Why Did the Ancients Describe Such Bizarre Creatures?
Why Did the Ancients Describe Such Bizarre Creatures?

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In ancient historical accounts, it’s hard to discern the myth from the reality. Sometimes it’s a case of the ancients using modes of description perplexing to the modern reader. Sometimes the accounts are said to mix fact and fiction, or sometimes we see the distortion of facts over time—historians playing “broken telephone” with each other over the course of centuries.

Some of the creatures to emerge from these accounts rival the weirdest fantasies of modern surrealists. Yet, they are described very matter-of-factly alongside descriptions of real events, people, places, and animals. 

Here’s a look at two creatures, one mildly strange, one very strange indeed.

The Yale

The yale’s most defining characteristic is its swiveling horns. We see it first mentioned by Pliny the Elder (23–79 A.D.) in his “Natural History” (Book VIII). He described the yale as being: “the size of a hippopotamus, with the tail of an elephant. [It] is black or dark brown in color, and has the jaws of a boar. It has mobile horns, more than a cubit in length. Which in battle it alternately holds them firm and moves them, so that they are either dangerous or turned aside, however reason dictates.”

This creature isn’t such a far stretch from others we know today. Could the explanation be as simple as Pliny trying to describe an antelope, a gnu, or a similar creature from second-hand accounts?

Hugh Stanford London, an author of several books on heraldry, took an interest in the yale for its appearance in the British royal family’s coat of arms. Centuries after Pliny’s mention, the yale appeared again in medieval bestiaries, and in the 14th century armory of King Henry IV’s younger son John, Duke of Bedford and Earl of Kendal.

London writes that, “The yale was also included among the King’s Beasts which were reinstated on the roof of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, in 1925, and … it was one of the 10 Queen’s Beasts which stood outside Westminster Abbey at the time of Her Majesty’s Coronation, and which now stand in the Great Hall at Hampton Court.”

A.H. Longhurst, who studied Indian history told London that the yale may be based on a mythical creature known for thousands of years in southern India, the yali. The yali is sometimes depicted as a combination of an elephant, a horse, and a lion. The yale’s form has varied widely, but, noted London, “one feature is constant: its ability to swivel its horns about at will, turning one back if it got damaged and swinging the other forward to continue the fight.”

Yale University is not named for the creature, it is named for its founder Elihu Yale. But, the mythical yale does appear in some places on campus, such as the university president’s banner. The procession marshal who attends the convocation of university graduates also holds a staff topped by the carved head of a yale. 

Blemmyes

The Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 19th edition, defines Blemmyes as: “An ancient nomadic Ethiopian tribe mentioned by Roman writers as inhabiting Nubia and Upper Egypt. They were fabled to have no head, their eyes and mouth being placed in the breast.”

An illustration of a Blemmye in the Nuremberg Chronicles, 1500.
An illustration of a Blemmye in the Nuremberg Chronicles, 1500.

The dictionary mentions Blemmyes in its entry for Caora: “A river described by Elizabethan voyagers, on the banks of which dwelt a people whose heads grew beneath their shoulders. Their eyes were in their shoulders, and their mouths in the middle of their breasts.”

It seems the Blemmyes were certainly a tribe of people who were considered a threat to the southern border and internal security of Egypt in the later Roman Period. They engaged in conflicts with the Romans from the 3rd century into the 4th century A.D.

Human-like creatures of lore are often said to be distorted depictions of people who were foreign, strange, or threatening to those describing them.

Human-like creatures of lore are often said to be distorted depictions of people who were foreign, strange, or threatening to those describing them.

Asa Mittman described the Blemmyes allegorically in “Maps and Monsters in Medieval England”: “Their heads, the seat of the spiritual, have sunk down into their fleshy bodies. The blemmye is a man who has become a purely physical body, a material entity, whose eyes in the chest are, to borrow from Leonardo Da Vinci, windows only to the body.” These monstrous depictions may have simply told that these people are depraved or inhuman, according to the opinion of the chroniclers.

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