And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

lørdag 13. april 2013

Oxen under the Sea

matre satus Terra, monstrum mirabile, taurus
parte sui serpens posteriore fuit
- Fasti, Ovidius
This week in my Medieval Latin class we have been working with an extract from the fourth book of Adam of Bremen's (fl.c.1075) Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum. While the three first books of this work are dedicated to the history of the See of Hamburg, while the fourth is a topographical exposition of the northernmost reaches. As he himself puts it (in my translation): "And in this way Norway is the outermost province of the earth, therefore it is proper that we set this book in the outermost place [of our work]. The fourth book was written in the 1070s and much of the information he received at the court of the Danish king Svein Estridson (1047-76), possibly in modern day Sjælland. Adam himself probably never visited Norway and certainly not Northern Norway. Accordingly, what he tells us from this part of the region, he knew through hearsay at the Danish court, and also through older authorities such as Solinus and Paul the Deacon's Historia Langobardorum. In addition to some interesting factual information - for example pertaining to the cult of Olav Haraldsson - the book gives an interesting view of how Norway was conceived in the contemporary mindset. This is especially the case for Northern Norway which is presented as a region encompassing both the savage and the sacred. The savage is represented by bearded women and strange beasts such as black foxes (presumably polar foxes which indeed have a brown/black pelt), while the sacred is represented by localised versions of the legend of the seven sleepers, and the tale of Saint Ursula of Cologne and the 1100 virgins, some of whom, Adam contends, escaped to Norway. It is perhaps this spin-off or extension which later grew into the legend of Saint Sunniva, or it may be that Adam confused Sunniva with Ursula.

The purpose of this blogpost, however, is not to go into great details about Adam's fascinating work, but to look at one animal which caught my attention. In his exposition of the wildlife of Norway Adam says:
In these same mountains there are there are untamed beasts of such a plenitude, that in many parts of the region they feed only on wild animals. There they capture oxen, buffalos and moose as they do in Sweden; furthermore bisons which they [also] capture in Slavonia and Russia; only Norway [however] has black foxes and white hares and martens [presumably stoats], and bears of the same colour, who live under the ocean in the same manner as the oxen.
- Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, Adam of Bremen, book 4, chapter 32 (my translation)

Mosaic of an ophiotaurus, exhibited at Yorkshire Museum, York
It was of course this latter idea that caught my attention. I'm accustomed to many strange ideas from ages past pertaining to the habitation of animals, and I knew about the myth of barnacle geese hibernating in barnacles. However, the thought that oxen should be living under the sea was very quaint, and Adam himself continues these lines by saying "several [of these things] appear strange and unaccustomed to us". The most likely explanation of these submarine oxen are, in my mind, that they are a confusion of the walrus. However, the idea has an interesting classical counterpart, namely the ophiotaurus - as shown above - and the taurocampus, which appear to be variations of the same mythological theme.

The ophiotaurus is found only in the poem Fasti by Ovidius, as quoted in the epigraph,and the name means snake-bull. According to the poem whoever burned the beast's entrails would gain the power to overthrow the gods. The distich above describes it as follows (in my translation):
brought forth by Earth its mother the marvellous monster
was a bull and its hindpart was like a serpent.

From the baths in Ostia Antica, courtesy of giannidedom

This description also fits the beast known as the taurocampus. I don't know the origins of this particular animal, nor am I familiar with any classical references to it, but the name is a amalgamation of taurus and campus, which appears to be a common name for water beasts whose hindparts are coiling in a manner more akin to an eel than a serpent. There are numerous beasts such as this is Roman iconography, and we see a great variation in the mosaics of Roman baths, such as the one above from Ostia Antica. In this particular fauna, "campus" appears to be merely a suffix describing the sligthly serpentine tail, and we therefore have beasts such as pardalocampus (with the foreparts of a leopard) and the hippocampus (with the foreparts of a horse, presumably moulded on the seahorse). The latter beast also found its place in the medieval world through its inclusion in bestiaries, such as the one below.

Submarine creatures from MS Harley 4751, 2nd quarter of 13th century, England

Whether Adam of Bremen knew about the ophiotaurus or the taurocampus is beyond conjecture. We know he was familiar with several classical authors, such as Vergilius, and it is far from unlikely that he had read Fasti. The conclusive proof, however, eludes us, and we can only guess whether Adam, when writing about the oxen who lived under the sea along with the white bears, thought of the monster who was half-ox and half serpent as imagined by the Romans.


Adam of Bremen,
Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum

Farmer, David,
Oxford Dictionary of Saints

Publius Ovidius Naso,

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