August 18, 2012

Jenny Haniver

        You might think that any Jenny Haniver featured in this blog must be an artist, or perhaps a character in a fantasy book -- but she's not.  In fact, she isn't really a she.  Jenny Haniver is actually the word for a fantastical creature made out of bits and parts of real animals.  Most specifically, Jenny Hanivers are made from the bodies of rays or skates which, when cut a little here, molded a little there, and dried, can be made to resemble all manner of weird little demons and dragons.  These freakish creatures can then be sold to the credulous on the docks.
        Sailors began making these hoax creatures for fun and profit centuries ago.  Indeed, a manipulated skate may be the origin of the mythical Bishop Fish that was first reported in 1433.  (Another common explanation of the Bishop Fish is that it's some sort of squid.)  Certainly Konrad Gesner knew of these faux dragons and warned the unwary about them in his Historiae Animalium in 1558.  Truth to tell, skates and rays just naturally look pretty bizarre, so you don't really have to do too much to one to make it look totally fantastical.  On the other hand, you have to admit that upon seeing some of these Jenny Hanivers, a skate is definitely not the creature that springs to mind.  I admit that I wouldn't know what to think of them if I didn't already know.
        Sometimes the word is used more broadly, to refer to any sort of taxidermy mythical creature, including Feejee mermaids, jackalopes, and such.  But where did such a strange term come from?  The most commonly accepted explanation is that it's an Anglicization of the French phrase jeune d'Anvers, meaning "young [person] of Antwerp," that presumably being the port city where sailors famously supplemented their income by providing the creatures for collectors.  (Gesner, however, mentioned Venice, not Antwerp, as the source of the fraudulent basilisk he pictured.)  But the fact is that no one really knows the origins of such a weird word for such a weird thing.  In
any case, however, I'm pretty darn sure that as long as there have been humans there have been Jenny Hanivers, whether made for fraud or for honest entertainment, because we have way too strong a desire for the strange and wonderful to wait passively for it to come to us!


[Pictures: Jenny Haniver, photo by M. Violante (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Basilisk formed from the body of a ray, woodcut from Historiae Animalium Book 4 by Konrad Gesner, 1598 (Image from Keio University);
Ray in the shape of a dragon, engraving from De Piscibus Book 5 by Ulyssis Aldrovandi, 1613 (Image from AMS Historica).]

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