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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Down, boy! The Beast of Gévaudan

Ah, France. The lush pastures; the fluffy, drifting clouds; the high-pitched whinny of a calf-sized monster as it rips out your throat in broad daylight. 18th-century France had many worries, but when something in the remote hills of Gévaudan (modern-day Lozère) attacked 240 people and killed 112,* one threat loomed above the many: La Bête du Gévaudan.

By all accounts, the beast first attacked in the early summer of 1764. A young woman tending cattle in the Mercoire forest found herself suddenly face-to-face with something like a hyena, if a hyena was big enough to stand level with one’s chest. She escaped with her life only because some of the bulls in her herd charged the creature and kept it at bay. The beast wouldn’t be slowed for long: 14-year-old Janne Boulet became its first victim on June 30, followed by two young girls on August 6th and August 8th, and a 15-year-old cowherd on August 30th. From there, things would only get worse.

This creature did not behave like your average predator. The villagers were used to wolves, which, while frightening, at least were killing for survival. Not so for la Bête, which often focused on its victims’ heads and would leave them only partially eaten, if at all. Also, it attacked women and children almost exclusively, and did not seem to have any interest in livestock or goats. Nor did it resemble anything the villagers had seen before, as evidenced from this oft-cited description:

The Beast is a quadruped about the size of a horse. It reminds witnesses of a bear, hyena, wolf and panther all at once. It has a long wolf-like or pig-like snout, lined with large teeth. […] The tail somewhat resembles the long tail of a panther, but it is so thick and strong that the Beast uses it as a weapon, knocking men and animals down with it.

These unusual characteristics led many to believe there was something supernatural about the creature, and fueled a lot of hysteria. As more and more bodies were found–some beheaded, some in an alarming state of undress–local and then national governments began to organize hunting parties with the hope of tracking and stopping the beast. The first large-scale party set off on September 15, 1764, comprised of 57 dragoons who would comb the hills and shoot at wolves, but fail to stop the attacks. As the search continued with no success, officials decriminalized the use of firearms for commoners, and offered more than 10,000 pounds for anyone who could kill the beast.

None of it did any good. On October 8th, two hunters came within ten paces of the creature and shot it twice. It fell, then got up and loped away. This wouldn’t be the last time the beast would seem impervious to gunfire, and it only made the panic worse. On December 31st, the bishop of Mende declared the creature was God’s retribution for Gévaudan’s sins. By then, 27 people had been attacked. 18 were dead

King Louis XV, struggling to maintain the illusion of control, sent world-renowned wolf hunter Jean-Charles D’Evennel into the fray. On April 21, 1765, 10,000 men joined him in combing the hillsides, but–and you’ll notice the pattern here–they had no success. D’Evennel was eventually ordered away, to be replaced by a Mr. Antoine, the king’s personal arquebusier. Antoine threw himself at the task full-force, and on September 21, 1765, shot and killed a 130 pound wolf–the biggest ever on record. The people rejoiced, and the wolf was stuffed and wheeled around in the king’s court on October 1st. Louis chuckled at how the superstitious commoners had made an ordinary wolf into such a monster. Still, he, like everyone else, was just glad it was all over.

To date, 158 people had been attacked. 71 were dead. Gévaudan remained quiet a few weeks. Then, in December, the attacks started again.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This time, the crown wanted nothing to do with it. It had declared the problem solved, and wouldn’t admit to error. The people of Gévaudan were on their own.  Over 1766, the villagers continued to pray and hunters continued to hunt, but 36 more people were attacked, with 18 going to their graves. This was nothing compared to the carnage of the spring of 1767, though, which saw another 38 attacks and 21 deaths between January and June alone.  The nineteen-year-old Marquis of Apcher rallied the people yet again to go into the woods. It would be the last time.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On June 17, 1767, Jeanne Bastide–also nineteen–became the beast’s final victim, found with her throat torn apart. Two days later, during one of the hunts, farmer and innkeeper Jean Chastel came upon the creature, looked it in the eye, and shot it dead. Word has it that he’d forged silver bullets for the job, and had them blessed before going into the woods.

Thus on June 19, 1767, after three years of terror and almost 240 attacks, Gévaudan’s nightmare ended at last. But there were still a few peculiarities that were never solved.

First was the identity of the beast. It was said that the thing Chastel shot was more monster than wolf, but by the time he brought it to king, the carcass had decomposed so badly that Louis had it thrown out. No one knows where they buried it, and the remains have yet to be recovered, so historians have been unable to confirm what exactly the thing was. Based on the descriptions, the closest known analogy is the mesonychid–something like a carnivorous moose–but those were supposed to have gone extinct some 23 million years ago. It could have been a hyena or a lion–or perhaps some kind of hellish hybrid–but those would have to travel pretty far to get to France, wouldn’t they?

Unless, of course, someone brought them there. Oddly enough, it was rumored that Jean Chastel’s son had a few hyenas in his menagerie, as well as a giant red mastiff that bore some familial resemblance to the beast. The Chastels were also apparently at odds with arquebusier Antoine, and were actually thrown in prison for the duration of his stay in Gévaudan–a term which happened to coincide with a decrease in attacks. A few people did report seeing a man in conjunction with the beast, and it is odd that the attacks were so specific, almost as if the beast had been trained.

