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

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Tuesday, 31 December 2013

THE LANAI HOOKBILL – A LESSON IN HOW SCIENTIFIC RECOGNITION CAN SOMETIMES COME TOO LATE

Schematic colour representation of the Lanai hookbill (L. Shyamal/Wikipedia)

There are a number of enigmatic species of bird that have fascinated me since childhood but regarding which I had only ever succeeded in uncovering the most scant of details prior to the coming of the internet, and for which I have now compensated by devoting entire ShukerNature blog posts to them. Click here, for example, to access my coverage of Madagascar's kinkimavo and the Bornean bristle-head; click here for the so-called Bourbon Island hoopoe, actually an extraordinary, now-extinct starling; and click here for the decidedly clamorous go-away-birds. Another one of these near-mystery birds is the Lanai hookbill, traditionally confined to the briefest of footnotes in Planet Earth's vast ornithological encyclopaedia. But no more. Here at last is a more detailed account worthy of this interesting, unusual, and engaging (but also very tragic) little bird.

The Hawaiian islands are home to a remarkable taxon of small, brightly-coloured finch-like birds (sometimes given separate family status) that are found nowhere else in the world. Known collectively as the drepanidids or Hawaiian honeycreepers, their 30-odd species sport such delightful native names as the iiwi, amakihi, anianiau, palila, ula-ai-hawane, and akiapolaau. They have attracted considerable ornithological interest on account of their wide diversity of beak shapes. Some species have short thin pointed beaks useful for catching insects, others have broad powerful beaks adept at splitting seeds and nuts, and still others have long curved slender beaks for dipping into flowers in search of nectar.

A selection of Hawaiian honeycreeper species, demonstrating their extreme diversity in beak form (© H. Douglas Pratt)

Tragically, however, many of these attractive little birds are now either extinct or gravely endangered, due to a lethal combination of avian diseases brought to the islands by non-native birds introduced by man, habitat destruction, predation by other introduced non-native creatures such as rats, and slaughter for their pretty feathers to be used in tribal decorations.

The iiwi Vestiaria coccinea – one of the most beautiful and also (thankfully!) still one of the more abundant (relatively speaking) of the Hawaiian honeycreepers, although even its numbers have declined sufficiently in recent times for it to be categorised nowadays as Vulnerable by the IUCN (© Jack Jeffery/American Bird Conservancy – click here for more details of this organisation's sterling work)

As a result, some honeycreepers are little-known, represented by only a few specimens and scant native information – but none more so than the Lanai hookbill. That is because this enigmatic species is known entirely from a single specimen and just two other sightings by the person who obtained that specimen.

On 22 February 1913, ornithologist George C. Munro spied an unfamiliar honeycreeper in the Kaiholena Valley on the small Hawaiian island of Lanai. The trusting little bird, predominantly yellow in colour but with darker wings, legs, nape, and top of head, plus a notably hooked parrot-like beak, chirped and flew to a spot near to him.

Sadly, however, as this was still a time when collecting specimens of birds for museums and private collections interested scientists far more than conserving them alive in their natural habitat, Munro promptly shot it, and after examining its corpse he realised that this bird did not correspond with any other honeycreeper species on record.

Acrylic on paper painting of the Lanai hookbill's type (and only) specimen (© Julian Hume)

When it was formally described in 1919 by Hawaiian bird specialist Robert C.L. Perkins, he declared that it represented a new species (and genus), which he duly named Dysmorodrepanis munroi after Munro. Moreover, Munro claimed to have had two further sightings of birds fitting his shot specimen’s description (one on 16 March 1916, the other on 12 August 1918, both of them in Lanai's southwestern portion).

Even so, no additional example has ever been obtained; nor have any other sightings been reported since 1918. As most of its forest habitat on Lanai had been cut down and replaced by pineapple fields by 1940, however, the hookbill's absence here is little short of inevitable, especially when coupled with the introduction onto its island home of rats and cats, as well as avian diseases brought here by non-native bird species.

