Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com

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Wednesday, 26 August 2015

INVESTIGATING THE LOCUST DRAGON OF NICOLAES DE BRUYN - AN ENTOMOLOGICAL ENIGMA FROM THE 16TH CENTURY


Nicolaes de Bruyn's mystifying engraving from 1594, depicting a wide range of readily-identifiable insects, plus what can only be described as a truly bizarre 'locust dragon' (public domain)

As a fervent browser of bestiaries, illuminated manuscripts, and other sources of antiquarian illustrations portraying a vast diversity of grotesque, extraordinary beasts that ostensibly bear no resemblance or relation to any species known to science, I am rarely surprised nowadays by any zoological depictions that I encounter in such sources. A few days ago, however, I was not just surprised but also thoroughly bemused – bewildered, even – by a truly remarkable picture that I happened to chance upon online.

I had been idly cyber-surfing in search of interesting animal images to add to one or other of my two Pinterest albums, when I came upon the engraving to which this present ShukerNature article is devoted, and which opens it above. Yet in spite of my experience with antiquarian images, I had never before seen anything even remotely like the exceedingly bizarre creature occupying much of the left-hand side of this engraving, and its overt strangeness was such that with no further ado I immediately set forth on a quest to uncover whatever I could find out concerning it, and, in particular, to determine what on earth (or anywhere else for that matter!) it could possibly be.

Close-up of de Bruyn's 'locust dragon' (public domain)

The first pieces of information that I obtained were the identity of the person who had produced this baffling artwork, and its original source. The person was Nicolaes de Bruyn (1571-1656), a Flemish engraver, and as can be seen on this engraving, the date of its production was 1594. Although he is best known for his many biblically-themed engravings and his large engraved landscapes reproducing designs and paintings by other artists, he produced approximately 400 works in total, including a number that featured animals.

The original source of this particular engraving was a series of prints by de Bruyn that depicted various flying creatures. The series was entitled Volatilium Varii Generis Effigies ('Pictures of Flying Creatures of Varied Kinds'), was prepared by de Bruyn in Antwerp, and was first published by Ahasuerus van Londerseel (1572-1635) of Amsterdam. It was subsequently reissued (with van Londerseel's name neatly trimmed off!) by Carel Allard in 1663 (or shortly after – there are conflicting accounts concerning this detail).

The complete engraving by de Bruyn again, his fantastical locust dragon sharing it with a wide range of accurately-portrayed insects (public domain)

What I find so intriguing about de Bruyn's engraving is the juxtapositioning of a fantastical monster in every sense of the term (more like a dragon, in fact, than any real beast), with a number of different types of insect whose depictions are so accurate, so natural, that they readily compare with well-executed 21st-Century equivalents and whose types can be easily identified. Thus, they include long-horned bush crickets, dipteran flies, a ladybird, a panorpid scorpionfly, a large moth, and a narrow-waisted polistid-like wasp.

Yet what if the monster is itself an insect – or is at least intended to represent one? After all, it does possess six legs (albeit ones bearing no resemblance to those of real insects), four wings (ditto), a pair of bristly moth-like antennae, and a long curling butterfly-reminiscent proboscis. But if so, what insect could it be, especially with such a curious fishtail-like abdominal tip or tail, and why has it been portrayed in such a nightmarish, wholly inaccurate fashion, especially when all of the others are so life-like in appearance?

In addition, its wings pose further problems when attempting to reconcile this creature with an insect. For as ShukerNature reader Ruth Bryant has saliently noted to me, rather than having two wings on each side of its body like real four-winged insects, it has instead been portrayed by de Bruyn with three wings on one side - the near side - of its body and one on the other, far side. Of course, it may be that de Bruyn's monster actually has three wings on each side but has been depicted by him with the other two far-side wings being entirely hidden by the near-side ones. Yet even if so, this is still anomalous, because there are no known six-winged insects (or other organisms) anyway. True, certain forms of primitive fossil four-winged insect did bear a pair of anterior lobes upon their first thoracic segment that were veined like wings, but these lobes were not real wings because they were stiff and immobile.

Comparison of de Bruyn's unrealistically-depicted locust dragon (top) with a realistic depiction of a locust (bottom) (public domain)

A copy of de Bruyn's perplexing engraving is housed in the collections of Amersterdam's celebrated Rijksmuseum, and when I accessed their record for it (click here) I was nothing if not startled by the record's claim that the engraving's mystery monster is meant to represent a locust! (The locust species in question is presumably the infamously destructive Old World desert locust Schistocerca gregaria.) Needless to say, however, I've certainly never seen a locust that looks like this, and the Rijksmuseum's record for the engraving contains no clues regarding the raison d'être for its surreal portrayal here.

The only other site encountered by me that offers any thoughts on the matter is Strange Science (click here to see its entry for this engraving). Here, its author notes that in her book Curious Beasts (2013), Alison E. Wright, a curator of prints and drawings at the British Museum, has stated that this image "offers particular insights into the hazards of copying" (an example of it is held in the museum's art collections). In other words, de Bruyn may not have based his engraving upon an actual locust specimen that he had personally seen, but had instead either relied upon a verbal description of one that he had then interpreted extremely imperfectly in visual form, or had simply copied an inaccurate earlier depiction of a locust. In my opinion, however, both of these options are untenable when applied to de Bruyn.

