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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I’m Lovin It: Demons in Your Sandwich, Demons in Your Soul

It might be said that there are a few fears fundamental to every human experience.

The fear of death.

The fear of madness.

The fear of a pointless, meaningless existence.

These terrors monopolized our ancestors’ minds and souls, but now with our bright lights, our computers–our distractions–they have faded to the background. Now a new menace has shuffled forward. He is a pressing dread–one that drives people to financial ruin, emotional despair, to the hospital; a contemporary obsession that is, shall we say, a real heavyweight.

The fear of fat.

Don’t laugh. Fat ruins lives. Sure, diet and exercise works for some, surgery for others–the human race might be doomed if it didn’t. But an unlucky few still remain for which nothing seems to work–poor souls whose enslavement is such that they’ve been forced to seek other, outside explanations for why they cannot escape the groan of the scale.*

What very frightening answers they’ve found.

Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license
Courtesy of Wellcome Images by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.

A Visit from Beelzebub.

Let’s start simply, shall we? Sometimes the compulsion to eat can be so overwhelming–or so out of character–that it seems to have a life of its own. Sometimes we do not so much feel as if we want to overeat, but are forced to. Like something else is pulling the strings. Like our hands are forced to pick up the fork, even though we know another bite might literally kill us.

And maybe, sometimes, that thing laughs with our face the entire time.

In the Christian tradition (at least so far as legendary witch hunter Peter Binsfield was concerned), Beelzebub (or Baal, depending on who you ask) is the demon responsible for forcing souls to their gluttonous demise. If you’re at all familiar with Christianity, chances are his is a name you’ve heard before. That is because Beelzebub is renowned not only for being Prince of Gluttony and False Gods, but also:

In a way, if you black out and wake up with an empty family size bag of pork rinds, twelve taco wrappers, and a cardboard cake box with nothing but a grease circle and smudge of icing left inside, you should almost consider yourself flattered–it’s possible one of the most powerful demons of the underworld has taken time out of your schedule to make your life a living nightmare.

A Special Ingredient.

Let’s say, though, that you’re the strong type–strong enough even to resist Satan’s right hand man. You’ve never overeaten a day in your life–in fact, you take painful care to eat as healthfully as you possibly can. Fruits. Vegetables. Whole wheat. You exercise. You drink lots of fluid. You do everything perfectly.

Still, your weight climbs.

You cut back even further, trying to starve it off. But instead of getting thinner, you just get fatter. It doesn’t make sense–even your closest friends think you must be lying about your diet, sneaking donuts when no one’s around. You plead that you’re not, but how could they believe you? Your doctor tells you to eat healthier, that you’re on your way to your deathbed, and you tell him that you are, but he does believe you either. You grow further still. The weight is such that it pins you to the floor. You’ve stopped eating all but a few calories a day, and still–you grow.

Have you figured it out?

Word has it that monsters can’t just interfere with the will of the sufferer–they can inhabit the food itself. It’s called demonic tattering–a process in which a demon infests lunch, making those carrot sticks go right to your thighs.

That, you might say, is crazy talk–crazier even than being possessed by a demon the moment you pick up your fork. But (as this Ground Zero Media article points out), there is precedent for demonic possession of food. Heard of the Last Supper? Take a look at this passage from the King James Bible, Book of John, Chapter 13, verses 26 and 27, which come on the heels of Jesus announcing that one of his disciples will betray him:

“Jesus answered, He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it. And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon.

And after the sop Satan entered into him. Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly.” 

It would seem Satan himself hitched a ride on some soggy bread to work his will on ole’ Judas’s spirit (no word on his love handles, but who’s to say?). But the fun doesn’t stop there.

Ever been to a meal where someone has to say a blessing over the food before anyone can eat it? Ever wonder where that came from? Ground Zero Media claims it’s a habit passed down from our ancestors, who routinely had to purge monsters from their meat and potatoes. The world, you see, has a lot of evil in it, and if you’re not careful, some of that evil–be it in the form of unholy miasma, or a straight up, havoc-wreaking demon–can get into your PB&J.

If you didn’t stop to bless your coffee this morning, now you know why your pants might be fitting a little tighter than usual.

Dessert.

But what, you might ask, is so evil about making someone fat? So far as monsters go, one that gives you a cankles should seem to rank far below one that, say, turns you inside out and then licks you like an ice cream cone. There are plenty of overweight people, and plenty who might manage someday to keep the weight off, be it with better habits, therapy, or medical intervention. But still…what if they couldn’t?

What if you couldn’t?

What if, after scoffing at this article, you went to your fridge for an apple, and found yourself reaching instead for the squeezable chocolate? If you screamed inside, even as you emptied the bottle down your throat? If your hands shook as you tried to stop yourself from grabbing the leftover pizza, only to shove it into your mouth all the more quickly once they got it out? What if you looked down right now and noticed that your chair is buckling, that your sides are bulging out against its arms?

What if you go to stand up, and find that taking even a few steps leaves you exhausted? Your friends will not believe you when you say that it’s not your fault. Strangers will jeer at you. Your family will not recognize you. You will disgust them. You will disgust yourself. And you will move ever slower, ever more painfully. Death will stalk you.

You will not be able to run.

Feeling hungry? Feel free to list your favorite food in the comments below! Can’t decide which one to pick? List as many as you like. We’re all friends here.

* Disclaimer: Compulsive eating and obesity really are serious diseases, and obviously this article is meant for entertainment, not medical advice. I’m not looking at all to belittle anyone’s struggle. If you’re having issues with food, feel free to throw around as much holy water as you like–just so long as you promise to go see an actual doctor, as well.