Nevertheless, for a long time the Lanai hookbill was brusquely dismissed by the ornithological world as either a beak-deformed, semi-albinistic female specimen of a superficially similar species of Hawaiian honeycreeper known as the ou Psittirostra psittacea (now critically endangered), or a rare hybrid of two separate Hawaiian honeycreeper species.

Female ou (above) and male ou (© F.W. Frohawk)

In June 1989, conversely, a very detailed reassessment of its unique, type specimen (preserved at the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu) by ornithological researchers Drs Helen F, James, Richard L. Zusi, and Storrs L. Olson, published in the Wilson Ornithological Society's quarterly Wilson Bulletin, revealed that it was a genuine species after all. Certainly, its tongue and in particular its truly remarkable beak (whose mandibles yielded a noticeable gap even when closed, so that they resembled pincers, and may have been used for feeding upon snails) were very distinctive.

Tragically, however, with no sightings on record for many decades, the Lanai hookbill is unquestionably long-extinct - its belated scientific recognition having come far too late to save this fascinating little bird.

Beautiful illustration of the Lanai hookbill as featured in the Wilson Bulletin paper by James, Zusi, and Olson (© Nancy Payzant/Wilson Bulletin)

This ShukerNature article is dedicated with love to my late grandmother, Gertrude Timmins, whose birthday it is today; she passed away in 1994 at the very venerable age of 99. Nan always said how her mother had told her that just moments after she was born, the bells welcoming in the New Year began pealing all over town. Nan was my Mom's mom, and I know that they are together in Heaven with God, looking down on me now as I deal with the last few hours of 2013, after which I shall at last be rid of this accursed year that took Mom from me. God bless you Mom and Nan, and I pray that 2014 will be a better year.

All images here (and in all ShukerNature blog posts) are included on a strictly Fair Use non-commercial basis.



Thursday, 26 December 2013

YOU'LL BELIEVE AN ELEPHANT CAN FLY…POSSIBLY? PACHYDERMS WITH WINGS - AND OTHER STRANGE THINGS!

Roger Dean's spectacular flying elephant artwork for the cover of the second Osibisa album, Woyaya (© MCA/Osibisa/Roger Dean)

Although I pride myself on covering the more unusual and unexpected of subjects in this blog, flying elephants is a first even for ShukerNature. Then again, it is the festive season – and if we can't suspend disbelief at this time of year (which is, after all, the one period when our faith in the reality of certain other gravity-unencumbered ungulates – namely, aerial reindeer - is all but compulsory), then when can we? So here, as a yuletide diversion, is my exclusive examination of airborne pachyderms.

And where better to begin than with the most famous example of all – Walt Disney's Dumbo.

Dumbo in triplicate – a selection of Disney plush toys (© Dr Karl Shuker)

In contrast to the predominant policy during the first half-century or so of Disney-produced animated feature films, the movie Dumbo, released in 1941 and Walt Disney Productions' fourth such feature, was not based upon or even inspired by a well-known novel or traditional fairy tale. Instead, it emanated directly from a scarcely-known short story written by Helen Aberson and illustrated by Harold Pearl that had only just been released in a newly-devised prototype story-telling toy format known as Roll-A-Book in late 1939 when it was seen by Kay Kamen, Disney's head of merchandise licensing. When she showed it to Walt Disney, he was instantly convinced that its rights should be purchased and its story used as the basis of a future animated feature. This is indeed what happened, very swiftly too, and the rest is history.

Making friends with Dumbo (© Dr Karl Shuker)

This all-time classic Disney film centres around a baby travelling-circus elephant christened Jumbo Junior by his mother, Mrs Jumbo, but whose extra-large ears make him the butt of spiteful jokes by the other circus elephants, who also cruelly nickname him Dumbo. And when his mother tries to protect him, she is taken away and imprisoned in solitary confinement as a mad elephant. Happily, however, Dumbo is briefly reunited with her in a touching scene that features her singing to him while still in jail the tear-jerking lullaby 'Baby Mine'. Following an accidental, champagne-induced bout of inebriation in which he hallucinates a psychedelic panorama of pink elephants, Dumbo and his only friend, Timothy Mouse, assisted by a raucous but good-hearted flock of crows, make the astonishing discovery that he can actually use his huge ears as wings and fly! As a result, Dumbo the flying elephant soon becomes the star of the entire circus, and his mother, swiftly released from jail, now proudly resides in her son's opulent private circus carriage.

