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).

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Monday 15 May 2017


Did Herman Melville see a spectral black cat in Polynesia? (public domain)

For obvious reasons, it's always particularly interesting to learn of a possible cryptozoological encounter featuring a famous person. So I am greatly indebted to German mystery beast investigator Ulrich Magin for very kindly bringing to my attention recently the following example, hitherto-unpublicised online in a cryptozoological context.

The eyewitness in question is none other than Moby-Dick author Herman Melville, who documented his intriguing sighting – a veritable whale of a crypto-tale, no less! – in one of his non-fiction books, namely Typee: A Peep At Polynesian Life (1846). Describing time spent on the Polynesian island of Nukuheva in the Marquesas group, he included the following memorable lines:

As for the animal that made the fortune of my lord mayor Whittington, I shall never forget the day that I was lying in the house about noon, everybody else being fast asleep; and happening to raise my eyes, met those of a big black spectral cat, which sat erect in the doorway, looking at me with its frightful goggling green orbs, like one of those monstrous imps that tormented some of the olden saints! I am one of those unfortunate persons, to whom the sight of these animals is at any time an insufferable annoyance.

Thus constitutionally averse to cats in general, the unexpected apparition of this one in particular utterly confounded me. When I had a little recovered from the fascination of its glance, I started up; the cat fled, and emboldened by this, I rushed out of the house in pursuit; but it had disappeared. It was the only time I ever saw one in the valley, and how it got there I cannot imagine. It is just possible that it might have escaped from one of the ships at Nukuheva. It was in vain to seek information on the subject from the natives, since none of them had seen the animal, the appearance of which remains a mystery to me to this day.

What I find very intriguing about this report is how Melville ostensibly changed his opinion as to the nature of the cat during his description of it. For whereas in the first paragraph he referred to it as spectral and likened it to a saint-bothering imp, thereby implying that it appeared to be some form of paranormal, zooform entity, in the second paragraph he suggested that it may have escaped from a visiting ship, thus indicating that it was merely some absconded kitty of the corporeal kind.

True, his 'spectral' description may simply have been metaphorical rather than literal, but whatever the cat was, it was apparently not native to Nukuheva, and does indeed remain a mystery, not just in Melville's day either, but also right up to the present day, just over 170 years after his book was first published.

Herman Melville – oil painting by Asa Weston Twitchell (public domain)

Saturday 13 May 2017


The statue of Glycon unearthed at Tomis, Romania, in 1962; right-hand view (public domain)

A snake with a blond head of hair and the ears of a man would certainly be a marvel – but how much more so would one be that could also speak, and even foretell the futures of those who sought an audience with this wondrous ophidian oracle? All of this and much more – or, quite probably, a great deal less – was Glycon, the Roman Empire's incredible serpentine soothsayer.

In c.105 AD, a very controversial, enigmatic figure was born who would in time come to be known far and wide as Alexander of Abonoteichus, after the small fishing village on the Black Sea's southern coast that was his birthplace. Back in Alexander's time, Abonoteichus was located within the Roman province of Bithynia-Pontus (specifically within Paphlagonia, which was sandwiched between Bithynia and Pontus), but today it is contained within the Asian Turkish province of Kastamonu, and is now named Inebolu.

19th-Century illustration of an African rock python (public domain)

Apparently very handsome and tall with an extremely charismatic personality, Alexander was originally apprenticed to a physician/magician, but after his mentor died Alexander met up with a Byzantine chorus-writer nicknamed Cocconas, and the two spent some time thereafter travelling around together, earning their living as fake magicians, quack doctors, and via other chicanery. Eventually, they reached Pella in Macedonia, and it was here that Glycon was born, so to speak, because this is where they purchased for just a paltry sum of money an extremely large and impressive-looking yet very tame snake (such serpents being commonly for sale in this locality at that time).

It was probably an African rock python Python sebae, as specimens of this very sizeable species (averaging 15.75 ft long but sometimes exceeding 20 ft) were apparently brought back to Rome, because it is depicted in Roman mosaics. Also, fertility-related snake cults had long existed in Macedonia, stretching back at least as far as the 4th Century BC.