Chromolithograph from 1890 of a locust swarm (public domain)

This is because, as noted earlier here, quite a proportion of de Bruyn's other artworks are biblical in theme. And as plagues of locusts were certainly a biblical occurrence, and are referred to in the Bible's text, one would therefore expect de Bruyn to be familiar with the appearance of this insect. The most famous biblical locust plague was the Eighth Plague of Egypt, sent by God as a curse upon Pharaoh, and documented as follows in the Book of Exodus 10: 12-20:

 [12] And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand over the land of Egypt for the locusts, that they may come up upon the land of Egypt, and eat every herb of the land, even all that the hail hath left.

[13] And Moses stretched forth his rod over the land of Egypt, and the Lord brought an east wind upon the land all that day, and all that night; and when it was morning, the east wind brought the locusts.

[14] And the locusts went up over all the land of Egypt, and rested in all the coasts of Egypt: very grievous were they; before them there were no such locusts as they, neither after them shall be such.

[15] For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left: and there remained not any green thing in the trees, or in the herbs of the field, through all the land of Egypt.

[16] Then Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron in haste; and he said, I have sinned against the Lord your God, and against you.

[17] Now therefore forgive, I pray thee, my sin only this once, and intreat the Lord your God, that he may take away from me this death only.

[18] And he went out from Pharaoh, and intreated the Lord.

[19] And the Lord turned a mighty strong west wind, which took away the locusts, and cast them into the Red Sea; there remained not one locust in all the coasts of Egypt.

[20] But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go.

In any case, even without the specific biblical art link, locust plagues were sufficiently well known in de Bruyn's day for there surely to be no likelihood that he would be unfamiliar with this insect's appearance. Also, readily identifiable depictions of desert locusts date back thousands of years, exemplified by various portrayals in certain ancient Egyptian sites, such as the following one:

Readily identifiable locust depiction from a hunt mural in the grave chamber of Horemhab (the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt's 18th Dynasty), dating from c.1422-1411 BC (public domain)

Moreover, as shown by his portrayals of long-horned bush crickets in the same engraving, de Bruyn was eminently capable of rendering the basic orthopteran (grasshopper/cricket) form with meticulous accuracy.

Consequently, I feel that we need to look elsewhere for a satisfactory solution to the mystery of why he should have included a veritable locust dragon amid an array of skilfully-depicted, readily-recognisable insect forms.

Close-up of a realistically-portrayed locust about to take flight, showing how very different its wings are from those of de Bruyn's locust dragon (public domain)

Of course, in more religious, less secular times, locust plagues were traditionally seen as punishments sent by God in response to humanity's misdeeds. So might it be that de Bruyn purposefully devised his locust dragon to serve as a demonic-looking personification of such divine intervention? Or, alternatively, could it be that its presence in the engraving was actually indicative of a much more light-hearted state of mind relative to its artistic creator?

Not so long ago here on ShukerNature I posted an article of mine dealing with snail-cats and other illuminated manuscript marginalia of the zoomythological variety (click here). In it, I noted that the preponderance of bizarre, comical, and sometimes thoroughly outrageous monsters and impossible hybrids portrayed in the margins of medieval tracts by monks and other illustrators often had no relevance whatsoever to the text, and seemed to have been included for no good reason at all – other than simply to relieve the tedium experienced by the illustrators during the long periods of time required to copy or create such manuscripts, and that these marginalia monsters frequently were deliberately subversive or humorous, thereby helping to lighten their creators' moods.

Might the locust dragon of de Bruyn owe its origin to a similar reason – a wry joke perpetrated amidst what was otherwise a relatively dry, technical art commission? Certainly, its weird appearance cannot be due to ignorance on the part of the medieval illustrators, because there are several notable illuminated manuscripts in existence containing accurate portrayals of locusts.

A plague of locusts depicted in a bible produced by Nuremberg-based printer/publisher Anton Koberger in 1483 (public domain)

Over 400 years has passed since de Bruyn created his anomalous locust dragon, so we may never know the answer. Yet if nothing else, this entomological enigma – one that, despite its implausible morphology, was nevertheless drawn with Bruyn's typical flair and imbued with vibrant vitality – remains a wonder, and one that I am very happy to have rescued from centuries of obscurity and introduced at last onto the global cryptozoological stage.

If anyone reading this ShukerNature blog article has any additional information concerning its subject, I'd greatly welcome any details that you'd care to post here.

Painting from 1923 depicting swarming locusts (public domain)

To discover plenty of other strange and spectacular dragon forms, be sure to check out my recent book Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture.





Tuesday, 25 August 2015

MY 500TH SHUKERNATURE POST! – PRESENTING THE TOP TEN SHUKERNATURE POSTS OF ALL TIME: FROM BLACK LIONS AND MERMAIDS TO POODLE MOTHS AND PENIS SNAKES!


Subjects documented in six of my all-time Top Ten ShukerNature blog posts (mermaid photo © Dr Karl Shuker; Venezuelan poodle moth photo © Arthur Anker; giant sea serpent gaff photo © Takeshi Yamada; © of the other photos unknown to me)

Welcome to my 500th ShukerNature blog post! To mark this momentous occasion, I have pleasure in presenting for your entertainment and interest the following equally momentous list – the Top Ten ShukerNature posts of all time, based upon hit counts. And here they are, each one with its own clickable direct link to the post itself.

