August 23, 2018

Mythical Reptiles

        This week I saw several mythical creatures in the wild!  First of all, I saw a number of basilisks, and I provide for you a photograph I took, along with an official depiction.  The “official” depictions in this post all come from a 1514 book of poetry (first edition from 1476) that includes dozens of natural history woodcuts of animals.  You can see that the basilisk I saw was missing its wings, but it had a bonus set of legs to make up for it.  What are perfectly clear are the crest and the spiky claws.  I came quite close to this one, and luckily managed to remain unscathed by its poisonous presence.  And while, thank goodness, its gaze did not actually prove lethal, you can see that it certainly has a pretty intense glare.  (See here for a previous mention of the mythical vs scientific attributes of basilisks.)
        The cocodrillo I saw was also missing its wings, but perhaps that’s because it was only a young one, clearly much smaller than the creature in the illustration menacing a man.  In fact, though, it’s a little difficult to square this fabulous winged, two-legged, eared, leopard-like creature with the reptile I saw.  About the only things they really seem to have in common are webbed feet, a suggestion of spottiness, and suspiciously narrowed eyes.  Most people probably don’t think of crocodiles as mythical, but looking at this early depiction, there can really be no doubt.
        And finally, a viper… which is also apparently missing its wings.  It makes me begin to wonder whether all reptiles have wings and two legs.  I haven’t seen a picture of a winged, two-legged turtle, but surely it can’t be far behind.  Both depictions of vipers have long, coiled tails, but other than that it’s difficult to spot any resemblance here.  Clearly the
viper I saw must have been disguising its true nature, ready to pop out a pair of legs and unfurl its hidden wings  in the instant when it attacked.  And if so, then these are definitely mythical powers, worthy of any fantasy tale.
        One of the chief characteristics of mythical creatures is that they almost always live far away from wherever a writer happens to live, in exotic, seldom-explored lands.  Now that my family and I can actually hop on an airplane and travel to far-away lands, the mythical creatures will either have to move even farther away, or they’ll have to learn to disguise their wings, as these reptiles have all apparently managed to do.

[Pictures: Badalischo, wood block print from Lo illustro poeta Cecho Dascoli by d’Ascoli Cecco, 1514 (Image from Penn Libraries);
Basilisk lizard, photo by AEGN, 2018;
Cocodrillo, wood block print from Lo illustro poeta Cecho Dascoli by Cecco, 1514 (Image from Penn Libraries);
Young crocodile, photo by AEGN, 2018;
Vipera, wood block print from Lo illustro poeta Cecho Dascoli by Cecco, 1514 (Image from Penn Libraries);
Side-striped palm pit viper (Photo from WIkimedia Commons because I saw it at night and couldn’t get a photograph myself).]

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