Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Monsters of Islandia

I just noticed that the Google Doodle of the day is Abraham Ortelius' Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. Had I known they were going to do this, I would have written something special about it. Fortunately, I have an old post about the sources of one of the more interesting maps.

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Last fall while researching my article on images of walruses and possible mammoths on Renaissance maps, I looked at dozens of maps before finding the five I finally used. This was more fun than anyone deserves to have. I wasn't able to find excuses to use all of my research at the time. During the next few months, I'll put together a couple of less polished pieces so that I can share some off the more interesting tidbits that I found. One of the most fun maps that I found was Abraham Ortelius' Islandia, Iceland.

Ortelius is an important figure in the history of cartography. He is regarded as the father of the modern atlas. His Theatrum Orbis Terrarum was a bound volume of maps, with descriptive text, intended to systematically cover the entire world. It came out in many editions and languages between 1570 and 1612 and was generously plagiarised then and later. The map Islandia first appeared in the edition of Theatrum in 1587. Islandia was the first detailed and accurate (by the standards of the time) map of Iceland. The information for the map itself originated with Bishop Gudbrandur Thorlaksson who sent it to a Danish historian, Anders Sörensen Vedel. Vedel sent the notes and a map of his own creation to Ortelius who used them used when preparing the copperplates for Islandia. The Vedel map has not survived. Many of the placenames on the map were badly mangled by Ortelius when he converted the Icelandic script (Latin letters with additional characters) into the Latin script common in Holland.

Islandia, printed in Antwerp, 1603.

I don't intend to write a detailed article about the map as a whole, today. I just want to make some comments about the animals surrounding the island in the sea, especially his sources for the animals. The auction site of Barry Lawrence Ruderman (my source for the Ortelius images) says:
Some of the more purely fanciful images may derive from tales of St. Brendan, a sixth century Irish missionary who, according to legend, journeyed to Iceland and whose name is associated with a mythical island of the same name. Others are traceable to Olaus Magnus's Carta Marina of 1539, although they were probably derived directly from Munster's Cosmographia of 1545 and most notably Munster's chart of the Sea and Land Creatures[Meerwunder und seltzame Thier].

Olaus Magnus' Carta Marina, printed in Venice, 1539.

Münster's Meerwunder und seltzame Thier, printed in Basel, 1552.

As far as I can tell, this is true, though I have identified some of the other sources. I believe Ortelius relied more directly on Olaus that on the intermediary of Münster. Only a few of the beasts on Islandia were portrayed in Cosmographia, while several more can be found on Olaus' map and, more importantly, in his book Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, first published in 1555 and many times thereafter. Another source that Ortelius used was Konrad Gesner (De Piscibus Orbiculatis 1558), who commented on and, in some places, corrected Olaus. One of those corrections appears on Islandia. Finally, he might have used Ambroise Paré's Des Monstres. Although there is nothing in this that he couldn't have found in any of the other sources, Des Monstres first published in 1573, is one of the greatest monster bestiaries of all time.

On to the illustrations. Ortelius marked the animals on the map with capital letters. These were described in text on the back of the map. For each animal, I'll start with the image and description, follow with some possible sources for the image, and end with any other comments that wander into my mind.

A. is a fish, commonly called NAHVAL. If anyone eats of this fish, he will die immediately. It has a tooth in the front part of its head standing out seven cubits. Divers have sold it as the Unicorn's horn. It is thought to be a good antidote and powerful medicine against poison. This monster is forty ells in length.

From the description, it's quite clear that he intends a narwhal. I've written before about the European belief in unicorn horn. By the time that Ortelius wrote the text for this map, the belief in an actual unicorn animal was fading. However, belief in the horn itself, whatever its true source, and its anti-poison properties hung on for another century. Curiously, although there were plenty of images of sea unicorns that Ortelius might have drawn on, he chose to use something that resembles a swordfish to represent the narwhal. I haven't been able to locate a source for this image.

The ell is a highly flexible measure. It most commonly means, either a cubit (half yard, finger tips to elbow, or roughly eighteen inches) or a three-quarter yard (finger tips to arm pit, or roughly twenty-seven inches). Just to keep things confusing, it was also used for any foreign measure of the same order of magnitude.

Since I can't find anything to match his narwhal, we'll move on to B and C.

B. the Roider is a fish of one hundred and thirty ells in length, which has no teeth. The flesh of it is very good meat, wholesome and tasty. Its fat is good against many diseases.

C. The BURCHVALUR has a head bigger than its entire body. It has many very strong teeth, of which they make chess pieces [some editions say bricks]. It is 60 cubits long.

I don't have anything to offer for the images of B or C either. Their basic forms, with the wide open mouthes, vaguely matche standard artistic representations of fish going back to Minoan Greece. One thing I can say about the Burchvalur is that the description of a long head and teeth used for carving sounds like a sperm whale. In fact, several of the monsters on the charts of Ortelius, Olaus, and Münster are based on different stories about sperm whales.

On a linguistic note: Roider or reydur or reidr is an old Icelandic name for baleen whales, which have no teeth. The suffix -valur, in Burchvalur, comes from the root as "whale." It shows up as hvalur, wal, ual, hval and other forms hidden in the names of many northern sea mammals.

For D, I do have some meat. Ortelius points to Olaus as his source for the sea hog. Olaus bases his pig-like monster of the German Sea on a specific sighting in 1537. Between Olaus' first representation in 1539 and Ortelius' image in 1587, the beast has undergone some evolution.

D. The Hyena or sea hog is a monstrous kind of fish about which you may read in the 21st book of Olaus Magnus.

This first is from Olaus' 1539 map. The sea hog has a boar's head, a very scaly body, webbed feet, what might be a row of uneven spines or bristles on its back, horns like a cow's over its shoulders, and, strangest of all, what appear to be three eyes on its side.

Münster's version from six years later has fewer details. The webbed feet now look more like fins and the side eyes are gone. Where Olaus' sea hog faced right, Münster's faces left. This reversal was common when prints were copied. The engraver set the original work next to his plate and copied what he saw, forgetting, or not caring, that when his plate was printed, the image would become reversed.