The Dumbo merry-go-round at Walt Disney World (© Dr Karl Shuker)

At only 64 minutes long, Dumbo is among the shortest of all animated features, but that didn't prevent it from becoming one of Disney's best-loved cartoon films. It also won the Academy Award for 'Best Scoring of a Musical Picture' in 1941 (and 'Baby Mine' was nominated that same year for the 'Best Original Song' Academy Award). Moreover, one of the most popular attractions, especially among small children, when visiting Disneyland (opened in Anaheim, California, in 1955), Walt Disney World (opened in Orlando, Florida, in 1971, and which I visited in 1981), and Disneyland Paris (opened in Paris, France, in 1992) is the Dumbo merry-go-round.

However, Dumbo is not the only cartoon flying elephant. Indeed, he is not even Disney's only cartoon flying elephant.

Down through the years, Disney has produced a succession of Winnie the Pooh featurettes. The second and most critically acclaimed of these was Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, released in 1968, which deservedly won the 'Best Animated Short Film' Academy Award that year. This was no doubt due to it not only featuring the screen debut of the very popular and delightfully wacky character Tigger, but also for including a decidedly surreal but extremely memorable, song-accompanied dream/nightmare sequence. In this sequence, Pooh desperately strives to protect his beloved honey from a multi-coloured, polka-dotted plague of elephants and weasels - or, as Tigger amusingly mispronounces them, heffalumps and woozles. And among the former contingent of would-be honey pilferers is an enormous winged bumblebee with the head and the limbs of an elephant. An elebee, or a bumblephant?

Pooh and his honey pot attracts unwelcome attention from a flying heffalump of the bumblebee persuasion (© Walt Disney Productions)

Moving to a very different but no less spectacular artistic representation of flying elephants: in 1970, the celebrated fantasy artist Roger Dean was commissioned to prepare two striking album covers for the Ghanaian Afro-pop band Osibisa, based in London. The result was a pair of extraordinarily eyecatching, totally unforgettable illustrations. The first of these, for the band's self-titled debut album, Osibisa, released by MCA in 1971, featured some flying elephants of normal grey colouration but sporting huge multicoloured wings and a decidedly sinister, malevolent demeanour. The second one, for the band's follow-up album, Woyaya, also released by MCA in 1971, featured a single scarlet-skinned flying elephant equipped with a long slender pair of translucent dragonfly-like wings, and claws instead of hooves.

Roger Dean's wonderful artwork for the first Osibisa album's cover (© MCA/Osibisa/Roger Dean)

Although flying elephants have yet to feature in any cryptozoological case, one such example has indeed appeared in a truly delightful publication of the pseudozoological variety.

I coined the term 'pseudozoology' quite some time ago to describe spoof publications and specimens, i.e. books describing totally fictitious creatures but in such a completely sober, straight-faced manner that they deliberately give the impression that the animals documented by them are real, and specimens created artificially but afterwards presented or publicly exhibited as if they were genuine. Originally published in German in 1957 and first published in English a decade later, perhaps the most famous, celebrated work of pseudozoology is The Snouters: Form and Life of the Rhinogrades. Those were respectively the colloquial and the formal zoological names given by the book's equally fictitious German author, Prof. Harald Stümpke, to a unique taxonomic group of mammals that had lately been discovered in a now-sunken Pacific archipelago. As chronicled by him in detail, they all exhibited extreme nasal modifications, enabling certain species to walk upon their noses, and some even to catch prey with them.

