Category Archives: Creature Feature

M is for Mbói Tu’ĩ

Some people fear snakes; others fear birds. If both animals give you the creeps, you’ll want to steer clear of today’s creature.

M is for Mbói Tu’i.

The Mbói Tu’i is a huge snake with a parrot’s head that comes from Guarani mythology. While he’s not overly fond of humans, he protects aquatic animals, acting as a guardian of the wetlands.

Mbói Tu’i has a blood-red forked tongue and a vicious stare that frightens those who look into his eyes. While his body is covered in scales, his head is covered in feathers. His screech terrifies people from miles away.

His main role in what remains of the oral culture of the Guarani is that he protects the land. He’s a conservationist at heart, scaring away anyone who encroaches on the South American swamps. In fact, his six brothers also guard different environs.

Mbói Tu’i is the grandson of the creation god, Tupa. Tupa and his wife created the earth and all its creatures. They also bore two spirits – Angatupyry (the spirit of good) and Tau (the spirit of evil).

While Tau was eventually banished from the earth, he took with him a Guarani woman named Kerana. Seven monster-children came from this union: Teja Jagua (a lizard-dog), Mbói Tu’i (today’s creature), Monai (a horned snake), Jasy Jatere (a beautiful man with blond hair and blue eyes), Kurupi (a small, hairy man with an enormous erection that he wraps around his body), Ao Ao (a fanged sheep), and Luison (a human-dog).

450px-Mboi_TuiBecause there is little written record of the Guarani, it’s hard to tell whether they revered or feared (or both) Mbói Tu’i. My first thought upon reading up on this creature was of Humbaba in The Epic of Gilgamesh. Like Mbói Tu’i, Humbaba is a fearsome beast ordered by the gods to protect a holy land (in this case, the forest of the cedars). My students often feel bad for Humbaba when Gilgamesh kills him, as he was only doing his job by keeping men out of the woods.

There’s a clash between nature and culture that is anthropomorphized in such guardian creatures. If we are to believe cultural anthropologists, what makes Man different from the other animals is his ability to control and dominate his environment. If Man must control nature to prove his worth, then creatures such as Mbói Tu’i and Humbaba are demonized and must be destroyed.

However, as there are no extant stories of Mbói Tu’i, it’s a little hard to make this connection. Nevertheless, Mbói Tu’i is an interesting peek into Guarani culture.

Sources:“Mboi Tu’i.” Wikipedia.

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L is for Lou Carcolh

Folktales tell of many horrifying animals, but a snail?

L is for Lou Carcolh.

This mythological creature from southwest France is a mixture of a serpent and a mollusk…kind of like a giant snail, but way creepier. Lou Carcolh has many mile-long tentacles covered in hair and slime that can reach for vast distances. Thus, the beast rarely had to leave its underground cave, as the tentacles could capture its prey without being seen. It’s huge, gaping mouth swallows humans whole.

I’ve never thought much about snails and their place in mythology. Most scholars seem to lump discussion of them with sea creatures, though snails are found in dry lands as well. Hope Werness reports that different cultures interpret the creature differently – some as a symbol of fertility, and some as a symbol of sloth. But I’m not sure this particular French beast fits into either of those categories.

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If I had to hazard a guess, Lou Carcolh represents the primordial ooze (the antithesis to Culture with a capital C). Cave dwelling, open mouthed, interested only in eating ­– it literally oozes slime, leaving a wake of destruction. The Id in its pure form. Man must overcome this creature to prove his Manhood (with a capital M).

But, of course, I could be mistaken. I haven’t run across any reputable stories that go along with the Lou Carcolh, so let me know if you find one!

Sources:
Hope B. Werness. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in World Art. (2006)

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K is for Kukuweaq

Riddle me this, bat-friends. What has one head, one tail, and ten legs?

K is for Kukuweaq.

The Kukuweaq comes from Inuit folklore. The beast is a polar bear with ten legs. Yes, that’s right – ten of them. I wouldn’t want to be chased by a four-legged polar bear, much less ten!

