The Lynx and the
Cameleon by Albany Poyntz
The title of this chapter seems to promise a fable rather than a
dissertation; and a very amusing one might be grounded on the attributes
of the two animals, considering the perspicacity affected by poor
short-sighted mortals, and the mutability of colour of so many a human
mind. It is not, however, as emblems that we are about to treat of the
lynx and the cameleon.
The lynx figures extensively in the poetry of the ancients. Not only do
they attribute miraculous properties to the eyes of the animal, as being
able to see through walls, but Pliny assures us that the excrements of the
lynx were transformed into amber, rubies, and carbuncles. The nature or
habits of this animal were so delicate, however, that its secretions were
as difficult to discover as those of cats; in consequence of which much
treasure was lost! They might as well have asserted at once, that jewels
found in mines were the produce of antediluvian lynxes. They proceeded,
however, to attribute the optical powers of the lynx to a variety of
individuals; nor have modern writers hesitated to follow their example.
Valerius Maximus, Varro, and even Cicero, speak with ecstasies of the
powers of vision of the Sicilian, Strabo; who, from Cape Lilybum could
descry Carthage, and count the vessels sailing out of the port; the
distance being forty-five leagues! These worthies forgot, that even had
the sight of Strabo been still more powerful, the intermediary obstacles
caused by the rotundity of the globe must have circumvented his view.
Cæsar is said to have seen from Gaul all that passed in a port in Britain;
probably by a figure of speech purporting that he knew all that passed in
conquered countries, just as the eye of Napoleon was said to survey at
once his whole empire.
About the year 1725, the marvellous history of a Portuguese woman set the
whole world of science into confusion, as will be found by referring to
the Mercure de France. This female was said to possess the gift of
discovering treasures. Without any other aid than the keen penetration of
her eyes, she was able to distinguish the different strata of earth, and
pronounce unerringly upon the utmost distances at a single glance. Her eye
penetrated through every substance, even the human body; and she could
discern the mechanism, and circulation of all animal fluids, and detect
latent diseases; although less skilful than the animal magnetiser, she did
not affect to point out infallible remedies. Ladies could learn from her
the sex of their forthcoming progeny. In short, her triumphs were
The King of Portugal, greatly at a loss for water in his newly built
palace, consulted her; and after a glance at the spot, she pointed out an
abundant spring, upon which his Majesty rewarded her with a pension, the
Order of Christ, and a patent of nobility.
In the exercise of her miraculous powers, certain preliminaries were
indispensable. She was obliged to observe a rigid fast; indigestion, or
the most trifling derangement of the stomach, suspending the marvellous
powers of her visual organs.
The men of science of the day were of course confounded by such prodigies.
But instead of questioning the woman, they consulted the works of their
predecessors; not forgetting the inevitable Aristotle. By dint of much
research, they found a letter from Huygens asserting that there was a
prisoner of war at Antwerp, who could see through stuffs of the thickest
texture provided they were not red. The wonderful man was cited in
confirmation of the wonderful woman, and vice versâ.
The Antwerp lynx, meanwhile, had attained considerable credit, from the
fact of two ladies visiting him in person, upon which he burst into
immoderate laughter. On the cause of his mirth being inquired into, he
stated that one of them had on no under garment, the truth of which
statement caused the ladies to take a hasty departure, in the dread of
revelations still more indiscreet.
In the beginning of the present century there lived a physician at Lyons,
who seriously asserted that one of his patients had the power of reading
letters, though sealed. This was evidently a device to obtain notoriety,
and fill his purse at the expense of a credulous public. For what, in
fact, can be more grossly absurd than the assertion that either human
eyes, or those of the lynx possess the faculty of reading through opaque
bodies? Many attempts have been recently made by the upholders of
Magnetism to exhibit similar impositions.
From the lynx we proceed to the cameleon; hoping to exonerate this much
defamed animal from the imputations of mutability so long lavished upon
its nature. Instead of being adopted as the symbol of fickleness, the
cameleon ought, in fact, to become the emblem of frankness and truth,
betraying in its changes of hue every impression of which it is
The ancients denied the existence of the cameleon, treating it as an ideal
animal devoid of natural colour. They conceded to it, on the other hand,
a radiant body, and the faculty of existing without food. Such were the
opinions of Pliny, Aristotle, and lian. But Daubenton and Lacépède
devoted serious attention to the nature of the cameleon; and the scrutiny
of science has served to rectify a popular error.
Cameleons have been brought alive to France, and a pair is now living in
the Zoological Gardens of England. But till lately, they were known in
Europe only through the preparations of our Museums of Natural History.
This singular animal belongs to the lizard tribe, and is found in hot
climates. Its length is from thirteen to fourteen inches; of which the
tail counts for half. The head is surmounted by a kind of cartilaginous
pyramid inclining backwards. The mouth is so formed as scarcely to afford
a view of its disproportionably large swallow. For some time too, the
cameleon passed for being devoid of hearing; but Camper has established
that it possesses that faculty, though in a limited degree. The organs of
sight on the other hand, are so acute as to exceed by far those of the
lynx. It can turn its eyes in every direction; moves with deliberate
dignity, and feeds on insects. But is not entitled to the encomiums of the
ancients with respect to sobriety; though it can fast for a period
exceeding a year. Of a pacific nature, it has numerous enemies; and being
timid to excess, its endless variations of hue are perceptible through a
very transparent skin. Heat and light influence the changes of its
colours; which vary between yellow, red, black, green, and white.
Mademoiselle de Scudery possessed a pair of cameleons, from observations
upon which, it was seen that adjacent colours produced no effect upon
them; other colours than those near them often manifesting themselves on
the body. Bichat supposed that the mutations of the cameleon proceeded
from the quantity of air contained in the arterial blood; an opinion the
better founded, that this animal is able to fill itself with air and
discharge it at will. When asleep, or cold, or dead, the hue of the
cameleon is white. Such is the exact truth concerning two animals which
poets and historians have invested with fabulous properties; and to which
mankind have often been assimilated—by analogies now admitted to be