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My new found dislike of cryptozoology

May 16, 2010

You know, I used to think cryptozoologists and their kin were cute but harmless. They went about, combing through old legends and modern monster sightings and fitting them together in nice-little pseudo-science-shaped boxes to try to please daddy Zoology that their latest chimera really does exist daddy why won’t you believe me!

I say chimera, because by and large the creature they describe aren’t single individuals. No, by and large, when a cryptozoologist tells you about a creature they have identified, it’s a chimeric miss-mash of a dozen legend and tall tales plus assorted modern sightings. There is no single unifying bigfoot myth in North America: but a wide variety of tales about (more or less) hairy (more or less) humanoids that may or may not be wild, may or may not be cannibalistic, may or may not be supernatural, and may or may not live on the summit of mountains and really have nothing in common except in the mind of people who desperately want there to be a great race of hidden hominids in the mountains of  Western North America. Nor is there a single thunderbird legend (and I don’t mean the native myths): there is a vast collection of modern sighting that range from ten to forty feet in wingspan (hmmm), may or may not have leathery wings instead of feather, may or may not have a reptilian face, but who cares, they all fit into the neat little pterosaur-in-the-mountains theory, so in they go!

Well, they all fit that nice little theory, except the most quoted of them all – the Tombstone Epitaph story that began it all from the 1890s – which is rather obviously a tall tale (read: legend). And which gets promptly dismissed in favor of the alleged-but-never-seen picture reportedly published by the epitaph (they didn’t) that reportedly (surprise, surprise) shows a pterosaur, with its wingspan easily estimated to thirty feet. Nobody ever seems to pause an explain why the tombstone would publish a photography of the creature showing a wingspan of thirty feet, while writing in the next about a wingspan more than five times that (a hundred and sixty feet, per what quotes I’ve found from the alleged article)….but cryptozoologists care not. They want to fit the “Tombstone sighting” into their neat little boxes to make a case for their beloved pet pterosaur theory, so in the box it goes, and damn the differences!

Why I have gone from finding them cute but harmless to finding them extremely annoying and frustrating is a matter of me getting down to researching non-Native North American mythology (which I consider tall tales, and pre-mass medias folklore and fakelore to be part of). You’d think I’d like the cryptozoologists: they’re spamming the internet with “information” about these. Thing is, I don’t. I don’t, because the online cryptozoologists (excepting a handful of website that are home to societies that, while still working toward very odd goals, are at least relatively professional about it) has a honesty quotient of zero, and are quite willing to backdate sightings of their favorite monsters, and if at all possible attribute a sighting to the writing of this or that explorer in order to make it “fit better”.

What problem this create for me is untangling the whole mess. Is this story about Jacques Cartier encountering an Iroquois fire dragon in the waters of the Saint Lawrence really part of North American folklore, or is it not? (The creature’s status as part of Iroquois mythology is not in question; its status as part of colonial/post-colonial mythology is) . That one case was fairly easy to decide on: being a native French speaker, I have the immense advantage of being able to, you know, read Cartier’s own relations of his travels (no fire dragon), and only two dozens website seems to even discuss Cartier in relation to that said dragon, so most likely it’s just amateur cryptozoolosers (or assorted Lake Ontario tourist trap builders) trying to create a Champ by giving it old European roots. (They don’t need to, mind, the bit about Champlain encountering Champ is just as much twentieth century fiction as the one about Cartier and Gaasyendietah, both of which are slowly being spread and perpetuated by cretinous cryptozoologists out to prove something).

This also create a problem in that it becomes increasingly hard to track down the actual tall tales, because people don’t hear about them anymore: what people hear about is the cryptozoologists taking the field with their versions of story, which will mention the tall tale as being a “sighting” with very little else to say about it, and particularly not the juicy details that would make the sighting an interesting part of North American legend.

Still, if there was some use to what the cryptozoologists are doing, well, I could live with it. But there isn’t. What they’re doing is missing the point, just as badly as all the critics who tended to read Beowulf as if there was no monster in it, using it only as a historical text and dropping the “boring” mythological elements missed the point (until a certain English lit teacher at Oxford – yes, that one – got angry at them). The monsters in mythology, and even in tall tales, may well draw ultimate inspiration from something actually encountered at some point, but in the actual tall tales and mythology, they exist to play a role. The appearance of the monster mark the transition from the world of mundane affairs into a world of heroic deeds, of fantastic (and sometime horrific) things and of magic or a world where things are larger than life (which is largely the shape the frontier has taken in Canado-American mythology – not just the western frontier, mind; any frontier, even the frontier that exists today where the roads pass through large stretch of still-sparsely-populated mountain regions).

To try and remove the magic, the exaggeration from these creatures is senseless. A dragon that flies because of buoyant gases in its stomach isn’t a dragon, it’s stupid. A dragon that breaths fire because it eats certain burning stones, the same. Dragons fly, and dragons breath fire, because flying and breathing fire is what dragons do (well, some of them, anyhow), and doing both these things is how they mark the threshold between mundane and fantastic. If the dragon becomes a fairly stupid lizard that eat flameable rock which it digests into lighter than air gas that it sometimes belch out in fiery breath, then it cease being part of a threshold, and become a desperate attempt to please the annoying minority of people who can’t put their rational brain on “off” and enjoy a good story (see also: Endor holocaust, and the point-missing techno-cretins behind it) while still having dragons for the fantasy crowd. As Leonard Nimoy would say (well, he would, in Civ IV),”if you chase two rabbits, you will lose them both”.

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