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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Tuesday 28 April 2020


Exquisite vintage chromolithograph depicting three different bird of paradise species - greater, six-wired, and little king (public domain)

In the Garden of Paradise, beneath the Tree of Knowledge, bloomed a rose bush. Here, in the first rose, a bird was born: his flight was like the flashing of light, his plumage was beauteous, and his song ravishing.

But when Eve plucked the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, when she and Adam were driven from Paradise, there fell from the flaming sword of the cherub a spark into the nest of the bird, which blazed up forthwith. The bird perished in the flames; but from the red egg in the nest there fluttered aloft a new one - the one solitary Phoenix bird. The fable tells us that he dwells in Arabia, and that every hundred years he burns himself to death in his nest; but each time a new Phoenix, the only one in the world, rises up from the red egg.

The bird flutters round us, swift as light, beauteous in colour, charming in song. When a mother sits by her infant’s cradle, he stands on the pillow, and, with his wings, forms a glory around the infant’s head. He flies through the chamber of content, and brings sunshine into it, and the violets on the humble table smell doubly sweet.

But the Phoenix is not the bird of Arabia alone. He wings his way in the glimmer of the Northern Lights over the plains of Lapland, and hops among the yellow flowers in the short Greenland summer. Beneath the copper mountains of Fahlun and England’s coal mines, he flies, in the shape of a dusty moth, over the hymn-book that rests on the knees of the pious miner. On a lotus leaf he floats down the sacred waters of the Ganges, and the eye of the Hindoo maid gleams bright when she beholds him.

The Phoenix bird, dost thou not know him? The Bird of Paradise, the holy swan of song! On the car of Thespis he sat in the guise of a chattering raven, and flapped his black wings, smeared with the lees of wine; over the sounding harp of Iceland swept the swan’s red beak; on Shakespeare’s shoulder he sat in the guise of Odin’s raven, and whispered in the poet’s ear "Immortality!" and at the minstrels’ feast he fluttered through the halls of the Wartburg.

The Phoenix bird, dost thou not know him? He sang to thee the Marseillaise, and thou kissedst the pen that fell from his wing; he came in the radiance of Paradise, and perchance thou didst turn away from him towards the sparrow who sat with tinsel on his wings.

The Bird of Paradise – renewed each century - born in flame, ending in flame! Thy picture, in a golden frame, hangs in the halls of the rich, but thou thyself often fliest around, lonely and disregarded, a myth - "The Phoenix of Arabia."

In Paradise, when thou wert born in the first rose, beneath the Tree of Knowledge, thou receivedst a kiss, and thy right name was given thee – thy name, Poetry.

   Hans Christian Andersen – ‘The Phoenix Bird’, in Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales

Native to New Guinea, its outlying islands, and (in the case of four species known as riflebirds) the north-eastern perimeter of Australia, the dazzling, flamboyantly plumed birds of paradise first became known to a greater portion of the world during the 16th Century, when skins of these exquisite species were brought to Europe by one of Ferdinand Magellan’s vessels. That, at least, is the official history of these birds.

Less well-publicised, however, is fascinating evidence which strongly implies that the birds of paradise were known beyond Australasia many centuries before this, and also that they may well hold the key to the identity of a spectacular, much-celebrated bird of ancient mythology.

The Egyptian phoenix must surely be the most famous of all fabulous birds. According to its legend’s most familiar version, every 500 years (or every century in certain other versions) it would construct its nest from twigs, cinnamon, myrrh, and perfumed herbs; then, as the heat from the intense Eastern sun ignited its nest, transforming it into a blazing pyre of conflagration, the phoenix would raise its outstretched wings and dance, before perishing utterly amidst the flames, which would flicker and burn as the years passed by until only ash remained. From this spent mass of cinders, a new phoenix would rise, reborn and whole, and wrap the remains of its nest in myrrh enclosed within aromatic leaves; it would then fashion this into an egg, and fly triumphantly to the temple of the Sun King at Heliopolis, Egypt, to place its egg on the temple’s altar, before departing to construct a new nest and begin the cycle of self-immolation and resurrection all over again.

Traditional concept of the phoenix and its burning nest, dramatically depicted here in an early engraving (public domain)

Most of this has traditionally been dismissed as imaginative fiction. Admittedly, scholars have attempted to identify the phoenix with various known species, ranging from the peacock, flamingo, and golden pheasant Chrysolophus pictus to (with somewhat less conviction) certain exotic parrots and other brightly plumaged cage-birds imported from the tropics, but none of these identifications is very satisfactory. Alternatively, certain species of perching bird, particularly some crows, seemingly experience a pleasurable sensation from fanning their wings over burning straw or twigs; sightings of this could have contributed to the phoenix legend - discussed by Dr Maurice Burton in Phoenix Reborn (1959).

