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This is what the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), wrote nearly two thousand years ago. The material that follows is from his book, the Natural History, which was an authority on scientific matters through the Middle Ages:
I look upon the birds as fabulous which are called "pegasi," and are said to have a horse's head; as also the griffons, with long ears and a hooked beak. The former are said to be natives of Scythia, the latter of Aethiopia. The same is my opinion, also, as to the tragopan; many writers, however, assert that it is larger than the eagle, has curved horns on the temples, and a plumage of iron colour, with the exception of the head, which is purple.
Nor yet do the sirens obtain any greater credit with me, although Dinon, the father of Clearchus, a celebrated writer, asserts that they exist in India, and that they charm men by their song, and, having first lulled them to sleep, tear them to pieces.
The person, however, who may think fit to believe in these tales, may probably not refuse to believe also that dragons licked the ears of Melampodes, and bestowed upon him the power of understanding the language of birds; as also what Democritus says, when he gives the names of certain birds, by the mixture of whose blood a serpent is produced, the person who eats of which will be able to understand the language of birds; as well as the statements which the same writer makes relative to one bird in particular, known as the "galerita," . . .[From Pliny's Natural History, Book 10, Chap. 70.]
The Animal Catoblepas
Among the Hesperian Æthiopians is the fountain of Nigris, by many, supposed to be the head
of the Nile . . . Near this fountain, there is found a wild beast, which is called the
catoblepas [from katablepô, "to look downwards"]; an animal of moderate size, and in other respects sluggish in the movement of the rest of its limbs; its head is remarkably
heavy, and it only carries it with the greatest difficulty, being always bent down towards
the earth. Were it not for this circumstance, it would prove the destruction of the human
race; for all who behold its eyes, fall dead upon the spot.
A Cock that Once Spoke
We find it stated in the Roman Annals, that in the consulship of M. Lepidus and Q. Catulus a dung-hill cock spoke, at the farm-house of Galerius; the only occasion, in fact, that I know of. [From Pliny's Natural History, Book 10, Chap. 25.]
Aethiopia and India produce birds of diversified plumage, and such as quite surpass all description. In the front rank of these is the phoenix, that famous bird of Arabia; though I am not quite sure that its existence is not all a fable. It is said that there is only one in existence in the whole world, and that that one has not been seen very often. We are told that this bird is of the size of an eagle and has a brilliant golden plumage around the neck, while the rest of the body is of a purple colour; except the tail, which is azure, with long feathers intermingled of a roseate hue; the throat is adorned with a crest, and the head with a tuft of feathers.
The first Roman who described this bird, and who has done so with the greatest exactness, was the senator Manilius, so famous for his learning; which he owed, too, to the instructions of no teacher. He tells us that no person has ever seen this bird eat, that in Arabia it is looked upon as sacred to the sun, that it lives five hundred and forty years, that when it becomes old it builds a nest of cassia and sprigs of incense, which it fills with perfumes, and then lays its body down upon them to die; that from its bones and marrow there springs at first a sort of small worm, which in time changes into a little bird: that the first thing that it does is to perform the obsequies of its predecessor, and to carry the nest entire to the city of the Sun near Panchaia, and there deposit it upon the altar of that divinity.
The same Manilius states also, that the revolution of the great year is completed with the life of this bird, and that then a new cycle comes round again with the same characteristics as the former one, in the seasons and the appearance of the stars; and he says that this begins about mid-day of the day on which the sun enters the sign of Aries. He also tells us that when he wrote to the above effect, in the consulship of P. Licinius and Cneius Cornelius, it was the two hundred and fifteenth year of the said revolution. Cornelius Valerianus says that the phoenix took its flight from Arabia into Egypt in the consulship of Q. Plautius and Sextus Papinius. This bird was brought to Rome in the censorship of the Emperor Claudius, being the year from the building of the City, 800, and it was exposed to public view in the Comitium. This fact is attested by the public Annals, but there is no one that doubts that it was a fictitious phoenix only. [From Pliny's Natural History, Book 10, Chap. 2.]
Eb: Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2012.
Lum: Shepard, Odell. The Lore of the Unicorn: Myths and Legends. London: Allen and Unwin, 1930. Reprint: Senate Books, London, 1996. On-line.
Mfc: South, Malcolm, ed. Mythical and Fabulous Creatures: A Source Book and Research Guide. New York: Greenwood, 1987.
Myhs: Cherry, John, ed. Mythical Beasts. London: British Museum, 1995.
Nha: Pliny the Elder. Natural History: A Selection. Translated by John Healy. London: Penguin, 1991.
Tnh: Pliny the Elder. The
Natural History. Trs. John Bostock and H. T. Riley. London: Taylor and Francis,
Wobe: Nigg, Joe. Wonder Beasts. Englewood, Colorado: Libraries, 1995.
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