A 1600 Work I
1600 Work II
1600 Work III
Topsell on the Hydra/ the Su (III)
Bill Long 8/29/08
Continuing the Critisism; Accepting the Report of Another
Topsell has already, in his mind, destroyed the position of any who maintain that the Hydra was a real beast, but he can't let the "Diviner's" interpretation remain unchallenged. Since any preacher spends his/her time interpreting texts, Topsell decided to place an alternative interpretation on the Diviner's text.
"But let it be as it is, how doth he know that this evil doth more belong to the Turks than to the Christians [i.e., that it is the Turks' fall that the Hydra predicted]? For shall we be so blinde and flatter our selves so far, as not to acknowledge our sins, but to lay all the tokens of judgement upon our adversaries? But if there appeared in us any repentance or amendment of those faults, for which God hath suffered in his justice, that impious Tyrant and Tyrannical Government to prevail against Christians, then we might think that GOD would look mercifully upon us, and avert his wrath from us upon our enemies," Ibid.
Here is Topsell trying his best to do a Jeremiah imitation--indeed, he says, maybe it is us, the Christians, whom God is going to judge. We are in a rather rarified air here; even though Topsell doesn't believe in the Hydra, he is willing to concede the truth of things so that he can show the weakness of the "Diviner's" interpretation.
Then, a "Naturalistic" Interpreation
Topsell gives a fourth interpretation, rather surprisingly anticipating a lot of the discussion on miracles in 18th century philosophy and expositions of the Gospels among the radical 19th century German New Testament critics. That is, his fourth point will be that there is an alternative 'natural' explanation to the story of the Hydra.
"To turn again to the story of the Hydra, I have also heard, that in Venice in the Duke's treasury, among the rare Monuments of that City, there is preserved a Serpent with seven heads, which if it be true, is the more probable that (than?) there is a Hydra, and then the Poets were not altogether deceived, that say Hercules such a one," Ibid.
Ah, so the Poets didn't lie or, alternatively, they didn't tell things incorrectly out of wilfulness. They possibly were just mistaken. In fact, what may have happened, Topsell suggests, is that a story about an unusual creature (a seven-headed Serpent) became "blown up" to be a story about the Hydra. Certainly a seven-headed Serpent would be a monstrosity, but people in the 17th century loved stories about that kind of thing.
The significant point to notice is that he is giving what I called a "naturalistic" explanation of the myth of the Hydra. Rather than it just being tissue of lies or a "tall tale," it is rooted in fact, perhaps, but much less dramatic facts. This type of explanation becomes the basis of some supposedly "revolutionary" NT exegesis from the Tuebingen School beginning around 1835. A 'naturalistic' explanation of the 'miracle' of Jesus' walking on the water, for example, would be that the disciples, who later wrote about/talked about the experience, were out in the boat and their perspective was so "off" what with clouds and storm, that they really saw Jesus walking "on shore" or in "ankle-deep" water but they thought they saw him walk on the water. Thus, the 'miracle' was really no 'miracle,' but the 'superior' 19th century scholar can see how the story could have developed.
The final explanation for the story of the Hydra that Topsell gives is not his own but is attributed to another person. It is an allegorical interpretation of the event.
"XXX (can't read the name) maketh the story of Hercules by killing the Hydra, to be a meer allegory, saying that the Hydra was a Castle kept by fifty men, the King whereof was called Lernus, who was afflicted by a Noble man (called Cancer) against the assaults of Hercules, and that Hercules by the help of Iolaus, King of the Thebanes, overcame that King and Castle. Others say that Lerna and Hydra signifie the two kinds of Envy, distinguished by Invidia, and Invidentia, in himself, which arise out of the monstrous filthy fenne of human corruption; like a monstrous hideous Dragon, with whom he strove, and as he struck off one head or temptation, two or three other continually arose in the room thereof," Ibid.
Phew! This remarkable little exposition of the Hydra shows us that even this first "modern" work of zoology in English is still very much indebted to the mythological or medieval tradition of telling stories about animals. The fact that Topsell tries every interpretive method possible to debunk the story shows that he truly does want to put the study of animals on a more secure ground. But the fact that he has to put so many nails in the Hydra's coffin, so to speak, means that the "modern" study of animals is not yet "here."
Before moving on to a different kind of creature, it might be good to pause and ask ourselves about how this relates to current understanding of animals. The major "connection" is that in modern scholarship, when a new thesis is advanced, the "old understanding" has to be "buried." We are not burying Hydras in scholarship anymore, though some theories probably seem to have more heads than one, but you tend to wonder what about our current methods of argument is based, if not on mythological reasoning, at least on some kind of "faith jump" or on a "linguistic leap" that really, when you look closely at it, isn't justified. In this case, however, Topsell buried the story of the Hydra so well that I would be surprised if it rears its head(s) again in subsequent treatises on animals.
Moving on to An Animal Named Su
The "Su," (vol. 1, p. 511) is a "Wilde Beast in the New found World." You wonder who the source of this story was... Here is a picture. Though scholars today agree that the Su is a creature of the imagination, in those days Topsell accepted the reports he received about the reality of the "New found World" creature. Let's hear how he tells the story:
"There is a Region in the New-found World, called Gigantes, and the Inhabitants are called Pantagones now because their Country is cold, being far in the South, they clothe themselves with the skins of a Beast called in their own tongue Su, which signifyeth water," p. 511.
It is a "great ravener and untamable wilde Beast." When hunters chase it and desire "her skin," then "she flyeth very swift, carrying her young ones upon her back, and covering them with her broad tail:"
"now forsomuch as no Dog or Man dareth to approach neer unto her, (Because such is the wrath thereof that in the pursuit she killeth all that cometh near her) the Hunters dig several pits or great holes in the earth, which they cover with boughs, sticks, and earth, so weakly that if the Beast chance at any there to come upon it, she and her young ones fall down into the pit and are taken," Ibid.
But what does the Su do when this happens?
"This cruel, ...impatient, violent, ravening, and bloudy beast, perceiving that her natural strength cannot deliver her from the wit and policy of men her Hunters...the Hunters being at hand to watch her downfall, and work her overthrow, first of all to save her young ones from making and taming, she destroyeth them all with her own teeth; for there was never any of them taken alive, and when she seeth the Hunters come about her, she roareth, cryeth, howleth, brayeth, and utterth such a fearful, noysome, and terrible clamore, that the men which watch to kill her, are thereby a little amazed, but at last being animated, because there can be no resistance, they approach, and with their darts and spears wound her to death, and then take off her skin, and leave the carcas in the earth..," Ibid.
Topsell clearly believes that this beast exists somewhere in South America, even though neither he, nor his source, had much evidence for it. Perhaps they relied on a "tall tale" of one of the returning sailors and credited it. Well, are we so different today? The remaining two essays explore Topsell's treatment of two animals we all believe in: baboons and squirrels. Let's see now how he deals with them.