As documented by Texas University researcher Thomas Harrison (Isis, 1960), there had even been suggestions by some of the early naturalists and poets that the phoenix could have been based upon a bird of paradise, but as the phoenix legend considerably precedes these birds’ ‘official’, 16th-Century debut in the West, this possibility received short shrift - until 1957. But before we investigate this further, we should recall how the birds of paradise themselves first came to Western attention.

It was September 1522 when the survivors of the once-mighty expeditionary fleet of renowned Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan returned home to Europe, arriving in Seville, Spain, and bringing with them all manner of exotic treasures and relics from far-flung corners of the globe. Among these was a series of truly exceptional bird skins, which had been purchased from natives of New Guinea and various of its outlying islands. Their most immediately-striking features were their extravagantly flamboyant feathers - spectacular flourishes of gauzy, rainbow-hued plumes that billowed like dazzling fountains from beneath their wings and tail.

Bestiary compiler Conrad Gesner's famous woodcut of an ostensibly footless bird of paradise from his Historia Animalium (1551-1558) (public domain)

When examined more closely, however, these resplendent specimens revealed an even more remarkable characteristic - they were wholly devoid of flesh, blood, and bones. Their heads came complete with eyes and a beak, and their bodies had wings, but otherwise it seemed that these extraordinary birds were composed entirely of feathers - they did not even possess any feet! Yet there were no recognisable signs that the skins had been in any way tampered with, so the possibility of a hoax was discounted.

The belief in fabulous sylph-like creatures such as these recurs in mythology throughout the world, but never before had science obtained any hard evidence in support of their reality. Needless to say, therefore, zoologists were totally bemused, but at the same time thoroughly captivated, by these astonishing specimens, and concluded from their near-weightless, fleshless, and footless forms that they undoubtedly lived an exclusively aerial existence - spending their entire lives, from birth to death, drifting ethereally through the heavens, and presumably sustained solely upon an ambrosial diet of nectar and dew imbibed in flight.

To quote one zoologist of that time, they were nothing less than "...higher beings, free from the necessity of all other creatures to touch the ground". Not surprisingly, as birds that seemed to have originated from Paradise itself, their species ultimately became known as the bird of paradise, and also as the manucodiata ('birds of God'), the latter name preserved today by several bird of paradise species that are referred to zoologically as manucodes.

Early engraving of a manucodiata (public domain)

Subsequent expeditions to New Guinea brought back more skins, again purchased directly from native tribes, and it soon became obvious that these exquisite creatures comprised many different species, delineated from one another by their distinct but all equally splendid plumages. No living specimens, however, were captured, and it was not until the 19th Century that Western scientists penetrated the dark New Guinea jungles to spy these gorgeous birds for themselves – one such encounter calling forth a paean of praise and wonder from the pen of naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who wrote in his diary:

The feelings of a naturalist who at last sees with his own eyes a creature of such extraordinary beauty and rarity so long sought after, would require a touch of the poet to reach full expression. I found myself on a remote island, far from the routes of the merchant fleets, I wandered through luxuriant tropical forests...And here, in this world, I gazed upon the bird of paradise, the quintessence of beauty. I thought of the long vanished ages during which generation after generation of this creature...lived and died - in dark, gloomy forests, where no intelligent eye beheld their loveliness. And I wondered at this lavish squandering of beauty.

Only then did scientists finally expose these extraordinary birds’ long-hidden secret. The skins that had been arriving back in Europe were incomplete ones - the New Guinea natives had developed to a fine art the immensely skilled process of skin preparation whereby the flesh, blood, bones, and feet of these birds were removed without leaving behind any readily-noticeable signs of their former presence. In short, the birds of paradise were not ethereal, everlastingly-airborne beings at all.

19th-Century bird painter John Gould's superb illustration of a male and female greater bird of paradise Paradisaea apoda – 'apoda' translating as 'footless', derived from the earlier mistaken belief that this and related species did indeed lack feet (public domain)

In fact, as ornithologists swiftly discovered when at last able to examine complete specimens, they were nothing more than gaudy relatives of the sombrely-garbed rooks and ravens. Happily, however, their wonderful feathers were genuine (although in most cases it was only males that sported such sumptuous plumage), therefore offering at least a measure of consolation and compensation to scientists and poets alike for the otherwise traumatic transformation of the miraculous manucodiata into first-cousins (albeit very beautiful ones) of the crow family!

Upon the arrival of the first bird of paradise skins in Europe, their unparalleled beauty attracted equally unparalleled attention, not only from the scientific world, however, but also from the fashion industry, whose wealthier patrons yearned to be as glamorously decorated in these extravagantly beautiful plumes as the birds of paradise themselves. During the 19th Century, when Wallace and others finally spied living specimens in their native homelands, this insatiable demand set in motion a traffic in bird of paradise skins on so great a scale that it soon became evident to all that, if this trade continued for much longer, many species would become extinct within a very short space of time.