How did Chastel–a common innkeeper–manage to so effectively shoot and kill the creature, where hundreds of other, highly trained men could not?

No matter. The town erected a plaque in his honor, and he is remembered to this day as the hero that saved Gévaudan from from the 3 year-long nightmare of la Bête.

Chastel, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and ​Χρήστης:Βήσσμα.

Here’s to hoping it stays dead this time.

Do you have any meddlesome pets that have got you in a bit of trouble? Feel free to share in the comments below!

*Numbers are approximate, and vary depending on the source. For the purpose of this post, I worked off the most detailed one I could find, located here.

The Kongamato: Destroyer of Boats, Soiler of Underwear

You might remember our visit a few weeks ago to the billabongs of Australia, when we encountered everyone’s favorite dog/sheep/serpent/flippery thing.  Now we travel to the Jiundu backwaters of Zambia, Angola, and the Congo, where something else waits to burst from the murk–a prehistoric monster that should have went extinct, but never did. As it turns out, a lot of scary things can come from swamps.

Accounts of the Kongamato date back to 1745, though given that this “breaker of boats” is essentially a pterosaur and that the locals were already well acquainted with it then, it’s likely to have existed long before. What’s a pterosaur, you ask? A pterosaur is like a pigeon, if the pigeon had a seven foot wingspan, an elongated head, a snout, needle teeth, black eyes, and leathery red or black scales instead of feathers. Also, the pigeon would not only fly, but walk flat-footed or run on all fours, like the Landstriders in The Dark Crystal. The pigeon comparison doesn’t work for you? Fine. Imagine instead the pterosaur subspecies that Jurassic Park has made so popular–the pterodactyl. That is what is living in the Bangweulu swamps. That is what the fisherman there have feared for centuries.

Ivan T. Sanderson, an accomplished biologist and cryptozoologist from the early 20th century, became famous for bringing his account of this hellish reptile back to the Western world. As was usual for kongamato sightings, he encountered the creature at night. Sanderson had just shot a fruit bat, which had then fallen into the water. He was reaching for it when his companion warned him to duck.

“Then I let out a shout also and instantly bobbed down under the water, because coming straight at me only a few feet above the water was a black thing the size of an eagle. I had only a glimpse of its face, yet that was quite sufficient, for its lower jaw hung open and bore a semicircle of pointed white teeth set about their own width apart from each other. When I emerged, it was gone. … And just before it became too dark to see, it came again, hurtling back down the river, its teeth chattering, the air “shss-shssing” as it was cleft by the great, black, dracula-like wings.”

As mentioned, the sighting was not unexpected for the local Kaonde, nor for any number of other tribes near the swamp. Many viewed the Kongamato simply as a danger to be avoided–in the same category as a lion or a rogue elephant, if more rare and more frightening. Though white cryptozoologists were never able to locate bones or other such proof of the creature’s existence, numerous, consistent eyewitness accounts and grevious wounds spoke to something out in the reeds. The kongamato was said to upset boats, attack children, dig up corpses to feed on. It was a fact of life, if an unhappy one.

But for Western tourists, the kongamato was a fascinating treat. Sanderson was far from only one to report back on them; Frank Welland emerged in 1932 to also affirm their existence, emphasizing the compatible accounts from the local people:

“The evidence for the pterodactyl is that the natives can describe it so accurately, unprompted, and that they all agree about it. There is negative support also in the fact that they said they could not identify any other of the prehistoric monsters which I showed them.”

Sightings continued through the 1950’s, with one engineer’s report making it into the newspaper after he saw two “prehistoric” dark birds glide overhead when he went to get his canteen out of his trunk. A year later, another man would be hospitalized nearby with wounds to his chest. When asked to sketch the creature that attacked him, he drew what looked like a pterosaur. Even as late as 1998, Steve Romandi-Menya, a Kenyan exchange student visiting Louisiana, affirmed that the kongamato still haunted the bush-dwellers remaining at home.

Is there something else these could be? Sanderson referred to his kongamato offhandedly as “the Granddaddy of all bats.” Considering that the largest known bat is otherwise the Philippines’ Giant Gold-Crowned Flying Fox–whose maximum wingspan is 5 feet 7 inches–the suggestion that the kongamato is actually a heretofore uncategorized species of them is not implausible, though hardly less horrifying. Another theory is that the kongamato could be a giant stingray which, when disturbed, overturns boats and flaps a bit out of the water, though that does not account for sightings of the kongamato high up in the air or running before taking off, and is not entirely reassuring, either. The simple answer is often the best one; perhaps legends are real. It was just off the coast of Africa that fishermen caught the coelacanth, a marine contemporary of the pterodactyl. Who’s to say the pterosaurs couldn’t have survived mass extinction, too?

In 2010, the Creationist group Genesis Park traveled to the swamps to look for evidence of the kongamato themselves. They interviewed local fisherman and held night-long vigils, but found nothing conclusive. Perhaps it is time we took up the torch. After all, the swamp’s other claim to fame is that they are a popular site for bird-watching. Perhaps we will spot a lovely sparrow in addition to our flesh-eating friend.

Would you come on an ornithological trip to search for a prehistoric hell beast? What three items would you bring, besides a pair of binoculars and your trusty khaki shorts? Share your answers in the comments below.