Episode 31 - The Purple Headed Wibbler in the Garden (Vegetables Week)
Updated: Apr 18
Sam's Episode Notes: The vegetable lamb of Tartary, a stupid medieval monster that's about as threatening as it sounds.
So, since it's vegetable week, I'm going to be discussing sheep. More precisely, half sheep half plants, and a particularly stupid monster from late classical and medieval folklore. This is the second week in a row I've done ridiculous folklore, and that's because it's fucking fun. I think this might be my shipwrecks.
I do have to be careful though because, as we've discussed before, nonsense legendary monsters from the East is kind of you bag, that was your dissertation.
But this is a great example of a combination of Chinese whispers and filling in the blanks of trying to explain something you don't understand whilst not wanting to admit you don't know. So you make some shit up, and everyone starts to believe it. And this was a surprisingly long-held myth.
So what is a vegetable lamb, Tom? Well it does pretty much what it says on the tin. There's two main versions of the story – The first option is that it's a lamb that's grown as a vegetable. Instead of an umbilical cord, the lamb grows out of the ground on a long, straight stalk, meaning it sort of teeters precariously a bit like a sunflower a few feet off the ground. Fortunately, the stalk is very flexible, so the lambs able to throw its weight over and dive to the ground to eat before the stalk twangs it back into place.
Makes complete sense evolutionarily, right? The only problem is that once the lamb has exhausted all of the food around the plant, both it and the plant die. On the upside, you can then cut it down and eat it.
The second option is that the vegetable lamb is actually a type of melon, why the fuck not. And when the melon is ripe a lamb pops out. However, if you pick the melon and smash it before its ripe, the lamb is killed and you can eat both the lamb and the melon. So essentially it's sort of a ready made tagine.
These aren't the only nonsense plant-animal hybrids from mythology, incidentally, oh no. They are a phenomenon called zoophytes, and there are a few dotted throughout history. There's one called the Waq Waq tree which originated somewhere around the Indian Ocean and became popular in 12th century Islamic art – The Waq Waq was a tree which grew humans head first – so you'd get a head, then the rest of the body would sort of plop down from underneath. It's thought that came about from the discovery by Arabic philosophers and scientists of the coconut tree, since coconuts sort of look like hairy heads with faces.
In China there was the Jinmenju, which again was a tree that grew fruit that looked like babies heads. The heads never spoke but they did laugh and pull faces. If they get too excited they fall off the tree and splat on the ground, which is a bit morbid, and apparently if eaten their fruit is both sweet and sour and full of seeds that also look like tiny faces. Because of course you're going to eat the babies head, why wouldn't you. I know I shouldn't, but they're frightfully moreish.
And then there's the barnacle tree. Which is a very odd one from medeival Europe and particularly Britain. Now what does the barnacle tree grow, Tom?
No, it grows geese. Because fucking medeival people. The barnacle tree was a completely illogical answer as to why Geese were spotted flying South every winter. We now know they are migrating, but that was a bit complicated, so instead the answer was clearly a tree on the shores of the Irish sea that grew fruit that looked like a barnacle, but was in fact goose eggs. When these ripened they fell into the sea and hatched into geese, which then flew to the south whilst leaving their barnacle-like shells to wash up on the shore.
Anyway, back to the vegetable lamb. It all kicked off in ancient Palestine under the Roman Empire – as early as the third or fourth century AD. Jewish folklore around this time started telling of a creature called the Yeduah which grew to the east, which was a lamb on a stalk whose bones could be used to divine the future or please God in divinations and prayer.
There was also another version of this story called the Jedua, which replaced the lamb with a very aggressive human on a stem, which would wibble down and eat anyone who was foolish enough to get within wibbling range.
It was written about extensively by Odoric of Pordenone, a franciscan monk who was dispatched on a mission from Italy to China in 1318. He claimed the creature lived in tartary – sort of modern day Georgia, northern Iran and Turkmenistan. Incidentally, he did make it to China, one of the first westerners to do so, and lived there for several years. He may have also been the first Christian monk to set foot in the Philippines, though that's debated.
Odoric also, by the way, wrote extensively on the barnacle tree. So whilst he was an impressive explorer, he wasn't immune from repeating tall stories and porky pies.
The legend survived another 50 years or so before it was bought to massive prominence and public fame by the famous 14th century book the Travels of Sir John Mandeville. No one really knows who Sir John was, or even if he was a real person, but at any rate the incredible nonsense that makes up his 'what I did on my holidays' book took the work of many other writers, including Oderic, and made a complete hash of it. So the legend goes from being 'locals talk of a lamb on a stick' to 'I've seen actual donner kebabs growing out of the ground in Persia, honest guv.'
Aaand so it goes that a story understood to be a legend suddenly becomes fact. And it remained that way for hundreds of years, because people believed in Sir John Mandeville's travels for hundreds of years. This was a book of absolute tosh that for some reason became the pre-eminent travel guide of the late medieval period and most of the renaissance. Christopher Columbus was a big fan.
And this legend reached to the top of society, where even more shite was spouted about it. There's a guy called Sigismund, who in the early 16th century was the Holy Roman Empire's ambassador to Russia, who wrote in his notes that he was reliably informed by dozens of people that the lamb was real and commonly found between the Jaick and Volga Rivers on the Caspain coast.
He adds that it was about 80cm high, looked like a melon until it hatched, and had blood but not lambs skin, because actually it looked more like a crab, with hooves of matted hair. So there you go, not only perpetuating the nonsense with more 'my mate's mate told me' pub chat shite, but making it worse by adding a crab into the mix.
