Casualties of Knowledge.

Progress, the expansion of knowledge, the continual narrowing of possibility toward truth: wonderful things all. But what of the casualties? That is, what of the once enthusiastically propagated facts which, proven false, are cast aside? Since the invent of written history our disproved facts have been allowed to linger on well past their halcyon days of import, muzzled castrati shoved unceremoniously behind the curtain and stricken from the handbills. What are we to do with them?

To some the equation “knowledge + time = comedy” holds sway and is a joy. To others even present “facts” are fodder, begging to be torn down and placed on the pile of the disproved, in order to climb it and reach yet higher truths. Then there are those who stubbornly embrace dead facts as the cliched Italian widow might clutch her dead husbands casket as it’s lowered into the earth, wailing, and unable to let go. All might be united in a wan smile.

Today I offer you a few such castrated bits of ancient knowledge which once bravely served the subject of zoology. They are taken from Hrabanus Maurus’s 8th book of De rerum naturis (On the Nature of Things), written between 842 and 847, an encyclopedia in 22 books covering “the entire field of sacred and profane learning” as it was then understood. Scoff, giggle, embrace, or marvel at them. Judge for yourself their present function:

Latin name: Aspis.
Other names: Aspic, Aspide, Haemorrhois, Hypnalis, Ipnalis, Prester.
Facts: Blocks its ear with its tail so as not to hear the charmer.
Attributes: The asp is a serpent that avoids the enchantment of music by pressing one ear against the ground and plugging the other ear with its tail. In some versions the asp guards a tree that drips balm; to get the balm men must first put the asp to sleep by playing or singing to it. Another version holds that the asp has a precious stone called a carbuncle in its head, and the enchanter must say certain words to the asp to obtain the stone.

Latin name: Herinacius.
Other names: Echinus, Ericio, Eriçon, Heriçon, Hericus, Herison.
Facts: A beast that carries away grapes on its sharp quills.
Attributes: When it is time for the harvest, the hedgehog goes into a vineyard, and climbing up a vine, shakes the grapes off onto the ground. It then rolls around on the fallen grapes to spear them with its quills, so it can carry the fruit home to feed its young.

Latin name: Canis.
Other names: Chien.
Facts: A young dog bound to a patient cures internal wounds.
Attributes: Dogs are unable to live without men. A dog that crosses a hyena’s shadow will lose its voice.  A dog will always return to its vomit. When a dog is swimming across a river while holding meat in its mouth, if it sees its own reflection it will drop the meat it is carrying while trying to get the meat it sees in the reflection.

Latin name: Ursus.
Facts: The cubs are born unformed, and must be licked into shape by the mother.
Attributes: Bears give birth in the winter. The bear cub is born as a shapeless and eyeless lump of flesh, which the mother bear shapes into its proper form by licking it (the origin of the expression “to lick into shape”). Bears eat honey, but can only safely eat the apples of the mandrake if they also eat ants. Bears fight bulls by holding their horns and attacking their sensitive noses. If injured, a bear can heal itself by touching the herb phlome or mullein.

Latin name: Castor.
Other names: Bievre, Fiber.
Facts: Hunted for its testicles, it castrates itself to escape from the hunter.
Attributes: When the beaver sees that it cannot escape from the hunter, it bites off its testicles and throws them to the hunter, who then stops pursuing the beaver. If another hunter chases the beaver, it shows the hunter that it has already lost its testicles and so is spared.

Latin name: Lynx.
Other names: Chama, Lincis.
Facts: The urine of the lynx hardens into a precious stone.
Attributes: Its urine hardens into a precious stone that is flame colored and similar to a carbuncle. The lynx covers its urine with sand so that humans cannot find the stone.

Latin name: Pelicanus.
Other names: Honocrotalus.
Facts: A bird that revives its dead young with its own blood.
Attributes: As young pelicans grow, they begin to strike their parents in the face with their beaks. Though the pelican has great love for its young, it strikes back and kills them. After three days, the mother pierces her side or her breast and lets her blood fall on the dead birds, and thus revives them.

Latin name: Apes.
Facts: Bees are the smallest of birds, and are born from the bodies of oxen.
Attributes: Bees live in community, choose the most noble among them as king, have wars, and make honey. Their laws are based on custom, but the king does not enforce the law; rather the lawbreakers punish themselves by stinging themselves to death.

Latin name: Assida.
Other names: Asida, Assidam, Chamoi, Ostrice, Ostruche, Struthiocamelon, Struthione, Strutio.
Facts: A bird that can digest anything, even iron, but is careless of its eggs.
Attributes: It lays its eggs when it sees the star Virgilia (the Pleiades) rising.

Latin name: Aranea.
Other names: Araingne, Aringne.
Facts: The spider is an aerial worm that takes its nourishment from the air.
Attributes: The spider is industrious, never ceasing to build its net from a long thread drawn from its body. It is an aerial worm that takes its nourishment from the air. Its web is fragile. It is said that if a spider (or a snake) tastes the saliva of a fasting man, it dies.

Latin name: Salamandra.
Other names: Silion, Stellio, Sylio.
Facts: Salamanders are so cold they can extinguish any fire.
Attributes: The salamander is a cold animal. It can live unharmed in a fire, and its coldness will extinguish the hottest flames. If it enters hot water, the water will become cold. From the salamander comes a material that is unlike any other cloth; when it becomes dirty, it must be thrown into a fire, which will consume the dirt without harming the cloth. This cloth is made in the deserts of India, and is worn by important people. The salamander’s poison is very strong, and can kill many at once. If it climbs an apple tree, the apples become poisonous; if it enters a well, the water becomes deadly.

Latin name: Hyaena.
Other names: Hiena, Hienne, Hyene, Iena, Luvecerviere, Yena.
Facts: A beast that eats human corpses and changes sex.
Attributes: Hyenas can change their sex; sometimes they are male, other times female. They live near tombs and eat the dead bodies they find there. There is a stone in the hyena’s eye (some say in the stomach of its young) that will give a person the ability to predict the future if the stone is placed under the person’s tongue. Hyena’s will circle a house at night, calling out words with the voice of a man; anyone who is deceived and goes out to investigate is eaten.

I must say that coming upon such cast-aside facts as these makes me feel slightly sad, because, after all, how wonderful would it be if our world was this magically and irrationally ordered? Today we create elaborate fantasies to entertain ourselves, the endless films, shows, novels, and games filling the hole that was once occupied by a wonder at the natural world; fictitious horrors flicker across screens rather than the demons and monsters who once lurked in the blackest area of every shadow.

In these terms I can understand the compunction to believe in Gods. What notion could be simultaneously more romantic, terrifying, and comforting? Faith is necessitated by mystery is it not? Makes it ironic that in stubbornly embracing a fantasy, and indeed actively propagating it and its attendant strict laws and codes, believers also effectively homogenate the world, stripping both culture of its magic, and in seeking to explain away all of creation, the natural world of its true majestic machinations. But of course understanding the compunction is far from being sympathetic to it. This is the year 2006 after all, not 842! And whatever else their function, abandoned notions make possible new notions, and their wake opens paths into larger mysteries.

I say when a “fact” has become impotent, spare it the viagra of faith, and let it degrade gracefully, performing on the vaudeville circuit of old ideas, until it is finally forgotten.

As stated pervious all images are adapted from the online presentation of Hrabanus Maurus’ De rerum naturis, text from the same. (For more on Maurus’ other works see Cryptic-Rabanus at Bibliodyssey.)

Hope you enjoyed.

06.11. filed under: art. belief. !. history. ideas. 8