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Mythical Hybrids and Fantastic Beasts

GemmaAngel13 May 2013

Gemma Angelby Gemma Angel

 

 

 

 

 

I’m going to describe a creature, and you have to try and guess what it is, based on the following three clues: 1) it lays eggs; 2) it has venomous claws; and 3) it uses electroreception to assist it in catching prey under water. You probably guessed some sort of reptile, right? Wrong. Ok, so those questions were a bit tricky. I’ll give you another three clues: 4) it’s semi-aquatic; 5) it has thick fur; and 6) despite laying eggs, it suckles its young on milk. Some of you will probably have worked out what this mysterious animal is by now. I am, of course, describing Ornithorhynchus anatinus, or as it is more commonly known, the platypus.

Growing up in Australia, I was fascinated by the native wildlife. As a curious 7-year-old recently emigrated from England, I tried to assimilate the unfamiliar Antipodean fauna into my limited understanding of the animal kingdom, largely through approximations: To me, the wombat was like a kind of stout, snub-nosed badger; sugar gliders were reminiscent of squirrels; and the echidna was a larger and longer-nosed version of the hedgehog. Kangaroos were a more difficult species to accommodate, with a face similar to a deer, and the hind legs of some sort of giant Alice-in-Wonderlandesque rabbit. But my system completely fell down when it came to the platypus. This creature was truly weird, a kind of animal cut-and-paste that defied all of the categories that I tried to fit it into. As it turned out, I wasn’t alone in my estimations of this remarkable and unique creature.

Platypus-sketch

Ornithornhynchus anatinus, John Gould (1863).

As an Australian native, the platypus has been known in Aboriginal culture for millennia – but it was not until 1797 that Europeans first encountered them. Captain John Hunter of the Royal Navy sent a pelt and a sketch back to Britain in 1798, [1] but the bizarre appearance of the creature baffled European naturalists. Some considered it to be an elaborate hoax, and Scottish zoologist Robert Knox believed the creature to be the work of an inventive Asian taxidermist. Even George Shaw, the first man to scientifically describe the platypus, admitted that “a degree of scepticism is not only pardonable, but laudable … I almost doubt the testimony of my own eyes.” [2]

Whilst it makes perfect sense that European observers would find the platypus strange, having never encountered anything like it in the Northern hemisphere outside of the bizarre chimerical creatures of mythology, it is perhaps more surprising that Aboriginal Dreamtime legends also describe the platypus as a peculiar exception within the animal realm. Known as the ‘mallangong’, tambreet’ or ‘duliawarung’ to local indigenous peoples, Aboriginal story-telling traditions use myth to explain the unique appearance and behavioural characteristics of the platypus. The platypus was believed to be the offspring of a mother duck and a father water rat, accounting for its unusual characteristics – inheriting the duck-bill, webbed feet and egg-laying abilities of their mother, and the thick fur, claws and four legs of their father. In an origin story of the platypus from Northern New South Wales, their poor mother Gaygar is ostracized by the other ducks because of her bizarre-looking hatchlings, and is forced to leave her home on Narran Lake. She takes her babies up into the Warrumbungle mountains, thereby accounting for why platypus are only found in particular regions. In another story from the New South Wales Central Coast, the animals argue amongst themselves about who is the most important creature. They form three exclusive groups, all convinced of their superiority: The animals with fur who can run across land, the birds who lay eggs, and the water creatures who can swim. All of the groups want the platypus to join them, since he shares characteristics with all of them, and each faction invites him to be part of their group. After thinking about this for some days, the platypus gathers all the animals to tell them his decision:

I don’t have to join anyone’s group to be special because I am special in my own way. Because I have fur and love to run across the land, I have a little bit of animal in me. I also have a little bit of bird in me because of my bill and the fact that my wife lays eggs. As well, I also have a bit of water creature in me because I love to swim and explore the underwater world. […] I don’t know why the ancestors have made us all different, but we must learn to accept these differences and live with each other. [3]

All of the animals listening, including people, agreed that the platypus was very wise; and the people decided that they would not hunt the platypus because he was so special. Non-human animal hybrids of Eurasian mythology have also often been considered special, such as the Griffin, which combined features of the lion and eagle, both of which were regarded as especially regal animals.

