“The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty. Plainly, the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of liberty” –Abraham Lincoln
All monsters are in some sense a categorical error, that is they represent a gaping chasm on our classification of things, and since as a species we spend a lot of time pretending to have a good grasp on the fundamentals of reality (I make no such claims, nobody would believe me anyway), violations of our sacred ontologies are cognitively dissonant (or for those who hate technical jargon, “somewhat disturbing”). Philosopher Michel Foucault, paraphrasing Borges, mentions “a certain Chinese encyclopedia in which it is written that animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camel hair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that by means of fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that” (Foucault, 1970, pXV). When faced with a critter that is starkly impossible in the system of thought currently in vogue, we call it a monster (alternatively we identify it as supernatural, paranormal, occult, anomalous, or perhaps just plain weird). Bigfoot doesn’t fit comfortably in our current model of primate evolution, therefore we invent sciences like cryptozoology to keep track of him, since obviously sightings of a bipedal ape wandering the Pacific Northwest and unfashionably not wearing flannel or working for Microsoft, are not something plain old zoology wants to account for. Such considerations lead us to the Vegetable Lamb, who is neither a Muppet gone bad, nor a strange appetizer at a hip fusion restaurant, rather a hybrid monstrosity that has been the subject of much discussion among classical, medieval, and modern scholars.
Greek Historian Herodotus (484-425 B.C.) makes mention of a plant that produces wool in India somewhere around 442 B.C., commenting “They possess likewise a kind of plant, which instead of fruit, produces wool of a finer and better quality than that of sheep: of this the natives make their clothes” (Herodotus, Histories, Book 3, Chapter CVI). Terminally boring historians say he was obviously talking about cotton, but we need not feel burdened by the necessity of sober reality, often neither especially sober, nor overtly real. The Mishnah Kil’ayim section of the Jerusalem Talmud (a collection of Rabbinic commentaries on Jewish oral traditions dating from the 2nd Century A.D.) in attempts to practically expand on agricultural prohibitions mentioned in Leviticus and Deuteronomy and makes an odd foray into cryptozoology when it discusses the Adnei Ha-sadeh (or Faduah, with a vague, unspecific reference to a slightly more animalistic Yeduah). A number of luminaries have jumped on the description of the Adnei Ha-sadeh as indicative of knowledge of the vegetable lamb, but this is another example of wishful thinking and poor research, since the Adnei Ha-sadeh is clearly described as a human-plant, or rather a humanoid that grows rooted to the ground like a plant, and the Mishnah Kil’ayim concludes the Adnei Ha-sadeh should be classified as a “beast” rather than a plant. Despite being somewhat creepy, this is clearly not a vegetable lamb. The shared characteristics seem to be that it is a creature that grows from the ground like a plant, stays attached to the plant by some kind of umbilical cord, harvests food around the plant (and in some stories aggressively snatching people who get too close), and the beastie dies upon being severed from its stem. I’m not some kind of wacked out monster purist that demands direct correspondence between folktales, but I just can’t wrap my head around this one. And I’m no stranger to logical leaps (I use them all the time to justify my own bizarre behavior) and I’ve wrapped my head around some pretty dubious connections, but this oft reproduced trope makes no sense to me unless a biblical citation lends credence in your book. At any rate, since I spend a lot of time doing research and trying to track down original sources, I get particularly offended when someone latches on to an idea, and it is reproduced as gospel across the internet. Although, if we were to attempt classification of the vegetable lamb in the tradition of the Jerusalem Talmud, we would have to conclusively land on the side of “beast”. The jury is out on whether it is kosher or not. This is of course, neither here nor there. Well, mostly there, but the first clear report of the vegetable lamb comes to us from Medieval bestiaries and reports of European travelers in Central Asia. Interestingly, the Chinese appear to have independently recorded something strikingly similar that they referred to as “The Watersheep”. As a woman named Alice who I truly admire once said, “curiouser and curiouser.”
The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, also referred to as the Borametz, the Scythian Lamb, Agnus scythicus, or Planta Tartarica Barometz, was described most basically as a plant that bore sheep as fruit, the little lambs remaining connected by an umbilical cord to the plant, grazing the land nearby until there was nothing left to graze, and then both lamb and plant died, presumably from starvation in a peculiarly tragic life cycle. One can hope this is truly just an extended metaphor for cotton, since otherwise the universe seems relatively cruel, and decidedly unconcerned with maintaining reasonable species boundaries. But along come puzzling documents from Han Dynasty (5th Century A.D.) China where reference is made to the “down of the watersheep”, and then more robust descriptions of the watersheep critter itself in the Tang Dynasty (10th Century A.D.). The Tang Dynasty depiction is pretty straightforward, translated by Gustaaf Schlegel.
