The chimaera

platypus

Scary Monsters III: collapsing space

If you had walked into one of the princely Wunderkammern or cabinets of curiosity of seventeenth-century Europe, you would have been assailed by the wealth of objects covering walls, ceilings, shelves and probably floors; naturalia, exotica and artificialia arranged in strange juxtapositions, decorative arrays and obscure taxonomies. The visual impression would probably have been no more overwhelming than the pungent, mingled odours from the often poorly-preserved organic specimens mouldering quietly on their shelves.

Aside from being evident displays of the collectors’ erudition and wealth, what these collections offered was the chance to perceive the world in a way that was impossible in a practical sense. Wunderkammern bestowed omniscience on their viewers. Moving between displays, the visitor could experience the collector’s complete personal universe. For a moment, everything in creation could be seen: from earthly mineral offerings to the pale sheen of mother of pearl, gorgeous plumes from exotic birds to mangled and grotesque ‘Jenny Hanivers’ made from artfully dried rays. From the base to the heavenly: all the alchemical elements embodied.

These collections surveyed not only elemental diversity, but geographical totality too. They contained tokens from all around the globe: Chinese lacquer work; South American gold; totems and weapons from tribes overcome by European colonial powers. Global networks of trade and tyranny drawn together in one space, the world encompassed figuratively and literally.

These visions were made possible through the symbolic process of metonymy: the representation of a whole through its token parts. Each object, being from somewhere, functioned in the collection as standing for a place: small things signifying the larger wholes from which they had come. Thus, jewellery, plumes, weapons, art, and shells could become India, Siam, Malacca, Java, and New Spain (ancient and modern). Together, these symbols for the unseen or unreachable offered entirety of time and place. All the elements of the universal macrocosm distilled into a manageable, perceptible microcosm.

Wunderkammern bestowed omniscience on their viewers. For a moment, everything in creation could be seen…

Chimerical collections included chimerical things: mysterious ‘Feejee mermaids’ constructed from rays, monkey bones and fish tails; petite, snarling ‘dragons’ made from lizards, bones and bat wings. These monsters were objects that performed metonymic dances themselves. They embodied multiple levels of being and multiple elements: the aquatic, aerial, and terrestrial as well as the mammalian, piscine, avian and insect realms. They encapsulated the exotic locales from which their elements had been sourced, and the places through which they had passed to reach the collection. These chimaeras were confluences of immiscible natural categories, disparate places and distant times.

The mythological chimaera was a fire-breathing lion with a goat’s head, tailed by a writhing snake. It was undoubtedly a monster from a long and fearsome lineage of likewise composite monsters. Other things that are chimerical in nature and have rather less illustrious origins are invariably monstrous, too. They have the power to transgress the boundaries of the cosmos, collapse space and telescope time through the tokens embodied in their composite, patchwork forms. We are still fascinated with such nebulous beasts, just as curiosity collectors coveted their mermaids and dragons.

The duck-billed platypus is one such living chimaera. Even in its most formal biological descriptions, it straddles the boundaries with which we have ordered the natural world for ourselves. It has a bird-like bill and clawed, webbed feet. It lays eggs, secretes milk from patches buried in soft fur, and hunts with electro-sensory receptors. The males have poison spurs on their hind feet. It is an amphibious, ambiguous duck-beaver-shark-fish that was thought to be a hoax when first seen in Europe.

Even in formal biological descriptions, the platypus straddles the boundaries with which we have ordered the natural world.

The first specimen to arrive in the late eighteenth century still has the marks where learned men tried to prise apart the various pieces from which they thought it must be composed. The zoologist George Shaw described in 1799 how ‘It naturally excites the idea of some deceptive preparation by artificial means’. It was a composite beast that collapsed the taxonomic categories through which we define organic space. Monsters can be produced by artful deception, or they can be artful deceivers themselves. This Antipodean Feejee mermaid was made by nature, not some exotic artisan. Our surprise has hardly abated. The place of the platypus, and of its other egg-laying monotreme relatives, in the mammalian family tree is a matter of taxonomic contention.

Likewise, the scaly pangolin is a hybrid creature that puzzled the naturalists of past centuries. One author wrote: ‘What kind of monster is this… a fish or a land animal?’. It was a damp-dwelling fish-lizard, which birthed live young and ate like an anteater. It slipped amphibiously between piscine and reptilian modes, and mammalian forms. In the same way, the mysterious pangolin skins present in numerous European collections never just specimens from the specific places from which they had actually originated; instead they became tokens of numerous, generalised ‘exotic’ locales, which could span the East and West Indies.

The pangolin is seen as an active spiritual mediator by the Lele people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Pangolins transgress ecological boundaries, possessing the scales of a fish but the ability to climb trees. They blur the boundaries between the animal and human realms by wandering into human habitations, never running away from hunters, and, like humans, giving birth to single young rather than litters. The animals are thought to pass between the spirit world and physical world, too. The Lele’s Pangolin Men use pangolin rituals and the ‘willing’ self-sacrifice of the pangolins straying too close to human habitation to ensure the fertility of the tribe.

As ray-dragons and pangolins confuse conceptions of the fantastical and concrete, chimerical monsters offer transcendental powers of total perception. They give us the opportunity to redefine natural boundaries through their transgression of them. They are monstrous constellations that allow us to control space by collapsing it, and to delineate what the structure of our cosmos is, by demonstrably conflating its disparate parts. They seem like beasts of chaos, but they are in fact the harlequin creatures that also show us what order is and the fragility of the structures that we create to produce it.

 
 

This is part III of a trilogy of articles by Natalie Lawrence on the natural history of monsters.

Read part I: Hic Fuerunt Dracones , on mapping the landscape of monstrosity.
Read part II: The Monstrous Body, on global greed and the gluttonous dodo.

Cover image: Digital reproduction of a painting by John Lewin of a Platypus in 1808, watercolour and gouache drawing – 43.8 x 54.3 cm. From a collection at State Library of NSW’s Pictures and Manuscripts. via Wikipedia

 
 

The Learned Pig

 
 

Natalie Lawrence

Natalie Lawrence is a freelance natural history writer and science presenter with a special interest in all things monstrous and beastly. Following an undergraduate degree in zoology and masters in history of science, she completed her PhD on the natural histories of exotic monsters in the early modern period at the University of Cambridge in 2016. She currently lives in London with her partner, who kindly gave her a beautiful cabinet to house her natural history collection, in the hope that this would prevent the collection taking over every inch of living space. Good idea… didn’t work.