How Ancient Rome’s Scariest Ghosts Gave Their Name to Madagascar’s Lemurs

iStock
iStock

Lemurs. Some of them, like the tiny mouse lemur, are impossibly cute. Others, like sifaka and its extraordinary bounding walk, are impossibly hilarious. And at least one, the nocturnal aye-aye with its creepy elongated finger, is impossibly weird. But every single one of them is native to Madagascar and its surrounding islands—and together, every single one of them takes its name from one of Ancient Rome’s creepiest bits of folklore.

The name lemur derives from the Latin word lemures. Some dictionaries translate that word as simply meaning “ghosts,” but in Roman tradition there was a lot more to it than that definition would suggest.

The Lemures of Ancient Rome were in fact grotesque skeletal specters, who would wander the earth at night causing hurt and injury to the living. According to the early Christian scholar St. Augustine (who brought it up to disagree with it), these were the cruel and malevolent ghosts of iniquitous characters and lost souls: thieves and criminals, the executed and the damned, and all those who for whatever reason had not been afforded a proper funeral, like sailors lost at sea whose bodies could not be recovered and buried appropriately. According to Roman poet Ovid, they were “voiceless spirits” who would walk the earth in search of their old homes, terrifying all those who crossed their paths as they wandered the streets at night. The only way to hold them at bay, he explained, was to exorcise your home during an early springtime festival known as Lemuria. At midnight on the ninth, 11th, and 13th of May, the head of the household would walk the house barefoot, throwing a ceremonial offering of dried black beans over their shoulders with the words “with these beans I redeem me and mine.” Bronze pots and dishes would then be clashed together, creating a cacophony of noise meant to drive the spirits from the house. Only once this ritual had been completed for the third time would the house be deemed as safe for another year.

No one is entirely sure why the Romans knew these ghosts and demons as lemures, but the theory put forward by Ovid was that the first of all these beings was the ghost of Remus, the legendary co-founder of Rome who was killed by his twin brother Romulus after a bitter dispute over the founding of the city. The macabre festival of Lemuria, ultimately, was originally Remuria—a festival intended to commemorate Remus’s death and placate his spirit.

What does all that have to do with the bouncing sifaka and the creepy-fingered aye-aye? Well, for the next piece of the puzzle we need the Swedish botanist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus.

One of the most acclaimed scientists of his day, Linnaeus was the father of the Linnaean system of classification, which divides all living creatures into an intricate hierarchy of kingdoms, genera, and species. He outlined this groundbreaking system in several editions of his Systema Naturae, most influentially in 1758, and it has remained in use (albeit with various extensions and modifications over the centuries) ever since.

Using this system, Linnaeus entered a record of a creature he called a lemur into the exhibition catalogue of the Museum of King Adolf Frederick of Sweden in 1754 [PDF]. Four years later, he included it in the 10th edition of his Systema Naturae, assigning it to a new genus, naming it the Lemur tardigradus (literally the “slow-moving lemur”) alongside two more species he called Lemur catta (literally the “cat lemur”) and Lemur volans (the “flying lemur”). These three are the earliest lemurs on the zoological and etymological record—and Linnaeus clearly took his cue from the ghostly lemures of Roman legend when it came to picking their names.

It’s often been said that Linnaeus had the lemurs’ bizarre screeching, whooping calls in mind when he named them after the ghosts of Ancient Rome, or else their eerie reflective eyes, their silent nocturnal wanderings, or even the fact that they are considered the ghosts of ancestors in Madagascan folklore. But as Linnaeus himself straightforwardly explained:

"I call [the creatures in this genus] lemurs, because they go around mainly by night, in a certain way similar to humans, and roam with a slow pace."

Things have changed since Linnaeus classified the first of his lemurs in the mid-18th century. For instance, only one of his original three is still recognized as a true lemur today: Lemur catta is the Latin name of the ring-tailed lemur. His Lemur tardigradus is now identified as the red slender loris of the Sri Lankan rainforests, while the “flying” Lemur volans is now the Philippine colugo, a small tree-dwelling mammal similar to a flying squirrel. The fact that he classified the three as all belonging to one close family is also questionable, as lorises, lemurs, and colugos aren’t today considered quite as closely related as Linnaeus had presumed.

Nevertheless, the mythological name he chose for them has remained in use, and over time has gone on to become attached exclusively to the 100 or so species of primates native only to Madagascar. And there’s nothing scary about them at all.

Need to Cure of Case of Cabin Fever? Try Backyard Birding

Baltimore orioles are colorful spring migrants.
Baltimore orioles are colorful spring migrants.
Brittany Tande/iStock via Getty Images

No matter how many virtual tours and online classes you take, it's hard not to go a little stir-crazy after weeks of social distancing. If you're already sick of activities that require you to stare at a screen, consider seeking out real-life entertainment in your backyard. As Auburn Pub reports, the New York State Department of Environment Conservation is recommending that residents take up birdwatching during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, they stress that it's important to continue to practice social distancing.

