The Ichneumon and
the Halcyon by Albany Poyntz
Buffon assumes that the Ichneumon has been brought to a state of
domesticity. But he probably generalized from a single instance. The Pacha
of Egypt has a tame lion; and many other instances might be cited. But the
lion cannot be regarded as reduced to a domestic animal.
According to Pliny, the ichneumon was an object of veneration among the
Egyptians. So also was the crocodile; these two determined enemies being
equally objects of adoration. By the ancients, the ichneumon was said to
watch the moment of the crocodile’s sleep; when, finding the monster’s
jaws open, it instantly crept in, and having devoured the bowels, made its
way out by the way it entered.
Denon has given us the following account of the ichneumon in his Travels
“The ichneumon is seen lying upon the reeds of the Nile, in the
neighbourhood of the villages, to which it repairs in search of poultry
and eggs. The supposed antagonism of the ichneumon and crocodile, the one
eating the eggs of the other, and the former creeping down the throat of
the latter, is pure invention. These two animals do not dwell in the same
regions. Crocodiles are not known in Lower, nor ichneumons in Upper Egypt;
so that there can be no grounds for the prejudice which has existed twenty
centuries:—for Pliny, himself, probably handed down a tradition!
The fable of the halcyon is so charming, that it ought to have been
founded on fact. But Ovid was a better poet than naturalist.
To the power of tranquillizing the tempest, the halcyon was supposed to
add the gift of foretelling good or bad weather. By degrees, writers of
fiction endowed its feathers with the power of rendering silk proof
against the sting of insects, of yielding wealth and harmony, and
conferring grace and beauty on the wearers. The halcyon deposits its eggs
on the sea-shore, on the banks of lakes and rivers; and its breeding
season is that when the air is most calm and serene; but its power of
controlling the elements is wholly fabulous.