Vegetable Lamb of Tartary
|(Scythian Lamb, Borometz, Barometz, Borametz)|
The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary
|First reported||11th century|
The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary (Latin: Agnus scythicus or Planta Tartarica Barometz) is a legendary zoophyte of Central Asia, once believed to grow sheep as its fruit. The sheep were connected to the plant by an umbilical cord and grazed the land around the plant. When all the plants were gone, both the plant and sheep died.
Although it owed its currency in medieval thought as a way of explaining the existence of cotton, underlying the myth is a real plant, Cibotium barometz, a fern of the genus Cibotium. It was known under various other names including the Scythian Lamb, the Borometz, Barometz and Borametz, the latter three being different spellings of the local word for lamb. The "lamb" is produced by removing the leaves from a short length of the fern's woolly rhizome. When the rhizome is inverted, it fancifully resembles a woolly lamb with the legs being formed by the severed petiole bases.
In his book, The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary (1887), Henry Lee describes the legendary lamb as believed to be both a true animal and a living plant. However, he states that some writers believed the lamb to be the fruit of a plant, sprouting forward from melon-like seeds. Others, however, believed the lamb to be a living member of the plant that, once separated from it, would perish. The vegetable lamb was believed to have blood, bones, and flesh like that of a normal lamb. It was connected to the earth by a stem, similar to an umbilical cord, that propped the lamb up above ground. The cord could flex downward, allowing the lamb to feed on the grass and plants surrounding it. Once the plants within reach were eaten, the lamb died. It could be eaten, once dead, and its blood supposedly tasted sweet like honey. Its wool was said to be used by the native people of its homeland to make head coverings and other articles of clothing. The only carnivorous animals attracted to the lamb-plant (other than humans) were wolves.
There is mention of a similar plant-animal in Jewish folklore as early as AD 436. This creature, called the Yeduah, was like a lamb in form and sprouted from the earth connected to a stem. Those who went hunting the Yeduah could only harvest the creature by severing it from its stem with arrows or darts. Once the animal was severed, it died and its bones could be used in divination and prophetic ceremonies.
An alternative version of the legend tells of the "Faduah", a human-shaped plant-animal connected to the earth from a stem attached to its navel. The Faduah was believed to be aggressive, though, grabbing and killing any creature that wandered too close. Like the Barometz, it too died once severed from its stem.
The Minorite Friar Odoricus of Friuli, upon recalling first hearing of a Barometz, told of trees on the shore of the Irish Sea with gourd-like fruits that fell into the water and became birds called Bernacles. He is referring to the legendary plant-animal, the Barnacle Tree, which was believed to drop its ripened fruit into the sea near the Orkney Islands. The ripened fruit would then release “barnacle geese” that would live in the water, growing to mature geese. The alleged existence of this fellow plant-animal was accepted as an explanation for migrating geese from the North.
In his work The Shui-yang or Watersheep and The Agnus Scythicus or Vegetable Lamb (1892), Gustav Schlegel points to Chinese legends of the "watersheep" as inspiration for the legend of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary. Much like the vegetable lamb, the watersheep was believed to be both plant and animal and tales of its existence placed it near Persia. It was connected to the ground by a stem and, if the stem were severed, it would die. The animal was protected from aggressors by an enclosure built around it and by armored men yelling and beating drums. Its wool was also said to be used for fine clothing and headdresses. (In turn, the origin of watersheep is an explanation for sea silk).
In search of the legend
Earlier versions of the legend tell of the lamb as a fruit, springing from a melon or gourd-like seed, perfectly formed as if born naturally. As time passed, this idea was replaced with the notion that the creature was indeed both a living animal and a living plant. Gustav Schlegel, in his work on the various legends of the vegetable lamb, recounts the lamb being born without its horns, but with two puffs of white, curly hair instead.
Sir John Mandeville is credited with bringing the legend to public attention in England in the 14th century during the reign of King Edward III. Mandeville returned from Tartary describing a strange gourd-like fruit grown there. Once ripe, the fruit was cut open, revealing what looked like a lamb in flesh and blood but lacking wool. The fruit and the lamb could then be eaten.