Apollo after slaying the serpent dragon Python, engraving by William Grainger, late 1700s (public domain)

Alexander and Cocconas then journeyed to Chalcedon, a maritime town in Bithyna, where they lost no time in concealing inside its temple to the god Apollo a series of bronze tablets proclaiming that both Apollo and his serpent-associated son Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing, would soon be appearing in Alexander's home village of Abonoteichus. They then contrived for these 'hidden' tablets to be found, and news of the tablets' sensational proclamations swiftly travelled widely, eventually reaching Abonoteichus itself, whose inhabitants promptly began building a temple dedicated to Apollo and Asclepius. It was then, in or around 150 AD, that the partnership of Alexander and Cocconas broke up, with Cocconas electing to stay in Chalcedon and continue producing phoney oracles, whereas Alexander was keen to put the next stage of their original plan into action, and so he duly set off back to Abonoteichus.

Using more fake oracles to proclaim himself as a prophet and healer, Alexander also claimed that his father was none other than Podaleirius, son of Asclepius himself and a legendary healer in his own right. Moreover, as signal proof of this, he arranged for a goose egg that he had 'discovered' inside Abonoteichus's newly-built temple to be publicly opened by him at noon on the following day in the village's marketplace before a crowd of curious but credulous onlookers, promising that a wonder would be revealed that would confirm all that he had alleged. And sure enough, when he opened the egg, a tiny snake emerged (one that supposedly he had subtly inserted inside before overtly 'discovering' the egg in the temple). As snakes were sacred to Asclepius (one common European species, the Aesculapian snake Zamenis longissimus, is actually named after Asclepius's Roman counterpart, Aesculapius), Alexander's grandiose claims were readily accepted by Abonoteichus's simple, unworldly villagers.

Statue of Asclepius and snake, 2nd Century AD, found on the island of Rhodes, Greece (public domain)

As an interesting aside here: Chickens are often infected with parasitic gut-inhabiting worms, including the ascarid roundworm Ascaris lineata, a nematode species that can grow to a few inches in length (a related giant species in humans can grow to over 1 ft in length!). They are often passed out of the bird's gut when it defaecates. Unlike in mammals, however, the bird's gut and its reproductive system share a common external passageway and opening – the cloaca. Sometimes, therefore, an ascarid worm ejected from the gut finds its way into the bird's reproductive system rather than being excreted into the outside world, and moves into the oviduct. Once here, however, it becomes incorporated into the albumen of an egg, inside which it remains alive yet trapped when the egg is laid. But as soon as the egg is broken open to eat by some unsuspecting diner, the worm wriggles its way out of it and inevitably scares the diner, who frequently but mistakenly assumes that this unexpected creature is actually a tiny snake.

I wonder if such a scenario explained the above 'snake-inside-egg' incident involving Alexander? Or could the egg have actually been a genuine snake egg, but passed off to the ingenuous crowd by Alexander as an unshelled, undersized goose egg, perhaps?

Ascaris, a large parasitic nematode (public domain)

But that was not all. Alexander also stated that the baby snake was itself a deity, and that he would therefore be caring for it. After a few days had elapsed with the villagers not setting eyes upon this infant reptilian god, Alexander reappeared, once again thronged by awed spectators, but now only briefly and ensconced within a small dimly-lit shrine inside the temple where viewing conditions were far from ideal. Moreover, this time his huge, fully-grown pet snake from Pella was wrapped around his body, and he glibly announced that the baby serpent deity had miraculously matured directly into adulthood.

Yet even that incredible high-speed transformation was not the most surprising facet of Alexander's outrageous revelation. Instead of possessing a typical snake's head, the head of this remarkable creature apparently resembled that of a man, and sported an abundance of long blond hair sprouting liberally from it, as well as a pair of human ears! Moreover, it could even speak, and in the future would directly voice certain oracles or autophones to temples worshippers seeking guidance. Alexander announced that this astonishing entity was called Glycon, and constituted a new, living, physical manifestation or incarnation of Asclepius.

