Today's Reading

Linnaeus soon published his own masterwork, the Systema Naturae, where he established that taxonomical system that I loved so much in high school. (Quickly: if you're looking for a good mnemonic to remember the rankings of Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species: King Philip Came Over For Good Spaghetti!) Among many other accomplishments, the book was the first taxonomy to place humans in a group with other primates. The book, which he would expand and revise in many editions over the course of his life, included a section called "Animalia Paradoxa" (animal absurdities), devoted to frauds and impossibilities. Chief among these is the Hamburg hydra. Additional entries of imaginary animals include the dragon, the unicorn, the phoenix, the satyr, and, um, the pelican. (Clearly Linneaus never watched The Flintstones.) Referencing his moment of triumph in Hamburg, Linnaeus wrote: "Nature is always true to itself and never naturally produces several heads on one body. When seen for ourselves, the fraud and artifice were most easily detected, since the teeth of a wild weasel differ from the teeth of an amphibian." The dragon had become the symbol of medieval, unscientific thinking, and the zoologist a knight, pledged to the service of reason and enlightenment, the quest for which would reveal the presence of God on earth.

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—and Other Mythological Creatures We Used to Think Were Real (well, most of them, anyway)

MERMAIDS People had been believing in the existence of mermaids for thousands of years when in the 1840s the great showman P. T. Barnum exhibited his "Fiji Mermaid," an artifact constructed from the upper body of a monkey and the tail of a shark. Barnum was more like an anti-Linnaeus, seeking to convince people that this fake was real. Although his specimen looked nothing like Daryl Hannah in Splash--it was shriveled and grotesque—Barnum sold a lot of tickets, even supporting his exhibition with lectures given by a scientist named Dr. J. Griffin. (Griffin was actually a lawyer and Barnum associate named Levi Lyman.) It wasn't until the 1880s, when the English naturalist Henry Lee published Sea Fables Explained and Sea Monsters Unmasked, that science was untangled from myth: Lee suggested that most mermaid sightings were probably manatees, seals, or other marine mammals.

KISHI One of these days the Kishi of Angolan folklore is going to make a great movie, or at least a cool comic book. The Kishi is two-faced. Really. On one side of its head is the face of a very handsome man and on the other, the face of a very unhandsome hyena. The Kishi is also one smooth operator: it saunters out of the hills into an unsuspecting village, all the while presenting its young man's face. It then charms the most beautiful young woman it can find, takes her off into the hills...then eats her savagely with its hyena face. So remember, insist on seeing both his faces before you swipe right.

THE ROC Originating in Persian and Arabic mythology, this giant bird with a wingspan that blocked the sun shows up in One Thousand and One Nights, where Sinbad the Sailor describes its egg as fifty paces around. To escape a deserted island, Sinbad ties the cloth from his turban to the bird's leg. Marco Polo claimed to observe one during his thirteenth-century travels through Asia. "It was for all the world like an eagle, but one indeed of enormous size...so strong that it will seize an elephant in its talons and carry him high into the air and drop him so that he is smashed to pieces; having so killed him, the bird swoops down on him and eats him at leisure." It's unclear what exactly Marco Polo saw, but a real-life inspiration might be the enormous Haast's eagle, native to New Zealand, which died out around 1400. Either way, it's indisputable: the Roc is dead.

UNICORNS Unicorns did exist: The Siberian unicorn is an extinct species of mammal that resembled a furry brown rhinoceros. It died out about 39,000 years ago. But the unicorn you're thinking about never existed, though it was for many years thought to be real. The ancient Greeks described a swift, white-coated animal with a single spiraling horn and which supposedly lived in India. Pliny the Elder (yes, him again) somehow concluded that the unicorn possesses "the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn three feet long in the middle of its forehead." The creature gradually acquired associations with purity and became a fixture in religious art alongside a virginal maiden. But belief in unicorns was largely dispelled by the Scientific Revolution.

FRANKENBERRY We may never know what Mary Shelley's monster ate for breakfast. We do know that Frankenberry didn't come into existence until 1971, when General Mills launched its line of monster-themed cereals, which over time included Count Chocula, Booberry, Fruit Brute, and Fruity Yummy Mummy. The strawberry-flavored Frankenberry was soon discovered to contain a dye that turned children's feces pink. According to medical researcher John V. Payne, "The stool had no abnormal odor but looked like strawberry ice cream." This horrifying (to parents), hilarious (to children), and harmless (to doctors) condition was named "Frankenberry Stool." While Frankenberry still lives, Frankenberry Stool seems to have, as it were, passed out of existence when General Mills tried a new dye in its recipe.

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