In Search of the Hippophugi December 10, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback
Recently reading a good deal of medieval beast lore and came across this curious creature. As always there is that half-formed suspicion that this must be something real, if only we could pare back the description to its absolute essentials:
In the same regions of the river Briso [in Ethiopia, there is much debate?] there are beasts as swift as horses, which have lions’ paws and horses’ necks, and are thirty feet long, twelve feet broad, and heavily built. If anyone tries to hunt a beast of this kind, it runs away so fast that no hunter can catch it or take its life; it suffers no harm from hunters at all. These creatures are called hippophugi.
In eisdem Brisonis fluuii partibus nascuntur bestie celeries ad instar equorum; pedes leonum habent, colla equine, longitudinem pedum tricenorum, uastitatem pedum duodecim, edificio amplo. Si quis huiuscemodi bestias persequi uoluerit, sanguine suum a quolibet seseque adimens fugit, et ab eis omnino non nocetur; et yppofogi appellantur.
The account of this strange creature made its way across the desert and across the mountains of the moon to Egypt and from there arrived in Europe: or was it, alternatively, a European invention without any reference to African tradition? There are several creatures placed on the Briso river by Gervase of Tilbury, the thirteenth-century writer, though this is hardly an assurance one way or another. The name hippophugi/yppofogi means something like ‘runaway horses’, though the name also takes on other forms.
Is it even possible that hippopotami are meant? The speed of hippopotami is well noted (see picture above for an intimation) and though certainly nothing like as big as described here the hippo gives a sense of mass (heavily built, edificio amplo). The horse neck could just be a deduction from the name and hippo feet are rather unusual: they certainly don’t look like a horses’s feet. Perhaps they might seem feline to someone who saw them briefly? As to suffering no harm: perhaps it is relatively difficult to penetrate a hippo’s very thick skin: by all accounts it is difficult with bullets on occasion.
The alternative is that here we have a brief medieval whiff of the legend of the great monsters of the central African jungles; the monsters that got some nineteenth and twentieth century historians to mutter excitedly about lost worlds and dinosaurs. After all, legendary creatures from India were transmitted as knowledge to the Mediterranean, why not from central Africa too? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Or any other solutions to the mystery of the yppofogi…
11 Dec 2013: Chris from Haunted Ohio Book writes: The hippophugi sounds quite a lot like the Sirrush (as I learned it) on the Ishtar Gate–possibly the dragon of “Bel and the Dragon.” Long neck, cat’s feet (at least at the front) Not exactly horselike except it’s a quadruped and holds itself like a horse. The speed suggests a lizard to my easily impressed mind. Lizard skin might also baffle spears and other weapons. Thanks Chris!