Posted: 12 June 2012
Hits count: 1,155,307

Posted: 1 August 2012
Hits count: 209,972

#3: MYSTERY OF THE VENEZUELAN POODLE MOTH – HAVE YOU SEEN THIS INSECT??
Posted: 22 August 2012
Hits count: 114,688

Posted: 16 August 2012
Hits count: 92,565

Posted: 3 August 2012.
Hits count: 76,659

Posted: 1 October 2012
Hits count: 58,418

Posted: 26 January 2014.
Hits count: 44,933

#10: GIANT ANACONDAS AND OTHER SUPER-SIZED CRYPTOZOOLOGICAL SNAKES
Posted: 20 September 2013
Hits count: 42,213

Analysing this list, several intriguing if not readily explainable facts swiftly emerge.

First and foremost, melanistic cats – most especially black lions – clearly hold an abiding fascination for ShukerNature readers. The popularity of my all-time #1 blog post, exposing various online black lion photographs as photo-manipulated hoaxes, is truly, outrageously, and – above all else – inexplicably phenomenal! What on earth is it about black lions that should have generated well over 1 million hits for this particular post since I uploaded it just over 3 years ago, far more than any other ShukerNature post, and continuing to add to that count by the thousands each week?

Collectively, ShukerNature's 500 posts have garnered a total hits count of just over 5.1 million, which means that this one single post has contributed more than 20% of that total all by itself! Nor does it end there. A follow-up post of mine exposing a further black lion photo as yet another hoax also makes the all-time Top Ten ShukerNature posts list (coming in at #8), and my examination of the highly contentious issue of whether black pumas exist is at #5.

Equally perplexing is why four of the ten posts in this all-time Top Ten list originated from the very same month, August 2012, bearing in mind that I have been posting on ShukerNature from 20 January 2009 right up to the present day, and on a regular basis throughout that sizeable time span too. What was/is so special about that specific month, therefore, particularly as the four posts in question from it deal with four entirely different subjects? True, the poodle moth was attracting tremendous online interest at the time of my post, so that would definitely have helped focus attention upon it here on my blog too. And the term 'penis snake', as invented by the media for it, no doubt explains why a large but hitherto highly-obscure species of aquatic amphibian lacking limbs and lungs has received such a high hits count on here.

Certainly, there is no doubt that photos of weird animals that have gone viral online prove popular subjects for ShukerNature posts, especially those posts that investigate what the creatures portrayed in such photos are and whether such photos are genuine or fake. The success of my two black lion posts exemplify this trend, as do those dealing respectively with the poodle moth, the potoo, the alleged half-human half-rabbit hybrid, and the many bizarre beasts created by Takeshi Yamada.

As for the two remaining posts in this list, dealing with merfolk and giant snakes respectively, these are perennially popular cryptozoological subjects. Consequently, their presence should come as no surprise.

Looking back one last time at this all-time Top Ten list, there is no doubt that I could never have predicted which of my 500 ShukerNature posts would have made the cut. And when uploading the first of my black lion posts back in June 2012, a post that took no more than half an hour to prepare, I never dreamed even for an instant that it would become the runaway ShukerNature success story that it has done and still is, seemingly destined never to be overtaken by any other post on this blog of mine, regardless of its subject, and continuing to increase its count by significant amounts on a daily basis.

But what about the other nine posts in this list? Will they still be in the Top Ten when or if a 1000th ShukerNature post is uploaded one day? Who can say? If I've derived nothing else from this list, I have definitely learnt from it to expect the unexpected – which only serves to increase my passion for preparing further ShukerNature posts in the future, as well as my fervent hope that you will continue to enjoy reading and re-reading them. So here's to the next 500, and thank you all as ever for your continuing encouragement and interest in my researches and writings!

Subjects documented in the remaining four of my all-time Top Ten ShukerNature blog posts (photo-manipulated black puma photo © Dr Karl Shuker; giant python photo © Colonel Remy van Lierde; penis snake photo © Matt Roper; © of photo-manipulated black lion photo unknown to me)






Saturday, 22 August 2015

THE BEAST OF GÉVAUDAN - WOLF, MAN...OR WOLF-MAN?


One of numerous differing depictions of the infamous Beast of Gévaudan prepared in France, Germany, or elsewhere in Europe during the 1700s (public domain)

Between June 1764 and June 1767, a hideous series of killings, as grisly as they were plentiful (somewhere around 80 to 113 human victims, plus many injured survivors), occurred in a village-speckled district of Lozère, southeastern France, called Gévaudan. Their perpetrator became known as the Beast of Gévaudan, but more than two centuries of speculation have failed to stem the controversy regarding its precise identity. Just what was this Beast? An animal? A man? Or something more?

Its first recorded victim was Jeanne Boulet, a 14-year-old peasant girl from the mountain village of Saint Etienne de Lugdares, who was slaughtered on 30 June 1764 while tending a few sheep and cows on the hills of the Vivarais. Some villagers discovered her corpse - minus its heart, which had been savagely ripped out of her body. Many other victims followed, most of which were women or children, whom the Beast attacked by springing at their throat. Some were subsequently devoured, others were simply torn apart in a frenzy of insatiable blood-lust, with decapitation and dismemberment occurring on a regular basis. Those that survived often claimed that the Beast gave voice to a loud horse-like neighing or laugh-like cry, had hind legs longer than its forelegs, and a conspicuously large head.

