A surprising number of medieval animals were thought to have a magical body part, or to have a magical object embedded in them, or to be able to produce a magical object. These magical beastie bits were, of course, much sought after, and often doomed the beastie that had them. In this ?-part series, we will examine some of these magical thingies.
Asp eying a large carbuncle, which
clearly did not come out of its head.
Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KA 16.
Asp (or adder): The asp, aka adder, was said to have a blood-red, glowing stone in its head, called the carbuncle. “Carbuncle” means something like “little glowing coal”; it may have been the garnet or almandine. Exactly what the carbuncle was used for is not stated, but that its use was magical is implied by who is said to seek it: conjurers or enchanters. Magicians, in other words. According to some accounts, the carbuncle was said to be in the dragon’s head — there was general confusion between dragons and other serpents — and that it had to be taken from a live dragon, since it would turn to dust if the dragon/asp stopped breathing. Taking a stone from the head of a live, breathing dragon — or a venomous asp, for that matter — would have been a bit impractical, so the beast had to be put to sleep. For the dragon, this was done by burning drugged grass outside the dragon’s den; for the asp, the enchanter would sing or recite a spell in the asp’s hearing. The asp knew full well what those tricky magicians were after and how they meant to get it, so it would press one ear to the ground and plug the other one with its tail to avoid falling under the spell and losing its carbuncle. A good strategy for a beastie with no thumbs to stuff in its ears.
Imperious eagle with a geode.
Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º.
Eagle: Some kinds of eagles have a stone called the eagle-stone (aëtites or gagites) built into their nests; this stone can survive fire without loss of virtue, and is useful in many cures. The stone is large and has another stone inside it, which can be heard to rattle when shaken. It may be the geode, which is hollow and can have loose rattly things in it. Says CW King in The Natural History of Precious Stones and Gems (1865): “The best kind were asserted to be only found in the nests of eagles, which could not breed without their aid; hence their name. They, for this reason, were of the greatest benefit to women in labour; a notion which even Dioscorides appears to endorse. The substance itself … was one of those calcareous hollow concretions, sometimes white, sometimes tinged with iron, well known to geologists; and which appear to be accidental formations, not petrifactions of older organised bodies.” The eagle-stone was called the pregnant stone, because of the second stone inside it, and was said to promote successful birth. The stone is also useful, according to Dioscorides, in detecting thieves: bread is made containing the stone, or sprinkled with powder made from the stone, and suspected thieves are made to eat the bread; the guilty one will be unable to swallow even a mouthful.