Accordingly, many countries banned all import of these skins, and in the 1920s New Guinea banned their export, thereby freeing the most famous and magnificent members of its avifauna from any further massacres in the name of fashion, and enabling their much-depleted numbers to recover. Nevertheless, a certain degree of skin trade still occurred within New Guinea, and in 1957 a team of Australian scientists set out to discover the extent of this traffic - never dreaming that one of the outcomes of their investigations would be the disclosure of a hitherto unknown facet of the Egyptian phoenix myth.

Phoenix with wings outstretched amidst its fiery nest, illustration from Kinderbuch by Friedrich Justin Bertuch, 1806 (public domain)

According to a detailed account in Purnell’s Encyclopedia of Animal Life (1968-70, edited by British zoologists Dr Maurice Burton and Robert Burton), the scientists learned to their astonishment that the New Guinea native tribes had been killing the birds of paradise to obtain their skins for trade with visiting Western seafarers long before the 16th Century. In fact, this had been taking place as far back as 1000 BC, when bird of paradise skins were transported thousands of miles westwards to Phoenicia - birthplace of the phoenix legend. But that was not all.

To preserve the skins’ delicate plumes during their long sea journey from New Guinea to Phoenicia, the tribesmen had presented them to the sailors carefully wrapped in a covering of myrrh skilfully fashioned into an egg-shaped capsule, in turn enclosed within a parcel of burnt banana leaves. If we equate the banana leaves of reality with the aromatic leaves of legend, the result is an extraordinarily close correspondence with the famous myth of the phoenix.

All that is missing is the blazing fire encompassing the bird on all sides - but this is the easiest aspect of all to explain via the bird of paradise hypothesis. One of the most magnificent and also one of the most abundant species (even during the height of the fashion trade, and even though it was especially sought-after due to its sumptuous plumes) is Paradisaea raggiana, Count Raggi’s bird of paradise.

John Gould's gorgeous painting of a male Count Raggi's bird of paradise Paradisaea raggiana exhibiting its spectacular fiery plumage (public domain)

A crow-sized species, the male is a truly resplendent sight during the breeding season, set apart by the breathtaking brilliance of the scarlet plumes that surge from each side of its breast, cascading all around like a blazing eruption of scorching flames. During the male’s pre-mating display, moreover, it expands and elevates these huge sprays of plumes, and vibrates its body, so that the resulting effect is uncannily like that of a bird dancing in the midst of a coruscating inferno of flame!

Considering that the abundance, the gorgeous appearance, and the notable popularity among plume-hunters of Count Raggi’s bird of paradise would ensure that it was well-represented in all series of skins sold by the natives to the Phoenicians, and that the natives undoubtedly regaled them with vivid descriptions of its striking courtship display, need we really look any further for the origin of the Egyptian phoenix, and its dramatic dance of death in the fiery heart of its blazing nest?

Additionally, in his book Fabulous Beasts (1951) Peter Lum stated that the Roman emperor Heliogabalus (reigned 218-222 AD) is said to have dined upon a bird of paradise. Also, as V. Kiparsky noted in an Arsbok-Societas Scientiarum Fennica paper from 1961, basing his ideas upon accounts in ancient Russian literature tantalizingly comparable to bird of paradise descriptions (most notably the famous Russian firebird or zhar ptitsa), a trade in their plumes may have been taking place at a very early date in eastern Europe.

Stealing a plume from the Russian firebird (public domain)

Finally: Well worth pointing out here is that trade in bird of paradise plumes was also taking place at an early age between New Guinea and China – as long ago as China's Bronze Age (3100-300 BC), in fact, according to a fascinating section in Civilisation Recast: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives by Stephan Feuchtwang and Michael Rowlands, in which they state:

…tropical forest products and most importantly birds of paradise feathers were being sought by the Bronze Age 'civilisations' of the China Sea.

(Incidentally, China does of course have its very own phoenix, the feng-huang, but this avian entity seemingly has a totally separate folkloric origin from Egypt's version, being widely believed to have been inspired by various species of Asian pheasant and peafowl, but as revealed elsewhere on ShukerNature there is nonetheless a line of conjecture linking it to birds of paradise too.) Moreover, I recently learned from Australian Facebook friend Yarree Denamundinna that some bird of paradise plumes had allegedly been discovered inside an ancient Egyptian tomb. I asked Yarree if he could supply me with any published sources confirming this fascinating claim, and if he can do so I shall publish details here.

A pair of blue birds of paradise Paradisornis rudolphi (my favourite species), painted by okapi-discoverer Sir Harry Johnston (aka Sir Henry Hamilton Johnston), from Marvels of the Universe, Vol I (public domain)

This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and adapted from my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited.

