"Such animals don't exist," said the woman when she first saw a crocodile." [Swedish proverb].
Real animals are seldom less fantastic than invented animals. And that is true for most domesticated animals too, like the cat. "Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder". We get used to them, and therefore stop finding out wonders about them till such as David Attenborough and his crew help us rediscover how amazing animal life is, and in England too.
David Attenborough (1926 -) is one of the pioneers of the nature documentary. He has been a face and voice of British natural history programmes for more than fifty years. The naturalist is famed for excellent surveys of terrestrial life as a writer and presenter in nine "Life" series.
Further, some invented animals, like unicorns and dragons of folklore, plainly share traits of real animals, like the rhinoceros and the Komodo lizard. As for the giraffe, it was perhaps too fantastic and remote to become a topic of folklore outside Africa.
Rational study of animals is not so very old. Two thousand years ago Romans wrote down alarming things about them in earnest, and what follows is a tiny selection:
Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) was an an ancient author, naturalist or natural philosopher and naval and military commander. He wrote a History of His Times in thirty-one books, and his great work, the Natural History in 37 books, completed in AD 77. Pliny's work was held in high esteem in the Middle Ages.
Romans throught they knew facts about men and animals when they did not. They fancied a lot, just as the Hebrews did about the primoridal sea-serpent Leviathan (Livyatan) - a fancy taken over from older Mesopotamian myth, and referred to in Psalms 74:14 as a multiheaded sea serpent. In Job 41 it is a sea monster. And by the way, the pillars and corners of the earth mentioned in the Old Testament are not found either.
Ancients have fancied a lot very wrong and formed myths from it. As for Pliny, he recounts tales from many sources, often adding to scraps of tales that had come to Romans who combined known bits from different animals, or made them all up. Hence, the "invented animals" here are more or less invented. That, along with great exaggerations, makes vast parts of the Natural History of Pliny the Elder bizarre enough reading.
After a gentle start the stories are soon getting worse. The selections below are by me, and most of the faulty information is left out.
From Pliny's Book on Terrestrial Animals
Pliny on Elephants
The elephant is the largest of all land animals. It remembers all the duties which it has been taught. It is sensible alike of the pleasures of love and glory, and to a degree that is rare among men even, possesses notions of honesty, prudence, and equity. They purify themselves by sprinkling their bodies with water; after which they return to the woods. When about to cross the sea, they cannot be prevailed on to go on board the ship until their keeper has promised on oath that they shall return home again. As a proof of their extreme docility, they pay homage to the king, fall on their knees, and offer him the crown. [Extract of Book 8, Chap. 1.]
In the exhibition of gladiators which was given by Germanicus, the elephants performed a sort of dance with their uncouth and irregular movements. It was a common thing to see them throw arrows with such strength that the wind was unable to turn them from their course, to imitate among themselves the combats of the gladiators, and to frolic through the steps of the Pyrrhic dance. After this, too, they walked on the tight-rope, and four of them would carry a litter. [From Book 8, Chap. 2.]
The elephant is able not only to walk up the tight-rope backwards; but to come down it as well, with the head foremost. Mutianus, who was three times consul, informs us that one of these animals had been taught to trace the Greek letters, and that he used to write in that language the following words: "I have myself written these words, and have dedicated the Celtic spoils." [From Book 8, Chap. 3.]
It is that, when their tusks have fallen off, either by accident or from old age, they bury them in the earth. These tusks form the only real ivory. Large teeth, in fact, are now rarely found, except in India. These animals take the greatest care of their teeth; they pay especial attention to the point of one of them, that it may not be found blunt when wanted for combat. When they are surrounded by the hunters, they place those in front which have the smallest teeth, that the enemy may think that the spoil is not worth the combat; and afterwards, when they are weary of resistance, they break off their teeth. [From Book 8, Chap. 4]
When an elephant happens to meet a man in the desert, who is merely wandering about, the animal, it is said, shows himself both merciful and kind, and even points out the way.
When they are crossing a river, they first send over the smallest, for fear lest the weight of the larger ones may increase the depth of the channel, by working away the bed of the river.
An elephant recognized, after the lapse of many years, an old man who had been its keeper in his youth. [From Book 8, Chap. 5.]
