The Caladrius (Weird Medieval Creatures)

The Caladrius (Weird Medieval Creatures)

A look at the caladrius, a fancy legendary bird that could supposedly diagnose and heal illnesses. Plus weird info about medieval bestiaries, and more.

Highlights include:
• A weird supposed cure for blindness
• A visit to the Cloisters
• A video game that makes you feel like a wizard
• A bit of unicorn lore

Other stuff I mentioned:
The Last Unicorn youtube video:
Atlas of the Mysterious in North America by Rosemary Ellen Guiley:
Waltz of the Wizard:

Episode Script

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

  • Cloisters
    • Unicorn tapestries
    • Narwhal/unicorn horn cup
  • The Last Unicorn: Death and the Legacy of Fantasy youtube video by chromalore
    • Unicorn lore
    • The movie
    • 80s fantasy movies in general
    • And in speaking of unicorn lore, I read a fun little description of a unicorn in a bestiary translation I read while preparing this episode; this is from an 1887 lecture I’ll talk more about later:
      • “The unicorn is a beautiful animal, with the
      • body of a horse, the head of a stag, and the feet of an elephant, having on its forehead a straight sharp horn, four feet long. In the Psalms (Ps. cii, 10) it says, “My horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn.” The unicorn is so fierce that the elephant hates it, but the claws on the feet of the unicorn are so sharp that it pierces the elephant’s body with them and kills it.
      • The horn of the unicorn is so powerful that the hunter dares not go near it, but the animal can be caught by stratagem in the [346] following manner. A pure virgin of great beauty is sent on alone in front of the hunters into the wood where the unicorn dwells, and as soon as it sees her immediately it runs towards her and kneels down and lays its head on her lap quite simply. Whilst the unicorn sleeps there the hunters seize it and hasten off with it to the royal palace.”
  • More about bestiaries:
    • Lecture VI: The Medieval Bestiaries from Early Christian Symbolism in Great Britain and Ireland before the Thirteenth Century (The Rhind Lectures in Archaeology for 1885) by J. Romilly Allen, 1887:
    • “It is not known who wrote the original bestiary, of which all subsequent versions are only variants. The earliest MS. copies are in Latin, and do not date back beyond the eighth century, and by far the greater proportion of the illustrated editions belong to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The bestiary differs fundamentally from all modern treatises on natural history, and is really more like a children’s picture-book of animals. The zoologist of the present day dissects all his specimens, and classifies them according to species, as revealed by minute investigations as to the structure of the body. The mediaeval naturalist was a theologian first, and a man of science after. His theories were founded partly on texts of Scripture, rightly or wrongly interpreted, partly on the writings of Pliny, and partly on the supposed derivations of the names, mixed up with all kinds of marvellous stories such as are found in the folk-lore of all nations . . .
    • Traces are also shown of a belief in the arts of magic, as in the story of the Woodpecker, who knows of a herb that can unlock all things closed with iron or wood, and is able to unloose all things that are bound,—recalling the legend in the Speculum Sancte Marie Virginis, of the worm whose blood has power to break glass and allow the young ostrich to escape from the vessel in which it was imprisoned by Solomon.
    •  The history of the whale in the bestiary is related in the story of Sindbad the Sailor in the Arabian Nights, and also occurs in the legend­ary Life of St. Brendan. The narratives of the Syren, the Centaur, Argus the Cowherd, with his hundred eyes, in the bestiary are of purely classical origin, adapted subsequently to Christian purposes. So much for the sources whence the writers of the bestiary drew their inspiration, now as to the book itself. The number of beasts, including birds, fish, insects, and fabulous creatures, varies from 24 to 40 in the different versions, but they are in all cases treated in a similar fashion: first, there is a miniature of the animal, then a description of its appearance, habits, stories con­nected with it, and lastly, a moral, pointing out the spiritual significance and its application to the Christian life. It must be admitted that this eternal moralising becomes extremely tedious, and the writers of the bestiaries evidently found it so them-selves, as they are continually telling their readers to pay atten­tion, and not to allow their thoughts to wander from the subject, and are never tired of insisting on the importance of the good to be derived from the concluding moral.
    •  . . . The merit of the different stories and their application varies greatly, some being extremely forcible, such as that of the whale, whose sudden plunge into the depths of the ocean is dramatic to a degree, and sends a thrill of horror through the mind. Some are very poetic and beautiful, such as the eagle flying up towards the sun; some are revolting and indecent; others far-fetched or absurd, as when one learns that the pretty little hedgehog, knocking down grapes off the vine and carrying them away on its spines, is the Devil robbing men of their souls.”
