Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is already considered to be his magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com/index.htm

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my ShukerNature blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

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Monday, 19 December 2011

THE FAIRY HOUND AND THE POOKA - A CRYPTO-FOLKTALE FOR CHRISTMAS

My very own Celtic fairy hound! (Dr Karl Shuker)

During my time on Facebook, I've made many friends all over the world who share my interests in cryptozoology and animal mythology. One of these friends is Randi Allena Odom, from Texas, USA, to whom I recently recounted a very brief version of a traditional Irish folktale about a Celtic fairy hound. She liked it so much that she said she would love to read a full-length version of it if ever I decided to write one. Well, now I have done, so here, as an early Christmas present to you, Randi, is my story. I hope you enjoy it - Happy Christmas!

According to Irish mythology, one of the most formidable enchanted beasts occasionally met with in lonely rural locations is the fairy hound, or hound of the hollow hills, where the Faerie folk of Erin dwell. Gracile in form, and white in colour, but extremely large, often shaggy-coated, and always instantly distinguished from mortal, non-magical dogs by virtue of its bright red eyes and the red inner linings of its ears, even the mere sight of one of these ethereal creatures is said to bring bad luck. And to speak to or touch one means certain death – usually. Very rarely, however, a fairy hound will bring its human observer good fortune, if it is treated with sufficient courtesy and compassion – as was the case in the following traditional folktale, featuring both a fairy hound and a pooka, which has variants on record not only from Ireland but also from Cheshire and certain other regions of England. But what, may you ask, is a pooka? Let's just hope that you're never unlucky enough to meet one and find out...!

It had been a very long, arduous day, and the apprentice labourer was weary as he slowly trekked across the mist-shrouded moorlands, following the winding, shadowy road that would lead him back home, aching, hungry and earnestly yearning for the warmth, comfort, and security of his parents' little cottage. Whistling to himself to keep his spirits up as he continued on his way through this somewhat depressing, forbidding terrain, where strange shadows lurked all around him, and without warning a tree would abruptly loom out of the darkness up ahead like some frightful apparition, he suddenly heard what sounded like a dog, whining somewhere close by. He walked on a little further, and there, lying in some bushes at the side of the road, was what seemed on first sight to be a large red and white foxhound.

Having seen a number of footsore foxhounds in the past, which had been left behind by the pack when they had grown too weary to pursue their quarry any further, the youth called to it in a friendly voice, telling it that he'd take it back to the kennels but would first do something for its sore paws. True to his word, he scoured around and soon spotted some large dock leaves that he soaked in water from the stream running close by. Then he whistled to the dog, and called to it to come out of the bushes, so that he could treat its tender paws with the cooling wet leaves.


Celtic fairy hounds (Roger Garland)

Sure enough, up stood the dog and trotted out of the bushes towards him – but it was no foxhound. As large as a calf, with a shaggy pure-white coat, but red-lined ears and bright scarlet eyes that glowed like rubies, it was – as the terrified youth was only too readily aware – a fairy hound! Shaking with fear, he stood there, as still as a statue as the great dog padded right up to his side. All of the stories that had passed down through the generations in his family and in those of his friends and neighbours came flooding back. If you so much as see a fairy hound, you will experience bad luck, and if you should be foolish enough to speak to one or touch one, death will swiftly and assuredly follow. And yet, somehow, he sensed that it meant him no harm. Scarcely knowing what he was doing, or why, the youth spoke gently to the fairy hound, politely asking it to give him each of its paws in turn, so that he could bathe them.

The hound raised its huge head until its scarlet eyes were gazing directly into those of the youth, transfixing him for what seemed to him like an eternity yet was the merest moment in real time, and then, slowly, it raised its right front paw, and placed it heavily in his hands. At its first touch, the youth felt a strange sensation course through his body, like a living stream of electricity rippling and sparking beneath the surface of his skin. As if awakening from a dream, he shook his head, and then, after carefully inspecting the creature's paw, wrapped some wet leaves around it in a cooling bandage. As soon as he had done this, the fairy hound pulled its paw away, sniffed it for a moment, then gingerly placed it on the ground. The dock leaves were clearly working their own kind of magic, because the hound never flinched when it placed its full weight on the paw.

The youth expected to receive the hound's left front paw next, but the hound had other ideas. Instead, it turned sideways, and raised its right back paw towards him. So the youth knelt, and bandaged this paw with some more soaked dock leaves, then repeated his actions with its left back paw. When this was bandaged, the fairy hound turned to face the youth again, and as he looked down at its one remaining untreated paw – the left front paw – he realised that the hound was barely resting on it at all. Instead, it held it up just above the ground. Clearly, this was the most painful of its four paws, and when the youth knelt down to it, he immediately saw why.

Embedded in one of the paw's thick pads was a long curved thorn! Shocked, he looked up at the fairy hound, once again meeting its bright scarlet stare. Surely he dare not attempt to pull a thorn from the paw of a fairy hound? To do so would certainly inflict pain upon it, and that in turn would surely be more than sufficient to bring about his own death. But scarcely had these thoughts materialised within his petrified mind than the hound raised its wounded paw and delicately placed it in his open hand. As if sensing his hesitation, it then licked the thorn and nuzzled his hand with its large, icy-cold nose before gazing directly into his eyes again.

'Hound Wraith' - a very different, unicorned fairy hound (Heather L. Kidd)

Drawing a deep breath, and trying hard to hide the fear in his voice, the youth softly spoke to the fairy hound, telling it that he would try his best to remove the thorn but warned that its paw might hurt for a moment while he was doing so. Taking a second deep breath, and focusing his attention entirely upon the thorn in the hope of remaining as calm as possible, the youth gripped it tightly between thumb and finger, and then, in a swift fluid movement, withdrew it from the pad of the creature's paw with Androclesian skill.

The fairy hound jerked its leg back, and the youth heard what sounded like the faintest rumble emanating from its chest, like the onset of thunder on a humid summer evening, as it attempted to pull its paw from his grasp. At the same moment, however, with his other hand the youth deftly placed a dripping-wet bandage of dock leaves upon the pad, and immediately he felt the hound relax, leaving its paw within his hand. After holding the leaves against the wounded pad for a few moments, the youth then removed them and replaced them with some more, which he bound in place.

The fairy hound placed its paw on the ground, and, as before, the dock leaves had evidently proven effective, because it discovered that it could place its full weight upon the paw without discomfort. For one last time, the fairy hound looked up at the youth, capturing his eyes with its own, and then it slowly wagged its long white tail from side to side, several times, before turning away. Remembering how he had been told by his elders to be respectful at all times to the Faerie folk, he bid it a polite "Goodnight, Sir", and he saw it wag its tail again as it departed into the mist.

Fairy hound (C Martin)

Scarcely believing that he had survived such an extraordinary encounter with a fairy hound, the youth hurried on along the road leading home, hoping to leave this deserted, lonely terrain before it became completely dark. Happily, he did so, and although he made the same journey each evening in the weeks to come, nothing else eventful took place – until one night, just before Christmas.

The youth had worked even later than usual that particular evening, so it was already almost dark while he was still walking along the road across the moorlands - which, as a result, seemed more oppressive and threatening than ever. Even so, he smiled when he reached the area of low-lying bushes where, a few weeks earlier, he had treated the fairy hound's paws. Although he had never seen it again, he frequently thought about it, but he had never told anyone about his encounter, just in case to do so would anger the Faerie folk.

