Better than Tempeh: The Borametz

As the world transitions to autumn, let’s take a moment to celebrate this wonderful window between the mad heat of summer and the dark desperation of winter. This week, let’s give ourselves a break; let’s study a monster that does not threaten grievous bodily harm! In fact, our subject might even help someone, though it is so odd it might also induce an existential crisis.

Let’s begin with a poem. This piece, found in Dr. Erasmus Darwin’s book The Botanic Garden (1781), describes our unwonted subject:

“E’en round the Pole the flames of love aspire,

And icy bosoms feel the secret fire,

Cradled in snow, and fanned by Arctic air,

Shines, gentle borametz, thy golden hair

Rooted in earth, each cloven foot descends,

And round and round her flexile neck she bends,

Crops the grey coral moss, and hoary thyme,

Or laps with rosy tongue the melting rime;

Eyes with mute tenderness her distant dam,

And seems to bleat – a vegetable lamb.”

Take a moment to pause and re-read that last bit there, if you haven’t already. Perhaps you’ve just skimmed the poem and are imagining a lamb frolicking in someone’s (apparently chilly) garden, enjoying the odd pepper or uprooting carrots. Perhaps you’ve read closely, and are wondering why the poem is calling out a lamb for being vegetarian. Unfortunately, the poem is speaking to neither of these things. Take a look at the following picture:

That’s one interpretation of the creature at hand. The next–perhaps more realistic–is a little more frightening:

You might ask “what in the good **** is that?”; I certainly did, and so did visitors to central Asia during the fourth through to the nineteenth century. Legend has it that there was a plant there with a bit of an odd flower–one that walks, eats, and bleats. Called variously the Borametz, the Scythian Lamb, and (my personal favorite) the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, this fellow was said to be born from the fruit produced by a particular fern, destined to  live out its days munching on the flora within reach. A vine-like “umbilical cord” attached to its belly limited the lamb’s range of motion; it could not be separated from its parent fern, or it would perish. Details about how long this cord could reach vary, but once the food within its circumference of it ran out, the lamb would die. Then predators–wolves or, every now and again, humans–could jump on the borametz and eat it. Rumor has it that its blood tasted like honey, and its wool was of the same or better quality than any other, more conventional sheep.

Though this might seem fanciful, tales of the borametz appeared in Jewish folklore as early as 436 A.E.. Back then it was called the Yeduah, was similarly attached to the earth by a stem, and could only be collected if said stem were severed via the use of arrows or darts. This version of the creature had bones that could be used in prophetic ceremonies, and so was valuable beyond being livestock and/or garden. Unfortunately, this version also had a counterpart–the Faduah, a human-shaped type of borametz that would strangle anyone who came within reach. You can hardly blame him for being cranky;  it seems that every iteration of the borametz legend involves man taking advantage of the the creature’s helplessness, whether it be slaughtering a sheep on a stem, or slicing gourds open to harvest the lambs within.

A number of people have tried to find their own borametz over the centuries, with varying degrees of success. Variations on the gourd-centered legend trickled back from Persia in the 14th and 15th centuries, with explorers trying to make sense of what seemed to be both a living animal and plant. Sir John Mandeville was the most colorful of these adventurers, and is credited with bringing the first tales of the vegetable lamb to the English public attention. Unfortunately, he is also credited with being embellisher extraordinaire. In the mid 16th century, Sigismund von Herberstein presented a more trustworthy, detailed account of the creature to Emperors Maxamillian I and Charles V. He said that it lived near the Caspian Sea, stood two and a half feet tall, and did not have normal blood and wool, but flesh more like a crab than a lamb. This incited other adventurers to look more closely for it, as well; Henry Lee would collect all the legends  in his 1887 book The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, which would become a sort of bible on the subject. But even with all the hubbub, did any objective observer ever actually find a Vegetable Lamb?

The short answer, alas, is no. It might very well be that the borametz is nothing more than a wildly imaginative interpretation of the Indian cotton plant, or the giant fern cibotium barometz, which also has a fuzzy rhizome that might be interpreted as wool. This makes sense, of course…if the borametz existed, why wouldn’t everyone immediately try to plant it in their gardens? It would certainly be one way to get your kids to eat their vegetables.* It’s possible also that the creature existed, but went extinct before anyone could get bring back proof.

Or…the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary really was the giant fern cibotium barometz all along…but that fern is not what we think it is.

Sinister.

If you’re ever in the forests of central Asia, watch your back.

Have you ever encountered a plant that walked, baa-ed, or bled? What’s your favorite sinister flora? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

*Or make them terrified of them for the rest of their lives. Either way, the borametz is sure to have an impact.

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