Mythical Creatures

Mythical creatures, legendary beasts, supernatural, and mystical beings have fascinated us since ancient times. They have filled folk tales, songs, and works of art. Sometimes living animals or fossils have inspired these mythological creatures. Some, such as the Eachy of Bassenthwaite or the Woodwose, continue to be witnessed and sought out. While the origins of fabulous creatures are varied, and often disputed, they have played significant roles in human society, and have served to stimulate the imagination and desire that is ingrained in human nature to experience more than this physical world. Whether they truly exist in physical form is indeed secondary to their existence in the minds of so many people.

Cockatrice of Renwick

William Hutchinson’s History of the County of Cumberland, published in 1794, which contains footnotes written by a surveyor called John Housman, is the earliest known record of this legend. Housman wrote that John Tallentire of Scalehouses “ derived from a circumstance which happened about 200 years ago, almost too ridiculous to be credited […] an ancient possessor being said to have slain a noxious, cockatrice”. The legend states that the inhabitants of Renwick were pulling down the village church when a large winged creature emerged from the ruin, they thought it was a cockatrice and fled in panic. But John Tallentire took a rowan branch, stabbed the creature through it’s heart, and killed it.

A cockatrice is essentially a two-legged dragon or serpent-like creature with a rooster’s head. It has the reputed ability to kill people by either looking at them – “the death-darting eye of Cockatrice”, or breathing on them. In the late-medieval bestiaries it is stated that a weasel is the only animal that is immune to the glance of a cockatrice. It was also thought that a cockatrice would die instantly upon hearing a rooster’s crow, or having a cockatrice look at itself in a mirror is one of the few sure-fire ways to kill it.

Bownessie

Bownessie is the name given to the elusive creature that some think lives in Lake Windermere. For many, the creature resembles the Loch Ness Monster Nessie, the Cumbrian version named after the nearby town of Bowness although apparently there is a lesser-known name of Winnie.

“Its skin was like a seal’s but it’s shape was completely abnormal – it’s not like any animal I’ve ever seen before” Of the eye-witness testimony: In 2006, journalism lecturer, Steve Burnip reported a “30ft creature with humps”; “20ft ripples” were left behind by Bownessie, claimed Lakes TV director in 2009, about the Bownessie-sized disturbance of the water caught on video as he was filming for a Bownessie documentary; “the length of three cars”, is the size of the mythical Bownessie, according to Tom Pickles and Sarah Harrington who were out kayaking on Windermere in 2011.

In 1980 Swedish naturalist and author Bengt Sjögren wrote that present beliefs in lake monsters are associated with kelpie legends. Accounts of these monsters have changed over time, originally describing horse-like creatures, they were intended to keep children away from bodies of water, and have developed into descriptions reflecting a modern awareness of the plesiosaur.

Sea Wives

Curiously, given Cumbria’s extensive coastline, there appears few tales of merfolk. There is the tale however of the Sea Wives. Women of wonderous beauty, and even just a glance from a Sea Wife’s eyes is enough to enslave mortal man. She passes between her own world and that of mortal man by means of a magic cloak of seal skin. If betrayed by her mortal husband she will thereafter return to take his children from his mortal union, and she is capable of creating great havoc: the wrecking of boats and the devastating crops. On an island “off the coast of Cumberland” an elderly fisherman would recount the tale of his lost love, his Sea Wife.

The Sea Wife may be more Selkie than Mermaid. One tale is that the Selkie or Seal Folk can only assume human form once every seven years because they are either humans who had committed sinful wrong doing, or are fallen angels.

Mermaids

The Naga, (Sanskrit: serpent) in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism is a semi-divine serpent race that can assume human form, or assume the form of a human with a serpent’s tail. Despite their mythology being of eastern origin, they are said to exist around the world, in trees and in bodies of open water. Could the Naga be the source of the mermaid myth?

Mermaids have been described as able to swim up rivers to freshwater lakes and pools, and this maybe be the origin of the Jenny Greenteeth tale, the “river hag”, often described as green-skinned, with long hair, and sharp teeth, who lures children and the elderly to the water’s edge, to drown them. There is the tale of Jenny Greenteeth inhabiting the flooded mine works in Plumpton Woods, Ulverston.

Tizzie-Whizie

This shy, water-loving creature has the body of a hedgehog, the tail of a squirrel, and the antenna and wings of a bee, the Tizzie Whizie was first observed by a Bowness boatman in 1900. It’s diet of moss and lichen produces a great deal of flatulence, allowing the creature to travel at great speeds across Lake Windermere.

Girt Dog of Ennerdale

Also known as the ‘Vampire Dog of Ennerdale’ this mysterious creature that killed between 300 and 400 sheep over six months. Even from the first attack, it was believed that the killings had not been done by an ordinary dog. The slain sheep had only several of its organs removed and eaten, and was drained of its blood. Local farmers left their normal duties to track down and kill the creature, but the mystery animal eluded them. The only evidence of its presence was an increasing number of dead livestock. One farmers caught a glimpse of the creature, it was described as very large, sandy brown in colour with dark stripes running down its back, and as having the qualities of both a large feline and a large dog. A man by the name of Jonathan Patrickson got close enough to the beast to get a shot off at it, spraying the Girt Dog with pellets. The creature now wounded, the hounds chased it for many miles down to the River Ehen where exhausted, the it plunged into the water. John Steel, got within range and mortally wounded the Girt Dog. Weakened and weary, the animal was no match for the pursuing hounds and the creature was finally killed. The carcass was paraded about the area and when weighed it tipped the scale at 51 kg. It was sent to Keswick Museum and stuffed for all to see.

One explanation is that the Girt Dog of Ennerdale might have been a thylacine (a Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf). Travelling circuses and menageries of the time were known to contain what were described as “tiger wolves” – a description that fits the eyewitness testimony. However, study published in the Zoological Society of London’s Journal of Zoology in 2011 found that the Tasmanian Tiger had such weak jaws that its prey was probably no larger than a possum.

Picture: TMAG Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Ginger Beast & Sale Fell Ape

A couple walking their dog came face-to-face with a “tall, hairy, ape-like creature, with glowing red eyes”. This ‘ape’ was moving slowly towards them, but they fled in fear. Are the Ginger Beast and the Sale Fell Ape a woodwose? A wildman, or wildman of the woods depicted in verse and art as being covered with hair, or a Yeti-like creature?

Giants

Giant’s Cave, near Eden Hall is associated with the giants Tarquin and Isir. The pair lived on a diet of human flesh, a practice that probably lost its appeal when Sir Lancelot slew Tarquin in battle. The Giants Grave in Penrith is the resting place of Sir Ewain Caesarius “in old time, a famous warrior of great strength and stature” said to be 17 feet tall.

Girt Will o the Tarns is a tragic tale from the mid 18th Century. Will was a ‘gentle giant’ of 9 feet tall who fell in love with the daughter of the Laird of Coniston Hall. This love not reciprocated, he abducted the girl. The Flemings of Coniston Hall gave chase, and caught up with the pair at Kernel Dub at Yewdale Beck. Tragically the girl fell into the water and was swept away to her death. They caught up with Will, he was killed, and was buried where he fell. The long, narrow mound beside the beck has thereafter been called The Giants Grave.

In folklore, giants are beings of human appearance, but are at times enormous in size and strength. The word giant derived from the Gigantes of Greek mythology. Giants often evoke terror and remind humans of their body’s frailty and mortality, they are often portrayed as monsters and antagonists, but there are exceptions, some giants intermingle with humans in friendly way, and can even be part of human families, with their offspring appearing as regular humans.

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