Suddenly, something large moved amid the shadows covering the road up ahead, and for a moment the youth thought that the fairy hound had returned. But as he drew nearer, he saw something very different – and even more frightening! At first, it looked like a small black pony, but as he looked at it, the creature began to grow bigger, and bigger. In moments, the 'pony' was the size of a horse, and as it turned his head towards him, the youth cried out in terror - because the head was no longer that of a horse. Instead, it now resembled a goat's, bearing a pair of long twisted horns, and with glittering emerald-hued eyes that glowed malevolently like green fire. This was neither a pony nor a horse – it was a pooka!

A pooka (Ceara Finn)

An evil shape-shifting supernatural being, a pooka often assumes the guise of a pony that is sometimes merely mischievous, chasing after humans in gleeful delight, or slyly luring them across the moors until they are hopelessly lost if they try to capture or ride it. On other occasions, however, if someone succeeds in mounting it, the pooka will instantly ride off at speed and plunge into a river or lake, drowning its hapless rider (click here for a separate ShukerNature post retelling this Irish legend). And if it should transform into a goat-headed monstrosity like the beast now confronting the terrified youth, death is inevitable.

Leering at him with a vile grimace that revealed an abundance of sharp white teeth, the pooka reared up onto its hind legs, and flailed its razor-sharp hooves at the youth's face. Backing away, he stumbled, losing his footing in his fear as this huge black beast of nightmare come to life reared again, its hooves ready to slash him to ribbons.

Suddenly, however, a huge white shadow hurled itself out of the darkness and directly onto the pooka's back. Gazing at it in amazement, the youth saw that it was none other than the fairy hound! Equally astonished, the pooka turned away, throwing its neck back as it attempted to discover what was attacking it. The fairy hound's mighty jaws bit deeply into the pooka's neck and shoulders as the latter beast sought to shake its assailant off, and the silence was shattered by an ear-splitting cacophony of shrieking neighs from the pooka and baying growls from the fairy hound.

Never underestimate a fairy hound!

The pooka, weakening from the fairy hound's unabated onslaught, dropped to the ground, and sought to dislodge its attacker by rolling over and upon it. To avoid being crushed, the fairy hound duly released its hold upon the pooka's neck, and leapt off – at which point the pooka instantly transformed into a large black owl and flew swiftly away across the moors.

By now, the petrified youth had staggered back up onto his feet again, and there in front of him stood the fairy hound, seemingly none the worse for its battle with the pooka. It looked up at him with its bright scarlet eyes, and wagged its long tail from side to side.

The youth was about to thank it for saving him from the pooka, but just in time he remembered how his wise old grandmother had told him when he was still a child that although you must always be very respectful to the Faerie folk, you must never thank them aloud, even if they have helped you or have been kind to you in some way.

And so, just as he had done during their previous meeting, the youth nodded courteously to the great dog before him, and then bid it a polite "Goodnight, Sir". The fairy hound turned away, and in seconds was lost to sight amid the darkness and shadows of the night, and the youth continued on his way back home, well aware of how exceptionally fortunate he had been that evening, and looking forward even more than before to the Christmastime holidays with his family that awaited him there.

A pack of fairy hounds in pursuit of a wrongdoer



Tuesday, 13 December 2011

THE WONDERFUL THING ABOUT TIGUARS!



Over the years, a great many unusual big cat hybrids have been born in captivity - everything from ligers (lion x tigress hybrids), tigrons (tiger x lioness), and leopons (leopard x lioness), to lipards (lion x leopardess), jaglions (jaguar x lioness), and pumapards (puma x leopardess), to name but some.

Of especial interest, however, because he is quite possibly unique, is a big cat hybrid called Mickey. Born in June 2009 at Altiplano Zoo in San Pablo Apetatlan, Mexico, Mickey is a bona fide tiguar. His father is a Siberian tiger and his mother a jaguar originating from the southern Chiapas jungle. But what does Mickey look like? Despite an extensive online search during the completion of my next book - Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery, due out in autumn 2012 - I have been unable to locate a single description of him.

However, there may be at least one online colour photograph depicting Mickey. Reproduced below, this photo was kindly brought to my attention yesterday by mystery cat researcher Mark Fraser from BCIB (Big Cats In Britain) and cryptozoological enthusiast Ian C. Thomas. As can be seen here, it shows a very impressive, predominantly ginger-brown big cat, stocky in build, with an unmistakeably tigerine face, plus a white chin and mouth, but only very faint, greatly-reduced body striping.

Alleged photo of Mickey the tiguar of Altiplano Zoo as an adult (credit: http://www.taringa.net/comunidades/tkaffee/945148/Felinos-Hibridos.html)

Worryingly, however, on a few other sites this same photograph is labelled not as showing a tiguar but a liger (lion x tigress hybrid) instead. Moreover, the cat is surrounded by snow, which is not what one would expect from the subtropical region of Mexico where Altiplano Zoo is located. Having said that, as pointed out to me by fellow investigator Paul Willison, meteorological records show that during the winter period this region's temperature has sometimes fallen to only a degree or so above freezing point. So perhaps the presence of snow here is not so implausible after all.

In addition, I have discovered what I feel sure is a fleeting glimpse of Mickey as a 2-month-old cub in a video shot at Altiplano Zoo and uploaded by someone with the user name mvzxim onto YouTube on 9 August 2009. View it at:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jyv8HtA1w6M&feature=related

A still from the above video of Altiplano Zoo showing a mysterious cub that may well be Mickey the tiguar (video credit: mvzxim)

Certainly, whereas not resembling that of any familiar big cat, such as a lion, tiger, leopard, or jaguar, the cub (visible in the section of the video spanning 3.10 minutes to 3.14 minutes, and captured here in this still photograph) very closely resembles the above-noted alleged photo of the adult Mickey, complete with ginger fur, faint body striping, and white chin/mouth. Furthermore, unlike the photograph, there is no question that this video was indeed shot in Altiplano Zoo.

I am continuing to investigate the mysterious Mickey, in the hope of obtaining a verified photo of him as an adult plus any additional information concerning him that may be available, so any assistance would be greatly appreciated.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

THE ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF NEW AND REDISCOVERED ANIMALS - A FIRST GLIMPSE OF MY LATEST BOOK



I've just received, one day early, the perfect birthday present! Here's the fully-approved, finalised version of the cover for my soon-to-be-published book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals: From the Lost Ark to the New Zoo - and Beyond (which is off to the printers in the next few hours!). My very sincere thanks to Bill Rebsamen for his wonderful front and back cover illustrations!

Here's some information concerning my book:

At the beginning of the 20th century, scientists and laymen alike appear to have been peculiarly confident that the world had been thoroughly explored and most of its creatures named and documented. Few, if any, large animals still awaited discovery. The scientific unveiling of the giraffe-like okapi in 1901 was one of the earliest of this century's discoveries to shake this belief. But many consider it to be the last great find, and view the rediscovery of extinct animals to be as likely as the alchemic conversion of iron into gold.

Since 1901, however, a whole host of new and rediscovered creatures has turned up to contradict these views - including a giant 7-ft-long forest hog from Africa, a colossal Indonesian monitor lizard called the Komodo dragon, the lobe-finned coelacanth fish resurrected from 64 million years of supposed extinction, the incredible megamouth shark, deep-sea tube-dwelling worms over 8 ft tall with huge red tentacles resembling strange alien flowers, plus the extraordinary Vu Quang ox and giant barking deer both discovered in Vietnam during the 1990s. And discoveries continue to be made today, in the 21st century - ranging diversely and dramatically from giant peccaries and zombie worms to an entire new suborder of insects known as the gladiators, a veritable jungle of new monkeys, and an extraordinary chameleonesque snake. And nor can we possibly forget the sensational rediscovery in North America of the near-legendary, supposedly long-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker.

