Herodotus on the Nile Crocodile

Here's a selection from Herodotus, the earliest Western historian. His biology is a bit shaky, but his observations of the interactions between human and crocodile are extraordinary:

During the four winter months this creature eats nothing. It has four feet and can live on land or in water. The female lays and hatches her eggs on the land, where she spends most of the day, but all night she stays in the river, for the water is warmer than the cloudless night air and the dew. Of all the known animals, the crocodile grows to the greatest bulk from the smallest beginning. Its eggs are not much greater than those of a goose, and the hatchling matches the egg. But it often grows to eight meters or more. It has eyes like a pig’s and teeth like tusks, sized to fit its massive frame. Uniquely among animals, it bears no tongue and does not move its lower jaw. Instead, it bites by shutting the upper jaw only. It has strong claws and a scaly hide so thick its back cannot be pierced. In the water it is blind, but in the air sharp-sighted.

Since it dwells in water, leeches infest its mouth. All other birds and beasts flee from it except the trochilus bird, with whom it keeps peace for its own advantage. When it comes onto land and opens its mouth to the West Wind, the trochilus enters its mouth and devours the leeches. The crocodile is pleased with this benefit and does the bird no harm.

Some Egyptians hold the crocodile sacred, while others regard it as an enemy. The people of Thebes and of Lake Moiris especially venerate it. In each of these places, the people tame a single sacred crocodile. They dress its ears and forelimbs with glass and gold. They feed it bread and human sacrifices. The delicate care they show it does not cease with death, for then they embalm it and bury it in a sanctified tomb. But the people of Elephantine do not hold the crocodile sacred, and in fact they eat its flesh.

Egyptians call these beasts champsai. It was the Ionians who named them crocodile because of their resemblance to certain lizards of that name which inhabit the stone walls of Ionia.

The Egyptians have many ways of catching crocodiles. I will describe only the one most worth telling: A hunter baits his hook with the chine of a pig and lets the current carry it to the middle of the river. The hunter then stands on the bank and beats a piglet. Its cries draw the crocodile, which finds the chine and swallows it. The hunter and his friends pull the crocodile ashore, then plaster its eyes with mud. Once blinded, the crocodile is easily killed. Otherwise, he gives the hunters great trouble.

When a person, either Egyptian or stranger, is killed by a crocodile or by the river itself, the people of any city where he is cast up must embalm him and lay him out fairly and bury him in a sacred place. His friends and family may not touch him. The priests of the Nile handle the corpse and bury it as that of one who was something more than man.

[Comments: The trochilus is the bird now known as the Egyptian plover (Pluvianus aegyptius). Some ornithologists believe it really does have a symbiotic relationship with the crocodile, as described here.

Modern Nile crocodiles don’t get quite as big as Herodotus claims, though they may exceed 20 feet. A crocodile of that size is arguably the most formidable predator on land.]

Herodotus on Cats

It’s instructive to read old accounts of animals from the days before science. Often, these old stories are mere myth. Sometimes they contain truths, but viewed through the lens of an older culture’s beliefs. I’ve been reading the Histories of Herodotus, the earliest Western historian, and I find several examples of this latter kind of story. Herodotus made an effort to get his facts right, and while he didn’t always succeed, his reports make fascinating reading. Here's my first installment of his animal stuff, together with a few comments:

In Egypt domestic animals are abundant, and would be moreso if not for the fate that befalls the cats. Because the queens with kittens shun toms, the toms in their sexual desire resort to this stratagem: They carry off and kill the kittens, though they do not eat them afterwards. The childless queens then come again to the toms.

At the sight of fire the cats seem possessed by strange gods, for they plunge into the fire, leaping over or slipping by anyone who tries to stop them. When this happens, the Egyptians mourn deeply. And when a pet cat dies, all the people in the house shave their brows.

Comments: Herodotus is right about the propensity of tomcats to kill kittens, though toms in fact do eat the kittens if they are left uninterrupted. My uncle told me he had sometimes seen kittens eaten entirely except for the head. The motive for killing the young seems to be essentially what Herodotus says, though some authorities say the toms spare their own offspring and kill only the kittens of rivals. Some reports describe the attacks on kittens as part of a sexual frenzy.

Crocodile Attack in Australia

A man has apparently been taken by a saltwater crocodile on Australia’s Endeavor River. Read the story here.

Saltwater crocodiles are among the premier predators of people. They take no special interest in us; rather, they're generalists who will take any prey of suitable size. A croc over ten feet long is considered large enough to prey on people. In the case of salties, it's generally the males who hurt people because they more often reach large sizes. (The largest ones go about 23 feet. At that length, they weigh more than a ton.)

(Thanks to Jim Twiggs for the tip.)

Deadly Kingdom, Chapter 12: The Crocodilians
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