• Mac Boyle

Further Information on the Wonders of the East

Updated: Nov 26, 2021

Shortly after we recorded the Wonders of the East episodes, I was idly looking around for more information about the Donestre, since it's such an interesting yet obscure creature, & I happened to stumble across an excellent source.

It would seem that one Ann Elizabeth Knock did some truly impressive work in her (unpublished) 1981 dissertation, which so happens to be available here via EthOS. I recommend reading the whole thing, as it's just the kind of nerdery that I love to no end, but since it's an extremely thorough piece of work (872 pages, not counting appendices, bibliography, &c.), I thought I might also provide some of her conclusions here as they relate to the Wonders of the East.

[This note added later in the drafting process] Also, one of my takeaways from Kalamazoo 2021 was that Knock's work needs its profile raised. I saw two different presentations on the Wonders of the East, and neither presenter was aware of Knock. (I know this because, of course, I asked them about it in the Q&A portion.) This is an issue, because a lot of the questions they were trying to answer about the text were the same ones I had been wondering about -- e.g. where does this strange Donestre thing come from that we don't see anywhere else? -- and that Knock answers. However, Knock's unpublished dissertation is the source on textual transmission of the Wonders, presumably because it's such a tough act to follow. The more recent and high-profile works on the text (e.g. Mittman or Orchard) focus instead on the symbolism behind the monsters, so scholars trying to answer questions like "where did the Donestre come from" end up going for symbolic explanations. Which, like, is fine, but I feel it's necessary to be aware of the more prosaic reasons, like the realities of textual transmission in the medieval era. [end added note]

Dr. Knock -- I assume she successfully received her doctorate as a result of this monumental work, though I can find no information about her -- compares the Wonders of the East with all its analogues & related texts, and even attempts to reconstruct the original source from the different variants floating around. I'm going to quote her reconstruction (well, more accurately, her speculation on the nature of the original based on the synoptic edition she has constructed) extensively, so:

n.b. All translations/reconstructions/summaries of the Letter of Pharasmanes (in red) are the work & intellectual property of Ann Elizabeth Knock. All translations of the Old English Wonders of the East (in blue) are the work of E. C. McGregor "Mac" Boyle, & may be used elsewhere for whatever purpose so long as attribution is provided.

The Wonders of the East and the Letter of Pharasmanes

Dr. Knock numbers the various sections of the text, which is of course the best option for a scholarly dissertation on the matter. However, given that this is instead a fun little blog post that acts as a companion piece for our podcast episode, I'll split it up by the Cotton Tiberius B.v illustrations that go with the various sections.


Knock argues that the material here was originally presented as being a letter sent to Emperor Hadrian. (It probably wasn't actually a letter to Hadrian; this was just a literary device popular back in the day.) In most versions, including the Wonders of the East, the introduction has been stripped out, but it does survive in some of the other manuscripts, and Knock translates it as follows:

Pharasmanes acknowledges receipt of Hadrian's latest letter by the hands of Asacrates and Monacrates. An earlier letter had requested information on the races of men and the different types of places in the realm of Pharasmanes, and now, thanks both to his own research and to that of his predecessors and his own brothers and sisters, he is able to supply this.

Pharasmanes, in case you're wondering, was the king of Kartli, in what is now Georgia. (The country, not the state -- that would be wild if Hadrian was, even in literary imagination, getting letters from the Americas.)

Sheep #1

The Wonders of the East reads as follows:

The settlement at the beginning of the land Antimolima is numbered 500 of the smaller miles, which are called "stadia", & 368 of the larger miles, which are called "leagues", in measure. On that island are a great many sheep, and from there to Babylon is measured 168 stadia & 150 leagues.

The beginning of this has been so corrupted that the original can't be fully reconstructed, and Knock provides simply:

[A distance is given from a place whose name begins "Anti-"]. This place is rather more than 100 stadia from an island with a multitude of sheep.

As we mentioned, the stadia / leagues conversion doesn't seem to actually work. Knock attributes this to an erroneous assumption on the part of whoever did the conversions that the stadion (or "stade", in anglicized form) was the same thing as the Roman mile. She also takes a shot at the Cotton Vitellius A.xv / Nowell Codex scribe, whose Latin skills consistently fail to impress her (sorry, dude, I know you were doing your best), by noting:

It is somewhat surprising that V[itellius] and T[iberius] preserve the measurements so faithfully, for the league was obviously unknown to the scribe of V (or of an antecedent MS) who persistently transcribed it leones, 'lions'.