Two Romanian postage stamps, issued in 1974 and 1994 respectively, depicting the famous statue of Glycon unearthed in 1962 (public domain)

Henceforth, Alexander's reputation, wealth, prestige, influence, and power, derived from his status as a celebrated prophecy-spouting soothsayer and in turn a highly-esteemed personage attracting acclaim and attention from all strata of Roman society, knew no bounds. In particular, the temple that he had established at Abonoteichus (by now a prosperous town) became a focus for fertility-themed worship and offerings by barren women wishing to become pregnant; and also for the very lucrative provision of oracles (always requiring prior receipt of payment). Moreover, Alexander was frequently consulted by public figures of high political standing anxious to solicit his ostensibly Heaven-sent advice regarding significant matters of state. The fact that sometimes his advice was by no means reliable seemed to be conveniently overlooked.

Thus it was, for example, that in 161 AD, Alexander provided a very favourable oracle to Marcus Sedatius Severianus, the Gaul-originating Roman governor of Cappadocia, on the basis of which Severianus put into action his plan to invade Armenia – only for his invasion force, including himself, to be slaughtered by the Parthians. Allegedly, Alexander soon afterwards replaced the official temple record of his oracle with a revised one that was much less favourable.

A sheet of Romania's Glycon-depicting postage stamp issued in 1974, from my own philatelic collection (public domain)

In 166 AD, Alexander provided an oracle verse that was utilised as an amulet and inscribed above the doors of numerous houses throughout the Roman Empire in the hope of warding off the devastating Antonine Plague that had been introduced into the Empire by troops returning home from campaigns in the Near East, and which killed thousands of people every day. Not surprisingly, the amulets had no effect (indeed, it was actually claimed by critics of this futile course of action that households bearing an amulet suffered more plague-induced deaths than those not bearing it!), but Alexander was too powerful by then for his standing to be affected by any such dissension.

Not long after that debacle, the Roman emperor himself, Marcus Aurelius, requested Alexander to send an oracle to his troops on the Danube River during ongoing warfare (168-174 AD) with a Germanic tribe called the Marcomanni. The oracle that Alexander duly sent declared that victory would be achieved if two lions were thrown alive into the Danube. Once again, however, the stark fact that after obeying this unusual command the emperor's army was annihilated there (20,000 Roman soldiers killed, and even the hapless lions clubbed to death) failed to elicit any censure for the unperturbed Alexander, who coolly pointed out that the oracle had not specified which side in the war would achieve success!

Bust of Marcus Aurelius (public domain)

Of course, Alexander was far from being entirely unsuccessful as a prophet, but reputedly his triumphs often involved the use of spies, thugs, and blackmailers to obtain the necessary information upon which to base his oracles. In addition, there were claims that sealed scrolls containing requests for oracles that acolytes presented to him were secretly opened by him using hot needles in order to discover what information they contained and thus devise an oracle in accordance with it. He also benefited from making friends in (extremely) high places, one of the most significant of whom was Publius Mummius Sisenna Rutilianus, a former Roman consul and provincial Roman governor in Asia and Upper Moesia, who declared himself protector of the Glycon oracle. He also provided Alexander with some very high-ranking contacts in Roman society, and he even married Alexander's own daughter.

Not content with merely being an exceptionally famous mystic, meanwhile, Alexander utilised Rutilianus's own eminence to help launch a very spectacular annual three-day festival replete with processions, ceremonies, and re-enactments of various mystical rituals, all held at the temple in Abonoteichus. These were devoted to the celebration of Apollo's birth and that of his son Asclepius, the appearance of Glycon, Alexander's own mother's supposed marriage to Asclepius's son Podaleirius, and even an alleged romance between Alexander himself and the Greek moon goddess Selene that purportedly led to the birth of Alexander's daughter, now the wife of Rutilianus.

