Tuesday 21 April 2020

Animals of Myth and Legend

CAPE TIMES - 1933, July 6
Myths and fables, which in olden times were attached to birds and beasts, were traced to their probable sources by Dr. Walter Rose in a delightful address on “unnatural history,” containing much humour and scholarship, to the Sons of England Lunch Club yesterday.
Beginning with the UNICORN, Dr. Rose quoted from Timon of Atheus:
“Wert thou a unicorn, pride and wrath would confound thee and make thine own self the conquest of thy fury.”
And from Julius Caesar:
“Unicorns may be betrayed with trees, and bears with pits.”
According to old writers, the LION and the unicorn were traditional enemies, and the former, on seeing the unicorn, lured him to a tree, into which in his fury the unicorn drove his horn, rendering himself helpless.
It was at one time believed that a cup made from a unicorn’s horn would betray the presence of poison, but no one seemed to have been inquiring enough to test this supposition.
In Dr. Rose’s opinion, the legend of the unicorn had its origin, not in the RHINOCEROS, but in the NARWHAL, the horn of which animal was used in trade. By an easy transition this horn could be imagined planted on the brow of a mythical horse.
It was interesting to see how old tales had introduced new words into the language. He instanced the expression “to give someone a licking” or to “lick into shape.”
This appeared to have its origin in the strange old belief that young BEARS were born without any shape. In Shakespeare’s play, Henry VI, Gloucester was compared to “an unlick’d bear-whelp,” and there were other references to a belief that a young bear was literally “licked into shape” by its mother’s tongue.
Turning next to “our old friend the MERMAID,” Dr. Rose quoted from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”:
“And certain stars shot madly from their spheres to hear the sea-maid’s music.”
In olden times, the idea of making composites of men and animals was a favourite way of peopling the world with strange forms; thus harpies; the mand and HORSE in the centaur, and the man and GOAT in the satyr. That being so, the imagination of creatures in the sea half-FISH and half-human was so obvious as to discount the inaccurate explanation of the seal and the dugong.
The SHREW – really one of the most harmless of animals – was imagined by people of a primitive day to be terribly poisonous; and it was believed that if it ran across the legs of a cow it would cause paralysis. A favourite old English oath was “be-shrew thee.”
Happily, there was an antidote. This was to sea up the unfortunate shrew in a hole in a tree, where it obviously died. Subsequently, when a cow became “paralysed” its limbs were brushed with a branch of the tree, which became known as a shrew ash.
The ancient belief of the PHOENIX, referred to several times in Shakespeare, was that when it felt it had lived long enough it built a fire in which it destroyed itself, leaving in the flames an egg which produced a new phoenix.
The PELICAN was believed of old to nourish its young with its own blood, one explanation of the fable being that, in denuding itself of feather to line its nest, the bird scratched its skin and bled.
The term “SWAN SONG”, now in common use, was derived from the belief that at the time of death a SWAN was endowed with the ability to sing as sweetly as any other bird. (“A swan-like end fading in music” – “Merchant of Venice”).
Shakespeare appeared to have had no knowledge of the reputed propensity of the OSTRICH for burying its head in the sand, but he was familiar with its remarkable digestion (“I’ll make thee eat iron like an ostrich and swallow my sword like a great pin” – Henry VI).
About the CUCKOO there had been many curious beliefs, one being that on hearing the first sound of the bird immunity from pain in the limbs was obtained by rolling in the dew. The KINGFISHER was used at one time as a weathercock. Thus, Shakespeare’s reference to “time servers who turn their halcyon beaks with every gale and vary with their masters.”
The “precious jewel” in the head of the toad was probably, in Shakespeare’s meaning, its eyes; but there was an old English belief that the creature’s head contained a stone capable of extracting poison from wounds.
The expression “CROCODILE tears” was derived from a curious belief familiar to Shakespeare, for he made Queen Margaret say of Henry VIII that he was beguiled by Gloucester “as the mournful crocodile with sorrow snares relenting passengers.”
The idea seemed to be that a crocodile could assume grief until a sympathetic person, inquiring what the trouble was, came along to satisfy its inner needs. A parallel belief was that the crocodile, having consumed all of its victim but the head, would regard that remnant with tears.

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