Art. XII.—Memorabilia of certain Animal Prodigies, Native and Foreign, Ancient and Modern.
[Read before the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Institute, 12th November. 1894.]
St. George, that swinged the dragon, and e'er since
Sits on his horseback at mine hostess' door,
Teach us some fence!…
And make a monster of you.
Shaksp., “K. John,” Act II., Sc. I.
I go alone,
Like to a lonely dragon, that his fen
Makes fear'd, and talk'd of more than seen.
Shaksp., “Coriol.,” Act IV., Sc. I.
Early in the month of May, when the shooting season begins, I was residing, as usual in the autumn, at Dannevirke, in the Forty-mile Bush, and I heard the friendly warning given to “Look out!” or “Beware!” at a certain notorious lagoon, pool, or deep-water swamp, frequented by ducks, lying about three miles from Dannevirke, and not far from the bridge over the River Manawatu.
Curiosity being aroused, I made inquiry, and I found that during the shooting season of the last year (1893) a young man of Dannevirke named George Slade, out shooting, had there seen a taniwha (unknown watery monster), and had fired at it and wounded it. Through the kindness of the resident clergyman (Rev. E. Robertshawe) I had an interview next day with the young man, who related the whole matter very clearly, temperately, and coherently; and, briefly, it was as follows: He was out shooting, and, having fired at a duck there swimming, and killed it, his dog went into the water after it; but before the dog got up to the duck a large animal (unknown) emerged from the thickly-growing raupo (bulrushes) adjacent, and, swimming, made direct for the dog; on this the dog retreated howling, sans duck. Seeing this, Slade, on the high land above, fired at the strange animal, and struck its head, beyond the eye, and near the angle of its mouth. On receiving the shot the creature turned and swam back into the tall raupo, and was not again seen. Slade further said, its head was raised, as if on a neck, a little above the water, and appeared about 18in. long, with greyish hair or fur. He had related the occurrence at the time on his return to the township, so that it was well known and talked of. This fresh and strange relation by him brought four others to the fore, who stated that, when out riding lately in that neighbourhood, they too had seen a creature, apparently
swimming, in the water there, that looked in the distance like a young colt* with its head and neck above the surface.
The place itself is isolated, surrounded by high, broken, cliffy banks that are deeply wooded, and rather difficult of access, the water having a narrow outlet into the River Manawatu.
This newly-repeated narration of that strange event of 1893, together with the simple, honest, unpretending manner in which it was told, and the knowledge the residents had of the character of the relator, made such an impression on the minds of some of my friends who heard it, that three of them (strong and determined, and used to heavy bush-travelling) arranged to visit that out-of-the-way spot the next day, the weather, too, being fine at the time. They did so, and, after much and heavy exertion, descended the cliffs, and explored pretty much of the shores and surroundings of the lagoon, but saw nothing of any strange animal, and, after extricating themselves with some difficulty, they returned late at night to Dannevirke.
While we were conversing with Mr. Slade, I expressed my opinion that the animal seen by him in the water might be one of the seals of the New Zealand seas, which I had seen in former years on our sea-shores, and whose hair was also of that colour described by him; but how a marine mammal should have found its way so far inland, and particularly through and against the current of the rough and rapid waters of the notorious Manawatu Gorge (the only way of access), seemed an insurmountable obstacle. However, I offered him a good round sum for the animal, or for any pretty large portion of it. Mr. Robertshawe, also present, related the capture of one of those seals far up in the River Waikato several years ago.
In writing to Sir James Hector shortly afterwards (on other matters) I mentioned this phenomenon, and, in reply, Sir James says, “Your taniwha is no doubt Stenorhynchus leptonyx. Several years ago I heard the same tale from the same district, and on inquiry found it to be so. Ten years ago a taniwha was captured in a lagoon near Hamilton on the Waikato, and exhibited in a butcher's shop, and it proved to be a Stenorhynchus.”
An instance of the capture of one of these marine animals I may mention, as it came under my own observation, and the circumstances attending its seizure were strange, if not unique. It happened early in the forties. I was then residing at Waitangi, on the immediate southern shore of Hawke's
[Footnote] * Lest this should seem strange, I mention in a note that Maori horses, half wild, are very numerous in those parts.