The version printed in Olaus' book in 1555, faces left again. My guess is that Olaus' engraver worked from the map plates rather than a print. The image is a little more detailed and has a new background but it is otherwise unchanged.

In Gesner, three years later, the image is reversed, it's slightly more detailed (beautifully so), and lacks a background. In case there was any question about where he got the image, he directly quotes Olaus' book and comments on it.

Finally, we have Paré in 1573. The image face left and lacks any background, so I think it's safe to say it was copied from Gesner.

Looking back at Ortelius' image, I think it's clear that he did not get it from Münster. The most important in my making this judgement is the three side eyes. Münster did not have them, and does not mention them in his accompanying text. He merely calls it a "monstrous fish that resembles pig." In Ortelius, they look more like bullet holes that eyes, but they are there and in the same arrangement (two above one below). My principle of reversals would seem to argue that Ortelius worked from Olaus and not Gesner, but I think one other point argues in Gesner's favor. Ortelius' image is not a simple copy; it has been completely reworked. The scales are gone and the beast looks furry. The feet are no longer webbed; they look like those of a dog or some other terrestrial carnivore. In fact, he calls it a hyena. Gesner was the only previous writer to use the word hyena to describe the monster. I'm not sure where he picked up that reference. It's possible that there is another source that I'm not aware of that had an image of a furry sea hog, but until I hear of it, I'm going to say Ortelius was the one who improved the sea hog based on Gesner's description.

E. Ziphius, a horrible sea monster that swallows a black seal in one bite.

Various sources I've looked at claim that the Ziphius is a goose-beaked whale, a sperm whale, or an orca. Olaus, who first used the image was very clear that Ziphius is a swordfish (xiphia). He wrote that is had horrible eyes, a sharp beak like a sword, a triangular back (a fin), and that it was a stranger in the North that only occasionally showed up as a robber. However, he also said it had a head like an owl's and he drew it that way. Here are the images of Olaus, 1539; Münster, 1545; Olaus, 1555; and Gesner, 1558.

Three things stand out when comparing Ortelius' Ziphius with Olaus' first image. First, the second attacking monster is missing from the scene. Second, Ortelius' Ziphius has no dorsal fin. Third, it looks like Vincent van Gogh. I think the last one is a coincidence. Ortelius' Ziphius most closely matches Münster's. Of the four earlier images, only Münster's lacks the dramatic staging and it has the smallest dorsal fin. These make it the most likely source for Ortelius' Ziphius.

F. The English whale, thirty ells long. It has no teeth, but its tongue is seven ells in length.

Several things stand out taking this image and description together. First, it appears to have teeth, contrary to the description. Second, it has arms. Third, is that a giant penis? All of these details come from Olaus and are repeated in Gesner and partially in Paré.

Olaus' illustration is not based on a species called the English whale. It is, rather, an illustration for a report of a particular whale that beached itself near the mouth of the Thames on August 27, 1532. He describes the proportions of the whale, commenting on the fact that its mouth was long in proportion to its body. He says that is had long "wings," half the length of its body. He says it had no teeth but, instead, hairy blades on the roof of its mouth and a long tongue. He says that its genitals were of monstrous magnitude. I think most modern people would have no problem recognising this as a male baleen whale of some sort. Olaus' illustration shows workers chopping up the stinking carcass to dispose of it. Olaus appears to have had some trouble translating the report into an image. The "wings" turned into dragon's feet and he drew the baleen plates as a series triangles that looked a lot like teeth.

Gesner's English whale is essentially a copy of Olaus' with the people removed, possibly to give us a better look at the giant penis. His one significant change is that he has added some teeth in the lower jaw.

Paré started from scratch and created a new image. In his, the front of the whale has been reworked to have a profile like a sperm whale and the "wings" have been changed from arms into cute little bat wings. Its lower jaw has teeth that again resemble a sperm whale and it appears to have no teeth at all in its upper jaw, only some curious holes.

There is one hint in Olaus' drawing that he might have had some experience with whale bones. This is in the strange arms of the whale. The arms look flabby and are made up mostly of wrist and fingers, which is exactly the bone structure of a whale's fins. Like the wings of its fellow mammal, the bat, a whale's fins have kept most of their fingers, as opposed to birds whose fingers are all fused into one structure. Ortelius was apparently not familiar with these bones as he has rendered the fingers more paw-like. The bones are well displayed in this Nineteenth Century German illustration.

G. HROSHUALUR, that is to say as much as Sea horse, with manes hanging down from its neck like a horse. It often causes great hurt and scare to fishermen.

There's really nothing special about the sea horse. Both the legend and image had been well known since classical antiquity and, by the Medieval times, it was used in heraldry. The pose is a common one. Ortelius could have taken his image from a fountain, mural, coat of arms, or book illustration. It's very similar to Gesner's sea horse, but not enough so that I would say it was based on Gesner.

Ortelius' sea horse is really quite beautiful. Today, it would be easy to imagine his horse showing up as an airbrushed poster full of rainbows and unicorns. But, such a treatment obscures the legend, which was that the sea horse was a horrible monster that hunted and killed fishermen. Then again, the unicorn was often portrayed a a horrible monster that hunted and killed men in the forest.

H. The largest kind of Whale, which seldom shows itself. It is more like a small island than like a fish. It cannot follow or chase smaller fish because of its huge size and the weight of its body, yet it preys on many, which it catches by natural cunning and subtlety which it applies to get its food.

Like the sea horse, the island fish has a long heritage in mythology. It appears in the Arabian Nights, Icelandic mythology, and in the Voyage of St. Brendan. In most legends, a ship comes across the island fish sleeping on the surface (a basking shark?). Thinking it is an island, the sailors land and build a fire to cook their dinner, waking the monster. The island fish is not usually malicious, it is merely dangerous because of its size. Olaus had an image of the island fish on his 1539 map but not in his book.Olaus' image shows the episode of the sailors starting a fire. Münster had a variation of it without the sailors. Gesner has the sailors and so must have copied it from Olaus' map.

Both Olaus' and Gesner's fish have a row of small fins running along its spine, while Münster's and Ortelius' do not. This, and the sailors, make me believe that Ortelius was more inspired by Münster than by the others for this image.

