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
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, lian, 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
Mris 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 dEnfer 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
phnix, 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 phnix 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 phnix 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 phnix is an incontestable truth. The
scholiast, Solinus, relates the same facts; adding that the phnix 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 phnix
in a certain bird presented to their admiration; and many a modern
sovereign might, by the same means, have created a phnix.
The Fathers of the Church profess the same conviction as Tacitus and
Solinus concerning the phnix. 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 phnix. 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
phnix. 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 phnix 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 phnix 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
phnix, 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 phnix.