Animal-hybrids from diverse mythological traditions demonstrate the significance of animals within human culture, playing an important role in origin stories and cosmology, as well as in defining what it is to be human. In the Aboriginal story above for instance, the strange ‘hybrid’ character of the platypus reminds us to accept and learn from our differences. To early European observers, the platypus must have seemed like the ultimate foreign creature, an almost perfect embodiment of mythical animal-assemblages such as the Chimera, a fire-breathing, androgynous, composite creature of ancient Greek legend that had the head and body of a lion, a snake for a tail and the head of a goat emerging from its back. But the platypus does not merely look like an odd melding of different species; recent scientific research has revealed that the platypus also has a very complex genetic lineage. Studies on platypus venom, which is secreted from a gland in the male’s hind legs and delivered by a ‘spur’, or hollow claw-like structure, have shown that their venom contains 80 different toxins, which share genetic similarities to poisons produced by snakes, lizards, spiders, starfish and sea anenomes, as well as containing 3 proteins that are unique to the platypus. [4] Despite these genetic similarities, this research suggests that platypus venom is an example of convergent evolution, whereby similar traits in different genetic lineages can arise independently due to similar environmental pressures. The eye, wings and fins are all examples of convergent evolution. Thus it seems that whilst the platypus appears to closely resemble a range of other species – both on the surface and genetically – it is nevertheless a uniquely adapted and very special creature indeed.

Platypus taxidermy specimen at the Grant Museum of Zoology. © The Grant Museum, UCL.

Platypus taxidermy specimen at the Grant Museum of Zoology.
Photograph © The Grant Museum, UCL.

 


References:

[1] Brian K. Hall, The Paradoxical Platypus in BioScience, Vol. 49 No. 3 (March 1999), p. 211. 

[2] George Shaw, The naturalist’s miscellany – Platypus Anatinus, June 1799, Vol. 10, published by Frederick P. Nodder, (London 1813/14). Available online from the Library of NSW.

[3] Helen F. McKay, Pauline E. Jones, F. Francis & June E. Barber: Gadi Mirrabooka: Australian Aboriginal Tales from the Dreaming. Libraries Unlimited (2001), pp. 57-60 & 83-85.

[4] Ewen Callaway, Poisonous Platypuses Confirm Convergent Evolution in Nature, (October 12th 2012).

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Pulling Teeth: Ovarian Teratomas & the Myth of Vagina Dentata

GemmaAngel4 March 2013

  by Gemma Angel

 

 

 

 

 

In preparation for our upcoming exhibition, Foreign Bodies, several members of the engagement team went to visit UCL Pathology Collections, to have a look at a collection of foreign objects removed from the human body. We soon encountered a number of other specimens which resonated with the exhibition theme in various ways: From a liver infected with syphilis, to a ruptured oesophagus and the sword swallower’s sword that caused the fatal injury; to a feotus inadvertently discovered during a hysterectomy, which was performed to extract a large tumour on the uterus.

The UCL Pathology Collections comprise over 6,000 specimens dating back to around 1850, many of which have been absorbed from other London medical institutions over the past 25 years, and these are currently in the process of being re-catalogued and conserved. It is a fascinating, not to mention an educationally invaluable collection – not least because it contains many specimens that demonstrate gross clinical manifestations of diseases which are now very rare in the Western world. Some of these diseases, such as syphilis, are unfortunately making a comeback, so it seems more important than ever that medical students are able to recognise the clinical signs of these infections. Pathology collections are a highly valuable medical teaching resource; particularly since these kinds of collections are now unlikely to be expanded in the wake of the 2004 Human Tissue Act.

As with many historical pathology collections, UCL possesses its share of medical anomalies or curiosities. Fragments of preserved skin belonging to a tattooed man certainly seem to fall into the category of the anatomically curious – there is certainly nothing pathological about this specimen. One of the biggest surprises I encountered during my visit to the collections, was the revelation that the female reproductive anatomy can, and occasionally does, grow teeth.

Teratoma with Tooth and Hair

Dermoid cyst (cystic teratoma) with fully developed
tooth and hair. UCL Pathology Collections.

