Monday, May 2, 2011

Unicorns, Camelopardalis and other Cryptids

Photo of Rhinoceros by PJ at Honolulu Zoo 2009

Unicorns (meaning one horned) or as they are described horses with one horn in their forehead might all be rooted in a real animal that back thousands of years ago was considered a myth in Europe because of it being so hard to come by and the only source of information was from travelers and ancient scrolls that described them to be white and black one horned horses, but in the translation it was lost that what they were referring to as the rhinoceros and the other horse was the hippopotamus or river horse which is what it is called in most languages including English which uses the ancient greek work for river horse (ἱπποπόταμος). The Unicorn is also mentioned in the bible among them in Job 39:9-12 (King James Version) 

 "9Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?
 10Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?
 11Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him?
 12Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?"

Compared to the river horse or hippopotamus the one horned horse makes sense as the rhinoceros and hippos have similar build and there indeed are two main types of rhinos the white rhino and the black rhino. Also when one compared the stories of the healing and magical powers of the unicorns horn, again one find striking similarities, as powdered rhino horns are supposed to be able to cure or improve health just like the unicorns horn was thought to do. One reason why unicorns were thought to be as depicted with a long spiral horn was because of the animal thought to be the oceanic equivalent the narwhal with the males having a long ivory spiral tooth often sold as unicorn horns to gullible and willing buyers of mythical rare goods like the horns of unicorns.

Two narwhals rise out of the water
Male Narwhals Battling by Paul Nicklen/Getty Images

Camelopardalis AKA Camelopard

Photo of Giraffes Giraffa camelopardalis, Honolulu Zoo PJ 2009
This would not be the first time early explorers described animals only to have them enter our world as mythological beasts since their description seemed so fantastical and unrealistic that one thought them to be fairy tales, one example of this is the camelopard (camel-leopard) which first was described around 14th century as an African animal like a camel in shape but with the horns of an antelope, tail of a lion, coloring and spots like a leopard. much later it was proven to be real as traders managed to transport live giraffes which was the animal earlier referred to as the mythological beast camelopardis.

Especially strange animals like the Australian platypus were long assumed to be a fake animal put together by the taxidermists and brought back to England, or when the western civilization realized that there actually exists black swans in Australia, which until then had been considered to be creatures of myths. Other beasts that fairly recently became acknowledged as real was the gorilla which until explorers actually captured one and brought it with them had been considered African superstitious stories about large dark haired apes living high up in the Deep unaccessible African mountain jungles.

Other mythological beasts might have similar history being now branded as cryptids, and described in a side note in anecdotal paper on cryptozoology. If you liked this entry you would probably also like The Mermaid of Finnmark.

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  1. It should not come as a surprise. Many of the mythological beasts are actually misinterpretations of actual creatures, examples the unicorn (the rhinoceros, the dolphin-horse theory can relate to the narwhal), the hippocampus (the sea horse or hippopotamus), the dragon and the basilisk (lizards and birds; in early times, lizards and birds were related), etc. We should not always believe what our minds tell us to, but sometimes it can be quite surprising.

  2. I recently read about the Manticore, a beast with the head of a man, body of a lion, and tail of a scorpion. The book mentioned that the Manticore was most likely based on the Belgian tiger, considering the origin of the name "man-eater", this is ironic, however, because the Manticore has the body of a lion, and according to symbolism, the antitheses of the Christian lion are the Manticore and Sea Lion (not to be confused with the seal like animal). I guess, every fantastical beast must come from somewhere.