Thursday, January 17, 2008

~ the lake monster of fagua

From a pamphlet distributed in pre-revolutionary Paris:

This creature was found in the kingdom of Santa Fe, Peru, in the province of Chili and in the lake of Fagua

It emerged during the night to devour the swine, bulls and cows of the area. Its length is eleven feet; its face is roughly that of a man; its mouth is as wide as its face. It has the horns of a bull and teeth two inches long. Its hair reaches to the ground. It has the ears of an ass, bat-like wings and two tails, one flexible enough to seize prey, the other ending in a dart which helps it kill. Its entire body is covered with scales.

It was netted and brought alive to the viceroy, who each day nourished it with a steer, a cow and three or four swine, [to which it is quite partial].

The viceroy has sent orders along the entire land route to provide for the needs of this unique monster while making it march by stages to the Gulf of Honduras, where it will embark for Havana. From there to the Bermudas, to the Azores. and in three weeks it will disembark at Cadiz. From Cadiz it will be taken by short trips to the royal family.

It is hoped that a female will also be captured so that the species will not die out in Europe. The species seems to be that of harpies, heretofore considered legendary.


At present, I’m reading an historical thesis called ‘Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France’ by Robert Darnton. It tracks the decade immediately prior to the French Revolution, during which science assumed an immense popular appeal.

The citizenry marveled at the flights of hot air balloons and the extraordinary properties of electricity and magnetism. It seemed that the universe was underwrit by all manner of invisible forces and materials.

Science was big news. But the science of that day was a far cry from what it is now. Even the most distinguished thinkers, like Newton, Harvey and Buffon, remained entangled with alchemy and astrology. Beliefs in such things as ‘vegetative forces’, ‘universal mechanisms’ and ‘igneous atoms’ were par for the course – and sat comfortably alongside a fascination for the newly discovered gases: Fixed Air [carbon dioxide], Phlogistinated or Inflammable Air [hydrogen] and Dephlogistinated or Vital Air [oxygen].

Science seemed like magic and vice versa. Paris attracted all manner of mountebanks and charlatans, ready to profit from its popularity. There were water witchers [dowsers], electric eels that cured gout, elastic shoes for walking on water, perpetual motion machines and methods for breathing and traveling underground …

The chimera described above is a product of a time when anything seemed possible. The concept of sexual generation was debated in fantastic style by ‘ovists, animalculists, preformationists and panspermatists’. For a week, the monster was the talk of Paris. The Courier described it as ‘a beautiful opportunity… for the naturalists of the old and new worlds.’ These are sober words, given the prevailing atmosphere, and the widespread belief that Frederick II ‘had produced centaurs and satyrs by experiments with sodomy’.

Mesmerism – the brainchild of the charismatic German Franz Anton Mesmer – fell roughly midway between respected science and utter chicanery. It held that an unseen ‘superfine fluid penetrated and surrounded all bodies’ and was the medium of gravity, heat, light electricity and magnetism. ‘Sickness resulted from an ‘obstacle’ to the flow of fluid through the body, which was analogous to a magnet’. By mesmerising [massaging] the body’s ‘poles’ a crisis was induced – often involving convulsive fits and fainting spells. Thus the obstacle was overcome and natural harmony restored

Mersmerism became a craze, particularly among the upper classes, who flocked to salons where they would connect themselves to a mesmeric tub which emanated ‘fluid’ via ropes and iron rods. Often, by holding hands and presumably massaging each other’s ‘poles’, they would form ‘mesmeric chains’ in order to focus and amplify the healing energies of the universal agent.

Expressions such as ‘mesmerising’ and ‘animal magnetism’ are an echo of how enthusiastically Mesmerism was embraced at the time.

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Anonymous said...

That was really interesting Sam. Can you imagine how exciting a "scientific discovery" was back in the old days, like you say, it would have seemed like magic. So many answers left up to the imagination unlike now, where almost everything is backed by facts and figures. I'd love to have seen what the "mesmeric tub" would have looked like, actually, it sounds like a perfect subject for you to illustrate Sam!
Have a good weekend,
Love Amanda

Sam Sejavka said...

From the illustrations in the book, the tubs appear to have been similar to wine barrels.

Imagine the excitement of the imagination back then. It would have seemed like anything was possible. And no TV or computer games etc. to dull the senses ...

Cast Iron Balcony said...

You would enjoy Laputan Logic, I think - that is if you aren't already reading it.

Your post reminds me of another one at Laputan Logic on "mermaids" in the early nineteenth century.

Sam Sejavka said...

Thanks for that, cast iron balcony. It looks fascinating.