April 8, 2022

J is for Jewelled

         (My A to Z Blog Challenge theme this year is How to Make a Fantastical Creature, in which I explore 26 traits that are widely shared among the monsters and marvels of fantasy and folklore.)
        As I mentioned under H, we humans have a tendency to look at magical creatures with an eye toward what’s in it for us, and another trait common among magical creatures is that their bodies themselves include precious items that people want to collect.  One such jewelled creature is the Horned Serpent of the Muscogee Creek of the Southeast USA, which has in its forehead a large magical crystal which aids the divination powers of anyone who can get it.  There is also the númhyalikyu of Pacific Northwest Kwakwaka’wakw lore.  It is a giant halibut that contains in its head a jewel called tlúgwi.
        The Tabib al-Bahr is a sort of humanoid fish with a glowing yellow jewel in its forehead.  This jewel is valuable for alchemy, being an excellent ingredient for turning base metals into gold, but I think you’d be much wiser to leave it in the living creature, as the Tabib al-Bahr is entirely benevolent and uses its jewel to heal all the creatures of the sea.
        In the Lan River of the Western Mountains lives the rupi, a bird-headed fish that produces pearls.  It scatters them about from its beak with bountiful largesse, but is not good to eat, what with the pearl-lumps all through its flesh.
        But putting this topic under J was a bit of a fudge, since it’s really much broader than just jewels.  Some creatures have body parts made of pure gold, such as the horns of Zlatorog, a magical mountain goat of the Slovenian Alps, while the Brothers Grimm tell of the Golden Goose, whose feathers are made of gold.  Another “jewelled” goose is the one that laid a golden egg each day, as told by Aesop.
        The carbunclo of southern South America looks a bit like a cat-sized pillbug with a shining spot on its head.  (Indeed the whole creature glows out through its segmented body enough that it gives us a flashback to the letter G.)  The stone in its head brings good fortune to anyone who can get one, and on top of that, inside its shell, its body is chock-full of riches.
        Interpreting the “jewelled” idea more broadly still, there are creatures whose bodies contain treasures that may be more valuable than mere wealth because of their magical properties.  Perhaps the most famous is the unicorn, whose horn, called an alicorn, is capable of both detecting and even neutralizing poison.  (More at the past post on unicorns.)
        The boyi of the Mountains of the South is like a goat with nine fox tails and eyes on its back.  Its fur, made into a garment (eyes and all?) grants courage to the wearer.
        A bit stranger is the yohualtepoztli of Mexico, which looks like a trollish man who, instead of a head, has nothing but the stump of a tree.  Its chest has swinging wooden doors, and if one is brave enough to face the monster, reach in and grab the heart, and threaten to rip it out, the yohualtepoztli will bargain by granting magic agave thorns that assure the recipient glory, wealth, and strength.
        The gulon (introduced under E) could be hunted for its blood, which is a powerful aphrodisiac.
        You can also find out in prior posts why hunters would want the griffin’s claws, the ramidreju’s fur, the firebird’s feathers, the head-jewel of the dragonoid Zmeu, and the entrails of the ophiotaurus.
        The moral of all these is that if you’re a mythical creature you’re really better off being plain and ordinary than having some special element that everyone else wants.  A Pro Tip for hunters is to be mindful of the ecological implications of your harvest.  Poaching too many magical creatures, as Aesop warned in the case of the goose that laid the golden eggs, will destroy the magic entirely.  Don’t be that guy.
        You can read a prior post about the Cabinets of Curiosities in which the learned and wealthy collected these sorts of magical artifacts - and then tell us what item you’d most like to have in your collection of magical wonders!

[Pictures: Horned Serpent (Beckoning of the Plumed Serpent), painting by Margarete Bagshaw (Image from Santa Fe New Mexican);
Zlatorog, sculpture at Jasna Lake, Slovenia by Stojan Batič, 1988 (Image from Sommer Tage);
Zlatorog, detail from engraving based on a painting by E. Herger, from Die Gartenlaube, 1899 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Golden Goose (Simpleton finds the Golden Goose), illustration by L. Leslie Brooke from The Golden Goose Book, 1905 (Image from Project Gutenberg);
Boyi, wood block print from Shan Hai Jing (Classic of Mountains and Seas),can’t find a date (Image from CBaiGui);
Unicorn (Young Unicorn), linoleum block print by AEGN, 2015 (Only 1 Left!)]


Melanie Atherton Allen said...

Your knowledge of mythical creatures is intimidatingly extensive. How do you do your research? Do you have any favorite sources?

Jayashree Srivatsan said...

Serpents and magical stones have been linked in Indian folklore too. I have watched a korean drama fantasy series which depicts that mermaids produce pearls while crying. As you rightly pointed out , so many real animals in the wild are ruthlessly poached driven by the beliefs of the healing properties of their body parts. Sad !
Jayashree writes

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Jayashree, that's interesting to know that serpents with jewels is so widespread a part of mythology. It's so sad to see animals being hunted to extinction.

Melanie, my knowledge is definitely broader than deep. With the possible exception of the medieval bestiary stuff, it's all pretty superficial, and except for English and some German, all in translation and mostly secondary sources. However, it is simply A LOT of reading, and a stubborn desire for cross-checking sources when possible. I've mentioned quite a few of the sources in my blog under the Label "creature collections" (here: https://nydamprintsblackandwhite.blogspot.com/search/label/creature%20collections
And especially this post: https://nydamprintsblackandwhite.blogspot.com/2019/06/creature-collections-encyclopedias.html
But I'd also point you to a great on-line site from someone who has done a lot of digging to find some of the primary sources. It's in my sidebar (right near you! lol), but also here: https://abookofcreatures.com

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

Sounds like a reason to be hunted...

Ronel visiting for the A-Z Challenge My Languishing TBR: J

Melanie Atherton Allen said...

Thanks! I will be having a look at those anon!

Deborah Weber said...

Given my newly discovered fascination with serpents, I'll definitely be digging into the Horned Serpent lore, as well as Jayashree's references to Indian serpent folklore. Your posts are such treasures of wonders, I think they deserve their own cabinet.

Lisa said...

I like the boyi with all the tails! Eyes on it's back... like eyes on the back of our heads? That would be handy, but probably make me dizzy.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Deborah, I'm a big fan of snakes, although sadly most folklore doesn't put them in a very good light. But at least they're usually pretty magical.

Lisa, I think if you were a creature with eyes on your back, your brain would have developed to be able to process the information... but you are so right that if you suddenly magically acquired eyes on the back it would probably make you dizzy. The older I get the more prone I am to motion sickness, I'm afraid, so maybe I'd better not add any new eyes at this point.

Joy Weese Moll said...

I've always liked the goose with the golden eggs as a metaphor for all kinds of useful things to think twice about.

I don't think I wrote about it any of my posts, but there's a famous Winston Churchill quote about codebreakers at Bletchley Park, describing them as 'the geese that laid the golden eggs - but never cackled.'

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

Oooh now I need to look up the carbunclo, that sounds fun!

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