    • The lecturer goes on to say that there are two reasons why bestiaries are what they are: 1) there are animals mentioned in the bible, and there was a need to comment more on those animals, and 2) people loved moralizing.
    • Also, just for the record, I feel like half the animals in the bestiary represent Christ in some way. Like the unicorn, the phoenix, etc. A lot of creatures have myths about dying and coming back to life, or about being pure and getting killed, etc. And then the other half of animals represent the devil, like many of the deadly serpents I talked about last time.
  • The lecturer also talks about how bestiaries got so silly:
    • “The bestiary contains many mistakes, due to mistranslation, the result of sheer ignorance, or confounding together words of similar sound; (2) confusing one animal with another from want of zoological knowledge; and to a wish to identify certain animals mentioned in the Bible with fabulous creatures of classical origin, such as centaurs, syrens, dragons, etc.”
  • In this 1887 lecture, I also found a bit more fun info about the basilisk or cockatrice, which I talked about last time:
    • “The basilisk is hatched from the egg of a cock. When the cock has lived seven years an egg grows in its inside, and it suffers the greatest agony. It then scratches a hole with its feet in which to lay the egg. The toad is of such a nature that it can tell by the scent the poison which the cock carries in its inside. The toad watches the cock, so that it cannot enter its nest without the toad seeing it, and when the cock goes to lay its egg the toad follows to find [390] out whether the laying has taken place, because it is of such a nature that it takes the egg and hatches it. The animal which comes out of the egg has the head, neck, and breast of a cock, and the remainder of its body behind is like a serpent. As soon as this beast can it seeks out some secluded spot in an old cistern and hides itself so that no one can see it, for it is of such a nature that if a man sees it before it sees the man, then it will die, but if it sees the man first, then the man will die. Its poison proceeds from its eyes, and its gaze is so venomous that it kills birds who fly past it. This animal is king over all the other serpents, in the same way that the lion is king over all the other beasts. If it touches a tree it will lose its virtue and never bear fruit. If anyone wishes to kill the basilisk he must take a transparent crystal vase, and when the animal lifts its head its gaze is arrested by the crystal, and the venom thrown back, which causes its death.
    • The basilisk signifies the Devil, that same Satan who deceived Adam and Eve in Paradise, and being expelled, was cast down into hell. Thus, for 4,000 years all who came from Adam were poisoned by him, and would fall into the pit with the basilisk, that is, into hell with the Devil. The son of a king then was grieved that the beast was so venomous, and that it would kill everybody, so he determined that it should live no longer or do harm. Therefore the king placed his son in a vessel of the purest crystal, that is to say, that the Son of God entered the body of Our Lady, the Virgin Mary. When the basilisk looked on the vessel which contained the Son of God, his poison was arrested, and he became powerless to harm. When the son of the king, Jesus Christ, was laid in the sepulchre, he entered into the pit and took hence His friends whom the basilisk had fasci­nated and killed with his poison, that is to say, that God despoiled hell of those who love Him.”
  • Caladrius, aka the charadrius
    • I stumbled across this one when I was looking through the Aberdeen Bestiary, which as the name suggests, is a 12th century bestiary at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Finding the caladrius was actually what made me decide to do this little mini-series on medieval creatures.
    • The bestiary has a illustration of a king in bed, sort of languidly shrinking away from a slinky, large white bird with a long neck.
    • I don’t love the accompanying text in the bestiary, because it’s very religious and moralizing, which is normal for bestiaries, and also kinda anti-Semetic, but the drawing really struck me, and I looked up this weird creature, the caladrius.
    • From THE CALADRIUS AND ITS LEGEND, SCULPTURED UPON THE TWELFTH-CENTURY DOORWAY OF ALNE CHURCH, YORKSHIRE By GEORGE C. DRUCE, F.S.A. Originally published in Archaeological Journal (Royal Archaeological Institute of London) Volume 69, 1912 :
      • Latin text of MS. 12. F xiii, of the early thirteenth century, in the British Museum
      • “The Caladrius or Caradrius, as the Natural Philosopher says, is all white like the swan, and has a long neck. The dung of its inside cures blindness (caliginem oculorum). This bird is found in the courts of kings. If anyone is ill, by means of this caladrius it can be found out if he will live or die. For if the man is destined to die, it turns its face away from him, and by this sign people know that he is going to die. If he is destined to live, it directs itself towards his face, and as though it would take all the illness of the man upon itself, it flies into the air towards the sun, burning up as it were his infirmity and dispersing it; and so the sick man is cured.”
