Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Birdwalking through life

I have sometimes compared the sensation inside my brain as being like riding the Tilt-o-Whirl backwards.

I've had a combination of an extremely short attention span and insatiable curiosity since I was a kid.  I still remember when I was about ten and my parents splurged on a complete set of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, figuring (rightly) that it would come in handy during my education.  What they didn't figure on was my capacity for getting completely and inextricably lost in it.  I'd start out looking up some fact -- say, what year James Madison was elected president -- then get distracted by a nearby entry and head off toward that, and before you knew it I was sitting on the living room floor with a dozen of the volumes open to articles having to do with a string of only vaguely-connected topics.  I could start out with James Madison and end up in an entry for the flora and fauna of Cameroon, with no real idea how I'd gotten from one to the other.

That facet of my personality hasn't changed any in the intervening five-odd decades.  I still birdwalk my way through the world, something regular readers of Skeptophilia undoubtedly know all too well (and if you are a regular reader, thank you for putting up with my whirligig approach to life).  Now, of course, I don't need an Encyclopedia Brittanica; the internet is positively made for people like me, to judge by the winding path I took just yesterday.

It all started when I was doing some research into the origin of the word cynosure (meaning "something attention-getting, a guidepost or focal point") for my popular feature "Ask Linguistics Guy" over on TikTok.  I was pretty certain that the word came from the Greek κυνός, meaning "dog," but I wasn't sure of the rest of the derivation.  (I was right about κυνός, but for the rest of the story you'll have to check out my video, which I'll post later today on TikTok.)

But while looking up cynosure my eye was caught by the preceding entry in the etymological dictionary, cynocephaly.  Which means "having a dog's head."

Fig. 1: an example of cynocephaly.  Of course, he's kind of cyno-everything, so it probably doesn't count.  And if you are thinking that I'm only using this as an excuse to post a photograph of my extremely cute puppy, you're on to me.

A more common usage of cynocephaly is someone who has a dog's head and a human body, and it was apparently a fairly common belief back in the day that such beings existed.  In the fifth century B.C.E. the Greek writer Ctesias of Cnidus wrote a book in which he claimed that there was a whole race of cynocephalic people in India, which he was free to say because he'd apparently never been there and neither had any of his readers.  Other writers said that the Cynocephali lived in Libya or Serbia or Finland or Sumatra; you'd think the fact that none of those places are close to each other would have clued them in that there was something amiss, but no.  There was even a discussion in the ninth century, launched amongst the church fathers by a theologian named Ratramnus of Corbie, about whether dog-headed people would have eternal souls or not, because if they did, it was incumbent upon the Christians to find them and preach the Gospel to them.

As far as I know, this discussion came to nothing, mostly because the Cynocephali don't exist.

In any case, this got me on the track of looking into the attitudes of the medievals toward dogs, and my next stop was the story of Saint Guinefort.  If you've never heard of Saint Guinefort, I'm sure you're not alone; he was never officially beatified by the Catholic Church, because he's a dog.  The legend goes that a knight near Lyon had a greyhound named Guinefort, and he left his infant son in the care of the dog one day (that's some solid parenting, right there).  Well, when the knight returned, the cradle was overturned, and Guinefort's jaws were dripping blood.  The infuriated knight pulled his sword and killed the dog, assuming Guinefort had killed the baby.  Only then did he think to turn the cradle over (a real genius, this knight) -- and there was the baby, safe and sound, along with a dead viper covered with dog bites.  So the knight felt just terrible, and erected a shrine to Guinefort, who was venerated in the area as a saint, despite the local priests saying "Hey, you can't do that!" and even threatening to fine people who came there to pray.  The whole episode supposedly happened in the thirteenth century -- but people were still bringing their sick children to be blessed by Saint Guinefort in the 1940s!

From there I started looking into folklore surrounding protectors of children, and after several more jumps that I won't belabor you with, I ended up reading about the mythical monster called Coco (or Cucuy) from Spain and Portugal.  The Coco is a hooded figure that is supposed to haunt houses with children, sometimes appearing only as a stray shadow cast by no physical object.  (Shades of the pants-wettingly terrifying Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Identify Crisis," which if you haven't watched I highly recommend -- only don't watch it while you're alone.)

Fig. 2: "Wait a moment... whose shadow is that?"  *shudder*

Anyhow, the idea is that El Coco particularly goes after disobedient children, so the legend probably started as a way for parents to get their kids to behave.  The problem with these kinds of stories, though, is that it's a fine line between scaring kids enough to obey the rules and scaring them so much they refuse to sleep, which is why there are lullabies about keeping the Coco away.  Some are barely better than the legend itself:

Duérmete niño, duérmete ya...
Que viene el Coco y te comerá

(Sleep child, sleep or else...
Coco will come and eat you)
I don't know about you, but that would have pacified the absolute shit out of me when I was four years old.  I would have been so pacified I wouldn't have closed my eyes until I was in my mid-twenties.  Then there's this one, from Portugal:
Vai-te Coco. Vai-te Coco
Para cima do telhado
Deixa o menino dormir
Um soninho descansado
Dorme neném
Que a Coco vem pegar
Papai foi pra roça
Mamãe foi trabalhar

(Leave Coco. Leave Coco
Go to the top of the roof
Let the child have
A quiet sleep
Sleep little baby
That Coco comes to get you
Daddy went to the farm
Mommy went to work)
Because there's nothing like "hey, kid, your parents are gone, so you're on your own if the monsters come" to get a child to settle down.  Maybe they should have hired a greyhound or something.

Fig. 3: Que Viene el Coco, by Goya (1799).  The mom looks like she's about to say, "You can have the kids, I'm getting right the fuck outta here."  [Image is in the Public Domain]

In the "See Also" listings at the bottom of the page for El Coco was an entry for Madame Koi-Koi, who sounded interesting (and whom I had also never heard of).  So that was my next stop.  Turns out Madame Koi-Koi is -- and I am not making up the wording -- "one of the most popular boarding school ghosts in Nigeria, Ghana, and South Africa."  Myself, I wouldn't have thought there were enough boarding school ghosts to turn it into a competition, but shows you what I know.  Supposedly Madame Koi-Koi is the ghost of a wicked teacher who was killed by her own students because of her cruelty, and now she haunts schools.  She always wears high heels -- "Koi-Koi" is apparently imitative of the sound her heels make on the floor -- so at least you can hear her coming.  Her favorite thing is to corner students in the bathroom for some reason, especially at night.

Getting up to pee at two a.m. is a fraught affair, in many African boarding schools.

Anyhow, I suppose I've recounted enough of my wanderings.  I'd like to tell you that I stopped there and then went and did something productive, but that would be a lie.  But at least you have a sense of what it's like in my head 24/7.

I hope you enjoyed the ride.  At least you can get off.


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