Bay, and close by the Maori pa (village) Awapuni. One morning there was a great outcry, and a big movement of a body of natives from the village on to the beach. I went thither to see what was the matter, and I found they had captured a large greyish-blue hairy seal, and this in a peculiar way. Some children were playing on the beach, and they saw at a little distance what they supposed to be a woman asleep on the warm and dry shingle, a short distance above high-water mark. By-and-by they went towards her, when they soon found out their mistake, and immediately raised a cry, not knowing what it was. The chief, Karaitiana,* who happened to be walking on the beach not far off, ran up and saw the big seal; and now the creature, alarmed, was scuttling away fast towards the sea. Karaitiana had nothing in his hands with which to bar its progress, while the animal, turning its head from side to side, snapped its jaws fiercely; so he threw himself down flat on the beach and grasped the seal with his two hands just above the tail and held on firmly, and, being a tall and stout man, the seal could not draw him along the beach, but in its exertions threw up stones and gravel with its flippers, and knocked Karaitiana about pretty considerably. In a little while, however, other Maoris came running up to the spot armed with axes, hatchets, and clubs, and soon put an end to the struggle, carrying off the seal in triumph to their village; and some time after, while the earth-ovens were being prepared for cooking the animal, I was astonished at seeing its jaws open and snap loudly several times, although its skull had been broken into with axes and brains protruding, the head not yet being severed from the body. I was also struck with the appearance of its large and formidable 3-cuspidate molar teeth in both jaws, which also regularly locked into each other. I obtained the head as my perquisite, and buried it in my garden pro tem. as a step towards preserving the bones; but long after, when I frequently sought it, after submerging floods, I never could find it.
On several occasions I have had the dried skins of these animals (taken on the outer coast, as at Waimarama, near Cape Kidnappers, and further south) brought to me for sale, but, not having any use for them, I only purchased one. They were all nearly alike in general appearance as to size, hairiness, and colour of their hair, quite dry and hard, having been carefully flayed from the animal, and stretched out and dried on a hollow frame of sticks, according to the ancient Maori manner of drying their dog and other skins. Of course, they were all captured by the Maoris when on shore.
[Footnote] * Karaitiana, in after years, became an elected Maori member of the House of Representatives.
As seals are known by us to be of gregarious habits, a peculiar proverbial saying of the ancient Maoris respecting these animals may be fitly adduced here as showing their also having had some knowledge of that kind: “No, to tamahine kapai i takina mai ai tenei kekeno ki konei” = “It was thy exceedingly pretty and willing daughter which drew this seal to land here.” “This speaks for itself, and would be doubly suitable for such a chief to say coming by sea—along the coas: in the olden times nearly all peaceful visits were made by water.” “N.B.—The verb taki (pass. takina), here used, means to forcibly draw a captured fish to land out of the water.”*
To return to the taniwha, or ngarara (water-monster), or crocodile and dragon: During my long residence in this country (now considerably more than half a century) I have repeatedly heard from old Maoris of somewhat similar, though much more marvellous, occurrences; I have also been shown the lairs and “bones” (calcite), and the remains and signs of the wonderful doings of such monstrous creatures = ngataniwha (in the big slips of earth from the hill- and mountain-sides, caused by their sudden throes and emergence from beneath or within the solid earth); but of the creatures themselves I have found nothing, not even the slightest remains.
And here, I think, I may properly call your attention to those transcendent Maori stories and legends of the olden time, in which the taking and destroying of several huge and hideous animals of the reptilian class and of the saurian (or crocodile) order by some of their valorous and skilful ancestors is graphically and clearly related. To them I would refer you, my audience, this night; I have faithfully translated them, and you will find them recorded in the Transactions of our Institute†; and I assure you they are well worthy your perusal, and in reading them it should ever be borne in mind that the Maoris firmly believed in their truth; hence, too, it was that they did not care to venture into strange, unfrequented places, from fear of those immense ngarara infesting them: this is nicely shown by Dieffenbach, in his quaint relation of the opposition made by the Maoris against his ascending Mount Egmont, lest he should be destroyed by the ngararas.‡
But, while those ancient Maori stories partake so very largely of the marvellous, and are also mere relations, orally handed down from generation to generation—
Till their own tales at length deceive 'em,
And oft repeating they believe 'em§
[Footnote] * Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. xii, p. 144.: “Maori Proverbs,” No. 207.
[Footnote] † Vol. xi., pp. 82–100.
[Footnote] ‡ Dieffenbach's “New Zealand,” vol. i., p. 140.
[Footnote] § Prior.
—obscured in the night or twilight of the dim past there are similar and well-authenticated European narrations contained in written history. Some of them, being but little known, I purpose bringing to your notice this evening.