Friday 24 April 2020


The skull of a common hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius, revealing just how huge its lower canine and incisor teeth are in proportion to the rest of it (public domain)

During the past three-and-a-half decades, I have investigated countless previously unexplained or unexamined cryptozoological mysteries, and more often than not I have sooner or later succeeded in solving the riddles posed by them. Every now and then, however, I have encountered one that has defied all of my attempts to elucidate it, and the hitherto-obscure case presented below on ShukerNature is a prime example. I've been intermittently seeking information concerning it for well over 20 years now, yet all to no avail – but by duly revealing its sparse details here, I am fervently hoping that these will trigger memories with, and/or elicit information from, my readers that will at last enable its mystery to be conclusively resolved. In the meantime, I shall present my own thoughts regarding this enigmatic entity, and then await, gentle readers, your own.

During the 1990s, Fortean writer/researcher Janet Bord (who has co-authored with her husband Colin numerous classic, bestselling books on mysteries of Britain and also overseas) kindly sent me some photocopied pages of cryptozoological content from a short but exceedingly hard-to-find book written by famous British mysteries author Harold T. Wilkins and published in 1947. For a book of only 30 pages, it had a disproportionately long (albeit comprehensive) title – Monsters and Mysteries of America, the Jungles, the Tropics, and the Arctic Wastes – and contained some fascinating reports of mystery beasts that were previously unknown to me.

Harold T. Wilkins (public domain)

These reports included the following example, whose all-too-brief relevant portion I am quoting here in full:

Another reminder of strange and unknown monsters which ancient Africa once possessed…was the discovery in May, 1935, by the Egyptian professor, Selim Hassan, of "day and night boats" used by the ancient Pharaohs in rites connected with the Egyptian underworld of the dead, or solar ceremonialism. Close to the pyramid of Chephren, Professor Selim Hassan found a boat in which was the head of a gigantic animal with huge teeth. Its identity has not been established. The boat was found buried north of the temple of the ancient pyramid.

Intrigued by this report, and owning several other books authored by Wilkins, I carefully checked through all of them, and found the following, very similar snippet in Secret Cities of Old South America (1952):

Again, in 1935, Professor Selim Hassan, when excavating round the pyramid of Chephren, found some ancient boats in one of which was the head of a gigantic animal with huge teeth, whose identity no one could establish.

Also known as the Pyramid of Khafre or Khafra, the Pyramid of Chephren is the second-tallest pyramid of the famous ancient Egyptian pyramids at Giza, and constitutes the tomb of the Fourth-Dynasty pharaoh Chephren (aka Khafre/Khafra), who ruled c.2558-2532 BC. Prof. Selim Hassan (1886-1961) was a leading Egyptologist, who supervised the excavation of many ancient Egyptian tombs on behalf of Cairo University. He was also the author of the definitive 16-volume Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. And solar boats were boats constructed as representations of the mythical day boat that according to traditional ancient Egyptian lore the sun god Amen-Ra navigated through the sky and also through the underworld, which were buried with deceased kings to enable them to do the same. So far, so good.

The Pyramid of Chephren aka Khafre and the Great Sphinx at Giza (© Hamish2k/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

After deciding to seek out further information concerning the body-bereft head of this mystifying Beast in the Boat (which is what I shall be calling it hereafter for ease of reference purposes), my first action was to check whether there were any source references to it in the respective bibliographies of Wilkins's two above-cited books. Unfortunately, however, the first, short book did not contain a bibliography at all, and although the second, longer book did have one, it did not contain any references that seemed likely to be the source(s) of this case.

With the coming of the internet and its ever-expanding content, however, I was eventually able to conduct online a far more comprehensive search for Wilkins's source material than I'd ever have been able to do in physical libraries, and it was not long before I uncovered a publication that I felt certain would contain the precious information that I'd been looking for. Published in 1946 by the Government Press in Cairo, and written by Prof. Hassan, the 341-page treatise in question was entitled Excavations at Giza: The Solar-Boats of Khafra, Their Origin and Development, together with the Mythology of the Universe which they are supposed to traverse. Vol. VI – Part 1: 1934-1935.

Prof. Selim Hassan (© Mikerin/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Yes indeed, if the information concerning the giant animal head found inside a solar-boat by Hassan in 1935 near the pyramid of Chephren/Khafra was to be contained anywhere, surely it would be contained in this publication. And so I painstakingly scanned through it, read through it, and used likely search words to seek out the required details – but found nothing, not even the barest, briefest of mentions of such a find anywhere within this extensive, immensely comprehensive  document  - a document, moreover, that was concerned specifically with not only the precise location and the precise year but also the precise structures (solar boats) and the precise researcher included in Wilkins's report. In other words, if this treatise didn't contain anything of relevance to the Beast in the Boat (which it didn't), then what publication ever would? And indeed, despite several subsequent online searches spaced out across the 23 years since I first went online way back in 1997, and taking into account the enormous and continuing expansion of information that has been added to the Net during that extremely long time period, I have still not found any data relating to this most mystifying report in Wilkins's books.

