Issue 38: how a unique native Australian animal is like a classical Greek character
When nature’s truth is as strange as the Western world’s most famous myths.
I’ve been on a bit of a classical history/literature tip lately. (You may have picked that up from the subject of some of this newsletter’s recent issues.)
While listening to a podcast about Hesiod's ‘Theogony’ – a c700 BC work describing the origins and genealogy of the Greek pantheon – I heard for the first time mention of “Echidna”. It immediately caught my ear, and I made a digital note to investigate it further later.
And that later, is today.
Echidna was a half-woman, half-snake, known as the ‘mother of all monsters’. She was the daughter of Phorcys and Ceto (themselves the offspring of Gaia [Earth] and Pontus [the Sea]), and sister of, among others, Medusa.
In the H G Evelyn-White translation of ‘Theogony’, she’s described as:
…fierce Echidna who is half a nymph with glancing eyes and fair cheeks, and half again a huge snake, great and awful, with speckled skin, eating raw flesh beneath the secret parts of the holy earth. And there she has a cave deep down under a hollow rock far from the deathless gods and mortal men. There, then, did the gods appoint her a glorious house to dwell in: and she keeps guard in Arima beneath the earth, grim Echidna, a nymph who dies not nor grows old all her days.
She had children with Typhon (son of Gaia and Tartarus [the Pit, or ‘underworld’]), including the Chimera, Cerberus, the Hydra, Sphinx, and the Hesperian Dragon.
As any fellow Australian might have guessed, the reason Echidna caught my ear is because it’s also the name of a unique native Australian animal.
Echidnas are hedgehog- or porcupine-like creatures.
The type specimen was collected in Tasmania in 1792 and sent back to the natural history department of the British Museum (which became the founding collection of London’s Natural History Museum).Keeper of the collection, George Shaw, supposing it a cross between a porcupine and an anteater, named it Myrmecophaga aculeata (a new species in the same genus as the South American giant anteater, Myrmecophaga tridactyla), and called it by the common name ‘porcupine anteater’.
In volume 3 of The Naturalist's Miscellany, Shaw says:
"This extraordinary animal may well be considered amongst the most curious and interesting quadrupeds yet discovered; since it is not only an absolutely new and hitherto unknown species, but is also a most striking instance of that beautiful gradation... by which creatures of one tribe or genus approach to those of a very different one."
But as views on taxonomy changed – and another bizarre Australian animal, the duck-billed platypus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus, was described in 1799 – it became accepted that the strange, spiny creature was not related to the anteater.
In fact, it and the platypus were part of a unique and ancient order named Monotremata – a rare group of only five species which lay eggs, like birds or reptiles, but feed their young on milk, like mammals.
It was French comparative anatomist, Georges Cuvier, who suggested the name Echidna – taking inspiration from Greek mythology – to describe the animal’s mixture of reptilian and mammalian characteristics.
Unfortunately, the scientific name Echidna was already taken (as a genus of moray eel). Instead, Tachyglossus – meaning ‘rapid tongue’, for the speed with which it catches insects – was proposed.
But while Tachyglossus aculeatus may be its formal name, Cuvier’s idea stuck, and the unique native Australian animal with the curious mix of characteristics, is commonly known as the echidna.
It’s important to acknowledge that hundreds, if not thousands, of years before it was ‘discovered’ by European colonisers, the echidna was known, named, and part of the Dreaming stories of indigenous Australians.