Melons and Monsters by Albany Poyntz

It might form an important matter of inquiry for naturalists, whether the fruits appropriated by Providence to certain climates, do not become unwholsome when transferred to others by the intervention of art. Certain it is, that in various countries of the South, melons constitute an article of national food; whereas, in the North, they pass for one of the most pernicious productions of the vegetable kingdom; being the first article of food interdicted during the prevalence of the cholera.

The origin of the melon, however, appears very uncertain. Far from being indigenous in Italy, it was asserted by the Roman naturalists to have been brought from Africa by Metellus; while others believe it to have been derived from their earlier Asiatic conquests. Scipio is said by some to have first introduced it into Rome. From whatever source derived, the gardeners of Greece and Rome made the culture of the melon a subject of especial study. Pliny spoke of the delicacy and flavour of the fruit as well as of its indigestibility. It may be observed, however, that in the more ancient bas-reliefs and frescoes of fruit found in Herculaneum, the melon does not appear.

The modern arts of horticulture have added innumerable varieties of the melon to the round and oblong species known to the Romans; and Godoy, the Prince of Peace, devoted himself in Spain to the improvement of this favourite fruit. It is a mistake, however, to suppose that the fine kind called the Cantalupe, reached us from that country; the name being derived from the village of Cantalupi near Rome, famous for the cultivation of its melons. In Spain and France, the melon is eaten with roast meat, at dinner; in England and Russia, it is eaten with sugar at dessert. By many people the crudeness is qualified with pepper and ginger; but the Bavarian mother of the Regent, Duke of Orleans, provoked much criticism in Paris by powdering her slice of melon with Spanish snuff, according to the custom in some parts of Germany.

A strange object of luxury in the same country consists in snails. A large white species of snail, much cultivated at Ulm, is sent to various parts of Germany. One of the popular errors concerning these snails, is the opinion that when decapitated the body will produce a new head. Spallanzani and Voltaire tried the experiment on innumerable snails, and attest that a head was really reproduced. It is well known that the body of a fly will exist some time after being deprived of its head; and that, on crushing the shell of a snail, the creature is able to repair, by degrees, its shattered dwelling. But in spite of the authority of Spallanzani and Voltaire, we have no faith in the power of reproduction of a second head. Valmont de Bomare, after decapitating fifteen hundred, decided that the opinion was erroneous; and, unwilling to suppose that two such great authorities had imposed on public credulity, concludes that in their reluctance to the task, they merely cut off the nose and ears of the sensitive snails without effecting a positive decapitation. A fact untrue of the snail, however, has been proved as regards several varieties of polypi, which are able to reproduce themselves from fragments of a dismembered polypus. There is one species of polypus susceptible of being completely turned inside out, like a glove, without injury to the vital power!

Turenne, who wrote a Treatise on the nature of snails, may be called the Attila of the species, since he admits having decapitated thousands and thousands. He even affects compunction on the subject, after the example of the Greek physician, Herophilus, who dissected seven hundred bodies in illustration of his anatomical lectures in the theatre of Alexandria. Turenne asserts that, if Valmont de Bomare and Adanson found no renovation of head in the snails they decapitated, it was because they failed to supply their victims with the food which snails are organized to imbibe through the pores of their bodies by crawling over vegetable matter, even when deprived of their heads. He declares that a period of two years is indispensable for the reproduction of a head.

The discoveries of modern navigators have unquestionably added to our menageries a vast variety of animals unknown to the ancients, or known only by hearsay, and esteemed apocryphal. But, on the other hand, various animals with which the ancients pretended to be familiar have wholly disappeared; such as sphinxes and griffins, the phœnix, the salamander, the unicorn, besides many-headed serpents and dragons, which we now abandon to the emblazonment of heraldry.

The most famous dragons of antiquity were those which drew through the air the car of Medea. The philosophic Possidonius—who made war so valiantly against the gout, which he maintains to be no evil—speaks of a dragon which covered an acre of ground; and could swallow a knight on horseback with as much ease as the whale did Jonas. This was, however, an insignificant reptile compared with the one discovered in India by St. Maximus, Archbishop of Tyre, which covered five acres of ground.

