• Mac Boyle

Further Information on the Wonders of the East

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It would seem that one Ann Elizabeth Knock did some truly impressive work in her (unpublished) 1981 dissertation, which so happens to be available here via EthOS.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 However, Knock's unpublished dissertation is the source on textual transmission of the Wonders, presumably because it's such a tough act to follow.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 -- or, to quote my favorite of the possible explanation advanced by Knock:

... scribes appear to have regarded India as a likely location for all things strange.

The reveal at the end, that these are storks, was inadvertently attached to the next section in Wonders of the East, and corrupted from there. The next section begins item liconia / ciconia in gallia, placing the next beast in a location within Gaul known as "Liconia" or "Ciconia". There is no place by this name in that region, and it is inconsistent with the rest of the text to jump to Western Europe for one entry. Knock points out that this must have originally been the end of this sentence, which would say "you call them 'storks' in Gaul" -- ciconia being the Latin for 'stork'.

Shy Lion Man

The Wonders of the East reads:

There is a land in Gaul called Ciconia / Liconia. There, men are born tri-colored; their heads are maned like those of lions, they are 20 feet tall, & they have a mouth as great as a [winnowing-]fan. If they perceive any person in their land, or any person is following them, they flee far away and sweat blood. These are thought to be people.

As already mentioned, the placing of these people in Gaul is in error -- that first sentence is supposed to be part of the previous entry. There are also a number of other accidental changes in this one. One example, which Knock notes seems to happen frequently, is a tendency for descriptions of animals to gradually turn into descriptions of humanoids, since people find that more interesting. So, without further ado, Knock:

In the same place are born creatures that are tripartite and the color of horses, with lion's feet. [Dimensions are given.] If anyone pursues these beasts, they sweat blood. They are called hippopotami.

Again, wild, right? This started as a description of a hippopotamus. Which, honestly, I should have picked up on, being familiar with the myth that hippopotami sweat blood. (They don't, but they do secrete a reddish liquid that is easy to mistake for bloody sweat, so we can give the ancients a pass on this one.)

Knock herself seems somewhat baffled by the description "tripartite and the color of horses". "Tripartite", I think, is meant to refer to the chimeric nature of the creature being described -- Knock points out that "horse-colored" is not a helpful descriptor unless you happen to live in an area where all the horses are the same color, so make of that what you will. Probably this is itself a corruption of the established comparison between hippopotami & horses -- hippopotamus, of course, literally translates to "horse of the river".

"Lion's feet" became "lion's mane" pretty easily, because the dimensions of the creature are given immediately afterwards, also in feet. So someone must have seen "they have lion's feet and are # feet long", and assumed it was scribal error -- surely they repeated the word by accident, and they're supposed to have a different leonine attribute. What are lions best known for? Their manes, of course. All fixed.

Exactly how big these things are varies. In some accounts they are 30 ft long & 12 ft across; in others they are 14 or 20 ft long, with no width given. Old English lang can mean either "long" or "tall", so when they're described as humanoid, "20 feet long" becomes "20 feet tall" without actually changing any of the words. The business about their mouths is a later addition, but given that hippos do, in fact, have very large mouths, suggests it is an addition by someone who knows what they're talking about.

Pronoun referents strike again in the next bit, where some versions of the text read "if anyone pursues these beasts, they [the hippopotami] sweat (sudant) blood," and others have the much more confusing yet intriguing corruption "if anyone pursues these beasts, they [the pursuers] suck (sugit) blood." Apparently later scribes tried to explain this one, with two distinct & amazing interpretations:

  • In order to successfully hunt these creatures, you must first drink blood to protect yourself against them.

  • People hunt these creatures in order to suck their blood because it's yummy & full of vitamins.

And now, the most important change: how did the name "hippopotamus" get lost? Knock explains the process as follows:

In Pit, the first element has been construed as a pronoun and we find hos potamos. Mir completes a process of anthropomorphisation by rewriting potamos as a verb and producing hi putantur homines fuisse.