I. SKAUTUHVALUR. This fish is fully covered with bristles or bones. It is somewhat like a shark or skate [thorn-back in the German edition], but infinitely bigger. When it appears, it is like an island, and with its fins it overturns boats and ships.

According to the Icelandic Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture only two species of rays or skates are native to their waters and neither one is big enough to capsize a ship. Ortelius' image could owe something to Olaus and Gesner. The fish in its mouth resmbles Olaus, but the spininess does not.

While there is some resemblance in the images, the descriptions are completely different. The ray described by Olaus is presented as a model of virtue. In the image, the ray is rescuing a fisherman who has fallen into the water and is being eaten by hungry fish. Later on, Olaus describes a different giant ray that uses its stinger to pluck sailors off of ships.

K. SEENAUT, sea cow of grey colour. They sometimes come out of the sea and feed on the land in groups. They have a small bag hanging by their nose with the help of which they live in the water. If it is broken, they live altogether on the land, accompanied by other cows.

Notice the three cows on the shore behind the Seenauts. They are labled vacca marina, which is Latin for "sea cows." Olaus, Münster, and Gesner all had sea cows in their presentations, but none of their illustations resemble Ortelius'. Still, I like the sea cow enough that I'm going to show them anyway.

Münster's and Gesner's sea cows are descended from Olaus' map illustration and not from his book illustration, which is completely different. I think it might be the ancestor of the cow in Guernica.

L. STEIPEREIDUR, a most gentle and tame kind of whale, which for the defence of fishermen fights against other kinds of whales. It is forbidden by Proclamation that any man should kill or hurt this kind of Whale. It has a length of at least 100 cubits.

The image of the Steipereidur nearly matches the island fish above. Olaus, on his map, has several whales that all basically fit this image. Besides the one shown above as the island fish is this one illustrating a battle between a whale and an orca. That scene was a standard piece in natural histories dating back, at least, to Pliny in the first century. This might be what Ortelius was referring to when he described Steipereidur.

On a less happy note for the Steipereidur, the royal proclamation must not have lasted long. In a history of Greenland published in 1705, Thormodus Torfæus wrote that Steipereidur was the tastiest kind of whale.

M. STAUKUL. The Dutch call it Springual. It has been observed to stand for a whole day long upright on its tail. It derives its name from its leaping or skipping. It is a very dangerous enemy of seamen and fishermen, and greedily goes after human flesh.

The springing whale is another name for the orca. The presence of two so different orcas in the literature of the time shows how confused information arriving from different sources could become. Ortelius should have been aware of the orca, under that name, as portrayed by Olaus and numerous other artists, but the springing whale description was so different that he never made a connection of them being the same animal.

N. ROSTUNGER (also called Rosmar) is somewhat like a sea calf. It goes to the bottom of the sea on all four of its feet, which are very short. Its skin can hardly be penetrated by any weapon. It sleeps for twelve hours on end, hanging on some rock or cliff by its two long teeth. Each of its teeth are at least one ell long and the length of its whole body is fourteen ells.

And here we are with my friend the walrus. In my Ruscheni article, I gave some history of European knowledge of the walrus. Some other day, I'll do a complete data dump of everything I found in my research. For now, I'll just give a short version of that which is relevant to Ortelius' map.

The description of the walrus spending its time hanging by its teeth to sleep dates back to the thirteenth century and a bestiary written by St. Albert the Great (Albertus Magnus). It is part of a bizzare description of hunting walruses by sneking up on them while the slept, cutting slits in their skin, running a rope through the slits, tying the rope to a tree and then waking the walruses (as if all this cutting and tying didn't) and stampeding them into the sea during which they were supposed to literally run out of their skin Like some Tex Avery cartoon character. The description was repeated by many writers including Olaus and Gesner. Olaus' illustrations show the walrus as a legged monster with tusks in its lower jaw.

The first edition of Gesner's book copied Olaus' illustration and repeated the Albertus story.

None of these images resemble the one that Ortelius used. Münster's chart of the Sea and Land Creatures does not include a walrus. But Ortelius' walrus does have a source and that is the second edition of of Gesner's De Piscibus. between 1558 and 1560, Gesner learned of a drawing of a walrus in the wall of the Strasbourg city hall. Around 1520, Bishop Erik Valkendorf of Trondheim sent the head of a walrus, preserved with salt, to pope Leo X. On the way to Rome, it was displayed at the Strasbourg Rathaus. Someone made a drawing of it on the wall, imagining a seal-like body with a fish tail, four chubby arms, and wing-like structures behind the fore-arms. Gesner was skeptical about the body, but faithfully reproduced it.

In the thirty years between Gesner and Ortelius, Western Europeans began to penetrate the Arctic in significant numbers looking for shortcuts to China and trade with Russia. Many of these travelers saw walruses and brought back ivory and more realistic stories of walrus hunting, but I cannot locate any images during that time.
O. Spermaceti parmacitty or a simple kind of amber, commonly called HUALAMBUR.

This is ambergris or whale barf. Aged ambergris is used as a fixative in perfume and was, and still is, extremely valuable. On the map, the ambergris is represented as two blobs flanking the walrus. We don't need to look for a source for shapeless blobs.

P. Blocks and trunks of trees, by force of winds and violent tempests torn off by their roots from the cliffs of Norway, tossed to and fro, and surviving many storms, finally cast upon and coming to rest at this shore.

The significance of the driftwood is that, by Ortelius' time, Iceland had almost no trees big enough to use for ship building or construction. For the same reason, Olaus made a point of showing driftwood around Greenland. Like the ambergris, we don't really need to look for sources for driftwood.

Q. Huge and marvellously big heaps of ice, brought here by the tide from the frozen sea, making loud and terrible noises. Some pieces are often as big as forty cubits. On some of these, white bears sit together, watching the innocent fish play about in exercise.

I don't think there is a specific source for this illustration. Bears were a familiar animal to European artists. In Ortelius' time, they still lurked in forests across most of the continent. Bears were used in heraldry, so most artists would have been able to draw them. I find these bears especially charming. Rather than the fierce animals of reputation, they are shown playfully.

