Saturday, May 23, 2020

Dragon of the Ishtar Gate

A few years ago I wrote some articles for the defunct Cryptid Culture magazine. These works game me an opportunity to explore cryptozoology beyond the scope of the American creatures that I focus on in this blog.  Here's one I particularly enjoyed which focuses on the mysterious "dragon" on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon.

And if you're interested, you can get back issues of Cryptid Culture on Blurb.

The Dragon of the Babylon Gate
by John Meszaros

Babylon. City of legend. Rising from humble origins over four thousand years ago as a small Akkadian town upon the Euphrates River- bisected into equal halves by the life-bringing waters- it became one of the largest cities of the ancient world. The owners of the great city would change many times as empires rose and fell across the Fertile Crescent. But regardless of who ruled, Babylon would remain a major hub of culture and trade throughout its existence. Its most powerful, and certainly one of its most famous, kings was Nebuchadnezzar II, who surround the city with high, thick walls both to demonstrate the power of his rule and to deter attacks from invaders who coveted Babylon’s riches. Entry to the city was via eight gates, the most famous of which was dedicated to Ishtar the goddess of love, fertility, war and political power. The Ishtar gate was constructed of fired bricks painted a deep blue that must have glowed to match the cloudless desert sky.

 Bas-reliefs of sacred beasts picked out in yellow enamel strode against this rich backdrop. The procession leading up to the gate was flanked by lions, while the great arch itself was decorated with the aurochs- a massive ancient breed of cattle that was associated with Hadad, the god of storms- and with a much stranger beast called the mushussu (pronounced mush-hush-shu). This beast, sacred to the city’s patron deity, Marduk, was a hybrid with the scaled body of a dragon, the head and forked tongue of a serpent, front paws of a lion, back paws of an eagle, and a long tail tipped by a scorpion’s sting. It’s serpentine head was also topped by a pair of long, straight horns on the snout and what appears to be a pair of curving, ram-like horns at the back.

Although mushussu may initially seem like purely mythological animals in the vein of griffons, qilin, manticores and other chimerical beasts, some researchers have wondered if they may have been real animals. Robert Koldewey, the German archaeologist who rediscovered the ruins of the Ishtar Gate in 1902, was the first to propose this idea. He argued that the appearance of the beast in Babylonian art had remained largely consistent over several hundred years, in contrast to the changing depictions of other beasts that were known by the people of Babylon to be purely mythological. He also pointed out that Marduk’s dragon was depicted alongside real-life aurochs and lions, indicating that it was a real animal the Babylonians were familiar with.

Another hint at the mushussu’s possible existence comes from the biblical Book of Daniel. In the Roman, Greek and Eastern Orthodox Catholic versions of the Old Testament, chapter 14 of Daniel briefly mentions a dragon worshipped by the Babylonians as a living god which the titular hero slays by feeding it cakes made of pitch, fat and hair. It’s quite possible that the writer of this tale misinterpreted the Babylonians’ respect for the mushusu’s sacredness to Marduk as outright worship of the animal itself as a deity.

Creatures similar to the mushussu have appeared in the mythology of other cultures. According to the legends of the Apatani people of the Ziro valley at the base of the eastern Himalayas, a species of large, semi-aquatic reptiles known as buru once inhabited the marshes around their villages. These creatures were said to have long necks, short, robust legs with mole-like claws, and long, powerful tails. Aside from the short legs, this description bears a fair resemblance to the mushussu. Though there is no mention of the buru bearing the iconic snout-horns or the fleshy curls at the back of the head. Unfortunately, these giant lizards were apparently driven to extinction when the Apatani drained the animals’ wetland home and no physical evidence of them remains. If they were ever truly real in the first place.

In his book The Marsh Arabs, explorer Wilfred Thesiger made mention of the belief among the river-dwelling Arabic tribes of Iraq in the afa, a large semi-aquatic reptile that resembled a snake with legs. Though the account is extremely brief, the reference to an unknown large serpentine reptile in the lands around ancient Babylon is intriguing.   

Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian art often depicted strange creatures that resembled leopard with long, serpentine necks. The ancient names for these creatures are unknown, thus archeologists have given them the portmanteau name “serpopards”. Although the creatures are more feline than reptilian, it is possible they are another interpretation of the long-necked beast that inspired the dragon of Babylon, though in this case with more exaggerated mammalian features.