Hi putantur homines fuisse, of course, means "These are considered to be people." And that's where that last sentence, which we liked so much that it inspired the episode title, came from -- hi putantur is meant to be hippopotamos, & homines fuisse is probably likewise an attempt to repair the rest of the sentence in a way that makes sense.

Man-Eating Giant

The Wonders of the East reads:

Beyond the river Brixo(ntes), east from there, are people born great & tall. They have feet & shanks 12 feet long, & chests 7 feet long. They are called Hostes. Certainly, any man they catch, they devour.

This bit is apparently not in the original -- it appears only in the "P-Group" texts. The Wonders of the East is a pretty typical rendering of this passage, though it does leave out one piece of information that was included in other texts -- the Hostes are meant to be black in color. This probably was around at the time that the original set of pictures was drawn, as the Nowell Codex has a creature on the edge of the page here that may be intended to be a Hostes (or should the singular be "Hostis"?), and it is very definitively colored black:

Cannibals are, of course, known in the classical sources from which the original Letter was derived, though I can't find any examples of them being giant -- or black, for that matter. Some have suggested, probably based on the fact that the Nowell Codex is also our only source for the Beowulf epic, that there is some connection between Grendel & the Hostes. Knock allows that it is possible the Hostes are based on Grendel (though certainly not the other way around, she emphasizes) but there's no solid evidence for it.

Or the black man-eating giants could be some weird medieval racism, for all we know -- flinging around accusations of cannibalism was a favorite activity of European colonizers several hundred years later, after all.

Or maybe this is pulled from the oral tradition -- man-eating giants are a fairy-tale staple, and this is probably not a recent development. And making them black in color might not even be a racial thing, since "black" & "white" as racial identifiers weren't really a thing in the medieval era like they are today. It could have just been a choice to make their appearance more interesting, intending literal ink-black, like Kali, rather than anything in the range of regular human skin tone.

Or maybe they're supposed to be man-eating apes. Who friggin' knows.


The Wonders of the East reads:

Then, along the Brixo(ntes), are wild beasts; they are called Lertices. They have the ears of asses & the wool of sheep & the feet of birds.

These are also not in the original -- it might have been that they were added by the same person who added the Hostes. However, the Hostes appear in one text (Epistola Prcmonis Regis ad Traianum Imperatorem, 'Letter of King Premo to Emperor Trajan') in which the Lertices do not, so maybe they're a separate addition.

Or maybe they were intentionally excluded from Premo -- the Liber Monstrorum includes them only with a note of confusion as they are "unknown to nearly all nations." So who knows what their deal is.

Again like the Hostes, the Wonders of the East dropped one element of their physical description: they're supposed to be quite small. Though it's not described how small, just that they are small. I choose to imagine them as purse-chihuahuas.


Ah, the Blemmyes -- possibly the most famous of all the monstrous peoples the medieval scholar imagined running around in the distant edges of the world. Referenced in not one, but two of Shakespeare's plays. A staple on medieval maps & any SF/F based on same. (Exactly why they are named after the ancient kingdom that existed in what is now Sudan is unclear, but it has certainly been discussed at length.) The Wonders of the East gives them short shrift, however, with nothing more than the following:

There is another island south from the Brixo(ntes); on that island men are born without heads; they have their eyes & mouth on their chests. They are 8 feet tall & 8 feet broad.

There's not a whole lot of additional information in the original. Knock gives us:

There is another island in the river Brixo where men are born without heads. They have eyes and mouths in their chests. They are [ 4 / 7 / 8 / 9 / 12 feet] tall and [ 4 / 7 / 8 / 9 feet] broad.

Some versions of the text add that they are gold in color; others say that they are called epifagos, epifugos, or epiphongos. This tracks, as Epiphagi is indeed a known alternate name for the Blemmyes, though some texts make a distinction between the two: the Blemmyes have their eyes on their chest, while the Epiphagi have their eyes on their shoulders. An example, from the Getty's MS Ludwig XV 4, is below:

Getty MS Ludwig XV 4, f.117v. Epiphagi (epiphage? epiphagus?) in the top right, blemmye in the bottom left. Which I believe means that Blemmyes are left-libertarian & Epiphagi are right-authoritarian.

