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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Wednesday, 26 August 2015

INVESTIGATING THE LOCUST DRAGON OF NICOLAES DE BRUYN - AN ENTOMOLOGICAL ENIGMA FROM THE 16TH CENTURY


Nicolaes de Bruyn's mystifying engraving from 1594, depicting a wide range of readily-identifiable insects, plus what can only be described as a truly bizarre 'locust dragon' (public domain)

As a fervent browser of bestiaries, illuminated manuscripts, and other sources of antiquarian illustrations portraying a vast diversity of grotesque, extraordinary beasts that ostensibly bear no resemblance or relation to any species known to science, I am rarely surprised nowadays by any zoological depictions that I encounter in such sources. A few days ago, however, I was not just surprised but also thoroughly bemused – bewildered, even – by a truly remarkable picture that I happened to chance upon online.

I had been idly cyber-surfing in search of interesting animal images to add to one or other of my two Pinterest albums, when I came upon the engraving to which this present ShukerNature article is devoted, and which opens it above. Yet in spite of my experience with antiquarian images, I had never before seen anything even remotely like the exceedingly bizarre creature occupying much of the left-hand side of this engraving, and its overt strangeness was such that with no further ado I immediately set forth on a quest to uncover whatever I could find out concerning it, and, in particular, to determine what on earth (or anywhere else for that matter!) it could possibly be.

Close-up of de Bruyn's 'locust dragon' (public domain)

The first pieces of information that I obtained were the identity of the person who had produced this baffling artwork, and its original source. The person was Nicolaes de Bruyn (1571-1656), a Flemish engraver, and as can be seen on this engraving, the date of its production was 1594. Although he is best known for his many biblically-themed engravings and his large engraved landscapes reproducing designs and paintings by other artists, he produced approximately 400 works in total, including a number that featured animals.

The original source of this particular engraving was a series of prints by de Bruyn that depicted various flying creatures. The series was entitled Volatilium Varii Generis Effigies ('Pictures of Flying Creatures of Varied Kinds'), was prepared by de Bruyn in Antwerp, and was first published by Ahasuerus van Londerseel (1572-1635) of Amsterdam. It was subsequently reissued (with van Londerseel's name neatly trimmed off!) by Carel Allard in 1663 (or shortly after – there are conflicting accounts concerning this detail).

The complete engraving by de Bruyn again, his fantastical locust dragon sharing it with a wide range of accurately-portrayed insects (public domain)

What I find so intriguing about de Bruyn's engraving is the juxtapositioning of a fantastical monster in every sense of the term (more like a dragon, in fact, than any real beast), with a number of different types of insect whose depictions are so accurate, so natural, that they readily compare with well-executed 21st-Century equivalents and whose types can be easily identified. Thus, they include long-horned bush crickets, dipteran flies, a ladybird, a panorpid scorpionfly, a large moth, and a narrow-waisted polistid-like wasp (plus a dragonfly, located just below and to the left of the narrow-waisted wasp, and which I neglected to name-check when I originally posted this article here on ShukerNature).

Yet what if the monster is itself an insect – or is at least intended to represent one? After all, it does possess six legs (albeit ones bearing no resemblance to those of real insects), four wings (ditto), a pair of bristly moth-like antennae, and a long curling butterfly-reminiscent proboscis. But if so, what insect could it be, especially with such a curious fishtail-like abdominal tip or tail, and why has it been portrayed in such a nightmarish, wholly inaccurate fashion, especially when all of the others are so life-like in appearance?

In addition, its wings pose further problems when attempting to reconcile this creature with an insect. For as ShukerNature reader Ruth Bryant has saliently noted to me, rather than having two wings on each side of its body like real four-winged insects, it has instead been portrayed by de Bruyn with three wings on one side - the near side - of its body and one on the other, far side. Of course, it may be that de Bruyn's monster actually has three wings on each side but has been depicted by him with the other two far-side wings being entirely hidden by the near-side ones. Yet even if so, this is still anomalous, because there are no known six-winged insects (or other organisms) anyway. True, certain forms of primitive fossil four-winged insect did bear a pair of anterior lobes upon their first thoracic segment that were veined like wings, but these lobes were not real wings because they were stiff and immobile.

Comparison of de Bruyn's unrealistically-depicted locust dragon (top) with a realistic depiction of a locust (bottom) (public domain)

A copy of de Bruyn's perplexing engraving is housed in the collections of Amersterdam's celebrated Rijksmuseum, and when I accessed their record for it (click here) I was nothing if not startled by the record's claim that the engraving's mystery monster is meant to represent a locust! (The locust species in question is presumably the infamously destructive Old World desert locust Schistocerca gregaria.) Needless to say, however, I've certainly never seen a locust that looks like this, and the Rijksmuseum's record for the engraving contains no clues regarding the raison d'être for its surreal portrayal here.

