On Dragons, Whales, and Wits’

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

Karlštejn castle, in the Czech Republic, guards a curious relic: the skull of a Nile crocodile thought by its owner, Emperor Charles V (1316–1378), to come from a dragon. Indeed, to Charles, this might have been the very monster slain by St. George (Pluskowski 2013:118–119). Charles was something of a mystic. In Karlštejn, he devised a “quasi-theatrical journey…interwoven with the progress of sacred time” (Crossley 2000:142). But he was not alone in seeing fantastic creatures behind this or that piece of bone or tissue from far away.

Think of fossils. They are like living animals and plants yet wholly unlike them, being of stone and, at times, strangely outsized. They lead readily to fabulous accounts, as in this one from Albrecht Durer: a “thigh bone alone measur[ing] five-and-a-half feet” must have belonged to a giant who once “ruled in Antwerp and performed great deeds; the city fathers wrote much about him in an old book” (Wood 2005:1148). The process of constructing “conjectural bestiaries” is more than an imaginative act (Houston 2010:75). Through tangible objects, to be treasured or gawked at, plainly to be seen, the most whimsical premise becomes real. A dragon skull testifies to a world of marvels, as does an enormous bone. And a belief in that world acquires an undeniable, material justification. What had started as a question—”what could this remnant belong to?—transforms into its own answer, a proof that a conjecture was right to begin with.


Perhaps the best example is the unicorn. An image from the Rochester Bestiary (c. AD 1250) shows the only way of killing this beast (Figure 1). Don your full covering of chain mail, invite the unicorn to cradle in the lap of a virgin, and then—quickly now!—kill it with repeated thrusts of a spear (Plusowski 2004:305). At least the creature died happy, to judge from its pleased expression. In the Middle Ages, the unicorn carried symbolic value by evoking the “invincibility and humility of Christ”; to paranoid rulers, its horn had a further benefit, in that it countered, or was believed to thwart, any poisons in drink (Plusowski 2004:305). By the later Medieval period, unicorn horns appeared in greater numbers. The Doges of Venice possessed two that had been looted from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, and a horn at Windsor formed part of the royal treasure sold by Oliver Cromwell after his victory in the English Civil Wars (Humphreys 1951:380). Others were made into objects for liturgical processions (Liverpool narwhal candlestick). In 1383, an ibex horn at the shrine of St. Cuthbert in Durham was inventoried as the talon of a griffin (Plusowski 2010:207, fig.. 9.6).

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Figure 1.  Rochester Bestiary, 13th century AD, f.10v (British Library)  Royal MS 12 F XIII

By Cromwell’s time, a less beguiling certainty replaced mythic explanation. These objects were simply the tusks taken from narwhal (Monodon monoceros), toothed whales to be found cruising around the waters of Greenland. (The tusk itself, an elongated left upper incisor, grows up to 200 mm long, an inspiration to any fabulist far from that island.) The transport of horn in modest quantities to Europe followed the settlement of Greenland by Icelandic Vikings in the late 10th century AD (Plusowski 2004:297, 299, fig. 2). Confusion did not disappear entirely. As late as 1694, Pierre Pomet, chief druggist to Louis XIV of France, lumped it with other large “fish” and could not resist illustrating a rather equine “Unicorn of the Sea” (Licorne de Mer) alongside a more realistic narwhal (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. Narwal and “Unicorn of the Sea” (Pomet 1694:78)


The Classic Maya may have had their own miraculous versions of dragon skulls and unicorn horns. The presence of shark teeth, including fossilized ones of the immense Carcharocles megalodon, is attested at an Olmec site like La Venta, but also, in Classic contexts, at Palenque, El Zotz, and elsewhere (see a valuable review in Newman 2016; also Borhegyi 1961; Cuevas García 2008:670; Martos López 2009:65; for fossils in Mexico and their earlier interpretation, Mayor 2013). It is likely that these were associated with creatures the artists may never have seen, some from presumed mythic or primordial settings.

Another example can be discerned. This is the canine of a feline, probably a jaguar, that had been drilled at about AD 500–550, its top shaped into the head of a deity (Franco 1968:21, lám. V; the dimensions are inferred from its published size, “[e]l dibujo es exactamente al tamaño natural”). A drawing and photographs of the object are reconfigured here so that the drawing is oriented properly—it is inverted in the monograph (Figure 3).

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Figure 3. Drilled pendant, adult feline canine (jaguar?), “colección particular,” c. 9 cm high (Franco 1968:21, lám. V)


The iconographic attributes make two things clear. One is that this is the head of the serpent linked to sentient, almost volitional water, the witz’ snake that may well correspond to the later Chicchan of the Ch’orti’ Maya (Figure 4, Stuart 2007).

Figure 4. The tooth of the witz’ serpent (K1162, photograph by Justin Kerr, copyright Kerr Associates). 


Such creatures were impersonated by many lords and some ladies in the Classic period (for examples, although not identified as such, see Schele 1982:fig. 50). To judge from the Chicchan, the witz’ were beings tied to rain, springs and lakes, and, in their undulating, snake-like bodies, to the passage of water. More to the point, the pendant may have been regarded as the very tooth of that serpent or at least of one of them. Did the maker understand that it was a jaguar canine?  Such were uncommon but doubtless known, yet there was always the persuasive impact of imagination and a sheer wish to believe. Did its use as a pendant invoke the witz’ or show some dominion over it, even a heroic besting of the beast? The “serpent’s tooth” came from some unknown site, and these questions remain unanswerable. But the pendant does hint at wonders, powers, and fables that concern things of miraculous origin, as duly enhanced by humans.

Acknowledgements  Thanks go to David Stuart for conversations about this fascinating object.


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