Yet another mushussu-like creature is the Questing Beast, or Beste Glatisant, of Arthurian legend. The monster is the quarry of several knights including King Pellinore, Sir Percival and King Arthur himself. The appearance of the Questing Beast varies depending on the text, but one version describes it as having a serpent’s head, a leopard’s body, and a stag’s feet. Though this description might simply be a case of another fanciful chimera so common to folklore and mythology, it’s interesting to wonder if the author who first came up with this depiction was not basing it off a real animal he had seen, or at least read about.

If the mushussu was a real animal, what was it though? Koldewey himself initially proposed that it was a surviving dinosaur, perhaps a relative of Iguanodon, which was one of the most well-known prehistoric beasts at the time. A glance at a modern reconstruction of Iguanodon, however, will show a heavyset, stiff-tailed, beaked saurian quite unlike the agile, almost mammalian-looking mushussu.

Perhaps the mushussu was another type of dinosaur? Cryptozoologist Willy Levy compared the serpentine appearance of the mushussu to accounts of the Mokele-mbembe, a long-necked monster reported to inhabit the swamps and rivers of Central Africa. European investigators have frequently suggested that the mokele-mbembe is a surviving sauropod similar to Apatosaurus. When this connection was initially made in the 1950s, it was believed that sauropods had to spend their lives half-submerged in water to support their great weight. Thus the idea of a surviving long-necked dinosaur living in swamps in a relatively unexplored (by white scientists, anyway) region of Africa made some sense to cryptozoologists. In the 1970s, however, changing ideas in paleontology showed that sauropods could indeed support their own weight on land and thus did not need to rely on an amphibious existence. Even so, given millions of years of evolution, it would not be impossible for a sauropod to adapt to an aquatic lifestyle like a capybara or a hippopotamus. Dinosaurs have, of course, survived into the modern day in the form of birds. So it is not completely out of the realm of possibility that a non-avian dinosaur such as a sauropod may also have survived into the age of humans. Although the lack of any sauropod fossils after the Mesozoic extinction makes this a highly unlikely proposal.    

What else could the mushussu have been, then? Several researchers have suggested that it may have been a species of giant, unknown monitor lizard even bigger than the Komodo dragon- an identity that has also been proposed for the afa of the Marsh Arabs and the Himalayan Buru.  A monitor lizard explanation is not all that far-fetched, considering that smaller species of these reptiles actually do inhabit the Arabian peninsula. There is even precedence for other giant monitors aside from the Komodo dragon in the form of a 16-foot long monitor called Megalania that roamed Australia thousands of years ago.

What of the long, paired horns on the mushussu’s snout? Or the supposed “ram’s horns” on the back of its head? While no living monitor has horns or other head ornamentation, the aforementioned Megalania did have a small crest between its eyes. Perhaps Marduk’s sacred beast had similar, but more pronounced and paired crests on its snout. Regarding the curling horns on the back of the head, it’s worth noting that these features were not present on many other depictions of the animal. It’s possible they were simply an artistic embellishment of a fleshy fringe or neck flap on the real animal.
Did a large horned reptile roam the lands of Babylon and Central Asia, serving as a sacred beast to some and a nuisance to others? There is, unfortunately, no scientific evidence just yet. No preserved skins or bones. No fossils. But perhaps one day some explorer will unearth some remains lying forgotten in a temple under the sands or buried in the peat of an ancient bog. And the world will see get to marvel at Marduk’s dragon once again.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Sinkhole Sam again!

 Another drawing of Kansas' own (unofficial) state cryptid!

I've developed a special fondness for this critter. Mainly because I love the idea of a giant, derpy-faced caecilian living in a prairie lake. But I also have to admit to a little pride in the fact that my first drawing of Sam seems to have become the main representation of him/her on the internet. Sam's entry is also the one with the most traffic on my blog.

So here's another depiction of ol' Sam.   

Friday, May 1, 2020

Weird Winged Cryptids

Been playing around with aging paper at home with coffee, tea, and ink. I love the eerie aesthetic these treated papers give off. And thought I'd use them to draw some of my favorite cryptids.

