Saturday, April 13, 2019

Debunking Forteana

This is a slightly curious little booklet from 1951. The language is Swedish and the publisher is Bibliofila Klubben, “the Club of Bibliophiles”. Presumably a bunch of upper class nerds who really love rare books. If so, they got what they wanted with this one, the Xth volume of “Literary Curiosities”, only printed in 475 numbered copies. Weirdly, I can´t find any number on my copy. The contents consist of three monographs written by Carl von Linné alias Carolus Linnaeus, the great 18th century Swedish scientist. Two of them seem to be pretty well known, so I´m not sure how rare they *really* are…

The most interesting and well-known one is “Anmärkning över de djuren som sägas komma neder utur skyarna i Norrige”, first published in 1740. It deals with the lemmings, which were widely believed to “rain” from the clouds in northern Sweden and Norway. I think this folk belief is recorded already by Olaus Magnus in his famous 16th century work on the history of the Nordic peoples. The belief existed in two versions. One claimed that the lemmings were actually generated in the clouds, while the other (defended by 17th century Danish scientist Ole Worm) said that clouds have the ability to whisk away both animals and humans (a bit like storms, I suppose). Two priests in Lapland hotly defended this proposition when Linné visited.

In his monograph, Linné carefully describes his own experiences with bad weather when exploring the high hills in the area. He reaches the conclusion that the clouds simply can´t snatch humans or even small animals from the ground. Linné then describes the dramatic mass migrations of the lemmings, and also gives the reader some basic information about the life of the Laps (or Sami), the Native people 
in northern Scandinavia and Finland. He doesn´t know the exact reasons for the lemming migrations, but is sure that it must be natural and calls on the locals to investigate the question further.

Another monograph deals with the raccoon, which Linné believed to be a species of bear, hence calling it “Ursus cauda elongata”, Ursus being the Latin word for bear. The Swedish crown prince Adolf Fredrik had gracefully given the great scientist a live specimen, which then made Linné´s house unsafe. He didn´t seem to mind, though, and dutifully recorded its mischievous behavior in this monograph.

The final and third text deals with a monkey, which Linné calls “SIMIA caudata barbata, fronte barbaqve fastigiata”, or Diana for short, presumably the species today known as the Diana monkey (Cercopithecus diana). The monkey in question was another pet of Linné´s, this time a gift from Queen Lovisa Ulrika. This essay is also relatively well known, since Linnaeus makes the sensational claim that apes and monkeys are virtually identical to humans, so similar in fact, that the only way to separate them is for the scientists to borrow “invisible” traits from the philosophers. This greatly upset many people in Linné´s own time, despite the fact that he (this was 100 years before Darwin) didn´t really believe in evolution.

All in all, quite interesting light bedtime reading. And if you dislike Linné´s debunking of Forteana, don´t worry, he believed in the Wildman (Homo ferus) so there is probably still some cryptid connections to be mined from his voluminous writings... 

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