The Snouters: Form and Life of the Rhinogrades (© University of Chicago Press)

Less familiar but no less entertaining is Dr. Ameisenhaufen's Fauna, researched by Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, and published in 1988. In this book, they too describe a range of fantastic creatures all of which were claimed to be real by the brilliant but mysteriously missing Munich-born zoologist Prof. Peter Ameisenhaufen (in a delightful, knowing in-joke for pseudozoological aficionados, Ameisenhaufen is also credited in this book as being closely associated with rhinograde researcher Harald Stümpke). These creatures include such wonders as the olpico-nu Cercopithecus icarocornu, a winged unicorn monkey from Brazil's Amazon jungle; Solenoglypha polipodida, a 12-legged lizard-like reptile with venomous bite and hypnotic whistle, as well as a selection of avian attributes, hailing from Tamil Nadu in southern India; and the hengo-go Threschelonia atis, a tortoise-carapaced ibis from the Galapagos archipelago. Most astonishing of all, however, is a winged elephant from Kenya known as the aerophant, but even the exceedingly open-minded Ameisenhaufen had difficulty in accepting its reality, which is based principally upon the following dubious photograph:

A pair of aerophants (© European Photography)

Wonderful!

An expertly photomanipulated aerophant-like flying elephant against an unexpected backdrop (© Ozile/Deviantart.com – for full details, click here)

Flying elephants may not be known in mainstream zoology, or even in cryptozoology, but they certainly appear in traditional Eastern legends and lore. For example, according to one such fable, all elephants were originally winged. One day, however, an elephant alighted upon a banyan tree somewhere north of the Himalayas and crashed down upon a meditating holy man sitting beneath its branches, because the elephant was too heavy for the tree to support its great weight. The holy man – a yogi named Dirghatapas - was so angered by this that he cursed the poor elephant, causing its wings to fall off. And since that fateful day, all elephants have been wingless.

A golden statuette of a flying elephant, symbolising Koetai Kartanegara Sultanate (© Agus EM)

In Chinese mythology, a white rat called Hua-hu Tiao was kept by Mo-li Shou, one of the four Diamond Kings of Heaven, inside a bag made from panther skin. But when Mo-li Shou decided to teach mortal humans the error of their ways, he released Hua-hu Tiao, who immediately transformed into a white-winged flying elephant and began devouring them – until it swallowed the hero Yang Chien, who promptly killed this monstrous beast by tearing its heart in two and ripping open its belly from the inside.

Fantasy white flying elephant artwork (© Yuliya/Golden Section Jewellery – click here for more details)

There is also a Bhili folktale that tells of how a flying elephant came down from the sky each night to eat a farmer's sugar cane in his fields, until one night the farmer lay in wait, and when the elephant landed, he seized hold of its tail. The elephant flew off, carrying the farmer with it, to the supreme Hindu deity Indra's kingdom of Paradise. There the farmer met Indra, who apologised for the elephant's theft and permitted the farmer to take whatever he wished in recompense. The farmer was content to take two handful of gems, and he was then carried back down to Earth by the elephant. Now a rich man, the farmer built a big house for himself and his family, but it wasn't long before all of his neighbours learnt how he had obtained the gems.

Eastern flying elephant painting (© Irena Shklover)

Eager to emulate his good fortune, they swiftly planted their own field of sugar cane, in order to lure Indra's heavenly elephant down to Earth, having decided that they too would be transported to Paradise but would then take back home with them much more treasure than just two handfuls of gems. When the elephant flew down, they seized hold of each other in a chain, with the neighbour at one end of the chain holding the elephant's tail, and in this way they were indeed carried up towards Paradise when the animal flew away. Unfortunately for them, however, before they reached their destination the neighbour holding the elephant's tail stretched open his arms while describing how much wealth he planned to bring back home, and in so doing he let go of the tail, thus causing all of the villagers including himself to fall back down to Earth. When Indra learned of the villagers' greed, he planted a field of sugar cane himself, in Paradise, so that now his flying elephant would never come down to Earth again, and the villagers would therefore never be able to reach Paradise in search of its treasure.

Celestial flying elephant (original image source unknown to me)

Flying elephants are also represented diversely in Asian art. For instance: a flying elephant is the symbol of Koetai (aka Kutai) Kartanegara Sultanate, a regency in Indonesia's East Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo.

