Saturday, August 20, 2022

Book Review: Adrienne Mayor's Flying Snakes & Griffin Claws

 Adrienne Mayor

Flying Snakes and Griffin Claws: And Other Classical Myths, Historical Oddities, and Scientific Curiosities

Princeton University Press, 2022, 448pp.   

Mayor is one of a kind. I’m an avocational historian with some skill at research and connecting far-flung dots. I mention that only to lend credence to my evaluation of Mayor as, not merely a professional at the confluence of these and other professions, but someone one on another plane of existence. As in her previous books (my favorite is Fossil Legends of the First Americans), Mayor connects stories, artifacts, and cultures in ways that might never occur to anyone else. We tend to study individual cultures and empires in school, and Mayor delights in showing how human culture has always been an interactive web shot through with tiny cross-filaments created by trade, travelers, legends, and the intersection of ideas and cultures.

The 50 essays contained here skip through eras, civilizations, and continents, bringing us tales of sea monsters, paleocryptozoology, ancient ghost ships, Amazon queens, possible fossil origins for mythical creatures like griffins, and the Golden Fleece. If she can’t always connect an oddity to a possible origin, or a story to a storyteller, she never fails to arouse the reader’s curiosity.

For example, countless storytellers have described their opponents as giants. It seems that, while the differences between tribes of men were certainly exaggerated, the way men tended to get larger as forces from the south and east worked their way towards Scandinavia did lend themselves to a certain mythologizing, and kings certainly gathered very tall men for royal guards. She explores countless other questions. Were the Carthaginians taught to be sworn enemies of Rome from the day they could walk? (There seems to be a propaganda element in there.)  How did Baron Georges Cuvier come to examine what he said was a fresh mammoth’s foot? (The mystery is unsolved.)

One of my favorite chapters is on the Greek response to being incorporated into the Roman expire. Such nations often lead a gray, low-profile existence, but the Greeks were entrepreneurs. Knowing the Roman fascination with Greek history, culture, and legend, they became rich off Roman tourists. They sold replicas (or fakes) of great art, reenacted plays, and plastered the country (really) with “Heracles slept here” signs while guidebook authors and large intercity cart rental agencies made small fortunes. Commercialization is not a new concept.  

Mayor’s writing moves along at the right pace, never bogging down and always hinting of “Wait ‘till you see what’s next!” In this cabinet of curiosities lies something for everyone, whether their interest is the origin of tattoos or the first foot fetishists.  This is the latest in a serios of marvelous books, and I hope many more are in the offing.

Monday, August 08, 2022

An Early Cryptozoology Influence: Strange Creatures from Time and Space

 Strange Creatures from Time and Space

John A. Keel

Original 1970

Reviewed: Sphere Books, 1976

My only interest in things sometimes grouped under "oddities" or "the paranormal" is physical cryptozoology, so I look at books from that angle.  Normally I only review cryptozoology books that stick with zoology.  Keel, though, had a great deal of influence, at the time of publication and 52 years later. 

Keel’s mind goes in many directions, often at once. He can be illogical, provocative, and sometimes very funny.  The philosophical blood of Charles Fort runs strong in him.  Where Fort was content to show his readers how strange the world is by sheer force of accumulated facts, claims, and stories, Keel went a bit further, and we’ll come back to that. 

First, to give the author credit, he put in a lot of roadwork.  He did a lot of traveling around the United States and some world travel as well.  He believes he has seen a yeti-type creature. He talked to many witnesses directly and did the emerging field of cryptozoology a lasting favor by recording some of those first-reported items here and elsewhere.  He also refers to a group of beasts that seem to hang around water, including what today is called Lizardman, as Abominable Swamp Slobs (A.S.S.), and I’m sorry that didn’t catch on. Keel is the literary father of “Mothman,” which he is certain is a very real thing but which he also recognizes, given the reported size, wingspan, and speed, can’t be a physical animal. Keel will always be known for connecting Mothman, however speculatively (as in, based on no evidence whatsoever) with the December 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge over the Ohio River, in which 46 people died.   Keel often zooms off into UFOs and other topics, sometimes connected to “creatures,” sometimes not.  

Keel was an early proponent of “windows,” places where there are paranormal connections between this world and others that come and go, resulting in “flaps” of reports of UFOs, creatures, and other weirdness. That’s a million miles from zoology, but Keel believes there are also perfectly “normal,” if sometimes bizarre, animals in hiding around the world.  

All these decades later, Keel’s influence on flesh-and-blood cryptozoology has declined – you don’t see him quoted much in the related literature, but some of the reports are still interesting. His influence on the paranormal remains strong.  “Windows” are a permanent and prominent part of paranormal beliefs, even though no one has ever proved such a thing exists. Keel would have enjoyed that paradox.