The Malevolent Manticore
The Manticore is equally appealing,
He jumps about and has a prickly tail.
He jumps about and has a prickly tail.
Three rows of teeth and two superb mustaches,
You’ll find him leaping over hill and dale.
—Barbara Wersba (1932–), The Land of Forgotten Beasts
“The Manticora Monster of Tartary,” 17th century.
In Part One of this investigation, “The Peculiar Piasa,” I concluded by noting that the modern images of the Piasa do not at all resemble either the 1673 drawing in Fr. Marquette’s diary, or even the later renderings by William Dennis, J.C. Wild, Henry Lewis, and others. Rather, they bear an uncanny similarity to a pen drawing from a 17th-century bestiary manuscript, titled “The Manticora Monster of Tartary” (above), which would seem to be the prototype upon which McAdams based his popular Piasa image from which all subsequent versions derived. Note the fierce bearded human face with horns, the draconic wings, the large body scales, and the knobby scorpion tail which appear for the first time on graphic interpretations of the Piasa.
Which, of course, leads us directly into the next subject of this mythic investigation—the malevolent Manticore. Also called Martikhora, Martiora, Manticore, Mantichora, Manticory, Manticoras, Mantiquera, Mantiserra, Mancomorion, Memecoleous, Satyral, this is a ferocious, red, leonine creature of India with the face of a man, mane of a lion, tail and stinger of a scorpion, three rows of iron teeth, and a beautiful musical voice like a trumpet or flute. Its name, in all these variations, comes from Persian Mard-khor, and means “man-eater.”
The earliest historical reference to this horrific monster comes from the indefatigable Ctesias, a 5th-century bce Greek physician who served for 17 years in the Persian court of Darius II and Artexerxes Memnon. During that time he compiled histories and geographies of Persia and India (though he never actually visited the latter), which formed the basis for virtually all subsequent bestiary accounts through the ages.
Fig. 13. Martikhora.
Ctesias’ Martikhora (changed by Aristotle to Manticora, and corrupted by later writers into other variations) is certainly based upon the Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), but it also seems to include elements of the Porcupine (Hystrix leucura). Here is his account, in full, from Indica (as preserved by Aelian):
He [Ctesias] describes an animal called the martikhora, found in India. Its face is like a man’s—it is about as big as a lion, and in colour red like cinnabar. It has three rows of teeth—ears like the human—eyes of a pale-blue like the human and a tail like that of the land scorpion, armed with a sting and more than a cubit long. It has besides stings on each side of its tail, and like the scorpion, is armed with an additional sting on the crown of its head, wherewith it stings any one who goes near it, the wound in all cases proving mortal. If attacked from a distance it defends itself both in front and in rear—in front with its tail, by uplifting it and darting out the stings, like shafts from a bow, and in rear by straightening it out. It can strike to the distance of a hundred feet, and no creature can survive the wound it inflicts save only the elephant. The stings are about a foot in length and not thicker than the finest thread. The name martikora means in Greek “man-eater,” and it is so called because it carries off men and devours them, though it no doubt preys upon other animals as well. In fighting it uses not only its stings but also its claws. Fresh stings grow up to replace those shot away in fighting. These animals are numerous in India, and are killed by the natives who hunt them with elephants, from the backs of which they attack them with darts.7
Fig. 14. Phrygian-capped Manticora from a 12th-century bestiary.
Drawing on Ctesias (whose writings survived only as fragments in the works of others writers, and extracts compiled in the 9th century ce by Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople), various other authors added their own comments and elaborations to the mythology, carrying the legend of the monstrous Manticore far from its origin in the reality of the Indian tiger. In Haitian Voodoo folklore, for example, the Cigouave is a predatory monster with the body of a lion or panther and a human head; it was derived from 16th-century missionary descriptions of the Indian Manticore.
Depictions of this creature also became more and more fantastic, until some scarcely resembled any living beast at all. Later artists even added horns, udders, draconic wings, and, most curiously, a Phrygian cap. A heraldic version became known as the Lympago (also Mantygr, Man-Tiger, Montegre, or Satyral). It has the body of a lion or tiger, the head of an old man, and horns. Sometimes the horns resemble those of an ox, and the feet are more like a dragon’s.
Fig. 15. Heraldic Lympago.