The magnificent statue of a winged elephant at Chiang Mai (© Jen K/Flickr)

An enormous, venerated statue of a resplendant winged elephant stands majestically in Chiang Mai in Thailand, where it is a very popular tourist attraction. And back in Indonesia, especially Bali, beautifully painted winged elephants carved by local craftsmen from albesia wood are frequently hung as mobiles in homes and temples there, where they allegedly chase away evil spirits.

My Balinese winged elephant mobile (© Dr Karl Shuker)

As for the West: children's author Enid Blyton got in on the act by writing a Noddy book entitled Noddy and the Flying Elephant, first published in 1952 by Sampson Low. This was also the first book in the 'Noddy Ark' series.

Noddy and the Flying Elephant (© Enid Blyton Estate/Sampson Low)

In short: aerial reindeer may be of seasonal occurrence only, and we all know how likely it is that pigs will fly. As far as flying elephants are concerned, conversely, they are clearly a lot more abundant around the world than you may have previously realised. But please ensure that you don't sit beneath the branches of a tree in which one has just alighted, because if you do, the fate of Dirghatapas may not be the only unpleasant experience in store for you. Remember, elephants eat plenty of fibre...

And finally: if you're wondering why - or how - I've resisted mentioning anything about jumbo jets, it's only because I've been biding my time. For here, ladies and gentlemen, I give you right now, in the following video (kindly brought to my attention by Fortean researcher Bob Skinner), the jumbo jet to end all jumbo jets! Click here, and all will be revealed!

Well, we can't be serious all the time!

A very charming flying elephant created by Photoshop (© worth1000.com)




Sunday, 15 December 2013

THE DRAGONS OF OCEANIA


Bunyip (© Richard Svensson)

Dragons belonging to the wingless but quadrupedal classical category are most closely associated with Europe, but some have been reported far away from that continent. Among the most fascinating yet least-known of these remotely-located classical dragons were those of Oceania.

Australia was home to several very different forms. One of them was a freshwater version known as the kurreah, which inhabited Boobera Lagoon's deep lakes and underground springs in New South Wales. Thanks to its crocodilian jaws, it was sometimes assumed by Westerners to be nothing more than a real crocodile, but was much more than that. Not only was its body very elongate and snake-like, its extremely lengthy, slender tail was prehensile, able to grip anything that it wrapped its tip around. Its feet were broadly webbed, it sometimes sported exotic frills around its neck, was of colossal size, covered in thick scales, and occurred in several different colours, including green and orange. If a kurreah spied anyone swimming in its abode, it would not hesitate to seize the hapless human in its huge jaws and haul him underwater, to drown and then devour him.

Kurreahs (© Janet & Anne Grahame Johnstone/Purnell & Sons Ltd)

Even more ferocious than the kurreah, however, was the burrunjor, a huge wingless dragon named after a remote expanse of Arnhem Land in northern Australia called Burrunjor where it allegedly roamed – and still does today, at least according to local aboriginal testimony. Whereas most classical dragons were quadrupeds, the burrunjor was bipedal, striding purposefully along upon its hind limbs like a carnivorous theropod dinosaur from prehistory, and aboriginal cave art portraying a creature fitting this description still exists in the Burrunjor region. Similar monsters also exist in the folklore of several tribes inhabiting Papua New Guinea.

Burrunjor (© William Rebsamen)

Another bipedal dragon Down Under was the gauarge or gowargay. Resembling a featherless emu, this pitiless monster frequented water holes. If anyone were foolish enough to bathe in a gauarge's water hole, it would whip it up into a mighty whirlpool and drag the unfortunate bather down into its swirling depths to drown him.

A notably dragonesque bunyip (© Angus McBride)

The most famous freshwater dragon in Australia, however, was definitely the bunyip. Although modern reports of mysterious creatures reputed to be bunyips are often likened to dog-headed mammalian creatures, the traditional bunyip of aboriginal lore was a huge aquatic wingless dragon, whose fearsome presence was readily made apparent by its spine-chilling, ear-splitting bellow.

