The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

I recently read Wonders Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin and very much enjoyed it.  One of the most striking tales from it (possibly second only to the one about the housebreaker and the tortoise) is that of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary.  I’m now reading Irwin’s history of Orientalist scholarship, The Lust of Knowing, and the story reoccurs.  Thus I feel compelled to share this strange idea with anyone who hasn’t heard it.

220px-vegetable_lamb_28lee2c_188729In medieval tales, the Vegetable Lamb or Scythian Lamb or Barometz is a plant-animal hybrid that lives in central Asia, or Russia, or perhaps the Black Sea area near Persia.  It consists of a lamb that is rooted to the earth by a umbilical cord like stem.  The lamb can flex this stem such that is can eat grass in the immediate circle around it, but is prevented from moving beyond that and must then either starve or drop off the plant as a ripened sheep (sources seem divided as to which one; or perhaps just generally confused).

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The story really came to public attention in the fourteenth century with the tales of Sir John Mandeville (whoever he may have actually been) and the travelogues of various friars.  As late as 1683, a German doctor called Engelbert Kaempfer would search for the lamb in Persia, before reasonably deciding that it was a myth, possibly due to some local farming practices.

Wikipedia quotes some priceless poetry on the topic:

E’en round the Pole the flames of love aspire,
And icy bosoms feel the secret fire,
Cradled in snow, and fanned by Arctic air,
Shines, gentle borametz, thy golden hair
Rooted in earth, each cloven foot descends,
And round and round her flexile neck she bends,
Crops the grey coral moss, and hoary thyme,
Or laps with rosy tongue the melting rime;
Eyes with mute tenderness her distant dam,
And seems to bleat – a vegetable lamb

Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden

For in his path he sees a monstrous birth,
The Borametz arises from the earth
Upon a stalk is fixed a living brute,
A rooted plant bears quadruped for fruit,
…It is an animal that sleeps by day
And wakes at night, though rooted in the ground,
To feed on grass within its reach around

Demetrius De La Croix, Connubia Florum, Latino Carmine Demonstrata

Back in reality, the legend seems to be perhaps rooted (!) in an old Jewish text, or perhaps a misunderstanding of cotton fibres or even due to a furry looking Asian fern – Cibotium barometz.  Answers may also be available for the Barnacle Goose (or Bernacle), but there’s only so much of this I can take in one sitting.

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Wonder Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin

32919654The quote from The Guardian on the back of the book compared it to a mix of AS Byatt and Terry Pratchett.  Perhaps, but I’d throw in Hilary Mantel and Umberto Eco.  There’s something in the mix of the realist portrayal of medieval life blending with constant surrealist tangents.  What they really meant though was that the book will reward multiple readings, it is enjoyable first time round but there are so many allusions and references that you can come back again and again.

Irwin starts his book with Anthony Woodville dying at the Battle of Towton before being resurrected with an unfortunate tendency to see the dead walking.  The book then follows the real life Anthony Woodville’s path through the Wars of the Roses: switching sides to the Yorkists, temporary exile, a court favourite under Edward IV, before quickly falling out of favour under Richard III.  Along the way, he battles the Bastard of Burgandy in a two day duel and delves into his literary interests – translating works into English and even having them printed by William Caxton.

As a bibliophile and as a medieval man, Woodville explores the world through stories and rumours.  And so Irwin uses these throughout – as characters meet they share stories, and these tales shift and change as their context changes.  Thus the tone of the book swings wildly: with a very funny story about housebreakers using  tortoises with candles mounted on their backs, alongside darker, almost tragic material.  Familiar stories like Appointment in Samarra show up too – I’m sure there would be even more, if my mythology knowledge was on a par with Irwin’s!