The specimen shown here (right) is a dermoid cyst, or cystic teratoma, which has formed inside an ovary. When I first came across it, I experienced a strong visceral reaction: I didn’t have to be a medical student to recognise that this tooth, entwined in long hair drifting in the liquid-filled vitrine, was out of place – so much so, that the sight of it provoked an immediate and simultaneous sense of revulsion and fascination. The term teratoma is derived from the Greek, tera, meaning monster, and literally means “monstrous growth”; it was easy for me to see how such biological anomalies could become the stuff of nightmares. Despite the ominous name, however, ovarian teratomas are usually benign, and arise from totipotent stem cells which are capable of developing into any type of body cell. One 1941 pathology text describes these tumours as follows:

Dermoid cysts are usually globular in shape and dull white in color. They contain structures associated with epidermal tissues, such as hair, teeth, bone, sebaceous material resembling fat … The following is a partial list of tissues which have been found in dermoids: Skin and its derivatives, sebaceous glands, hair, sweat glands, and bone, especially the maxillae containing teeth. Up to 300 teeth have been found in one cyst … Long bones, digits, fingernails, and skull have been found. Brain tissue and its derivatives, intestinal loops, thyroid tissue, eyes, salivary glands, may occasionally be found. Even rudimentary fetuses have been described, such as a pelvis with hairy pubes and a vulva and clitoris. Brains with ventricles, spinal cords and a few complete extremities, have been observed. [1]

Although teratomas can develop in almost any part of the body – including the brain, neck, bladder, and the testes in men – being confronted with a toothy tumour in the female reproductive organs brought to mind mythic archetypes of the sexually devouring and deadly woman. I was immediately struck by the parallels between this specimen and the image of the vagina dentata. I am not the first to make such an observation,[2] and whilst I am not suggesting that there is any explanatory relationship to be found between the biological phenomena and the myths, it is certainly an intriguing association. The toothed vagina appears in the creation myths and folk stories of many cultures, from Native America, Russia and Japan (amongst the Ainu), to India, Samoa and New Zealand. [3] Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend records this entry concerning vagina dentata:

The toothed vagina motif, so prominent in North American Indian mythology, is also found in the Chaco and the Guianas. The first men in the world were unable to have sexual relationships with their wives until the culture hero broke the teeth of the women’s vaginas (Chaco). According to the Waspishiana and Taruma Indians the first woman had a carnivorous fish inside her vagina. [4]

Many 19th and 20th century European interpretations linked the motif to Freudian concepts of castration anxiety, in which young males are said to experience an unconscious fear of castration upon seeing female genitalia. Whilst a Freudian analysis is undoubtedly culturally and historically specific, many vagina dentata legends explicitly articulate male fears of castration in the act of normal sexual intercourse, and warn of the necessity of removing the teeth from women’s vaginas, in order to transform her into a nonthreatening and marriageable sexual partner. A particularly telling collection of stories comes from India, in which the ferocious sexual appetites of beautiful young women are tamed and ‘made safe’ to men through the violent breaking of the teeth hidden inside their vaginas. [5]

Lloyd, Charles Augustus, d 1930. Lloyd, Charles A fl 1880s-1912 (Photographer) : Maori wood carving of the goddess Hine-nui-te-po, and Maui. Original photographic prints and postcards from file print collection, Box 14. Ref: PAColl-6585-10. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22708288

Māori wood carving of the goddess Hine-nui-te-pō and Māui.
Photograph by Charles Augustus Lloyd, c.1880s-1912.
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

The toothed vagina motif is not exclusively associated with male fears of the ‘castrating female’, however. In some traditions, the terrible power of the vagina dentata lies principally not in fears of the sexual act, but in its associations with death. The Māori legend of Māui and Hine-nui-te-pō is particularly interesting in this respect. Hine-nui-te-pō was the goddess of death and gatekeeper of the underworld, whom the trickster demigod Māui sought to kill in order to win immortality for humankind. When Māui asks his father what his ancestress Hine-nui-te-pō is like, he responds by pointing to the icy mountains beneath the fiery clouds of sunset. He explains:

