Thursday, August 20, 2015

Cryptozoology, culture, and folklore

How do we know whether to evaluate a cryptozoological report, especially an old one, in the light of the witness's or recorder's culture? Does it matter if the culture has a strong "monster" tradition?  The always-interesting Sharon Hill gave her take on this in a Doubtful News post this week.
I thought that was a very good take, reminding us that we can't just assume what we want from old accounts, be they presented as facts or legends. (By the way, if you think all cryptozoology is nonsense, keep reading anyway: this isn't about whether it has value as a science, but where the reports in it originate and how to treat them)
The "Father of Cryptozoology," Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans, offered a good example about cultural and linguistic context.   He said a future reader shouldn't take literally a modern description of an animal that had "fire in its eyes" and ran "like lightning." The animal might be a normal, real creature - a lion, say - but if you don't understand the language and its fondness for metaphors and similes, you might look at that and chuckle, "Silly myth. 21st-century people would believe anything. “ (Arguably, we do, but to continue...)  The point is there's no easy rule. 
Sasquatch poses a good example. Sasquatch-like creatures are widespread in Native American lore, but the origins and meaning of these stories are difficult to evaluate, especially for the non-Native (or, for that matter, the modern Native disconnected from old traditions, which is hardly uncommon.)
The Salish word from which “sasquatch” is derived refers to a supernatural creature, not an animal. At the same time, many Native cultures didn’t recognize the sharp divide we scientifically-minded moderns do between natural and supernatural entities, so the situation is confused further.  (On the other hand, zoologist Ivan Sanderson wrote in the 1960s that, when one Indian was asked about the subject, the reply was a derisive, “Oh, don’t tell me the white men have finally gotten around to that.”) 
Sharon wrote, referencing Michel Meurger’s 1989 book Lake Monster Traditions: A Cross Cultural Analysis, “I admit surprise to find out that the maned serpent is so old a concept. Meuger says the origin of today’s sea serpent concept is a product of the Enlightenment drawn from Nordic stories of giant snakes. “  
This is a unique and valuable book, but there's one thing the author seems to treat lightly when discussing the Scandinavian lindorm and other creatures of legend, and it's the same thing Prothero and Loxton skipped over in their generally excellent book Abominable Science when discussing the mythical hippocampus. That is that a legendary creature may influence a future witness's interpretation of a sighting, but it also may not. The authors in both these books present the legendary forebears of reported cryptids as important even though a particular witness may be living generations later and may have never heard of the story. Jay M. Smith pursues a version of this in Monsters of the Gevaudan: The Making of a Beast, about a wolflike creature that killed many people in pre-revolutionary France.  The cultural background he described and used to frame the beast stories is alleged to have influenced peasants who may have not had the least idea of what increasingly free newspaper publishing in Paris meant, or indeed that it existed. (Sociologists in general tend to irk me by assuming a specific incident is related to a bigger trend when it may not be.)  (Another book, by the way, that doesn’t get into cryptozoology but provides a valuable overview of the whole “why we like monsters” question is Stephen T. Asma’s On Monsters.)
To go back to sea creatures, the lindorm and its cousins, for example, seem to me likely to have precisely zero bearing on the one of the most famous sightings, the 1905 Nicoll/Meade-Waldo case. This is one of the "gold standard" cases, in which two qualified natural scientists on a yacht off Brazil spotted a long-necked animal they were certain was an unidentified species. What we know for sure is that the witnesses saw an animal, and one of two things happened: either they accurately described an unknown species or misidentified a known species. You can argue either way, but there's nothing to indicate tales told by their ancestors were involved. It's worth noting in this case that Meade-Waldo was aware of another "sea serpent" sighting, the 1848 encounter by the HMS Daedalus, and thought that creature might be the same (although the Daedalus reported no fin and his creature had a very prominent one.)  So, while ancient legend had no bearing, it might be that another cryptozoological report did. A lot of modern cryptozoologists write the Daedalus episode off to a giant squid, which it probably was, but it was very much an unknown in 1905.

That leads us down another interesting path.  Let's do a little thought experiment.  Say I am hiking near my home in Colorado and spot a big, dark, lumbering figure from a distance.  I know it’s at least human-size and on two legs, but that’s all I can be certain of at this distance and lighting. If I knew nothing of Bigfoot, I might consider two possibilities: a human and a bear.  Since I do know of Bigfoot, even though I'm skeptical about it, I am likely to think of three possibilities.  Having three vs. two options, no matter what they are, creates some (if hard to define) increase in the possibility I might misidentify the animal. 
Now, let’s go one further: creatures we know are legendary.  If I think I see a huge winged fire-breathing thing, it’s either a dragon or it isn’t. If I didn’t have the legend of the dragon, I couldn’t put such a thing into any handy context at all.  I would essentially have to make up my own legend.  In this case, science would come to my rescue: dragons as commonly depicted have unrealistic proportions for a flying animal, and a flying animal that size isn’t possible at all in our gravity and atmosphere, therefore I didn’t see one.  If I didn’t know the science, I might be more inclined to lean on the legend.  The 21st century, with the internet and global television empires, has created a situation where everyone knows the major creature legends, or some snippet of them: Merguer couldn't have imagined such a world in 1989.  

Where does all this leave us? In an unsatisfactory fugue, really.  I reject the idea that cryptozoological reports can be dismissed if the beast as reported bears some resemblance to a legend, but I also  acknowledge the existence of a legend makes it somewhat more likely I might ascribe an uncertain sighting to something it isn’t.  Know the context: know the language: know the culture and the trends: but never forget an individual report might have nothing to do with any of them. 


Steve Plambeck said...

I agree legends don't count as eyewitness reports. We mean something quite specific by the word "report". Whether a particular account belongs to traditional folklore, or belongs in the record of reported sightings for a given cryptid, that's something that must be evaluated on an individual basis. And yet the stories, as opposed to the rational accounts, have their own important value to us culturally, independent of any zoological truth.

Sharon Hill, whose writing is always so wonderful, brings up a new complication in her latest article. We not only have original legends influencing how witnesses describe an animal they couldn't otherwise identify, but now we have the new, secondary legends created by mass media to also bias how someone interprets a new sighting. Extracting the truth from such a feedback loop is quite a challenge.

What's happened with Loch Ness is a good example, as it's gone through three distinct phases. First we had centuries of the local legend (kelpie and water-horse folklore). Then the rational age began, and witnesses began reporting the phenomenon they observed in purely naturalistic terms (a giant fish, an animal, or the "great salamander" of 18th and 19th century accounts). Then we come to the 20th century, the press popularizes the Surgeon's photo giving birth to a new, global legend (and now we have people insisting what they saw in the Loch was a plesiosaur).

Matt Bille said...

Excellent points, Steve. Thanks for contributing.