Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Of the Fabulous Animals of the Ancient Writers
By Georges Cuvier (1769–1832)
PERHAPS some persons may be disposed to employ an opposite train of argument, and to allege that the ancients were not only acquainted with as many large quadrupeds as we are, as has been already shown, but that they actually described several others which we do not now know; that we are rash in considering the accounts of all such animals as fabulous; that we ought to search for them with the utmost care, before concluding that we have acquired a complete knowledge of the existing animal creation; and in fine, that among those animals which we presume to be fabulous we may perhaps discover, when better acquainted with them, the actual originals of the bones of those species which are now unknown. Perhaps some may even conceive that the various monsters, essential ornaments of the history of the heroic ages of almost every nation, are precisely those very species which it was necessary to destroy in order to allow the establishment of civilized societies. Thus Theseus and Bellerophon must have been more fortunate than all the nations of more modern days, who have only been able to drive back the noxious animals into the deserts and ill-peopled regions, but have never yet succeeded in exterminating a single species.  1
  It is easy to reply to the foregoing objections, by examining the descriptions that are left us by the ancients of those unknown animals, and by inquiring into their origins. Now the greater number of those animals have an origin purely mythological, and of this origin the descriptions given of them bear the most unequivocal marks; as in almost all of them we see merely the different parts of known animals united by an unbridled imagination, and in contradiction to every established law of nature. Those which have been invented by the poetical fancy of the Greeks have at least some grace and elegance in their composition, resembling the fantastic decorations which are still observable on the ruins of some ancient buildings, and which have been multiplied by the fertile genius of Raphael in his paintings. Like these, they unite forms which please the eye by agreeable contours and fanciful combinations, but which are utterly repugnant to nature and reason; being merely the productions of inventive and playful genius, or perhaps meant as emblematical representations of metaphysical or moral propositions, veiled under mystical hieroglyphics after the Oriental manner. Learned men may be permitted to employ their time and ingenuity in attempts to decipher the mystic knowledge concealed under the forms of the Sphinx of Thebes, the Pegasus of Thessaly, the Minotaur of Crete, or the Chimera of Epirus; but it would be folly to expect seriously to find such monsters in nature. We might as well endeavor to find the animals of Daniel, or the beasts of the Apocalypse, in some hitherto unexplored recesses of the globe. Neither can we look for the mythological animals of the Persians,—creatures of a still bolder imagination,—such as the martichore, or destroyer of men, having a human head on the body of a lion, and the tail of a scorpion; the griffin, or guardian of hidden treasures, half eagle and half lion; or the cartazonon, or wild ass, armed with a long horn on its forehead.  2
  Ctesias, who reports these as actual living animals, has been looked upon by some authors as an inventor of fables; whereas he only attributes real existence to hieroglyphical representations. These strange compositions of fancy have been seen in modern times on the ruins of Persepolis. It is probable that their hidden meanings may never be ascertained; but at all events we are quite certain that they were never intended to be representations of real animals.  3
  Agatharcides, another fabricator of animals, drew his information in all probability from a similar source. The ancient monuments of Egypt still furnish us with numerous fantastic representations, in which the parts of different kinds of creatures are strangely combined,—men with the heads of animals, and animals with the heads of men,—which have given rise to cynocephali, satyrs, and sphinxes. The custom of exhibiting in the same sculpture, in bas-relief, men of very different heights,—of making kings and conquerors gigantic while their subjects and vassals are represented as only a fourth or fifth part of their size,—must have given rise to the fable of the pigmies. In some corner of these monuments Agatharcides must have discovered his carnivorous bull, whose mouth, extending from ear to ear, devoured every other animal that came in his way. But scarcely any naturalist will acknowledge the existence of any such animal, since nature has never joined cloven hoofs and horns with teeth adapted for cutting and devouring animal food.  4
  There may have been other figures equally strange with these, either among those monuments of Egypt which have not been able to resist the ravages of time, or in the ancient temples of Ethiopia and Arabia which have been destroyed by the religious zeal of the Abyssinians and Mahometans. The monuments of India teem with such figures; but the combinations in these are so ridiculously extravagant that they have never imposed even upon the most credulous. Monsters with a hundred arms and twenty heads of different kinds are far too absurd to be believed.  5
  Nay, the inhabitants of China and Japan have their imaginary animals, which they represent as real, and that too in their religious books. The Mexicans had them. In short, they are to be found among every people whose idolatry has not yet acquired some degree of refinement. But is there any one who could possibly pretend to discover, amidst the realities of animal nature, what are thus so plainly the productions of ignorance and superstition? And yet some travelers, influenced by a desire to make themselves famous, have gone so far as to pretend that they saw these fancied beings; or, deceived by a slight resemblance into which they were too careless to inquire, they have identified these with creatures that actually exist. In their eyes, large baboons or monkeys have become cynocephali, and sphinxes real men with long tails. It is thus that St. Augustine imagined he had seen a satyr.  6
  Real animals, observed and described with equal inaccuracy, may have given rise to some of these ideal monsters. Thus we can have no doubt of the existence of the hyena, though the back of this animal is not supported by a single bone, and though it does not change its sex yearly, as alleged by Pliny. Perhaps the carnivorous bull may only have been the two-horned rhinoceros falsely described. M. de Weltheim considers the auriferous ants of Herodotus as the corsacs of modern naturalists.  7