What you see there is Hine-nui, flashing where the sky meets the earth. Her body is like a woman’s, but the pupils of her eyes are greenstone and her hair is kelp. Her mouth is that of a barracuda, and in the place where men enter her she has sharp teeth of obsidian and greenstone. [6]

Undeterred by his father’s grave warnings, Māui sets off on his quest with a gathering of bird companions. He proposes to kill Hine-nui-te-pō by entering her vagina and exiting through her mouth whilst she is sleeping, thus reversing the natural passage into life via birth. Māui finds the great goddess sleeping “with her legs apart” such that they can clearly see “those flints that were set between her thighs”, and he transforms himself into a caterpillar in order to crawl through her body. But his bird companions are so struck by the absurdity of his actions, that they laugh out loud and wake Hine-nui-te-pō from her slumber. Angry at Māui’s impiety, she crushes him with the obsidian teeth in her vagina; thus Māui becomes the first man to die and seals the fate of all humankind, who were ever after destined to die and be welcomed into the underworld by Hine-nui-te-pō. In this version of the myth, the vagina dentata appears as an inverse manifestation of the generative, life-giving powers of woman, which Māui attempts to subvert – he endeavours to overcome the forces of life and death, and therefore “by the way of rebirth he met his end.” [7]

Ovarian Dermoid Cyst

X ray of a dermoid cyst, showing a cluster of teeth in the pelvic cavity.

The mythical theme of the vagina-with-teeth can in most cases be read as an attempt to render the potentially dangerous sexuality of women nonthreatening to patriarchal power, through heroic acts of “pulling the teeth”. Some authors have even suggested a correspondence between this mythic construct and practices of clitoridectomy and ‘female circumcision’ in some cultures. [8] Whilst there can be little correlation between ancient stories and the observation of biological phenomena such as dermoid cysts, the removal of these peculiar tumours and their retention in pathology collections nevertheless reminds us of the remarkable complexity and diversity of human understandings of the body, and their wider cultural significance. For those readers interested in the practical removal of teratomas such as those discussed here, a demonstration of the surgical procedure can be viewed in this educational film (contains scenes of graphic live surgery).


References:

[1] Harry Sturgeon Cross and Robert James Crossen: Diseases of Women, St. Louis (1941), p.685.

[2] See, for example, Bruce Jackson: ‘Vagina Dentata and Cystic Teratoma’, in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 84 No. 333 (July-Sept 1971), pp.341-342. Available on JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/539812

[3] Verrier Elwin: ‘The Vagina Dentata Legend’, in British Journal of Medical Psychology, (1943) Vol. 19, pp. 439-453.

[4] Maria Leach (ed): Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore Mythology and Legend, Volume 2 J-Z (1950), p.1152.

[5]  Verrier Elwin: ‘The Vagina Dentata Legend’, in British Journal of Medical Psychology, (1943), Vol. 19, pp.439-453. A particularly illustrative example of one of these stories is recounted by Elwin on pp.439-440:

There was a Baiga girl who looked so fierce and angry, as if there was magic in her, that for all her beauty, no one dared to marry her. But she was full of passion and longed for men. She had many lovers, but – though she did not know it – she had three teeth in her vagina, and whenever she went to a man she cut his penis into three pieces. After a time she grew so beautiful that the landlord of the village determined to marry her on the condition that she allowed four of his servants to have intercourse with her first. To this she agreed, and the landlord first sent a Brahmin to her  – and he lost his penis. Then he sent a Gond, but the Gond said, “I am only a poor man and I am too shy to do this while you are looking at me.” He covered the girl’s face with a cloth. The two other servants, a Baiga and an Agaria, crept quietly into the room. The Gond held the girl down, and the Baiga thrust his flint into her vagina and knocked out one of the teeth. The Agaria inserted his tongs and pulled out the other two. The girl wept with the pain, but she was consoled when the landlord came in and said he would now marry her immediately.

[6] Antony Alpers: Maori Myths and Tribal Legends, Pearson Education, New Zealand (1964), p.67.

[7] Ibid, p.70.

[8] See for example, Jill Raitt: ‘The “Vagina Dentata” and the “Immaculatus Uterus Divini Fontis”‘, in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 48 No. 3 (Sept. 1980), pp.415-431. Available on JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1462869

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