That's all I've got for these guys in this text, unfortunately. But here's another fun picture for you before we leave them behind.

British Library, MS Royal 20 B xx, f.80r.

Rat King but Dragons

The Wonders of the East reads:

Dragons are born that are 150 feet in length. They are as large as great stone pillars. Because of the multitude of dragons, no person may easily travel in that land.

This oddly brief passage is actually even shorter in the original, it seems. Knock gives us the following:

In the same place are born dragons 150 foot long, with the girth of a very thick column.

Other texts in the same group as the Wonders of the East replace "travel in that land" with "cross that river" -- I kind of like these guys better as river dragons, so I approve. Anyway, moving on, I guess.


The Wonders of the East reads:

323 stadia & 253 leagues away from that place is another kingdom on the south side of the sea where Homodubii are born, that is, doubtful people. They are shaped like men to the navel & are afterwards shaped like asses. They have long shanks like birds & gentle voices. If they see or perceive any person in that country, they flee far away.

It is immediately apparent that calling these people Homodubii is an error, since the fish-eaters are Homodubii. And if we had to pick one of the two to attach that name to, it would be the fish-eaters, as in their case it might be a mutation of "homunculi", but it's very much unclear how the Onocentaur might acquire that name.

This is another passage that was added later, however, and there is no original reading to present.

Phallic Lake Scene

The Wonders of the East reads as follows:

There is another place, where there are barbarous men. They have 110 kings under them; they are the worst people & the most barbarous. There are two lakes, one of the sun & the other of the moon. The one which is of the un is hot by day & cold by night, and the one which is of the moon is hot by night & cold by day. They are 200 stadia & 133½ leagues broad.

We mentioned briefly in the episode how the lakes of the sun & moon are connected with the trees of the sun & moon from the Alexander romance, and through that potentially to the Two Trees of Valinor, so we'll move straight past that here.

Knock's version of the Letter reads:

In that place are two lakes, one belonging to the sun, the other to the moon. The one belonging to the sun is hot by day and cold by night; the one belonging to the moon is hot by night and cold by day.

The core of the passage is pretty much the same as the original, but the beginning & the end seem not to have been part of it.

The bit about the barbarous people & their 110 kings is not in most versions & may have been misplaced from elsewhere. Those kings, interestingly, are not always "under" the barbarians. The preposition changes version to version -- the kings are variously referred to as "under", "over", or "among" them.

The dimensions of the lakes are also apparently added on at some point -- possibly by someone who didn't understand the units. If I didn't fuck up the math, a roughly-circular lake 133 leagues across would be one of the largest lakes in the world, second only to the Caspian Sea. (I have to assume roughly-circular, not only because of the image, but because only one dimension is given.) And there are two of these, so we're talking a major geographical feature. Like something that defines the appearance of a continent -- each one of them is larger by surface area than the Great Lakes, & the two together are larger than the Black Sea.

Knock points to a passage in Solinus describing a spring in Africa that is cold by day & hot by night, then speculates as follows:

No other instances of a pair of such lakes with opposing characteristics is known, outside that in the Letter. The attribution of these lakes to the sun and moon respectively raises two possibilities. We may be dealing with an ancient, possibly pre-Greek myth (just as the association of the Tritons with foretelling the future seems to be ancient and to have lapsed into oblivion except in that instance in which it is fossilised in a legend); the other possibility is that the single lake, as described by Solinus, has become confused in some way with the sun and moon trees consulted by Alexander as an oracle.

Seussian Plants

The Wonders of the East reads:

In this place there is a type of tree, which is like the laurel & olive trees. From that tree is born balsam, the most precious of oils. That place is 151 stadia & 51 leagues.

This business may have been displaced, as in other versions of the text it appears alongside our sun-temple & oyster-eating bishop.