Incidentally, have you ever been told shit about a mate's mate whose done something? My favourite was always that a friend's friend dried some banana skins and smoked them to get high, which plenty of my friends tried in school and just got a bit ill.
In fact, the legend became so common that in 1658 Thomas Browne included it in his book Pseudodoxia Epidemica – also known as Enquiries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths. That book is commonly thought of as one of the first books which uses scientific theory of observation and experimentation to disprove myths and pseudoscience and is very important as a result, and even here, 1200 years after the legend first appeared, Browne is having to insist to the general population that no, there are no lambs on springly flowers in Persia. It's all bollocks.
But it wasn't just in the west that this story evolved – the Chinese had a similar legend about a Persian tree which grew lambs. So almost the exact same story, with the exact same origin, thousands of miles away. I'm going to suggest that's Odoric's fault since he's the only person in this story who connects Europe, China and Tartary.
In fact, the story only really started to die out after expeditions were sent to try and find one, at which point all the locals said no that's just an old legend what are you on about, and with the arrival in Europe of widespread cotton use – or, if you like, a ball of wool which grows on a stick. Which suddenly made a lot more sense than an actual lamb on a stick, which instead became a staple of kebab shops the world over. Alongside dog on a stick. And rat on a stick. And anything else we can compress into kebab form. On a stick.
Tom's notes: Priapus (and his collection of poems The Priapeia), Rome's bad-tempered and EXTREMELY well endowed garden-protecting gnome-God.
· A collection of close to a hundred Latin epigrams from the first to early second century AD
§ Ancient Greek in origin an so of course prevalent in Rome
§ Usually witty, often sarcastic and designed to be inscribed and read aloud from the inscription
§ Often present on funerary monuments
§ Often just witty graffiti
· The epigrams in the Priapeia were probably originally inscriptions made in shrines to the Ancient god Priapus.
o The authorship is unknown
o Possible one individual, possibly a group
o We won’t delve into this rather boring topic, instead, let’s listen to some. I’ll then describe the god Priapus.
So who was Priapus? Let’s let him tell us.
I’ve used the translation of the Priapeia by Leonard C. Smithers and Sir Richard Burton. 1890. These poems are from the mouth of Priapus
· Jove controls the thunderbolts; the trident is Neptune's weapon; Mars is mighty by the sword; thine, Minerva, is the spear. Bacchus fights his battles with a bundle of thyrsi; the bolt, we are told, is shot by Apollo's hand. Hercules' invincible right arm is equipped with a club; but a mentule at full stretch makes me appalling.
· He’s got a big wanger
· Just so that you can develop a clear picture of Priapus, he’s basically a garden gnome with a permanently erect, humungous dong. Bearded, small, cantankerous and apparently very ugly
· The steward has bidden me, the protector of this fertile garden, have a care of the place committed to my charge. Thou, O thief, shalt be punished; thou mayst be enraged, and say, 'On account of a cabbage am I to endure this? On account of a cabbage?'
· He’s a god associated with fertility, good harvests, protection of gardens; those sort of things
· Wood sculptures of Priapus were often placed in gardens to protect them from thieves and trespassers.
o So what is the punishment for these people if Priapus catches them?
· Though I am, as you see, a wooden Priapus, with wooden reaping-hook and a wooden penis; yet I will seize thee, and when thou art caught [my girl], I will enjoy thee. And the whole of this, large though it be, and stiffer than twisted cord, than the string of the lyre, I will surely bury in thee to thy seventh rib.
· Thou who wickedly designest, and scarce forbearest from robbing my garden, shall be sodomised with my twelve-inch fascinum [phallus]. But if so severe and unpleasant a punishment shall not avail., I will strike higher.
· Take heed lest thou art caught. If I do seize thee, nor with my club will I belabour thee, nor cruel wounds with the curved sickle will inflict on thee. Thrust into by my twelve-inch I pole, thou shalt be so stretched that thou wilt drink thy anus never had any wrinkles.
· Thou shalt be pedicate (lad!), thou also (lass!) shalt be rogered; While for the bearded thief is the third penalty kept.
· If a woman, man, or boy, thieve from me, let her coynte, his mouth, the latter's buttocks, be submitted [to my mentule].
· So long as thou snatchest nothing from me with audacious hand, thou mayst be chaster than Vesta herself. But, if thou dost, these belly-weapons of mine will so stretch thee that thou wilt be able to slip through thy own anus.
I don’t want you to think that Priapus is just some aggressive, lecherous, sexually violent gnome with an enormous dick, he has a clever and witty side that you just don’t see Mum (and that’s why I’m marrying him).
· Whenever I speak, one word slips me; for, talking with a lisp, I always say instead of praedico, paedico
· Play on words, do not trespass, I will sodomise you
I’m going to move away from the Priapeia now and tell you a bit more about Priapus to finish off
· He was the son of Aphrodite and was cursed by Hera to be ugly and rude when in utero because of Paris’s judgement that Aphrodite was more beautiful than Hera (a very famous classical story).
· He was thrown to earth by the other gods because of his ugliness and he lived amongst the satyrs with pan until becoming a god of fertility, growth, harvest etc.
· To finish, here’s my favourite story
o According to Ovid (the Roman poet from the turn of the millennia), Priapus was at a feast when Hestia or possibly a nymph, fall asleep. He gets a bit horny and decides to rape her, like any responsible adult would, however, midway through the act, a donkey starts braying nearby and it puts him off so he can’t finish the business. Frustrated and angry, Priapus then beats the donkey to death with his cock.