The first rule of being a cryptid is you don’t talk about being a cryptid. An important corollary is don’t get caught. Discovery tends to ruin your reputation as an international monster of mystery. Methods for avoiding detection are diverse and often elegant, ranging from convincing man you don’t exist (the greatest trick the Devil and Keyser Soze ever played), participation in an efficient government conspiracy (slightly harder in a world of WikiLeaks), slipping back and forth between dimensions (requires advanced understanding of the physical laws of the universe), maintaining a generalized sort of insubstantiality (getting ghostly), or even behaving so bizarrely that anybody who reports a sighting of you will henceforth reside in a padded room. Of course then there are the classics. Tell them you’re an angel or an alien. Unfortunately, not every cryptid has the gift of gab, the appropriate social connections, or requisite set of supernatural powers to pull off the more sophisticated sort of ruse. Throughout history and cross-culturally, cryptids of the Sullivan School (the architect, not the Monsters Inc. critter), professing that “form follows function”, have relied on a simple, yet brutally effective technique to confound us humans. They run really fast and wear their feet backwards.
Perhaps the trait most widely ascribed to unknown hominids is that of having reversed feet, that is, their feet are said to point to the rear when the creatures walk forwards. In the Old World the notion that various species of wild men and supernatural creatures have reversed feet is probably ancient and widespread (Kirtley, 1964, p77).
This cryptozoological application of “keep it simple stupid” is a straightforward (pardon the pun) solution to the problem of being hunted by generations of Homo sapiens eager for knowledge, fame, glory, or a unique trophy head to hang on the wall of their man cave. If someone is tracking you, do what you can to lead them in the wrong direction. If your feet are inverted, the savvy woodsman and his torch bearing posse trying to follow your trail through the forest will always be heading in the exact opposite direction from your trajectory of travel, and will in fact be returning to where you started from, rather than towards where you are going. Apparently, this stratagem has been working for a very long time, given that you can almost pick a mythology at random, and come up with monsters rumored to exhibit this particular pedestrian predilection. Roman naturalist Gaius Plinius Secundus (23-79 AD), or “Pliny the Elder” to his friends identified an elusive race of the backwards-footed, and claimed they resided, and were unable to leave, a secret valley in the Himalayas.
Beyond the other Scythian Anthropophagi, there is a country called Abarimon, situated in a certain great valley of Mount Imaus the inhabitants of which are a savage race, whose feet are turned backwards, relatively to their legs: they possess wonderful velocity, and wander about indiscriminately with the wild beasts. We learn from Baeton, whose duty it was to take the measurements of the routes of Alexander the Great, that this people cannot breathe in any climate except their own, for which reason it is impossible to take them before any of the neighboring kings; nor could any of them be brought before Alexander himself (Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, VII. Chapter 2).
Interestingly, our friend the Yeti is occasionally depicted with backwards feet in Tibetan art. The Greek-educated Roman grammarian Aulus Gellius picked up on Pliny’s theme, and furthermore attributed great speed to Pliny’s Abarimon, despite the obvious impediment (literally) of their anatomical oddity. He of course is not alone (neither temporally nor culturally) in ascribing swiftness to monsters of this ilk, as a oft-repeated characteristic of a monster with backwards feet, is that it is astonishingly and inexplicably fast.