Bunyips were fiercely protective of their young, and one famous myth tells of how a whole tribe was transformed into black swans when one of their hunters abducted a young bunyip from its lake and was relentlessly pursued by its enraged mother, in whose wake the entire lake was drawn up, completely submerging the tribe's village.

The story of the bunyip and the villagers transformed into black swans, in Once Long Ago (1962), retold by Roger Lancelyn Green and illustrated by  Vojtěch Kubašta (© Roger Lancelyn Green/ Vojtěch Kubašta/Golden Pleasure Books) [to read these pages, click their images to enlarge them]

The mindi was a very specialised form of bunyip, very serpentine in body form, so was sometimes referred to as a bunyip-snake and deemed to be a rainbow dragon too. Of immense size, and possessing magical powers according to the ancient lore of the Yarra Yarra aboriginal people, it could readily poison any would-be attacker and also spread disease.

Yet another water dragon of Australia was the oorundoo, native to the Murray River. According to aboriginal legends, this enormous aquatic beast created Lakes Victoria and Albert.

New Zealand's native dragons were (or are?) the taniwha. Looking somewhat like gigantic gecko lizards or colossal tuataras (the tuatara being a unique, primitive reptile surviving only in New Zealand), but bearing a row of long sharp spines along the centre of their back, taniwha are still seriously believed in even today by the Maori people, and are said to have formidable supernatural powers.

Taniwha carving (public domain)

In 2002, a major highway in New Zealand had to be rerouted because of Maori claims that it would otherwise intrude upon the abode of a taniwha. And as recently as 2012, a similar objection arose in relation to the planned $2.6 billion construction of a tunnel in Auckland, with protestors claiming that this would disturb a taniwha that lived under the city.

Auckland notwithstanding, these formidable dragons normally inhabited dark, secluded localities on land, as well as in large freshwater pools, and sometimes in the sea too, and were reputedly able to tunnel directly through the earth, often causing floods or landslides as a result. Each taniwha was allied to a specific Maori tribe that it protected as long as it received a fitting level of respect and veneration, but it would often attack and devour members of other tribes.

Also present in Maori traditions are the ngarara – giant lizard-like land dragons seemingly resembling monitor lizards (even though these are not known to be native to New Zealand). Various ngarara could assume the form of a beautiful young woman (as could some taniwha).

An ngarara depicted upon a New Zealand postage stamp issued in 2000 (© New Zealand Post Office/New Zealand Government)

Very prevalent in traditional Hawaiian mythology is an enormous shiny-black wingless dragon of infamously mercurial temperament known as the moho or mo'o. Like certain dragons of New Zealand but otherwise unlike most dragons elsewhere in the world outside the Orient, the moho was a skilled shape-shifter, normally measuring 10-30 ft long but able to transform instantly if need be into a tiny, inconspicuous gecko-like lizard, as well as a beautiful seductive woman.

Invariably associated with water, the moho was predominantly a guardian spirit deity, protecting individuals or entire families, as well as districts, and specific localities such as fishponds – which if deep enough were frequently inhabited by these dragon deities. Although they would often remain hidden beneath the water, consuming in ecstasy the intoxicating kava root, their presence in such ponds was betrayed if there was foam upon the surface, or if fishes caught there tasted bitter.

Mo'o carved from stone, by Hoaka Delos Reyes (© Honolulu Advertiser)

Similar dragons were reported from other Pacific Ocean islands or island groups too, including Tahiti and Tonga. Indeed, they were actively worshipped on Tahiti by the royal Oropa'a family. And on Tonga, lizard-like or crocodile-like dragons of prodigious size and lake-dwelling propensity, reputedly sent by the gods, would seize unwary bathers or women washing items in their lakes, and promptly plunge down into the water with them, drowning their unfortunate victims beneath the surface.

My favourite bunyip-featuring newspaper cartoon (© Daily Mirror, Sydney, 9 June 1978)

This ShukerNature blog is an exclusive excerpt from my latest, newly-published book, Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (Coachwhip Publications: Greenville, 2013).