The characters in the book are fantastic too.  Not necessarily deep, but certainly memorable.  The scheming alchemist George Ripley, the Machiavellian constable John Tiptoft (known as “butcher of England”) and the mysterious writer Thomas Malory all particularly caught my imagination.  Irwin conjures a strange sort of world – rich and detailed yet shallow and mysterious; a last flourishing of romance before the modern world begins to kick in.  It’s imaginative, bizarre and (in truth) at points I wasn’t really sure what on earth was going on; but that just will just spur me to read it again – it’s that sort of book.

Battling The Gods by Tim Whitmarsh

4fec67c0-c5cf-4e87-838c-7c330bae3192img400The main difficulty that Tim Whitmarsh has to deal with in his history of ancient atheism is that their gods are not the same as our Gods.  As he repeatedly stresses “Greek religious culture had no sacred text, no orthodoxy, no clear sense if what was ruled in and out of the sacred sphere, and as a result it was not blasphemous to subject the nature if the gods to radical questioning.“.  Throughout the many angles and sources that Whitmarsh explores it is difficult to pin point on what level they believe or disbelieve.

In many cases he looks at theomachia, tales of people battling the gods, often in fiction.  For instance Pentheus in Euripides’ The Bacchae, or parts of Homer.  Inevitably the gods win.  It’s hard to find material written by or in favour of those who spoke or acted against the gods, but we can see indirectly through character archetypes or specific criticisms that there must have been skepticism and disbelief present in the ancient world.

Philosophy is particularly interesting; the pre-Socratic attempts to explain the world by physical theories; the Epicureans who sidelined the gods; and the Skeptics who expressed criticisms of both belief and disbelief.  In general all three of these took the form of “an argument not for the non-existence of the gods but more narrowly for their limited explanatory role“, but things only get more complex as politics jumps into the issue: first with the god kings of the Hellenistic era and then with the divinely ordained expansion of the Roman empire.

Finally things get completely muddled as Christianity emerges and writers start to use atheist as a synonym for heretic (ie. those atheistic polytheists!).  Still, the same names come up again and again: Euhemerus, Diagoras of Melos and various Skeptics or Epicurians.  The religious tolerance that (mostly) allowed them to exist, disapproved of but free, would now disappear as politics was inextricably linked to religion; a monotheistic religion with rules and ideas set down in text too – that gave little room to manoeuvre.

This is not a straight forward book, the line between theism, atheism and agnosticism is constantly blurred; but that diversity of opinion and thought is interesting in itself.  Whitmarsh shows that the scientific world of the Enlightenment was not the first time skepticism raised its head; as indeed those 18th century thinkers with their familiarity of classics would have realized.  It is to the reader to make of this what he or she will, but Whitmarsh hopes it will show up modern skepticism as neither a fad nor an innovation, rather an idea with a history at least as old as the Abrahamic religions.

Roman Myths by Michael Grant

I have read a few of Michael Grant’s many books in the past.  They are generally okay, he is very readable and he clearly has a wide ranging knowledge of the classical world but they’re not always the most insightful or inspirational of books.  This book on roman myths from 1971 is probably the most engaging of his work that I have read so far.

Continue reading Roman Myths by Michael Grant

Gospel of Loki by Joanne M Harris

61maar5m2bel-_sx327_bo1204203200_Just a quick post on this one:  It’s basically a fairly straight retelling of Norse myths, but with Loki as a cocky teenager.  The underlying myths are fun, so there is a certain amount of enjoyment in reading them again, but I can’t really get past Asgard as the “popular crowd” or Fenris as a stroppy teenage son.  It’s definitely a different take on it, and Harris does make the style just about fit, but it feels a bit half baked.

Compared to other modern takes on these myths and characters like AS Byatt’s Ragnarok or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the Gospel of Loki is very straightforward – it’s just the old narrative with a twist in perspective.  Seeing the various legends worked in is nice, but the characters around it are one dimensional and the style quickly grates.  It might work with more humour, but there isn’t much beyond Loki’s occasionally sarcasm.  For me, it isn’t really enough to make it work.