The only other site encountered by me that offers any thoughts on the matter is Strange Science (click here to see its entry for this engraving). Here, its author notes that in her book Curious Beasts (2013), Alison E. Wright, a curator of prints and drawings at the British Museum, has stated that this image "offers particular insights into the hazards of copying" (an example of it is held in the museum's art collections). In other words, de Bruyn may not have based his engraving upon an actual locust specimen that he had personally seen, but had instead either relied upon a verbal description of one that he had then interpreted extremely imperfectly in visual form, or had simply copied an inaccurate earlier depiction of a locust. In my opinion, however, both of these options are untenable when applied to de Bruyn.

Chromolithograph from 1890 of a locust swarm (public domain)

This is because, as noted earlier here, quite a proportion of de Bruyn's other artworks are biblical in theme. And as plagues of locusts were certainly a biblical occurrence, and are referred to in the Bible's text, one would therefore expect de Bruyn to be familiar with the appearance of this insect. The most famous biblical locust plague was the Eighth Plague of Egypt, sent by God as a curse upon Pharaoh, and documented as follows in the Book of Exodus 10: 12-20:

 [12] And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand over the land of Egypt for the locusts, that they may come up upon the land of Egypt, and eat every herb of the land, even all that the hail hath left.

[13] And Moses stretched forth his rod over the land of Egypt, and the Lord brought an east wind upon the land all that day, and all that night; and when it was morning, the east wind brought the locusts.

[14] And the locusts went up over all the land of Egypt, and rested in all the coasts of Egypt: very grievous were they; before them there were no such locusts as they, neither after them shall be such.

[15] For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left: and there remained not any green thing in the trees, or in the herbs of the field, through all the land of Egypt.

[16] Then Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron in haste; and he said, I have sinned against the Lord your God, and against you.

[17] Now therefore forgive, I pray thee, my sin only this once, and intreat the Lord your God, that he may take away from me this death only.

[18] And he went out from Pharaoh, and intreated the Lord.

[19] And the Lord turned a mighty strong west wind, which took away the locusts, and cast them into the Red Sea; there remained not one locust in all the coasts of Egypt.

[20] But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go.

In any case, even without the specific biblical art link, locust plagues were sufficiently well known in de Bruyn's day for there surely to be no likelihood that he would be unfamiliar with this insect's appearance. Also, readily identifiable depictions of desert locusts date back thousands of years, exemplified by various portrayals in certain ancient Egyptian sites, such as the following one:

Readily identifiable locust depiction from a hunt mural in the grave chamber of Horemhab (the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt's 18th Dynasty), dating from c.1422-1411 BC (public domain)

Moreover, as shown by his portrayals of long-horned bush crickets in the same engraving, de Bruyn was eminently capable of rendering the basic orthopteran (grasshopper/cricket) form with meticulous accuracy.

Consequently, I feel that we need to look elsewhere for a satisfactory solution to the mystery of why he should have included a veritable locust dragon amid an array of skilfully-depicted, readily-recognisable insect forms.

Close-up of a realistically-portrayed locust about to take flight, showing how very different its wings are from those of de Bruyn's locust dragon (public domain)

Of course, in more religious, less secular times, locust plagues were traditionally seen as punishments sent by God in response to humanity's misdeeds. So might it be that de Bruyn purposefully devised his locust dragon to serve as a demonic-looking personification of such divine intervention? Or, alternatively, could it be that its presence in the engraving was actually indicative of a much more light-hearted state of mind relative to its artistic creator?

Not so long ago here on ShukerNature I posted an article of mine dealing with snail-cats and other illuminated manuscript marginalia of the zoomythological variety (click here). In it, I noted that the preponderance of bizarre, comical, and sometimes thoroughly outrageous monsters and impossible hybrids portrayed in the margins of medieval tracts by monks and other illustrators often had no relevance whatsoever to the text, and seemed to have been included for no good reason at all – other than simply to relieve the tedium experienced by the illustrators during the long periods of time required to copy or create such manuscripts, and that these marginalia monsters frequently were deliberately subversive or humorous, thereby helping to lighten their creators' moods.

Might the locust dragon of de Bruyn owe its origin to a similar reason – a wry joke perpetrated amidst what was otherwise a relatively dry, technical art commission? Certainly, its weird appearance cannot be due to ignorance on the part of the medieval illustrators, because there are several notable illuminated manuscripts in existence containing accurate portrayals of locusts.

A plague of locusts depicted in a bible produced by Nuremberg-based printer/publisher Anton Koberger in 1483 (public domain)

Over 400 years has passed since de Bruyn created his anomalous locust dragon, so we may never know the answer. Yet if nothing else, this entomological enigma – one that, despite its implausible morphology, was nevertheless drawn with Bruyn's typical flair and imbued with vibrant vitality – remains a wonder, and one that I am very happy to have rescued from centuries of obscurity and introduced at last onto the global cryptozoological stage.