The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals is the third, wholly-updated edition of the very first - and still the definitive - book to be devoted to the spectacular zoological discoveries and equally amazing rediscoveries of the 20th century, which attracted international acclaim and exemplary reviews following its original publication in 1993 (when it was entitled The Lost Ark), and its subsequent republication in 2002 as an updated, greatly-expanded second edition (entitled The New Zoo). This latest edition also contains an in-depth survey of the 21st century’s most celebrated discoveries and rediscoveries made during its first decade, a superb foreword by pre-eminent American cryptozoologist Loren Coleman, plus an exhaustive, significantly-increased bibliography, as well as the only comprehensive collection of colour and b/w illustrations of these spectacular animal species ever published (including new, previously-unpublished photographs, and several exclusive, specially-commissioned full-colour paintings).

Unquestionably, The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals provides good reason indeed for believing that our world continues to holds many more animal surprises in store for future revelation.

It is published by Coachwhip Publications in the USA, and is due out very shortly (printers permitting!) - so keep checking Amazon!

Friday, 2 December 2011

MOA FOR YOUR MONEY - REVIEWING THE BEST BOOK ON THE CRYPTOZOOLOGY OF NEW ZEALAND'S AVIAN GIANTS



My review of: Moa Sightings (Volumes 1-3) by Bruce Spittle.

Paua Press (www.pauapress.com), Dunedin, 2010; ISBN 978-0-473-15356-4 (Vol. 1), 978-0-473-15357-1 (Vol. 2), 978-0-473-15358-8 (Vol. 3); £101.97 for the 3-volume set. Hb with dustjacket, 415 pp (Vol. 1), 422 pp (Vol. 2), 416 pp (Vol. 3), colour and b/w illus., colour maps, footnote refs, index.

With such terms used so frequently yet all-too-often so undeservedly nowadays, it is rare indeed today for a book to warrant being referred to as 'the standard work' or 'the definitive treatment'. Both of these superlatives, and many others of a similar nature too, however, are fully-justified when considering Bruce Spittle's monumental three-volume treatise on putative sightings of living moas – if only because I simply cannot conceive how anyone could ever produce a more comprehensive account of this subject.

The giant, and not-so-giant, moas constituted a diverse family of flightless birds unique to New Zealand, but according to mainstream scientific belief most if not all of the eleven currently-recognised species had become extinct at least 300 years prior to the landing here of the first Europeans with Captain Cook in 1769. And even if a few stragglers had somehow lingered on in remote localities up to and even for a time beyond this initial European influx, these had still died out long ago – or had they?

Giant Dinornis moas - 19th-Century painting (Heinrich Harder)

In his vast, exhaustively-researched trilogy of tomes, Spittle painstakingly documents and assesses every known eyewitness report alluding to possible moa survival since the early 1400s, devoting an entire chapter to each such report, and including 151 reports in total. Each chapter follows the same format – a headline giving the eyewitness, the year, and the location of the alleged sighting, which is then followed by an introduction, a detailed account of the sighting, and a thorough discussion. Each report is also accompanied by one or more full-page colour maps of the location, plus various relevant colour or b/w illustrations, including many previously obscure images that were new to me. The same, exceedingly detailed index is included at the back of all three volumes, which is very handy.

The degree of scholarship evident in the sightings' discussions is breathtaking – Spittle gives the impression of having consulted everyone ever involved in and everything ever written on the subject of moas (and if he hasn't, it clearly isn't from want of trying!) - and his examination of each sighting is both incisive and commendably objective. Nowhere is this more apparent than when Spittle surveys the two most famous (and contentious) putative moa sightings of all - one (Sighting Report #22) by Alice MacKenzie at Martins Bay in 1880, to which he devotes 98 pages; and the other (Sighting Report #151) by Paddy Freaney and two companions in 1993 within Craigieburn Forest Park, to which he devotes no fewer than 283 pages (taking up most of Volume 3, in fact), and which include several detailed maps and even full-colour reconstructions based upon the enigmatic, famously-fuzzy photo snapped by Freaney. In each case, Spittle produces a review so meticulous and fascinating that it would stand alone very well as an entire book in its own right.

Newspaper account reporting Freaney's alleged sighting

Every report is also liberally annotated with footnotes supplying key references (there is no collective bibliography – perhaps this work's only failing in my view) and additional information where required.

I dare not even begin to guess how long it took Spittle to produce his magnum opus, which Moa Sightings assuredly is, but when preparing any work as extensive as this, errors of typography and of fact are inevitable, however earnestly one seeks to eradicate all such gremlins from the final version, and I did spot certain instances of this in Moa Sightings. Needless to say, I do not wish to overshadow or diminish the magnificent overall contribution to the field of moa study and beyond that this work has made, so two such examples of errors, one from each of the above-noted categories, will suffice here.

Upland (dwarf) moa, Megalapteryx - did Alice MacKenzie encounter one at Martins Bay in 1880?

In all three volumes, the outer edge of each page contains three figures – the top one indicates the volume number, the middle one the chapter number, and the bottom one the page number within that chapter (this is also repeated in expanded version at the bottom of each page). Unfortunately, however, in Volume 2, Chapter 35 is incorrectly labelled as being in Volume 1. Ditto for Chapter 137 in Volume 3. These could easily be rectified in future reprints. As for factual blips: I noticed on p. 189 of Chapter 151, dealing with the Freaney sighting case, that Spittle claimed a letter by him sent to the British magazine Fortean Times updating that case was never published. In fact it was – twice! It first appeared on p. 54 of the Letters section in FT No. 98 (May 1997), and then it was summarised by me on p. 16 of my Alien Zoo column in FT No. 221 (April 2007).

Early, archive photo of life-sized Dinornis moa model alongside a kiwi for scale purposes

Never mind. Such slips as these pale into insignificance against the greater backdrop of a truly extraordinary publication that is unquestionably one of the finest additions to the canon of cryptozoological literature in modern times. The price might seem steep, and may limit the numbers sold, especially to private individuals, but I do feel that it is fully justified with respect to what it purchases.

As a final thought, I just hope that there isn't someone else out there still working away on their own in-depth coverage of reputed sightings and encounters of living moas – because, now that Spittle's Moa Sightings is in print, I'm afraid you're too late!

Standing alongside a life-sized Dinornis moa statue in Auckland, when I visited New Zealand in 2006 (Dr Karl Shuker)

A shortened version of this review of mine appears in Fortean Times, No. 283 (January 2012).

Thursday, 1 December 2011

SKY BEASTS, NOT SPACE CRAFT - UNMASKING THE UFOS?


'Cosmic Leap' – Sky medusae painting (Philippa Foster)


"Unknown, luminous things, or beings, have often been seen, sometimes close to this earth, and sometimes high in the sky. It may be that some of them were living things that occasionally come from somewhere else."

Charles Fort - Lo!


It has often been said that Nature abhors a vacuum – and evolution certainly does. Every conceivable niche upon planet Earth has been populated by life forms – on land, in freshwater and the seas, beneath layers of rock far below the earth’s surface, even buried within the formless ooze on the ocean beds and encircling their scorching water-spewing hydrothermal vents. Yet, inexplicably, there is one lone but vast ecological niche that has remained totally untouched by such animate activity – the rarefied atmospheric layers above and encompassing our world. True, insects, bacteria, birds, bats, and various other living entities spend varying extents of time in the sky, but there is no known life form that has evolved to live exclusively here, never venturing groundward except to die. There are no sky beasts, or cloud creatures – or are there?

