Apocryphal Animals by Albany Poyntz

The tarantula is a spider about the size of a nut; the head being surmounted by two horns charged with venomous matter. It has also antennæ which become violently agitated at the sight of its prey; with eight legs, and the same number of eyes, usually of a grey colour, but occasionally marked with livid spots upon a blueish ground. This variety is considered the most dangerous. The tarantula is hairy in the body, and lies torpid in the earth during winter. It revives at the return of spring, when the inhabitants of the district wear half boots for the protection of their legs.

In the month of June which is their breeding season, their venom acquires more virulence. The part wounded by this animal becomes livid, yellow, or black; and the victim sinks into despondency, as in cases of hydrophobia. The following account of the bite of a tarantula is borrowed from the letters of the physician St. André.

A Neapolitan soldier who had been bitten by a tarantula, though apparently cured, suffered from an annual attack of delirium, after which he used to sink into a state of profound melancholy; his face becoming livid, his sight obscure, his power of breathing checked, accompanied by sighs and heavings. Sometimes he fell senseless, and devoid of pulsation; ejecting blood from his nose and mouth, and apparently dying. Recourse was had to the influence of music; and the patient began to revive at the sound, his hands marking the measure, and the feet being similarly affected. Suddenly rising and laying hold of a bystander, he began to dance with the greatest agility during an uninterrupted course of four-and-twenty hours. His strength was supported by administering to him wine, milk, and fresh eggs. If he appeared to relapse; the music was repeated, on which he resumed his dancing. This unfortunate being used to fall prostrate if the music accidentally stopped, and imagine that the tarantula had again stung him. After a few years he died, in one of these annual attacks of delirium.

St. André is not the only man of science who attributes awful effects to the bite of the tarantula. Baglini, a man of considerable eminence, maintains that not only the bite causes the patient to dance, but that the insect itself is readily excitable by music.

The properties attributed to the tarantula, in modern times, are not borne out by the testimony of the ancients. Dr. Pinel, in his commentaries upon the works of Baglini, a most eminent authority in the World of Science, quotes the adverse opinion of another man of acknowledged merit, Epiphany-Ferdinandi, who declares that many persons of his acquaintance had been bitten by tarantulas, without experiencing any other inconvenience than might have occurred from the sting of a wasp. Thus reduced to the class of a venomous spider, it becomes stripped of its magic powers as the scorpion ceased to be a salamander, when the ordeal of burning alcohol was found to be invariably fatal.

The renown of the salamander is, however, of far more ancient date than that of the tarantula. Aristotle, Pliny, Œlian, Nicander, all the illustrious apostles of the marvellous, declare that the salamander lives in the midst of flames, and exercises such a control over them, that one salamander was capable of extinguishing the Lemnian forges. In the time of Henri II., the famous Ambroise Paré, pronounced the salamander to be incombustible. Others assertthat they have seen salamanders extinguish burning embers by emitting a viscous humour, and Benvenuto Cellini, in his Memoirs, gives an account of having seen a salamander in the midst of his fire. The salamander, or rather the newt that bears that name, partakes of the lizard and frog, being generally from five to six inches in length. Naturalists admit two kinds, the land and the water salamander. Maupertius, among many others, submitted both species to the test of fire, and the result was the same as with any other animal.

The were-wolves of antiquity, and loup-garoux of the middle ages, disappeared in the open daylight of modern science. Virgil confers on Mœris the power of transforming himself into a wolf, Varro Pamponius, Mela, Strabo, ascribe the same faculty to various individuals skilled in the art of magic. In the annals of the early French courts of law, there may be found many instances of condemnation for witchcraft and transformation into were-wolves for criminal purposes; and more than one of these wretched victims, probably in a fit of mental aberration, pleaded guilty to the accusation.

In 1521, Pierre Burgot and Michael Verdun, confessed before the Parliament of Besançon, that they had frequently transformed themselves into were-wolves, and attacked little girls and boys. Half a century later, the Parliament of Paris condemned to the flames Jacques Rollet for having transformed himself into a were-wolf, and half devoured a little boy. If we can believe the account of Job Pincel, Constantinople was so infested with were-wolves, in the middle of the sixteenth century, that the Sultan went forth with his guard and exterminated one hundred and fifty, when the remainder took to flight.