Olaus also showed ice floes and polar bears on the northeast coast of Iceland. One of them is eating an innocent fish.

An interesting detail is that the polar bears on Olaus' map are brown. Renaissance maps were printed in black and white and later hand colored. Color printing did not come into being until the nineteenth century. Quite often, the maps were colored by their owners and not by the publishers, meaning different copies of the same map can quite different color schemes. Though Olaus clearly labeled the bears "white bears" (ursi albi)whoever colored his map colored the bears a more familiar brown.

And now we've come all the way around the island. By my count, most of the identifiable sources for Ortelius' sea animal images are either Gesner or Olaus, though he was also aware of Münster. Sea horses and bears were common enough in European art that they could easily have been original creations. As to the descriptions, most of these are also Gesner or Olaus (Münster's descriptions are very short). Finally, the inclusion animals not in any of those sources and the use of Icelandic names makes me think that he got most of the rest of his information from Bishop Thorlaksson and Anders Vedel. Whatever his sources, the map is a beautiful glimpse into the state of knowledge during the age of discovery.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Things are not going well

Too long; didn't read version: I'm unemployed, broke, and the storage place is going to auction off all of my belongings in a few days. Send money.

When I began blogging, about fifteen years ago, I debated with myself over how personal I wanted to get. Should I talk about my depression and other issues or stick to commenting on the rest of the world? I chose the latter. I'm a fairly shy and private person and just wasn't that comfortable opening up to a bunch of strangers. I've opened up a bit on social media, but I still keep the blogs (when I get around to writing anything) pretty much business only. But, I can't do that anymore. I need help and I don't know where else to turn.

In 2012, my life imploded somewhat. Among other things, I lost my house, got divorced, and my baby sister died. I tried living by myself for a while, but that didn't work out. I decided to move back to Alaska where my family and oldest friends are. And there I ran into a snag. When I called around to get estimates from movers, I found out it would cost several times more than I thought, about twice as much as I had to my name to ship my stuff. Two tons of books kind of complicates things.

I haven't been able to get back on my feet up here. My sisters have covered my room and board. I try to cover my other expenses. I sold my comic book collection (which had been at my baby sister's house all these years). I had two jobs, but neither was permanent. I sold my book and lived off the advance. That ran out just before Thanksgiving. At that point I had a few encouraging looking job prospects that might open after the first of the year. My ex, Tessa, set up a GoFundMe to raise, what we hoped would be, enough tide me through to a first paycheck. One by one they each fizzled out. We begged for enough to get me through another month, and then another after that. And, I'm back where I was in December: I'm broke, my bills are overdue, and I have one good job prospect, but, even if it pans out, the first check won't arrive in time.

The only long-term solution is that I get a job that pays an adult wage so I can be independent again. My ideal is a telecommuting job that I can do in Alaska while I save up enough to go to Washington and get my stuff. But anything that pays my bills with some walking around money left over is good. If you know of anything or have any connections, please let me know.

Meanwhile, this is where I am. I need $450 by EOD Thursday to save my belongings**, my life. Soon after that, another round of bills hits.

PS - My hard drive is making funny noises.

* My bills. I's hard to rank them. Obviously the storage unit worries me the most. I have a phone. Everyone needs a phone. I also need mine for data since there is no internet where I live. I have an old credit card that I'm trying to pay off. Medicaid pays most, but not all of my medical and medication bills. That leaves food and walking around money. I'm out of coffee for the first time in about forty years, but the storage unit is more important (see below).

** About my stuff. I'm clinically a bit of a hoarder. Hence the 110 boxes of books. Just not living with my stuff is a big source of anxiety. But, I'm also the family historian. The storage unit includes about 150 years worth of photographs, family bibles, Masonic paraphernalia, my dad's papers from the Atomic Energy Commission, and a china hutch hand-made in the 1890s. I live 1500 miles away from the storage unit. I can't borrow someone's van and drive over to rescue the best stuff before the unit becomes reality show prop. It's either all saved or all gone.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The mammoth that never was

In the three-hundred-fifty years since Europeans first received reports of a mysterious creature in Siberia called the mammoth, nothing has engendered more public fascination about them than the occasional discovery of nearly intact, frozen carcasses with flesh still attached. At some point in the nineteenth century, frozen mammoths became a staple of catastrophist theories. As one of the usual suspects of those theories, frozen mammoths have regularly been trotted out to prove that Atlantis was real, the Earth's axis can suddenly change location, a planet-sized comet caused the plagues of Egypt, or that Noah's global flood was real. Sometimes they prove all of the above despite the fact that the believers date them thousands of years apart.

Three particular mammoths show up more often that all of the others combined. The Adams mammoth, named for the person who excavated it, was discovered in 1799 near the mouth of the Lena River. In 1806, Mikhail Adams journeyed to the spot and recovered most of the skeleton and several hundred pounds of skin and hair. This was the first nearly complete mammoth recovered and scientifically described. It was the basis for all nineteenth century ideas about what a mammoth looked like in life. I have given an entire chapter to this mammoth in my book. The Berezovka mammoth, named after the place where it was found in 1901, was also nearly complete. Since scientists were able to get to it soon after its discovery, they were able to examine muscles and remains of some of the internal organs. In between the Adams and the Berezovka was the Benkendorf mammoth. In 1846 a surveying party, led by a Lt. Benkendorf, discovered a complete mammoth exposed by a flood of the Indigirka river. Before the mammoth was carried away, the party was able to make some measurements and examine the contents of the mammoth's stomach. The main difference between these three famous mammoths is that the Adams and Berezovka mammoths are real, while the Benkendorf mammoth is a complete fiction.

The fictitious nature of the story hasn't hurt its popularity. In In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood Dr. Walt Brown cites the Benkendorf mammoth in to prove his version of the Noachian flood. John Cogan, in The New Order of Man's History, cites the same mammoth to prove his theory of Atlantis being sunk by a giant asteroid strike. Robert W. Felix cites the Benkendorf mammoth in Not by Fire but by Ice to prove his theory that magnetic pole reversals cause sudden and regular ice ages. In Darwin's Mistake: Antediluvian Discoveries Prove Dinosaurs and Humans Co-Existed, Hans J. Zillmer calls on the same mammoth to disprove both evolution and modern geology.