One of the most intriguing UFO explanations on offer is that at least some of these elusive aerial entities are not alien spacecraft or anything else from beyond our planet. Instead, they are living creatures – huge, fast, and exceedingly fragile, but life forms nonetheless, highly-specialised for an absolute existence high above our earthbound domain. In my recent book Dr Shuker’s Casebook (2008), I devoted a lengthy chapter to this fascinating, but previously largely-forgotten scenario, which has helped to revive interest in the sky beast theory - one that, as will now be seen, is certainly greatly deserving of renewed attention.

Dr Shuker's Casebook (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2008)


CRITTERS AHOY!
Down through the decades, a sky beast identity for UFOs has been championed by a number of writers and researchers, of which the most famous must surely be Trevor James Constable, who spent over 20 years investigating this subject, and published two books. The first of these, They Live in the Sky, came out in 1958, but the second, The Cosmic Pulse of Light, published in 1976 and then again, in abridged form, in 1978 as Sky Creatures: Living UFOs, brought this fascinating notion to a much wider audience than it had ever before reached.

Sky Creatures (1978) – Trevor James Constable

Constable considered the sky beasts – or ‘critters’, as he dubbed them – to resemble gigantic unicellular amoebae, but encased in a metallic or mica-like outer shell or capsule, and with the majority of their bodies composed of plasma, the fourth state of matter, comprising an ionised gas. Although some critters may be as small as a few centimetres, others could be several kilometres long, and remain hidden on most occasions from humans by virtue of their ability to reflect infra-red light, thus rendering them invisible to our eyes – except if they change colour, thereby temporarily reflecting light within the electromagnetic spectrum’s visible section.

Yet even if critters are usually beyond our range of vision, their presence can still be detected, for according to Constable they can actually be photographed – using infra-red film and appropriate filters. In his books, he published a number of photos depicting supposed critters snapped by him in the skies above California’s Mojave Desert, and one of his acolytes, Richard Toronto, duplicated Constable’s attempts in this same locality during 1977, obtaining similar pictures. Their photos have never been exposed as hoaxes (though Kodak representatives have suggested that Toronto’s critters may be nothing more exciting than dirty fingerprints and drying spots), and show several different morphological types. These include fusiform entities, giant amoeboid blobs, huge bladder-shaped objects, gigantic discs, and even some with curiously reptilian ‘beaks’. Moreover, cine-films taken by Constable show that these objects change shape as they move through the sky, and are luminous.


IN SEARCH OF IDEOPLASMS
Another dedicated supporter of the sky beast theory was John Philip Bessor, whose own interest in such a concept was in no small way inspired by Kenneth Arnold’s historic sighting on 24 June 1947 of a phalanx of nine UFOs while flying a Callair aeroplane near Mount Rainier in Washington State, USA. What fascinated Bessor in particular concerning this encounter (which heralded the modern-day wave of UFO interest and sightings worldwide) was Arnold’s belief that what he had seen were: “…living organisms, sort of like sky jellyfish” – far removed from today’s popular spacecraft image for UFOs.

Kenneth Arnold holding a sketch of one of the UFOs sighted by him

Bessor later stated that, in his view, UFOs were a form of living creature (which he christened an ideoplasm) composed of a highly attenuated substance, enabling them to materialise or dematerialise at will, utilising telekinetic energy for propulsion. As would be echoed by Constable in relation to his critters, Bessor opined that these entities must be capable of becoming visible, invisible, and changing colour, all very rapidly. He even submitted his thoughts to the U.S. Air Force, and, remarkably, was informed by them that they considered his notion to be “one of the most intelligent theories we have received” regarding the possible nature and identity of UFOs.

Yet another theory of sky beasts, proposed during this same era of thought regarding UFOs, was that of Countess Zoe Wassilko-Serecki. Authoring a number of articles on this subject, she deemed it plausible that such entities were enormous, glowing, stratosphere-inhabiting creatures resembling gargantuan bladders of colloidal silicones, containing a central core of insubstantial matter but otherwise composed predominantly of pure energy. She claimed that they appeared spherical when stationary but became fusiform when moving, and so diffuse at higher levels as to appear virtually invisible.

In addition, hydrophone inventor John M. Cage, commenting upon how closely the pursuit of aircraft by UFOs resembled that of dolphins with ships, suggested that some UFOs may be sentient beings feeding upon negative electricity. And in his book The Circlemakers (1992), veteran psychical investigator Andrew Collins speculated that perhaps some cropfield circles may be created by energy released by biological UFOs when swooping downwards from the skies.

'Guiding Lights' – a painting of biological UFOs flying over a cropfield circle (Philippa Foster)


FOO FIGHTERS, ANGELS, AND OTHER MINI-SKY BEASTS
Not all sky beasts may be enormous and often invisible. Certain much smaller and more readily discernible (but no less perplexing), luminous, spherical entities are on record that may also be variations upon the fundamental sky beast theme. Take, for instance, the foo fighters.

Usually white or red in colour, and highly animate, these small balls of light (BOLs) were (in)famous during World War II for appearing on the outside of aeroplanes in flight and dancing around them, to the bewilderment of their pilots. At first, the Allies and the Axis powers each thought that foo fighters were a secret weapon developed by the other side to detract fighter pilots from their missions – until eventually it was realised that British, American, French, German, and Japanese pilots were all seeing them! The most mystifying aspect, however, was these BOLs’ apparent ‘intelligence’, because they would swiftly move out of reach if the pilots tried to swat them, but would tenaciously pace alongside if the planes tried to out-fly them, and behaved in what can only be described as a playful, even inquisitive manner. Consequently, veteran BOL investigator Vincent Gaddis boldly proposed that perhaps foo fighters were indeed sentient entities, composed of pure energy yet possessing a basic level of intelligence, and supported earlier claims that UFOs were comparable, albeit much bigger, life forms – a view also subscribed to by Constable.

Archive photo of foo fighters near airborne planes during World War II

Interestingly, foo fighters could not be detected by radar. Moreover, a kind of converse foo fighter has also been reported. Known as gizmos or angels, these objects are small, rapidly moving, and again display suspiciously sentient behaviour, sometimes even flying in small groups moving in precise formations. Yet whereas gizmos do show up on radar, and exhibit a very characteristic, idiosyncratic trace pattern readily distinguishable from birds, aircraft, insects, ionised air masses, and other known airborne objects, they are invisible to the human eye.

Are BOLs living entities? (Philippa Foster) 


SERPENTS OF THE SKY
Very different from sky beasts, big or small, are sky serpents or sky fishes, spasmodically reported from all around the world. One of the most famous examples was the so-called ‘sky eel’ viewed by countless eyewitnesses during two successive nights in early September 1891 in the sky above Crawfordsville, Indiana. It was said to wriggle like a swimming fish, was white, luminous, and measured approximately 6 m long. Hovering around 100 m above the ground, but sometimes swooping even lower, it wheezed loudly and emitted hot air, but lacked any discernible head or tail. The Crawfordsville sky eel was subsequently 'explained' as a flock of killdeer (a species of plover).

A huge entity resembling a writhing serpent with yellow stripes was seen floating over a farm in Bonham, Texas, one day in June 1873. And in May 1888, a hissing counterpart was reported from Darlington County, South Carolina. Back in 1762, a twisting sky serpent was spied for six minutes as it illuminated from on high the Devon town of Bideford on 5 December. More recently, in March 1935, a Scandinavian sky serpent was reported over southern Norway and Denmark, and in December of that same year another one was witnessed twice in the sky above Cruz Alta, Brazil.

