Yesterday the skeptic Sharon Hill posted an article discussing her views on folklore and cryptozoology. These views take the form of a book review of Michel Meurger’s Lake Monster Traditions: A Cross-Cultural Analysis, a book first published in 1988 from a 1982 French language edition, which I believe was focused primarily on Quebec. The English edition is apparently different from the French original since the author, who was also the translator, rewrote the book as he translated it. That’s neither here nor there, but Hill asks a very interesting question: How do we decide which folkloric stories are likely to represent real, discoverable animals and which are too embroidered with fiction to be of any use? “Should we be using folklore, traditional native tales, and historical texts as ‘evidence’ of, in this case, the existence of lake monsters? I would add, should we be using today’s modern media accounts (instant folklore) in the same vein?”
Hill and Meurger more or less agree that one should not use these stories as evidence of cryptids since there is no real way to determine which are true and which are false without the actual animal involved. But what interests me is how cryptozoologists and other fringe types pick and choose which legends they want to believe. I’m not sure there is a clear answer to that question.
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:
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?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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