It's easy to point and laugh at the creationists and catastrophists for being suckered into believing that a fictional mammoth would support their theories. Recycling anecdotes is a well-established tradition among conspiracy theorists and other purveyors of forbidden knowledge. Unfortunately, the Benkendorf mammoth has just as long a history of being cited in textbooks, popular science writing, and even academic papers. Samuel Sharp's 1876 textbook Rudiments of Geology uses the Benkendorf mammoth as a source of information about the appearance and diet of mammoths as do the authors of the 1902 edition of The Cambridge Natural History, H. H. Lamb's 1977 book Climate: Present, Past and Future, and a 1983 Time-Life book, Ice Ages.

The story of Benkendorf's discovery originally appeared in a fairly obscure 1859 German book of science for young people, Kosmos für die Jugend by an author named Philipp Körber. Why has the Körber story managed to survive so long? More than anything else, I believe three elements have come together to turn Benkendorf's mammoth into a nearly unstoppable zombie. First, the original story was well told, filled with many plausible details, and included the solutions to some outstanding mysteries about mammoths. Second, because of the verisimilitude and answers, the story was adopted and retold in considerable detail by some very influential scientists. Their credibility led to many retellings in both the popular and scientific press. Finally, debunkings of the story have been weak, made by not credible writers, or located in hard to find places.

Kosmos für die Jugend. Mammoths weren't the only prehistoric animals on Körber's book.

In Körber's book, Benkendorf is an exemplary character, the son of a Baltic German schoolteacher, who dedicated himself to studying the mathematical arts. While serving in the Russian army, he came to the attention of his superiors who recommended him to the navy where, at the age of twenty-five, he was attached to a surveying expedition along the Siberian coast. Körber lets the young lieutenant tell the story in his own words, supposedly as a letter to a relative in Germany who passed it on to the author.

After a credible description of permafrost, a still unnamed and mysterious phenomenon, he describes the setting. The year of his expedition, 1846, had an unusually warm and early spring. Unseasonable rains melted away the snow and cleared the rivers while tearing away river banks and flooding the land. When the rains stopped, they could see that the Indigirka River was free of ice. He was given charge of a steam launch and sent to explore the new channels carved by the floods. "There it was," he writes," we made a strange discovery."

Suddenly our jager, ever on the outlook, called loudly, and pointed to a singular and unshapely object, which rose and sank through the disturbed waters.
 I had already remarked it, but not given it any attention, considering it only driftwood. Now we all hastened to the spot on the shore, had the boat drawn near, and waited until the mysterious thing should again show itself. Our patience was tried, but at last a black, horrible, giant-like mass was thrust out of the water, and we beheld a colossal elephant's head, armed with mighty tusks, with its long trunk moving in the water in an unearthly manner, as though seeking for something lost therein. Breathless with astonishment, I beheld the monster hardly twelve feet from me, with his half-open eyes yet showing the whites. It was still in good preservation. 

Körber's illustration of the Benkendorf mammoth. I haven't seen this illustration published anywhere except for Körber's book.

Benkendorf's crew secure the mammoth with ropes and chains and try to pull it to the shore, but its rear feet are frozen to the river bottom and they can't budge it. Refusing to give up, Benkendorf has them tie the ropes to stakes driven into the riverbank and waits for the river to excavate the mammoth for him. The next day, the Yakuti horsemen arrive and Benkendorf puts them to work reeling in his catch. 
Picture to yourself an elephant with the body covered with thick fur, about thirteen feet in height and fifteen in length, with tusks eight feet long, thick, and curving outward at their ends, a stout trunk of six feet in length, colossal limbs of one and a half feet in thickness, and a tail naked up to the end, which was covered with thick tufty hair. The animal was fat and well grown; death had overtaken him in the fulness of his powers. His parchment-like, large, naked ears lay fearfully turned up over the head; about the shoulders and the back he had stiff hair about a foot in length, like a mane. The long outer hair was deep brown, and coarsely rooted. The top of the head looked so wild, and so penetrated with pitch, that it resembled the rind of an old oak tree. On the sides it was cleaner, and under the outer hair there appeared everywhere a wool, very soft, warm, and thick, and of a fallow-brown colour. The giant was well protected against the cold. The whole appearance of the animal was fearfully strange and wild. It had not the shape of our present elephants. As compared with our Indian elephants, its head was rough, the brain-case low and narrow, but the trunk and mouth were much larger. The teeth were very powerful. Our elephant is an awkward animal, but compared with this Mammoth, it is as an Arabian steed to a coarse, ugly, dray-horse. I could not divest myself of a feeling of fear as I approached the head; the broken, widely-opened eyes gave the animal an appearance of life, as though it might move in a moment and destroy us with a roar.... 
The bad smell of the body warned us that it was time to save of it what we could, and the swelling flood, too, bid us hasten. First of all we cut off the tusks, and sent them to the cutter. Then the people tried to hew off the head, but notwithstanding their good will, this work was slow. As the belly of the animal was cut open the intestines rolled out, and then the smell was so dreadful that I could not overcome my nauseousness, and was obliged to turn away. But I had the stomach separated, and brought on one side. It was well filled, and the contents instructive and well preserved. The principal were young shoots of the fir and pine; a quantity of young fir-cones, also in a chewed state, were mixed with the mass....
So intent are they in examining the mammoth that no one notices the river slowly undermining the riverbank. Suddenly, the mammoth is snatched from Benkendof's hands as the bank collapses taking the mammoth and five of the horsemen with it. Sailors from the ship manage to rescue the horsemen, but the mammoth is irretrievably lost.

