If the past week of web stats are any indication, my readers are really into prehistoric beasts. At least, you all really seemed to appreciate last Friday’s post on the subject. In that vein, I thought I’d write about a few more interesting beasties and how they might find their way into world mythology…
Members of the family Teratornithidae were huge, condor-like birds. There were numerous species with wingspans ranging from 12 up to 20 feet. One of their number, Argentavis magnificens, is the largest flying bird ever discovered. Traditionally, teratorns have been thought of as large scavengers, very much like oversized condors, owing to considerable similarity with these birds. Their long beaks and wide gapes, however, are more like the beaks of eagles and other actively predatory birds than those of carrion-eaters. Most likely, teratorns swallowed their prey whole. Argentavis could have swallowed up to hare-sized animals in a single gulp.
Teratorns have long be hypothesized as the basis of the Thunderbird legend in Native American mythology. This formidable spiritual power is described an enormous bird—according to many Northwestern tribes, large enough to carry a killer whale in its talons as an eagle carries a fish. The Thunderbird is responsible for the sound of thunder and, in some cases, lightning as well.
Native American groups have different traditions regarding the Thunderbird. In some tribes, they are considered extremely sacred forces of nature. In others, they are considered powerful but otherwise ordinary members of the animal kingdom.
Amphicyonids or “bear dogs” bear a similarity to both bears and dogs (obviously). They are members of the order Carnivora and the suborder Caniforma (i.e, “dog-shaped” carnivores). Early amphicyonids such as Daphoenodon had a digitigrade posture, the same as dogs and cats. Many later and larger species walked flat-footed like bears, however.
Although many amphicyonids were no larger than ordinary foxes or wolves, some of these creatures were enormous. Euroamphicyon was one of the larger and heavier members of this family, with a body mass estimated to c. 310 pounds. Other genera (Amphicyon, Cynelos, Pliocyon) boasted members who weighed in at around 200 pounds.
Another possibility, admittedly more of a stretch, would be to find in amphicyonids a template for the Foo Dogs (or Lion Dogs) of the Far East. These figures seem to be related more closely to architecture and home décor than to folklore, and many insist the “dog” name is in error: they say these figures, which often appear in pairs outside homes, temples, and Chinese restaurants, are simply stylized representations of lions.
If amphicyonids represent hell hounds, we might think of members of the family Entelodontidae as “hell hogs”! These creatures from the forests and plains of North America, Europe, and Asia were not properly of the family Suidae (that is, swine) but rather a closely related group. They were the apex predators in their various ecologies, but they were also indiscriminate omnivores who ate everything from live animals to carrion to plant matter.
Entelodonts had bulky bodies, slender legs, and long muzzles. The largest North American genus, Daeodon, stood almost 7 feet tall at the shoulder. They had heavy, bony lumps on their heads similar to a warthog’s.
Perhaps when king Oeneus of Calydon offended the goddess Artemis, the fierce Calydonian Boar she sent to the region as punishment was a type of Entelodont.
Protocetidae are a diverse family of early cetaceans. They were the first cetaceans to disperse from the region of India and Pakistan to all the shallow oceans of the world. They were probably amphibious, and some were probably able to support their weight on land—although others could not. Although there is some controversy over the matter, some believe they gave birth on land.
Grampus (or “Grumpus”) is a dolphin- or porpoise-like creature. Although it presumably lives in the sea, one legend claims a specimen once dwelled in a yew tree near Highclere Church in Hampshire, England. It was apparently not especially dangerous, although its presence terrified the villagers until the local priest banished it to the Red Sea.
Other amphibious creatures might be identified with family Protocetidae. For example, the dobhar-chú (loosely “water hound”) of Ireland might be some sort of otter-like proto-whale. This creature is said to have characteristics of both a dog and an otter, though it is sometimes described as half-dog, half-fish. It is definitely a mammal, though, as it has fur. The word is often Anglicized as doyarchu or dhuragoo.
Simply put, mesonychids are hooved carnivores. Although most often described as “wolves with hooves,” this was, in fact, a rather diverse mammalian family. Various species looked liked hoofed bears, hoofed cats, hoofed wolves, etc. Their digits were tipped with hooves rather than claws.
The strongest possibility for inserting mesonychids into world folklore is probably the “Beast of Gévaudan” from France in the 1760s. Some witnesses describe this beast as a huge (horse-sized) creature combining features of wolf, bear, panther, and hyena. Some reported that it had cloven hooves, or that each digit was tipped with a hoof. Others said the claws were so heavy and thick that they merely resembled hooves. This beast would seem to be a great match for a hyena-like mesonychid like the Pachyaena or Harpagolestes.
Maybe the coolest thing about the Beast of Gévaudan is that locals claimed it was a werecreature or a sorcerer who shapeshifted into a fearsome creature. The prospect of a werepachyaena terrorizing the French countryside has awesome written all over it!
A cat-like mesonychid, perhaps a larger cousin of genus Sinonyx, might provide an interesting template for the Far Eastern creature called a bai ze (in Chinese) or hukutaku (in Japanese). This sacred animal is monstrous in appearance, as large as an ox, with both bovine and leonine characteristics. It has hooves and a lion-like body. It is sometimes said to have nine eyes (three on its face and three on each flank) and six horns (two on its head and two on each flank). Alternatively, it has just one extra eye in the center of its forehead, and either one or multiple horns on its head. Perhaps this detail reflects some sort of unusual coat pattern? Or, of course, the extra eyes and horns may be of purely magical origin…