  The most famous among these fabulous animals of the ancients was the unicorn. Its real existence has been obstinately asserted even in the present day, or at least proofs of its existence have been eagerly sought for. Three several animals are frequently mentioned by the ancients as having only one horn placed on the middle of the forehead. The oryx of Africa, having cloven hoofs, the hair placed reversely to that of other animals, its height equal to that of the bull, or even of the rhinoceros, and said to resemble deer and goats in its form; the Indian ass, having solid hoofs; and the monoceros, properly so called, whose feet are sometimes compared to those of the lion and sometimes to those of the elephant, and is therefore considered as having divided feet. The horse unicorn and the bull unicorn are doubtless both referable to the Indian ass, for even the latter is described as having solid hoofs. We may therefore be fully assured that these animals have never really existed, as no solitary horns have ever found their way into our collections, excepting those of the rhinoceros and narwhal.  8
  After careful consideration, it is impossible that we should give any credit to rude sketches made by savages upon rocks. Entirely ignorant of perspective, and wishing to represent the outlines of a straight-horned antelope in profile, they could only give the figure one horn, and thus they produced an oryx. The oryxes that are seen on the Egyptian monuments, likewise, are probably nothing more than productions of the stiff style imposed on the sculptors of the country by religious prejudices. Several of their profiles of quadrupeds show only one fore and one hinder leg; and it is probable that the same rule led them also to represent only one horn. Perhaps their figures may have been copied after individuals that had lost one of their horns by accident, a circumstance that often happens to the chamois and the saiga, species of the antelope genus; and this would be quite sufficient to establish the error. All the ancients, however, have not represented the oryx as having only one horn. Oppian expressly attributes two to this animal, and Ælian mentions one that had four. Finally, if this animal was ruminant and cloven-footed, we are quite certain that its frontal bone must have been divided longitudinally into two, and that it could not possibly, as it is very justly remarked by Camper, have had a horn placed upon the suture.  9
  It may be asked, however: What two-horned animals could have given an idea of the oryx in the forms in which it has been transmitted down to us, even independent of the notion of a single horn? To this I answer, as already done by Pallas, that it was the straight-horned antelope oryx of Gmelin, improperly named pasan by Buffon. This animal inhabits the deserts of Africa, and must frequently approach the confines of Egypt, and appears to be that which is represented in the hieroglyphics. It equals the ox in height, while the shape of its body approaches to that of a stag, and its straight horns present exceedingly formidable weapons, hard almost as iron, and sharp-pointed like javelins. Its hair is whitish; it has black spots and streaks on its face, and the hair on its back points forward. Such is the description given by naturalists; and the fables of the Egyptian priests, which have occasioned the insertion of its figure among their hieroglyphics, do not require to have been founded in nature. Supposing that an individual of this species may have been seen which had lost one of its horns by some accident, it may have been taken as a representative of the entire race, and erroneously adopted by Aristotle to be copied by all his successors. All this is quite possible and even natural, and gives not the smallest evidence for the existence of a single-horned species of antelope.  10
  In regard to the Indian ass, of the alexipharmic virtues of whose horn the ancients speak, we find the Eastern nations of the present day attributing exactly the same property of counteracting poison to the horn of the rhinoceros. When this horn was first imported into Greece, nothing probably was known respecting the animal to which it belonged; and accordingly it was not known to Aristotle. Agatharcides is the first author by whom it is mentioned. In the same manner, ivory was known to the ancients long before the animal from which it is procured; and perhaps some of their travelers may have given to the rhinoceros the name of Indian ass, with as much propriety as the Romans denominated the elephant the bull of Lucania. Everything which they relate of the strength, size, and ferocity of their wild ass of India corresponds sufficiently with the rhinoceros. In succeeding times, when the rhinoceros came to be better known to naturalists, finding that former authors mentioned a single-horned animal under the name of Indian ass, they concluded without any examination that it must be quite a distinct creature, having solid hoofs. We have remaining a detailed description of the Indian ass, written by Ctesias; but as we have already seen that this must have been taken from the ruins of Persepolis, it should go for nothing in the real history of the animal.  11
  When there afterwards appeared more exact descriptions of an animal having several toes or hoofs on each foot, the ancients conceived it to be a third species of one-horned animals, to which they gave the name of monoceros. These double and even triple references are most frequent among ancient writers, because most of their works which have come down to us were mere compilations; because even Aristotle himself has often mixed borrowed facts with those which had come under his own observation; and because the habit of critically investigating the authorities of previous writers was as little known among ancient naturalists as among their historians.  12
  From all these reasonings and digressions, it may be fairly concluded that the large animals of the ancient continent with which we are now acquainted were known to the ancients; and that all the animals of which the ancients have left descriptions, and which are now unknown, were merely fabulous. It also follows that the large animals of the three anciently known quarters of the world were very soon known to the people who frequented their coasts.  13
  It may also be concluded that no large species remains to be discovered in America, as there is no good reason that can be assigned why any such should exist in that country with which we are unacquainted; and in fact none has been discovered there during the last hundred and fifty years….  14
  From all these considerations it may be safely concluded, as shall be more minutely explained in the sequel,—that none of the large species of quadrupeds, whose remains are now found imbedded in regular rocky strata, are at all similar to any of the known living species; that this circumstance is by no means the mere effect of chance, or because the species to which these fossil bones have belonged are still concealed in the desert and uninhabited parts of the world, and have hitherto escaped the observation of travelers, but—that this astonishing phenomenon has proceeded from general causes, and that the careful investigation of it affords one of the best means for discovering and explaining the nature of these causes.  15

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.