Thursday, 16 August 2012

The Lamb Lies Down

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

                           One of the strangest, and most persistent, of the myths of the Middle Ages is that of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary – also known as the Scythian Lamb, and the Barometz, Borametz or Borometz, (a Tartar word for ‘lamb’). 

Vegetable Lamb from Mandeville Travels

The legend first appears in the Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a book of travellers’ tales of dubious veracity compiled from 1357 to 1371. In chapter XXVI, titled ‘Of the Countries and Isles that he beyond the Land of Cathay; and of the fruits there; and of twenty-two kings enclosed within the mountains’, there is the following description,  
“And there groweth a manner of fruit, as though it were gourds. And when they be ripe, men cut them a-two, and men find within a little beast, in flesh, in bone, and blood, as though it were a little lamb without wool. And men eat both the fruit and the beast. And that is a great marvel. Of that fruit I have eaten, although it were wonderful, but that I know well that God is marvellous in his works.” 

Other writers cite ancient Talmudic traditions, which tell of the Jeduah, described by rabbinical scholars as a plant-animal like a lamb which is tethered to the ground by a sort of umbilical cord, and which can only eat what vegetation is within reach of the cord. It is hunted by firing a well-aimed arrow at the cord and when this is cut, the creature dies at once. Its bones are taken and used in magical ceremonies to foretell the future. 

In a variation, the Jedoui takes human form and is similarly grounded by its navel – it is a savage beast which kills anyone it can reach and can only be killed by severing the cord with an arrow or dart. Jedoui means ‘wizard’ and is the same wizard mentioned in Leviticus XIX 31, “Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God”; the bones of the Jedoui were placed in the mouth and immediately one was endowed with the gift of prophecy. 

Odoricus of Friuli, a Minorite friar, writing in about 1330, tells of a province of the Great Can,  
“… in which is the mountain of Capsius (the province is called 'Kalor'), there grow gourds, which, when they are ripe, open, and within them is found a little beast like unto a young lamb, even as I myself have heard reported that there stand certain trees upon the shore of the Irish Sea bearing fruits like unto a gourd, which at a certain time of the year do fall into the water and become birds called Bernacles ; and this is true." 
Frontispiece of John Parkinson - Paradisi in Sole 1629

Details from the same showing a Vegetable Lamb

Later explorers went in search of the Vegetable Lamb, and they too describe how it is tethered to the earth by a stem, eats only what it can reach, bears a silky white fleece which the natives of Tartary used to make soft linings for their hats, and which only wolves and men eat, the flesh tasting sweet, like crayfish, and the blood tasting of honey. In 1698, Sir Hans Sloane presented a specimen to the Royal Society of London, which is described in the Transactions as  

“…what is commonly, but falsely, in India, called 'the Tartarian Lamb’ sent down from thence by Mr. Buckley. This was more than a foot long, as big as one's wrist, having seven protuberances, and towards the end some foot-stalks about three or four inches long, exactly like the foot-stalks of ferns, both without and within. Most part of this was covered with a down of a dark yellowish snuff colour, some of it a quarter of an inch long.”  

Sloane was correct in identifying the Vegetable Lamb as the product of arboreal ferns, and further evidence was supplied by John Bell of Autermony, who travelled to Russia and Asia in the early eighteenth century, where he discovered hats made from lambskins in Astrakan, and made enquiries about the Lamb of Tartary. The locals showed him examples in the wild, a plant like a thistle without surrounding vegetation – something not unusual, he says – adding 
… after a careful enquiry of the more sensible and experienced among the Tartars, I found they laughed at it as a ridiculous fable.

The example of artificial animal exhibited by Sloane was the root stock of the tree-fern of the genus Dicksonia, but the fleece of the Vegetable Lamb came from a different plant. In Book III of his Histories, Herodotus writes,  
“And certain wild trees there bear wool instead of fruit, that in beauty and quality excels that of sheep; and the Indians make their clothing from these trees,” 
and other classical writers relate tales of the wool-bearing trees of India, who are cultivated for their fleeces, which are made into cloth; Julius Pollux, in his Onomasticon, says,  
“There are also Byssina and Byssus, a kind of flax. But among the Indians a sort of wool is obtained from a tree. The cloth made from this wool may be compared with linen, except that it is thicker. The tree produces a fruit most nearly resembling a walnut, but three-cleft. After the outer covering, which is like a walnut, has divided and become dry, the substance resembling wool is extracted, and is used in the manufacture of cloth."  
The 'real' Vegetable Lamb - a Cotton Bud

The confusion seems to have arisen in a mis-translation of the Greek word used to describe the pods of these trees – μήλον – ‘melon’ which can be rendered as ‘apple’, ‘fruit’ or ‘sheep’, and the adjectival word έαρινόν – ‘vernal’ – so the relevant phrases can be read as ‘spring apple’ or ‘spring lamb’. Cotton wool and lamb’s wool became conflated and the talk of wool that grew on trees led to a literal interpretation of the stories. Cotton cloth was not entirely unknown to the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, but it was more normal to use either linen flax or wool for clothing. Cotton became much more important after the discovery of the New World. But that’s another story.

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