The most popular explanation for these is that they are meteorological phenomena known as fire drakes - on account of their fiery countenance and superficially dragonesque form - caused by charged particles accelerated in solar flares and diverted by the Earth’s magnetic field, so that they enter the upper atmosphere, yielding streams of wavering light. Nevertheless, in some reports the eyewitnesses were convinced that what they had seen was a bona fide living creature.

Sky dragon – merely a meteorological phenomenon, or something more? 


STAR ROT, OR DEAD SKY BEASTS?
A mysterious phenomenon that has been recorded for centuries but never fully explained is star rot, also known as pwdre ser or gelatinous meteors. As its last-mentioned name suggests, often what appears to be a meteor or shooting star is seen streaming across the sky, then later, at the site where it is thought to have landed, samples of a strange jelly-like substance are found. Samples of this star rot that have been formally analysed have unmasked a diversity of identities, including various species of algae, fungi, slime moulds, and even the semi-digested remains of food regurgitated by birds. However, some samples have defied identification, and others have quite literally disappeared even as they were being collected, leaving behind nothing more than an odd smell or a greasy trace to verify their erstwhile existence.

Pwdre ser (CFZ)

Perhaps the most dramatic explanation for these more mystifying samples of star rot, as suggested by Bessor, is that they are actually the mortal remains of sky beasts that have died and plummeted downwards from their lofty abode in the sky to the ground far below, leaving nothing more than transient masses of jelly as corpses, with the earlier-spied streams of light in the sky the release of their dying bodies’ energy.


LEGLESS IN NEW GUINEA
When skins of New Guinea’s exotically-plumed birds of paradise were first brought back to Europe, in 1522, naturalists were very surprised to discover that they did not possess flesh, blood, bones, or feet. Consequently, they mistakenly deduced that these gorgeous, ethereal-looking, and seemingly near-weightless birds spent their whole lives permanently airborne, feeding upon an ambrosial diet of nectar and dew like feathered sylphs, descending earthward only to die. In reality, however, as they subsequently discovered, the reason for these birds’ insubstantial nature was that when preparing their skins for sale, the New Guinea natives routinely but with great skill removed all of their bodies’ fleshy parts, leaving only their feathers, wings, head, and beak!

Greater bird of paradise – scientifically named Paradisea apoda ('footless') in recognition of the erstwhile, erroneous belief that these birds genuinely lacked feet and were permanently airborne 


MYSTERY OF THE RODS
Often cited as examples of atmospheric creatures, rods are cylindrical objects, often just a few centimetres long but sometimes much bigger, with wings or a rapidly-undulating lateral membrane. These enigmatic objects cannot be seen with the naked eye but have frequently been photographed and filmed, their most notable researcher, José Escamilla, having done so many times. Likened by believers in their status as unknown life forms to flying centipedes, rods have been dismissed by sceptics as camera artefacts, digital distortions, and known, living creatures such as insects or even birds. Arguments have raged for years, but in May-June 2005, research staff at China’s Tonghua Zhenguo Pharmaceutical Company provided a satisfactory solution. Setting up huge collecting nets, they filmed many rods flying inside them, but when they then inspected these nets’ contents, all that they found were moths and other insects. Subsequent investigation revealed that their filmed rods were artefacts – normal insects ‘transformed’ into rods by an optical illusion resulting from their video camera’s slow recording speed. It is now believed that what is happening is that when a fast-flying insect such as a moth is filmed by video equipment, its wings move too rapidly to produce a clean image. Instead, a time-lapse of its wings occurs, which yields the mysterious wings or undulating membrane of the rod, with the rod itself being the time-lapsed body of the flying moth. If so, and it certainly seems the most plausible explanation, we can spare the rod from any further consideration as a bona fide cryptid of any kind, let alone one of sky beast relevance or affinity.

A selection of rod types 


SKY BEASTS ON JUPITER?
 In 1977, Cornell University astrophysicist Dr E.E. Salpeter and eminent astronomer Prof. Carl Sagan published a paper in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement outlining their thoughts on the possible presence of life on Jupiter, and the likely forms that it may take, existing amidst this gargantuan gas planet's clouds. They concluded that much of whatever life might indeed reside there may well parallel the ecology of Earth's ocean fauna - yielding Jovian equivalents to our plankton, fishes, and larger fish-eating marine predators (turtles, sharks, etc), and which the two scientists have termed sinkers, floaters, and hunters respectively.

A fractal picture of space jellyfish

Salpeter and Sagan postulated that they could be enormous sac-like organisms, filled with helium, and propelling themselves through the planet's atmosphere by controlled expulsion of this gas from their bodies. However, they did not consider these airborne balloon-like beasts to be wholly conjectural. In fact, they suggested that the presence of such creatures (perhaps even attaining a total diameter of many miles in the case of the Jovian 'hunters') may explain the frequent occurrence over the planet of clearly-perceived areas of red colouration.

The two scientists hoped that this prospect could be examined by the close-up cameras that would be focused upon Jupiter by the U.S.'s Mariner 11 and 12 space probes after their launch later in 1977, but no evidence to support the existence of these (or any other) Jovian life forms was found. Even so, the ideas of Salpeter and Sagan remain plausible relative to the likely nature of life on that huge gaseous world, should any truly exist there. Back in 1971, moreover, the scenario of colossal sky jellyfishes on Jupiter had been the basis for one of Arthur C. Clarke's most famous science-fiction stories, 'A Meeting With Medusa'.

'A Meeting With Medusa' – Arthur C. Clarke

Another notable science-fiction novel significantly featuring sky beasts (and which is a particular favourite of mine) is Philip Jose Farmer's The Wind Whales of Ishmael (1972), set on Earth but in the far-distant future, in which the oceans have long since dried up, with the creatures that once thrived in them having evolved into a diverse panoply of exclusively airborne sky beasts instead. These from vast clouds of tiny aerial krill counterparts and the huge wind whales that feed upon them to the smaller but highly-aggressive sky sharks and even a species of sky jellyfish that periodically hovers above forests into which it sends down its stinging, heat-sensitive tentacles to detect the body heat of the terrestrial life forms upon which it preys.


More recently, in 2005, the concept of a carnivorous species of space jellyfish invading Earth and causing havoc was the basis of a decidedly strange Japanese science-fiction film, 'Dogora'.

'Dogora'


FINAL THOUGHTS: SKY BEASTS AS STRATOSPHERIC FISHES?
If a pebble is thrown into a pool, its fishes and other occupants flee in all directions, but soon venture back to see what had caused the disturbance. Several sky beast investigators claim that the same principle explains sightings of UFOs. Sometimes they are coming down towards earth to feed upon energy released by energy-releasing sources such as TV transmitters, power stations, etc. In addition, and again like aquatic creatures, which migrate to deeper levels to avoid weather-related disturbance at the water surface, perhaps the sky beasts migrate vertically downwards to avoid bad weather in higher atmospheric strata. On other occasions, however, could their appearances at lower levels be due to simple curiosity regarding disruptions to their airy kingdom caused by those pesky terrestrial creatures known as Homo sapiens sending all manner of strange objects skyward? As I noted in Dr Shuker’s Casebook:

"For millions of years, the upper reaches of the sky have remained sacrosanct from contact by the realms of land and sea below. Here, according to the sky beast theory, these metrically vast but materially insubstantial entities have evolved in supreme isolation, unsullied and undisturbed by events on Earth. Since the early 20th Century, however, aeroplanes have roared on silver wings through the sky beasts’ cathedrals of clouds, rockets have surged relentlessly upwards like volleys of scorching arrows, and nuclear explosions have spewed forth their deadly emissions in bilious contempt upon the once-immaculate roof of the world. Is it any wonder, therefore, as argued by Cage and the Countess, that UFO sightings are increasing? The sky beasts are cautiously venturing down, to discover what is happening in the frenetic zones far beneath their own languid kingdoms of air and space."


