June 28, 2013

Words of the Month - Diminished Magic

        Today I have for your consideration some real animals that have descended to us from mythical counterparts.  Sometimes the real animal's traits were exaggerated or misunderstood to create the monster, and sometimes the real animal was named after an already-imagined monster it somewhat resembled.

        First the remora.  This weird fish definitely seems fantastical with its habit of sticking to larger fish with its bizarre sucker head.  Scientists have just recently confirmed that the sucker mechanism is actually adapted from a dorsal fin.  Another fun fact I learned while looking these guys up: it's possible to go fishing with a remora for a "hook"!  The fantasy connection comes from the ancient belief that these fish, small as they are, are capable of fastening to the hull of the largest ship under full sail, and stopping it dead in the water.  The word remora comes from the Latin root meaning "delay or hindrance," and the scientific genus name Echeneis comes from the Greek for "hold ship."

        Next up, the salamander.  The mythical salamander is able to extinguish fire with its internal coldness, and is so poisonous that if it climbs a tree, all the fruit becomes lethal to eat.  Salamanders are born of fire and get their sustenance from fire.  Their blood applied externally will render a person immune to harm from fire, while a cloak of salamander wool is also fireproof.  (By the way, salamandershearers
are rare, but the wool may be from the salamander's cocoon, like a silkworm.)  The most common idea to explain the origin of the myths is that people saw salamanders emerge from logs that they threw on the fire.  On the other hand, it may be that the mythical creature was invented earlier, and people then just associated it with the little amphibian they saw in the fire.

        The basilisk is a wholly magical creature, the king of serpents.  Its breath and gaze are lethal, it leaves a trail of venom, and it's born from a reptile egg hatched by a cockerel.  The word comes from the Greek "little king" because of the crest or spot on its head like a crown.   (The basilisk was also said to be the enemy of the weasel… see the ichneumon below!)  But there's also a real basilisk, the common basilisk lizard, apparently named after the mythical creature because of the crest on its head like a crown.  But the common basilisk does have a near-magical talent which gives it another common name: the Jesus lizard.  It can run across the surface of water, which is so much cooler than poisoning trees!

        In Latin a lemur is a "spirit of the dead."  Specifically, lemures are restless, vengeful, malignant spirits associated with darkness and night.  (They must be placated by casting black beans behind you at midnight on certain nights in May.)  Carl Linnaeus chose this for the name of the primate (originally for the loris) because, he said, they're nocturnal, sort of humanoid, and move slowly.  They also have ghostly eyes and ghostly cries, and in the mythology of some Malagasy people, lemurs are the souls of ancestors, so the name is even more appropriate than Linnaeus imagined, even if they're definitely not malignant!

        In medieval bestiaries the ichneumon is the enemy of dragons, crocodiles, and asps (and basilisks!)  It covers itself with several layers of dried mud to make itself armor, and then awaits its chance to go for the throat.  The Egyptian mongoose is also called ichneumon, and of course it also is an enemy of fearsome reptiles, eating crocodile eggs and venomous snakes.  Ichneumon mummies were found in various centers of worship in ancient Egypt, because Ra could turn into a giant ichneumon to fight the evil snake-god.  I'm guessing that the medieval Europeans got their mythical ichneumon from the Egyptians' mythologized accounts of the real mongoose.  The word ichneumon comes from Greek for "searcher, tracker."  (Aristotle also used the word to describe a species of wasp that hunts spiders, and we still have the ichneumon wasp today, too.)

        Finally, we have the vampire bat, which, like the mythical vampire, drinks blood; and the komodo dragon, which, like the mythical dragon, is an enormous, lethal reptile.  The etymology of vampire is uncertain, except that it comes from Hungarian.  The word dragon is from French, from Latin, from Greek for "serpent, sea monster."  The ultimate root is "to see clearly," so right from the beginning dragons were known for the power of their eyes.

        With each of these creatures, our real equivalent is certainly less magical than the mythical namesake, but I suppose it's all for the best.  Real monsters can be such pests, while these actual animals are still pretty special.

[Pictures: In facile a virtute desciscentes (Easily deflected from the right course - Remora holding a ship), woodcut from Emblemata by Alciatus, 1621 (Image from Glasgow University);
Detail from Minnesota Salamanders, multi-block woodcut by Beckie Prange (Image from Beckie Prange's web site).]

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