Thursday, 12 December 2013

PIGGING OUT AT CHRISTMAS - IT'S GRIM WITH THE GLOSO


Chased by the gloso! (© Richard Svensson)

Welcome to a seasonal ShukerNature post, featuring a little-known but greatly-feared preternatural creature long associated with Swedish Yuletide.

In Britain, the animals most closely linked to Christmastime via folklore and other traditions include such familiar and generally friendly species as the robin, the reindeer, and the turkey. In Skåne and Blekinge, the two southernmost provinces of Sweden, conversely, a very different, and far more daunting, creature pervades the Season of Goodwill, and its presence is anything but good. Scarcely known outside its Scandinavian provenance, outwardly it resembles a pig, but no ordinary one, for this preternatural entity is in many ways the porcine equivalent of Britain's phantasmal Black Dogs, and is just as dangerous!

Most commonly referred to as the gloso (other names for it include the galoppso and the gluppso, all translating as 'galloping sow'), this dire beast is grim in every sense of the word. This is because the gloso is a church grim (or kyrkogrim in Sweden), i.e. a supernatural creature derived from the spirit of an animal or person supposedly sacrificed when the foundation of a church was built, and which now protects the church and its grounds for all eternity, and cannot be killed by any normal weapon. Generally, the gloso lives either within the cemetery of the church to which it is bound, or within a mound in a field directly adjacent to that church.

A stop-motion puppet of the gloso from a film by Richard Svensson (© Richard Svensson)

Those unfortunate enough to have encountered this terrifying entity liken it in basic appearance to an enormous female domestic pig, usually jet-black in colour (though sometimes ghostly white), but with a ridge of razor-sharp spines or bristles running down the centre of its back, a pair of huge tusks curving out from its jaws, eyes that glow a fiery red, and the fearful yet very real ability to breathe fire. Other tangible, physical abilities attributed to the gloso, and which thereby distinguish it from insubstantial ghosts or spectres, include its predilection for devouring fresh corpses in the churchyard and for sharpening its tusks upon gravestones. It also leaves visible tracks in its wake.

The gloso can be encountered at any time during the year, but it is said to be at its most malign during the week linking Christmas and the New Year. And yet it is during this same week when it can also be its most beneficial – provided a certain magical rite associated with it is performed correctly. If this rite is not, however, the person performing it will not live to see in the New Year!

According to Swedish legend, on the evening of Christmas Day (and also on New Year's Eve) anyone can discover everything that will happen to them during the incoming New Year if they are brave enough to withstand an assault by the gloso. The ritual stipulates that after the sun has set, you must visit four different churches in four different parishes, walk around each church in an anti-clockwise direction, and then blow through the keyhole of each church's door. After blowing through the keyhole of the fourth church's door, if you then peer through it you will witness all of the most notable events that await you in the New Year, rushing before your eyes in a rapid stream of images like a speeded-up movie film.

Another view of the stop-motion gloso puppet from a film by Richard Svensson (© Richard Svensson)

But for such precious insights, you must pay a steep price – the wrath of the gloso. For it will abruptly appear and chase after you, spurting hot blasts of fire at your rear end and striving to run between your legs so that its ridge of razor-sharp bristles can rip you apart. Happily, however, if you are brave enough to attempt the feat, there is one way in which this dread beast can be pacified – by turning around and facing it, with an arm outstretched, offering it a loaf of bread. If the gloso allows you to feed it the bread, you are safe. If not...

In some variations upon this legend, the same gift of New Year foresight can be obtained by confronting the gloso at a crossroads instead. As a teenager, the maternal grandmother of Swedish artist and cryptozoologist Richard Svensson once visited a crossroads in Blekinge on New Year's Eve for the express purpose of conjuring forth the gloso – though merely to see it rather than to witness what the New Year held in store for her. (Un)fortunately, however, the gloso failed to materialise.

