompanying double-spread illustration (part of which is reproduced here) revealed how these flowers gradually metamorphosed into birds, which eventually broke free of the plant's flower stems to become independent, free-flying entities comparable in every way externally to genuine egg-hatched birds but remaining wholly botanical internally.

The bird plant (Una Woodruff, in Inventorum Natura)

Other bird-engendering plants featured in an equally sumptuous work of pseudobotany by Una Woodruff, entitled Amarant: The Flora and Fauna of Atlantis by a Lady Botanist (1981). One of these was portrayed on its front cover too, as seen here.

Amarant (Una Woodruff)

Until Robert's link containing Kircher's flying turtle illustration appeared on my Facebook wall, I had all but forgotten the bird plant, but while perusing Kircher's China Illustrata, I was startled yet delighted to discover the following highly illuminating section:

"In Suchuen [sic – Sichuan] Province there is said to be a little bird which is born from the flower called Tunchon, and so the Chinese call it Tunchonfung. The Chinese say that this measures its life by the life of the flower, and that flower and bird die at the same time. The bird has a variety of colours. When flying and beating its wings, the bird looks like a beautiful flower flying across the heavens. Whether an animal, bird, or insect could really be produced from a plant is doubtful. We have denied this in Book Twelve of our Subterranean World. It is not possible for the vegetable level of nature to progress to the sentient, since it is impossible to skip a level in nature and produce an effect inconsonant with one's own nature. I think it would be possible for these birds' eggs, which are no larger than peas, to be laid in the pods or leaves, or to be deposited on the flowers. A flying creature might seem to be born like a flower, if the egg were broken and the seed of the bird were mixed with the moisture of the flower. Also, if a person with a vivid imagination gazes at the variety of the colours of flowers, the fantastic colours of the birds' wings might seem to be derived from the flowers. This can even be frequently seen in Europe."

Clearly, therefore, there is indeed a genuine tradition of belief, albeit one founded upon a fallacy, that small birds can be generated from flowers. Sadly, there are insufficient details to identify either the tunchon or the tunchonfung with any degree of certainty, although it is possible that the latter is a species of sunbird (nectariniid). Native to Africa, Asia (including China's Sichuan Province), and Australasia, sunbirds are small, extremely brightly coloured, and mirror ecologically albeit not taxonomically the New World hummingbirds. Feeding primarily upon nectar, moreover, they spend much of their time in such close proximity to flowers that this intimate association may well have inspired an erroneous belief that these diminutive birds were actually being engendered by the flowers.

Sunbird alongside a bird of paradise flower (Public domain)

But what about China's supposed flying turtles – did I find anything about them in Kircher's tome too? Indeed I did. Accompanying the illustration that initiated everything documented here was the following information:

"The Chinese Flora says that in the kingdom of Honan [=Henan, nowadays a province in central China] are found turtles which are green or blue, and that there are also some with wings on their feet, who in this way they compensate for the slow progress they can make on foot. I, however, could not easily believe that these swimming creatures have wings, for it seems to violate the primary nature of a turtle. Rather, turtles give off a sticky liquid around their feet, as the drawing shows, and in time this becomes cartilaginous and resembles a limb which flaps around as they move. This is not used for flying, so when the matter is examined, it turns out to be different than is commonly believed."

The Chinese Flora referred to above by Kircher was Flora Sinensis (1656), authored by Polish Jesuit missionary Michael Boym. It was one of the first European books ever to have been written about China's natural history; despite its title, it included information concerning a number of animals as well as plants.

Illustration of squirrel chasing turtle from Flora Sinensis

As for China's flying turtles: here was a situation where one mystery appeared to have been solved only by the citing of another one, because the notion of turtles' feet secreting a sticky substance that hardens to yield flapping quasi-wings was certainly new to me. Happily, however, at the very same time that I was pondering this riddle, a second Facebook-mediated message was winging its way to me from Robert Schneck. And in this latter one, Robert informed me that according to his own investigations, Kircher's documentation of a supposed Chinese belief in flying turtles was an error caused by mistranslation of Chinese sources. What these had actually referred to were turtles with moss, algae, or weeds growing upon their limbs, but unfortunately this had been mistranslated by Kircher (or by earlier non-Chinese works that he had directly consulted), yielding turtles with wings on their limbs instead.

In short, another seemingly impossible beast had been unmasked as entirely plausible after all, albeit very different in form from how it had originally been described. Never mind. The flying turtles of Henan may never have existed, but at least they inspired a delightful illustration, one that also serves as a very evocative reminder of the perils of mistranslation – or, how Chinese whispers can engender Chinese flying turtles!

My sincere thanks to Robert Schneck for bringing to my attention the enigma of Henan's flying turtles and, by doing so, also assisting me in resolving a second mystery of unnatural history – by enabling me to uncover a factual origin for the bird plant fallacy.

4 comments:

  1. I had never heard of the bird plant before but in Europe there was a legend of the same kind : the Barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis) were believed to develop from the goose barnacles (Lepas anserifera).
    As these geese were thought to be "neither flesh, nor born of flesh" some Irish clerics said that it was an acceptable fast day food.
    In fact this belief was widespread in Eastern Europe because nobody had seen one of these geese nesting (they breed in Northern Europe).
    Sorry for my English which is quite bad...
    Thanks for your blog, I always read your posts with much pleasure and interest!

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  2. Hi there, Thanks for your very interesting information and kind words re my blog, which I'm delighted you enjoy so much - keep on reading!! All the best, Karl

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  3. So who DID write Inventorum Natura? I understand John Michell wrote much of the text and, on publication, Heathcote Williams gave it an essay-length review in Fortean Times.

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  4. Yes, that's what I heard too, but I have no idea whether or not it is true.

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