Knock's rendering of the text puts it as part of that passage, so I guess watch for it when we get down there.


Now, this is what I came here for, and I was not disappointed. The Wonders of the East reads:

There is a certain island in the Red Sea, where there is a type of people who are named Donestre among us; they grow like soothsayers from the head to the navel, & the other half is like a human, & they know human language. When they see people of foreign types, they name to him & his kin the names of men they know, & with false words they entice him & seize him & then after that they eat all of him but the head & then they sit & weep over the head.

So where does this come from? What's the original version? There isn't one. The Donestre is the result of corruption & combination of at least three different creatures. Over the course of manuscript transmission, through all the hazards of the process -- manuscript damage, scribal error, language barriers, additions & deletions -- an entirely new monster has been generated by accident. I would go so far as to describe the Donestre as an emergent property of the text.

So let's break this down.

The only element of this description that appears in Knock's reconstructed Letter of Pharasmanes is the reference to soothsayers. This passage appeared in the original, but has been lost in the branch of the tradition where the Wonders of the East appears:

Near the borders of this ocean, a distance of 280 stadia, are born the [ soraci / orhaci ] which are known among you as Tritonians. As if soothsayers [divini], if you wish to ask them about any subject, you will receive an answer.

This probably also explains the confusion about them having the top half of one thing and the bottom half of another, which a series of different scribes have tried to reconcile with various degrees of success. (Though this is my conjecture rather than Knock's, so take it with a grain of salt.) See, tritons in this period were represented as humans from the navel up and sea creatures from the navel down. Sometimes you got the standard merfolk, but there were also some fun variants:

The triton depicted is very much like a centaur, except that instead of a horse, the bottom half is a lobster or crayfish. He is blowing on a horn.
1878 sketch by Wilhelm Froener of a Triton as depicted in a fresco excavated at Herculaneum.

So here's what I think happened: we had the original passage about the Tritonians, then at some point one of the scribes decided to add some extra information about their appearance -- in addition to being soothsayers, they look like men to the navel and their other half was a sea creature of some sort. (It's also possible that this was the same scribe who decided to copy in some material from one of their favorite bestiary entries, just to flesh out the manuscript a bit -- but we'll get to that in a moment.) This folio, however, was damaged in some way. A later scribe tried to reconstruct what had been written there, but wasn't able to make it make sense. Then later scribes, unaware that they were looking at a bunch of scraps copied from a damaged page, kept trying to assemble it in a way that made sense, and over time this became the Donestre.

Knock has very clearly identified the source of the rest of the information about the Donestre. As we mentioned in the episode, mimicry of human voices is part of the hyena's bag of tricks in medieval bestiaries, tracing back at least to Pliny the Elder.

The hyena was often seen as particularly monstrous, a violation of the natural order, or some kind of hybrid creature. This led to some confusion in the bestiary tradition, as the "crocotta", "corocotta", "crocuta", or "leucrocotta" was variously described as a hyena (which happened to be a hybrid creature) or as a hybrid between a hyena and something else (usually a lion). Regardless, though, the ability to mimic human voices in order to lure people away from the safety of a settlement was a behavior often listed in a bestiary under "crocotta". So someone was attempting to copy new information into the manuscript, and they chose the crocotta for whatever reason. (Maybe they just liked it; personally, I've maintained a certain fondness for hyenas ever since reading Tamora Pierce's Emperor Mage as a young'un.)

Knock points out that the picture cycle associated with the Wonders of the East was clearly drawn by someone who knew that the description given was associated with the crocotta. Why does the description of "like soothsayers from the head to the navel" result in that leonine appearance in the picture above? Because the illustrator is trying to draw a half-crocotta, and they had images like these in mind:

And the weeping over the head? That's not a part of the hyena / crocotta myth. No, that's supposed to be the crocodile. (Hence, "crocodile tears".)