Sheep #2

The Wonders of the East reads as follows:

The settlement is the most inhabited by merchants. There are born rams of the greatness (in size) of oxen, which dwell as far as the city of the Medes; the name of that city is Archemedon. It is the greatest city, except for Babylon. From there (Babylon?) to Archemedon is 300 stadia & 200 leagues. There are the great wonders, which were the works that the great Macedonian Alexander ordered to be built. That land is in length & in breadth 200 stadia & 130 ½ leagues.

The Old English tradition seems to have at some point passed through the hands of someone who just loved Alexander the Great to bits (✨problematic patriarchy✨). All of the references to Alexander were added in -- Knock's reconstruction instead says:

This colony is a great trading centre and immense sheep live there. The next city is very wealthy and is called [Archemedon / Archymedia]. It is situated 300 stadia from Babylon and there are great estates there.

A different branch of the manuscript tradition apparently provides measurements from Babylon to Mesopotamia and from there to Damnas castrorum (probably "Damascus" originally). It also names a dozen city-states you will pass on the journey from Babylon to Damnas Castrorum: Valatho, Melenimo, Cleopatra, Termasia, Marmino, Maragdon, Fluvius / Flavias, Casia, Possidonia, India / Nidia / Scidia, Anda, & Eluchana.


The Wonders of the East reads as follows:

There is a certain place, when one travels to the Red Sea, that is called Lentibelsinea. In that place hens are born which are like those with us, of red color. And if any man wishes to seize them, or touches them, then all of his body burns up at once. These are extraordinary witchcrafts.

Of course, "Lentibelsinea" is not a real place. Other manuscripts locate them near a place called "castellum Feniae / Philoniae". It seems, from Knock's analysis, that at one point they were placed near a location called "Lentibel" or "Lentabel", and confusion & manuscript damage resulted in this being conflated with "Feniae" to produce "Lentibelsinea". Knock also notes that the hens being specifically red is apparently derived from the illustrations that circulated in the Wonders of the East manuscript tradition, as other versions just said the hens were "the same color as ours". Apparently some illustrator somewhere decided that meant "red", & drew them that way, then over time that detail became incorporated into the text.

Knock's reconstruction follows:

... a place ... called Fi ... niae ... where there are hens like ours and of the same colour. But if anyone wants to catch one of them, his body burns.

Knock further notes that the description of the hens as "extraordinary" or "unheard of" is an addition in the Old English texts -- and she chooses to interpret the OE lyblac as "poisoning" rather than "witchcraft", which I would consider an equally valid artistic choice.

Are You Sure It's Not Just Two Wolves Standing next to Each Other?

The Wonders of the East reads:

Also wild beasts are born there. These beasts, when they hear a person's voice, flee far away. These beasts have 8 feet & the eyes of Valkyries & 2 heads. If any man wishes to seize them, they attack with their cruel sting. These are extraordinary beasts.

This is indicative of one of the trends in textual transmission, where phrases can accidentally be duplicated into other parts of the text. For the second time on the same page, an entry ends in describing its subject as ungefrǽgelíc, 'extraordinary, unusual, unheard of'. We'll see more of this as we go.

Knock's reconstruction actually gives us a completely different animal -- to the point that, if/when I write up D&D stats for the inhabitants of this manuscript, I'm liable to make two different monsters rather than try to reconcile them.

In that place are born wild animals like monkeys; when they hear a sound they flee. They have eight feet and their eyes are ... They have two heads / horns and anyone who wishes to capture / kill them must arm himself well.

The ellipsis after "their eyes are" is due to a disagreement among the variants Knock was unable to resolve. Some versions say "four in number", some "eight in number", & the branch of the tradition that eventually led to the Wonders of the East ignores number entirely and says "eyes like gorgons" -- which, of course, the OE translator turned into "valkyries". Knock has the following to say on the matter:

Logic, although hardly a relevant criterion when dealing with material of this type, would suggest that the original concept was that of the Siamese twins with a double quota of everything - thus eight legs (as in all texts), two heads (as in P-Group), and four eyes (as in EP). We cannot, however, prove whether this 'logical' creature lay behind the variants or whether there was a steady progression towards this more balanced idea during the transmission of the text...

(Yes, I know "Siamese twins" is not the preferred nomenclature anymore, but this is a dissertation that was completed in 1981 & clearly required several years of work, so at some point we have to shrug and say "look, it was the '70s.")

In addition, some versions of the text replace "wild animals" with humilis bestiole, which Knock translates as "insignificant little beasts".

Knock also points us to a different illustration of these creatures, one that went with a different set of the options: eight eyes rather than gorgon-like ones, & two horns rather than two heads.