      • thirteenth-century illustrated manuscript of the first version in the British Museum (Sloane 278):
        • “If (the sick man) is destined to get better and be cured, the caladrius addresses itself intently to him, and approaching, puts its beak upon the man’s mouth, and by its breathing draws out all the man’s sickness into itself, and flying into the air towards the sun, burns up his sickness, and disperses it, and the sick man is cured.”
  • Some versions of the lore seem to suggest that sometimes the caladrius gets sick and dies instead of the human dying.
  • Picardy prose bestiary (MS. 3516) of the thirteenth century in the Arsenal Library, Paris:
    • “If a man should have his eyes running or rolling the caladrius has such a nature that it can cure the eyes by the divine virtue which it possesses; it is in its thigh, if one applies it; such virtue has the thigh of the caladrius.”
  • Philip de Thaun says:
    • “The bird has a great bone in its thigh; if the man who is blind has the marrow of it, and will anoint his eyes, he will immediately recover (his sight).”
  • Here’s what Plutarch had to say about the bird, around 80 AD:
    • “we know how often those who suffer from jaundice are healed by looking at the bird charadrius. This small animal seems to be endowed with such a nature and character, that it violently attracts to itself the disease, which slips out of the body of the sick man into its own, and draws off from his eyes as it were a stream of moisture. And this is the reason why the charadrius cannot endure to look at jaundiced persons nor help them at all, but turns itself away with closed eyes; not because it grudges the use of the remedy which is sought from it, as some consider, but because it might be wounded as by a blow.”
  • A 12th centuy author named Suidas said:
    • “They say that this is a disease [jaundice] producing paleness, which arises from anger, so that it makes the eyes of those who are overpowered by it pale and sometimes black, like (the eyes) of kites, from which also it takes its name. They say too “that those who suffer from jaundice are easily cured by looking at a bird, the charadrius.” The charadrius is a bird of such nature that if those who are suffering from jaundice look at it, as report goes, they more easily get rid of that disease. For which reason also the sellers (of the bird) hide it, lest those who are suffering from jaundice should be cured for nothing.”
  • ANother MS says:
  • “Caladrius is the name of a bird, which we find without any doubt to be entirely white: it is shaped as a seagull; in the book of Deuteronomy it is [388] said that it must not be eaten; that very dear is the bird.11 And Physiologus says that the caladrius ought to be in the court of a king, and about one thing is learned.”
  • One unusual description of the caladrius says that it has “straight horns like a goat” though it doesn’t seem that many sources say that.
  • It turns out that the caladrius came from Roman mythology, and the idea was that it was this white bird that lived in the king’s palace. When someone was sick, the caladrius could absorb the illness and fly away, which would cure the sick person, and the caladrius would be fine too–some places suggested that the illness would be burned up by the sun as the caladrius flew up high.
  • Medieval bestiaries focused not as much on the idea of the caladrius taking away sickness; instead, they talked about how the caladrius could diagnose illness. When someone was sick, the caladrius would perch on the bed, and if the bird looked at the sick person, then they would live. But if they looked away, then the person would die.
    • Oh and the caladrius was supposed to represent Christ, even thought it was also seen as an “unclean” bird
  • Some people say that the caladrius may have been inspired by a real bird, like a dove, thrush, heron, or plover. It seems that it was thought of as a sea bird, at least. Other places, it’s suggested that the caladrius maybe had curly feathers.
  • There was also a SNL sketch in the 70s called Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber that you can find on youtube, which features a caladrius.
  • Crow
  • Lion
    • I didn’t know this until reading it at the Cloisters on Friday, but apparently lions were connected with Jesus and the divine because they had three natures, one of which was that they were born dead and then came to life three days later, like Christ rising from the dead.
  • To read a bit more from the 1887 essay Lecture VI: The Medieval Bestiaries:
    • “The third nature of the lion is, that when the lioness brings forth a cub it is dead,23 and in this state she guards it until upon the third day the father comes and brings it to life by breathing in its face.”

Sources consulted RE: the Caladrius



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