The Real Tiamat

In video and tabletop RPG games, there are many fantastic creatures. One of these is the tiamat, usually depicted as a dragon of some sort. This, like many other of the seemingly original fantasy creatures found in games, is actually from very old mythology. The tiamat, for instance, is a concept which is over 3000 years old!

To find out the original concept behind the tiamat, we will go to ancient Babylon. In the creation story of the ancient Babylonian religion, Tiamat was not some relatively tiny dragon who you could ride around or sic on things (as in Ogre Battle), nor was she multiheaded (as in Dungeons & Dragons). In fact, she would probably have been very insulted at that whole idea. What would be so insulting about the idea of being a dragon who worked for an army? Well, when you are a dragon that is at least twice the size of the Earth, and a goddess to boot, being depicted as a trainable animal must be quite a come down.

According to the Babylonians, Tiamat was one of the two original deities. She personified the saltwater ocean, while the other one, Apsu, personified fresh water. Taking Apsu as her mate, she gave birth to the first generation of other deities. One of these newborn gods was Ea. Ea went on to father the thunder god, Marduk. Marduk later went on to become the supreme god. For some reason, Ea battled against Apsu and killed him. This angered Tiamat very much! So, she declared war on all the younger gods, using hordes of fierce monsters as an army. The younger gods elected Marduk to be their champion for their defense.

Marduk then went on to battle Tiamat. In this battle, Marduk sliced Tiamat right in half. One half of Tiamat’s corpse became the Earth, and the other half became the sky.

At no point in the religion is Tiamat depicted as a multiheaded dragon, despite such portrayals by the game Dungeons & Dragons. And, unlike Ogre Battle’s depiction, she is not merely three times the size of a man, nor is she simply a minor cog in a big army. And, far from being a big winner, she ended up dead!

Still, it is always interesting to know the original story behind creatures and places depicted in games. Often, it turns out there is a bit of truth, or at least a much older story, behind what is often presented as a game company’s concept.

February 10, 2012
Posted in Mythological and Semi-Mythological Creatures — Knowledge Buff @ 11:21 PM

Cockatrices and Basilisks

The cockatrice appears repeatedly in games and fantasy literature. This mythological beast is often, if not always, depicted as evil. Its gaze can kill a person or turn them to stone (depending on the source). Its body is a combination of a rooster’s torso, a snake’s tail, with possibly other animal parts thrown in, depending on who’s doing the drawing or storytelling. But where did the original idea for this creature come from? Was it always called it a cockatrice?

It seems that this creature is actually a depiction of another creature known as the basilisk. Pliny’s Natural History described it as a duplicate of the basilisk, only with wings. But, the name first actually came about due to a mistranslation. Apparently, in 1397, a man named John Trevisa mistranslated the word basiliscus into cockatrice when he was working on the text De proprietatibus rerum by Bartholomeus Anglicus.

The mythology surrounding this fantastical creature says that it was born from an egg laid by a cock (yes, that’s a male chicken!) and then incubated by a snake or a toad. Among its magical powers, it can turn someone to stone or kill them just by looking at them, and in some versions, by touching or breathing on them. And, to make it even more dangerous, it could fly.

Killing one of these things was no easy affair. Stick a sword in it? Shoot it with arrows? Naw. Too easy. Try making it hear a rooster crow. Or tricking it into looking at itself in a mirror. Or maybe it would lose in a fight with a weasel, the only animal which was supposedly immune to the cockatrice’s deadly gaze. And once it was finally dead, the cockatrice was still dangerous — its gaze, even from dead eyes, could still cause petrifaction.

Its cousin, the basilisk, is a creature from Greek mythology. Its body is made of rooster, snake, and lion parts. It too can turn someone to stone just by looking at him. Its name comes from the Greek word basiliskos, which means “little king” in English. But unlike the cockatrice, there is a real life version of the basilisk. Real basilisks are lizards which naturally live in a range including Mexico and Ecuador. These lizards are similar in appearance to salamanders. The real ones do have one outstanding feature — they can run on water for a few feet. Also, when they finally fall in and have to swim, they trap air bubbles under their feet which allow them to maintain an upright posture. Completely contrary to the evil reputation of the mythological versions, this water walking ability has given real basilisks the nickname “the Jesus lizard.”

As for where people come up with these myths of creatures made up of parts of other creatures, it has been suggested that the ideas result from misinterpretation of fossil remains. Some say that what the ancients thought were cockatrices were actually the remains of feathered dinosaurs. The fact that some real animals do appear to be combos of other animals lends a bit of credence to this theory. The platypus, for instance, appears to be a combo of a duck and a beaver. This would make it seem less likely, in an unlearned person’s view, that an ancient scholar’s theory was wrong if it was suggested that the bones he found were from a snake/chicken/lion “thing.”

Whatever the origin of the idea, game makers, players, and fantasy writers love it. They appear in all kinds of games which have a fantasy or even a medieval motif. They make fun characters when they on your side (who wouldn’t love turning the enemy to stone?), and can be challenging when they are on the other side. It is a bonus that there are real versions of their cousins. A basilisk for a pet would definitely give that “hard-core gamer” effect to your portfolio.

Posted in Mythological and Semi-Mythological Creatures — Knowledge Buff @ 11:17 PM

The Giant Centipede – A Deadly Predator

After seeing some YouTube videos of giant centipedes eating little mice, my interest in this fascinating species was piqued. Would these creatures really attack and eat a live mouse in nature? Or was this spectacle something people cooked up just to get views to their videos?