There are lambs which grow in the ground. The natives wait till they are about to sprout, and then build a wall to enclose them in order to prevent beasts coming from outside devouring them. Now their navels are connected with the earth, and if these are cut, they will die. But the people (i.e. the shepherds) don their cuirasses, and gallop about on horseback, beating (all the while) on drums, in order to frighten them. The lambs then get afraid and, with a shriek, they rend their navels, and are then driven into the waterpasturages (Schlegel, 1892, p23).
Apparently, something about the vegetable lamb appealed to the authors of medieval bestiaries, as the vegetable lamb seems to have been an important figure in them.
Amongst the curious myths of the Middle Ages none were more extravagant and persistent than that of the “Vegetable Lamb of Tartary,” known also as the “Scythian Lamb,” and the “Borametz,” or “Barometz,” the latter title being derived from a Tartar word signifying” a lamb. This “lamb” was described as being at the same time both a true animal and a living plant. According to some writers this composite “plant-animal” was the fruit of a tree which sprang from a seed like that of a melon, or gourd; and when the fruit or seed-pod of this tree was fully ripe it burst open and disclosed to view within it a little lamb, perfect in form, and in every way resembling an ordinary lamb naturally born. This remarkable tree was supposed to grow in the territory of “the Tartars of the East,” formerly called “Scythia”; and it was said that from the fleeces of these “tree-lambs,” which were of surpassing whiteness, the natives of the country where they were found wove “materials for their garments and headdress.” In the course of time another version of the story was circulated, in which the lamb was not described as being the fruit of a tree, but as being a living lamb attached by its navel to a short stem rooted in the earth. The stem, or stalk, on which the lamb was thus suspended above the ground was sufficiently flexible to allow the animal to bend downward, and browze on the herbage within its reach. When all the grass within the length of its tether had been consumed the stem withered and the lamb died. This plant-lamb was reported to have bones, blood, and delicate flesh, and to be a favourite food of wolves, though no other carnivorous animal would attack it (Lee, 1887, p1-2).
The 14th Century popularization of the vegetable lamb is credited to Sir John Mandeville, who‘s Travels of Sir John Mandeville was on Oprah’s book list somewhere around 1357-1371 A.D, and is itself a bit of an oddity. First of all, supposed English Knight John Mandeville didn’t exist. The book is actually believed to have been written by a Flemish Benedictine monk and compiler of travelogues named Jan de Langhe and details the travels of someone through the Middle East, Central Asia, and India—whether it is a compilation of the observations of others is subject to debate. The Travels gives us an interesting account of our elusive ovine quarry. The original was written in Anglo-Norman French, but we have plenty of translations. Note that the description is very nearly the same as Herodotus.
Wherefore I say you, in passing by the land of Cathay toward the high Ind and toward Bacharia, men pass by a kingdom that men clepe Caldilhe, that is a full fair country. And there groweth a manner of fruit, as though it were gourds. And when they be ripe, men cut them a-two, and men ﬁnd within a little beast, in ﬂesh, in bone, and blood, as though it were a little lamb without wool. And men eat both the fruit and the beast. And that is a great marvel. Of that fruit I have eaten, although it were wonderful, but that I know well that God is marvellous in his works (Mandeville, 1900, p174).
It is thought that the account provided by the non-existent Sir John Mandeville is almost entirely cribbed (and garbled) from the 1330 A.D. work of (the real) Franciscan Friar (and later Saint) Odoric of Pordenone, who travelled extensively in India. Of course, it turns out that The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary is thus named due to confusion about where Tartary was geographically.
Thus arose the fable of a vegetable lamb, or zoophyte, an animal growing on a tree. The name of this fabulous creature finally became fixed as the Scythian lamb, through confusion of Scythia with Indo-Scythia; and subsequently also as the Tartary lamb, both because “Tartary” was loosely used to denote Scythia, and also because nomadic Tartar merchants brought with them in their caravans, together with the fleece of Tartary sheep and goats, “the fine white wool that grew on trees” in India (Scherer, 1916, p8).
Baron Sigismund von Herberstein (1486-1566 A.D.) was a diplomat for the Holy Roman Empire, particularly when it came to Russian affairs, in his major work Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii (“Notes on Muscovite Affairs”), generally a pretty reasonable guy with deep knowledge of Slavic languages (that being important since he could question witnesses directly), claimed to have discussed the vegetable lamb with many creditable sources who suggested it was common to an area in the region of the Caspian Sea.