In the absence of such material, therefore, all that I can do is speculate on what the bodiless Beast in the Boat may have been, based upon the minimal morphological details of its head as provided by Wilkins – and always assuming, of course, that his report was both genuine and accurate. Four very different identities, but all sharing toothy infamy, come readily to mind – the Nile crocodile Crocodylus niloticus, the common hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius, the African bush elephant Loxodonta africana, and any one in a wide taxonomic range of large fossil species with very sizeable teeth.

Artistic representation of Sebek, ancient Egypt's crocodile-headed god of fertility and military might (© Jeff Dahl/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

In ancient Egyptian times, the Nile crocodile was very common in this country, frequenting the River Nile from Upper Egypt and the Delta northward to the Mediterranean coast. It was also venerated - among the extensive pantheon of animal-headed deities worshipped in ancient Egypt was the crocodile-headed god Sebek (=Sobek), associated with fertility, power, and military strength, and invoked to provide protection from the dangers of the Nile itself. Many mummified crocodiles dedicated to Sebek have been unearthed during excavations of ancient Egyptian temples and other sites. Yet in spite of its exalted position in this ancient culture, the Nile crocodile was also extensively hunted, millennium after millennium, until by the 1950s it was virtually extinct in Egypt, nowadays existing in this country only within Lake Nasser and the lands directly to the south of it, having been exterminated in Lower Egypt following the building of the Aswan Dam during the 1960s.

The Nile crocodile typically measures 11-12 ft long in total, but exceptional specimens more than 19 ft long have been documented, and the largest Nile crocodile skulls on record are up to 27 in long, with a mandibular (lower jaw) length of up to 34 in. Yet if just the head of one were discovered, entirely without body, would the size of the entire animal if estimated by extrapolating from just the head really be big enough to warrant being described as gigantic? I'm by no means convinced that it would. Equally, by no stretch of the imagination can a Nile crocodile's teeth, which number 60-64, be described as huge – big, certainly, but huge? Personally, I don't think so.

Nile crocodile's head (© Leigh Bedford/Wikipedia – CC  BY 2.0 licence)

The second identity on offer here is the common hippopotamus. Just like the Nile crocodile, this massively large aquatic mammal was very common in ancient Egypt, was represented in the pantheon of animal-headed deities – this time by Taueret, the ferocious hippo-headed goddess of pregnancy and childbirth – and was also extensively hunted. Apparently, this species could still be found along the Damietta branch (an eastern tributary of the Nile Delta) after the Arab conquest in 639 AD, but eventually it became entirely extinct in Egypt.

Exceeded in overall stature only by the elephants and white rhinoceros among modern-day mammals, the common hippopotamus attains a total length of up to 17 ft, and a head length of 3-4 ft (with an amazing 4-5-ft vertical mouth gape!). Most spectacular of all, however, are its teeth, particularly its greatly enlarged lower canines (tusks) and lower incisors, the former measuring as much as 20 in and the latter as much as 16 in.

A pair of common hippopotamus tusks (lower canines) (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Consequently, in my opinion the preserved head or skull of a sizeable hippopotamus specimen containing such huge teeth as these provides a very plausible identity for the big-toothed mystery beast head found by Hassan in an ancient Egyptian solar boat. And because the hippopotamus was a species venerated in this culture, the presence of such a specimen in such a boat would by no means be inexplicable or even unexpected. Indeed, the only mystifying aspect that is not readily explained by such a solution is why the specimen's identity as the head – or skull – of a creature as zoologically familiar in modern times as the hippopotamus was not swiftly established. But perhaps it was, unbeknownst to Wilkins?

Incidentally, the reason why I have included here the alternative possibility that what Wilkins described as a head was in reality merely a skull is that if it were truly a head, how had it been preserved so as to survive intact for more than four millennia? There is no mention of it being mummified. To my mind, therefore, it makes far more sense for this specimen to have been a skull, which, with no covering of skin, would also fully expose its teeth and therefore make them look even more dramatic, especially if the skull were that of a common hippo.

Artistic representation of Taueret – ancient Egypt's hippo-headed goddess of pregnancy and childbirth (© Jeff Dahl/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

Moving on to the third identity contender, I wonder if the head (or skull) might conceivably be from some exotic, non-Egyptian species, perhaps a gift from a wealthy visiting potentate in ancient times, explaining why it had been preserved and clearly deemed significant enough to have been placed inside one of the solar boats. The skull of an African bush elephant Loxodonta africana with tusks retained, possibly? Having said that, this species did actually exist in ancient Egypt as a native species some 6000 years ago, during pre-dynastic times, before being hunted to extinction there, after which specimens were imported for military purposes and as exotic pets. Such a skull could certainly lend itself to yielding via extrapolation a complete animal fully deserving of being described (accurately) as gigantic, and its tusks described as huge teeth.

