What is your favorite cryptid?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

In Search of Cryptids

Imagine for a moment that you are a scientist in late 18th century England. You and your collegues are at the height of the scientific community. New discoveries are made everyday, and you are privy to each new discovery and idea. In other words, you are the rock stars of the age of reason.

So when a buddy of yours sends a letter from Australia (a land full of criminals and frauds and all sorts of unsavory characters) describing a mammal that lays eggs, is venomous, has a duck bill and beaver tail, you scoff. What red-blooded scientist wouldn't? So your buddy sends you a package this time, with what he claims is an actual corpse of the animal he described in the early letter. Clearly the remains are a clever hoax, bits and pieces of other animals sewn together, because there is no such animal.

And you, like many scientists before and after, fall victim to a logical fallacy. I am an authority in the scientific community. I have never heard of this creature or anything like it. Therefore, the evidence before me must be fabricated by human agency.

But the platypus is real. Strange, and little mindboggling, but very real. Throughout history, creatures once thought myth or hoax or extinct have been found very much alive. The okapi was called the "African unicorn" until one was found (by white people) anyway, when it became known as a real animal. The ceolacanth (an ancient fish) was known to have belonged to the fossil record, but believed extinct. Until one was caught off the coast of Madagascar. Giant squids were just the drunken ravings of your uncle the sailor. Until seven years ago when a group of Japanese scientists caught one on film. Both the mountain gorilla and the komodo dragon and the devil bird (now known to be a kind of very scary owl) were all thought to be myth by Western Science, and thus cryptids, until they were discovered to be real. It seems most Australian animals were once thought to be cryptids, as well.

Skepticism is an integral part of the scientific process (at least that's how it seems to me, a non-scientist...). A scientist works based on an established set of rules to either discover new rules or disprove those rules or...well, as I said, I'm not a scientist. Most scientists build on the work of others. This is a relatively slow process, much like evolution. Some scientists, however, discard many of the established rules to make astonishing new discoveries. Until they are proven correct, they are often ridiculed and dismissed by the wider scientific community, and not without reason. For every Heinrich Schliemann (the man who proved that the city of Troy was a real place, not just the fruit of Homer's very fertile imagination), there are dozens of Erich von Danikens and Thor Heyerdahls. (Although I think these guys are nuttier than fruitcake, who knows?).

Sometimes it pays to not disregard something as myth simply because there is nothing in your sphere of knowledge to prove it is real. And sometimes it pays to look beyond the literal interpretation of a myth to other possibilities. What once were dragons are now thought to be an ancient explanation for dinosaur bones. The single massive cavity in an elephants skull could be the origin of the cyclops myth and the narwhal the origin of the unicorn.

Of course, there are hoaxes. The Lochness monster that turned out to be nothing more than a toy submarine. Piltdown man. Crop circles (?). Perhaps some people just want to play jokes, and perhaps others are so invested in the existence of these creatures and phenomena that they want others to believe as much as they despite the lack of evidence. Either way, these tricksters are hindering the gathering of genuine knowledge and only giving the mainstream scientific community further reason to disregard genuine evidence.

It was only seven years ago that the giant squid was proven real. The mountain gorilla has only been "real" for 109 years. Chupacabras, a relatively recent recruit to the ranks of cryptids, is more and more thought to be real...really mangy canids. Perhaps in the next decade creatures we once thought to be the figments of unstable minds will be accepted as part of the natural world. Maybe chupacabras will be domesticated and Sasquatch will have his own reality show.

Australia has the platypus on its twenty-cent piece. Canada has a trio of cryptid coins. Maybe Canada is just ahead of its time.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Human Constants

"I saw it! It was hairy all over and walked on two legs. It lives in the forest. It looked like a beast and a man!" Quick! What creature is this obviously hysterical person describing? If you live in the U.S., you probably said Big Foot. But in South America it is Maricoxi, in New Zealand Moehau. Croatia has the sumske dekle and Scotland has the fear liath and India has the kala bandar. Oh! We mustn't forget the venerable Yeti, all the way from Nepal. One creature described all over the world, so it must be real! Right?