My first is from ancient Roman history, originally recorded by the able Latin historian Livy (though that portion of his works containing it has long been lost), and is thus related by Valerius Maximus from Livy, by whom it is said to have been recorded at greater length. It is the account of that enormous reptile which spread dismay even through a powerful and disciplined Roman army. Valerius says,—
“We may here mention the serpent so eloquently and accurately recorded by Livy, who says that near the River Bagrada, in Africa, a snake was seen of so enormous a magnitude as to prevent the army of Attilius Regulus from the use of the river; and, after snatching up several soldiers with its enormous mouth and devouring them, and killing several more by striking and squeezing them by the spine of its tail, was at length destroyed by assailing it with all the force of military engines and showers of stones, after it had withstood the attack of their spears and darts; that it was regarded by the whole army as a more formidable enemy than even Carthage itself; and that, the whole adjacent region being tainted with the pestilential effluvia proceeding from its remains, and the waters with its blood, the Roman army was obliged to move its station. He also adds that the skin of the monster, measuring 120ft. in length, was sent to Rome as a trophy.” Pliny also relates this story, saying, “It is a well-known fact that during the Punic war, at the River Bagrada, a serpent 120ft. in length was taken by the Roman army under Regulus, being besieged, like a fortress, by means of balistæ and other engines of war. Its skin and jaws were preserved in a temple at Rome down to the time of the Numantine war.”* That wonderful encounter took place B.C. 256.
My second narration is a much more modern one, though happening five hundred years ago. It is well and fully authenticated, and, I think, very interesting, particularly as several of its prominent features are curiously in close accord with the Maori tales; and, as I have only met with it in a valuable and scarce old folio of the last century, I have made a copious extract of it, deeming it worthy to be brought before you.
[Footnote] * Pliny, “Nat. Hist.,” lib. viii., c. 14. This astonishing event is also referred to by many ancient writers; among others, by Florus (lib. ii., c. 2); Aulus Gellius (lib. vi., c. 3); and Val. Maximus (supra), (lib. i., c. 8).
In the “History of the Knights of Malta,” by the Abbé Vertot, is the following relation: “In 1340 A.D. the Grand Master of the Order, Helion de Villeneuve, from charity and prudential motives, forbade all the knights, on pain of degradation, to offer to fight a serpent or crocodile. This crocodile was of monstrous size, did a vast deal of mischief in the Island of Rhodes, and had even devoured some of the inhabitants. For the better understanding so extraordinary an incident, we shall barely relate what history says on the subject.
“The haunt of this furious animal was in a cavern on the edge of a marsh at the foot of Mount St. Stephen, two miles from the city. He went often out to seek his prey. He ate sheep, cows, and sometimes horses when they came near the water and edge of the marsh; the inhabitants complained, likewise, that he had devoured some young shepherds that were keeping their flocks. Several of the bravest knights of the convent, at different times, and unknown to each other, went singly out of the city to endeavour to kill him, but none of them ever came back. As the use of firearms was not then invented, and the skin of this kind of monster was covered with scales that were proof against the keenest arrows and darts, the arms, if we may so say, were not equal, and the serpent soon despatched them. This was the motive which engaged the Grand Master to forbid the knights attempting any more an enterprise that seemed above human strength.
“They all obeyed him except one knight, of the language of Provence, named Dieu-donné de Gozon, who, in breach of this prohibition, and without being daunted at the fate of his brother companions, formed secretly the design of fighting this voracious beast, resolving to perish in it or deliver the Isle of Rhodes. This resolution is generally ascribed to the intrepid courage of the knight, though others pretend that he was likewise pushed on to it by the stinging invectives with which his courage had been insulted at Rhodes, because, having gone several times out of the city to fight the serpent, he had contented himself with taking a view of it at a distance, and had thereby employed his prudence more than his valour.
“Whatever were the motives that determined the knight to try this adventure, he, to begin the execution of his project, went into France and retired to the castle of Gozon, which is still standing, in the Province of Languedoc. Having observed that the serpent had no scales under the belly, he formed the plan of his enterprise upon that observation.