In a conference of theologians convened by the Emperor Sigismund, transformation into were-wolves was pronounced a crime, and any assertion to the contrary was accounted heresy.

In the same century, domestic goblins or familiars were generally accredited. In the twelfth century, a goblin domesticated in a small town of Saxony, was known by the name of Cap-a-Point, and a great favourite with the inhabitants; for whom he cleared their wood, lit their fires, and turned their spits. He was, however, of a vindictive temper; and a turnspit, in one of the kitchens he frequented, having ill-used him, he strangled him in the night, cut him in pieces, and served him to his master in a ragout. The goblin, who saved himself by flight, was anathematized by the clergy as an evil spirit; being, in all probability, some half idiotic deaf and dumb urchin, like Peter the Wild Boy.

In the thirteenth century, a house in the Rue d’Enfer in Paris, subsequently a monastery, was infested by goblins, and in the year 1262, the King granted the reverend fathers an exemption from taxes, provided they were able to exorcise these familiar spirits by their prayers and invocations. Among the last on record were those seen by Monsieur Berbiginer de Terre Neuve, who lived in the Rue Guénégaud, and left copious Memoirs of his contentions with these imaginary beings!—

While witches, spirits, and salamanders, have disappeared from the surface of Europe, modern Asia appears to have sustained a far greater loss in the phœnix, which has ceased to rise from its ashes.

Many writers, both ancient and modern, have minutely described the appearance and habits of this fabulous bird; as though an object of natural history rather than of poetical fiction.

The phœnix may be regarded as an allegorical type, like most mythological fables. Among the great writers who appear to have believed in its actual existence was Tacitus. In the sixth book of his Annals, he affirms that the phœnix was seen in Egypt under the Consulate of Paulus Fabius, and Lucius Vitellius; and that its appearance gave rise to much discussion among the scientific men of Egypt and Greece. Tacitus adds that the periodical return of the phœnix is an incontestable truth. The scholiast, Solinus, relates the same facts; adding that the phœnix was taken during the last year of the eighth century of the foundation of Rome, where it was exhibited to the public gaze. The event was recorded in the imperial archives.

The account given by Tacitus is far more doubtful than that of Solinus. The Emperor Claudius probably chose that the Romans should see a phœnix in a certain bird presented to their admiration; and many a modern sovereign might, by the same means, have created a phœnix.

The Fathers of the Church profess the same conviction as Tacitus and Solinus concerning the phœnix. A passage taken from an Epistle to the Corinthians by St. Clement, in speaking of the resurrection of mankind, has the following passage:

“There exists in Arabia, a bird, the only one of its kind, which is called the phœnix. After living one hundred years, on the eve of death it embalms itself; and having collected myrrh, incense, and aromatics, forms a funeral pyre for its own obsequies. When its flesh is decomposed, a worm is generated, which forms and perfects itself from the remains into a new phœnix. Having acquired strength to take wing, it carries off the tomb containing the mortal remains of its parent, and carries it from Arabia to the city of Heliopolis, in Egypt. Having traversed the air, visible to all eyes, it places its burthen on the altar of the Sun, and flies away again. The priests, by consulting their chronicles, have discovered that this phenomenon is repeated every five hundred years.”

The description of the phœnix by Solinus is as follows:—“This bird is of the size of an eagle; its head embellished with a cone of feathers; its neck surrounded with heron-like plumes and dazzling as gold. The remainder of the body is of a beautiful violet, excepting the tail, which is a mingled rose and blue.”

Plutarch speaks of the phœnix with as much reverence as if it were an illustrious man. He states the brain to be an article of delicacy for the table, though he does not mention having tasted it! The fable of the phœnix, which is both graceful and ingenious, and has been rendered available by the poets of the last two thousand years, was probably invented by the priests of Egypt, the first embalmers of the dead. Another bird of Arabia—the roc, or condor, has given rise to a thousand Oriental fables. The Bird of Paradise, which was for centuries supposed to be the inhabitant of a higher sphere, so rarely was it seen alive, has now been tamed in an European aviary at Canton. Let us hope that some future menagerie may obtain a specimen of the phœnix.