Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Bad Reputation

May 2nd, 2012 · No Comments


As you may have noticed, I have a soft spot for walruses, who I like to think of as Nature’s couch potatoes. I was thus amused to learn that the self-styled scientists of the sixteenth century believed that these sedentary sacks of blubber were, in fact, agents of the Devil. Check out this 1539 description of walruses (then called Rosmari) from Olaus Magnus, who was sort of the Charles Darwin of his day (minus the genius or work ethic):

The Norway Coast, toward the more Northern parts, hath huge great Fish as big as Elephants, which are called Morsi, or Rosmari, may be they are so from their sharp biting; for if they see any man on the Sea-shore, and can catch him, they come suddenly upon hum, and rend him with their Teeth, that they will kill him in a trice. Therefore, these Fish called Rosmari, or Morsi, have heads fashioned like to an Oxes, and a hairy Skin, and hair growing as thick as straw or corn-reeds, that lye loose very laregely. They will raise themselves with their Teeth as by Ladders to the very tops of Rocks, that they may feed on the Dewie Grasse, or fresh Water, and role themselves in it, and then go to the Sea again.

I can only think that Magnus got his information from grog-addled sailors who were having a laugh. And yet his description of walruses became the conventional wisdom for roughly two centuries. Which makes me think we rather like tales that overhype the redness of Nature’s tooth and claw—they make us feel more secure in or tranquil surroundings, yet also more adventurous when we sally forth. I can only imagine that someone raised on Magnus’s walruses-as-fiendish-monsters fantasia was mightily confused upon first glimpsing the flabby mammals.

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