Myths, Monsters and Hobbits

~Ever wondered where the fabled unicorn came from? Or maybe the phoenix? Did hobbits actually exist?~

There are probably more than a hundred TV channels here in UK and we do need to read a TV guide to determine what to watch or what to record every night. I hardly see Sky3 but for some reason I found the title “Myths, Monsters, and Hobbits” intriguing, so I set the box to tape the show.

I thought the documentary will bring me to some fantasy land in England, a secret town where hobbits used to live, where Middle-Earth existed hundreds of years a go, where elves with sharp ears and glimmering heads singing, and gollum hissed behind the greens.

Instead, Dr. Lawrence Blair, the adventurer, explorer and anthropologist, with wild white hair and cool eye patch, took me to a rather familiar place he claimed to be the source of all the myths existed in the world: INDONESIA.

6profileBlair first came to Indonesia more than 30 years a go, and found that, “the environment astounded me, the people fascinated me, and I embarked on a three-decade journey of discovery throughout the islands.  I encountered the extraordinary of plants and animals as well as legends of barely-believable beasts. It dawned on me that many of mythological creatures which have haunted our fairy tales may well have derived from here.” He added that over the years he has seen a lot of strange things in Indonesia and heard even stranger stories, and experienced many phenomena which rattle our preconceptions of how life ought to behave.

So Blair is going on a quest for the real animals which may have inspired the legends of fire-breathing dragons, of fire-dwelling phoenixes, unicorns, goblins and hobbits, our smallest and most mysterious relatives.

What sort of truth might hide behind these legendary creatures?

Goblin

Blair believes that hantu is the mythical ancestor of goblins and elves, and the inspiration of  Yoda of Star Wars, and he sailed to a remote island of Siau, off Manado (North Sulawesi), where there is an American scientist exploring the species.

Apparently, the mysterious goblin, the elf of the forest, was inspired by none other than tarsier, a creature that is closely related to us, but is eaten on a regular basis by the locals. In Kalimantan (Borneo), the animal is referred to as hantu (ghost or ancestral spirit), and the head-hunting tribes consider it as a bad omen to spot one because of its ability to swivel its head round 180 degrees and look directly back at you over its shoulder, implicating that you might be losing your own head. Blair and the team managed to catch the new species of baby tarsier which looked terrified by the giant hands which held it. But even though it is so tiny, the little creature is a carnivore which eats only live flesh like large insects, snakes, lizards, birds, and bats.

Phoenix

Cendrawasih, or the red bird of paradise, is entwined in the phoenix myth. In the 19th century their feathers were such in demand for ladies’ hats in Europe the birds were almost extinguished. I remember my father once went home with the dead bird and put it on display, and for months I admired its smooth feathers and bright colours, before Indonesian government announced its extinction and threatened to fine whoever brought or possessed the bird from Irian Jaya, dead or alive. Several species have fire-like tail feathers and can look like flames streaking through the forest.

There is also maleo bird, the kinds that only live in Sulawesi, which is probably another source of the phoenix myth. As Sulawesi is full of volcanic fumaroles and hot springs, the geothermal energy is used by maleo birds to incubate their giant eggs. They nest between the areas, and the first  European explorers who came there saw the steam and assumed it was smoke; the smoke of the fire which phoenix birds emerged. The bird lays its eggs in deep pits, buried  three feet of steaming earth, and the hatching have to burrow to the surface in full working order, and fly off as if born from fire.

Unicorn

Tales of the unicorn reached the West via Persia from India and China. Their horn was powerful magic and aphrodisiac. Only the pure heart could tame a unicorn, and it would surrender to a virgin and lay its head into her lap. It has been noted that the 13th century traveller Marco Polo claimed to have seen a unicorn in Java or Sumatera. The source of the myth? None other than Sumateran rhinoceros or Javan Rhinoceros. And I thought unicorn was a horse, before I read about the myth more in wikipedia!

Dragons

dragonWhere else you would find the source of the myth if not in Komodo Island with its komodo dragon. Dr Blair has been visiting the island for years, and once was stalked and charged by two of those nasty creatures, treed for five hours until they got bored and cleared off.