Selene the Greek moon goddess, with Phosphoros the Morning Star and Hesperos the Evening Star, depicted on Roman marble altar, 2nd Century AD (public domain)

Alexander even persuaded the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius to change Abonoteichus's name to the much grander-sounding Ionopolis ('Greek city'). In addition, this same emperor and also his successors Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius all issued coinage depicting Glycon. Yet despite achieving such successes as these, with savage irony a prediction that he made about himself proved to be singularly inaccurate – just like many that he had predicted for others had been. He prophesied that he would live to the age of 150, but died at only 70 in or around 170 AD, caused by a gangrenous limb. Yet although the cult's leader was no more, the cult itself, and its veneration of Glycon, persisted for at least a further century – having occupied a vast area at its peak of popularity, stretching from the Danube in the west to the Euphrates in the east - before eventually petering out. Having said that, it is nothing if not interesting to note that as recently as the 1970s, belief in a "magical snake" still existed among Turkish locals living in the vicinity of Inebolu (formerly Ionopolis/Abonoteichus).

But how do we know about Alexander and Glycon, almost two millennia after their demise? In fact, only a single primary source for the extraordinary history of the reputedly phoney prophet and his talkative hairy-headed human-eared snake god is known, and it just so happens to be an exceedingly acerbic, hostile account written by an infamously vituperative satirist with a very specific reason for hating Alexander and all that he represented. Needless to say, therefore, one might well be forgiven for wondering whether the entire saga was totally fictitious.

The statue of Glycon unearthed at Tomis, Romania, in 1962; left-hand view (© CristianChirita/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Happily, however, independent corroboration for the reality of the Glycon cult also exists. This includes not only the survival of some of the afore-mentioned Roman coinage bearing the image (and even the name) of this very singular deified serpent, but also a magnificent marble statue of Glycon, dating from the Severan dynasty (193-235 AD), standing almost 3 ft tall, and in excellent condition. It had been excavated in April 1962 along with various other statuary under the site of a former railway station in Constanta, Romania, formerly the ancient city of Tomis.

So spectacular and unexpected was this ornate Glycon sculpture, now housed at Constanta's Museum of National History and Archaeology, that it featured on a Romanian postage stamp in 1974 (which is what first brought Glycon to my attention, as an enthusiastic stamp collector during my childhood), as well as on a second one issued in 1994, and also on a Romanian 10,000 lei bank note in 1994.

The Romanian 10,000 lei bank note depicting the Glycon statue, issued in 1994 – sample only (Wikipedia /public domain – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)

Moreover, smaller Glycon statuettes in bronze have been found in Athens too, confirming the cult's spread into and across southwestern Europe. And according to the 2nd-Century-AD Christian philosopher Athenagoras of Athens, writing in his Apology (c.176/177 AD), a statue of Alexander once stood in the forum of Parium, which was a Greek city in Mysia on the Hellespont (now called the Dardanelles). 

Consequently, as there can be no doubt that Glycon, regardless of its true nature, really did exist, should we look more favourably upon its sole primary literary source, even though said source originated from the pen of an inimical satirist? This is where it all becomes much more complex, as will now be seen.

Lucian of Samosata, engraving by William Faithorne, 1600s (public domain)

The source in question is a concise but coruscating essay tersely entitled Alexander the False Prophet, written in Ancient Greek by Lucian of Samosata (Samosata being an ancient Syrian city on the west bank of the Euphrates river). A popular Greek satirist and rhetorician, Lucian was a contemporary of Alexander, and was particularly noted for the scoffing, sarcastic nature of many of his writings. His essay contained the history of Alexander and Glycon that I have summarised here in this present article of mine, but also included many additional claims and suppositions of fraud, lewd behaviour, and other undesirable activities relative to its human and serpentine subjects.

For instance, Lucian confidently asserted that the talking head of Glycon was not this snake's real head (which, he claimed, was kept well hidden under Alexander's armpit), but was instead an artificial construction made from linen and skilfully manipulated by Alexander using a lengthy internal tube composed of conjoined bird windpipes that led out from the false head into a hidden chamber where an assistant spoke words into the tube, thus making it seem as if Glycon were speaking. Lucian further alleged that a series of very fine, attached horse-hairs acted as internal pulleys to make the false head open and close its mouth, and extend and retract its tongue.