A certain percentage of the readers just looked at that and facepalmed, but I'll catch the rest of you up. There are two possibilities for how this happened: either the bestiary that the crocotta entry was copied out of had accidentally combined it with the crocodile, or a later scribe tried again to flesh out this entry, went looking for the crocotta in a bestiary they had access to, and ended up copying from the crocodile entry by accident. Either way, what this ultimately comes down to is just the fact that "crocotta" / "corocotta" and "crocodile" / "cocodrill" look very similar, and a scribe might get confused between the two. (Especially if their bestiary is organized alphabetically.)

And, of course, through manuscript damage and/or scribal error, the crocotta/crocodile material got mixed in with the triton material, and the blending process eventually spit out the Donestre.

The hyena element may also be the reason for the weird depictions of the Donestre's genitalia -- the way the hyena violates "natural" gender roles led to the myth that they had the ability to change sex at will.

This also explains the huge difference between the Donestre's head in Tiberius and in the Nowell Codex -- they're both going for "crocotta", but the Tiberius illustrator leaned into the lion connection whereas the Nowell illustrator is going for a canine snout.

Do Your Ears Hang Low?

The Wonders of the East reads:

Then in the East, there are born men who are 15 feet tall & 10 feet broad. They have great heads & ears like fans. One ear they spread under themselves at night, & in the other they wrap themselves. These ears are very light & their bodies are white as milk -- and if they see any person in that land, then they take their ears in hand & flee far, so quickly that it is thought that they fly.

This is another one of those really famous denizens of the edge of the medieval map. They are nameless in the Wonders, but elsewhere they get the name Panotii ('all ears') or Enotokoitai. Anyway, here's Knock's rendition of the Letter:

Beyond this, to the East, are born men who are 15 feet tall and 10 feet broad. They have large heads and ears as wide as winnowing fans. at night they spread one beneath themselves and cover themselves with the other. And they hide themselves with the ears; they are very light and of white body. When they catch sight of men, they spread out their ears and they flee a long way so that you would think they are flying.

Not hugely different this time, though we do get the detail that they don't "pick up" their ears as if they were in the way, but "spread out" their ears so they resemble wings, which is why an observer might think they are flying.

Knock does point out that this confusion is the result of a collision of two different classical traditions: men with ears like fans are from Scylax of Caryanda, an explorer in the late 6th century BCE, whereas men with long ears who wrap themselves up to sleep, like the guy in the Tiberius illustration, are from Ctesias of Cnidus, a scholar in the 5th century BCE.

It should be also noted that, despite its proximity to a description of skin tone, the word "light" here is light-not-heavy, rather than light-not-dark, as is clear in the versions written in languages where the two are not homonyms. What is unclear is whether the ears are light, so that they flap in the wind, or the men are light, hollow-boned like birds, so that they can use the ears to glide like a flying squirrel. (Obviously I prefer the latter on grounds of it being cool.)

It's Supposed To Represent Light, not Smoke

The Wonders of the East reads:

There is a certain island on which people are born whose eyes shine as bright as if a great lantern were kindled in the dark of night.

Knock suspects this of being a later addition, but does note that the Wonders version is actually slightly longer and more flowery than the other versions, which run something like:

There is another island where men are born whose eyes glow like lamps.

There's not a lot to add about these guys.

What is This, a Temple for Ants?

There are actually two different versions of this passage in the Wonders of the East. The version which better follows the tradition, the one found in Tiberius, reads thus:

There is a certain island that is in length & breadth 360 stadia & 110 miles. There was built in the days of King Bele & Job a temple of wrought iron & brass. And in that same place is east from there another temple holy to the sun; there an excellent & benevolent priest is seated, & he protects & cares for that building.

The version in Nowell, which Knock suggests is the result of a scribe trying to fill in some gaps caused by manuscript damage, reads thus:

There is a certain island that is in length & breadth 360 stadia & 110 miles. There was built in the days of King Bele & Job a temple of wrought iron & molten glass. And in that same place at the sunrise is seated Quietus, the most serene of bishops, who does not eat any food except sea oysters, & he lives on them.

