Monday, December 09, 2013

Mythical Animals: The Catoblepas

As described by the Roman naturalist Pliny, the Elder (1st Century CE), the Catoblepas was a four-legged bovine-like animal. According to Pliny, this beast had the body of a buffalo and the head of a boar. As an herbivore, the Catoblepas ate poisonous plants that caused its breath to be toxic. Because of this, the beast was often found alone, for out of self-defense, many animals stayed far away from the Catoblepas.

Later Aeolian, a Greek naturalist in the 2nd Century, noted that the Catoblepas had a killing stare. He called the beast “Katobleps”, the “Down-looking One,” since the naturalist observed that the beast was conscious of its peculiar power. Since the animal seemed unwilling to lift its heavy head, people were safe from its stare. The Greek naturalist added that the beast’s eyebrows were high and shaggy, with narrow and blood shot eyes.

Although Pliny and Aeolian agreed that the Catoblepas lived in North Africa, they differed as to where. Pliny, in his writings, said that the Catoblepas inhabited Western Ethiopia near the source of the Nile. Aeolian believed that the beast lived in Libya. Meanwhile early travelers said that the beast could be found near the islands of the Gorgons in the far side of the Mediterranean Sea near the Hesperidies.

Travelers’ reports lead to confusion between the Catoblepas and the Gorgons, which caused people to think that both possessed killing stares. Another reason for the confusion was that the Catoblepas had a scraggly mane which fell over its forehead. This mane covered its eyes similar to the snakes on the Gorgon’s head. Because of this similarity, people thought that the gaze of the Catoblepas would turn them into stone. Since the mane covered the beast’s head, people believe that they were relatively safe. However, when the Catoblepas raised its head and belched, the breath would kill anyone nearby.

In his book, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” (1874), Gustave Flaubert (France, 1821 - 1880) described various Monsters that appeared in Saint Antony’s nightmares. One of them was the lonely and solitary Catoblepas. This beast told the desert saint that it was aware of very little around it. The beast was mostly focused on the warm mud under its stomach. Then mournfully, the Catoblepas informed St. Anthony that once it had absently-mindedly eaten its own foreleg. (This contradicts Pliny’s observations that the beast was an herbivore.)  Flaubert described the Catoblepas with a long thin neck that could not support the head, but had stiff bristles hiding its face. For whatever the reason, St. Antony survived his encounter with the beast.

Later a naturalist, Baron Georges Cuvier (French, 1769 - 1832) deemed that Pliny and Aeolian were describing an African gnu or wildebeest. Modern zoologists agree that Cuvier’s identification of the Catoblepas was accurate. However, that does not mean that the Catoblepas is a fictional beast or a misidentified member of the deer family. Flaubert observed that this beast does wanders absent mindedly through our nightmares. That alone makes the Catoblepas real in our world.

Works Used:

Allan, Tony, “The Mythic Bestiary,” Duncan Baird: London, 2008.

Atsma, Aaron, “Katoblepones,” Theoi Project, 2011,

DeHoff, Nathan, “The Catoblepas that Got the Cream,” Vovatia, 20 May 2013,

Macumbeira, “‘The Temptation of Saint Anthony’ by Gustave Flaubert,” A Reader’s Dairy, 21 August 2010,

Nigg, Joseph, “The Book of Dragons and Other Mythical Beasts,” Quarto: London, 2002.

Zell-Ravenheart, Oberon and Ash DeKirk, “A Wizard’s Bestiary,” New Page Press: Franklin Lakes, NJ, 2007

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