historia naturalis

The jackalope is a mythical animal of North American folklore, and is often considered an urban legend, is described as a jackrabbit with antelope horns. The word “jackalope” is a combination of the words “jackrabbit” and “antelope”.

Stories or descriptions of animal hybrids have appeared in many cultures worldwide. In Europe, the horned rabbit appeared in Medieval and Renaissance folklore. Natural history texts such as Historiae Naturalis de Quadrupetibus Libri (The History Book of Natural Quadrangles) by Joannes Jonstonus (John Jonston) in the 17th century and illustrations such as Animalia Qvadrvpedia et Reptilia (Terra): Plate XLVII by Joris Hoefnagel (1522–1600) in the 16th century included the horned hare. These early scientific texts described and illustrated the hybrids as though they were real creatures, but by the end of the 18th century scientists generally rejected the idea of horned hares as a biological species.

References to horned rabbits may originate in sightings of rabbits affected by the Shope papilloma virus, named for Richard E. Shope, M.D., who described it in a scientific journal in 1933. Shope initially examined wild cottontail rabbits that had been shot by hunters in Iowa and later examined wild rabbits from Kansas. They had “numerous horn-like protuberances on the skin over various parts of their bodies. The animals were referred to popularly as ‘horned’ or 'warty’ rabbits." Legends about horned rabbits also occur in Asia and Africa as well as Europe, and researchers suspect the changes induced by the virus might underlie at least some of those tales.

There are, of course, the famous cases of taxidermy and frauds, but the horned rabbit legends have been tainted by these fakes.

What do you think about the infamous jackalope, or other mythical horned rabbits of lore? Real, fake or simply diseased?

Artificially Dyed Flowers

Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 21.13

inventa est in his et ratio inserendi monstrificis hominum ingeniis. colligantur namque mense Iulio scapi arescentis lilii atque suspenduntur in fumo. dein nudantibus se nodulis in faece nigri vini vel Graeci mense Martio macerantur, ut colorem percipiant. atque ita in scrobiculis heminis faecis circumfusis. sic fiunt purpurea lilia, mirumque tingui aliquid, ut nascatur infectum.

There has been devised a method of producing [colourful lilies] artificially. Such is the human knack for perversity. In June, dried lily stems are bound up into bunches and suspended in smoke. Then, in March, once new shoots have begun to reveal themselves, they are steeped in lees of wine (usually dark red or Greek varieties) so that they take on its colour. They are then replanted in shallow trenches and given another dose of lees. Thus are purple lilies made. It is astonishing that something can be so deeply dyed that it continues to grow still stained.

monstrificis hominum ingeniis is so hard to translate. ingenium has the fundamental meaning “innate characteristic” or “inborn disposition”, and hence the transferative idea of “flair”, “unstudied talent”, “knack”, but it can also extend to “inclination” or “tendency”. In this context, Pliny is suggesting, perhaps a little exasperatedly, that tinkering around with nature is just what humans do. monstrificus is also difficult - it isn’t as pejorative as its English descendent “monstrous”, and can simply mean “portentous” or “fabled”, but in a 1st-century treatise on the natural world I think it would definitely have the connotations “odd”, “garish”, “unreal”.

In the paragraph prior to this, Pliny discusses the narcissus, which he treats as a naturally-occurring purple lily. (Today we consider what Pliny called a narcissus to belong to the family Amaryllidaceae.) I think he finds the artificial production of newer and showier flowers when perfectly good ones already exist impressive, but also bizarre and a bit tacky.

- Ma i leoni non sono spinti dalla loro ferocia a combattere contro altri leoni, il morso dei serpenti non assale altri serpenti, e neppure i mostri marini e i pesci incrudeliscono, se non contro specie differenti. Invece, all'uomo la maggior parte dei mali è causata da un altro uomo.

The Lepus cornutus (or Horned Hare) was a sort of ancient Jackalope. It was often written into texts during Medieval and Renaissance times. The above drawing was published in Historiae naturalis de quadrupedibus libri by  Jonstonus Joannes in the 1600s. It is now speculated that the Lepus cornutus was a rabbit or hare inflicted with Shope papilloma virus which causes hard growths on the head and face of the animal. 

I went to the museum of nature and science yesterday to see a special “mythical creatures” exhibit they are currently running. This text is a 1678 English translation from a 1657 text called Historiae Naturalis de Quadrupedibus by the Polish naturalist Joannes Jonstonus. 