Zoos, beaches, and even some national parks are currently closed to the public, but you don't have to travel far to get your daily dose of nature. Spring is in full bloom, and many bird species are currently in the midst of migrating from their winter homes down south to northern states. That means that even urban areas like New York City are becoming places for birds to nest and raise their young.

Local parks are great spots to observe birds while keeping your distance from others, but a trip off your property isn't necessary. If you have a backyard, or even just a tree on the street outside your home, you can watch birds from a patio, balcony, or through a window.

Birding is more than just a way to pass the time when activities are limited. A 2017 study from the University of Exeter found that being able to see birds around your home may reduce levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. If you use birding as an excuse to get out of the house, those benefits may be even greater as being outdoors in general has been shown to boost several facets of mental health.

If you're interested in using your time in isolation to get into birding, there are many resources online you can use. Watch this beginner's guide to birding and read these facts about the birds in your backyard before you get started.

[h/t Auburn Pub]

Beyond Tiger King: 10 Fascinating Animal Documentaries You Can Stream Right Now

A scene from Catwalk: Tales from the Cat Show Circuit (2018).
A scene from Catwalk: Tales from the Cat Show Circuit (2018).
Markham Street Films

By now, you've probably already binged Netflix's bewilderingly bonkers docuseries Tiger King (2020). If you're ready to dive deeper into the animal kingdom, there are plenty more documentaries out there. From wildcats to whales, these 10 films will take you on a cinematic adventure around the world, introducing you to captivating creatures and the people who love them.

1. The Tigers of Scotland (2017)

The Tigers of Scotland (2017) brings viewers as up close and personal as possible with a small but mighty feline: the Scottish wildcat. The film delves into the efforts to conserve the disappearing Highland tiger, as well as the history and mythology surrounding the UK’s only “big cat.”

Watch it: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes

2. Ghost of The Mountains (2017)

This 2017 Disneynature documentary will transport you to the world’s highest plateau in search of a family of snow leopards. These cats are famously tough to find, so Ghost of the Mountains offers viewers behind-the-scenes footage of what it’s like to track the elusive beasts.

Watch it: Netflix, Google Play, Youtube

3. Catwalk: Tales from the Cat Show Circuit (2018)

This delightful documentary takes you deep into the competitive cat show circuit. Both charming and at times cutthroat, the film brings viewers on a journey to see which of the many cool cats and kittens will be crowned Canada's top cat.

Watch it: Netflix

4. Kingdom of the White Wolf (2019)

Follow along as a National Geographic explorer and photographer embeds with a white wolf pack in the high Arctic. These wild wolves aren't used to seeing people, giving the filmmakers—and audience—an intimate window into the pack's daily lives and familial bonds. In addition to showcasing captivating footage of the animals, the three-part docuseries also features sweeping views of the starkly beautiful Ellesmere Island.

Watch it: Disney+, YouTube TV

5. Dogs (2018)

This docuseries, which highlights various dogs and their humans from around the world, celebrates the bond between people and their pups. But it’s more than just a montage of feel-good moments about humankind’s best friend: Each episode tells a broader tale about the human condition, crafting an emotional narrative that pulls at the heartstrings like a puppy tugging on a toy.

Watch it: Netflix

6. Dancing with the Birds (2019)

These birds will put your dad moves to shame. Watch the male avian performers shimmy, shake, and flash their feathers while attempting to woo their female mates. The documentary, narrated by Stephen Fry, offers a colorful look at the wonderfully wacky world of bird mating rituals.

Watch it: Netflix

7. Honeyland (2019)

This documentary follows Hatidze Muratova, one of the last wild beekeepers in a remote village in North Macedonia. She lives with her ailing mother, nurturing a traditional way of beekeeping passed down through the generations and striking a balance between making a living and maintaining ecological balance. But everything changes when a nomadic family settles nearby, threatening Muratova’s way of life. The resulting story is both sweet and stinging.

Watch it: Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play

8. Virunga (2014)

This 2014 documentary highlights the park rangers fighting to protect the Congo’s Virunga National Park, home to the critically endangered mountain gorilla. As poaching and oil exploration threaten the park, the rangers and conservationists risk their lives to guard the rare creatures that inhabit it.

Watch it: Netflix

9. Harry & Snowman (2016)

In the 1950s, Harry deLayer bought Snowman, a run-down plow horse destined for slaughter, for just $80 at an auction. Within months, the two were taking the show jumping circuit by storm, launching both horse and rider to new heights. This documentary tells the story of the friendship the two developed, and chronicles their lives both in and out of the competitive spotlight.

Watch it: Amazon Prime

10. The Whale and the Raven (2019)

The waters around Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest are a haven for whales, who feed and find refuge in the quiet channels. With stunning visuals, this documentary highlights the tension of a community’s push to protect its wild places against the pressures of the ever-encroaching natural gas industry.

Watch it: Amazon Prime

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER