Unnatural history - Ancient and modern


IT is one of the most curious facts of history that, until quite recently, men, although they noticed animals and wrote about them, seem never to have taken the least trouble to observe their habits. In ancient and mediaeval times zoological writers were perfectly content to rely on hearsay. They were not naturalists in any sense of the term. They were plagiarists, who did not profess to have even seen most of the creatures about which they wrote, much less to have observed their habits. Every writer in the Middle Ages copied largely from Aristotle and Plato, and incorporated in his works every traveller's tale he heard. No story seems to have been too childish, no occurrence too improbable, no exaggeration too great, no description too grotesque, to be credited by mediaeval zoologists. Their bestiaries are crowded with animals that have never lived, while the accounts of those which do exist are altogether untrue.

Take the case of the races of men which, according to mediaeval writers, peopled the various parts of the earth. The pigmies first demand our attention. Maundeville gives a graphic description of them ; they are of " lytylle stature," being " three span long" ; but they are " right fair and gentylle." They marry when they are six months old and live " but six year, or seven at the most." Next come the dwarfs. These are small men, but bigger than the pigmies. They possess the useful property of being able to live on the smell of apples.

Want of space prevents more than the mention of mermen and mermaids, crane-headed men, headless men, neckless men, noseless men, and men minus one or all the other organs. There were, also, one-eyed men, four-eyed men, tailed men. Then there was the hippos, the counterpart of the centaur of classical writers. The monstrum triceps capite vulpis, draconis et aquila deserves special notice, as showing the lengths to which mediaeval imagination used to go. This was a creature with a human body and legs covered with scales, having three heads resembling those of a wolf, a dragon, and an eagle. One of the arms was that of a man, while the other was an eagle's wing. The finishing touch to this monster was a horse's tail!

As specimens of the creatures which fill up the mediaeval bestiaries I may mention unicorns, phoenixes, cockatrices -: the products of cocks' eggs -: dragons, rocs -: birds that used to amuse themselves by swooping down and carrying off elephants -: basilisks, griffins, camel-leopards, and dozens of other grotesque creatures.

As has already been remarked, the ancients, even when they wrote about the birds they could see every day of their lives, made no attempt to study their habits or manner of life; they were content to relate all kinds of absurd stories regarding them. For example, it was universally believed that kingfishers laid their eggs on the sea, which kindly kept calm for a fortnight to enable them to incubate successfully.

The hoopoe was supposed to contain within it a stone, which, when placed upon the breast of a sleeping man, compelled him to reveal all the crimes he had committed. The pelican was said to feed its young with its blood, a supposition which any one could have disproved by casually watching the breeding operations of this bird. The death-song of the swan was another mediaeval myth which has persisted even to the present day, for there still exist people who believe that a swan when it is about to die, sings most sweetly.

Not very long ago men imagined that to look a toad full in the face meant instant death! Even in this twentieth century there are plenty of writers of unnatural history. I remember reading, not many years ago, in an English daily paper, of a girl who, when she cried, shed the ray florets of daisies (the paper called them " petals "), instead of tears. The sea-serpent continually crops up, but we must pass over this important creature; we will not insult him by crowding him into the middle of a chapter.

Nowadays, most children are instructed in the rudiments of zoology, and are taught to use their reasoning faculties, so those who manufacture unnatural history have to proceed far more warily than they used to. They usually confine themselves to stories of unusual intelligence on the part of some animal.

There is, for example, the dear old " chestnut" about the elephant, which every child is made to read. It will be remembered that the sagacious creature was taking a constitutional through an Indian bazaar. It happened to turn its trunk in the direction of a dirzie who was at work, and this individual pricked the elephant's trunk with his needle. The elephant passed quietly on. The next day it came strolling through the same bazaar and, as it passed the dirzie who had pricked its trunk, soused him with dirty water, which it had carefully secreted in its trunk. This is held up as an example of the way in which the noble quadruped revenged itself on its tormentor.