Sculpture of Lucian of Samosata, atop an ornamental pillar in the grounds of Nordkirchen Castle, near Münster, Germany (© Mbdortmund/Wikipedia – GFDL 1.2 licence)

Lucian also 'explained' how various of Alexander's correct predictions had been achieved via fraudulent activity. He even alleged that shortly after a somewhat acrimonious meeting with Alexander (in c.162 AD) during which he had tried to trick Alexander and had even attempted (albeit unsuccessfully) to dissuade Rutilianus from marrying the latter's daughter, he had narrowly avoided death during a boat trip when Alexander had supposedly paid the vessel's crew to murder him, only being saved when the captain prevented them from carrying out the heinous deed.

Traditionally, this vicious character assassination of Alexander by Lucian in literary form has tended to be viewed uncritically by those modern-day scholars actually aware of it (with Glycon in particular being among the Roman Empire's least-known figures of interest nowadays). However, all of that changed dramatically in June 2011.

Steve Moore with fellow FT colleagues in 2002 - from left to right, back row to front row: Mark Pilkington,  Paul Sieveking, Bob Rickard, Ian Simmons, Steve Moore, and Owen Whiteoak (© Paul Sieveking)

This very notable volte-face was due to the publication of a fascinating, eye-opening article presenting a very erudite reappraisal of Alexander, Glycon, and their portrayal by their longstanding nemesis Lucian. Appearing in the British monthly periodical Fortean Times (which is devoted to the serious investigation and chronicling of unexplained and controversial phenomena of every conceivable - and inconceivable! – kind), the article was authored by Steve Moore.

Steve was a highly-respected veteran researcher of ancient Asian and European mysteries, as well as one of the original Gang of Fort associated with the founding of Fortean Times itself (originally entitled The News), and his article directly challenged many of Lucian's long-accepted claims.

Opening page of text from Steve Moore's excellent Fortean Times article (© Steve Moore/Fortean Times)

For example, Steve questioned how Lucian could have known any specific details about Alexander's early years, especially those shared with Cocconas, bearing in mind that he, Lucian, had not spent any time alongside the pair to witness anything at first hand, and that Cocconas and Alexander were hardly likely to have informed him (or anyone else, for that matter) what they had been doing if they had truly been engaged in fraudulent activity during that time period, as vehemently asserted by Lucian in his account. Indeed, Steve went even further, by questioning whether Cocconas even existed – after all, there is no mention of him outside Lucian's poisonous diatribe. Might he therefore have been a wholly fictitious character, invented specifically by Lucian in order to cast Alexander's early years in as bad a light as possible?

No less circumspect are Lucian's wholly-unsubstantiated claims of spying, thuggery, blackmail, furtively opening sealed scrolls, and a varied assortment of other equally unpleasant activities attributed by him to Alexander. As for Lucian's once again unconfirmed allegation of almost being murdered by henchmen of Alexander while taking a boat ride, this just so happens to have been a very popular storyline in romantic works of fiction from that time period (and of which Lucian would certainly have been well aware). So it should clearly be viewed with great caution as a supposed statement of fact.

Was Glycon's voice achieved by ventriloquism and its head a glove or sock puppet, i.e. comparable, for instance, with how the famous American entertainer Shari Lewis 'brought to life' Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse? (public domain)

Equally, Steve pointed out that Lucian's bold statements regarding the nature of Glycon's head and speech were mere supposition too. True, the notions that Lucian had put forward regarding the mechanisms by which a fake head could have been secretly operated by Alexander were nothing if not ingenious, but that is all that they were – notions, not facts. No physical evidence or direct eyewitness observations confirming them were presented by Lucian in support of his accusations, it was all speculation (and spiteful speculation at that) on his part, nothing more. Other, much less controversial options also existed but which Lucian never mentioned, such as ventriloquism to make Glycon speak, and a simple glove or sock puppet-like creation to make its fake head move and open its mouth (always assuming of course that a fake head really was present).

