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.
In 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).
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.