Friday, June 08, 2007

Claudius Aelianus: Beaver Testicles and Red-Hot Feline Semen

My first encounter with Claudius Aelianus (not to be confused with Aelianus Tacticus) was his description of the Cynic Zoilus, a critic of traditional literature so grumpy that he was called Ὁμηρομάστιξ, and whose name later became synonymous with a malignant critic. This is the account of Moses Hadas in his Ancilla to Classical Reading, 1954, page 93:
Earlier in the 4th century the Cynic Zoilus of Amphipolis protested against what he considered adulation of the traditional classics. Zoilus made Homer the special object of attack and earned the name "scourge of Homer," but he assailed Isocrates and Plato with almost equal bitterness. This is how Aelian (11.10) describes him: Zoilus was called the Rhetorical Dog. His appearance was as follows: long beard, shaven head, short cloak not reaching the knees. He loved to bawl, and he had plenty of time to win many hatreds. The wretch was a calumniator. When a cultured man asked him why he spoke ill of everyone, he replied, "Because, though I wish to, I cannot do ill."

I wasn't able to find the original Greek (presumably from his work ποικίλη ἱστορία, also known from the Latin translation Varia Historia), but while searching it out in the library I discovered his work on the characteristics of animals, περὶ ζῴων ἰδιότητος (aka De Natura Animalium). He was a Roman writing around the turn of the 3rd century CE, which I think makes it the latest Greek that I've read to date, but it is filled with fantastically entertaining descriptions of the animal kingdom, like these:

About cats, he has this to say, 6.27:

αἰλούρων ὁ μὲν ἄρρην ἐστὶ λαγνίστατος, ὁ δὲ θῆλυς φιλότεκνος, φεύγει δὲ τὴν πρὸς τὸν ἄρρενα ὁμιλίαν· ἀφίησι γὰρ τὸν θορὸν θερμότατόν τε καὶ προσεοικότα πυρί, καὶ κάει τῆς θηλείας τὸ ἄρθρον. εἰδὼς οὖν ὁ ἄρρην τοῦτο τὰ κοινὰ βρέφη διαχρῆται, ἡ δὲ παίδων ἑτέρων πόθῳ ἑαυτὴν παρέχει συνελθεῖν γλιχομένῳ.

[Of cats the male is the most lustful, while the female cares for the young, and avoids intercourse with the male; for the ejaculated semen is extremely hot even like fire, and burns the female's genitals. Knowing this, the male kills their young, and she, desiring other kittens, yields herself to his desire.]

On caterpillars, 6.36:

αἱ κάμπαι ἐπινέμονται τὰ λάχανα, τάχα δὲ καὶ διαφθείρουσιν αὐτά. ἀπόλλυνται δὲ αὗται, γυνὴ τὴν ἐπιμήνιον κάθαρσιν καθαιρομένη εἰ διέλθοι μέση τῶν λαχάνων.

[Caterpillars eat vegetables, and quickly destroy them. But they themselves are destroyed if a menstruating woman walks through the middle of the garden.]

And on beavers, and those who crave their testicles, 6.34, (translated by A.F. Scholfield):

ὁ κάστωρ ἀμφίβιόν ἐστι ζῷον, καὶ μεθ᾽ ἡμέραν μὲν ἐν τοῖς ποταμοῖς καταδὺς διαιτᾶται, νύκτωρ δὲ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἀλᾶται, οἷς ἂν περιτύχῃ τούτοις τρεφόμενος. οὐκοῦν ἐπίσταται τὴν αἰτίαν δι᾽ ἣν ἐπ᾽ αὐτὸν οἱ θηραταὶ σὺν προθυμίᾳ τε καὶ ὁρμῇ τῇ πάσῃ χωροῦσι, καὶ ἐπικύψας καὶ δακὼν ἀπέκοψε τοὺς ἑαυτοῦ ὄρχεις, καὶ προσέρριψεν αὐτοῖς, ὡς ἀνὴρ φρόνιμος λῃσταῖς μὲν περιπεσών, καταθεὶς δὲ ὅσα ἐπήγετο ὑπὲρ τῆς ἑαυτοῦ σωτηρίας, λύτρα δήπου ταῦτα ἀλλαττόμενος. ἐὰν δὲ ᾖ πρότερον ἐκτεμὼν καὶ σωθεὶς εἶτα πάλιν διώκηται, ὁ δὲ ἀναστήσας ἑαυτὸν καὶ ἐπιδείξας ὅτι τῆς αὐτῶν σπουδῆς οὐκ ἔχει τὴν ὑπόθεσιν, τοῦ περαιτέρω καμάτου παρέλυσε τοὺς θηρατάς· ἧττον γάρ τοι τῶν κρεῶν ἐκείνοις φροντίς ἐστι. πολλάκις δὲ καὶ ἔνορχοι ὄντες, ὡς ὅτι πορρωτάτω ἀποσπάσαντες τῷ δρόμῳ, εἶτα ὑποστείλαντες τὸ σπουδαζόμενον μέρος, πάνυ σοφῶς καὶ πανούργως ἐξηπάτησαν, ὡς οὐκ ἔχοντες ἃ κρύψαντες εἶχον.

[The beaver is an amphibious creature: by day it lives hidden in rivers, but at night it roams the land, feeding itself with anything that it can find. Now it understands the reason why hunters come after it with such eagerness and impetuosity, and it puts down its head and with its teeth cuts off its testicles and throws them in their path, as a prudent man who, falling into the hands of robbers, sacrifices all that he is carrying, to save his life, and forfeits his possessions by way of ransom. If however it has already saved its life by self-castration and is again pursued, then it stands up and reveals that it offers no ground for their eager pursuit, and releases the hunters from all further exertions, for they esteem its flesh less. Often however beavers with testicles intact, after escaping as far away as possible, have drawn in the coveted part, and with great skill and ingenuity tricked their pursuers, pretending that they no longer possessed what they were keeping in concealment.]

I plan to entertain myself further with his naturalistic insights, and I expect that they will provide ample fodder for future blogposts.


Blogger Matteo Underscore Matteo said...

This is fantastic! Thank you.

12:49 PM  

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