20 Bizarre Beasts From Ancient Bestiaries

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The first true bestiaries—exhaustive anthologies of the natural world—appeared in Ancient Greece. Originally, they were just a means of cataloguing and describing all known animals and plants (both real and mythical), and in particular those that had curative or otherwise noteworthy uses. But by the Medieval period, when bestiaries became hugely popular, these descriptions had become overtly religious and allegorical, with many creatures listed as having miraculous powers, or depicted as symbols of redemption, salvation, and rebirth: the humble pelican, for instance, was once said to have the ability to bring its dead offspring back to life by piercing its side and feeding them its own blood (according to one 13th century French scholar at least).

One thing all bestiaries had in common, however, was that they mixed fact with fiction. Genuine accounts of real-life animals, birds, insects, plants, and gemstones were listed alongside ludicrous descriptions of bizarre, legendary animals—from magical birds that produced light-emitting feathers to bulls that could spray furlong-long jets of scalding poop. Twenty fantastic beasts precisely like these are listed here.

1. BONNACON

According to the Roman naturalist and scholar Pliny the Elder, the bonnacon or bonasus was a bull-like creature that lived in the ancient kingdom of Paeonia (modern-day Macedonia) that had a horse’s mane and backward-facing horns that were curled in on themselves in such a way that they were essentially useless. Instead, in order to defend itself, the bonnacon was supposedly able to spray flaming hot dung out of its behind, leaving a stinking trail as long as 300 feet behind it. Anyone who was unlucky enough to touch or be struck by the dung was burned as if they’d touched fire—although some descriptions claim that the dung actually set fire to anything it touched.

2. ECHENEIS

The echeneis, or “sucking-fish,” was described in a number of ancient bestiaries as a fish that, although small in size, was so strong that if it were to latch its flattened head onto the hull of a ship, it could hold it in place like an anchor. Some accounts claim the echeneis had feet, but according to Aristotle, this was incorrect—their fins just looked like feet. Pliny the Elder, meanwhile, claimed that it had the power to “hinder litigations in court,” stop “fluxes of the womb in pregnant women” (thereby “holding back the offspring till the time of birth”), and was even responsible for Marc Antony’s defeat at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. Although Pliny might have been exaggerating things a little, the legendary echeneis was nevertheless based on a real-life sea creature: the remora, or “sharksucker,” a bizarre eel-like fish whose dorsal fin has been modified into a flat suction pad, allowing it to attach itself to the undersides of larger marine animals.

3. PARANDRUS

The parandrus was an ox-sized, hoofed animal of Ethiopia with a stag’s head, large branching horns, and long shaggy brown fur. It didn’t stay brown for long, however, as the parandrus could apparently change the color of its fur to blend in with its environment.

4. HERCINIA

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The hercinia was a legendary bird believed to inhabit the Hercynian Forest surrounding the River Rhine in southern Germany. What made the hercinia special was its glowing plumage, which produced so much light that anyone walking through the forest at night could use the bird or one of its feathers as a lantern.

5. SCITALIS

The scitalis was an iridescent serpent whose scales glistened so amazingly that they would stun anyone or anything that saw it, thereby stopping them in their tracks so that they could be caught or bitten. All that iridescence came with a cost, however: the scitalis often became so hot that its skin would burn, forcing it to shed its skin even in winter when all other snakes are hibernating.

6. ALERION

A popular image in heraldry, the alerion was said to be the king of all birds. Fire-colored and larger than an eagle, its wings were as sharp as razors. Supposedly, only one pair of alerions were ever alive at one time: When she was 60 years old, the female would lay two eggs that would then take 60 days to hatch, whereupon the parents would immediately fly far out to sea to drown themselves. The two chicks would then be reared by all the other birds until they reached adulthood.

7. CYNOCEPHALUS

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Cynocephalus literally means “dog head,” and according to some ancient writers was the name of a species of dog-faced apes native to Ethiopia. According to Aesop, they always give birth to twins, one of which the mother was always destined to love and the other to hate. The apes are such affectionate mothers, however, that they could hug their babies to death if they were not careful.

8. CALADRIUS

The caladrius was a pure-white bird said only to live in kings’ houses. Among its many bizarre qualities, the caladrius supposedly had the ability to diagnose (and cure) illness: If it were to look at you while you were unwell, then you could rest assured that you would eventually recover (the bird takes the sickness into itself and flies up to the sun, where the sickness gets burned off); but if it looked away, you were destined to die of your illness. And as if that weren’t useful enough for medieval physicians, the caladrius’s poop was also said to be able to cure cataracts.