A very atmospheric depiction of the Beast stalking poor doomed Jeanne Boulet (© William M. Rebsamen)

During its three-year reign of terror, the Beast was hunted by countless people and parties. Notable among these was Jean-Baptiste Duhamel, a dragoon captain stationed close to Gévaudan, who took charge of the hunt for the Beast in early November 1764, launching a massive search for it that featured over 20,000 participants, but all to no avail. By February 1765, the Beast had attracted such widespread attention in France that King Louis XV personally became involved in the pursuit of this rapacious phantom - sending to Gévaudan one of his country's most renowned hunters, Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesie Denneval (d'Enneval), equipped with six of his most efficient bloodhounds, but like Duhamel he failed to achieve any success.

Having said that, on several occasions the Beast's pursuers had encountered a huge wolf-like beast actually in the process of attacking its victim, but even though they had shot the creature it had always managed to escape - seemingly wounded, but never fatally. This apparent invulnerability to gunfire inspired many priests and other religious men to deem it a supernatural entity, a non-corporeal embodiment of evil that could not be destroyed by conventional means. Some even claimed that it had been sent as a punishment for humanity's own evil.

Many Beast depictions were adaptations of earlier ones – this one is an adaptation of the more detailed 1765 version opening this present ShukerNature blog article, but the latter's canine snout has been replaced here by a pig-like one, making the Beast look even stranger (public domain)

Then came the shooting of 21 September 1765. The king's personal gun-carrier, François Antoine (aka Antoine de Beauterne), had been tracking the Beast throughout that day in the woods near the village of Pommier, accompanied by 40 local hunters, when without warning their quarry appeared at the bottom of the Béal Ravine. It was shot several times, finally dropping down dead as it attempted (yet again) to escape.

The shooting of the first Beast (public domain)

It appeared to be an enormous black wolf Canis lupus - measuring around 6 ft long, standing 32 in high, and weighing 143 lb, equipped with a formidable pair of 1.5-in-long fangs and 40 teeth in total. Interestingly, wolves normally possess 42 teeth, and some scholars have suggested that this Beast might have been a wolf-dog hybrid, rather than a pure-bred wolf.

German cryptozoologist Markus Bühler's restoration of the first Beast's possible appearance (© Markus Bühler)

Dubbed the Wolf of Chazes after the nearby Abbey of Chazes, its stuffed corpse was exhibited at the king's court for a time, before being transferred to Paris's Museum of Natural History, where it was retained until the early 1900s (what happened to it then is currently a mystery) - but the killings did not stop.

True, there were no published reports, but this was on the express order of the king, who was anxious to contain the panic that this macabre epidemic of murders since June 1764 had generated. Eventually, however, news of the continuing series of deaths could no longer be suppressed - and the rest of France learnt to its horror that the deadly Beast of Gévaudan (or something else behaving very like it?) was still alive.

The first Beast, prepared as a stuffed taxiderm specimen for display (public doman)

Several creatures suspected of being the Beast were dispatched over the next two years (while identities suggested then and since for this terrifying creature ranged far beyond dogs and wolves, to embrace such exotic escapees as lions, tigers, black panthers, baboons, wolverines, and hyaenas). Nevertheless, it was not until 19 June 1767 that the Beast's hideous onslaughts were finally halted for good. This was when, during a hunt organised by the Marquis d'Apcher, a huge dog-like creature was shot dead at Mount Chauvet by local hunter Jean Chastel after it had slowly emerged from a thicket. The Beast's carcase was autopsied by the king's notary, Roch Etienne Marin, but no definite identification was reached, although Marin did opine that if this daunting creature were a wolf, it was an "extraordinary one, and quite different by its form and proportions from wolves seen in this land". Interestingly, moreover, according to a list of dimensions and other features compiled by Marin, which was rediscovered in 1958 after having long been thought lost, the creature possessed 36 teeth (i.e. six fewer than a wolf, but only two more than a hyaena).

Afterwards, the carcase was stuffed and exhibited for a time in a number of villages before being taken to the king, but by then it had begun to decompose, so it was supposedly buried in an unmarked location somewhere within the huge garden of the king's castle. This would have been a great tragedy if true (but it wasn't – see later), because some accounts indicated that the creature's unusual appearance was by no means confined to its great size. Reported descriptions and contemporary depictions of the Beast's pelage varied greatly. According to certain ones, it was reddish, according to various others it was blackish, with (or without) a white patch on its chest (or even a long white ventral stripe), mottled or brindled elsewhere, and with a dark stripe running down its back. Moreover, its feet were said to bear very long, sturdy claws, which in some accounts were even likened to hooves.