Moreover, as publicly revealed in January 2019, skull fragments from a young elephant were found in a rubbish dump within a 2300-year-old Egyptian fortress on the Red Sea coast. This confirms that such creatures were being maintained in Egypt at least two millennia after the time of Chephren. Equally, within the ancient cemetery of Hierakonpolis, dating back over 5000 years and therefore preceding the time of Chephren, excavations made public in 2015 revealed the skeletons of several exotic animal specimens, including two elephants. These twin discoveries in turn lend support to the prospect of elephants being kept in Egypt during Chephren's reign. Once again, however, if the Beast in the Boat head/skull had truly been that of an elephant, in the 1930s such a specimen – most especially one that possessed tusks – would surely have been swiftly identified, more so even than a hippo skull, in fact.

African bush elephant skull (© JimJones1971/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

The fourth – but in my view the least likely – of the four identity contenders proffered here for consideration is a fossil skull from some large to very large prehistoric mammal or reptile that sported sizeable teeth, e.g. some species of mammoth or other long-vanished proboscidean, a mosasaur, a theropod dinosaur. There are some notable precedents for such specimens having attracted significant attention in bygone times, as documented by me in a number of my previous writings. Created in 1590, the famous lindworm-shaped fountain in Klagenfurt, Austria, for instance, was based upon a supposed dragon skull, but when scientifically examined in modern times it proved to be the fossilized skull of an Ice Age woolly rhinoceros. An ancient Corinthian vase depicting the Homeric legend of Greek hero Heracles rescuing Hesione from a giant sea beast dubbed the Monster of Troy seemingly used a skull of the prehistoric giraffid Samotherium as a model for the monster's head. And from an illustration prepared of it in 1673 by Johannes Hain, an alleged dragon skull discovered in a cave in eastern Europe's Carpathian Mountains is readily identifiable as that of the extinct cave bear Ursus spelaeus.

Consequently, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a fossilized skull of some such beast was gifted to Chephren on the assumption that it was from a mighty monster, and was subsequently retained for posterity by being placed in a solar boat. Moreover, as prehistoric animal species are by no means as easy to identify by non-specialists as are modern-day ones, if the head was a skull from a somewhat obscure fossil creature this could even explain why its zoological identity allegedly had not been established following Hassan's discovery of the head in the solar boat during 1935.

Klagenfurt lindworm fountain (© Winfried Weithofer/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

How I wish that I could trace some additional documentation of the Beast in the Boat head, and even, perhaps, its current location, as I naturally assume that it was preserved after having been uncovered by Hassan. Yet if so, why does his definitive account of his excavations in the very same location where (and also in the very same year when) Wilkins stated this tantalizingly elusive specimen was found contain not the merest mention of it?

As I said at the beginning of the present ShukerNature article, perhaps someone reading this has information concerning the specimen that they are willing to share with me, and, in so doing, enable me at last to get ahead (pun intended!) with this mystery. Over to you – or, to put it another way (and speaking figuratively here, not literally, obviously) – bring me the head of the Beast in the Boat!

Alongside a statue of a common hippopotamus at Marwell Zoo in Hampshire, England (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Please feel free to post any thoughts, information, etc concerning this crypto-case in the comments section below this ShukerNature blog article, or email them to me directly. Many thanks indeed!

Meanwhile, and as is true with all cryptozoological cases based solely upon anecdotal evidence, especially when only a single source currently appears to exist concerning it, there is always the sad possibility that this one is a hoax, an invention on Wilkins's part, with little or no substance to it - hence my "always assuming" caveat included earlier. However, as Wilkins specifically named a real, and very notable, person, i.e. the highly-renowned Egyptologist Prof. Selim Hassan, within his report, and included that report in two separate books, at a time when Hassan was still very much alive and working upon precisely the same subjects, Pyramid of Chephren-sited solar boats, in precisely the same year, 1935, as given in that selfsame report, Wilkins would have been taking a great risk of exposing himself to claims of libel by Hassan if his report had been false. If, conversely, Wilkins had not named any real, still-living person in his report, I would have been much more inclined to deem its claims as being false - but he did name a real, still-living person, Hassan! Tragically, however, as both Wilkins and Hassan are now deceased, we may never know the truth - unless there is someone out there reading this article of mine who can prove me wrong!