“He caused a figure of this monstrous beast to be made in wood or pasteboard, according to the idea he had preserved of it, and took particular care to imitate the colour of it. He
afterwards taught two young bulldogs to run when he cried out and throw themselves under the belly of that terrible creature, whilst he himself, mounted on horseback, clad in armour, with his lance in his hand, pretended at the same time to strike at it in several places. The knight spent several months using this exercise every day, and as soon as he found his dogs perfect in this way of fighting he returned to Rhodes. He was scarce arrived in the island when, without communicating his design to anybody whatsoever, he made his arms be carried privately near a church situated on the top of the mountain of St. Stephen, where he came attended by only two servants, whom he had brought from France. He went into the church, and, after recommending himself to God, took his arms, mounted on horseback, and ordered his servants, if he perished in the combat, to return to France, but to come up to him if they perceived he had either killed the serpent or was wounded himself. He then went down the mountain with his two dogs, advanced straight to the marsh and the haunt of the serpent, who, at the noise that he made, ran with open mouth and eyes darting fire to devour him. Gozon gave it a stroke with his lance, which the thickness and hardness of its scales made of no effect. He was preparing to redouble his stroke, but his horse, frightened with the hissing and smell of the serpent, refuses to advance, retires back, and leaps aside, and would have been the occasion of his master's destruction if he, with great presence of mind, had not thrown himself off; and then, taking his sword in hand, and attended by his two faithful dogs, he immediately comes up to the horrible beast, and gives him several strokes in different places, but the hardness of the scales hindered them from entering. The furious animal, with a stroke of his tail, threw him on the ground, and would infallibly have devoured him if his two dogs, according as they had been taught, had not seized the serpent by the belly, which they tore and mangled with their teeth, without his being able, though he struggled with all his strength, to force them to quit their hold. The knight, by the help of this succour, gets up, and, joining his two dogs, thrust his sword up to the hilt in a place that was not defended by scales; he there made a large wound, from whence a deluge of blood flowed out. The monster, wounded to death, falls upon the knight and beats him down a second time, and would have stified him by the prodigious weight and bulk of its body if the two servants, who had been spectators of the combat, had not, seeing the serpent dead, run in to the relief of their master. They found him in a swoon and thought him dead, but when they had with great difficulty drawn him from under the serpent to give him room to breathe, in case he was alive, they took off
his helmet, and, after throwing a little water upon his face, he at last opened his eyes. The first spectacle, and the most agreeable one that could offer itself to his sight, was that of seeing his enemy slain, which was attended with the satisfaction of having succeeded in so difficult an enterprise, in which many of his brother companions had lost their lives.
“No sooner was the fame of his victory and the serpent's death proclaimed in the city but a crowd of inhabitants thronged out to meet him. The knights conducted him in triumph to the Grand Master's palace; but in the midst of their acclamations the conqueror was infinitely surprised when the Grand Master, looking on him with indignation, demanded of him if he did not know the orders he had given against attacking that dangerous beast, and if he thought they might be violated with impunity. Immediately this strict observer of discipline, without vouchsafing to hear him, or being moved in the least by the intercession of the knights, sent him directly to prison. He next convened the Council, where he represented that the Order could by no means dispense with inflicting a rigorous punishment on so notorious a disobedience, that was more prejudicial to discipline than the life of several serpents would have been to the cattle and inhabitants of that quarter of the island; and, like another Manlius, he declared his opinion was that that victory should be made fatal to the conqueror. But the Council prevailed that he should be only deprived of the habit of the Order: in short, the unfortunate knight was ignominiously degraded, and there was but a short interval between his victory and this kind of punishment, which he found more cruel and severe than death itself.
“But the Grand Master, after having by this chastisement performed the obligations due to the preservation of discipline, returned to his natural temper, which was full of sweetness and good-nature. He was pleased to be pacified, and managed things in such a manner as to make them entreat him to grant a pardon, which he would have solicited himself if he had not been at the head of the Order. At the pressing instances made him by the principal commanders, he restored him to the habit and his favour, and loaded him with kindnesses. All this was not to be compared to the unfeigned praises of the people, who dispose absolutely of glory, whilst princes, how potent soever they may be, can only have the disposal of the honours and dignities of the State.
“They set up the head of this serpent or crocodile over one of the gates of the city, as a monument of Gozon's victory. Thevenot, in the relation of his travels, says that it was there in his time—or, at least, the effigies of it; that he himself had seen it there; that it was much bigger and
larger than that of a horse, its mouth reaching from ear to ear; big teeth, large eyes, the holes of the nostrils round, and the skin of a whitish-grey—occasioned perhaps by the dust which it gathered in course of time.”
Vertot goes on to remark, “We shall be less surprised at so extraordinary an incident if we reflect that the Isle of Rhodes was anciently called Ophiusa, from the Greek word ó̕φis, which signifies a serpent, from the great number of those reptiles that infested that island. Hyginus, a Greek historian, relates, upon the testimony of Polyzelus, a Rhodian, that a Thessalian, son of Triopas, or of Lapithas according to Diodorus Siculus, having been thrown by a storm on the coast of Rhodes, happily exterminated those mischievous animals; that Phorbas, among the rest, killed one of them of a prodigious bigness, which devoured the inhabitants. The learned Bochart pretends that the Phœnicians called the island by the name of Gesirath-Rod—i.e., “the isle of serpents”—Gesirath, according to that author, being a term common to the Phœnicians, Syrians, Arabians, and Chaldeans for signifying an island, and Rod, in the Phœnician tongue, signifying a serpent; so that, joining these two words together, they formed that of Gesirath-Rod, whence the Greeks afterwards made that of Rhodes, which the isle has preserved to this day.”