18th-Century portrayal of the Beast as a huge, mottled, grey-furred, white-breasted, long-tailed canine creature (public domain)

An unmottled, unicoloured, shorter-tailed version of the previous Beast portrayal (public domain)

An unmottled, black-furred, white-breasted, long-tailed version of the first of these three Beast portrayals (public domain)

This latter claim concerning hooves has in turn led to a very extreme identity for the Beast having been offered by several online cryptozoological enthusiasts – namely, a surviving mesonychian, or, more specifically, a modern-day representative of Andrewsarchus mongoliensis, the largest carnivorous land mammal presently known to science. Mesonychians constituted a taxonomic order of early carnivorous ungulates that according to the current fossil record existed from the early Palaeocene to the early Oligocene (approximately 63 to 30 million years ago), although most had vanished by the end of the Eocene. They are believed to have originated in Asia, where they were very diverse, but subsequently radiated out into Europe too, as well as reaching North America - where they evolved into some huge forms. However, they were eventually out-competed by the emerging true carnivores or carnivorans, i.e. belonging to the order Carnivora (dogs, cats, bears, mustelids, hyaenas, viverrids, etc).

Yet despite being carnivorous, predatory creatures, because they were ungulates the mesonychians possessed hooves, not claws, which is what inspired the mesonychian identity for the Beast of Gévaudan. However, not only would the survival of a mesonychian lineage into the present day require them to close a very sizeable 30-million-year gap in the fossil record (thereby constituting a truly outstanding example of a Lazarus taxon), it would also mean that with the exception of the Beast's relatively brief period of depredation, such distinctive animals had somehow remained entirely unknown both to science and to local people in France throughout historical time there. Needless to say, all of this seems highly unlikely – and even more so when applied to a putative modern-day Andrewsarchus.

Possible appearance in life of Andrewsarchus mongoliensis (public domain)

Known only from a single fossil skull unearthed at a Gobi Desert site in 1923, but which measured a colossal 32.8 in long and 22 in wide, if this monstrous mammal were proportioned in the same manner as typical mesonychians, it would have attained an estimated total length of around 11 ft. However, although long deemed to have been a mesonychian, it has recently been reclassified by many palaeontologists as a carnivorous artiodactyl (even-toed ungulate) instead.

Nevertheless, it goes without saying, surely, that if an Andrewsarchus lineage, even one of smaller body stature than its original Mongolian antecedent, were surviving somewhere in the French countryside, its presence there would certainly not have gone unnoticed during all of the centuries preceding and following the Beast of Gévaudan's triennium of tyranny.

My German figurine model of Andrewsarchus

The same also applies in relation to the theory put forward by Pascal Cazottes in his book La Bête du Gévaudan: Enfin Démasquées? (2004), that the Beast was a surviving species of Hemicyon – a member of the prehistoric dog-bear or hemicyonid family of carnivorans (not to be confused with the prehistoric bear-dog or amphicyonid family of carnivorans) that flourished for between 17 to 11 million years during the Miocene epoch before dying out at its close, approximately  5.3 million years ago.

Sporting tiger-like proportions and a somewhat ursine form but a dog-like dentition, Hemicyon also ran in a digitigrade manner like dogs, rather than plantigrade like bears. Whether it would have resembled the Beast of Gévaudan, however, is another matter entirely.

A restoration of Hemicyon (public domain)

In any case, during summer 1997 taxidermist Franz Jullien from France's National Museum of Natural History in Paris showed that the story of the second Beast's carcase having been buried was untrue (as was the claim that it sported hooves). For that was when he publicly announced his recent discovery in the museum of an old guide which sensationally revealed that this specimen had actually been exhibited there until at least 1819 (what happened to it afterwards, however, is unknown), and that during this time it had been conclusively identified – as a striped hyaena! Interestingly, a hyaena had long been favoured in the Gévaudan area as an identity for its nightmarish Beast, and could explain anecdotal accounts of its laughing cry, its large head, and hind limbs larger than forelimbs, but until now there had been no firm evidence to support it. Jullien published details of his significant find in the August 1998 issue of the journal Annales du Muséum du Havre.

As this particular hyaena species, Hyaena hyaena, is native to Africa and Asia but not to Europe, it was evidently an escapee or deliberate release from captivity - and it is a nothing if not interesting coincidence that Antoine Chastel, one of the two sons of hunter Jean Chastel who killed this second Beast, allegedly possessed a striped hyaena in his personal menagerie. According to a variation upon this claim, Antoine worked as a caretaker in the menagerie of exotic animals owned by a local aristocrat, the Count of Morangiès. Either way, however, there would seem to be a tenable origin for a striped hyaena on the loose in this specific region of France at the time of the Beast's onslaughts.

Sketch of a striped hyaena (public domain)

The fundamental problem here is that normally the striped hyaena is a scavenger, not an active hunter, but perhaps a rogue or rabid individual might be, or one that had been deliberately trained to attack and kill people – see later here. Also worth noting is that only hyaenas have the jaw strength to bite clean through bones (their bite force even exceeds that of lions), and thereby perform the decapitations and limb shearings ascribed to the Beast; wolves cannot normally do this. Of course, hyaenas have fewer teeth (only 34) than the 40 claimed for the first shot Beast, but as this latter animal seems very likely to have been a wolf or wolf-dog hybrid (there does not appear to have been any suggestion that this too was a hyaena), that discrepancy is not a problem.