Let us suppose the facts are as stated -: I am far from believing this, but let us for the moment suppose them to be true -: what evidence is there to show that the elephant squirted water by way of revenge ? If it did so, it would have to understand that tailors in white clothes dislike dirty water. Now, how could an elephant possibly know this? If there is one thing which it enjoys more than another, it is having water thrown over it; an elephant never loses an opportunity of dashing water over itself with its trunk, and the animal would naturally expect every other creature to like what it likes.

If one does a good turn to a small child who is sucking a sweet, that child will, if it be of a nice disposition, and not old enough to know better, prob┬Čably take the sweet out of its mouth and offer its benefactor a suck! This it does, not in order to annoy the latter, but by way of showing its gratitude. So that, if the elephant did squirt the water over the tailor, it probably thought that it was doing an act of kindness.

Not many months ago, I read in a popular magazine of Natural History of some pigeons which took offence at something done by the owner of a garden, in which they were in the habit of feeding. The offended birds took counsel among themselves and then went away, and, having gathered together some other kindred spirits, proceeded to devastate the garden, uprooting plants and plucking the flowers.

The " Spectator " used to be a great disseminator of unnatural history. I am glad to be able to say that the paper has since mended its ways, and now publishes most excellent articles on birds and beasts by those who are really acquainted with their ways. As an example of what used to appear, let me quote the following, which has been republished in a book entitled "Cat and Bird Stories." The paragraph is headed " Feline Mourners." Says the writer: " A lady told me that there was a pet cat in her family, who was very fond of this lady's mother. When the latter was in her last illness, the cat was continually with her, lying on the bed. The lady died, and the cat was, of course, not again admitted to the room, though presenting herself again and again at the door. When the coffin was being carried downstairs, the cat happened to appear, and, on seeing it, uttered a shriek. . . . The sound made was entirely unlike those made by cats under any circumstances whatever, unless it be the cry made when in sudden pain."

Let us for the moment go so far as to suppose that the cat was devotedly attached to the old lady who died, and that it understood the nature of death; we must further suppose, if we are to credit this absurd story, that the cat knew what a coffin was, could distinguish between it and any other box, and when it saw it, inferred that the remains of the deceased were shut up in it. Further, since the cat screamed the moment it caught sight of the coffin, it must have put two and two together in an incredibly short space of time.

Of all the disseminators of unnatural history the British poets are the most deserving of censure. Tennyson, Morris, and Sir Edwin Arnold are exceptions, but all the rest, as Phil Robinson rightly observes, "betray a systematized lack of sympathy with the natural world which is expressed in formulated prejudices."

The greatest calamity that can overtake a bird is to fall into the hands of the average British poet. No myth is too nonsensical to be swallowed by that worthy. The bards are quite content to echo all the absurd statements of the ancients. The bird of paradise has no feet, so sleeps on the wing, lays and hatches her eggs in mid-air. The pelican sacrifices her life in order to give her young ones a single meal. How the young fare after the mother's death, we are not told; presumably the father then " chips in," and after him the uncles and aunts shed their " life blood" in order that the young hopefuls may have a meal. The swan, of course, sings before death. Says Byron : " There, swan-like, let me sing and die."

All the other common birds receive similar treatment at the hands of the poets, who are quite content to repeat worn-out fictions and to set forth absurd inventions. Few of them have any true sympathy with Nature, hence their works are collections of unnatural history. Nevertheless, they claim to be the " ministers and high priests of Nature."

British poets do not know, even, which are the commonest birds in the United Kingdom. If one trusted to them for one's knowledge of ornithology, one would think that every bush in England contained at least half a dozen linnets. As a matter of fact, the linnet is a rare bird. Probably, not one poet in ten has ever seen one except through the bars of a cage.

Pale blue is a beautiful colour. Cambridge is, therefore, the favourite university with the ladies. In the same way, the word "linnet" is very pleasing to the ears of the poet, hence his partiality to the bird.

Bombay Ducks; An Account Of Some Of The Every-day Birds And Beasts Found In A Naturalist's Eldorado
Dewar, Douglas. Bombay ducks: an account of some of the every-day birds and beasts found in a naturalist's Eldorado, 1906.
Title in Book: 
Unnatural history - Ancient and modern
Book Author: 
Douglas Dewar
Page No: 
Common name: 
Unnatural History - Ancient And Modern

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