Sunday, July 17, 2011

Ancient Chroniclers of Mystery

Javier Resines’s article on the Spanish kraken that terrorized the vicinity of Cadiz during the Roman Era prompted recollections of readings about “antiquarians” from the ancient world, who laboriously jotted down all of the “prodigia” and oddities of their times. Readers of UFO tracts are familiar with Julius Obsequens, who took special note of flying shields and other heavenly displays – pastimes indulged by other ancient historians like Livy and Dio Cassius – and the medieval St. Gregory of Tours, whose annotations of every comet, meteor and unknown object overhead are readily available in the excellent Penguin Books edition of his “A History of the Franks”.

Some two thousand years ago, the Roman historian Pausanias had the opportunity to witness an unusual sight: the carcass of what was described as "a Triton" --one of the sea-god Neptune's helpers--allegedly slain after having come ashore to kill the cattle of the inhabitants of the Greek city of Tanagra. Pausanias reported the the creature had "hard, dense scales and stank."

Most of the observations made by these chroniclers of the unusual have been explained by science, but reading their original works remains fascinating stuff. We could conceivably include Aulus Gellius among the earliest cryptozoologists (or a pre-Fort fortean, perhaps?) Here is the translation of his Attic Nights by the Reverend W. Beloe, published in London in 1795:

Story from Tubero of a serpent of unusual size.

Tubero has written in his history that in the first Punic War, Attilius Regulus, the consul, being encamped in Africa near the river Bagrada, had a great and sever engagement with a single serpent of extraordinary fierceness, whose den was on that spot. That he sustained the attack of the whole army, and was a long time opposed with the ballistae and catapultae; and that being killed, his skin, which was one hundred and twenty feet long, was sent to Rome

No less interesting is the translator’s commentary (which did not appear in the Spanish version of the account I read so long ago) to Gellius’s report. “That there are enormous serpents in Africa will admit of no doubt, but I believe still larger are met with in the interior parts of India. I have somewhere read of travellers mistaking them, by their extraordinary magnitude, and when asleep, for the trunks of trees. It is asserted in the Philosophical Transactions that in the Kingdom of Congo, serpents have been found twenty-five feet in length, which will swallow a sheep whole. Travellers also relate that in the Brazils, serpents have been found forty feet long [...] Dr. Shaw mentions it in his travels, and thinks it was a crocodile. But whoever has heard of a crocodile one hundred and twenty feet long? Mr. Daines Barrington disbelieves it altogether, calling it an absurd, incredible circumstance, to which opinion many will without reluctance accede.” As becomes immediately evident by that final sentence, skeptics were alive and well in the 18th century.