A hyaena trained to kill (by Jean Chastel, no less – see later for much more regarding this line of speculation) was the Beast identity pursued by cryptozoologist Ken Gerhard, investigating the Beast of Gévaudan saga alongside criminal profiler George Deuchar in an episode of the History Alive television documentary series entitled 'The Real Wolfman', which was screened by the History Channel in October 2009. However, the species put forward here was Africa's little-known brown hyaena H. brunnea, which seems a somewhat unlikely creature to have been held in captivity in 18th-Century rural France, and is not as potentially savage as the larger striped and (especially) spotted hyaena species anyway. (Consequently, when I originally uploaded this article of mine here on ShukerNature, I was puzzled as to why the programme's 'powers-that-be' had decided that this species should be the one for Ken and George's investigations to focus upon, rather than either of the other two hyaenas, but after reading it Ken informed me that the reason was that the producers had felt that the brown hyaena was the most wolf-like hyaena species thanks for this information, Ken!) Irrespective of such considerations, however, the programme made compelling viewing, with Ken readily demonstrating his cryptozoological acumen.

Early vintage photograph of a captive brown hyaena (public domain)

In his extensive study of this saga, Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast (2011), University of North Carolina historian Prof. Jay M. Smith concluded that the Beast attacks were the collective activity of several different creatures, all of which were wolves, and that much of the terror gripping this region of France at the time had resulted from the uber-hyped, tabloid-style manner in which the saga was presented in the media, so that it was as much a social, cultural phenomenon as a cryptozoological one. Yet even if the latter aspect were true, as noted above wolves alone would be unlikely to achieve the bone-shearing massacres accomplished by the Beast.

Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast (© Prof. Jay M. Smith/Harvard University Press)

Whatever its identity, however, the Beast of Gévaudan is by no means unique in the annals of French history, as the following selection of examples amply demonstrates, featuring some notorious episodes of lupine aggression.

Back in 1632, a bloodthirsty precursor to the Beast of Gévaudan allegedly frequented the Forest of Cinglais, from which it would periodically emerge to attack and kill people inhabiting a same-named village nearby (it was blamed for the deaths of over 30 people). The village of Cinglais was situated three miles south from the city of Caen, capital of Lower Normandy in northwestern France. During a gigantic hunt beat held in June 1633 and featuring 5000-6000 male participants, however, a large and very swift, agile animal subsequently identified as a wolf but with red fur was shot dead, after which the killings ceased.

Engraving of the Beast of Cinglais (public domain)

Reports of marauding wild animals believed but never conclusively confirmed to be wolves have also emerged from many parts of France in the centuries that followed the demise of the Gévaudan-based Beast phenomenon (even though the wolf is nowadays virtually extinct in this country). As discussed by Véronique Campion-Vincent within an article from 1992 in the journal Folklore, explanations proffered by the authorities, the general public, wildlife experts, and investigators of specific cases have varied greatly - from natural migration or covert, human-engineered introduction of wolves into France from bordering countries; and deliberate release of captive specimens purposefully to kill farm creatures, or simply because they were no longer wanted by their erstwhile owners; to the accidental escape of menagerie and circus specimens, or exotic pet wolves maintained in private homes.

Thus, when two wolves were shot in a scarcely-populated pine forest in South-West Landes during 1968, investigators speculated that they may have been deliberately (but unofficially) introduced there from outside France by person(s) unknown. Deliberate release was a popular explanation for the presence of two wolves not far from Paris during 1972 - one of these was killed following a serious spate of livestock kills in the area. Two of the most notorious 20th Century cases on record, however, are those featuring the Beast of Cezallier and the Vosges Beast.

One of the most famous 18th-Century depictions of the first Gévaudan Beast (public domain)

During the 1940s, outbreaks of sheep slaughter in the environs of Cezallier, central France, regularly hit the newspaper headlines, inciting very appreciable discussion and dispute regarding the likely perpetrator of these killings - due in no small way to the remarkable variety of descriptions recorded for the alleged creature(s) in question. According to some eyewitnesses, the infamous Beast of Cezallier was definitely some type of big cat, variously resembling a lioness or a panther; others, conversely, were adamant that it was not feline but canine in form - undoubtedly a wolf or a very large feral dog.

The controversy continued throughout the 1940s and seemed set to do the same in the 1950s - until 1951, that is, when a bona fide wolf was shot near Grandrieu in the Upper Loire region, and the killings stopped. The dead wolf was duly dubbed the Beast of Cezallier, and the mystery was deemed officially solved - but it seems rather unlikely that eyewitnesses could confuse a creature so overtly dog-like in form as a wolf with lionesses or panthers. Quite probably, the wolf was only one of several culprits collectively responsible for the heinous deeds of the Cezallier Beast.

A graphic illustration of the Gévaudan Beast's predilection for attacking children (public domain)

History repeated itself during the late 1970s, but this time in the vicinity of Vosges, which experienced a near-epidemic of livestock killings, beginning on the Lorraine plateau near Rambervilliers, but progressing with the passing months to the Bresse highlands, and involving a horrific tally of death encompassing 31 different farms and collectively featuring more than 300 slaughtered or wounded sheep, three cows, a foal, and four dogs. Numerous organised hunts and searches were instigated, but their mysterious quarry eluded all of them. Then, after months of fruitless pursuit but regular Beast-blamed deaths, the killings suddenly ceased. The Beast was gone - or at least its blood-lust had been quelled - for it was never heard of again, and sheep could graze safely once more in the farmlands of Vosges.

