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  • Marco Polo Meets a Dragon? May 30, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

    Beachcombing still mouse hunting so a brief and curious passage in Marco Polo 2, 40. It is an extract that scholars – depending on their proclivities – try and ignore or enjoy overly.

    Leaving the city of Yachi, and traveling ten days into a westerly direction, you reach the Province of Carajan [modern Yunnan on the edge of Burma] which is also the name of its chief city…Here are seen huge serpents, ten paces in length, and ten spans in the girt of the body. At the fore-part, near the head, they have two short legs, having three claws like those of a tiger, with eyes larger than a fourpenny loaf (pane da quattro denari) and very glaring. The jaws are wide enough to swallow a man, the teeth are large and sharp, and their whole appearance is so formidable, that neither man, nor any kind of animal, can approach them without terror. Others are met with of a smaller size, being eight, six, or five paces long; and the following method is used for taking them. In the day-time, by reason of the great heat, they lurk in caverns, from whence, at night, they issue to seek their food, and whatever beast they meet with and can lay hold of, whether tiger, wolf, or any other, they devour; after which they drag themselves towards some lake, spring of water, or river, in order to drink. By their motion in this way along the shore, and their vast weight, they make a deep impression, as if a heavy beam had been drawn along the sands.

    What is being described here? Three explanations have been offered up over the years. (i) Marco Polo has stumbled on an Asian crocodile. (ii) Marco Polo is repeating and treating over seriously folklore descriptions of a flightless Chinese dragon. MP’s account continues. (iii) We are dealing with another animal unknown to science.

    Those whose employment it is to hunt them observe the track by which they are most frequently accustomed to go, and fix into the ground several pieces of wood, armed with sharp iron spikes, which they cover with the sand in such a manner as not to be perceptible. When therefore the animals make their way towards the places they usually haunt, they are wounded by these instruments, and speedily killed. The crows, as soon as they perceive them to be dead, set up their scream; and this serves as a signal to the hunters, who advance to the spot, and proceed to separate the skin from the flesh, taking care immediately to secure the gall, which is most highly esteemed in medicine. In cases of the bite of a mad dog, a pennyweight of it, dissolved in wine, is administered. It is also useful in accelerating parturition, when the labour pains of women have come on. A small quantity of it being applied to carbuncles, pustules, or other eruptions on the body, they are presently dispersed; and it is efficacious in many other complaints. The flesh also of the animal is sold at a dear rate, being thought to have a higher flavour than other kinds of meat, and by all persons it is esteemed a delicacy.

    So what is being described here? Beachcombing who can always be trusted to plump for the most tedious explanation would say the crocodile . He was convinced by MP’s great translator and commentator Yule: ‘It cannot be doubted that Marco’s serpents here are crocodiles, in spite of his strange mistakes about their having only two feet and one claw on each, and his imperfect knowledge of their aquatic habits. He may have seen only a mutilated specimen. But there is no mistaking the hideous ferocity of the countenance, and the ‘eyes bigger than a fourpenny loaf’, as Ramusio has it. Though the actual eye of the crocodile does not bear this comparison, the prominent orbits do, especially in the case of the Ghariydl of the Ganges, and form one of the most repulsive features of the reptile’s physiognomy. In fact, its presence on the surface of an Indian river is often recognisable only by three dark knobs rising above the surface, viz. the snout and the two orbits. And there is some foundation for what our author says of the animal’s habits, for the crocodile does sometimes frequent holes at a distance from water, of which a striking instance is within my own recollection (in which the deep furrowed track also was a notable circumstance). The Cochin Chinese are very fond of crocodile’s flesh, and there is or was a regular export of this dainty for their use from Kamboja… Matthioli says the gall of the crocodile surpasses all medicines for the removal of pustules and the like from the eyes. Vincent of Beauvais mentions the same, besides many other medical uses of the reptile’s carcass, including a very unsavoury cosmetic.’