When the elephants in the exhibition given by Pompeius had lost all hopes of escaping, they implored the compassion of the multitude by attitudes which surpass all description, and with a kind of lamentation bewailed their unhappy fate. So greatly were the people affected by the scene, that, forgetting the general altogether, and the munificence which had been at such pains to do them honour, the whole assembly rose up in tears, and showered curses on Pompeius, of which he soon afterwards became the victim.
The elephant is said to display such a merciful disposition towards animals that are weaker than itself, that, when it finds itself in a flock of sheep, it will remove with its trunk those that are in the way, lest it should unintentionally trample on them. They will never do any mischief except when provoked.
When surrounded by a troop of horsemen, they place in the centre of the herd those that are weak, weary, or wounded, and then take the front rank each in its turn, just as though they acted under command and in accordance with discipline. [From Book 8, Chap. 7.]
The skin of the back is extremely hard, that of the belly is softer.
Their teeth are very highly prized, and from them we obtain the most costly materials for forming statues.
Tusks of enormous size are constantly to be seen in the temples. [From Book 8, Chap. 10.]
Elephants and dragons
Africa produces elephants, they are found also in the. countries of the Æthiopians and the Troglodytæ. But it is India that produces the largest, as well as the dragon, which is perpetually at war with the elephant, and is itself of so enormous a size, as easily to envelope the elephants with its folds, and encircle them in its coils. The contest is equally fatal to both; the elephant, vanquished, falls to the earth, and by its weight, crushes the dragon which is entwined around it. [From Book 8, Chap. 11.]
The dragon, watching the road which bears marks of their footsteps when going to feed, it darts down on them from a lofty tree. The elephant knows that it is quite unable to struggle against the folds of the serpent, and so seeks for trees or rocks against which to rub itself. The dragon is on its guard against this, and tries to prevent it, by first of all confining the legs of the elephant with the folds of its tail; while the elephant, on the other hand, endeavours to disengage itself with its trunk. The dragon, however, thrusts its head into its nostrils, and thus, at the same moment, stops the breath and wounds the most tender parts. When it is met unexpectedly, the dragon raises itself up, faces its opponent, and flies more especially at the eyes; this is the reason why elephants are so often found blind, and worn to a skeleton with hunger and misery.
The blood of the elephant, it is said, is remarkably cold; for which reason, in the parching heats of summer it is sought by the dragon with remarkable avidity. It lies, therefore, coiled up and concealed in the rivers, in wait for the elephants, when they come to drink; on which it darts out, fastens itself around the trunk, and then fixes its teeth behind the ear, that being the only place which the elephant cannot protect with the trunk. The dragons, it is said, are of such vast size, that they can swallow the whole of the blood; consequently, the elephant, being thus drained of its blood, falls to the earth exhausted; while the dragon, intoxicated with the draught, is crushed beneath it, and so shares its fate. [From Book 8, Chap. 12.]
The dragon has its own page: [LINK]
Animals of the North
The North, too, produces herds of wild horses, as Africa and Asia do of wild asses. There is also the achlis, which is produced in the island of Scandinavia; it is not unlike the elk, but has no joints in the hind leg. Hence, it never lies down, but reclines against a tree while it sleeps; it can only be taken by previously cutting into the tree, and thus laying a trap for it, as otherwise, it would escape through its swiftness. Its upper lip is so extremely large, for which reason it is obliged to go backwards when grazing; otherwise, by moving onwards, the lip would get doubled up.
In Paeonia, it is said, there is a wild animal known as the bonasus; it has the mane of the horse, but is, in other respects, like the bull, with horns, however, so much bent inwards on each other, as to be of no use for the purposes of combat. It has therefore to depend on its flight, and, while in the act of flying, it sends forth its excrements, sometimes to a distance of even three jugera; the contact of which burns those who pursue the animal, just like a kind of fire. [From Book 8, Chap. 16.]
NOTE. Pliny's elk and achlis are the same animal. The description of the want of joints in the legs is entirely without foundation. Caesar's account of the elk agrees generally with Pliny's account of the achlis; he also says that the legs of the alces are "without articulations and joints."