Yet however disturbing the mystery attackers of Vosges and Cezallier may seem, we must remember that their victims had been sheep and other animal livestock, not humans. As a consequence, some researchers feel that there was far more to the homicidal Gévaudan Beast than an assortment of ravaging (even rabid?) wolves. In Africa, gruesome murders have been committed by the infamous leopard-man cults - secret societies who perform their terrible crimes masquerading as leopards, slashing their victims after the fashion of these great feline killing machines. Might something analogous have occurred in Gévaudan?

Abel Chevalley's novel (public domain)

The plot of French fiction writer Abel Chevalley's famous novel La Bête du Gévaudan (1936), inspired by the Gévaudan saga, yielded a lurid, highly imaginative scenario in which Antoine Chastel was an embittered, castrated sadist who lived apart from everyone else in Gévaudan, breeding monstrous hybrid hounds, one of which he then trained specifically to attack people, and that this was the Beast.. Yet so seductive and compelling was this overblown storyline that speculative, wholly-sensationalised fiction subsequently translated into speculative, but ostensibly-sober non-fiction, because it went on to influence several chroniclers of the real Beast saga,

Thus it was, for instance, that in his classic study La Bête du Gévaudan (1976), Gérald Ménatory promoted the possibility that much of the Gévaudan carnage was the work of one or more human serial killers - capitalising upon genuine Beast-engendered deaths to wreak their own murderous mayhem in secure anonymity – and concentrating in particular upon the idea that Antoine Chastel utilised a pet hyaena in nefarious activity of this kind.

Gérald Ménatory's book La Bête du Gévaudan Imprimerie Chaptal et Fils)

The following year, in September 1977, a comprehensive 12-page article devoted to the 'human sadist' theory for the Gévaudan Beast appearing in monthly French magazine Historia. And during the mid-1980s, veteran French cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans, a disciple of Ménatory's theory, stated that he had no doubt that it was the correct explanation for the Gévaudan Beast's crimes. This disturbing notion and variations upon it have attracted considerable interest in more recent times too.

The Beast makes the cover of the September 1977 issue of HistoriaHistoria)

In 2004, the Australian-made TV documentary series Animal X (which examined a wide range of cryptozoological subjects) screened an episode devoted to the Beast entitled 'Monster or Murderer'. In it, the identity that was put forward once again echoed Chevalley's scenario, inasmuch as the Beast was perceived to have been a trained wolf-dog assailant.

A version of Ménatory's theory resurfaced in 2009, featuring the Beast as Antoine Chastel's hyaena, specifically trained by him or his father to attack people in order to cover up their family's sadistic serial killer activity. This, the theory argued, would thereby explain how Jean Chastel was able to shoot the second, hyaena-identified Beast so easily – i.e. after emerging slowly from a thicket, it neither attacked nor ran from him because it knew and trusted him.

A 18th-Century French depiction of one of the Beasts in which it resembles a wolf-dog hybrid, as indicated by its white ventral stripe and very long tail (public domain)

There is no doubt that the Chastel family had a bad reputation in the Gévaudan area at the time of the Beast killings, with Jean Chastel viewed by suspicious locals as a witchcraft-practising hermit and Antoine whispered to be a lycanthrope (see below), but was their reputation for dark deeds justified? In his several Beast publications, modern-day French author Guy Crouzet emphatically declares that wolves were solely responsible, rejecting any involvement of the Chastels. On the contrary, he claims that because of their eccentric, reclusive lifestyle, the family had been used by the authorities as convenient scapegoats for the Beast's activities, destroying their reputation in the certain knowledge that they lacked the power or political clout to retaliate.

A noteworthy variation upon this theory postulates that Jean Chastel was definitely innocent of the witchcraft/serial killing claims, but that he purposefully trained some powerful, potentially ferocious creature to be a homicidal monster in order to revenge himself upon his reputation-blackening neighbours, priests, and the world at large.

18th-Century depiction of an inordinately woolly-fleeced Beast - a veritable wolf in sheep's clothing! (public domain)

Then again, it is nothing if not intriguing to note that during the search for the Beast by François Antoine and his party back in 1765, one of his men almost met his death in some marshes due to a malign prank played upon him by none other than Jean Chastel, Antoine Chastel, and Antoine's brother. As a result, François Antoine ensured that all three Chastels were imprisoned.

So there was definitely Beast-engendered bad feeling among the Chastels, thus making it all the more ironic (or suspicious?) that of all people it should be Jean Chastel who shot the second Beast in 1767. Could it be, therefore, that the first Beast killed was the real Beast of Gévaudan, and that the second one, the hyaena, was trained and released specifically by the Chastels to rampage and cause mayhem and hysteria as their revenge for their treatment by the first Beast's hunters?

Another 18th-Century depiction of an unequivocally canine Beast being shot by François Antoine and his men (public domain)

Developing further this Chevalley-inspired theory of Chastel culpability in the Beast events, Jean Chastel is claimed by some modern-day investigators as quite possibly not only having trained but also having actually created the original Beast.