The gloso, from a bestiary by Richard Svensson (© Richard Svensson)

The gloso is also part of a much lengthier, more complex magical ritual in which the person taking part is hoping to gain psychic talents, and this multi-stage ritual has to be performed on several different magically-potent dates, including Christmas night once again. Here is how Swedish folklorist Håkan Lindh described it to me:

"The ritual was a kind of vision-quest that a person who wanted to gain psychic gifts undertook several years in a row. After a bit of fasting he went out, under absolute silence, on a night-time walk to powerful places, a graveyard, a stream running towards north, a holy well, etc, and during these walks he was given trials. One of these was Gloso, and he avoided danger by just keeping his legs together and refusing to show fear. If he did, he came to no harm and gained a bit of magic power. Next year he met something else, a dragon turned into a chicken, for example, Odin on a horse, a band of aggressive Vättar [Norse nature spirits], and so on and on. While the ceremony went on, he got visions about who would die in the different homes he passed by, who would get ill, and what he could do to cure those illnesses. He also gained material magic tools too during these walks, like bones from dead people etc.

"This ritual continued to be performed until c.150 years ago, and I personally know a few who have tried it recently."

In some Swedish traditions, moreover, the gloso haunts lonely roads where murders have occurred. Håkan has mentioned to me that just a few miles north of his home village in Halland, Skåne, is one such locality (where a murder took place during a botched robbery), and that alleged sightings of the gloso have been reported there and in the woods nearby.

It is possible that the gloso is a remnant of earlier Nordic legends appertaining to Gullinburste ('Golden Hair'). Named after its golden bristles, and also known as Slidrugtanne ('Horrible Tusks'), this was the great boar that pulled the chariot of the Norse deity Frey, god of fertility and pleasure. Moreover, in Blekinge there is even a local myth neatly combining Norse tradition with Christianity, in which every year St Thomas, armed with a mighty sword, rides a tamed gloso during the Christmas week to rid the land of fatally-alluring troll-maidens and other malevolent pagan beings - especially during the evening of 21 December, known as Thomas's Eve. Presumably, his saintly status affords him immunity from being torn in two by his gloso's lethal back-bristles while riding it!

The Norse god Frey with the great boar Gullinburste (Johannes Gehrts, 1901)

In light of such a horror as the gloso, suddenly even our own Black Dogs, Owlmen, and other British zooform entities seem positively tame by comparison. So I very sincerely hope that every ShukerNature reader's Yuletide celebrations this year will be blessed by a notable absence of fire-breathing pigs!

My most grateful thanks to Richard Svensson and Håkan Lindh for generously providing me with plentiful information concerning the gloso, and also to Richard for so kindly permitting me to include his superb illustrations in this ShukerNature post.

Chased by the gloso! (second version) (© Richard Svensson)





Tuesday, 10 December 2013

MIDAS MARSUPIALS - THE GOLDEN WONDER OF GOLDEN WOMBATS


Icy (on left, held by Senior Keeper Karen Davis) and Polar (on right, held by Education Officer Claire Peterson) - two golden-furred specimens of southern hairy-nosed wombat housed at Cleland Wildlife Park, Adelaide (© Tricia Watkinson/Newspix/Rex Features)


Willy Wonka had his much sought-after Golden Tickets, but Cleland Wildlife Park in Adelaide, South Australia, has something even rarer – golden wombats! The southern hairy-nosed wombat Lasiorhinus latifrons normally has black, brown, or grey fur. However, Icy and Polar both sport an astonishingly beautiful, bright golden pelage, as if King Midas from classical Greek mythology had gifted them with his gold-transforming touch.

These two bear-like but herbivorous marsupials are three-and-a-half years old, arriving at the park after having been found in the wild six months apart of each another and raised afterwards in a rescue centre. Their golden colouration, a phenomenon known as flavism, is the result of a mutant gene allele. Yet although aesthetically exquisite, it makes such wombats very visible in the wild and therefore highly vulnerable to predators. Consequently, very few specimens ever survive, and there is only one other golden wombat in captivity.

So Icy and Polar (although surely Goldie and Sunny might be more apt names for them?) are extremely special and highly-prized by the park, whose staff hope that they will breed when older (despite their shared golden hue, they are not related to one other).

Illustration from 1865 depicting two normal-coloured specimens of the southern hairy-nosed wombat (Joseph Wolf)