If anyone reading this ShukerNature blog article has any additional information concerning its subject, I'd greatly welcome any details that you'd care to post here.

Painting from 1923 depicting swarming locusts (public domain)

To discover plenty of other strange and spectacular dragon forms, be sure to check out my recent book Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture.





16 comments:


  1. Dear Karl, I was wondering if, in a related vein, why Taz of Warner Bros. cartoons is so wildly incongruous with the real Tassie Devil, Sarcophilus harrisii?

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    1. Apaprently, the Warner Bros cartoonists derived their inspiration for Taz not only from the Tasmanian devil species but also from devils of other kinds, so Taz's horn-like tuft of hair above each ear is derived from horned demonic devils and his spinning mode of locomotion is derived from dustdevil whirlwinds.

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  2. Dear Karl, I was wondering if, in a related vein, why Taz of Warner Bros. cartoons is so wildly incongruous with the real Tassie Devil, Sarcophilus harrisii?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Apparently, the Warner Bros cartoonists derived their inspiration for Taz not only from the Tasmanian devil species but also from devils of other kinds, so Taz's horn-like tuft of hair above each ear is derived from horned demonic devils and his spinning mode of locomotion is derived from dustdevil whirlwinds.

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    2. He is so far removed from the species I cannot fathom why they just didn't say it was a 'Furred Devil'! I'm a zoologist from Australia, and I can verify Tasmanian Devils have rounded ears, a black coat with a white V mark on the chest, move in the characteristic marsupial bounding gait, and don't have their tongue slobbering all over the place! ;O

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    3. Taz has rounded ears, it's the hair above them that is pointed. But I suppose they liked the name, Tasmanian devil, which sounded exotic and mysterious back then. Also, if you're looking for morphological verisimilitude in animated animals, you'll be sorely disappointed, lol - viz, a blue-plumaged roadrunner, a pink-furred puma (Snagglepuss, years before the Pink Panther was ever thought of), a six-tentacled squid (Squiddly Diddly), a bright blue bipedal dog (Huckleberry Hound), etc etc, lol.

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  3. One more time! :)
    I'm guessing Hummingbird moth with wings in motion.:
    https://encrypted-tbn2.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRvMh_47-5NaO_KkeqeqjbzB2naoRyNUaCKbElUOc1R9-rLj1HU

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    1. Ah, ya beat me! The fluffy antennae and the curled probosis are dead giveaways.

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  4. The narrow waisted wasp is a dragonfly not a wasp....surely dragonflies fly over ponds in Western Europe.Wasps have stingers dragonflies don't. It:s amazing how Warmer Bros.over dramatised the Tasmanian Devil ,& how some believe that inaccurate depiction in the 21st century,a good article.

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    1. The insect that I refer to as a narrow-waisted wasp IS a narrow-waisted wasp - it is just to the right of and slightly above the dragonfly. As an enthusiastic entomologist from my earliest childhood days, I've seen far too many odonatans and hymenopterans to confuse the two, lol.

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    2. The other night, I was photographing a Luna Moth and got some great closeups. Most remarkable in the photos are the "furry" antennae, large body and spots on the wings. This immediately came to mind when reading your article about the insectile anomaly in the engraving. Perhaps the artist was "inspired" by a Luna Moth (and perhaps a lizard) to create a unique species for his book that nobody will ever see, thus making him the only soul ever to have seen one. Just a thought.

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  5. The body has something of the look of a chrysalis about it. Perhaps it is a short-sighted rendering of a moth or butterfly emerging?

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  6. De Bruyn's 'locust dragon' reminds me of the Cantabrian legend about the miniature demonic horse-like dragonfly critters known as Caballucos del Diablu ("little horses of the devil"), could be worth a follow up

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  7. there are things called 'locusts' in the biblical book of Revelation that are quite distinct from the insect, perhaps it's a reference to one of those? they're not really described as looking like that critter is though. maybe it's a sort of a joke/play on words, where he's put a 'locust' next to these accurate looking insects?

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  8. I know this is an old post, but just to add a bit of lateral thinking, I can imagine that it's a hypothetical creature. The point possibly being to provide a new perspective on insects and how alien they are compared to terrestrial vertebrates. A picture asking 'What if vertebrates had an insect body plan. What would they look like?' or 'See how bizarre the insect body plan is if applied to a vertebrate'.

    I immediately idenified with this because for whatever reason I found myself thinking 'What if bees had vertebrate features? How terrifying would that be?' A big long fleshy tongue, rotated toothed mandibles, soft eyeballs and clawed feet...

    It also looks like some stage in the evolution of Dr Zoidberg

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  9. The image of the locust-dragon looks like it may have been inspired by the antlered sea-snail that you talk about here. Just cover the wings and body with a big shell, and replace the antlers with moth antennae, and you have the creature illustrated in Ambroise Paré's book.

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