The illustrations in the illuminated MSS of the OFr Prose translation of the Historia de Preliis (e.g. British Library, Harley 4964) portray these creatures exactly as described, with one head, two horns, eight eyes and eight legs.

This took me forever to track down, because it turns out this is either a typo or a casualty of some sort of reorganization effort. I could not find any evidence of a Harley MS 4964 so much as existing, but Harley MS 4979 has been digitized by the British Library & is, in fact, the manuscript described. It took me a while to figure this out, find the digitized version, and flip through the images until I found the illustration in question, wherein the creatures are indeed insignificant little beasts, drawn small & overshadowed by the rest of the scene. But I did find it because I have unhealthily obsessive tendencies -- I mean, because I love y'all and want to give you quality material.

Harley MS 4979, f.74v (detail)

They're cute in an unsettling kind of way, I think. Shame it's not the monkey version -- they're more like rodents of some kind.

Another interesting note is the apparent confusion over a pronoun referent. It's possible, based on what we have & Knock's analysis, that there was an early version of the manuscript that said something like, "if anyone wants to catch these beasts, they [the beasts] arm themselves well." Note that the reconstructed Letter of Pharasmanes just fixes the pronoun issue by having the human arm themselves, whereas the Wonders of the East commits to having the beasts arm themselves by supplying them with a sting.

Personally, if I were to settle on a single version, I'd want them small, monkey-like, eight-eyed, & one-headed. Because then, you see, they'd be spider monkeys.



I'll just move on to the next one, shall I?

Two-Headed Snakes

The Wonders of the East reads:

There is a land called Hascellentia, when one travels to Babylon, which is 9 stadia long & broad. It is subject to the kingdom of the Medes. That land is filled with all good things. This place has snakes. The snakes have two heads. Their eyes shine at night as bright as a lamp.

One of the things Knock is quick to point out is that apparently the illustrator has never heard of an amphisbaena, which in certain classical sources fits the description exactly -- it always has two heads, but the sources vary on the glowing eyes. However, the amphisbaena has one head on each end, whereas the illustrator places both heads on the same end. (After all, the text doesn't specify either way.)

Interestingly, during the medieval period, bestiaries started to give the amphisbaena decidedly non-snake-like characteristics, which might account for some of the illustrator's confusion. Here, for instance, is the illustration for "Amphisbaena" in the (absolutely beautiful, seriously, go look at it) Aberdeen Bestiary:

Aberdeen University Library MS 24, "the Aberdeen Bestiary" f.68v (detail)

At some point, I think, some wires got crossed as to whether we were talking "serpent" as in "snake", or "serpent" as in "dragon" -- hence the wings, feet, &c.

Anyway, here is Knock's reconstruction of the original:

For those travelling from Seleucia to Babylon, it is a distance of 60 stadia. This kingdom lies next to ["the region of the Medes" / or "Sidonia"]. In this place there are serpents which have two heads and whose eyes shine at night like lamps.

"Hascellentia" is, of course, not a real place. Knock suggests it is a corruption of a seleucia 'from Seleucia', which makes sense.

Also, the "all good things" bit is probably another accidental duplication -- in this case, from the conopenas / cynocephali entry.

Snakes & Asses

The Wonders of the East reads:

In a certain land, asses are born that have horns as big as oxen. These are in the greatest wilderness, which is on the south side of Babylon. They live by the Red Sea, because of the many snakes in that place, which are called "corsias". They have horns as great as those of rams. In that land there is an abundance of pepper. That pepper is guarded by the snakes in their diligence. The pepper is taken by people in this way, that one lights that place on fire & then the snakes flee down into the earth. Because of this, the pepper is black. From Babylon to Persia, where the pepper grows, is 800 stadia & 623½ leagues. That place is wasteland because of the many snakes.

It should be noted that the "great wilderness" line is probably an error on the part of the Tiberius scribe. The Nowell Codex has mæstan wæstme 'greatest growth', referring to the wild asses themselves, which agrees with the other texts. Tiberius is pretty much alone in having mæstan westene 'greatest wilderness'. Knock suggests the confusion came from attempting to remedy some kind of grammatical or scribal error, influenced by the reference to "wasteland" later.

This also explains why something that otherwise just sounds like an antelope (I think in the episode we speculated that it was a scimitar oryx) would land in the Wonders of the East -- they're supposed to be huge.

Knock's reconstruction is:

In the same place are born wild asses with horns and of very great stature.

(Knock separates this from the bit about pepper.)

