Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 5: Which came first – the monster or the myth?

This is the fifth and final post in a series examining cryptids (“hidden” animals said to exist based on local testimony), namely lake monsters, in terms of the folklore, tradition, and native tales of these creatures.

Previous parts:

Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 1: The Illusion of Facticity in Unknown Animal Reports

Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 2: Lake Monster Tropes

Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 3: Hiding in the cold, dark water until Judgment Day

Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 4: Crypto-zoologizing the natives’ magic monster

What can we make of folklore tales that cryptozoologists use to support claims that an unknown animal has been historically reported and remains to be identified?


lmtIf the book Lake Monster Traditions (LMT) has a most important message, it is:

It’s more complicated than that!

We simply should not be equating native folklore stories with a true cryptid destined to be discovered and classified by science.

For example, it is a serious error, often committed by journalists and monster fans, to suppose that one mysterious creature accounts for all Nessie sightings. That’s absurd. We can certainly consider logs, several known animals, waves, and hoaxes, at the very least in the run down of possible explanations. To say that all reports can be attributed to A “Nessie” – a flesh and blood creature – is a naive and wrong conclusion. In the same vein, it’s a serious error to say that the water deity or demon of the natives corresponds to a single (or a suite of) mystery animal(s) today.

So which came first, the monster or the myth? Well, both. And, neither. The story through time is a mesh of several different color threads making our legendary beast of today an amalgam of history.

As I’ve described in the first four installments, the creatures of the native tales had magical qualities, they were spiritually connected, in the realm of shamans. They often meant bad luck to come or held evil powers to destroy. Their traditional names varied. A similar animal might be known to an adjacent tribe but in their own tradition, the beast had its own name.

ponikToday’s version of the lake monster has been given its own trendy name like Ogopogo, Igopogo, Ponik or Memphre (the last not yet coined, it seems, when this book was written). But more importantly, the monster becomes naturalized, demythified. It’s NOT the same creature as the historic legend. That hardly matters, however, since it’s convenient to assume that is so.

Creation of the myth

Meurger explains that the stage of the new world, New France (Canada), was set with extraordinary creatures. The earliest maps showed pygmys and unicorns. The natives told of dwarves, cannibals, demons, and various dreadful monsters either as a tactic to scare the newcomers or as part of their own narrative worldview. It’s not justified to make the leap from legend to reality based on the native tales. Even in modern times, people willingly claim to experience legend as reality. They see dragons, they were abducted by UFOnauts, or had a physical or psychical encounter with Bigfoot.

In the formation of the colonial monster, a step by step process occurred:

  1. The natives transmitted their stories to the explorers.
  2. The colonists, who brought their own folklore ideas with them, saw relevance and familiarity in the new tales.
  3. Influenced by the stories, they claimed to see the creatures as well. (Believing is seeing, you know.)
  4. Unidentified relics are attributed to the beast – prints, bones, horns, fur.
  5. Natural events may be blamed on the beast – missing livestock or people, disasters or storms.
  6. A learned man comes along to describe it; an artist will construct it, giving it detailed anatomy. It may even be Latinized.
  7. The story and the depiction are published resulting in more people claiming to see it.
The Celtic Questing Beast, a monster with the head of a snake, the body of a leopard, the backside of a lion and the hooves of a deer.
The Celtic Questing Beast, a monster with the head of a snake, the body of a leopard, the backside of a lion and the hooves of a deer.

An example is given of the “sea tiger”. Mishipizwih was an imaginary and sacred beast of the Ojibwa. Father Nicolas, a Jesuit in the new land, heard the tale of the water god, but chose to consider it as a zoology problem. Nicolas, deluded by his own ignorance of walruses, transformed suggestion into fact and thought he discovered a new species. He inadvertently, according to Meurger’s research, considered the walrus the Mishipizwih. In a hopelessly confused mess of speculation, Nicolas blurred descriptions of a legendary creature with the characteristics of a real creature and made the sea-tiger, sea-wolf or Great Lynx into a common animal. That’s a shame.

Concretizing is the process of turning items, drawings, general beliefs and stories into a plausible whole. Data are selectively chosen to build the monster. The poetic and rhetorical aspects of the legendary story are lost. Symbolism is disregarded. Reasonable elements are extracted from the fabulous beings making them sound plausible. For the Jesuits, finding dragons, unicorns and leviathan of the bible was a victory for the church. In another example, the Elbst of Lake Selisbergsee in Switzerland, a product of five centuries of impressive tales prior to Nessie, morphed from ghost to monster to giant fish in the process of naturalization. The stories were made to sound real. But, in another critical takeaway message, realism should not be mistaken for reality.

It's a VERY small lake. Lake Selisbergee, Switzerland.
It’s a VERY small lake. Lake Selisbergsee, Switzerland.

The monstrous idea is fertile ground for new sightings to root. As Meurger says, these forms “sharpen the contents of generally blurred observations.”

Anchored by the stability of drawings, which was lacking in the more flexible oral testimony, the original myth is now reinforced by “an ideological crust of pretended facticity”. We see the concretization cemented when any ambiguous phenomenon is attributed to the beast. The interpretation of later encounters with unclear things is heavily influenced by the myth. Such a situation is pretty much immune to critical arguments. It’s the monster.

Reconstruction of Ogopogo
Reconstruction of Ogopogo

But the belief is not frozen and static. This volume shows clearly that the myth evolves when it needs to.

