Topsell's Work on Animals II
Bill Long 8/29/08
The Treatment of the Hydra
Topsell's treatment of the Lernaean Hydra appears in vol. 1 of the 1658 reprint/verson, but since the Hydra was a sort of serpent, he relied both on Dr. Bonham and Gesner for his information on the Hydra. Since Topsell is not slavisly following his source here, he gives his own interesting interpretive twist to it (discussed below). Here is the famous picture of the Hydra which appeared in Topsell's work.
Turning to Topsell's Account of the Hydra
The account begins on p. 735. Let's just get his "flavor":
"The Poets do fain, that neer (near) to the Fountain Amymona, there grew a Plaintain, under which was bred a Hydra which had seven heads: whereof one of these heads was said to be immortall; with this Hydra Hercules did fight; for there was in that immortall head such a poyson as was uncurable."
So far so good. Most of this is in Apollodorus, a classical compiler of Greek mythology.
"wherewithall Hercules moystened the head of his Darts after he had killed it and they say, that while Hercules struck off one of these heads, there ever arose two or three more in the room thereof, until the number of fifty, or as some say, fourscore and ten heads were strucken off: and because this was done in the fenne of Learna, therefore there grew a Proverb of Lerna malorum, to signifie a multitude of unresistable evils."
There are several mythological accounts of the number of heads spawned after Hercules began to hack away at them. I have seen everything from 7 to 90. But the fantastic thing that follows, and which probably explains why something about the Hyrda is even in Gesner's and Topsell's books is that in January 1530 someone was supposed to have brought a Hydra from the Ottoman Empire to Venice, which was purportedly the inspiration for the sketch linked above. Topsell minces no words:
"And some ignorant men of late dayes at Venice, did picture this Hydra with wonderfull Art, and set it forth to the people to be seen, as though it had been a true carkase, with this inscription...'In the year of Christ's incarnation, 550 [?--my question mark], about the month of January, this monstrous Serpent was brought out of Turkey to Venice, and afterwards given to the French King [you wonder why he needed the guy..]; it was esteemed to be worth 6000 Ducats. These Monsters signifie the mutation or change of worldy affairs, but (I trust, said the Author of the inscription, who seemed to be a German) the whole christian World is so afflicted that there is no more evil that can happen to the Christian World, except destruction, and therefore I hope that these Monsters do not foreshew any evil to the Christians."
So, we have something happening in Venice shortly before Gesner and Topsell were writing, where the sketch of the Hydra appeared and the "interpretive" words, just quoted, appeared with the sketch. The presence of the Hydra, according to the inscriptionist, meant that change would happen. The inscriptionist whom Topsell thinks is a German, felt that there could be little more change for the worse that could happen in the West, because the West was already teetering on destruction. Topsell then keeps quoting the inscriptionist:
"Therefore seeing the Turkish Empire is grown to that height, in which estate all other former Kingdomes fell, I may divine and prophetie that the danger threatened hereby, belongeth to the Turks, and not unto us, in whose Government this Monster was found to be bred.."
Ah, so that is the point--the inscriptionist feels that the danger rests with the Turks and not in the Western areas. Then (is this a treatise on animals or on theology/philosophy of history?), the inscriptionist continues, in order to "clinch" the case:
"and the hinder part of his head seemth to resemble a Turks Cap [!--my exclamation]. Thus far the inscribing Diviner."
Topsell's Fourfold Skepticism
But Topsell then expresses his skepticism about the reports of the Hydra's existence. First, he puts the story on the same plane as other fantastic stories from Greek mythology.
"For that there should be such a Serpent with seven heads, I think is unpossible, and no more to be beleeved and credited, then that Castor and Pollux were conceived in an Egge, or that Pluto is the GOD of Hell, or that armed men were created out of the Dragons teeth....
You get the point; Topsell isn't buying the "Diviner's" story. But note that he thinks that he has to present it in order to refute it. By the time you get to later books on animals in the 17th century, there will be no mention of the Hydra at all. So, maybe Topsell really was the modern Hercules; not only lopping off the heads of the Hydra but burying this guy for good!
Second Criticism: An Esthetic Criticism
But he isn't content with this criticism. Indeed, Topsell is just warming up. He points to the artistic representation:
"The head, ears, tongue, nose and face of this Monster, do altogether degenerate from all kindes of Serpents, which is not usuall in Monsters [!--how does he know about 'Monsters'?], but the fore-parts do at most times resemble the kinde to which it belongeth; and therefore if it had not been an unskillfull Painters device, he might have framed it in a better fashion, and more credible to the world," p. 736.
This is actually an amusing criticism. He scores the artist for not doing a better job at representing a falsity. That is, the artist ought to have painted the upper parts more sharply and more distinctly. Then, he might have been able to deceive people more easily. But we get the impression, even had the artist done a better job, our sharp-witted parson Edward Topsell would have seen through it all and exposed it for the fraud that it was.
The next essay finishes on the Hydra and then proceeds to an unseen but reliably attested creature.