Sky beasts (Tim Morris) 



Monday, 21 November 2011

“AND HAST THOU SLAIN THE PERYTON?” - AN ANTLERED ATLANTEAN

A peryton ((c) Pat Burroughs)


Evil can assume many guises, and not all of them are ugly or repellent. On the contrary, in the shadowy, sequestered realm of legendary non-human entities that were once widely believed to be real, there are numerous examples of alluring, deceiving, malign beasts of murderous beauty and deadly innocence, as epitomised by the following lesser-known but invariably lethal monsters of hoof and antler.

According to fable, the perytons were once a mighty race of noble beasts that inhabited the mountainous peaks of Atlantis. Here they lived in peace with all living things, until humanity’s evil gradually spread like a vile cancer across the entire expanse of this vast and glorious island continent. Eventually even the gods despaired of the Atlanteans, whose skills in the dark arts threatened the existence of the entire world, and so it was decided that Atlantis and all of its heathen practitioners must be destroyed. The gods duly besieged the continent with earthquakes, tidal waves, plagues, and, most catastrophic of all, an immense volcanic eruption that decimated Atlantis and finally sank this once-illustrious land beneath the waves, staining with blood and ash the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean.

Just before it vanished forever, however, the perytons were able to flee, flying far from their doomed homeland to find sanctuary amid the high peaks of Greece and also, on the far side of the Mediterranean, those of Carthage and elsewhere in North Africa. Here these formidable creatures vowed to take relentless, bloody revenge on all mankind for the annihilation of their idyllic Atlantean domain. If a peryton saw an opportunity to kill a human, it would take it unhesitatingly, and would be assured of success on account of its invulnerability to all weapons created by men. Moreover, once a peryton had killed a human, it would gain a prize valued beyond all others by these creatures. Fortunately for humanity, however, each peryton could only kill a single human with impunity – after that, its invulnerability was lost and it too could therefore be slain. But what were perytons – what did they look like? As will be revealed here, a peryton was unlike anything else that had ever existed, and so could not be mistaken for anything else – except, that is, when it resorted to a unique form of dark, fatal trickery.

After their enforced exile from Atlantis, a mighty flock of these lethal beasts had attacked a mighty Roman fleet led by the celebrated general Scipio as its flotilla of four-score war ships and countless accompanying transport vessels journeyed across the Mediterranean to sack Carthage, and the perytons had inflicted terrible carnage before they were eventually repelled with unparalleled success by Scipio’s formidable troops. Since then, the perytons had remained concealed and aloof from humans in their mountainous retreats, humiliated by their unwonted defeat and gradually diminishing in numbers as the centuries slipped by, until they had become largely forgotten by the world beyond their remote peaks, relegated like the harpies, the minotaur, and other monstrosities of long ago to the neverland of nightmare. But very occasionally, a nightmare can become a reality...

An interesting variation - Una Woodruff's spectacular painting of a blue, horned peryton in her superb book Inventorum Natura (1979), which attempts to recreate the lost journal of Pliny the Elder ((c) Una Woodruff)

It had been a weary journey for the once-valiant, now-broken knight crusader, returning to his Greek homeland not in jubilation but rather in desolation for all of his dead and dying comrades, and accompanied only by his faithful squire. During the past weeks, they had ridden far indeed from the hideous scenes of bloodshed and mayhem that they had experienced for so long but had now left behind amid the corpse-strewn battlefields of the Holy Crusade. Yet those same scenes, and even worse ones, still rampaged with unending fervour in their shattered minds and within every nightmare that their fevered, ever-disturbed bouts of sleep generated.

And now, scarcely had they returned home before their friends, neighbours, and other townsfolk had beseeched the knight to seek out and vanquish a mysterious monster that had supposedly been glimpsed from time to time amid the dark, forbidding mountains close by during his absence. No-one was certain of the beast’s appearance, but all were certain that it existed. And so, armed with lance and shield, the knight, accompanied once more by his trusty squire, set off along the lonely path that wound its way up through the forests towards the plenitude of caves and caverns that pitted the mountainsides like pockmarks on the face of a titan.

Who knows what the knight would face if he did indeed encounter a monster there? Having said that, the dread beasts of ancient Greek tradition were just stories and legends, weren’t they? And even if they had been real once upon a time, surely that time was long since past now? Then again, certain of those entities were said to be immortal, such as the twin sisters of Medusa - she of the petrifying stare and snake-locked hair. Could that be what lay ahead, lurking in wait for him – the last of the gorgons? Or might it instead be a conflagrating multi-headed dragon, or even a hag-faced harpy with foul wings and fouler breath, ready to tear him apart with her crooked beak and talons of steel?

At least such thoughts, unpleasant though they unquestionably were, had succeeded in supplanting those previously tenacious images of the battlefield’s carnage. So, in a strange way, the knight’s mood had actually begun to lighten and lift as he and his squire continued their cautious ascent along the mountain path.

By now, their little town had been left far behind, so far that it could no longer be clearly discerned even from their lofty vantage point. And ahead? A grey vista of cliff faces, cloud-embraced peaks, and shadowy cave mouths surrounded them. The monster, if it did indeed exist, could be anywhere – so where should they begin their search?

As if in answer to their unspoken question, a cry suddenly echoed forth from the bowels of a tall but fairly narrow cave to their left, whose entrance was at the end of a high corridor-like passage through some rocks. The knight and his squire paused, listening closely, and the cry came again. It was a human voice, surely, a man’s voice, calling out for help, pleading to be rescued before the monster appeared!

Armed and ready for mortal combat ((c) Dr Karl Shuker)

The knight and squire rode closer, but the knight was well aware from the ancient legends and superstitious folklore of his land that many monsters had successfully lured men and women to their doom by skilfully imitating a human voice. And so the knight called out, in the direction of the passage, for whoever was crying forth to show himself, and thus prove that he was human.

For a few moments there was silence, then came the sound of something moving slowly down the passage, until a shadow fell upon the exposed rock face at the passage’s entrance. It was the shadow of a man, a little stooped, perhaps, as if elderly or ailing, but undeniably human.

When the knight saw this, he and his squire rode up, approaching the entrance – but just before they reached it, the knight’s horse gave a wild neigh of fear and tried to swerve away, shaking in terror. Yet all that could be seen was the lone shadow of the man.

The knight looked away from the entrance as he sought to gain control of his panicking steed, which by now was thrashing its head from side to side and frothing madly in uncontrollable fright. And so it was his squire that saw who – or, rather, what – emerged from the passage to confront them.

Hearing his squire’s shrieks of horror, the knight turned back to look at the cave, and there, rearing up on its hind legs, was a beast that even in his wildest nightmares he had never thought of as anything other than fable and lurid fantasy. Yet here it was right now – only too real, and only too ready to kill him. It was a peryton!

On first sight it resembled a huge stag, sporting a pair of magnificent branching antlers, but as it reared directly in front of him, flailing its gleaming hooves, an enormous pair of plumed wings, sprouting from its shoulders, spread forth like the very pinions of Pegasus. And instead of fur, this unnatural creature was clothed in dark-green plumage, like some monstrous miscegenation of deer and tropical bird.

But most bizarre and uncanny of all was its shadow, which confirmed the creature’s identity as a bona fide peryton, albeit quite possibly the very last of its kind remaining on Earth. For there, cast upon the rock face as before, was not the shadow of a winged, feathered deer but instead the perfect facsimile of a human shadow – that which had fooled and lured the knight and his squire to the lair of this terrifying relic from an earlier world, whose eyes of fire and savage mien revealed only too readily its murderous intent.