Besides being a ripping good yarn, Körber's story had a lot going for it. At the time, only one fairly intact mammoth had been recovered and described in scientific literature. This was the Adams mammoth. Adams was able to recover an almost complete skeleton, a large part of the skin, and several bags of hair. However, most of the soft tissue had been eaten by scavengers, the tusks had been cut off and sold, and the hair had shed from the skin. This left the angle of the tusks and the distribution of the hair open to speculation. With no internal organs present, Adams could provide no information about what the mammoth ate. This was an area of great interest since knowing its diet would be a major clue about the past climate of the Arctic coast. Adams' account of recovering the mammoth was published and republished in several languages over a decade. Wilhelm Gottlieb Tilesius reassembled the skeleton and published a detailed description of it along with large illustrations. Adams' and Tilesius' papers were the basis for all mammoth studies in the nineteenth century. Körber's description of Benkendorf's mammoth stuck closely to their descriptions, even where they made incorrect guesses.

Körber describes the tusks as "eight feet long, thick, and curving outward at their ends." This follows Tilesius' attempt at reconstructing the placement of the tusks on the Adams' mammoth. The original tusks had been cut off and sold before Adams reached the mammoth (in fact, it was the ivory merchant who reported the find). Adams bought a pair of tusks on his way back from the coast which the merchant claimed were the originals from his skeleton. These tusks were, in fact, from a younger, smaller mammoth. Tilesius could only guess at their placement and put them on the wrong sides of the skull with the points curving out and back over the mammoth's shoulders. In part, because of Tilesius' incorrect guess and Körber's confirmation of it, the correct placement of the tusks would still be a topic of debate into the first decade of the twentieth century.

Tilesius' incorrect tusk placement confirmed by Körber.

The idea that the hair on the mammoth should be in the form of a mane, rather than equally distributed about the body, comes from Adams. Adams described the mammoth, when he first viewed it, as having "a long mane on the neck." By the time Adams reached St. Petersburg, all of the hair had fallen off of the skin. Since Adams says most of the hair had fallen off by the time he reached the mammoth, it might be that the only hair he saw still attached was around the neck and shoulders. In any case, this was another incorrect assumption that gained support from Körber's tale.

Körber provided two other details about the mammoth's appearance that were pure speculation and that turned out to be incorrect. The "tail naked up to the end, which was covered with thick tufty hair" is a nice detail that goes along with the lion-like mane. On Adams' mammoth, the tail had been carried off by scavengers; its appearance was anybody's guess. The "parchment-like, large, naked ears" are a convincing detail that make his mammoth more elephant-like, specifically like an African elephant, but badly suited to the Arctic. When Adams began excavating his mammoth, most of the flesh and the skin of the head had been eaten by scavengers. However, one side of the head was still buried and had preserved its skin and ear. Adams mentioned only that ear was "furnished with a tuft of fur." By the time the skin reached St. Petersburg, the ear had dried out and was too damaged for Tilesius to draw any conclusions about its original appearance.

While all of these external details were corrected by the early years of the twentieth century, Körber's imaginative description of the contents of the mammoth's stomach is a important bit of misinformation that persisted almost to this day.
I had the stomach separated, and brought on one side. It was well filled, and the contents instructive and well preserved. The principal were young shoots of the fir and pine; a quantity of young fir-cones, also in a chewed state, were mixed with the mass....
We can be fairly certain that Körber didn't set out to fool the scientific community. His book was intended for young people with an interest in science. Unfortunately, this one detail, taken as a scientific observation, had consequences in several fields. At the time, discovering what the mammoth ate was considered the most important evidence as to the environment in which it lived. Naturalists were divided between those who thought elephants in the Arctic meant Siberia had had a warm climate in the recent past, and those who thought mammoths were adapted to the cold, meaning Siberia's cold climate had never changed. The answer to that question had great implications for understanding the nature of the mammoth, the nature of the ice ages (still a new idea), and whether or not geological and climatological conditions changed gradually or catastrophically.

As with the physical appearance of the mammoth, Körber's speculation about the diet of the mammoth was based on solid science. In one of the earliest attempts at debunking the Benkendorf story, Johann Friedrich von Brandt pointed out that the description of the mammoth's diet accorded very closely with his own research into woolly rhinoceroses. He went on, rather testily, to accuse Körber with stealing his ideas on how mammoths and rhinoceroses came to be frozen in Siberia. Ten years before Körber's book came out, Brandt had published an extensive review of woolly rhino remains in the Russian imperial collection and previous studies on them. Brandt had examined the head of the first frozen woolly rhino discovered and observed: 
I have been so fortunate as to extract from cavities in the molar teeth of the Wiljui rhinoceros a small quantity of its half-chewed food, among which fragments of pine leaves, one-half of the seed of a polygonaceous plant, and very minute portions of wood with porous cells (or small fragments of coniferous wood), were still recognizable.
It is very likely that Körber was aware of Brandt's work. Brandt's first observations were published as a letter in the journal of the Royal Prussian Academy in 1846 in German, Körber's native language. His complete paper was published in the journal of the Russian academy. It was also reported in one of the most influential geology books of the century, Sir Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, from the 1853 edition forward.

Besides Brandt, Körber had another source available to him. In 1805, a mastodon skeleton was discovered in Virginia by workmen digging a well. Word of the discovery made it to Bishop James Madison. In a letter to Benjamin Smith Barton, Madison described the most important part of the discovery: 
It is now no longer a question, whether the [mastodon] was a herbivorous or carnivorous animal. Human industry has revealed a secret, which the bosom of the earth had, in vain, attempted to conceal. In digging a well, near a Salt-Lick, in Wythe-county, Virginia, after penetrating about five feet and a half from the surface, the labourers struck upon the stomach of a mammoth. The contents were in a state of perfect preservation, consisting of half masticated reeds, twigs, and grass, or leaves. There could be no deception; the substances were designated by obvious characters, which could not be mistaken, and of which every one could judge; besides, the bones of the animal lay around, and added a silent, but sure, confirmation.
Barton was an influential scientist in his own right and the publisher of the Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal. Barton not only published Bishop Madison's letter, he forwarded it to Baron Georges Cuvier who quoted it in his Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles de quadrupèdes. Like Lyell's Geology, Recherches was an enormously influential book that went through numerous editions. Even before the first edition of Recherches was published, American readers knew that the story was wrong. In 1809, Madison wrote to several of the American journals that had published his letter to say that his sources had exaggerated. It was true that the vegetable matter was found inside the skeleton of the mastodon, but it was no different from the vegetable matter in the soil surrounding the skeleton. Unfortunately, no one thought to tell Cuvier and the misinformation was repeated in every edition of Recherches.