In the neighbourhood of the Caspian Sea, between the rivers Volga and Jaick, formerly dwelt the kings of the Zavolha, certain Tartars, in whose country is found a wonderful and almost incredible curiosity, of which Demetrius Danielovich, a person in high authority, gave me the following account; namely, that his father, who was once sent on an embassy by the Duke of Muscovy to the Tartar king of the country referred to, whilst he was there, saw and remarked, amongst other things, a certain seed like that of a melon, but rather rounder and longer, from which, when it was set in the earth, grew a plant resembling a lamb, and attaining to a height of about two and a half feet, and which was called in the language of the country ‘Borametz,’ or ‘the little Lamb.’ It had a head, eyes, ears, and all other parts of the body, as a newly-born lamb. He also stated that it had an exceedingly soft wool, which was frequently used for the manufacturing of head-coverings. Many persons also affirmed to me that they had seen this wool. Further, he told me that this plant, if plant it should be called, had blood, but not true flesh: that, in place of flesh, it had a substance similar to the flesh of the crab, and that its hoofs were not horny, like those of a lamb, but of hairs brought together into the form of the divided hoof of a living lamb. It was rooted by the navel in the middle of the belly, and devoured the surrounding herbage and grass, and lived as long as that lasted; but when there was no more within its reach the stem withered, and the lamb died. It was of so excellent a flavour that it was the favourite food of wolves and other rapacious animals (Herbertein’s Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii ,1549).
Now, most historians are wet blankets for those of us curious about monsters. The standard conclusion is that obviously the description of the vegetable lamb is a fabulous attempt to depict cotton plants. Cotton has been used in India and Central America for several thousand years, but it was introduced to Europe during the 8th Century A.D. conquest of Spain and Sicily by the Moors. Prior to that, we were all about sheep’s wool in the West. I don’t mean to suggest that assuming the vegetable lamb actually refers to a cotton plant is any more unreasonable than assuming a half-sheep, half plant exists somewhere in Central Asia. Okay, actually, I do mean to suggest that. Here’s why. Medieval Europe certainly was a superstitious place, but the vast majority of folks were involved in some kind of agriculture, requiring rather intimate knowledge of plants. That doesn’t mean that your average Medieval peasant, when presented with an exotic plant wouldn’t say, “hey, that’s pretty weird, and maybe from the Devil”, but odds are he would be fairly certain it was a plant, and that there were no zoophytes wandering about attached to it by an umbilical cord. Of course, the guys who wrote the travel guides and botany textbooks in the Middle Ages, were likely a little more educated, and would be less inclined to say, misidentify a cotton plant as a monstrosity, particularly if they thought they could make some money off it. Also, there is the odd correspondence with the Chinese descriptions of “the watersheep”. The problem with examining folklore is that it is rarely acceptable to assume our forbearers (1) had some idea what they were talking about, and (2) weren’t complete and utter idiots. Sure, they didn’t bathe as much, and would burn an iPhone at the stake, but that doesn’t make them stupid, just unaware of certain categories of things. The average peasant across time, history, and cultures knew far more than the average modern human does about plants and animals. Maybe not the specifics, but when eating depends on understanding your livestock and crops, a certain amount of common sense goes a long way. I’ve inadvertently murdered far too many houseplants to believe differently. Folklorists seem to like to find real correspondences for mythical critters. I guess it validates their dissertations or something. Plus, it’s hard to get tenure if you work suggests the world is an enchanted place with mysteries that defy explanation. I mean, what we expect students to pay tuition for defied explanations? Identifying the monstrous critters lurking around the edge of civilization as misidentifications of things we do know how to categorize, is the folklorist behaving just like an anthropologist faced with an unidentifiable tool – if it doesn’t make sense to modern people, it must have been a religious object. I prefer to remain suspicious, and even more so when Celebrity chef Paula Deen, not frequently credited with occult knowledge of monsters, mentioned, “Down South, even our vegetables have some pig hidden somewhere in it. A vegetable isn’t a vegetable without a little ham hock.” And I’ll never look at a Chia Pet the same way again.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1970.
Herberstein, Sigmund, Freiherr von, 1486-1566. Notes Upon Russia: Being a Translation of the Earliest Account of That Country, Entitled Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii. London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society, 1851
Herodotus. Histories. London: H. Colburn and R. Bentley translation, 1830.
Lee, Henry, 1826-1888. The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary: a Curious Fable of the Cotton Plant. To Which Is Added a Sketch of the History of Cotton And the Cotton Trade. London: S. Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1887.
Mandeville, John, Sir. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville: the Version of the Cotton Manuscript In Modern Spelling With Three Narratives In Illustration of It. London: Macmillan, 1900.
Scherer, James Augustin Brown, 1870-1944. Cotton As a World Power: a Study In the Economic Interpretation of History. New York: Frederick A. Stokes company, 1916.
Schlegel, Gustaaf, 1840-1903. The Shui-yang Or Watersheep In Chinese Accounts From Western Asia, And the Agnus Scythicus Or Vegetable Lamb of the European Travellers. Leiden, 1892.