Moreover, we only have Lucian's very questionable testimony that Glycon actually talked at all! In fact, it is even possible that Lucian never actually saw Glycon or spoke to anyone who had done so, because, amazingly, his essay makes no mention whatsoever of Glycon's two most remarkable physical features – its human ears and blond hair. Conversely, whereas Lucian claimed that it possessed a human-like head, most of the physical depictions of Glycon currently known (i.e. the various coins and statues noted earlier by me in this article) actually portray it with a long-snouted head that is certainly more pythonesque than humanoid in appearance. If for no other reason than this, therefore, the authentic nature of the content of Lucian's essay clearly should not - can not - be taken in any way for granted.

Glycon portrayed upon a 2nd-Century AD Ionopolis coin (copyright holder unknown, despite considerable searches by me; reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use educational basis only)

Returning to the matter of the mobility and loquacity of Glycon's head, it would be very prudent here to quote Steve's take on Lucian's assertions regarding this:

In boasting that he knows how the trick was done, Lucian is plainly covering up the fact that this can only be a matter of conjecture. These conjectures may be very close to the truth; but they remain conjectures, not proof.

Steve also applied this same line of sound reasoning very successfully and convincingly to many other of Lucian's scathing claims masquerading as facts against Alexander. In addition, certain of Alexander's activities that Lucian deemed to be evidence of his fakery – most notably his retreating overnight into an inner, subterranean sanctuary called the adyton, in order to receive his oracles in peaceful solitude via dreams, and then reveal them publicly the following morning - were shown by Steve to be no different from those performed by various soothsayers and oracle-givers who had not been accused of or linked to fraud, such as the very famous, much-revered Oracle of Apollo at Claros, on the coast of Ionia in present-day Anatolia, Turkey.

'Chariot of Apollo', by Gustave Moreau, late 1800s (public domain)

Indeed, there is even a very relevant, present-day parallel, as Steve tellingly revealed in his own article:

The adyton is an underground chamber, and it's now known that withdrawal to a cave or subterranean chamber to obtain visions and mystic revelations was a common practice among Greek seers, being used similarly to a modern sensory deprivation tank.

As for charges made by Lucian against Alexander of lewd behaviour and even male prostitution: such activities were by no means uncommon back in their day, and some of the ceremonies and rituals performed during the kinds of celebration that Alexander had modelled his own annual three-day festival upon were notoriously liberal to say the least! Once again, therefore, why was Lucian singling out Alexander, this time for indulging in behaviour that was no different – or worse – than that of many others in his role?

Illustration from 1885 depicting a small bronze bust of Epicurus, derived from Herculaneum (public domain)

The answer would seem to be quite simple, but hitherto ignored by those who have supported Lucian's writings unquestioningly. Lucian was an Epicurean, whereas Alexander was no fan of Epicureans, or Christians either, for that matter, banning both groups from his annual festivities. His reason for doing so is that Epicureans (followers of the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus) were known for their fervent scepticism of superstition and claimed cases of divine intervention (and Christians would certainly not have tolerated any cult of snake veneration, i.e. ophiolatreia, derived from the Greek deity Asclepius – or indeed any other such cult).

Consequently, the activities of Alexander would have made him a prime focus for disdain by Lucian. And when this was coupled with Alexander's own dislike of Epicureans, as well as his immense success and fame, overshadowing Lucian's own accomplishments at that time, it was inevitable that literary sparks would fly when Lucian chose to write about him.

Astronomically, Asclepius is immortalised as the constellation Ophiuchus, the snake-bearer, as depicted here in Urania's Mirror – a set of constellation cards published in London in c.1825 (public domain)

Certainly, there was never any hope for an unbiased, objective account, and Lucian definitely did not disappoint on that score - the result being a destructive, cynical, hyper-sceptical, and uber-vitriolic outpouring of verbal venom specifically designed to diminish, denigrate, and entirely discredit the reputation of the subject of his enmity.
And for many centuries, this is exactly what Lucian's vindictive essay achieved, abetted by Christian scholars and scientists alike (for whom stories of snake deities and diviners of the future were anathema), until Steve Moore's much-needed objective perspicacity opened readers' eyes to what may well have been the greatest of all trickeries associated with Alexander and Glycon – one which, ironically, was nothing of their own doing either, but was instead the ostensibly accurate yet substantially inaccurate account of their lives penned by Lucian.
A psychedelic interpretation of Glycon (© Dr Karl Shuker)
In short, the true nature of this toxic treatise had been hidden in plain sight for a very long time indeed, shielded from any penetrating analysis by Lucian's name and by generations of readers with their own compatible agenda, until the coming of Steve's diligent, iconoclastic detective work.

Obviously, there is no doubt that hoaxing did play some part in certain of Alexander's activities, most notably in relation to the physical serpent Glycon, but equally, as Steve so forensically revealed, it is likely that Alexander was nowhere near as villainous as Lucian would have everyone believe – more sinned against than sinning, in fact. It is often said that the pen is mightier than the sword, but never more so than when that pen has been liberally dipped in the lethal venom of hatred and jealousy.

Glycon statuette, c. 150-300 AD, exhibited at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, at Ankara, Turkey (© Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, included here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use educational basis only - Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 Intenational licence)

I wish to dedicate this ShukerNature blog article of mine to the memory of Steve Moore (1949-2014), one of my first and enduring friends in the Fortean community, who always encouraged and supported my own writings and researches within the fascinating field of inexplicabilia, including cryptozoology. Thank you Steve, and may you now know the answers to all of the many ancient historical riddles that you investigated so extensively, and with such expertise and wisdom, during a life so richly inspired by mystery and wonder.

Steve Moore (© Paul Sieveking)

Steve Moore (© Etienne Gilfillan)

Wednesday 3 May 2017


The only known illustration of a woolly cheetah (Public domain)

Nowadays, the once-obscure, elusive king cheetah, a mutant morph of the normal cheetah Acinonyx jubatus famously adorned with an ornate patterning of stripes and blotches very different from the latter species' polka-dotted wild-type counterpart, is enjoying a well-earned scientific renaissance.

In marked contrast, however, a second, equally eyecatching cheetah form seems to have vanished without trace into the mists of scientific anonymity, after only the briefest of spells in the zoological limelight.

A king cheetah, famed for its exquisite and very elaborate markings, produced by a mutant gene allele (© Steve Jurvetson/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)

On 19 June 1877, Philip L. Sclater, longstanding secretary of the Zoological Society of London, recorded in its Proceedings (i.e. the PZSL) the acquisition by London Zoo of a most unusual cat - male and apparently not fully grown - which he described as follows:

It presents generally the appearance of a cheetah (Felis jubatus) [the cheetah's old scientific name], but is thicker in the body, and has shorter and stouter limbs, and a much thicker tail. When adult it will probably be considerably larger than the Cheetah, and is larger even now than our three specimens of that animal. The fur is much more woolly and dense than in the Cheetah, as is particularly noticeable on the ears, mane and tail. The whole of the body is of a pale isabelline colour, rather paler on the belly and lower parts, but covered all over, including the belly, with roundish dark fulvous blotches. There are no traces of the black spots which are so conspicuous in all of the varieties of the Cheetah which I have seen, nor of the characteristic black line between the mouth and eye.

Evidently this brown-blotched felid appeared very different from the usual form - to the extent that Sclater stated that it was impossible to associate it with this. Instead, he proposed for it the temporary name of Felis lanea, the woolly cheetah. It had been obtained from Beaufort West, South Africa, and, as Sclater himself remarked: "It is difficult to understand how such a distinct animal can have so long escaped the observations of naturalists".

One other matter is also difficult to understand, and remains a source of confusion concerning this mystery cat. Sclater referred to its markings as 'blotches', but in the illustration that accompanied this report, the creature was depicted with numerous tiny spots!

The PZSL 1877 chromolithograph of the woolly cheetah that accompanied Sclater's report of it (Public domain)

A year later, on 18 June 1878, Sclater noted in the Society's Proceedings that he had received a letter from a Mr E.L. Layard, informing him that a second woolly cheetah was currently preserved in the South African Museum. Like the first, it had been procured from Beaufort West. It had been killed by Arthur V. Jackson who, like Layard himself, assumed that it was an erythristic (abnormally red) variant of the normal cheetah. At the end of this item, in answer to an enquiry by Layard, Sclater recorded that the claws of the London Zoo specimen were non-retractile.

