What do you get if you cross a camel with a leopard? A Giraffe of course - or to use its original title, the aptly named ‘Camelopard’. Well that’s what the old Europeans used to think, and camelopard was the name which was originally given to the long necked African creature; quite simply because its body resembled that of a camel, and its markings were something akin to a leopards.
This term was used up until the 19th century, and because very few people had actually witnessed one of these creatures first-hand, they were often depicted as literally being half camel, half leopard - as shown in the following illustration by Polish physician, John Jonston:
But is wasn’t just the Europeans who were confused by this unique looking animal. Over in the Far East explorers who had travelled westward along The Silk Road to Africa reported on the foreign forma they had seen, and upon describing the giraffe, it was concluded that what they had actually witnessed was the Chinese Qilin, (or Kirin in Japanese), the East Asian Unicorn!
So how alike was the giraffe to the mythical qilin? Well, the creature was alleged to posses the following characteristics: thick eyelashes (tick), a mane (tick), hooves of a horse (tick), the shape of a horse, (errr, half a tick), antlers (sort of tick), scales (well, it has scale-like patterning… tick), and was golden in colour (yes! big tick).
To seal the deal even the behaviour of the giraffe seemed to match the mythical East Asian beast, as they were believed to be vegetarian, quiet in nature, and had the ability to “walk on the grass without disturbing it”; which, at a stretch (if you’ll excuse the pun), could relate to the giraffes long and delicate legs.
And then finally, in 1414, after the arduous journey across the India Ocean, a now sea worthy * Somalian Giraffe was presented to The Great Ming, ruler of China.
Upon seeing the animal, Confucian scholars decided that it indeed was a qilin. And then in addition, (just when you thought no further clarification was necessary), they learnt the local Somali name for the beast: a Girin.
You couldn’t make it up!
* It’s worth noting that the Somalian Giraffe, aka. the Reticulated Giraffe, is known for its unique patterning - which just so happens to be the most “scale-like” amongst the giraffe species.
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In Greek mythology, Halcyone and Ceyx were lovers who incurred the wrath of the god Zeus by mocking him and his wife. Angered, Zeus killed Ceyx.