    Any other ideas? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    31 May 2011: John states – ‘I was ready to agree that MP had merely seen crocodiles when I started thinking about how long crocs had been known in the Mediterranean when Polo took his trip to China. Because if Polo were at least somewhat aware of the possibility of the existence of an animal like the crocodile, he most likely would have called it that had he seen it, even for the first time. Which means that the beast he describes in his book must be something else. The ancient Egyptians of course had the crocodile-headed god Sobek. The Greeks, who were aware of Sobek, whom they called ‘Suchos’, would have been quite familiar with the Nile crocodile by the time Alexandria was started up about 331 B.C.E. After all, ‘crocodile’ is derived from the Ancient Greek ‘κροκόδιλος’ (krokodilos). (I am told this, but I must take it on faith, as I am entirely innocent of ancient Greek, or any Greek for that matter.) So it is almost certain that Europe would have known of crocodiles at least  by Alexander’s death; and possibly some 1,500 years earlier, when the Aegean ‘Sea Peoples’ terrorized even the great Ramesses during centuries of regular raiding and conquest of coastal provinces putatively ruled by Egypt. Knowledge of crocodiles crossed to Italy soon after, because ancient Romans had depictions of them all over the place, in addition to slaughtering them at the Colosseum. At least one 3rd-century C.E. Romain legionnaire made a wizard suit of armor from a crocodile’s robust skin, helmet included. Emperor Hadrian apparently loved the vicious reptiles, placing a life-sized marble statue of a crocodile at his villa at Tivoli around 125 C.E. He also included an impression of a Nile crocodile on various denominations of his coins from Roman Egypt about 130 C.E. And then there is the famous mosaic in which a crocodile stalks ducks in a marsh, from the ‘House of the Faun’ in Pompeii, which was inundated with ash and volcanic muck in the huge eruption of Vesuvius in 79 C.E. So I’m guessing that the merchant class of Venice in the 13th- and 14th-centuries C.E. probably knew what a crocodile was. Which leads us to ask, ‘What then did Polo see?’ Well, what about fossils of plesiosaurus-like dinosaurs? At least three-phalanged versions. Or even fossils of land dinosaurs, with some reconfiguration, some missing parts or good imagination. While I think Marco traveled most of the places he says, I suspect he may have gilded the travelogue somewhat. I think as well that he may have passed off as first-hand observations a good many second- and third-hand stories, as well as legends he was told were factual accounts. So I can easily imagine a wide-eyed Polo being shown a fossil from the imperial collection, in excellent condition and wonderfully prepared to reveal the skeleton of a massive and terrifying monster, lying fully extended in the rock as if laid out for respectful burial. And I can imagine a very impressed Polo accepting without question the legends and stories he was told about a monster whose skeleton he was actually beholding at that moment. I myself would find it hard to dismiss what I heard under those conditions. Polo I think would hardly feel he was fibbing to pass on the stories as if had himself observed the living beast, or a recently-killed carcass. Of course his Cathay hosts wouldn’t steer him wrong about what the beast did in life!’ As to KMH he writes: ‘The value of Marco Polo’s account  depends on how reliable he is generally thought to be (not perfect, as I seem to recall). Normally it takes supporting observations to get a handle on single witness accounts.  Is there any evidence that he had ever seen a crocodile or alligator before the alleged dragon?  If not, then what he saw could have been very large crocodiles, especially if the natives had never seen  crocodiles. Assuming the dragon as described could be an extinct kind of reptile, a clue may be the description of the dragon as serpents with two small front legs. As it happens, dragons may come with four, two or no legs, as the two legged dragon article in Wikipedia explains. As dragon varieties tend to be specific to geography and culture, and probably highly territorial, there is little or no hope for pinning down the variety without further data. So, my verdict is the account isn’t sufficient to make a conclusion.’ Finally Jerry Maguire writes in with a more general cultural reference: ‘I’m a fan of the crocodile explanation – though I recognise that there are some difficulties. However, just want to signal the fact that there are lots of creationist sites on the net with pages and pages of comments about surviving dinasours where not one post mentions that creature!’ Thanks John, KMH and Jerry!!!!

