8 October 2022: Today I learned:
That the Aztec word for armadillo is ayotochtli, compounded of ayotl (turtle) and tochtli (rabbit). And more, much more!
I came across the name in the 7 Oct. New York Times crossword puzzle. Frederick Starr’s Aztec Place-names: Their Meaning and Mode of Composition says it’s so named because the armadillo has a shell like a turtle and ears like a rabbit. Fair enough. You can see their representation at Visual Lexicon of Aztec Hieroglyphs.
A Book of Creatures notes that Edward Topsell’s The History of Four-footed Beasts & Serpents (1658) “attributes the description of the Aiochtochth or Aiotochth [variant spellings] (also known in Spanish as Armato and Contexto) to Cardanus [as best I can determine, that’s polymath Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576)]. It is found in Mexico, near the Alvaradus River. An aiotochth [Topsell says] is no bigger than a cat and has the snout of a mallard, the feet of a hedgehog, and a very long neck. It is covered by a segmented, lobster-like shell resembling the trappings of a horse. It protects itself with that shell such that neither its head nor neck are clearly visible, with only the ears sticking out. Some of these creatures were brought back to London gardens where they were put to use destroying worms.” (A Book of Creatures has a super cute drawing of an armadillo, all rights reserved, go look.) (Topsell’s original writing about the aiochtochth is here if you want to decipher it yourself)
Topsell compares the armadillo in his 1,000+-page book to a tatus, or “Guinean Beast,” aka a “Brasilian Hedge-hog.” I can find only the image of the tatus online —
— not one of the aiochtochth, and an explanation may come from John R Yamamoto-Wilson at Discourses of Suffering, who writes that “the illustration accompanying Topsell’s tatus is borrowed, [Topsell] says, from Gesner’s Historiae Animalium … , and is fairly recognizably as an armadillo. … : Enquiring minds might be wondering … if the tatus is an armadillo, what is the aiochtoctch (or aiotochth, as Topsell also spells it)? It looks as if Topsell may have got his wires crossed and described the same beastie twice. George Louis Leclerc … tells us in his Histoire Naturelle that ‘le tatou’, or armadillo, is known as ‘Aiotochli au Mexique, tatu ou tatupeba au Bresil, chirquinchum à la Nouvelle Espagne’ (1799 edition, volume 3, p. 188). [Topsell] would also appear to have miscatalogued it, since he includes it in the sections which treats ‘Of Animals Common to Both Continents’ (i.e., the Old World and the New).”
While I was trying to determine who Cardanus was — as I note above, I think it’s Gerolamo Cardano, 1501-1576, about which more below — I stumbled on something else I never knew existed until today: Adriaen Collaert’s engraving Allegory of America, from the Four Continents (1580–1600, the armadillo based on a design by fellow Flemish artist Maarten de Vos), in the Metropolitan Museum in NYC (but not on view currently). It depicts a naked woman riding an armadillo, with, on the left side of the piece, “cannibals roast[ing] a human haunch as exotic fauna graze” per the Harvard Gazette description.
Thankfully, it’s in the public domain so I can show you.
Erin Anderson, in “Two Artists and an Armadillo in Antwerp” (Dec 2018) in Material Matters (a publication of Winterthur’s Program in American Material Culture), writes:
“… what in the world is going on with that armadillo? To learn more, I contacted zoologist Katy Banning who identified the armadillo in the print as the giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus), a species native to South America. Out of more than a dozen possible species of armadillo, she was able to positively identify the animal in the engraving. How? Because Collaert and de Vos had carefully illustrated the unique characteristics of this particular species with an impressive degree of scientific accuracy.”
Collaert was apparently a specialized ‘animalist,’ “commissioned to produce scientifically accurate illustrations of natural history specimens, especially exotic creatures from the New World, often basing their designs on a combination of written descriptions and physical specimens found in private collections and cabinets of curiosity. The carefully executed zoological details of Collaert and de Vos’s armadillo suggest that one or both of the artists were using a preserved specimen to inform their illustration and engraving. Armadillos are the most common New World animal in early modern natural history collections both because their bony plates preserve remarkably well and their striking unfamiliarity to European audiences increased the wondrous effects of the cabinets of curiosity.”