Then Vertot goes on to relate “a like event which happened in Africa, while Attilius Regulus commanded the Roman army there” (given more briefly by me above); and then he remarks, “I do not maintain that there has been no exaggeration in the length of the African serpent, nor assert everything that is told of the monstrous bulk of the crocodile of Rhodes; but what appears certain from the historians of that time, from tradition, and even from inscriptions and from authentic monuments, is that Gozon killed a terrible animal, and by that means acquired a great reputation, especially with the people of Rhodes, who looked upon him as their deliverer.
“The Grand Master, to make him some amends for the mortification he had given him, conferred rich commandries upon him. He took him afterwards to be near his person, and, finding a prudence in him equal to his bravery, he made him at last his lieutenant-general in the government of the island.”
About the year 1346 the Grand Master Helion de Villeneuve died, and the knights met in solemn conclave to elect his successor; and our author states, “The Commander de Gozon was one of the electors. When it came to his turn to give his voice he said, ‘When I entered this conclave I made a solemn oath that I would not propose any one but such a knight as I should judge most deserving of this great dignity,
and to have the best intentions for the general good of the whole Order; and, after having seriously considered the matter,…I declare that I find nobody better qualified for the government of our Order than myself.’ He then made a fine harangue upon his own virtues; the fight against the serpent was not forgotten, but he insisted chiefly on his conduct from the time that the Grand Master Villeneuve had made him his lieutenant”; and in the end he was elected to that high dignity, and, the historian adds, “he was solemnly acknowledged as Great Master to the satisfaction of the convent, and especially of the citizens of the Town of Rhodes and the inhabitants of the island, who, since his victory over the serpent, looked upon him as the hero of the Order.”
There are several pages in this work showing how well he presided and wrought. He died suddenly in December, 1353; on which Vertot says, “If that term ‘sudden’ may be allowed with regard to so good a man, who had always been more watchful over his own conduct than over that of the knights under his care. His funeral was celebrated with the just eulogiums of his brother knights, and the tears of all the inhabitants of the isle, and of the poor especially, to whom he was indeed a father. All the inscription put on his tomb was this: ‘Here lies the Vanquisher of the Dragon.’” (L.c., vol. i., pp. 249–263.)
While engaged in writing this paper I have thought that, on hearing this clearly-written and plain statement concerning the knight Gozon and the dragon, two main thoughts or ideas were likely to arise within your minds—one, the great similarity in several circumstances between this narration and those ancient Maori stories concerning the slaying of monstrous dragons or crocodiles; and the other, the likeness and suitability of much of the relation to illustrate the old English story of “St. George and the Dragon.” This tale of the patron saint of England is, perhaps, just as truthful as those Maori recitals; for it has baffled all antiquarian research—I mean with reference to his terrible fight with the monster, with which (it is just barely possible) Gozon's combat with the dragon may have had something to do by way of embellishment, as the date of the fight was during the time of the Crusades, in which, of course, the knights of Malta were largely occupied. Moreover, we are told in history how St. George came to be the patron saint of England; which I may also briefly state, as it is a kind of evidence in support of my notion just mentioned:—
“When Robert, Duke of Normandy, son to William the Conqueror, was prosecuting his victories against the Turks, and laying siege to the famous City of Antioch, which was like to be relieved by a mighty army of the Saracens, St.
George appeared with an innumerable army coming down from the hills all in white, with a red cross in his banner, to reinforce the Christians, which occasioned the infidel army to fly, and the Christians to possess themselves of the town. This story made St. George extraordinarily famous in those times, and to be esteemed a patron, not only of the English, but of Christianity itself.”* Be that as it may, we of to-day are better acquainted with the well-executed effigies of St. George and the Dragon which adorn our modern British coins of crowns and sovereigns, which realities are tangible, valuable, and desirable, whatever the origin of the marvellous fight may be.
[Note.—The peculiar spelling, &c., are due to the age of the work whence quotations made—the middle of the eighteenth century.]
[Footnote] * Wheatly “On the Common Prayer,” p. 61; who also says, “St. George, the famous patron of the English nation, was born in Cappadocia, and suffered for the sake of his religion, A.D. 290, under the Emperor Diocletian (in whose army he had before been a colonel), being supposed to have been the person that pulled down the edict against the Christians which Diocletian had caused to be affixed upon the churchdoors. Subsequently he had a church dedicated to him by Justinian the Emperor.”