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A Bronze Statue of a Baku

A Bronze Statue of a Baku

There are two sorts of dreams. In a figurative sense, your dreams are your aspirations and hopes for the future (for example I dream of getting a paying job, becoming a world famous visual artist, and colonizing our sister-planet Venus). However, in a more literal sense, dreams are a series of unreal adventures which take place inside your head when you are sleeping. Real dreams consist of strange phantasmagoria, troubling psychosexual images, intense emotions and memories as well as and undigested mental odds-and-ends…and horrifying nightmarish fears.

A baku inhaling nightmares

A baku inhaling nightmares

To start off our Halloween week of dreams and nightmares, here is a mythical animal which embodies the tension between both meanings of the word dreams. The Baku is a supernatural entity which devours dreams and nightmares. Apparently stories of the baku originated in ancient China, but these days it is most prevalent in Japan where it plays an ever growing role in folklore and fiction. The baku is a chimera which is said to have an elephant’s trunk, a rhinoceros’ eyes, an ox’s tail, and a tiger’s paws. The creature devours dreams by inhaling them through its sinuous proboscis.

baku

Not surprisingly, the baku’s moral alignment is highly controversial! In traditional Japanese texts it was a pleasant and helpful spirit which ate nightmares and thus provided afflicted sleepers with peaceful & pleasant (albeit somewhat bland) dreams. However in our fractured modern world, the baku has darkened and now it sometimes eats a person’s figurative dreams (although not having aspirations, ideas, or ambitions presumably makes a person an ideal office worker).

Baku (tattoo art by hiraistrange)

Baku (tattoo art by hiraistrange)

Originally bakus were regarded as completely supernatural, however in recent times they have become conflated with the inoffensive tapirs–which certainly physically resemble the descriptions of the mythical baku. This fact makes the baku even more confusing. It is now both a supernatural dream eating monster dwelling in the ether…and an actual living mammal which can be discovered in the rainforests of Malaysia and South America. I have always liked tapirs a great deal and so I am going to insist they are in no way malevolent. They appear to live exclusively on rainforest vegetation, but even if they did decide to branch out and inhale some human dreams, I am certain they would take our nightmares and not our fondest wishes.

An adorable baby tapir!

An adorable baby tapir!

A European Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

A European Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

Because of their tendency to tear up my tulips, eat my Christmas lights, and bore into the side of my dwelling, squirrels are not my favorite animal. But the indignities which I bear from these bushy-tailed arboreal rodents are nothing compared to the animosity roused by Ratatoskr, the squirrel of Norse mythology who dwells on the trunk of Yggdrasil, the universe tree (which is described in this previous post).

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At the apex of Yggdrasil is perched the mighty eagle Hræsvelgr who causes the winds to blow through the world by flapping his wings. At the base of the tree, curled around the roots is Níðhöggr, the underworld dragon who eats away at the roots of Yggdrasil and thus undermines all of creation. Compared to giant eagles and chthonic dragons, squirrels are low-status monsters, yet Ratatoskr managed to stir up plenty of trouble. He would run up and down the tree between the dragon and the eagle telling each creature gossip about the other. At first, Ratatoskr made up slanders to tell the two monsters, but, in no time, the two haughty beings really were cursing each other (which made Ratatoskr even happier). To quote IO9, “Ratatosk has no grand scheme, and the eagle and the dragon aren’t prophesied to fight or do anything. Ratatosk is spending his free time perpetuating an animosity for no reason whatsoever.” As though this were not bad enough, the irrepressible squirrel is also reputed to gnaw at the great tree itself.

Ratatoskr on Yggdrasil (source unknown)

Ratatoskr on Yggdrasil (Art by Daniel Lieske http://daniellieske.com )

The Vikings regarded gossip as a low and churlish form of skullduggery reserved for thralls, slaves, churls and other such hoi-polloi. It seems appropriate that the embodiment of gossip and slander in their mythology was an annoying chattering squirrel.

Model of a Moeritherium

Our story takes us back 37 million years ago to the hot moist swamps of the Eocene (again).  In the swamps of Africa lived a long low wallowing mammal 3 meters (9.8 feet long) and 70 centimeters (2.25 feet) tall.  This swamp dweller occupied the same sort of niche now taken by pygmy hippos and capybaras—it was an amphibious grazer which lived on soft water plants and could slip into the water to avoid land predators (and vice versa).  The animal was named Moeritherium, a genus consisting of several similar species, all now long extinct.

Moeritheriums (painting by Heinrich Harder)

Moeritheriums mostly had peg like teeth for grinding up vegetation, but the creatures’ second incisor teeth were elongated like daggers for display, defence, and rooting. So Moeritherium was really another saber toothed creature (like walrus, Smilodon, and Odobenocetops), but we never think of their closest living relatives as saber-toothed so it is hard for me to think of them that way.  In fact Moeritherium’s closest relatives overshadow all the details about the low-slung swamp-dwelling creature entirely because they are one of the most magnificent and intelligent orders of creature on planet Earth.  The Moeritheriums wallowing in the African swamps long ago were among the very first Proboscideans–an order of mammals including elephants, mammoths, mastodons, and gomphotheres.

An artist’s conception of a Moeritherium

Moeritheriums probably did not have a long trunk like today’s elephants, but they did have a long flexible upper lip like tapirs.  Their eyes and ears were high up on their head so they could submerge themselves but still watch the surrounding landscape. They were not direct ancestors of the elephants and mammoths but instead descended from a common ancestor, Eritherium, a rabbit sized progenitor, which was rather like a hyrax.  Moeritheriums were highly successful in their day, but they disappeared as the Eocene climate dyed up and cooled down.  Fortunately several other families of proboscideans like the paleomastodons and the Phiomias were there to carry on the magnificent order of Proboscideans.

Paleomastodon (painting by Heinrich Harder)

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