The culmination of this artistic evolution is the truly bizarre representation described at the beginning of this section—which seems to have leapt the oceans to become finally affixed in stone in the center of America as the supposedly indigenous Piasa.
“There are,” replied Apollonius, “tall stories current which I cannot believe; for they say that the creature has four feet, and that his head resembles that of a man, but that in size it is comparable to a lion; while the tail of this animal puts out hairs a cubit long and sharp as thorns, which it shoots like arrows at those who hunt it.”
—Philostratus (170–245 ce), The Life of Apollonius of Tyana8
Another maner of bestes there is in Ynde that ben callyd manticora; and hath visage of a man, and thre huge grete teeth in his throte. He hath eyen lyke a ghoot and body of a lyon, tayll of a Scorpyon and voys of a serpente, in such wyse that by his sweet songe he draweth to hym the peple and deuoureth them. And is more delyuerer to goo than is fowle to flee.
—Willam Caxton (1422–1491), The Mirrour of the World9
Fig. 16. The terrible Manticora monster, caught in the year 1530 in the Hauberg Forest, Saxonia.
From Konrad Gesner’s De Quadrupedobus Vivipari, Basle, 16th century.
I saw some manthicores, a strange sort of beast: the body a lion’s, the coat red, face and ears like a man’s, and three rows of teeth closed together, like joined hands with fingers interlocked. Their tails secreted a sting like a scorpion’s; their voices were very melodious.
—François Rabelais (1495–1553), Gargantua and Pantagruel10
The Manticora, (or, according to the Persians, Mantiora) a Devourer, is bred among the Indians; having a triple Row of Teeth beneath and above, and in bigness and roughness like a Lion’s; as are also his Feet; Face and Ears like a Man’s; his Tail like a scorpion’s, armed with a Sting, and sharp-pointed Quills. His Voice is like a small trumpet, or Pipe. He is so wild, that ‘tis very difficult to tame him; and as swift as an Hart. With his Tail he wounds the Hunters, whether they come before or behind him. When the Indians take a Whelp of this Beast, they bruise its Buttocks and Tail, to prevent its bearing the sharp Quills; then it is tamed without danger.
—Thomas Boreman (fl.–1744), A Description of Three Hundred Animals11
Fig. 17. The man-dragon Manticora, used as a device by the printer Busdrago, Lucca, Tuscany, 1551.
The spiky tail of the Manticore can probably be attributed to a confusion with the porcupine, which was (and still is) popularly believed to be able to shoot its tail quills like arrows. Perhaps more likely, one can easily imagine the appearance of a tiger whose tail has had an unfortunate encounter with a porcupine! However, it was also a common belief in India that tigers’ whiskers were poisonous quills, and natives routinely plucked them from slain specimens to prevent accidents.
Fig. 18. Manticora from ancient Bestiaria. Note spiky tail.
But one feature that remains consistent from its very earliest description by Ctesias seems inexplicable—namely, the scorpion sting with which the monster’s tail was said to terminate. However, in 1884, the Irish scholar Valentine Ball published a paper on the Manticora, which addressed this apparent anomaly. Having worked for years as a geologist in India, and later becoming director of the National Museum in Dublin, Ball’s research convinced him that nearly everything the Greek physician had reported had a factual basis.12
Fig. 19. Manticora by Merian. Note scorpion tail.
For example, it is true that in India, tigers were hunted by princes from the backs of elephants—a custom that persisted into the 20th century. They are also notorious and feared man-eaters. And Ball attributed the “triple rows of teeth” to the distinctive three-lobed carnivore molars of tigers. As for the scorpion-like tail stinger, Ball asserted that “at the extremity of the tail of the tiger, as well as other Felidae, there is a little horny-dermal structure like a claw or nail, which I doubt not, the natives regard as analogous to the sting of the scorpion.”13
Fig. 20. Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris)
One of the greatest publishing achievements of the mid-16th century was the massive four-volume Historia Animalum (1555) by Swiss naturalist Konrad Gesner (1516–1565), which included hundreds of original woodcut illustrations. Considered to be the foundation of modern zoology, this comprehensive documentation of the animal world also included a number of fabulous creatures, including the Manticore. In 1607, Edward Topsell (1572–1625) compiled an English version of Gesner’s work, which he titled The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes. Topsell’s image of the Manticore has remained the best known and most often reproduced; and his text entry on this beast introduced yet another element into the myth—an equation with the Leucrocota, or Hyaena:
Fig. 21. Topsell’s Manticora (1607)
This beast or rather monster (as Ctesias writeth) is bred among the Indians, having a treble row of teeth beneath and above, whose greatness, roughness, and feet are like Lyons, his face and ears like unto a man, his eyes gray, and colour red, his tail like the tail of a Scorpion, of the earth, armed with a sting, casting forth sharp pointed quills…. This also is the same beast which is called Leucrocuta about the bigness of a wilde Ass, being in legs and Hoofs like a Hart, having his mouth reaching both sides to his ears, and the head and face of a female like unto a Badgers. It is called also Martiora, which in the Persian tongue signifieth a devourer of men; and thus we conclude the story of the Hyena for her description, and her several kinds.