In his book "Operation Trojan Horse" journalist and ufologist John Keel discussed the possibility of ultraterrestrials- beings living on our planet that were so far advanced technologically and biologically beyond humans that we would only barely be able to conceive of their presence. He suggested that ultraterrestrials could be responsible for all sorts of unexplained phenomenon- UFOs, ghosts, aliens, and some cryptids such as the Mothman. Creatures resembling the Mothman have been sighted all over the world, as have other winged beings that bear a strong similarity to it, such as the Cornish Owlman, the Bat Beast of Kent, the Van Meter Visitor, the Chernobyl Black Bird, and others. 

Regardless of my own feelings about the reality of Mothman, ultraterrestrials, UFOs, and other Fortean phenomena, I love them from a folklore perspective. I particularly like the idea that these bizarre winged humanoids could all be different interpretations of the same species of entity, filtered through our limited human perceptions.

Here's my version of three forms of this creature. From top to bottom:  Mothman; The Bat Beast of Kent; and the Cornish Owlman.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Bishopville Lizardman- South Carolina

It looks like something attacked your car with a small chainsaw. There are deep scratches in the sides and on the bumper. The wheels slashed and flat. The edge of the hood is mangled as if an animal chewed on it. But what kind of animal gnaws metal? Your eyes slide from the damaged vehicle to the swamp that comes right up to your backyard. You know there are bears and coyotes out there. Maybe even pumas. Could something like that have done this? But you’ve also heard the stories about that other thing out there, lurking among the tupelos and sedges and dark, still water.  The thing that walks upright like a man, but which is covered with hair and scales, and has only three fingers and three toes.

Rumors of a strange beast inhabiting Scape Ore Swamp just outside Bishopville, South Carolina allegedly go back decades. But the creature first entered pop culture in 1988 when a couple woke up to find that the car parked in their driveway had been heavily scratched and chewed by an unknown vandal. A few days later local teenager Chris Davis went to the sheriff claiming he’d been attacked by a strange bipedal monster while he was changing a flat tire on a lonely dirt road near the swamp. Davis said the beast was covered in thick hair and green scales. When it jumped on the roof of his car and scratched at the windshield, he saw that it had only three fingers on each hand.

It didn’t take long for local newspapers to conflate the two stories, even if there was no direct evidence that the being that had attacked Davis had also damaged the couple’s car. The strange monster was dubbed the “Lizard Man” due to the scaled appearance Davis had described. As so often happens when word of a monster gets out, Bishopville became a tourist draw as people came from all over to see the home of the mysterious creature. A local radio station even offered a tongue-in-cheek reward of one million dollars to anyone who could bring it in alive. The Lizard Man was apparently quite shy, however, as only a few brief sightings were reported after 1988. Hoaxes were actually more common than actual sightings. For instance, two sheriff’s deputies found a supposed footprint that they made a plaster cast of, but even a cursory look at the print can tell a viewer that it is clearly a crude fake.  When the hype surrounding the Lizard Man began to die down, a Bishopville local claimed that the monster had attacked his car and left behind blood and scales. He later admitted that he had faked the damage and the evidence in an effort to keep the legend alive.

The Lizard Man is often depicted in pop culture as a bipedal reptilian being. However, the limited descriptions of it suggest that it is mammalian. More like a swamp-dwelling, three-digited variation of a sasquatch than an upright saurian. It’s worth noting that hairy tridactyl hominids have been reported form other wetland areas of the American South and Midwest. Perhaps they are a separate species, or at least subspecies, of North American hominid.

Though the Lizard Man hasn’t been seen in a long time, it has become a fond part of Bishopville’s culture. The town has even begun hosting an annual Lizard Man Festival in honor of their famous cryptid.

On a side note, the name of the Lizard Man’s home, Scape Ore Swamp, has its own weird history. It is allegedly a corruption of Escaped Whore Swamp. According to local folklore, during the Revolutionary War Continental troops came across British soldiers being entertained by a group of sex workers. The Red Coats were captured but the women were allowed to flee into the nearby swamplands, giving rise to the name.


Lizard Man: The True Story of the Bishopville Monster by Lyle Blackburn

American Monsters: A History of Monster Lore, Legends, and Sightings in America by Linda  Godfrey

An article from The State about the Lizard Man festival

An article from South Carolina Public Radio about the Lizard Man

An article from Mysterious Universe about the Lizard Man

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Working on a cryptid kids book

Now that my picture book The Scarecrow Harvest Festival is all done, I'm looking for an agent and/or publisher for it. 