In the mid 16th century, Sigismund, Baron von Herberstein, who in 1517 and 1526 was the Ambassador to the Emperors Maximilian I and Charles V, presented a much more detailed account of the Barometz in his "Notes on Russia". He claimed to have heard from too many credible sources to doubt the lamb’s existence and gave the location of the creature as being near the Caspian Sea, between the Jaick and Volga rivers. The creature grown from the melon-like seeds described was said to grow to two and half feet high (80 cm), resembling a lamb in most ways except a few. It was said to have blood, but not true flesh as it more closely resembled that of a crab. Unlike a normal lamb, its hooves were said to be made of parted hair. It was the favourite food of wolves and other animals.
The German scholar and physician Engelbert Kaempfer accompanied an embassy to Persia in 1683 with the intention of locating the lamb. After speaking with native inhabitants and finding no physical evidence of the lamb-plant, Kaempfer concluded it to be nothing but legend. However, he observed the custom of removing an unborn lamb from its mother’s womb in order to harvest the soft wool and believed the practice to be a possible source of the legend. He speculated further that museum specimens of the fetal wool could be mistaken for a vegetable substance.
E'en round the Pole the flames of love aspire,
And icy bosoms feel the secret fire,
Cradled in snow, and fanned by Arctic air,
Shines, gentle borametz, thy golden hair
Rooted in earth, each cloven foot descends,
And round and round her flexile neck she bends,
Crops the grey coral moss, and hoary thyme,
Or laps with rosy tongue the melting rime;
Eyes with mute tenderness her distant dam,
And seems to bleat - a vegetable lamb
Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas writes of the vegetable lamb in his poem La Semaine (1587). In the poem, Adam wanders the Garden of Eden and is amazed by the peculiarity of the creature. Joshua Sylvester translates:
But with true beasts, fast in the ground still sticking
Feeding on grass, and th’ airy moisture licking,
Such as those Borametz in Scythia bred
Of slender seeds, and with green fodder fed;
Although their bodies, noses, mouths, and eyes,
Of new-yeaned lambs have full the form and guise,
And should be very lambs, save that for foot
Within the ground they fix a living root
Which at their navel grows, and dies that day
That they have browzed the neighboring grass away.
Oh! Wondrous nature of God only good,
The beast hath root, the plant hath flesh and blood.
The nimble plant can turn it to and fro,
The nummed beast can neither stir nor goe,
The plant is leafless, branchless, void of fruit,
The beast is lustless, sexless, fireless, mute:
The plant with plants his hungry paunch doth feede,
Th’ admired beast is sowen a slender seed.
In his work Connubia Florum, Latino Carmine Demonstrata (1791), Dr. De la Croix writes of the vegetable lamb (translated):
For in his path he sees a monstrous birth,
The Borametz arises from the earth
Upon a stalk is fixed a living brute,
A rooted plant bears quadruped for fruit,
…It is an animal that sleeps by day
And wakes at night, though rooted in the ground,
To feed on grass within its reach around.
- These are not scientific names, but predate binomial nomenclature.
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- Lee, 1887 p. 5
- Lee, 1887 p. 6
- Lee, 1887 p. 11
- Lehner, Ernst, and Johanna Lehner. Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants, and Trees. New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1960. pg. 86.
- Schlegel, Gustav. The Shui-yang or Watersheep and The Agnus Scythicus or Vegetable Lamb. Acts of the 8th International Congress of Orientalists. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1892. pg 23.
- Lee, 1887 p. 12
- Schlegel, Gustav. The Shui-yang or Watersheep and The Agnus Scythicus or Vegetable Lamb. Acts of the 8th International Congress of Orientalists. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1892. pg 31.
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- Darwin, Erasmus (1825) . The Botanic Garden. London: Jones & Company.
- Lee, 1887 p. 18
- Ho, Judith. "Legend of the Lamb Plant." probe 2.3 (1992): n. pag. http://www.nal.usda.gov/pgdic/Probe/v2n3/legend.html. Web. 2 Feb. 2010.
- Diderot, Denis. "Agnus scythicus." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Malcolm Eden. Ann Arbor: Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan Library, 2003. Web. Trans. of "Agnus scythicus," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 1. Paris, 1751.
- Electronic Gaming Monthly (218). August 2007.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Vegetable Lamb of Tartary.|
- Legend of the Lamb-Plant
- Note to Sir Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, III.28
- Agnus scythicus (Natural history. Botany)