The bear’s ten legs help it travel long distances on both land and water. Some sources also claim that the beast is as large as an iceberg and almost impossible to kill. But in one folktale, a man does bring down one of these creatures.

Two neighbors settled in for the winter. One had stashed away a walrus to feed him during the harsh months, while the other (Kucriak) had nothing. Kucriak’s neighbor refused to share the walrus with him, so Kucriak went out in search of food. He came across the Kukuweaq’s den and killed it by stabbing his harpoon in the Kukuweaq’s eye. Unlike his greedy neighbor, Kucriak shared the bear’s meat with his entire village, saving them from starvation. Of course, his neighbor was embarrassed, since he had not shared his walrus.

I think the message in this particular folktale is clear – one must be generous towards his or her community. This is a significant cultural need, especially in isolated societies where resources are scarce. Hawaiian cultures have similar story in “The Calabash of Poi,” as do the Australians in “How the Kangaroo Got Her Pouch.”

What I’d like to know more about is why the Kukuweaq has ten legs – aside from the fact that the creature can travel long distances. The scientific term for having multiple limbs is polymelia. Many cultures have mythological creatures with polymelia, such as the Hindu Kali (a goddess, not a creature) and the Greek Hekatonkeires. I’ve been looking for more information about why this is so significant, but have failed to find anything yet. Let me know if you have a hint! (And I’ll let you know if I find something.) Aside from arms typically connoting strength, I’m at a loss.

Sources:
Robert F. Spencer. The North Alaskan Eskimo: A Study in Ecology and Society. (1959)

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J is for Jörmungandr

I have a thing for snakes. I don’t want one as a pet, but they have to be my favorite animal characters. They’re highly symbolic in almost every culture, which piques my interest. I’ve chosen today’s animal because it reminds me of a tattoo I have of an ouroboros. If I had a totem animal, that would be it.

jourmungandJ is for Jörmungandr.

Jörmungandr is a giant snake in Norse mythology. He is the son of Loki and Angrbotha (the “th” here is the letter eth, but it wouldn’t transfer over properly); his siblings are Fenrir and Hel.

When the creature was born, Odin threw Jörmungandr into Midgard. There, the snake grew to epic proportions and completely encircled the realm. When he rises from the sea, his coils become a rainbow.

The most popular tale including Jörmungandr is his battle with Thor. On a particular fishing trip, Thor sails far out to sea, despite warnings from his sailing partner. He uses a decapitated ox’s head as bait, which he ties to a fishing line and throws out to sea. Jörmungandr takes the bait and surfaces. Before Thor is able to kill the best, Jörmungandr breaks the line and returns under the water.

However, Jörmungandr and Thor are fated to meet once more, during Ragnarok. At the end of Ragnarok, Jörmungandr will emerge from the sea and poison the land. He and Thor will meet one final time, and the two will kill one another.

I suppose what fascinates me about snakes is the conflicting symbolism that we meet with. As a Christian, I was brought up believing that snakes were bad. When I began to study cultural mythology, I realized that they are often dualistic creatures, neither good nor evil. Often, they are associated with the life cycle, as they are able to shed their skin and be born “anew.” Thus, they represent both life and death, the creator and the destroyer. Their simultaneously phallic and vaginal appearance adds to their use in fertility myths.

Snakes are most often associated with the earth. They are tied to the ground in a way that most animals aren’t. They come to represent the physical world, which is likely why they have been looked down upon by religions that focus on transcendence rather than earthly pleasures. Jormungandr seems to fit into this symbolism, as he surrounds the earth, holding it together. If he were to let go, the world would end.

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I is for Itherther

ImageItherther is a god from the Kabyle tribe in Algeria, Africa who took the shape of a buffalo. Itherther is central in the Kabyle creation myth.

Itherther lived in Tlam, which was located below ground. He wanted to live in the sun, so he made his way above-ground with a female calf named Thamuatz. The two bred, and had a son and daughter.