The dragon myth probably came to Europe by the Chinese who had been trading in the island for millenia, but only in 1911 these enormous lizards came to the attention of the outside world. Blair, who could speak Indonesian very well, also said that, “In 1926 the young American cameramen called Willies O’Brian arrived in the island. He was so impressed by Komodo’s haunting, prehistoric vibes, and the village that barricaded itself against marauding dragons, that it inspired his set designs for a movie called… King Kong“.

Today’s komodo dragons, which have survived for God knows how long, are probably the mini version of  from a much larger species of Varanus which haunted the island not so along a go. The creatures are nasty carnivore which will be more than happy to hunt and eat deer, horse, pig, or goat, or even man, if they can get one. The villagers carry their animals and pets up the steps into their homes which are built on stilts on the night time, because when the dark comes, the dragons prowl the village. And only in Komodo islands do the villagers seal their graves with slabs of rock and concrete to prevent scavenging dragons from digging up the corpses and eating them.

A 12-ft lizard might not look big to us, but it would have caught the attention of 3-ft hobbits!

Hobbit

img_4736Blair went to Flores island to find the source of legend, based on the discovery of the remains of real hobbits, or Homo Floresiensis. From the fossil evidences, it is believed that hobbits shared their world with giant rats, (hunted and ate them, to be precise), and Blair managed to capture one, which with it’s 3-ft long is as big as the legendary hobbit – the comparison is equivalent to modern man facing off against a Sumatran leopard.

img_4739And the little elves really existed for at least 30,000 years  in the cave of Liang Bua (cold cave), preyed on by great lizards and phytons, and  probably by larger men, Sapiens. The evidence of 7 individual hobbits were discovered in the cave, and this particular discovery of the skull in 2003 ignited a bombshell of controversy, which “makes a major dent in our assumptions of who we can be.” Based on the brain size (less than a third the size of ours, smaller than a chimpanzee’s), teeth (completely human), tools (meticulously flaked and sharpened), cooking hearths (charred with controlled fire), and hunting habits (required collaborative social behaviour and language), despite its tiny brain size, the skull is definitely a human’s. Most anthropologist are arguing that he was a different parallel species of a man, Homo Floresiensis. Others insist that he was marvellously miniaturised Homo Sapiens.

So Blair went to the remote village in the Flores hill, which is not far from the Liang Bua cave, where he discovered the men are only about 4-ft (1.20 meter) tall, and the gene is only passed down to men only – women are of regular size. Science has yet to discover whether they are descendants of stretched Homo Floresiensis or shrunken Homo Sapiens.

I am surprised that Blair took me back to Indonesia, but then I was sad because it took an outsider, a foreign anthropologist, a tan Keith Richard lookalike with his posh English accent,  to make me understand my own home country better….

Comments

  1. Maybe because the starting point of Keith Richard adventure was based on the Myths and the Hobits, where the last one is not under Indonesian culture, which make you pay the attention of Indonesia.
    Whilst actually the explanation of Keith Richard is not something new since it’s been written by our anthropologist. The difference only at the starting point. Our anthropologist never see the history or the animal from that Hobits point of view.

    Hehehehe, but I love Keith’s explanation, he had added another knowledge of Indonesia treasure :-)

    tere616s last blog post..A Note to Heaven

  2. Tere: well, I know about tarsier, rhino, komodo, and even maleo bird, but there are many details presented by him that I never knew, like there’s a monument of the Swiss baron, the first Westerner eaten by komodo, or that cendrawasih feathers were hunted by Westerners for ladies hats. I’ve heard about the discovery of the new ‘species’ homo floresiensis but I’ve never known the ‘little people’ exist! And I’ve never heard about giant rats before!

  3. I’m always glad whenever I see a documentary made by foreigners about our country’s wonder and treasure. If foreigners can be amazed by it, why can’t Indonesians themselves? My favorite one is BBC’s series about Indonesia.

  4. Trevor Whitaker says:

    Dear Dr Blair I found your recent programme on Indonesian reptiles fastinating, havimg them as pets myself I feel that the wider public other than herpetologists, never either seem to want to understand the finer parts of the animals that I feel have been much mallined in film and television for so long, i always say that if an animal such as Boas Pyhons etc can evolve and survive on this ever shrinking planet that we so ready use and abuse, for as lomg as they have, then they areand must be doing something right, if by any chance you do get to read this comment and wish to contact me feel free on trevorwhitaker@live.co.uk

  5. Sometimes it takes the eyes of a foreigner for you to see things in your own country. I think he did a brilliant job

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