Humans the world over have many constants, though the details may vary wildly. Take lefse, injera, naan, pita, bao, bammy, pita, or biscuits. It's all bread in the end. Music, personal adornment, family, art, and mythology are all part of the human experience no matter where you look. But there are other things-strange and unexplainable things-that are shared by cultures that are not geographically adjacent. You can find pyramids in Egypt (of course), South America, Asia, and Northern Europe. Not every culture has the pyramid as part of its traditional architecture, but enough across the globe do to raise eyebrows. The same can be said of dragons, the flood myth, and even sasquatch.

There are many explanations to this seeming anomaly, structures and creatures and stories amazingly similar yet from far flung parts of the globe. Aliens and Atlantis seem to be a favorite explanation. Maybe si, maybe no. In my mind, barring supernatural or superterrestrial origin (which I haven't completely ruled out), the most likely explanations are either a common root, the human mind, or a combination of the two.

We all come from a common place: Africa. Perhaps the constants among humans originated with our original ancestors. Africa is a place of mountains rising from the flat savannah (pyramids), crocodiles and enormous land animals (dragons), periods of drought followed by intense rain or innundation (flood story), and gorillas (sasquatch). Perhaps, as people left for Europe and the Middle East and beyond, they took with them memories of these things with them and passed the memories on to their children. Who passed the stories on to their children, and so on and so forth. If you come across the same thing in many cultures with no visible connection, look to Africa before looking to outer space.

More likely, in my opinion, is that these stories and legends and ideas come from the human mind and how it perceives the world. Just as all cultures had the ability to create bread and clothing and an afterlife, why couldn't they use another human constant to create other things? Imagination is present in every human being, even the most literal and dull. Imagination led someone to bake bread, to wonder about purpose, to wonder what is over the next hill, to see a rock rolling down hill and create a wheel. To see the stars and build wonders and math. Perhaps people in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa all saw mountains, saw their power and immortality and wanted to make their own mountains. Perhaps people saw floods and understood the destructive power that brought renewal of land as an important part of their lives. Perhaps people saw themselves, increasingly detached and controlling of nature, saw creatures that are almost human living as a part of nature, not its master. And because we all have the same brain, we created very similar physical and abstract concepts in our own lives. Birds all over the world live differently, eat differently, and look wildly differently. Yet, they all have some sort of nesting behavior. Our brain is the skeleton of culture, the same (very, very) basics all over the world. Our differences are the flesh.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

El Chupacabra

Imagine: You have a milk pail slung in the crook of an elbow and the tropic sun is just melting the chill from the night away. A faint mist hangs in the air and you can hear the cluck of chickens, the lowing of the cow in the barn. But wait, something isn't quite right. There is a tension in that shifting, a shrillness to the clucking. Blatting sheep. Panicked sheep. The mist hides the ground of the sheep pen. You walk toward the pen, toward the strange silence of it. Then you see strange hills in the mists, like foreign snow drifts. You walk closer and wonder why all the sheep are sleeping. But they're not sleeping. They're dead. You drop the milk pail, hurtle the fence, and find eight of your flock is dead. And each dead sheep as three puncture wounds in the chest. You look at the ground, and through the ever thinning mist you see no blood. Just a tiny dot of spilled crimson on the old ewe's chest. A spot a scarlet in this white morning. You look over your shoulder and see something dart behind the barn. Blue-gray. A ridge of hair on the spine and a whip like tail. Claws. Eyes the color of blood.