9. LEONTOPHONE

Ancient descriptions of the leontophone ranged from a boar-like mammal to a tiny worm or serpent, but one thing was always mentioned: The leontophone was lethally poisonous to lions. If a lion ever caught one, it would tear it apart with its claws rather than its mouth, because if it ate or was bitten by a leontophone, it would die instantly. According to one 12th century bestiary, in order to kill a lion, a leontophone should first be caught and killed, then burned and its ashes sprinkled on a piece of meat. The meat should then be placed at a crossroads as bait for the lion, which would die immediately on eating it.

10. JACULUS

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The jaculus, or “javelin-snake,” was a flying viper that lived in the tops of trees and killed its prey by falling onto it, or by firing itself through the air “like a missile from a catapult,” according to Pliny.

11. COROCOTTA

The corocotta or leucrota was the legendary offspring of a hyena and a lioness. The size of an ass with a horse-like head, the back legs of a stag, and hooved feet, the corocotta had a mouth that stretched from ear to ear and, according to Pliny, “an unbroken ridge of bone in each jaw, forming a continuous tooth without any gum.” As if that weren’t strange enough, they also apparently had the ability to mimic people’s voices.

12. SAWFISH

Unlike the real-life sawfish’s bizarre saw-shaped face, the legendary sawfish took its name from a saw-toothed crest that ran along the length of its back, which it supposedly used to cut into the hulls of ships by swimming underneath them, so that it could drown and then devour the crew. When it wasn’t busy doing that, the sawfish used its enormous wings to fly clear of the sea and race ships—although it could only sustain itself for a distance of around 30-40 furlongs (3¾-5 miles/6-8km), after which it would plunge back beneath the waves.

13. ONOCENTAUR

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If a centaur had the head and torso of a man with the body and legs of a horse, then the onocentaur was its less impressive relative: It had the head and torso of a man, and the body and legs of a donkey.

14. YALE

Native to Ethiopia, the yale was described by Pliny as the size of a hippo, black or tawny-brown in color, with the tail of an elephant and two coiled horns. Its skin was so thick that it couldn’t be wounded, and when two males fought, they would hold one horn forward and the other backward depending on their needs. It was probably inspired by early descriptions of the African water buffalo.

15. WETHER

In English, a wether is a castrated ram or goat, but in the medieval bestiaries it was the name of a specific type of sheep that was much larger and stronger than all others. The Latin name for the wether was vervix, which led the 7th century Spanish scholar Isidore of Seville to theorize that the wether’s head was naturally infested with worms (the Latin for which was vermis) and when the worms started itching, they scratched the itch by butting their heads together.

16. ALLOCAMELUS

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The allocamelus (literally “other-camel”) had the head of a donkey and the body of a camel, leading the 17th-century English writer Edward Topsell to believe it to be the offspring of a camel and a mule. In fact, it was probably based on early descriptions of a llama or an alpaca.

17. CATOBLEPAS

The Ethiopian catoblepas was a described as a sluggish, cow-like creature with a head so large and heavy that it couldn’t look upward (catoblepas means “downwards-looking” in Greek), while one smell of its breath or a glance from its bloodshot eyes could kill a man immediately. Despite that fairly unflattering description, it’s thought that the catoblepas was based on the African wildebeest.

18. CERASTES

A serpent that’s so exceptionally flexible that it appears not to have a spine, the cerastes also had two or four ram-like horns on its head that it could move independently. To hunt, it buried its body in the sand or earth, leaving just its horns exposed above the ground, which it waggled around to attract its prey. (At least, that’s according to Leonardo da Vinci.) The myth of the cerastes is probably based on the north African horned viper—whose Latin name, appropriately enough, is now Cerastes cerastes.

19. MUSCALIET

The muscaliet had the body of a hare, the tail of a squirrel, a mole’s nose, and a weasel’s ears. It nested in hollows beneath the roots of trees, but produced so much heat that it would dry the tree out from the bottom upwards and kill it.

20. MANTICORE

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The sphinx-like manticore had the head of a person, with the body of a red lion, a scorpion’s stinger, a voice like a whistle, and three rows of comb-like teeth. The lampago, meanwhile, was a tiger with the face of a man, and a satyral had a lion’s body, an antelope’s horns, and the head of an old man. All three were once popular heraldic images and often appeared on medieval coats of arms.

8 Cursed Movie Productions

Heather O'Rourke in Poltergeist (1982).
Heather O'Rourke in Poltergeist (1982).
Warner Home Video

Making a movie is hard. It’s even more difficult when freak accidents, premature deaths, and biblical acts of nature torment the cast and crew.

The movie productions below were so troubled that they’ve developed a reputation in Hollywood for actually being cursed. Since many of the films deal with satanic or supernatural subjects, fans have projected the horrors portrayed on the screen onto their behind-the-scenes happenings. The sources of other so-called curses are less mysterious: Today we know that filming downwind from a nuclear test site or covering your actors in aluminum makeup is a bad move, for example—but that wasn’t always the case.

From The Wizard of Oz to Poltergeist, here are eight “cursed” movies that have become Hollywood legends.

1. Poltergeist (1982)

JoBeth Williams stars in Poltergeist (1982)
JoBeth Williams stars in Poltergeist (1982).
Warner Home Video

Poltergeist is about a family whose new home, unbeknownst to them, was built on an ancient burial ground. This doesn't sit well with the spirits whose final resting places have been disturbed, which leads to a series of supernatural happenings. With all that in mind, you might think that director Tobe Hooper, writer-producer Steven Spielberg, and the rest of the filmmakers would know better than to use actual human remains as props, but that’s exactly what they did.

In the scene where JoBeth Williams is dragged into a swimming pool that’s under construction, the skeletons that pop up around her are real. Superstitious movie fans have pointed to this as an explanation for the shocking deaths of two of the movie's young stars: Dominique Dunne was murdered by an ex-boyfriend in 1982, just a few days shy of her 23rd birthday, and Heather O’Rourke died from misdiagnosed intestinal stenosis in 1988 at age 12.

2. The Omen (1976)

Still from The Omen.
20th Century Fox

Danger began following the cast and crew of Richard Donner’s The Omen even before production on the film had officially begun. On his way to shoot the film in London, star Gregory Peck's plane was struck by lightning. Executive producer Mace Neufeld experienced a similar scare when his flight from Los Angeles was electrocuted just a few weeks later. Other tragedies related to the movie included a terrorist bombing at the hotel where Neufeld and his wife were staying in London and the death of the film's animal trainer. The day after he came to the set to handle the baboons in the famous zoo scene, the trainer was mauled by a tiger.

However, the most shocking The Omen-related incident occurred two months after the film premiered on June 6, 1976. The film's special effects pro John Richardson was driving in the Netherlands with his assistant Liz Moore when they got into an accident. While Richardson survived, Moore was decapitated. A nearby sign for a town added another unsettling layer to the tragedy: It read Ommen, 66.6 km.

3. The Exorcist (1973)

Still from The Exorcist.
Warner Bros.

When the New York City set of The Exorcist burned down in 1972, filmmakers immediately suspected evil forces were to blame. Jesuit priest Father Thomas M. King was brought in to bless the set when the crew moved to Washington, D.C., but that didn’t end the production’s unlucky streak. It was reported that a total of nine people involved with the movie died by the time production wrapped.

4. The Conqueror (1956)

Still from The Conqueror.
Universal

The curse afflicting Dick Powell’s The Conqueror isn't blamed on supernatural forces. The historical epic was filmed in Snow Canyon, Utah, just downwind from Nevada’s Yucca Flats. The site had recently been used to test 11 atomic bombs—something the filmmakers were made aware of before shooting. The ill effects of radiation weren’t widely known at the time and any suspicions of danger were downplayed by the government. By 1980, 91 members of The Conqueror’s cast and crew had gotten cancer and 46 had died from it—including star John Wayne and director Dick Powell. It’s impossible to prove how big a role radiation played in these deaths, if any, but it definitely doesn’t explain the movie’s bad luck at the box office. The Conqueror bombed so badly that it was partly responsible for putting its studio out of business. For that, however, we choose to blame John Wayne’s unfortunate performance as Genghis Khan.

5. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Still from Rosemary's Baby.
Paramount

Rosemary’s Baby is another film about satanic subjects that was touched by tragedy. Sidney Blackmer, the actor who played coven leader Roman Castevet, commented on set, “No good will come of all this ‘Hail Satan’ business.” Following the production, producer William Castle needed surgery for his gallstones and composer Krzysztof Komeda fell and sustained brain injuries that led to a coma that was ultimately fatal. But the most notorious incident associated with the curse was the 1969 murder of Sharon Tate by the Manson Family. Tate was stabbed to death in the home she shared with Roman Polanski, her husband and the director of Rosemary's Baby, who was away working on a film in Europe. She was eight-and-half months pregnant with their son at the time.

6. The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Still from Passion of the Christ.
Icon

If you’re looking for a sign to stop making your R-rated movie about Jesus’s crucifixion, getting struck by lightning is a pretty clear one. During the production of The Passion of the Christ in 2003, a bolt of lightning hit star Jim Caviezel and assistant director Jan Michelini. And it was actually the second time Michelini had been struck by lightning on the set of the film. Both victims walked away from the incidents relatively unscathed, and when it premiered in 2004, The Passion of the Christ raked in $611 million worldwide.

7. Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Still from Rebel Without a Cause.
Warner Bros.

Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause is famously one of the last movies James Dean starred in before passing away at age 24. The actor was in a fatal car crash just weeks before the premiere in 1955, and that alone would have been enough to mar the film in tragedy. It’s legacy was further complicated when the movie's two other leads met untimely death decades later: In 1976, Sal Mineo was murdered outside his Los Angeles apartment and in 1981, Natalie Wood drowned off Catalina Island under suspicious circumstances (that are still being investigated). Dean was also injured multiple times during the film’s production, once when he broke his hand pounding a desk and again when he was cut during a knife fight scene.

8. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Still from The Wizard of Oz.
MGM

The land of Oz was much less cheery than it appeared onscreen, as the troubles plaguing The Wizard of Oz were nonstop. First the Tin Man had to be recast when Buddy Ebsen, the actor originally hired to play the role, had a life-threatening reaction to his aluminum makeup. During the scene when the Wicked Witch is supposed to disappear in a plume of smoke, the trapdoor malfunctioned, and actress Margaret Hamilton suffered second-degree burns. She was wearing copper makeup at the time and crew members had to rush to remove the toxic material before it further aggravated her injuries.

Stunt and background actors were also prone to disaster. Hamilton’s double Betty Danko was sent to the hospital when a prop broom exploded and two actors playing winged monkeys fell when their wires snapped. But not every dark story you’ve heard about The Wizard of Oz is true: The Munchkin who is notoriously said to have hanged himself in one scene is actually a bird spreading its wings.

Netflix Is Now Sharing Live Updates of Its Most Watched Movies and TV Shows

wutwhanfoto, iStock via Getty Images
wutwhanfoto, iStock via Getty Images

Netflix is notoriously protective of its viewership data. While the number of people sharing The Office memes or Stranger Things spoilers online indicate some shows are more popular than others, until recently, there were no real statistics to back up these trends. As Bloomberg reports, Netflix is making its biggest move yet toward transparency by sharing live updates of its top 10 shows and movies.

Now, when Netflix users search the site, they will see the most-viewed content on the platform that day. Under the TV Shows tab, Love Is Blind tops the list for viewership in the U.S. on Wednesday, February 26, followed by Narcos: Mexico and Locke & Key. As for movies, Netflix's own The Last Thing He Wanted (2020) starring Ben Affleck and Anne Hathaway is attracting the most viewers today. A Haunted House (2013) and Foreigner (2017) are listed in second and third place, respectively.

The new feature is a major change for Netflix, but it still leaves a lot of questions about its users' viewing habits unanswered. It's unclear how long a movie or television episode needs to be played to count as a "view," and there's still no data showing exactly how many people are watching these titles.

For now, this is the closest thing Netflix subscribers have to Nielsen-style TV ratings. You can check out the full lists of the most popular Netflix movies and TV shows in the U.S. on February 26 below.

Top 10 TV Shows on Netflix

  1. Love Is Blind
  1. Narcos: Mexico
  1. Locke & Key
  1. Gentefied
  1. The Office
  1. Better Call Saul
  1. Babies
  1. The Stranger
  1. I Am a Killer
  1. El Dragón: Return of a Warrior

Top 10 Movies on Netflix

  1. The Last Thing He Wanted
  1. A Haunted House
  1. The Foreigner
  1. Girl on the Third Floor
  1. To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You
  1. A Bad Moms Christmas
  1. Mr. Right
  1. The Other Guys
  1. The Grinch
  1. A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

[h/t Bloomberg]

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