That there are also in the same region [Scythia] other men, of marvellous swiftness, whose feet are turned backwards and do not point forward, as in the rest of mankind (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, IX. Chapter 4)
Oxymoronic postmodern intellectuals (our modern day Sophists) are at this point gnashing their teeth and rending their clothes with a desire to deconstruct. In fact, the concept of inversion is so fundamental to postmodern philosophy that creatures like the Abarimon are a doctoral thesis waiting to happen with much muttering about the removal of the transcendental signified, the vacillation of the symbol between extremes of meaning, and the fact that the most fundamentally dehumanizing thing you can do is start moving peoples’ appendages around into unnatural positions. Personally, I had my postmodern inclinations surgically removed. And not to put too fine a point on it, but Aristotle (god forbid) said it first anyway. Aristotle noted the superficial similarity between humans and birds, as opposed to other animals, in that we are inclined to hop around on two feet. Although he was wrong (happens to smart dudes too), he thought he observed that knee joints bend backwards in birds, and forwards in humans. In reality, what Aristotle thought was a bird knee was actually a bird ankle (graciously pointed out in the 1500’s by that savant snot Leonardo Da Vinci), but based on this, he posited that since only birds and humans were bipedal (more or less), this signified human divinity in contrast to (1) the bipedal, but messed up birds, and (2) all those other four-footed mammalian sorts. In short, forward facing feet means you’re awesome and backwards facing feet make you a monster. In the 18th century, they were still mighty enamored of Pliny and his Roman/Greek buddies when it came to natural history, but a creeping element of rationalism entered the picture, and German Protestant theologian Siegmund Jakob Baumgarten (1706-1757 AD) made an effort to explain the Abarimon in surprisingly modern terms. I assume by “skate” he means “ski” (or some such snow-related footwear like snowshoes), and attributed the appearance of backward-footedness to an unfamiliarity with this particular mode of transport among the more southerly scholars and adventurers that chanced upon it. This would explain the Himalayan Abarimon, but doesn’t really address the ubiquity of monsters with inverted feet across a variety of ecological niches (including the tropics).
Having touched upon fables, I shall farther deliver my opinion concerning those people, whom Pliny as we have before said, makes to have been the inhabitants of the country of Abarimon, which is very different from that of the Arimaspi superolios Anthropophagos Scythas. The people of that country are Homines sylvestres, aversis post crura plantis, eximiæ velocitatis, passim cum feris vagantes. The country itself is in quadam convalle Montis Imai. Imaus here must be taken in an extensive sense, for, when Pliny comes to describe what is properly called Imaus, and its inhabitants, no mention is made of this people and in reality, it is one continued chain of mountains, reaching under different names from India to the Mare Glaciale. Upon examining into the rise of this story of such unnatural feet, in my opinion, they appear to be nothing but the skates used by some of the northern people; the other particulars, that they are of extraordinary swiftness, that they lived in woods, and roved from place to place among the wild beasts, perfectly agree with the Samoids, the Ostiacs, Tunguses, and other people living in those countries where skates are used, and I know not any other account of skates to be met with among all the ancients (Baumgarten, 1760, p62).
Pre-dating Pliny and Aulus Gellius, Greek ethnographer Megasthenes (350-290 B.C.) makes an offhand mention of a species called the Nulo, hailing from the Indian subcontinent that reportedly not only had backwards feet, but just to add some confusion to the mix, sported a few extra toes.
Near a mountain which is called Nulo there live men whose feet are turned backwards and have eight toes on each foot (Megasthenes, Indica, Fragment XXXB. Solin 52: 26-30).
A female ghost of Indian and Pakistani folklore and Hindu mythology is the Churel (sometimes Churail, Chudail, or Chudel), haunting graveyards and abandoned battlefields, as monsters are often wont to do, also exhibited backwards feet. She of course can transform into a beautiful young maiden to lure the unsuspecting, but the wary will not be fooled if they pay close attention to the orientation of her feet, which apparently are the sole indicator of churel-ness visible after metamorphasis. In order to avoid having one’s blood, semen and virility vampirically drained, it is recommended that one pay close attention to feet.
Churel, properly the ghost of a woman who dies in childbirth. The belief in these malignant spirits is universal, and a source of much terror to natives by night. Their personal appearance is fairly described in the text: very ugly and black, breastless, protruding in stomach and navel, and feet turned back. This last is the real test of a churel, even in her beautiful transformation (Steel, 1894, p303).
On the other side of the world, the jungles of Belize boast their own backwards-footed horrors in the from of El Sisimito (although the clearest description of them seems to indicate that it is solely the big toe that is inverted), for which I can conjure no clear anatomical representation.
Mahanamatz (Mahanamao) is the name given to a gorilla-like mythical animal. This animal is also known as Sisimito, which appears to be a Spanish word. The termination, at least, is the Spanish diminutive. The Mahanamatz are slightly larger than men and have the same features except that they are extremely hairy. They live in rocky areas in the remotest parts of the forest, and stand upright. However, they are said to walk with their big toes turned backwards. The females are friendly, but the males hostile. If a male catches one he tears one open with his huge, shaggy paws. It is useless to shoot him, as the shot will not penetrate his thick coating of hair. The only hope of salvation lies in setting fire to him. When he approaches to tear one apart, one strikes a match and applies the flame to his hairy coat which will burn up like dry tinder (Thompson, 1927, p67).