The story of the Benkendorf mammoth made it into academic and popular science literature in the early 1860s, just a few years after the publication of Körber's book. By the end of the century, some of the details were so well established that they had could stand up against newer, and more correct, data. A mammoth well enough preserved that it still had its stomach matter intact wasn't discovered until 1901 when the Berezovka mammoth was found. Otto Herz recovered thirty-five pounds of plant matter from the mammoth's stomach and mouth, which turned out to be meadow grasses and not conifers. This is an important distinction. Although elephants can eat almost any plant matter, their teeth and guts are specialized as grazers—eaters of grasses and ground plants--not browsers--eaters of branches and leaveslike mastodons and woolly rhinos. This is a huge distinction in defining what mammoths were and what their environment was.

Because the Benkendorf story had so much prestige by the beginning of the twentieth century, it was almost unchallengeable. When the final analysis of the gut material recovered by Herz was published in 1914, the author of the study, V. N. Sukachev, even before describing the grasses and flowering herbs in its gut, almost apologetically wrote that his conclusions gave "no particular reasons for distrusting Benkendorf's testimony." The two diets continued side by side almost to the end of the twentieth century creating confusion about the nature of the mammoth's habitat.

How is it that the educated guesses in a children's science book gained such credibility? For that, the responsibility lies with two prestigious scientists who reprinted Körber's tale and by the weakness of the efforts to debunk it.

On 26 November 1842, twenty-seven year old Alexander von Middendorff left St. Petersburg for Siberia. Middendorff had been hired by the Academy of Sciences to investigate the phenomena of permafrost and conduct a survey of the flora and fauna of the Taymyr Peninsula. His tiny expedition included three other scientists, four Cossacks, and a Nenets interpreter. The expedition was brutal—Middendorff suffered freezing, starving, and severe depression—but ultimately was successful. Before returning to St. Petersburg, Middendorff mounted a second expedition to the Sea of Okhotsk and ascended the Amur River. Leaving one of his companions behind to continue gathering data in Yakutsk, he returned to the capital in 1845 as something of a scientific celebrity.

Alexander von Middendorff spent his entire life documenting everything he knew about Siberia. Was he too complete?

Middendorff's letters from the field were published in the journal of the Academy and a short report was written based on the letters. The Emperor found the report quite interesting and gave all of the scientists medals and pensions. There is no word whether the Cossacks or the interpreter received any reward for their parts. Middendorff then settled down to write the formal analysis of the data they had gathered. It took him thirty years. I'm sure any graduate student will empathize.

Middendorff found the remains of a mammoth while he was on the Taymyr Peninsula and almost died getting back. Immediately upon returning to St. Petersburg, he began to collect information about other discoveries of mammoth carcasses. Lyell included some information from Middendorff in the 1847 edition of his Geology. Middendorff wrote a long article on mammoths in 1860 as a warm up to his official report on his own find. This report appeared in 1867. Along with the details of his own find, Middendorff included an historical survey of previous finds which included the entire Benkendorf letter. This is the ultimate source of the transition of Körber's tale from the realm of educational fiction into the realm of fact.

It appears to me that Körber's tale came to Middendoff's attention because of Brandt's debunking of it. Middendorff and Brandt were colleagues and friends. At the same time Middendorff was writing the volume of his researches that included his mammoth, Brandt published, in a popular Russian magazine, an article on mammoths that concluded with his debunking of Körber. Brandt was quite emphatic in his rejection of the Benkendorf story: "[T]he whole story of Benkendorf is pure lie and invention. The expedition to the Indigirka never took place and could not take place because of the impenetrable masses of ice of the Arctic Ocean; Benkendorf is a work of imagination."

If Middendorff learned of Körber's tale from Brandt, he should also have known of Brandt's objections. For Middendorff, the most telling evidence of the story's fictitious nature should have been the sheer magnitude of Benkendorf's expedition. Middendorff's expedition to the Taymyr was made up of a mere four scientists, four Cossacks, and an interpreter. The idea that a fully crewed frigate with two steam cutters could have been rounded the peninsula a mere three years later must have sounded to Middendorff like fiction, and bad fiction at that. When Middendorff copied the Benkendorf letter into his report, he added a warning to his readers that they shouldn't put too much faith in the account: 
Since we know the birthday of the enterprising countryman of mine to whom we owe this extraordinary discovery, because we have before us his life's story and the story of his expedition down to the minor details, there would seem to be no doubt about this wonderful discovery. The real and invented are so cheekily woven together here that it is worthy of a place along side la Martiniere's fantasy of Novaya Zemlya [a famous seventeenth century hoax] that persisted for so long. But I do not deprive my readers of the pleasure of reading this.
 This is far from Brandt's uncompromising rejection of the story. Middendorff went further in qualifying his rejection. Following the account, he wrote: 
We can only hope that at some time in the future the author will publish this episode himself and describe many other adventures and occurrences experiences seen by him during his travels in Siberia. We are happy that at least a small grain from his rich store of information has come down to us.
 Middendorff implies that he thought that the Benkendorf letter, as published, was a generously embellished account of a real discovery though he, of all people, was in a position to have known better. Regardless of what he may have thought, such nuance and his various caveats were completely missed by later authors. Although Middendorff started out as an unknown teacher on a small research expedition, the quality of the monographs based on his research made him a well-respected authority within a very short time after his return. Scientists all over Europe and the Americas eagerly awaited new papers and carefully studied each one, though, in this case, not as carefully as they should have.

Middendorff's reports were published in German and have never been translated into English except in fragments used by English speaking scientists in their own works. William Boyd Dawkins was one of those scientists and the person most responsible for introducing Benkendorf to the English-speaking world and for lending credibility to the story. Dawkins was an influential British geologist who became involved in debates over the antiquity of man, labor rights, and the channel tunnel. It was the first of those that got him interested in mammoths.

William Boyd Dawkins.