Mom and I in Giza, 2006, with the Great Sphinx and (partly visible behind it) the Pyramid of Chephren aka Khafre (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Wednesday 22 April 2020


Publicity poster for 'The Lair of the White Worm' (© Ken Russell/White Lair/Vestron Pictures – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Last night I watched the 1988 British horror movie 'The Lair of the White Worm', directed by the infamous Ken Russell (who also wrote its screenplay), and what a surreal, hilarious romp it was. Loosely inspired by Dracula creator Bram Stoker's final, same-titled novel (first published in 1911), it also drew even more heavily than that latter novel did upon the famous northern England legend of the Lambton Worm - a huge limbless serpent dragon laying waste to the countryside until it was eventually slain by Lord Lambton. Indeed, in the movie version, Caswall, the surname of the local aristocrat in Stoker's novel, has been changed to the Lambton-soundalike surname D'Ampton. Set in rural Derbyshire, England, it stars a young Hugh Grant as Lord James D'Ampton whose ancestor reputedly slew a huge serpent dragon known in this area as the D'Ampton Worm; an also young Peter Capaldi as visiting Scottish archaeology student Angus Flint who unearths a giant snake-like skull during some local excavations; the regal Catherine Oxenberg as Eve Trent, the co-owner (with her sister Mary) of a countryside bed-and-breakfast hotel near to where the skull was found; and, above all others, a fabulously OTT Amanda Donohoe as the serpentine (in more ways than one) and seductively evil Lady Sylvia Marsh (changed from Lady Arabella March in the novel).

Lady Arabella March, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith in the original 1911 edition of The Lair of the White Worm, published a year before Bram Stoker's death (public domain)

In deliciously (forked) tongue-in-cheek style, Donohoe plays the part of an immortal, sexually-charged snake priestess, secretly serving a gigantic male ophidian deity named Dionin who has been lurking unseen for untold ages within the vast underground cave system not far from D'Ampton's castle and Marsh's stately home. Moreover, Lady Marsh is capable of transforming into a blue-skinned, venom-fanged humanoid snake whenever the need to ravish and abduct an unsuspecting local for sacrificial purposes arises, which it does on a very regular basis throughout this manic movie. And as if all of that wasn't enough, anyone bitten by her is transformed, vampire-like, into a befanged snake-human themselves.

The White Worm rears up above the forest, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith in the original 1911 edition of The Lair of the White Worm (public domain)

Yet another of the movie's multitude of plot lines is that centuries earlier, in this very same location and currently the subject of Angus's digs, a convent had been built upon the site where in Roman times a pagan temple devoted to serpent worship had existed, and this confrontation of religions is visualised very dramatically via a series of hallucinations interspersed through the film, in which, as was his wont, Russell left nothing to the imagination – intertwining and juxtapositioning in shocking, eyeball-shattering fantasy sequences all manner of Christian, ophiolatreian, and explicit sexual symbols and images in often deeply disturbing, overtly offensive scenes. These aside, however, the film is mostly played for laughs, strewn with the kind of saucy double entendres and phallic allusions that would make a Carry On star blush, plus a neat twist at the very end. Very much a cult classic and an absolute must for monster-movie buffs like me.

My 1960 Arrow Books paperback edition of The Lair of the White Worm, which I first read just a few years before the movie version was released (public domain/Arrow Books)

But what was the story of the Lambton Worm that so influenced this movie? I retold its legend in my book Dragons: A Natural History (1995), so here, as a ShukerNature exclusive, is my never-before-seen original version of that retelling, before it was edited down in order to fit the space allocated to it in the published book.

Dragons: A Natural History (© Dr Karl Shuker/Aurum Press)

Curse of the Lambton Worm
It was Easter Sunday morning in 1420, and everyone from the village of Washington, close to the River Wear in County Durham, England, was hurrying to church - everyone, that is, except for John Lambton, the young, dissolute heir to Lambton Castle nearby.

Eschewing spiritual solace and observation of the Sabbath for more material, disrespectful pleasures, he was fishing in the river, ignoring the disapproving glances of churchgoers passing by. As the morning drew on with not a single fish taking his bait, however, Lambton's mood darkened, and he cursed aloud with blasphemous abandon at his ill-fortune.

As if bidden by this profane outburst, a sudden ripple shivered across the river's surface. Moments later, Lambton felt something tug sharply at his line, but it was not a fish. When he hauled it up out of the water, he thought at first that it was some form of aquatic worm or leech, small yet very elongate with black slimy skin. Then it raised its head, and looked at him - and even the brash Lambton caught his breath in horror, for his unexpected catch had the head of a dragon...and the face of a devil!

Its jaws were very slender, brimming with long needle-like teeth, and evil-smelling fluid oozed from nine gill-like slits on either side of its neck, but all that Lambton saw were its eyes. Like icy coals they glittered, snaring his own in a glacial, mesmeric trance - and as he gazed helplessly into them, all the sins of his misspent, wasted youth danced amid their malevolent darkness like mocking, accursed wraiths.

