Yale, Yale, the Gang’s All Here


Today’s mythical creature is the Yale, which was included in a list of uncommon mythical creatures on Quora, a site I’m always getting e-mails from despite not remembering ever signing up for, but I don’t unsubscribe because there’s interesting stuff every once in a while. As with many such animals, the first known mention is in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, much of which is apparently not at all natural. It’s described as a creature the size of a hippopotamus, black or dark brown in color, with the tail of an elephant and the jaws of a boar. The most interesting feature of the Yale, however, is that it has two long horns, more than a cubit in length, which can be moved around as needed in battle. It can, for instance, keep one horn in the back as a spare in case the other is broken off.

It’s said to be native to Ethiopia, although the ancient Greeks used that name for a considerably larger area than the modern country. It’s not clear whether Pliny is describing a real animal or simply a legend, although it’s been suggested that he might have been trying to write about an antelope, gnu, or water buffalo.

Not sure who the artist is on this one, but I got it here.
It’s fascinating how many old descriptions of previously unknown animals described them as combinations of known ones. The old Greek name for a giraffe, for instance, was “camelopard,” because the best way the Europeans could think of to identify it was as a combination of a camel and a leopard.

Picture drawn by John Johnston in 1665
And the scientific name for the animal is still Giraffus camelopardalis. But getting back to Yales, the name is quite similar to the Hebrew yael, meaning an ibex or mountain goat. Jael, the woman who killed the commander of the Canaanite army as per Judges, was presumably named after the animal. The Yale is also known as a Centicore, a name that seems to have originated in French manuscripts, although the derivation of the alternate name isn’t clear. Some later descriptions give the Yale some features of a lion or tiger, and it was apparently regarded as carnivorous, using its horns to impale prey. It was eventually known as particularly hated by basilisks, which would sting sleeping Yales between the eyes. That’s saying something, as I don’t think there’s any kind of animal that basilisks like. Interest in the mythical animal was revived in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century when John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford and third son of King Henry IV of England, used a Yale and an eagle as supporters on his coat of arms.

The common explanation for this is that it’s a rather labored pun, the Yale also being called an Eale, and John being Earl of Kendal, or “Kend-Eale.” It was later passed on to Sir John Beaufort, and from the Beauforts to the House of Tudor. King Henry VII’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, was also a benefactor of Cambridge University, which is why some Yales can be found there.

While the Bedford Yale was slim with straight horns and a long tail, the Beaufort one was stockier and more goat-like, with a short tail like more like the one Pliny described. It also appears to be the Beauforts (or their arms designers, anyway) who started giving Yales spots that were essentially polka dots.

And yes, Yale University has taken note of the animal, even though it was named after Elihu Yale rather than the creature, and it’s one of the symbols of the university.

So are there mythical beings called Harvards or Princetons? Actually, a Cornell sounds like it could be some kind of animal. But getting back to Yale and strange animals, the Whiffenpoofs are said to have been named after the Whiffenpoof Fish from the operetta of Little Nemo, although it seems to have existed as a general term for imaginary creatures even before that.

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This entry was posted in Animals, Etymology, Greek Mythology, Language, Monsters, Mythology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Yale, Yale, the Gang’s All Here

  1. Ahh, I JUST read a book that referred to something that sounded like a giraffe as a “cameleopard,” and my thought had been “maybe it’s not meant to be a giraffe, maybe it’s some giraffe-like imaginary creature.” Thanks for coincidentally clearing that up!

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