Their son, Achimi, had a bit of an Oedipal complex. He discovered a tribe of men, who tried to capture and domesticate him. A wise ant told Achimi that the animals should work for man, but Achimi was obstinate. (The ant is often a creature of helpful insight in many African myths.) Achimi wanted to remain free, rather than bowing to man in exchange for food and shelter.Image

Upon his return home, Achimi mated with his mother and sister. Itherther became enraged when he found out. The two fought for power. Achimi overpowered his father, and the defeated Itherther wandered the world alone.

Itherther missed Thamuatz greatly. Every time he thought of her, he would spill his semen on the ground. His seed was warmed by the sun and begat all game animals (except for the lion).

Sources:Leo Frobenius and Douglas C. Fox. African Genesis: Folk Tales and Myths of Africa. (1999)

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H is for Heikegani

Technically, today’s animal isn’t a mythological creature; it’s a folktale from Japan.

H is for Heikegani.

Image The Heikengani is a crab specific to Japan. Their shells resemble a samurai warrior’s face, so they were thought to be the reincarnated spirits of fallen soldiers.

Specifically, the Heikengani are the spirits of the Heike soldiers who drowned during the Battle of Dan-no-ura in 1185. The Heike controlled Japan under the Empire, while the Minamoto were trying to destroy the empire and implement their own government. The Minamoto eventually won the war, which is how the first Shogun was put in power.

The drowned Heike samurai were transformed into Heikegani, who now patrol the ocean. Folktales say that the crab came into existence directly after the battle.

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An image of the battle by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. The crab is seen on the far left panel in the center.

Carl Sagan popularized these crabs in 1980 when he discussed them on his television show, Cosmos. He used the Heikegani as an example of artificial selection, claiming that the Japanese would not eat the crabs. Thinking they were spirits of soldiers, the fishermen would throw them back into the water. This allowed the species to flourish. However, others have pointed out that Heikegani are too small to eat (the shell is about an inch in diameter), so Sagan’s theory has some holes. The creases in the shell are actually points of articulation for the crab’s limbs.

Seeing human qualities in inanimate objects (such as a crab’s shell) is called pareidolia. It’s believed that this trend was popular in early cultures, especially those who believed in the supernatural. It is a way of making sense out of the world and seeing connections that are easy to recognize in natural phenomena.

Sources:Andrew Kincaid. “Heikegani – The Samurai Crab.” (2013)

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G is for Ghaddar

And we’re back to the Middle East for today’s letter…G is for Ghaddar.

ImageThe Ghaddar is one of many pre-Islamic djinn (or jinn) – evil demons that inhabit the earth. While scholars quibble over the details, a few general attributes of the Ghaddar appear: they kidnap and torture their prey, ultimately leaving them alone in the desert.

As the children of Iblis (the devil), Ghaddar are hideous beasts, often depicted as giants. While no one is sure, some seem to think that the creatures are only female. Unlike more alluring female demons (such as the succubus), Ghaddar are horrific and framed to terrify rather than entice. (The image is obviously not of a female demon. Most artists create seductive female demons, so I included this one instead.)

The type of torture they inflict varies from myth to myth. Many stories focus on the Ghaddar eating the genitals of male travelers. No matter the form of torture, they leave their victims alone (sometimes alive, sometimes dead) in the middle of the desert. The creatures, then, serve as a cultural warning about traveling alone, popular in myths from around the world (e.g. Little Red Riding Hood).

If the myth that Ghaddars are women is true, then the moral becomes slightly different. It’s still warning travelers, but about an all-too-real phenomenon – prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases. I’ll let you figure out the link with that for yourself…

Sonia Nimr has taken this myth and re-framed it for children in her book, Ghaddar the Ghoul and Other Palestinian Stories.  Of course, there is no genital eating in this edition.

Sources:
Theresa Bane. Encyclopedia of Demons in World Religions and Cultures. (2012)

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