In 1868, within a few months of Middendorff's monograph on mammoths being published, Dawkins referred to it in an article entitled "On the Range of the Mammoth" published in Popular Science Review. Dawkins included almost the entire text of the Benkendorf letter (in his own translation). He introduced the letter with "The fourth and by far the most important discovery of a body is described by an eye-witness of its resurrection; so valuable in its bearings that we translate it at some length." Dawkins went on to emphasize the importance of the apocryphal stomach contents: 
This most graphic account affords a key for the solution of several problems hitherto unknown. It is clear that the animal must have been buried where it died, and that it was not transported from any place further up stream, to the south, where the climate is comparatively temperate. The presence of fir in the stomach proves that it fed on the vegetation which is now found at the northern part of the woods as they join the low, desolate, treeless, moss-covered tundra, in which the body lay buried—a fact that would necessarily involve the conclusion that the climate of Siberia, in those ancient days, differed but slightly from that of the present time. Before this discovery the food of the Mammoth had not been known by direct evidence.
 For the English-speaking world, this was the moment that the genie escaped the bottle. Dawkins either didn't notice Middendorff's qualifications or didn't understand their significance. Because Dawkins was a scientist of some prominence, other scientists and writers felt safe in following his lead. During the last part of the nineteenth century, dozens of writers made reference to the Benkendorf mammoth on Dawkins' authority.

After 1868, the story of the Benkendorf mammoth took off with a roar while attempts to debunk it, or even to make qualifications, as Middendorff did, gained no traction whatsoever. Brandt's debunking was published in a Russian language popular magazine and went almost entirely unnoticed. It was mentioned in 1867 in the Bulletin de la Société impériale des naturalistes de Moscou by Alexander Brandt, who wanted to assure his readers that there was no feud between Middendorff and Johann Brandt, and again in 1958 by B. A. Tikhomirov. I know of no other reference to Brandt's debunking during the intervening ninety-one years. Neither Middendorf nor Brandt made any further efforts to correct the misinformation being spread.

There was nothing extraordinary about the paper on mammoth extinction that Henry H. Howorth read at the 1869 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Howarth reviewed the unanswered questions about the mammoth and its environment, and proposed a catastrophic flood to account for both their extinction and the ice age (it was a common belief, at the time, that the mammoths went extinct before the ice age, not after). Howarth's flood theory was well within the mainstream of British geological thought at the time. Over the next decade he established himself as a solid figure in politics and as an historian. In the early 1880s, however, he began to develop his flood ideas in a series of articles published in Geological Magazine. In these, he took a more strident tone and denounced the uniformist orthodoxy of the geological community and what he called "the extreme Glacial views of [Louis] Agassiz." In 1887, he organized his ideas into a book, The Mammoth and the Flood. Two other books on his catastrophic ideas followed.

Howorth did not believe the Benkendorf story. In the first of his articles of the 1880s, Howorth revealed that he was familiar with several pieces that referenced Benkendorf, but he ignored the story. In fact, he went so far as to say, "I am not aware that the contents of the stomach of any Siberian Mammoth have been hitherto examined." In an article in 1882, Howorth directly took on Benkendorf: 
This notice has always seemed to me to be most suspicious. ... I confess my suspicions were not allayed when I found [Middendorff] had obtained it ... from a boy's book. ... It is very strange that if genuine no accounts of this discovery should have reached the ears of Baer or Brandt, Schmidt or Schrenck, who none of them mention it, and that it should be first heard of in a popular book for boys in [1859].
 Perhaps the most important, and thus frustrating, semi-debunking of Körber's story came in 1929. I. A. Tolmachoff's "Carcasses of the Mammoth and Rhinoceros in Siberia" is a classic of mammoth paleontology. In it, Tolmachoff described all of the finds of mammoths with flesh still attached up to that date. His count of thirty-nine is still sometimes repeated, as is his map of their locations. My research brings the count up to about seventy-five after deducting the four rhinoceroses in his original count. Tolmachoff tells the story in detail, but is firm in his rejection of it, saying "Howorth quite correctly considers it a fiction. ... Such an expedition never took place to this part of Siberia. The first steamer arrived to the Lena River only... in 1881." As often as Tolmachoff has been read and cited, no one seems to have read beyond his first telling of the story to catch is rejection of it.

The Russian scientist B.A. Tikhomirov tried to deal with both the diet of misinformation and the Benkendorf story in an article that was published in Russian in 1958 and in English in 1961. The title "The Expedition That Never Was—Benkendorf's Expedition to the River Indigirka" should be all that most people need to see to get the point. Unfortunately, most people didn't see it. He was partly motivated by guilt. He had cited the Benkendorf letter in an earlier paper and later discovered his error by reading a paper by Brandt on the history of mammoth discoveries to 1866 with an unqualified rejection of the story. Following this revelation, Tikhomirov went to the naval archives to confirm that Benkendorf's expedition never happened. That there is no permission or budget recorded for it should have provided the most definitive debunking possible for anyone familiar with the Russian bureaucracy of the time (or an any bureaucracy of any country, for that matter).

Tikhomirov's paper arrived at what should have been a great time to influence catastrophist narratives and their use of the frozen mammoth. The fifties had begun to produce a bumper crop of catastrophists citing frozen mammoths as proof of their theories. The greatest of these was Immanuel Velikovsky, whose pinballing planets theory jammed all post ice age history together into a couple thousand years in order to prove the Old Testament. Charles Hapgood wanted the earth's crust to periodically, abruptly change location with relation to the poles. Otto Muck though he could explain the end of Atlantis by the strike of giant comet. The role of mammoths in these ideas was that they should have lived in temperate forests, as Benkendorf's diet indicated, and then been thrust into the Arctic and frozen according to their preferred catastrophe.

But, the year before Tikhomirov's paper appeared in a scientific journal, a much more sensationalist article appeared in the American popular press. Ivan T. Sanderson was a popular nature writer whose father had been killed by an angry rhinoceros (a detail that has nothing to do with this story). During the fifties, his focus gradually moved from topics like a nice book on elephants to serious endorsement of abominable snowmen. In 1960, he wrote an article that influences catastrophist narratives about mammoths to this day: “Riddle of the Frozen Mammoths.”

I'll leave Benkendorf here. In my next post. I want to say a few words about Sanderson's article and one of his most infamous sources.