One strand that immediately stands out in reading Hill’s discussion is that the overwhelming majority of cryptid stories accepted by cryptozoologists are associated with white people, either culturally or geographically. Stories told by Europeans, either from European folklore or in their own reports of traditions from Native peoples, are presumed to be more credible than reports that come unfiltered from other cultures. There are exceptions, of course, most notably Native American lore about giants and Sasquatches. But here, too, the interest in these stories is due to their geographic location—the United States—and their relationship to the Bigfoot phenomenon that emerges from twentieth century rural white American culture. A similar phenomenon occurred with the Mokèlé-mbèmbé of the Congo, where white colonialists in the 1900s related the legendary monster to the newly-popular (with Europeans) dinosaurs and thus sparked interest in proving the reality of the beast, roping in European missionaries’ misidentification of a rhinoceros or hippopotamus footprint in the 1700s to construct “centuries” of evidence for what had previously been considered primitive superstition.
Indeed, Meurger discusses the colonialist and imperialist underpinnings for such endeavors, noting that the effort to find a native witness for a particular monster of interest to Europeans and their colonial brethren “is an old gimmick of portraying the sighter as a kind of noble savage,” a spurious effort to turn stories into science by bridging the gap between reality and folklore through the intermediary of the uncorrupted primitive.
But there has to be more to it than that, and I think that the Mokèlé-mbèmbé perhaps helps to understand it a bit. The story of a large animal that tramped through the Congo only became interesting to Europeans when it related to a subject of interest to them and when it also had a superficial scientific plausibility, given the science of the time. In 1909, Lt. Paul Gratz described the creature as a sauropod, only a few years after the brontosaurus controversy of 1903 brought sauropods, known since the 1870s, to popular acclaim. Similarly, stories of lake monsters and sea serpents are particularly plausible in Euro-American culture because of their long cultural acceptance as our own cultural myths.
By contrast, equally well-attested stories of crazy animals and creatures that don’t reflect our scientific and cultural assumptions don’t find that level of interest or acceptance.
Here are a few of those fellows I recently encountered when translating the chapter of the medieval Arabic compendium Akhbar al-zaman on wondrous islands of the various oceans:
- “It is said that Dhul-Qarnayn (Alexander), going towards the Darkness, passed near an island where he saw people whose heads were those of large dogs, with menacing teeth and spewing fire from their mouths, and which ran toward his ships.”
- “The Malkān is a sea monster that […] has many heads with diverse faces and curved teeth; it feeds only on the fish it has caught. It is said that this monster was used as vehicle by a king of the sea djinn because it has two wings that, when drawn together near the heads, creates a form like a bow that would provide shelter against the sun.”
- “The island of Rūd. Here there are people who have wings, coats of hair, and tapered horns; they walk on two feet and four feet; they fly away and come back to the island. They are said to be former satans.”
I don’t think anyone would hesitate to assign these creatures to folklore, yet some of them—especially the dog-headed people—can be traced back to Classical sources, making them better attested and better documented than nearly any of the cryptids. In terms of the dog-headed men, for example, Ctesias mentioned them in his Indica (Photius, Bibliotecha 72), and Pliny in his Natural History (7.2). In 635 CE they appear in the Liang Shu in China, alongside the tale of the marvelous land of Fusang and the Island of Women, stories possibly shared via the Alexander Romance (the direct source for the Akhbar account). Everyone down to Columbus claimed to believe they were real. Well, except for Aulus Cornelius Gellius, who wrote in his Attic Nights in the second century CE that “These and many other stories of the kind I read; but when writing them down, I was seized with disgust for such worthless writings, which contribute nothing to the enrichment or profit of life” (trans. J. C. Rolfe).
Ah, but I fooled you, didn’t I?
Some believed that the dog-headed people were likely real (sort of), and probably emerged from Greek confusion over the projecting muzzles of certain primates. The Greeks, for example, referred to Egyptian depictions of both dog-headed and baboon-headed gods with the same word--cynocephalus—meaning dog-headed. The dog-headed people found in folklore from Europe to China are likely the result of Ctesias’s goof up when trying to describe a monkey.
But this illustrates the problem: What criteria do we apply to pick and choose which stories to believe and which to doubt? Cultural expectations, scientific plausibility, and the investigator’s own convenience all seem to play a role. The same question applies to other legendary claims favored by the fringe: Why should we accept the idea that there were giants, but not the claim that there were people with faces in their stomachs? Why accept the supposed trans-Atlantic adventures of Henry Sinclair but reject the voyage of Euhemerus to Panchaea?