I love all things relating to history and myth, and sometimes I still like to imagine that these creatures are as real to me as they were to the people who wrote these books. 

The fiery farts of the Bannacon

First described in the 1st century AD by Pliny the Elder in Naturalis Historia, the Bannacon (also known as a bonasus) was a common beast in Medieval folklore that was said to inhabit Macedonia.  According the legend, the Bannacon was said to spew acidic dung at least three furlongs (604 meters), burning any attackers as if it were lava. 

tfw no gf actually dates back to ancient roman times. Pliny the Elder recorded it in Historia Naturalis. Back then it was known as “qsc nulla puella” which stood for qui sentiunt cum nulla puella. Translated into English it means “That feel when no girl” because gfs hadn’t been invented yet.

Mora or Echeneis is a tiny fish six inches long that was mentioned in medieval bestiaries. Despite its small size, the creature had the ability to stop a boat in its tracks when it attached itself to the hull. This is only possible because the Mora had a sucker located on its head. It lived in the polar seas and could freeze the air with its breath. These beasts caused the Roman general Mark Anthony to lose a navy battle when the creature caught hold of their ships, immobilizing them. In order to remove the Mora from the ship, sailors commonly scraped it against a nearby rock. The Mora’s description suggests that the creature could have easily had a relationship with the real, current-day fish known as the remora, which it was also known as at the time. The remora is known for clinging onto other, much bigger water animals such as sharks. The beast was also mentioned in a book, Historia Naturalis, by Pliny the Elder in 77 CE:

“The echeneis is a small fish that is often found on rocks. It has the ability to slow the passage of ships by clinging to their hulls. It is also the source of a love-charm and a spell to slow litigation in courts, and can be used to stop fluxes of the womb in pregnant women and to hold back the birth until the proper time. This fish is not eaten. Some say this fish has feet; Aristotle says it does not, but that its limbs resemble wings.”

Apart from “Mora” and “Echeneis”, this creature is also known as the Echinius, Echinus, Enchirius, Essinus, Esynus , Remora, and Urchin.

Hilarious quotations from Pliny’s Naturalis Historia & other sources

As I mentioned in my previous post many stories that Pliny tells us are “ a bit” far-fetched but certainly hilarious. Here are a couple my favourites regarding plants:

ONIONS …Pliny also writes that the juice taken with water is good “for those suddenly stricken by dumbness”.

CHICORY – Magic & beliefs: according to Pliny “those who have anointed themselves with the juice of chicory, mixed with oil, become more  popular and obtain their requests more easily.”

MUGWORT - …mugwort was believed to be a rather magical plant. For example it was said that this plant, if wrapped around a  traveller, would protect her from wild beasts, fatigue and poisons.

I’m not sure if this is actually from Naturalis Historia since I compiled the list many years ago. Pliny was certainly one of my main sources but IIRC I usually mentioned his name if the story / belief is from Natural History.

RADISH – ...Pliny tells us that “with hands rubbed with  radish or its seed, you may handle scorpions without fear and radish placed on scorpions kills them.”

Source: “Medicinal And Magical Herbs of Medieval Europe”

And finally a bit of  self promotion ;-), but during my RPG days I compiled a short list of medicinal and magical herbs used in medieval Europe. My main sources were Pliny’s Natural History,  Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica and some other books dealing with medicinal/medical practises and beliefs of this era. I posted this list to our gaming community and a webmaster of this site was kind enough to correct syntax and grammar errors. I made this list 15-20 years ago and since then I’ve more or less forgotten it’s existence. Just checked google and some of the sites were  - shall we say - “interesting”  (but that’s internet, if you post something, you’ll never know where it will end up):)


Green Frogs Mating & Frog Dissection

Above, a female green frog (Pelophylax lessonae) is shown with a male on her back fertilizing her eggs. Below, a female green frog (Pelophylax kl. esculentus) with egg masses is shown in dissection above a view of the frog’s skeleton. These are two of the hand-colored engraved images from German artist-turned-naturalist August Johann Rösel von Rosenhof in his book Historia naturalis ranarum nostratium…(Natural history of the native frogs…). Published in 1758, it was the first scientifically accurate book on frogs, based on first-hand observation. 

See these illustrations in the exhibition Natural Histories: 400 Years of Scientific Illustration from the Museum’s Library, closing September 13!