Both in sacred and profane history, dragons have honourable mention. Cadmus is related to have destroyed a dragon; the garden of the Hesperides was guarded by a dragon; St. George triumphed over a dragon; and the Dragon of Wantley has become proverbial in English song. St. Augustin, Bishop of Hippona, speaks with authority of the existence of dragons; describing them as winged serpents which conceal themselves in caverns during the day-time, though they occasionally venture forth and rise into the air. From this it was inferred, by early naturalists, that the dragon of the ancients was one of the larger serpent tribes, having a cartilaginous substance similar to the wings of the bat, or flying-fish, attached to its body.

Suetonius declares that the Emperor Tiberius possessed a pet dragon, which was completely tame and used to eat out of his hand; probably an iguano, the sort of lizard which forms a luxurious object of food in the West Indies; and which, though perfectly harmless, has a frightful appearance. Crinitus records that, in the time of the Emperor Maurice, there was an inundation of the Tiber, which left behind it, on the land, an enormous dragon. The same writer mentions that the Emperor Augustus kept a prodigious dragon in his palace, which he used to lead about with a string. A constellation serves to attest the existence of the dragon of Lernia.

The tame dragon of the imperial palace was probably a tame boa-constrictor similar to the one formerly kept in the library of the late Sir Joseph Banks.

Various are the records in ancient authors of prodigious serpents. Pliny declares that, in Africa, the army of Regulus was kept in check by an enormous serpent; a statement confirmed by Aulus Gellius and other historians, and admitted by Rollin and Bossuet in their Histoire universelle, and Histoire ancienne. Follard refutes it in his Commentary on Polybius; conceiving the fact of a serpent of one hundred and twenty feet keeping at bay a large army and its engines of war to be an insult to the prowess of the Roman warriors. The following is the opinion the celebrated Lacépède on this subject.

“Travellers who have penetrated into the interior of Africa,” says he, “give an account of prodigious serpents, who advance among the bushes and towering reeds of some vast jungle, like a huge beam suddenly endowed with motion. Herds of gazelles and other timid animals take flight on their approach; nor can iron penetrate the skin of the monster, which is, indeed, appalling when extended to its utmost length, and ravenous after food. The only chance of its extermination is by setting fire to the nearest bushes of the jungle; and thus raising, as it were, a rampart of fire between you and the gigantic reptile.

“Such, probably, was the serpent which arrested the progress of the Roman army on the coast of Africa. To compute its length at one hundred and twenty feet, after Pliny, would probably be an exaggeration; but the Roman naturalist adds that its skin remained some time suspended, as a trophy, in a temple in Rome. Unless we deny all authenticity to history, therefore, we are bound to believe in the existence of a prodigious serpent, which when irritated by hunger, was known to attack the Roman soldiers; and against which, in the sequel, they had successful recourse to their engines of war.”

In the same manner, a distorted account may hereafter reach posterity of the death of Chuny, the famous elephant, which so long inhabited a menagerie in London; until becoming rabid from the effect of high feeding and long confinement, a party of military was called in to despatch the infuriated animal by a discharge of musketry, which was with some difficulty effected.

To attest the authenticity of the serpent of the time of Regulus, Pliny expressly adds that the tradition is the more credible, because, in former times, the serpents called boas, frequently found in Italy, were of such prodigious size that, during the reign of the Emperor Claudius, so large a one was found on the Vatican hill, that after its destruction, a child was exhibited entire in its stomach. For many centuries, no boas have been found in Italy; though naturalists accord in asserting them to have existed there in the olden time; just as the kingdom of England, now wholly free from the larger beasts of prey, was formerly overrun with wolves.

St. Isidore of Seville discredits the existence of the Lernian hydra; inferring from its name that hydra only implied some torrent or lake which Hercules effectually confined within banks; thus giving rise to the tradition of his having crushed it with his club. The traditionary monster, called a gargouille, said to have lived near Rouen, and to have swallowed a prodigious number of victims, is now admitted to have been simply a whirlpool in the Seine, destroyed by an alteration in the banks effected by St. Romain, when Bishop of that See. The anniversary of this event, regarded as the deliverance of the city from a monster, was celebrated at Rouen till the period of the first Revolution; a prisoner being annually delivered by the city on the Festival of St. Romain in honour of the miracle. The gargouille or whirlpool, of Rouen, was but a modern edition of the hydra.