In the meantime, though, I'm turning my creative efforts onto a new picture book about cryptids celebrating my favorite holiday, Halloween. 

Cryptid Halloween, you see, is just like Human Halloween, but with little differences. Instead of carving pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns, cryptids carve cantaloupes and other melons. Instead of decorating with bats, rats, and cats, cryptids decorate with fur-bearing trout, jackalopes, and flying platypus.  And, of course, instead of dressing up as monsters to trick-or-treat, cryptids dress up like human kids, as you can see below.

Mothman (or rather, Mothgirl in this case)


Fresno Nightcrawlers
I'm still working on designs for other cryptid trick-or-treaters, and working on a book dummy. Stay tuned for more!

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Minnesota Ice Man- Minnesota

You pay your quarter and follow the cramped line of fairgoers into the striped canvas tent. It’s dim and sweltering inside. The air is filled with the mingled scents of popcorn, sugar-coated fry bread, generator gasoline and the occasional whiff of dung from the nearby pens of llamas, donkeys, and sheep. You can still hear the tinny calliope of the fairground drifting through the dirty tent walls. Before the crowd, a long horizontal freezer hums. You lean in, looking down through the glass at a supine, hairy figure encased in a block of cloudy ice. Is it a weird-looking ape? A rubber dummy? A hirsute human? Could it really be The Missing Link as the sign outside proclaims in gaudy red letters? Perhaps even a surviving Neanderthal? You have little time to ponder as the crowd starts to shuffle out to allow the next gaggle of gawkers to enter.

Such is the typical way most people would have first encountered the oddity known originally as the Siberskoye Creature but nowadays more popularly called the Minnesota Iceman. The mysterious cadaver had toured county fairs across the Midwest under the care of its owner, Frank Hansen, throughout the 1960s but gained wider fame in 1968 when young aspiring naturalist Terry Cullen saw the body at the International Livestock Exposition’s Chicago Fair and brought it to the attention of cryptozoologists Ivan T. Sanderson and Bernard Heuvelmans.

The researchers paid a visit to Hansen and examined the corpse through the ice since its owner would not let them thaw it. What they saw looked remarkable man-like, though he was covered in short but thick hair like a great ape. His feet and hands were large and splayed. Under a prominent brow ridge, one of his eyeballs hung from its socket, apparently the result of a gunshot wound to the back of his head. The creature’s left arm up in a defensive posture and bore a strange bend that indicated a broken radius and ulna.

Sanderson and Heuvelmans concluded that the body was genuine based on the fine details of the hair, nails, and skin and because of a putrid rotting-meat smell that emanated from a crack in the glass display case. Sandersn wrote an article about the creature for the magazine Argosy, while Heuvelmans published a paper on the creature in the December 1969 issue of the Bulletin of the Royal Institute of Natural Science of Belgium. In it, he described the Iceman as a new species of hominid, Homo pongoides. He even wrote a book about the discovery, which was recently translated into English as “Neanderthal”

The origin of the Iceman’s body is murky and several possibilities have been put forward. Hansen frequently changed his story about how he acquired it.  Initially he claimed that he’d shot the creature on a hunting trip in the Whiteface Reservoir area in Minnesota. Later he said that Japanese whalers had found the body frozen in a block of ice in Siberia and sold it to a famous Hollywood actor who had entrusted it to Hansen.

Heuvelmans formed his own theory about the body’s origin, connecting it with a story about a strange ape that had been killed in Vietnam during the war and preserved before being brought to the US.
At one point a woman, Helen Westring, told a tabloid magazine that she had shot and killed the creature when it had attacked and tried to sexually assault her.

Heuvelmans and Sanderson asked John Napier, a primatologist at the Smithsonian, to examine the body. He concluded that it was nothing but a latex model. Hansen tried to explain this by claiming he’d recently switched out the real body for a replica. The two cryptozoologists backed up Hansen’s story, claiming the body Napier had examined was clearly different in several ways from the corpse they had initially examined.