A region near Arabia, close to the Red Sea, is barren because of the snakes which live there, called "caerastes", with horns like rams, with which they can wound men fatally. Pepper grows there in abundance and is guarded by the snakes. To gather the pepper, men must first set fire to the area. The snakes then flee underground and the pepper is turned black. From Babylon to the state of Persia is a distance of 300 stadia. These places are infertile on account of the snakes.

The snakes aren't diligent in this version; Knock suggests that this addition was originally meant to describe the men gathering pepper, which seems more natural. (Though I am charmed by diligent snakes.)

Knock does not have any more explanation than I do for why the asses might want to live somewhere because of the snakes.

Conopenas / Cynocephalus

The Wonders of the East reads:

Also, there are born half-hounds, which are called Conopenas. They have the manes of horses & the tusks of boars & the heads of hounds, and their breath is like the flames of fire. This land is near the cities which are filled with all worldly wealth -- that is, in the southern half of the land of Egypt.

"Conopenas" is, of course, another corruption of a creature's name over the course of manuscript transmission -- they are called Cynocephali in most places.

Knock notes that another branch of the tradition begins by locating the cynocephali:

F-Group texts begin by telling us that there are neighbouring parts (vicinales divisiones) of Seleucia on the right-hand side for those going to the Red Sea.

From there, it reads:

In that place are born the cynocophali which have the manes of horses. Their teeth are ... They have heads like dogs and they breathe out fire. This state ... and is full of all good things.

The teeth are alternately described as "like those of boars" or "very strong and immense" -- this is presumably the same general idea, but there were artistic differences somewhere along the line regarding whether to use a simile or not.

The state where they live is described differently as well, but this is more clearly the result of a scribal error. In the "F-Group" (the other major branch of the manuscript tradition), we have another reference to the vicinales divisiones from above; in the "P-Group" (the branch that includes the Wonders of the East), we instead get vicina dives, 'the state is wealthy'.

In some descriptions of the cynocephali, they are also giants and/or possessed of superhuman strength. Knock suggests this is because they are among the foes of Alexander the Great, and their might is exaggerated to make his victory more impressive.

Fish Kiss

The Wonders of the East reads:

In a certain land, people are born who are 6 feet in height. They have beards to their knees & hair to their heels. They are called Homodubii, that is, "doubtful ones", & they live on raw fish & eat that.

You may be pleased to learn, as was I, that these people being six feet high is the result of scribal error and not just an unusual choice on the part of the author to start the description by assuring us that the people they are describing are somewhat on the tall end of the normal human height range. In the episode, this led me to suggest that these were just regular people who liked fish and maintained a healthy attitude of skepticism.

Knock suggests that somewhere along the way, the numeral picked up an extra minim from an adjacent word, thus creating vi from ii. Because, yes, they are supposed to be two feet tall, & this detail is corroborated by other versions of the manuscript. She also points out that homodubii is not the normal term for these people -- & may have been a corruption of homunculi 'dwarves'. In most classical texts in which they appear, they are ichthiophagoi 'fish-eaters'.

Anyway, here is Knock's reconstruction:

Heading to the right towards Egypt, the traveller encounters an island where men are born whose height is two feet. Their name is Ichthiophagoi. They eat raw fish.

Note that at some point as this manuscript came to England, the bit about Egypt was pulled from the beginning of this entry to the end of the preceding one.

The business about long hair & beards, Knock points out, is only present in the Wonders of the East, and is probably influenced by the pictures that had become associated with the text rather than vice versa.

Gold-Digging... um... "Ants".

The Wonders of the East reads:

There is a river called Capi in that same place, which is called Gorgoneus, that is, "Valkyrie". There are born ants as big as hounds; they have feet like grasshoppers; they are red-colored & black-colored. The ants delve up gold from the earth from before night to the fifth hour of the day. Those who are daring enough to take the gold take with them camel mares with their foals & stallions. They tie up the foals before they travel over the river. They pack the gold onto the mares & mount them, & abandon the stallion there. When the ants find them, while the ants are engaged with the stallion, the men travel over the river with the mare & the gold. They are so swift that one thinks they are flying.

I still have no explanation for why "ants as big as hounds" are just being drawn as, you know, hounds.

We've already talked a little about the origin of this story being about marmots in the Himalayas, so we can move on to Knock's reconstruction:

In the same island, there is a river named Gargarus. Ants live there. They are the size of dogs, with six feet like lobsters. They are black and they dig up gold by night. When they sight a man or animal they devour it to the bone and they are so fleet of foot that they seem to be flying. They are underground and dig up the gold until the fifth hour of the day. Men who seek to take away their gold do it in the following way. They take some camels, both males and some females with calves, and tie the calves up on the far bank of the river. The men cross the river with the adult camels and when they reach the place they load the gold onto the female camels and those hurry back to their young...