Speaking of armadillos, Athanasius Kircher — a flamboyant 17th-century German Jesuit polymath who, according to his own account, was “an accident-prone dimwit in his youth,” and who created the world’s first museum, which included “natural wonders, like a stuffed giant armadillo from the New World, [and] the ten-ounce gallstone of a Jesuit priest, donated by the priest himself” — and Filippo Buonanni, an Italian Jesuit scholar/polymath, published an illustration of an armadillo in 1709.
As noted in Strange Science: The Rocky Road to Modern Paleontology and Biology, “[a]lthough its head is a little small, this armadillo is pretty recognizable. What’s more intriguing about this depiction is the explanation for the animal’s strange appearance. Jesuit scholar Kircher devoted considerable time and energy to discussing the logistics of Noah’s Ark, but by the time Kircher composed his various works, the discovery of the New World had presented a serious problem. So many previously unknown creatures threatened to sink Noah’s boat. Kircher found a few workarounds: spontaneous generation for lowly creatures like bugs, adaptation for creatures ending up in strange environments, and hybrids. The armadillo, Kircher supposed, was a cross between turtle and a porcupine or hedgehog.“
Also at Strange Science is an image of an armadillo from 1605, by botanist Carolus Clusius: “Long before Kircher produced his armadillo illustration, Clusius portrayed this illustration, though perhaps of a different armadillo species. The legs in this rendition are a little too long, and the fur a little too short. Meaning the illustration, though it has its errors, is probably less weird-looking than the actual animal.”
Latin Therapy at Cambridge has a long excerpt from Clusius’s writing about the armadillo, including this: “Jacob Plateau [a collector who sent Clusius specimens] … wrote to me in November of the 1602 year … that he had in his museum three different kinds of this animal, which the Spaniards call Armadillo, from the armour with which it is covered, and by the French it is called Tatou taken from the Brazilian name.” The letter goes into great detail about the scales, the length and circumference of the body, the “sooty colour” and tesselated nature of the hide, etc., and notes that “it had a reasonably long and extruded penis.”
Hilariously, immediately below Clusius’ illustration at Strange Science is this one from the 1500s, unattributed, described as “pretty respectable for the 16th century except for two things. One, its head is all wrong. Two, it’s labeled as a sea turtle. The animal occupies a landscape of lakes and hills, with what looks like a European town in the distance.”
And now more about Gerolamo Cardano (Hieronymus Cardanus in Latin): He was an Italian doctor and “polymath, whose interests and proficiencies ranged through those of mathematician, physician, biologist, physicist, chemist, astrologer, astronomer, philosopher, writer, and gambler” and who wrote over 200 books. He was, naturally, given his interests, arrested by the Inquisition in 1570, partly for publishing a horoscope of Jesus; he was imprisoned for several months, lost his professorship, and had all his non-medical books placed in the Index (the Index Librorum Prohibitorum aka the “List of Prohibited Books,” publications “deemed heretical or contrary to morality by the Sacred Congregation of the Index,” which Catholics were forbidden to read.)
One of Gerolamo’s sons, convicted of poisoning his wife when he learned his children were illegitimate, was sentenced to death, and when Gerolamo could not pay the restitution demanded by the victim’s family, his son was beheaded. Gerolamo was himself the illegitimate son of Fazio Cardano, jurist and mathematician, who was a close friend of Leonardo da Vinci’s and is described as “always in the company of a familiar spirit who talked to him.” Fazio claimed to have had a 3-hour close encounter with aliens in Milan in 1491. (Most of the Cardano info is from Wikipedia.)
I mean, did you know all this before today?
And how is polymath not a paid position in this day and age?