    4 April 2013: Michel writes ‘No, I don’t believe in surviving dinosaurs. But the giant monitor lizard (Varanus priscus or Megalania prisca) is only supposed to have died out 40 000 years ago. This thing was like a Komodo dragon, but a LOT bigger. And current thinking is that the monitor family was widely dispersed around Austrlasia and SE Asia. So a remnant population in the jungles of Yunnan is just barely possible.’ thanks Michel!

    30 Dec 2017: Bruce T, ‘The Chinese Alligator used to occupy the Yangtze and nearby river valleys in the region Polo is talking about and has the right habits, freshwater rivers and lakes, the burrowing under banks, etc… but it is much smaller than it’s American cousin.(American Exceptionalism, no doubt.) It still it exists but it’s numbers are very few, and it may be on it’s way out as I type this. Alligators are ambush predators, they’ll lurk in deep water near their holes in the bank and wait for something or someone to come along the bank. When the prey is close enough it uses it’s powerful tail to spring out of the water to grab it’s prey, which it kills with a characteristic “death roll”. It then takes it’s freshly killed prey, say Uncle Pete, and stashes it in one of it’s burrows to ripen up for awhile. The initial few chomps are to kill, see if it’s edible, and have a quick snack. Alligators in the wild like their meat aged. As it’s in the right place that’s candidate number one. Number two is much larger, but it’s a fish. The Mekong catfish to be exact. It and it’s variants are native to the rivers of mainland S.E. Asia and they are known man eaters. They are also ambush predators and will eat anything that comes walking or wading along the bank. They, like many large catfish tend to hang out below undercut banks or holes below large logs or rocks, with easy access to deep water and large flats for hunting at night, during the day. These undercuts and holes are where they make their nests once they’ve spawned. The males sit on the nest while Mom goes off to find another mate, the Jezebel! Male catfish of all types are hyper-aggressive on the nest, but we’re talking about a fish that can weigh over 500 lbs and go over ten feet long and won’t leave the nest until the eggs are hatched. Swim by there and you’re catfish chow for Pop when he’s done tending the brood. What happens in S.E. Asia in the summer? The monsoon rolls in bringing heavy rains w/floods rivers spilling over the banks for miles and the fish with the water gorging on all the new food sources. As the water slowly recedes, ponds and cutoff lakes form, isolating fish off from reaching their home rivers. However, this isn’t a problem for many species of catfish who can live out of water for short periods, making their way slithering along the ground using their spiny front fins as “legs” and “claws” to go from pond to pond to creeks and finally a body of water or river  they can survive in safe from on land predators, like the above Uncle Pete. If worse comes to worse, there are a number of species who like frogs, will bury themselves deep in the mud and wait for the rains in a state of hibernation. Are those trails from ponds to the river large catfish migrating back and forth to deep water accessing a formerly known plentiful trapped food source a short distance from the river? Iron spikes would certainly do in a catfish with a limited range of lateral movement and no ground clearance would get hung up, whereas a croc or a gator would feel the first poke and go around. Mekong catfish exist in the larger rivers of Yunnan and still eat the occasional swimmer or fishermen. They’ve been there much longer than humans, (New monkey on the menu, guys!), and were certainly there during Polo’s time. If you’ve ever been “stung” handling a catfish by the spines in it’s front fins, or possibly “legs and claws” in Polo’s description, you know to be careful the next time. The have a mild venom that gives the sting a lasting bite to remember them by. We call it getting “horned”. You get used to it. Large catfish like the Mekong and the wels of temperate Eurasia will also roll you to drown you and age you to tender perfection in their hollows under the bank. Occasionally a nice hollow log or a big snag for a “woody” taste. Yum! It’s always been the same Beach, some days you get the water dragon, some days he gets you. Those are the rules of the dragon catching game. The same ones apply to bears, something you probably need a refresher in, but that’s for another day.’