The subject of this post is a mythical monster described by the Greeks, but that isn’t part of classical Greek mythology. Not that this is necessarily a significant difference, but it isn’t something that Hercules fought. Rather, descriptions of this creature only date back to the first century AD, specifically to the works of Pliny the Elder. Despite its name, the Catoblepas has nothing to do with felines, but is rather an unfortunate animal with the body of a buffalo and the head of a boar.
This head is said to be so heavy the creature cannot lift it, which is too bad for the Catoblepas, but fortunate for passersby. The breath of the animal is said to be extremely toxic, due its diet of poisonous plants. It’s also sometimes said that the Catoblepas can kill with a mere gaze from its eyes, much like a basilisk. The name comes from the Greek for “looking downwards.”
The creature lives in Ethiopia, which at the time was basically a shorthand way of saying sub-Saharan Africa in general. In fact, it’s been speculated that the descriptions of the Catoblepas were actually somewhat embellished accounts of a wildebeest or gnu.
“Catoblepas? Oh, gno, gno, gno, I’m a gnu.”
This sort of thing is quite common, from centaurs being based on early glimpses of riders on horseback to the jackalope actually being a rabbit with horn-like tumors. Mind you, centaurs have been part of mythology for so long that we can’t know for sure how they were invented, but the theory makes a certain amount of sense. Similarly, the Behemoth from the Bible is commonly thought to be based on the hippopotamus.
I’m not all that familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, but the Catoblepas has apparently been in monster manuals from very early on, with the in-game description adding a serpent-like neck and tail to the descriptions of Pliny and his near-contemporaries.
And while the classic Catoblepas is a herbivore, the D&D creature is said to occasionally hunt for meat. It might be the appearance in this game that led to the Catoblepas appearing in several Final Fantasy games as well. In FF4, it’s portrayed as a horned lizard that can turn someone to stone. FF5 hews closer to the traditional description, with the heavy head.
This is the first game in which the Catoblepas serves as a summoned monster, which is also the case in FF6. In order to save space, the original English translation of the latter game referred to the creature as Shoat, which is actually a word for a very young piglet. Since the Catoblepas is said to have the head of a boar, this makes a certain amount of sense, but not all that much.