—Edward Topsell (1572–1625)14
Fig. 22. Leucrocota by Merian.
The Leucrocota (Greek, “White Wolf-Dog”) that Topsell mentions was an Ethiopian animal first described by Pliny the Elder in his Historia Naturalis (77 ce). He said it was the size of a donkey, “with cloven hooves, the haunches of a stag, the neck and tail of a lion, the head of a badger, and a mouth that extends to the ears; it imitates the sound of the human voice.” Later writers called it Crocotta, Corocotta, Crocotte, Crocuta, Curcrocute, Cynolycus, Leucrota, Rosomacha, Akabo, Alazbo, Zabo, and Lupus Vesperitinus. It was said to be an ass-sized dog-wolf of India with a leonine body, deerlike legs with cloven hooves, and a humanlike voice with which it lured its victims. Instead of teeth, it had bony jaws to crush its prey, which it then swallowed whole. It had to turn its entire head to focus its immobile eyes. Ctesias had referred to this creature as the Cynolycus, “Dog-Wolf.” Also called Yena, Akabo, Alzabo, Zabo, Ana, and many other names, it is the animal we know today as the Hyaena (Crocuta crocuta), but confused with elements of the antelope.
We can see the entire story come full circle in the description of the Rompo, a nocturnal scavenger beast from India and Africa that feeds on human corpses. It was said to have a long body and tail, the head of a hare, the ears of a man, a mane of hair, the forefeet of a badger, and the hind feet of a bear. These habits and the description clearly identify it as the hyaena, and yet some are also reminiscent of the Manticore. I believe the final connection between these two animals may be found in the Striped Hyena (Hyaena hyaena), whose distinctive coat patterns resemble those of the tiger.
Fig. 23. Striped Hyaena.
There is one last footnote to this fascinating history. Peter Costello reports that André Thévet, writing in 1571, described a personal encounter with a Manticore: “When I traveled on the Red Sea, some Indians arrived from the mainland…and they brought along a monster of the size and proportions of a tiger without a tail, but the face was that of a well-formed man.”15 Costello suggests that this “Manticore” was probably an anthropoid ape, but none of the great apes or baboons are indigenous to India, and it is impossible to determine from this description what species it may have been.
7. McCrindle, J.W. ed., Ancient India as Described by Ktesias the Knidian (1882 reprint), Manohar Reprints, Delhi, India 1973.
8. Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, trans. F.G. Conybeare, Harvard University Press, 1960.
9. Caxton, William, Caxton’s Mirrour of the World, ed. Oliver H. Prior, Early English Text Society, Oxford, England, 1913.
10. Rabelais, François, The Five Books of Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. Jacques Le Clercq, Modern Library, 1936.
11. Boreman, Thomas, A Description of Three Hundred Animals (1786; facsimile), Johnson Reprint, 1968.
12. Costello, Peter, The Magic Zoo: The Natural History of Fabulous Animals, St Martin’s Press, London, 1979.
13. Ball, Valentine, “On the Identification of the Pygmies, the Martikhora, the Griffin, and the Dikarion of Ktesias,” The Academy (London), vol. 23, no. 572, April 1883.
14. Topsell, Edward, The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes, 1607 (Houghton Library, Harvard University)
15. Costello, Op cit.16. Lehner, Ernst & Johanna, Big Book of Dragons, Monsters, and Other Mythical Creatures, Dover Pictorial Archives, 2004.