Turns out that giant centipedes, scientifically known as Scolopendra gigantea, really are predators and will attack many types of small live mammals. However, even though they have the venom to take down a live animal, they will usually eat smaller bugs and the remains of dead animals. When they do get a hankering for that super fresh flavor, bats are a common target. The centipedes will actually hang on the wall of a bat cave by their back two legs and swing the rest of their body around in the hopes of bumping into a bat. If they happen to find one, they’ll grab it right out of the air, and with one bite they will paralyze their prey. Then, in a very short time the centipede will completely devour the bat.

Some other interesting things about giant centipedes include the fact that they usually have only 40 legs, not the 100 the name would imply. Their pincers are actually modified front legs, and are called maxillipedes. These pincers contain venom which will paralyze a target of the usual prey size, and deliver a painful pinch to larger creatures (including humans). Giant centipedes not only use these pincers to catch their prey, but to defend themselves as well. If a human is bitten severely enough by a giant centipede, they can suffer chills, nausea, fever, as well as a lot of pain.

Giant centipedes don’t get to have a lot of fun with mating. Male giant centipedes deposit his sperm into a web, with no females around. Then females will come to where the sperm was deposited, take it up, and put it into a hole in the ground along with their eggs. After depositing between 15 and 60 eggs, she will seal the hole up with dirt for them to hatch. “Fun” huh?! The female centipede will do a little parenting by guarding the eggs and licking them to make sure they don’t get infected with fungus. Sometimes she will continue to guard the young while they are still very small. As the newly hatched centipedes grow, they will molt several times. Each time they molt, they get more legs. It takes about three years for a giant centipede to mature, and they live for about six.

The normal range of a giant centipede is in the South American Amazon region. They can also be naturally found in Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica. These fascinating centipedes, though, are being found in more and more places in the world due to importation. They are becoming quite popular with those who keep unusual pets. This is probably due to their massive length — 35 cm — as well as two exciting videos like those which can be found on YouTube. After researching these giant centipedes, it seems that they actually are not being mistreated by being put in terrariums with live mice. These “fuzzy mice” are common feeder animals for carnivorous pets, and the giant centipede is definitely carnivorous and well-equipped to handle this type of prey.

February 9, 2012
Posted in Wild Animals — Knowledge Buff @ 9:08 PM

The Deadly and Fascinating Box Jellyfish

Jellyfish are fascinating creatures. They are so fascinating, they have even made it into a few video games. Granted, these games seem to be obsessed with portraying them as creatures which mysteriously float in the air, rather than swim in the sea, but even so, it shows how jellyfish capture the imagination. The reality is actually just as interesting, with actual jellyfish which are just as deadly as any found on a game — and sometimes even deadlier.

Take the box jellyfish, for instance: these sea creatures are roughly square, with four distinct sides. (This in itself is unusual, since nature seems to favor round or ovoid shapes.) Each side of the cube can be as long as almost 8 inches, and each corner can have up to 15 tentacles on it. Each tentacle can be as long as 10 feet. But the deadliness lies in the 5000 stinging cells on each tentacle. The stinging is not triggered by touch — it is actually triggered by the chemicals in the skin or exoskeleton of the prey. Therefore, it is very hard for prey to go undetected even if it tries to slip by very carefully.

Box jellyfish can move extremely fast. They are able to travel at speeds up to 4 knots! In calm weather, box jellyfish travel toward the shore, but after heavy rain, they like to settle around the mouths of creeks and other water inlets. Some believe this is because after a hard rain, food will be washed down to where the jellyfish are waiting.

This type of jellyfish has such a fearsome reputation that they are also called marine stingers, or even sea wasps. They have extremely deadly venom, which is so bad it is considered to be one of the worst poisons in the world! The toxins aim for the heart and nervous system, and also attack skin cells. It is theorized that this powerful venom evolved so that the prey would be instantly paralyzed or even killed. This way there would be less of a struggle, and thereby the box jellyfish’s surprisingly delicate tentacles would not risk injury. Considering the power of this venom, it may be surprising to learn that the jellyfish’s normal prey is just small fish and crustaceans.

Contact with humans, unfortunately, also trigger the box jellyfish’s stinging reflex. Unlike the stings of many other venomous animals which normally seek small prey, this jellyfish’s sting is very deadly to humans. A stung human can go into shock or even heart failure, and drown before they are able to receive help. For there to be any hope of survival, one must receive help immediately. Those who have survived such stings say the pain is excruciating, and that even for weeks or months after being stung, a lot of pain still persists. The stings also cause characteristic scars in a pattern which follows the lines the tentacles made when they hit the person. The size of the person who was stung affects how bad the consequences will be. Compared to an adult, a young child only has to be exposed to a few stings to have dire results.

You may be wondering which oceans are part of the box jellyfish’s range. The main areas of the box jellyfish live in are in the waters off of northern Australia, as well as those in the Indo-Pacific. So if you go for a swim in those locations, be extra careful of where you decide to paddle. Also, check and see if there are certain times of the year when you need to be even more careful. Many types of jellyfish have seasons when they are more numerous than at other times of the year. But don’t let this deter you from traveling to Australia, or other vacation spots which may have box jellyfish in their oceans. After all, even in these places, there is a body of water you can be sure you’ll never encounter a box jellyfish: the hotel pool.

Posted in Wild Animals — Knowledge Buff @ 9:03 PM