Influence

The long-necked monster was not common in New France; it became important later likely influenced by the popularity of the Loch Ness image of a long-neck, large-bodied creature. This set a pattern for a new wave of sightings of lake monster. Such pop cultural influence has been seen before with Nessie itself possibly influenced by the appearance of a prehistoric reptile featured in King Kong. Mystery monsters suddenly began to look dinosaur-like when dinosaur imagery entered the mainstream. And we can also cite the Thetis Lake monster, the Hill alien abduction case and the chupacabra which all have evidence to strongly suggest they were derived from imagery in popular culture. But in the context of the media reporting, these creations of our faulty memories were turned into objective stories.

Thetis Lake monster cover of Junior Skeptic.
Thetis Lake monster cover of Junior Skeptic.

What is clear to zoologists and careful researchers of today is that descriptions of these creatures are ordered by culture, not nature. We are not dealing with science but with world views. The distribution of monsters around the world does not follow tenets of zoology but travels via channels of communication. That, however, does not stop modern cryptozoologists from expanding the cryptid universe as Heuvelmans did with his nine types of sea serpents. All these contradicting descriptions means we end up with the ever more unlikely claims of multiple new animals – lots of lake monsters, several types of hairy hominids. We get lost in absurdity when we venture down the wild path of speculation, lack of critical thinking about witness tales and an ignorance and neglect of the “mythological landscape”.

A common claim of cryptozoologists is that the natives know the local fauna. If they say something unusual is there, that is NOT typical animal A, B or C, there must be something to it. Again, we see an error. Even knowledge of the local fauna does not preclude a myth existing. A culture can hold understanding of real creatures and belief in mythical creatures at the same time. It is dangerous to assume that an outsider can make full sense of the difference with just the stories.

Not long ago, a small piece of antler was found at Loch Ness. To believers, it was the tooth of the monster. Currently, any strange stick formation or broken saplings are signals of Bigfoot in the U.S. backwoods. Any anomaly is seen as evidence for the favored idea. Meurger equates the superficial associative thinking that plagues cryptozoologists with the “Erich von Daniken school of cosmology” where the ancient artifact becomes something entirely different in one’s own particular (or peculiar) worldview. The material is taken out of context and THEN interpreted, losing valuable information in the process. The native’s ivory tooth amulet transforms to proof of an extraordinary creature in the hands of the explorer. The original story loses its magic and become a quasi-zoological puzzle waiting for the learned man to come around and declare what the creature is for the “modern” man.

The ultimate key to influence is when cryptozoologists write up the cryptic hypothesis, transforming it, concretizing it, into a particular creature. The creature then has a new life; he will be hard to kill.

Transformation

Any normal animal sighting in poor light – the “mythogenic conditions of twilight” – will be transformed, potentially into something monstrous. Encounters with real creatures are embellished and mistakes are made. The monster framework now prevalent in the culture provides an artificial sense of reality and connection of the sightings that are glommed onto it. The monster framework may reinforce the mythical landscape, and the landscape prevents the monster from being discovered (it’s hiding in convenient underground caves or bottomless lakes). Like our memories, the monsters are manipulated, enhanced, forgotten, extended, and exaggerated. The creatures borrow from nature but are independent of it; they will always remain dependent on culture for their life.

Here’s a funny thing. Samuel Champlain didn’t see Champ. It’s a well publicized story that the famous explorer was the “first” to see the monster when he founded the lake. But he didn’t. He heard about a big fish. He didn’t see anything, according to his own log book. But that hardly matters when the new story is so much better. Cryptozoologists fail, Meurger says, because they “try to explain a general myth in local terms.” They ignore the play between belief and the mythical landscape. They are confused by the reinforcement by the local residents, which they take out of context. They transform discourses into fact. These beasts are not Fortean, they do not belong to the field of anomalistics, but to ideology.

So this concludes my efforts to share my notes from LMT with the few of us riding the new wave of cryptozoology. This is not Heuvelman’s cryptozoology. It’s way better, it’s richer but it’s being drowned by superficial, ridiculous pop cryptozoology of television and kids books.

Meurger’s LMT was chock full of fantastic ideas, new ways of looking at cryptids, and information I never found anywhere else. In that respect, it’s a classic, necessary cryptozoology text. However, it was terrible reading. That it was translated is obvious. The narratives are not linear, the topics jump around like crazy and it’s organized poorly with repetition. I could not always follow the lines of reasoning or the arguments which deserve to be presented in a more coherent way. It’s not a common book. It’s now out of print. Therefore, we need to present these ideas that I’ve outlined in the past 5 posts more emphatically to get them into the mainstream. As I discussed, modern cryptozoology studies, by the few of us attempting some higher degree of scholarship, is not intended to debunk or destroy the legend, but to make it even richer. Those who have hijacked or disregarded the complex path to the modern version of the beast, hacking through the tangle of history with a machete, are the ones who have done the destroying.

I am not so naive as to think that the typical way of sensationalizing monsters (via TV and poorly written popular crypto-books) will change drastically any time soon. But I do see hints that the folklore aspect may come close to returning to its proper place of importance. I’m looking forward to all that.

mythic monster

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Fluent in science, animals, paranormal culture. Expert in weird news. Doubtfulnews.com SpookyGeology.com

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