So it may have happened in March of 1995 in Puerto Rico. That was the first sighting of el Chupacabra (meaning Goat Sucker, which, despite the first incident, seems to be it's favorite snack). Sightings and animal exsanguinations were reported solely in the Americas for the next ten years or so. Farm animals and pets were reported to have been exsanguinated through one-three holes in the chest or neck, as well as the corpses of what are believed to be el Chupacabra. The nasty little critter migrated, apparently, for Chupacabras where reported in Russian-Mar '05-and the Philippines-Jan '08. In August of 2007, however, Phylis Canion brought our buddy Chupa to the international limelight when claiming to have a dead specimin in her possession. DNA testing revealed this, and most others, to be a mangy-ass coyote with deformed teeth (or a Chow mix, as the case in Maine). This makes sense, the dead coyotes being mostly hairless but for a ridge along the spine with gray blue skin. The things were probably horrendously sick with mange, as well as not quite sane. But the exsanguination still peaks my interest.
But let's just put it down to mange ridden coyotes and Satanists, hm? Satanists make wonderful patsies.
I think that the coyote connection is the most interesting. In Native American and Mexican mythology, the coyote is a wily trickster, both hero and villain. A powerful critter, either way. He made man, was tricked by hens, slew monsters, and bedeviled mankind. Yet, in our technological age, there is no room for Coyote. He has been replaced by logic and reason and science. Just as the Age of Miracles has passed. Yet today we have Stigmatics (is that what one would call them?) and visions of the Virgin at the bottom of our teacups and alien abduction. Modern life denies mythology and faith, but does not eradicate-or fill-the need. Where coyote used to be a God, he is now relegated to the status of minor monster, terrorizing livestock and livelihood. I think too much denial of our interior lives has made it get our attention in a rather gruesome fashion.
That, and mange.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Family Ghosts

Ghosts are real! My grandma says so. Her maternal uncle, Martin B., was a real jerk. He was demanding, selfish, cruel, and despised by his daughters. According to Grandma, he is now enjoying the fruits of his time on earth doing laps in a fiery lake.
After his death in the old family house in Boston, his wife moved from their old room to another part of the house. The room was, stripped, clean, and painted. Yet, Martin's lingering scum of nastiness could not be scrubbed away or painted over. The crucifix in his room would not stay attached to the wall. Anytime someone would enter the room, the crucifix would be on the floor, near the opposite wall from which it hung. Being good Irish Catholics, they'd replace the crucifix; being the site of Martin's death, the crucifix would not remain replaced. Not until the family priest totted his bible and holy water into the room, did his groove thing, and pronounced the room, finally and truly, clean, did the manifestations of Martin's mean personality cease.

Ghosts are real! My mother says so. When I was very small, two or so, we lived in an old pioneer house with my other grandma. The first floor has one foot thick stone walls and enough history to choke a horse. In the sixties, it was partially burned, the only reason it has not received an historical plaque from the city. Before my grandma, grandpa, and the four boys started living in the house, Mrs. O lived there with her husband. He died in the house, along with who knows how many more. Pioneers were not known for their impressive life spans.
One day, my mom put me down for a nap. She walked down the stairs to lock the front door as she intended to nap as well. After performing this simple duty and heading back up the stairs stretch out on her own bed, she heard me shrieking from my crib "Scary guy! Scary guy!" she rushed into the room (lion-hearted little woman that she is) to find me wide awake and pointing back into the hall. She made sure I was alright, then went to investigate. As she descended the stairs, she saw the front door ajar. The door she had just locked. She relocked it, made certain it was locked, then went back upstairs to get me to lie down again. Alas, more shrieking. This happened two more times, before she finally left the door unlocked. She got her nap.

Rationality tells me the supernatural exists only in the imagination and horror movies. My heart (and my mother and grandmother, god help me), tells me there are things on this Earth that exist whether or not we understand them. Just because something is not understood by science, or universally accepted as fact, does not make it unreal. To be honest, I don't think it matters. I'm sure ten different people could give you one hundred rational explanations of the above stories. But I'd rather believe in ghosts and bugbears and mummies' curses because the world is much more interesting with those things in it.