Sharing Sclater's own bewilderment as to how so large and unusual an animal could have evaded scientific detection until then, many zoologists had grave reservations concerning his optimism that the woolly cheetah constituted a totally separate species. In 1881, English biologist Dr St George J. Mivart commented that the noted American zoologist Prof. Daniel G. Elliot regarded this felid simply as a variety of the known cheetah species (curiously, Mivart ascribed the presence of a stripe to one side – but not both sides – of the woolly cheetah's muzzle when describing this feline form in his book The Cat, a feature not mentioned by Sclater, and in any event highly abnormal, thereby confusing the issue even further).

Dramatis personae in the woolly cheetah saga: Philip L. Sclater (public domain), Dr St George J. Mivart (Wellcome Images/Wikipedia – CC BY 4.0 licence), and Prof. Daniel G. Elliot (public domain)

By then, London Zoo's specimen had died, and Elliot's opinion received support from the discovery by eminent mammalogist Oldfield Thomas of the then British Museum (Natural History) – now known as the Natural History Museum – that this cat's skull did not differ from that of any other cheetah.

On 4 November 1884, Sclater recorded in the PZSL a woolly cheetah skin sent to him by the Reverend G. Fisk, again obtained from Beaufort West. In comparison with the zoo specimen, this example was more distinctly spotted, less densely furred, and rather smaller in size. Reverend Fisk believed that these differences were due to the specimen being a female, an explanation accepted by Sclater, who felt that this new skin consolidated his opinion concerning the woolly cheetah's separate status. The rest of the scientific world, conversely, remained unconvinced, so that since then it has been regarded as merely an unusual variant of the typical cheetah species.

A normal, polka-dotted cheetah (public domain)

The woolly cheetah may indeed be nothing more surprising than an atypical colour morph – perhaps a partial albino, as suggested by king cheetah researcher Lena Bottriell and felid geneticist Roy Robinson, or an erythristic version, as opined by Jackson and Layard. At the same time, Sclater's more radical views can also be appreciated, because this cat form differs from the typical cheetah not only in colour and markings but also in fur density and even in relative limb length. Simple colour variants do not generally exhibit such pronounced differences as these from normal individuals of the same species. Its shorter limbs suggest a non-cursorial life - could it possibly have been a forest form?

It is worth noting that a 'lion-like forest cheetah' known as the kitanga was described in the 20th Century's early years to Major G. St J. Orde-Brown by the Embu natives of south-eastern Kenya (as recorded by Kenneth C. Gandar Dower in his book The Spotted Lion, 1937,  chronicling Dower's own searches for another of Africa's mystery cats, the elusive marozi). Moreover, according to correspondent Owen Burnham who lived there for many years, a comparable felid has occasionally been reported from the little-explored forests of Senegal, West Africa, where this region's subspecies of the typical cheetah, A. j. hecki, is extremely rare.

A pair of marozis or spotted lions (© William M. Rebsamen)

The possibility of a cheetah form becoming modified for life in this type of habitat is by no means implausible. On the contrary, even the normal spotted form is not an exclusive denizen of the savannahs. This was well demonstrated in March 1983, when Lise Campbell spied a single cheetah at a height of 2.5 miles in the vicinity of the Sirimon Track in the moorland zone of Mount Kenya. She had a second sighting later that day of what may have been the same animal, even higher, amidst the tufted high-altitude grass, and documented her observations in an East African Natural History Society Bulletin communication (May-June 1983).

As for the woolly cheetah: according to mammalogists Daphne Hills and Dr Reay Smithers in their Arnoldia Zimbabwe paper of 1980 (concerning the king cheetah), this odd form no longer occurs in Beaufort West. Presumably, therefore, it is extinct, and the chance to investigate further its precise taxonomic status similarly lost. Or is it? The Natural History Museum owns the skin of London Zoo's specimen – so now, with the ever-advancing techniques of DNA-based genetic analyses readily available to researchers, perhaps it may be possible to carry out some such tests upon small samples of this skin and finally reveal the precise genetic identity of the mystifying woolly cheetah.

This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and expanded from my book Mystery Cats of the World.