Knock points out that the account becomes confused at this point, possibly because some error in tense or order of operations has already sent the mares back across the river without their riders, and the various scribes involved have to figure out how to resolve this. The "P-Group" branch is more or less what we have in the Wonders of the East, while the "F-Group" branch reads:

When the men see the column of ants in pursuit, they abandon the male camels and flee to the river, which they cross as if flying with the female camels. The ants discover the male camels and devour them. This renders the ants incapable of crossing the river. That is how gold comes to us from that province.

The other variations we see from the main text in the Wonders of the East are easily explained. The repetition of the phrase "as if flying" apparently caused some scribe somewhere to skip a line -- a common form of scribal error known as "haplography" -- and so we lost the description of the ants as some sort of land-piranha.

The ants have likewise changed from being black ants to black ants and red ants, which seems odd, as ants of different species are not exactly known to cooperate. Knock points out that this is also limited to the Wonders of the East, and that it is likely because the ants in the picture are red, causing a scribe to try to reconcile the text with the images. You may recall that the version in the Nowell Codex (shown below) tries again to reconcile the two by including two black "ants", one red "ant", one "ant" that is both black and red, & one that they left un-colored.

"Feet like lobsters" became "feet like grasshoppers" because the Latin word locusta is used for both animals -- the original apparently read locustae marinae, and the second word was lost at some point, making it "grasshoppers".

It's also nice, I think, that the original explains what the foal is for. Though when I brought up that question, Zoe was able to correctly surmise that it was to make the mare hurry back, so apparently the writer doesn't have to explain this explicitly.

Not an Elephant

The Wonders of the East reads:

Between these two rivers is a settlement called Locotheo; that is, between the Nile & the Brixo(ntes). The Nile is the elder of full rivers, & she flows from the land of Egypt, & they name that river Archiboleta, that is, "the great water". In this place are born a great many camels / elephants.

As mentioned previously, a scribal error has resulted in the OE text reading olfend / ylfend 'camel' rather than elpend / ylpend 'elephant'. I also seem to recall that we were confused by the background of the Tiberius image, but now that I look at it anew, it's completely clear that it's two rivers seen from above with an -- ahem -- "elephant" drawn between them, like it might appear on a map.

Anyway, Knock presents us with:

There is a colony between these two ways. It is placed between the rivers Nile and Brixo. ... The Nile flows through Egypt. The Egyptians call it Archoboleta, which means "Big Water". Many elephants live in this area.

The ellipsis indicates a point at which Knock describes some confusion between sources. Some say the Nile is a tributary of the Brixo (which Knock dismisses, sensibly, as a scribal error, since the Nile Delta was well known), some say the Brixo is a tributary of the Nile, and some also go on to say that the sources of the Nile and the Brixo are unknown.

Knock adds, helpfully, that:

The Brixo cannot be linked satisfactorily with any known river or any legendary tributary of the Nile.

So it's not just me, which is good to know.

Two-Faced Giant

I still can't get past how much this picture looks like Ted Cruz living, Voldemort-style, on the back of an annoyed giant's head.

Anyway, the Wonders of the East:

There are men born who are 15* feet tall, & they have white bodies & two noses on one head. Their knees are very red, their noses long, and their hair black. When they wish to give birth, they travel on ships to India, and there bring their kin into the world.

*I actually originally had "50", but that's my scribal error -- I misread fiftyne.

This is one of the more fascinating examples of what's been corrupted over the process of manuscript transmission. Knock records a lot of variation, but I'm going to try and present the best version of what's been missed from the Wonders of the East:

Men are born there with long legs. They are very tall, 12 or 15 feet. They [or, in some versions, just their arms] are white. Their faces are divided. They have red feet. The head is round; they have long noses and black shoulders. At a certain time, they transform into birds. As birds, they breed in [an area familiar to the reader of the Letter]; you call them storks.

Wild, right? They're stork people. (Hence the long noses, red legs, &c.) I also like the implication that this is true of all storks -- after they migrate south, they become giant humanoids until it's time to migrate north again.

The issue with two noses and (potentially?) two faces is also explained by Knock:

... the original Letter almost certainly focussed on two distinguishing features of the heads of these men, their rotundity (caput rotundum, 14,7F) which echoes that of the stork, and their division, in some way or other, into two (bipertita, 14,4LM). This latter feature is reminiscent of the stork's bill, which so sharply and vividly divides the round head.

So how'd we lose the stork element in transmission? Well, avibus 'birds' became navibus 'ships'. They don't migrate as birds, they travel in ships. They also may have originally been travelling from India -- o