For if a peryton should succeed in killing a human, not only would it rid the world of yet another member of the race that it would forever blame for the destruction of its own species’ blessed homeland, it would also gain something uniquely precious for itself – its own true shadow, the shadow of a peryton. Even so, upon killing a human a peryton would lose its resistance to man-made weapons, but that was a small price to pay – and it was evident that the peryton confronting the knight and his squire was more than willing to pay it.

All of this the knight knew only too well, as did his squire. In short, to vanquish this monster from a vanished land one of them must meet a grisly end - gored to death by the peryton’s antlers, then ripped asunder and trampled into the earth by its razor-sharp hooves. Undaunted, however, the knight swiftly dismounted from his nervy steed, and with shield and lance at the ready he slowly advanced on foot, signalling to his squire to stay back and hold his horse fast, in case he should need it. Perhaps the peryton possessed some vulnerable spot not spoken of in the old stories and myths – if so, he would find it, or die in the attempt.

Lowering its great head, the peryton eyed the knight with vibrant hatred, then charged toward him like a bull before a matador, but the knight fended it off with his burnished shield, rather than with a cloak of scarlet, which directed beams of sunlight into its eyes, temporarily blinding the raging creature and granting the knight precious moments in which to scrutinise it at close range in the hope of spying some weakness, some flaw, that might engineer its destruction.

But there was none.

If only he had known before ascending the mountain that the monster he would face there would be a peryton, he could have prepared himself accordingly, by abandoning human weapons and utilising the natural elements instead, against which the peryton had no invincibility. Fire or water to drive the creature back into its cavernous hideaway, and then perhaps the triggering of an avalanche in this unstable, rocky terrain, in order to imprison it inside the cave forever with a barrage of falling boulders sealing the entrance. That strategy might have succeeded, but now, now it was all too late.

A further representation of a peryton ((c) Tim Morris)

Time and again the peryton charged, and each time the knight deflected it with his shield, in a chilling dance of would-be death, but he was tiring. Months of fighting in the Crusade and weathering the most traumatic and draining of living conditions had severely weakened him – a lengthy respite from all forms of conflict was what he needed to recuperate, not a mortal battle with a monster of the peryton’s stature and power.

Suddenly, as he attempted yet another feint of the peryton’s antlers with his shield, the knight lost his footing, dropping his lance onto the ground as he stumbled backwards, falling awkwardly against the trunk of a tree. And in those few seconds while he struggled with the weight of his armour to stand upright, the peryton saw its opportunity and charged directly at him, hitting him with such force that his armour’s breastplate split down the centre, exposing his chest to the sharp tines of the peryton’s antlers. They pierced his torso with such force, impaling him upon themselves, that the peryton was momentarily pinned by its own antlers into the tree’s hard trunk, before, with a mighty heaving movement, it hauled them back out.

Freed from their deadly tines, the body of the dying knight slumped to the ground. His head turned one last time, to look at his squire, who stood transfixed with horror and rage at his master’s fate, and he smiled gently. By meeting his own demise at the antlers of the peryton, he had saved his squire, who had also been his friend for more years than either of them could remember, and so there was no shame in his defeat, only quiet thankfulness. The knight closed his eyes, and then, finally at peace with a world in which he had lately seen so much turmoil and terror, he died.

And at that same moment, the peryton let out a roar of triumphant joy, for as it gazed at its shadow against the rock face, the shadow began to shiver and tremble. Its outline became blurred and its form extended and expanded, rapidly transforming – until, within just a few moments, the shadow of a man had metamorphosed into the shadow of a peryton.

Exultant, the peryton opened its great wings, ready to depart elsewhere, to seek out a more remote land where, now that it was no longer impervious to human weapons, it could live on in safety and anonymity. But still it gazed at its new shadow, delighting in its appearance after dreaming of and waiting so long for this supreme moment, this ultimate triumph.

And so it never saw the squire creep across the ground and seize the lance of his dead master, and it never saw the squire take the lance in his right hand, pull back his arm, and take deadly aim with the lance at the peryton’s own chest. It never heard the squire’s muttered prayer to the God who had kept him and his master safe during the horrors of the Crusade, and it never felt the strong breeze that seemed to blow in from nowhere, lifting, bearing, and empowering the lance as the squire hurled it with all his might at the peryton’s chest.

The squire’s aim, guided surely by the divine breeze, found its mark – spearing the shocked peryton through the very centre of its beating heart, skewering it like a moth impaled upon a lepidopterist’s pin. Open-mouthed, the peryton turned its head to meet the flushed face of the squire, and as it sank to its knees, the last vision that the slain peryton saw was the squire’s own eyes, suffused with the raging, glowing fire of retribution as he watched with grim satisfaction the peryton’s death. He had avenged his master, his friend, and as he knelt before the knight’s body in thankful prayer for his success in doing so, the breeze momentarily caressed his cheek before disappearing as swiftly and mysteriously as it had arisen - leaving the squire in silent vigil.

Here in the mountains, he would remain, guarding the knight’s body throughout the oncoming hours of nightfall and darkness in a lone vigil, until the dawn’s first light, when he would then descend the winding path leading to their little town and seek help there in transporting with all due reverence and care his master back home, for the last time.

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (featuring Peter Goodfellow's fantastic front cover painting)

According to Jorge Luis Borges’s classic work The Book of Imaginary Beings (1969), which is often said to be the first modern-day book to document perytons, all of the information concerning these creatures that is known today is derived from a 16th-Century Fez rabbi’s historical treatise, or, rather, from the now-lost work of an unnamed scholar from ancient Greece that the rabbi had quoted in his own treatise. Borges asserted that until the outbreak of World War II, the single known copy of that treatise was held in the University of Dresden’s library. Tragically, however, perhaps as a result of the severe bombing of this German city by the Allies, or of the Nazis’ own notorious book-burning sessions, by the end of the war the rabbi’s unique manuscript had gone missing, and has never been found again – nor, indeed, has any additional copy of it.

Having said that, some authorities have suggested that Borges invented the entire peryton myth himself (including his assertions concerning the supposed erstwhile existence of the rabbi’s treatise, as well as another claim by him, that a sibyl had foretold – wrongly – that a phalanx of perytons would destroy Rome); and that, in fact, there was no peryton lore or tradition whatsoever prior to his book. However, there are several notable sources of winged deer information and portrayals (especially in heraldry, Western architecture and sculpture, early Hindu art, occultism, and even antique jewellery) that very considerably pre-date the publication of Borges’s book. Whether they are meant to represent genuine perytons is unclear, but they certainly exist.

As noted, for instance, in K. Krishna Murthy’s book Mythical Animals in Indian Art:

"The winged deer or stag...gets its sculptural representation more than once in the early Indian sculptures. However, the best specimens of the winged stags can be seen in the reliefs of Sanchi. A clear example of two winged stags sitting back to back occurs on the front of the northern Torana gateways."

Nor should we – or, indeed, could we – overlook the visual extravaganza that constitutes the glorious fountain replete with golden statues of winged deer that forms part of the huge garden around La Granja – the sumptuous palace in Segovia, Spain, that was built in 1721-24 by Philip V.

Perhaps the most distinctive British example is the ornate statue of a winged stag sitting upright on its haunches that is just one of many large, intricately-detailed sculptures of fantastic beings forming part of the elaborate fountain in the courtyard of West Lothian’s Linlithgow Palace. Nowadays, this Scottish palace is largely in ruins internally, but the fountain still survives and dates back to the reign of King James V (1512-1542).

