Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Capering Catoblepas

In high school I'd sometimes frequent the chatrooms on AOL (it was the dawn of the internet, there was nowhere else to go), particularly chatrooms devoted to literary topics. People didn't so much chat in these rooms as try to one-up each other with bits of trivia and pithy one-liners. I'm not good at either of these, and after I made a particularly strained attempt at a joke someone wrote to me:
Your wit walks like a catoblepas.
Huh? I guessed it wasn't a compliment, and I was right. The catoblepas is a mythological animal, like a buffalo but with a skull so heavy that it has to stare downward and drag its head over the ground when it moves.

Fig. 1: Cranky catoblepas

The catoblepas may be plodding and heavy, but don't think you can take it lightly. Some Roman soldiers on an expedition in North Africa made that mistake: the animal was slow and had a mane of hair covering its eyes, but when they approached it, the mane bristled, its eyes were revealed, and it raised its head.

Fig.2: Curiously cuddly catoblepas

Turns out its gaze acts as a fiery death ray that kills anyone it looks at. Take that, Roman soldiers. Also it likes to eat poisonous plants, and when it opens its mouth noxious fumes come out that kill any birds flying overhead. (I am not making any of this up; it's all in ancient sources.)

The word catoblepas survives as the name of the genus that includes the gnu. There is even a Catoblepas gorgon, the brindled gnu or blue wildebeest; this is fun because the Greeks and Romans also associated the catoblepas with the gorgon (another animal that kills with a look).

Fig. 3: Catoblepas gorgon
(I think that's scrubby turf on the right rather than steak with parsley, which, however tasty, would be tasteless in this context.)

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