Lambton Worm illustration by John Dickson Batten, from More English Fairy Tales (1894)  (public domain)

Lambton had initially planned to keep whatever he caught, but all that he wanted to do now was to rid himself of this loathsome creature, and he lost no time in casting it down into a nearby well. From that moment on he was a changed person, seeking redemption and salvation for his former misdeeds, a mission that led him a few years later to set out as a crusader - some say in the Hussite Crusade, others say in the Middle East. And so he left Lambton Castle far behind - but he also left behind a monstrous manifestation of his former wickedness.

Unbeknownst to Lambton, his vermiform captive had thrived within the well's gloomy confines, growing steadily and stealthily larger, and ever more powerful. One morning, some Washington villagers spied a strange trail glistening with acidic slime, leading from the well to a hill close by. Intrigued, they followed the trail – and a terrible sight met their eyes.

So huge that its snake-like body had enfolded it nine times within its mighty coils, a hideous limbless dragon of the type known as a worm or orm lay basking upon the hill. Livid slime seared the grass beneath its body, and poisonous vapour spiralling out of its mouth withered the leaves of the surrounding trees.

Thus began the Lambton Worm's grisly reign of terror - during which it laid waste to Washington's once-verdant countryside, devoured livestock and even small children with impunity, and turned the villagers into captives within their homes, frightened to set foot outside their door for fear of encountering their land's deadly despoiler. In desperation, they attempted to pacify the monster with an offering of milk - an ancient, customary gesture when faced with a marauding dragon - and so a huge trough was filled with fresh milk and placed in Lambton Castle's courtyard where it could be readily seen by the worm.

Coloured vintage illustration of Lambton doing battle in his spike-bearing armour with his virulent namesake (public domain)

As anticipated, the creature rapidly slithered forth, and gleefully lapped up the creamy offering with its viperine tongue. For the rest of that day and all through the night, it remained passively wrapped around its chosen hillside retreat - but when no further milk was forthcoming on the following morning, it rampaged in fury, with the terrified villagers cowering in their houses. So from that day on, every village cow was milked exclusively to provide a sufficient daily tribute to satisfy the worm.

Every so often, one or more brave villagers attempted to dispatch their serpentine enslaver with sword or lance, but even if they succeeded in slicing the beast in half, the halves immediately joined together again - yielding a fully-intact, highly-irascible worm that rarely gave its attackers the opportunity either to repeat their ploy or to flee the fray.

Years passed by, until at last John Lambton returned home from the Crusades, and was horrified to discover the worm's baneful presence. Determined to rid his land of this animate evil that had been inflicted upon it by his own youthful decadence, he sought the advice of a wise old witch. She informed him that he would only succeed in killing the monster if he wore a special suit of armour surfaced in sharp blades, and if he confronted it in the middle of the river where he had originally caught it.

There was, however, a price to pay for success. After slaying the worm, he must also slay whoever was first to meet him afterwards. If he failed to do this, the Lambton lineage would be cursed, and for nine generations no Lambton heir would die in his own bed.

Lambton Worm illustration by CE Brock, from English Fairy and Other Folk Tales (1890), edited by Edwin S Hartland (public domain)

Heeding all that the witch told him, Lambton arranged for the spike-adorned armour to be prepared at once, and promptly set forth in it to engage in battle with his dreadful foe. By swift and subtle sword-play, Lambton enticed the worm into the fast-flowing water of the River Wear. Once there, however, the worm seized him in its coils - but the more that it sought to crush him, the more severely his suit's razor-sharp blades pierced its body. Aided by his own sword's ready thrusts, the blades eventually sliced the worm into several segments - and before they could recombine, the river's swift current bore them away. Thus was the fearsome Lambton Worm destroyed.

Joyfully, John Lambton returned home to his castle - but although he had vanquished the worm, its curse lingered on. His old father, ecstatic to see that his son had survived his formidable encounter, was the very first living thing to run out and greet him. At this, Lambton became pale with fear, knowing that if he were to secure the safety of his descendants he must kill his own father - but he simply couldn't do so. Instead, he killed his most faithful dog, in the hope that this sacrifice would be sufficient - but it was not.

For the next nine generations, every heir to Lambton Castle met a tragic end. The worm had gone, but for ever afterwards the legend of this terrible serpent dragon would be irrevocably intertwined with the name of Lambton.

Finally: for further details regarding the Lambton Worm, be sure to check out Paul Screeton's comprehensive coverage in his book Whisht Lads and Haad Yor Gobs: The Lambton Worm and Other Northumbrian Dragon Legends (1998), for which I was delighted to write a foreword. Its main title is a line from a famous folk song retelling the Lambton Worm legend – click here to listen to ex-Animals member Alan Price singing it on YouTube, with its full lyrics provided below the video.

Whisht Lads and Haad Yor Gobs (© Paul Screeton/Northeast Press Ltd)