Statue of a green winged stag at Linlithgow Palace ((c) amyhooton/deviantart)

Although the fountain’s winged stag statue may simply represent a composite heraldic beast, it is interesting to note that algal growth has turned it green in colour – the same colour that the perytons were said to be. Just a coincidence? Perhaps the next time that anyone visits this fountain, they should take note of the shadow cast by the winged stag’s green statue. If the shadow resembles a winged stag, then clearly all is well – but what if it resembles a man...?

A second photo of Linlithgow Palace's winged stag statue




Friday, 18 November 2011

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE PURPLE MACAW?

John G. Keulemans's painting of the purple macaw in Lord Walter Rothschild's Extinct Birds (1907)

Famed for their gaudy plumage, macaws come in many colours, but purple has never been one of them – or has it?

The genus Anodorhynchus – the so-called blue macaws - contains three present-day species (though one of them, the glaucous macaw, may have lately become extinct). Interestingly, in terms of plumage colouration, this genus's trio can be arranged in a very neat gradation, beginning with, as its name indicates, the intense hyacinth-blue shade of the hyacinth (or hyacinthine) macaw A. hyacinthinus, then moving subtly into the slightly more turquoise-blue hues of Lear's macaw A. leari, which then transforms further, yielding a paler, turquoise-green shade, in the aptly-named glaucous macaw A. glaucus.

Brazilian postage stamp portraying all three species of recognised Anodorhynchus macaw - hyacinth (left), glaucous (centre), Lear's (right)

But what if this colour gradation were also extrapolated in the opposite direction? That is, in addition to the hyacinth macaw's striking blue hue faintly greening into turquoise and thence even more so into a glaucus tone, how about deepening it, to yield a macaw whose plumage was a darker, predominantly violet or purple shade? If this quartet of macaws were then arranged in a continuous linear spectrum of transforming colour, running from purple into blue into turquoise-blue into pale turquoise-green, the line-up would be: purple macaw, hyacinth macaw, Lear's macaw, and glaucous macaw. Of course, the purple macaw is purely hypothetical – isn't it?

In reality, such a bird may indeed have existed. Based upon certain centuries-old eyewitness accounts, in 1905 no less an ornithological authority than Lord Walter Rothschild - founder of the famous ornithological museum at Tring in Hertfordshire (now part of London's Natural History Museum but still based at Tring) - formally described a mysterious long-extinct macaw-like bird from Guadeloupe, which he christened Anodorhynchus purpurascens, the purple macaw (also referred to by some authorities as the violet macaw, and sometimes accorded the incorrect specific name purpurescens). His description of it was published in volume 16 of the British Ornithologists Club's Bulletin.

A pair of photoshopped purple macaws (original source unknown to me)

Rothschild also included this species in his book Extinct Birds (1907), together with the specially-prepared colour plate included here in this ShukerNature post of mine. His original source of information was a brief account penned by a 'Don de Navarette', entitled 'Le gros Perroquet de la Guadaloupe [sic]', which appeared in Rel. Quat. Voy. Christ. (1838). This writer was actually none other than Martin Fernández de Navarrete y Ximénez de Tejada (1765-1844) - a Spanish sailor-historian who rediscovered an abstract by Spanish reformer-bishop Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566) of the log made by Christopher Columbus during his first voyage to the West Indies.

This account stated that according to Columbus, who visited the island in November 1493 during his second New World voyage, there lived on Guadeloupe a very large type of macaw that was entirely of a deep, intense violet/purple colour, and which the native Carib people referred to as the oné couli. No such bird lives there today, however, and neither a single preserved specimen nor even an illustration prepared directly by an eyewitness exists of this enigmatic purple macaw.

Conversely, until the early 18th Century, a second species of parrot with violet feathers definitely did live there. This was the Guadeloupe amazon parrot Amazona violacea, which was formally described and named by German naturalist Johann Friedrich Gmelin in 1789, around which time it became extinct, due to hunting for food and wholesale clearance of the forests in which it thrived.

John G. Keulemans's painting of the Guadeloupe amazon parrot in Lord Walter Rothschild's Extinct Birds (1907)

Although, just like the purple macaw, there is no known preserved specimen of the Guadeloupe amazon in existence, unlike the purple macaw this showy parrot is nonetheless known from good, consistent descriptions of it given by several naturalists (such as Jean-Baptiste Labat, and French zoologist Mathurin Jacques Brisson) and travellers (notably French missionary Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre). Consequently, in his authoritative book Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World (2nd revised edit., 1967), ornithologist James C. Greenway Jr from the American Museum of Natural History suggested that Navarrete's description of the violet-plumed oné couli may in fact have been nothing more than "a careless description of A. violacea".

In my view, however, it would need to have been an exceptionally careless description in order to confuse a long-tailed parrot the size of a macaw with a much smaller, short-tailed amazon. Moreover, whereas the purple macaw was said to be entirely violet/purple, in the Guadeloupe amazon this particular colour was confined predominantly to its head and neck (and even there it was a slaty black-violet rather than an intense purple). In stark contrast, this amazon's back, tail, and much of its wings and underparts were deep green, with portions of its wings additionally sporting bright yellow, red, and jet-black feathers. Not only with regard to its size and shape, therefore, but also in relation to its multicoloured plumage, I fail to see how this species could in any way be mistaken for a wholly purple macaw.

Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World (2nd revised edit., 1967) by James C. Greenway Jr

A second suggestion offered by Greenway, and one that is also supported by various other ornithological scholars, is that Guadeloupe's purple macaws may simply have been hyacinth or even Lear's macaws imported by trading natives into Guadeloupe from the South American mainland. Again, however, it is difficult to see how the unequivocally blue plumage of the former species or even the slightly more turquoise tones of the latter one could come to be described as deep violet or purple.

So here, leaving it lingering perpetually in a shadowy ornithological limbo as a avian of tantalising ambiguity unless any additional information concerning it should one day become available, is where we must take our leave of Guadeloupe's very perplexing purple macaw – a bird that may, or may not, have existed, but which, if it truly did, and was indeed a macaw, must surely have been one of the most beautiful creatures ever seen by the eyes of its extremely fortunate beholders.


UPDATE - DON'T FORGET ABOUT THE BLACK MACAW EITHER!

On 16 May 2012, I received a much-anticipated newly-published book – Extinct Birds, by Julian P. Hume and Michael Walters. Unquestionably the most detailed book ever prepared on the subject, it documents many extraordinarily obscure species and subspecies that, despite my longstanding interest in such birds, were new to me.

One of these was the black macaw Anodorhynchus ater, a truly cryptic species in every sense. It was first documented by De Laet in 1630, and then described by British naturalist Dr John Latham in 1781 (who dubbed it the black macaw), followed by German naturalist Johann F. Gmelin in 1788 (basing his description upon Latham's and christening it Psittacus ater – its first taxonomic name). According to these accounts, the black macaw was native to Guyana, but Hume & Walters consider it to be an invalid taxon based upon inadequate descriptions. I have yet to see the three accounts noted above, but if I can locate any of them, I will expand this section accordingly at a later date.

Incidentally, this mysterious macaw should not be confused with the very familiar hyacinth macaw A. hyacinthinus, which is occasionally dubbed the black macaw, due to its local Tupi Indian name, 'arara una', which translates literally as 'dark macaw' or 'black macaw' (even though its plumage is blue!).

A fake online photograph of a purple-plumaged macaw, resulting from computer modification by person(s) unknown of an online photograph of a hyacinth macaw (source unknown to me)