Friar Cristóbal Diatristán de Acuña’s (1597-1676 A.D), 17th Century account of his exploration of the Amazon, Nuevo Decurbriemiento Del Gran Rio de Las Amazonas, refers to men from South America with their feet turned backward. (Conzemius, 1932, p168), and is preserved in Brazilian folklore as the Curupira, which expressly uses its backwards feet to confuse hunters and travelers. Variations on this theme are found in the Cipitio of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (son of a bad mother, who for the crimes of his parent is doomed to walk the earth on backwards feet as an eternal 10-year old).
Often it is a female Curupira who talks to the men. In some places the people believe that there are both sexes; or it might be, they say, the Curupira who has married an old and ugly Indian woman. Of course, she must be old and ugly to help him with all his vicious deeds. The Curupira often has children, according to the locality. In the regions of Teffe, and Fonte Boa on the Solimoes, as the Amazon River is called within the State of Amazonas, the saying goes that the female Curupira has only one eyebrow in the middle of her forehead and that her breasts are placed underneath her arms. They also say that the Curupira lives with his wife in hollow tree-trunks. One of the chief characteristics of this interesting South American spirit is that its feet are placed backwards; which must give the Curupira the appearance of coming when he is really going (Lange, 1914, p427).
This list of monsters with backwards feet is seemingly inexhaustible, ranging from stories that Sumatra’s Orang Pendek has its feet inverted, to Trinidad’s Duennes, Madagascar’s Kalonoro, to the mythical dwarves of the Ivory Coast. All employ the same strategy to amuse their friends and confuse their enemies, but we would be remiss if we did not tip our hat to Saint Isidore of Seville’s (560-636 A.D.) Libyan Antipodes, named with remarkable literalness in Greek (anti = opposed, pous=foot), not to mention the re-occurrence of the eight-toed theme.
The Antipodes in Libya have the soles of their feet twisted behind their legs, and eight toes on each foot (Isidore of Seville, Etymologie , XI iii, 24).
Backwards feet are such an obvious solution to avoiding capture, it is no surprise that monsters all over the world employ this, although the relative dearth of mass-produced backwards-facing shoes may ultimately discourage the eventual integration of monsters into civilized society. Of course, if one actually manages to track down our elusive backwards-footed quarry, most mythologies maintain that it will kill you in the interest of preserving its treasured cryptid status. No use being a mysterious monstrosity if everybody knows you exist, for if we have learned nothing else from Pretty Little Liars, it is that two can keep a secret, only if one of them is dead.
Baumgarten, Siegmund Jakob, 1706-1757. A Supplement to the English Universal History: Lately Published In London: Containing … Remarks And Annotations On the Universal History, Designed As an Improvement And Illustration of That Work … London: E. Dilly, 1760.
Conzemius, Eduard. Ethnographical Survey of the Miskito And Sumu Indians of Honduras And Nicaragua. Washington: U.S. Govt. print. off., 1932.
Gellius, Aulus. The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius. Rev. [ed.] Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press , 1946.
Isidore of Seville, 560-636. Entymologies. Trans. Stephen A. Barney, W.J. Lewis, et al. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Kirtley, Bacil F. “Unknown Hominids and New World Legends”. Western Folklore, Vol. 23, No. 2. Apr., 1964, p77-90.
Lange, Algot, 1884-. The Lower Amazon: a Narrative of Explorations In the Little Known Regions of the State of Pará, On the Lower Amazon. New York: G. P. Putnam’s sons, 1914.
Megasthenes. Ancient India As Described by Megasthenês And Arrian. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink, 1877.
Pliny, the Elder. The Natural History of Pliny. London: G. Bell & sons, 1856.
Steel, Flora Annie Webster, 1847-1929. Tales of the Punjab Told by the People. London: Macmillan, 1894.
Thompson, J. Eric S. 1898-1975. A Correlation of the Mayan And European Calendars. Chicago: [s.n.], 1927.