The investigation led to someone at the Smithsonian actually contacting the FBI, reasoning that if the body was genuine, it was possible a type of human being had been murdered. Though the FBI didn’t end up looking into the case, the incident did give Hansen the opportunity to put a sign above his creature that said: “The Near Man… investigated by the FBI”

Hansen continued to tour the Iceman at county fairs and shopping malls for a few years after 1968, but interest gradually died down, At some point, he claimed to have gotten rid of the body, either burying it or returning it to its original owner.

In 2013 a latex model of the creature– allegedly one of the props Hansen had used, if not the original creature itself- was put up for sale online. It was bought and currently resides at the Museum of the Weird in Austin, Texas.

Since the Iceman became famous, people have reported seeing beings resembling Homo pongoides all over the world. While these sightings may seem like good anecdotal evidence for the existence of a still-living nonhuman hominid, it should be noted that such tales are part of a larger folklore about “wild men” found in every culture and at all times throughout the world.

So what was the Minnesota Iceman? While some still wonder if it was a late-surviving non-human hominid, or even a species of Bigfoot, the skeptical view is that it had always been nothing but a latex dummy all along. A carnival curiosity that briefly caught the attention of the cryptozoological research world.


Saturday, December 14, 2019

Beast of Bray Road- Wisconsin

You’re driving down a quiet rural Wisconsin road late at night. Fields of vegetation stretching out wide on either side. No street lamps. The only illumination coming from the distant yellow lights of scattered farmhouses. Suddenly your headlights catch something on the side of the road. Something stooped and hairy with a long snout. A dog, you assume.  Maybe a wolf? It’s awfully big and shaggy. But there aren’t any wolves around here. Could it possibly be a bear?

Then the creature stands up on its hind legs. It looks like a man now. A hairy man with a canine’s head. But you see that it has paws, not hands and feet. It glares at you. Challenging. Seeming to look into your mind. Its eyes glow green in the headlights. Then it strolls off, still on two legs, into the tall grass.

In your shock, you’re not sure just what you saw. Was it a hallucination brought on by fatigue? Was it a dog, as you first thought? Could it have been a genuine werewolf? Or have you just had an encounter with the infamous Beast of Bray Road?

The Beast first came to the world’s attention thanks to the writings of Linda S. Godfrey, once a freelance journalist for the Walworth County Week newspaper and nowadays a major collector and popularizer of American cryptid folklore.

Godfrey learned of the Beast during a slow news week in December 1991 when her editor asked her to write a piece about a series of alleged “man-wolf” sightings along a three-mile stretch of rural road near Elkhorn, Wisconsin in Walworth County. Though it originally seemed like nothing but a fun puff piece, Godfrey’s investigations turned up multiple sightings of the Beast and several genuinely frightened and perplexed witnesses. It soon became clear that something was lurking in the Wisconsin countryside. Something stranger than just a few misidentified dogs.

Witnesses described the Beast as looking more like a wolf than a man, with paws, powerful canine leg muscles and feet that balanced on the toes like an animal rather than the flat of the foot like a human. Overall the creature was said to look like a bipedal wolf rather than a half-man lycanthrope.

The story of the Beast quickly caught on in the public imagination. More people came forward with stories. Other newspapers consulted Godfrey for their own pieces about the creature. Several TV shows came to Walworth County to shoot footage. At one point a producer even approached Godfrey to write the screenplay for a film about the monster. Sadly, this movie was never made, though there IS another Beast of Bray Road film. I haven’t seen it, though, so I can’t say anything about its quality.

The Beast of Bray Road is not an isolated anomaly. Dog-men have been sighted in Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, and other areas throughout the Midwest. There was even a sighting in Point Pleasant, West Virginia- home of the infamous Mothman.

What IS the Beast, exactly? Some think it could be an actual werewolf or a Native American skinwalker. Others have speculated that it might be a Shunka Warak’in or other unknown large predator- perhaps even a prehistoric survivor.  Others have suggested it could be a regular wolf that has learned to walk on its hind legs. This latter explanation would explain why no one has found the Beast’s carcass, since a dead bipedal wolf is indistinguishable from a quadrupedal one.


Linda S. Godfrey's website

The Beast of Bray Road: Tailing Wisconsin's Werewolf by Linda S. Godfrey

American Monsters: A History of Monster Lore, Legends and Sightings in America by Linda S. Godfrey

Mysterious Universe article about Midwestern Dogmen