In his book La Bête du Gévaudan: L’Innocence des Loups (2000), French naturalist Michel Louis proposed that the Beast's supposed red pelage was the result of its having been sired by a red-furred mastiff (a dogue de Bordeaux?) owned at that time by Chastel, who allegedly mated the mastiff with a female wolf to create a vicious slaughtering monster. Such a hybrid would be an exceedingly formidable (and morphologically bizarre) beast, certainly – more than enough, in fact, to confuse and terrify anyone who encountered it.

An 18th-Century depiction of the Beast portraying it with reddish pelage (public domain)

A different take on the human killer theory was offered in a June 1980 Science et Vie article by French cryptozoologist Jean-Jacques Barloy. Mindful of the intense rivalry existing between Protestants and Catholics amid the rural Gévaudan area at the time of the Beast killings, he suggested that perhaps those occurring after the first Beast was shot were caused by Protestants releasing huge dogs and/or a hyaena upon the Catholic peasantry there. 

Returning to a Beast-Chastel link: one claim that surfaced many times throughout the Beast saga was that this uncanny creature seemed immune to bullets, having been shot at directly on a number of occasions yet without appearing to suffer any injury. An ingenious explanation for this alleged impenetrability was offered by R.F. Dubois in his book Vie et Mort de la Bête du Gévaudan (1988), who proposed that the Chastels not only had trained the creature as a voracious killing machine but also, as with official war-dogs, had kitted it out in a thick leather armour-like harness that would have shielded it to a considerable extent from gunfire. Yet if this were true, survivors of its attacks as well as mere observers would surely have noticed and reported that it was wearing a harness? However, this does not appear to have been the case.

Dubois's book (© R.F. Dubois/Ogam)

Yet another variation upon the human-based theory, as espoused in Loups Garous en Gévaudan – Le Martyre des Innocents (1995) by Pierre Cubizolles, is that one or more human sadists were indeed involved, and may even have donned wolf-skin costumes during their heinous actions, but belonged to the more elevated, aristocratic strata of society, and thus received protection and immunity from the authorities.

Certain other investigators, however, favour an even more chilling explanation. They propose that the Beast of Gévaudan was not merely a man in a wolf costume, but a bona fide loup-garou - a werewolf, committing its dreadful acts as a wolf, then transforming back into a man to avoid detection, with its identity quite possibly being that of Antoine Chastel, thereby meaning that neither of the shot creatures was the true Beast.

The Beast of Gévaudan – wolf, or wolf-man? (© William M. Rebsamen)

Worthy of especial note in relation to this unsettling concept is the extraordinary encounter allegedly experienced in late August 1764, by a peasant woman from the village of Langogne in the Gévaudan district. According to her testimony as chronicled in various media reports from that time (how accurately, however, is another matter entirely!), while accompanied by her cattle and dogs she had come upon a bizarre entity as big as a donkey, clothed in short reddish hair, sporting a long tail, short ears, and pig-like snout, but which walked on its hind legs like a man! Fortunately for her, however, it had been warded off by the cattle, which confronted it with sharp horns at the ready after it had succeeded in scaring away the dogs.

It hardly needs stating that science views a wolf-man identity for the Beast of Gévaudan with great scepticism. In any case, straightforward non-transforming wolves/hyaenas or human sadists (or both) could certainly accomplish the Beast's horrific deeds, without the need for any lycanthropic intervention.

Three depictions of the Beast as a very hirsute, almost leonine creature (especially in the left-hand background representation) (public domain)

So what was the Beast of Gévaudan? Perhaps I should rephrase that question: what were – or even who were – the Beasts of Gévaudan? For there seems little doubt that more than one entity was involved here, and I don't just mean the two beasts shot respectively by François Antoine's party in September 1765 (either a wolf or wolf-dog hybrid) and by Jean Chastel in June 1767 (apparently a striped hyaena, judging from the museum's identification of it). To kill the numbers of people recorded during the Beast's three years of savage bloodshed would require several wolves at least, plus the hyaena, and the possibility that the Chastels were complicit in some form of murderous spree cannot be ruled out either.

Consequently, as is so often apparent in the more involved cryptozoological cases, a composite explanation seems the most (indeed, the only) plausible  one, cloaked in this instance by religious fear and ignorance, and conceivably fuelled by some degree of human evil too – not to mention a rampant, highly sensationalised media coverage, as evidenced by various of the overwrought contemporary illustrations from that coverage purposefully included in this present ShukerNature blog article, plus the bizarre media reports of the pig-snouted biped from August 1764.

18th Century portrayal of the first Beast as a somewhat unnerving pig-snouted, tuft-tailed quadruped with white chest (public domain)

The real Beast, therefore, or at least a component of it, may indeed have been humanoid, and bipedal, but it was not a werewolf; instead, it just might have been one or more humans acting in a truly bestial manner, with beasts of the four-legged variety taking the blame for their vile, inhuman activities – although we will probably never know for certain.

A scaly, inexplicably dragon-like Gévaudan Beast! (public domain)

All that we can say for sure is that truth may indeed be stranger than fiction sometimes, but very often it can be a lot more complex too.

Dispatching the first Beast (public domain)

The Beast of Gévaudan has been the subject of over 30 French non-fiction books and numerous novels, not to mention works in other languages too – click here and here to see selections of these varied publications.

This ShukerNature post is excerpted from my book-in-progress Dogs of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery – a canine companion to my earlier book Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery.

The Beast of Gévaudan, from Chastel to chocolate bar! (public domain)