It would seem that this was originally a description of a very classically pagan myth -- the temple holy to the sun is the place where the sun is said to rest at night. Knock renders the Letter thus:

There is an island, the length and breadth of which measure [various different measurements]. In this island is the colony of the Sun called Heliopolis. It is enclosed by a wall built of brass and iron. In this place there are trees like the laurel and the olive, from which incense and balsam are born. The temple of the Sun is there in the East, where the quiet priest guards the town by the sea. There are two similar temples in that place. One is built of gold blocks and the other is of brass. One of than is 265 feet in length and the walls are 9 feet thick. In this temple there is a little altar made of pearls and squarecut precious stones; It is 70 feet in length. The Sun's bed is found in the same place, made of ivory and highly refined gold, embellished with very precious stones. Its brightness radiates 16 feet.

Knock suggests that confusion between this mythical location and the historical city by the same name is a possible reason why this section ends up diverging from the myth so much.

Knock also trashes the Latin skills of our Nowell Codex scribe some more -- in her view, the unique aspects of the Nowell text are the result of the scribe having to actually translate directly from Latin when the English part wasn't available for him:

OE-V shares sufficient readings with OE-T to show that the passage as a whole was not retranslated. A roughly triangular portion of text, presumably at the foot of a page, was obliterated in a copy from which OE-V was descended, and the scribe who copied the damaged MS was forced to turn to the Latin in order to fill the gaps... Three other passages in OE-V have also been rewritten, although to a lesser extent. The four sections affected appear in four consecutive columns in the two-column bilingual text of T. All are at the same height on the page (see Plate 4). This points clearly to damage spreading across four columns in an ancestor of V, incidentally confirming that V was descended from a MS similar, if not identical in layout to T. This damaged MS still retained the Latin text, to which the copyist referred in his attempt to fill the lacunae. If the damage had been a tear, whether or not involving total loss of the bottom corner, both sides of the folio would have been affected to a similar extent. In fact, apart from this passage, only isolated words have been lost. This points to a stain of some kind, either offsetting on the facing folio or seeping through to the verso.

It's also worth noting that the appearance of Bele and Job here is another scribal error. The word "Heliopolis" got messed up somewhere and subsequent scribes read it as "beliobilis" or "belis et iobis". Knock suggests that this was influenced by a passage in Solinus where a temple to the legendary founder of Babylon, Belus, is described as "Beli ibi Iovis templum".


The Wonders of the East reads:

There is a golden vineyard at the rising of the sun, which has berries 150 feet across. In those berries are grown pearls & gemstones.

Naturally, this is originally part of the description of the Sun's temples, but with the loss of that context, it's become its own section. Knock renders:

In that place there is a golden vineyard from which hang bunches of grapes made of valuable pearls.

The decision to make the grapes/berries ridiculously huge is only in the branch of the transmission that includes the Wonders of the East. Knock suggests it was originally a quantity, not a measurement -- 150 bunches of grapes.

In the "F-Group", the non-WotE branch of transmission, this passage is apparently much more detailed. Knock notes that those texts follow the word "vineyard" with the following:

... that is a vine, made and fastened with gold. The surrounding ground (pavimentum) is made of precious stones and square-cut gems...

This is interesting in that it makes clear that the F-Group conceptualizes this as a sort of art installation, rather than an actual living & functional vineyard. F-Group also adds at the end of the passage:

That building is the house of the priest, made of gold. The priest eats incense and drinks balsam; he sleeps in the vineyard under that vine. No-one from outside is allowed to see this, unless he is going to remain in Heliopolis.

Is eating incense & balsam better or worse than living on sea oysters? Oysters are fuckin' gross, but at least they're, you know, technically food. Discuss. Let us know what you think.

Can You Help Me Get My Hand Out of This Dollhouse?

The Wonders of the East reads:

There is another kingdom in the land of Babylon; there is the greatest mountain between the mountains of the Medes & those of Armenia. She is of all mountains largest & highest. There are born decent men, who have for their kingdom & rule the Red Sea; there are born precious stones.

This is apparently a passage that suffered considerable damage at an early stage; Knock lists a wide variety of the ways in which it has been rendered in surviving texts. An attempt to condense these variations follows:

There is another kingdom in the land of Babylonia; there is a mountain very big & very high in which there is a race of men who are [tyrants / like lions]. [Between Media & Armenia / in Middle Armenia] there is another mountain very big & very high. There are men there who are very [rich / distinguished]. To the right, for those going towards the Red Sea, there are two cities, Phenix and Ioraba, where there are many wealthy men, from whom there are trade routes with India and Arabia. They hold sway over the Red Sea, and very precious pearls grow there.

It should be noted that the reading "like lions" is almost certainly scribal error, by Knock's analysis. I like it, though, so I kept it in.

"Woman" with "Leopards"

As we commented in the episode, there are some distinct problems with the illustration for this one. The illustrator seems reluctant to draw a female chest, and furthermore is unaware of what tigers & leopards look like, so this picture of a bearded woman with her hunting leopards looks very much like a dude feeding his dogs. Anyway, though, the Wonders of the East reads:

Around that place are women born who have beards as far as their chests & have horse-hides to make their clothing. They are named the greatest huntresses, & rather than hounds they have tigers & leopards which they raise. These are the keenest of beasts, and they hunt all the types of wild beast that are born on that mountain.

Badass, right? Anyway, Knock renders:

Around that place, there is a mountain where women are born; they have beards which hang down to their breasts; they dress in animal skins; they have horses. They are huntresses; instead of dogs they breed wild animals, which are [tigers & / large & the color of] leopards. and they hunt all the species of wild animals which live in that mountain.

It seems that the detail about them wearing horse-hide was an error that you only see in the Wonders of the East and a couple other related texts. Knock notes that it makes sense for them to have horses, as their hunting beasts are extremely swift -- they probably need the horses just to keep up with the hunt. In commenting on how the horse-hide has been incorporated into the illustration above, she also notes the illustrator's refusal to draw a woman's chest:

The illustration in T shows this very clearly; the woman, who is breastless, is wearing a skin wrapped round her hips and the ears and tail on the skin are clearly represented.

Knock also notes that there is a passage in Isidore of Seville (unofficial patron saint of the Internet) that seems to be related to this sort of legend -- according to the sainted Isidore, there are people in the East who crossbreed their hunting hounds with wild tigers.

Ox-Tailed Woman

I wonder if the illustrator came to regret his decision to make all the non-human people naked when he came to the ox-tailed women... dude clearly enjoyed drawing the men naked, as we mentioned in the episode. Here he continues to refuse to give women female chests, but honestly I still think this illustration came out very well regardless. (Hit me up, girl.) Anyway, the Wonders of the East reads:

Then there are other women, who have boar's tusks & hair as far as their heels & ox tails on their loins. These women are 13 feet tall & their skins are the whiteness of marble & they have camels' feet & asses' teeth. For their greatness they were slain by the great Macedonian Alexander [✨problematic patriarchy✨]; when he could not take them alive, he killed them, because they were shameful in body & unworthy.

Still has a very "Alexander the Great uses Tinder" vibe. Anyway, Knock renders:

In the same place, there are women with boars' tusks, hair down to their ankles and a tail behind like a bull's. They are tall [those texts that specify a height range from 7ft to 14ft]...

At this point the two major branches of the tradition split. In the "P-Group", we have the marble skin, camels' feet, & asses' teeth. In the "F-Group,", we get this:

... & the rest of their body is hairy like an ostrich.

I'm not sure which I like better, tbh. Also, of course, the Alexander section was added in by a later fanboy, like all the Alexander sections in this text.

Three Images for This One

The Wonders of the East reads:

By the sea is a sort of wild beast; they are called Catini. They are very beautiful beasts. Also there are men who live on raw flesh and honey.

The next part is paired with a different image in the Wonders of the East: