Crocotta | Mythic Creature

Crocotta Greek Mythology

The crocodile (or corocota, crocuta, leucrocota or iena), is a mythical wolf-dog from India or Ethiopia, associated with the hyena, and which, according to legends, was the mortal enemy of men and dogs.

Ancient mentions

Strabo, who uses the word crocuttas (rendered as "crocutes"), describes the beast as the offspring between a wolf and a dog (Geography, XVI.4.16).

Pliny, in Natural History (VIII.72 and 107), theorizes the crocutta as a hybrid of the dog with the wolf, or the hyena with the lion.

Of the hyena, Pliny writes that "among the people it is believed that it is bisexual, and becomes male and female in alternate years, that when female it can bear offspring without intercourse with a male" and that it "peeps into shepherds' huts to learn to imitate human speech, and then pretends to be one of them, in order to call one of the others out of the door to tear him to pieces;

It also emulates the sick, in order to attract wild dogs and thus attack them; it is also said that this animal only digs up corpses; that females rarely fall into its traps; that it has eyes with myriads of colors; that it furthermore mutes dogs when its shadow falls on them; and that it knows certain magic arts to make all animals that look at it three times become rooted to the spot.

When it crosses with this genus of animals, the Ethiopian lioness gives birth to the corocote, which imitates the voice in resemblance to that of men and animals. It has a continuous bony ridge on each jaw, forming a continuous tooth without gum."

Pliny (VIII.72-73) also weaves about another hyena-like creature, the leucrocota, which he describes as "the fastest of all animals, with the size of a donkey, legs of a deer, neck, tail and chest of a lion, head of a badger, split hooves, ear-to-ear mouth, and a bony plate in place of rows of teeth-it is said to be able to emulate the voices of the human race."

The Byzantine scholar Photius, summarizing an ancient work by the Greek Cthesias (Indica, L), writes: "In Ethiopia, there is an animal called the crocus, called by the locals the kynolico [gr. 'kynolykos', "wolf-dog"], whose strength is unbelievable.

It is said to imitate the voice of man to ensnare him, calling him by name at night and devouring him when he approaches. It is as bold as a lion, as fast as a horse, and as strong as a bull. It cannot be defeated by any steel weapon."

Claudius Eliano (or simply Eliano), in his treatise On the Characteristics of Animals (VII.22), specifically associates the hyena with the corocote and again records the creature's legendary ability to imitate human speech.

Porphyry, in his treatise On Abstinence from Animal Food (III.4), writes that "the hyena of India, called the coccota by the Indian, speaks with the most human of voices, without ever having a teacher, and entices, into its lair, every man whom it knows it can easily overpower."

Broccottes are said to have been used more than once to entertain the people in the Roman arenas: according to the Historia Augusta (Pius, X.9), the emperor Antoninus Pius financed a show with a broccott, probably in commemoration of his decenade in the year 148 AD.

The historian Dion Cassius (LXXVII.1.3-5), years later, credits the emperor Septimius Severus with the feat of introducing the crocot to Rome, saying that this "Indian species... was therefore first introduced into Rome, as far as I know; it has the colors of the lion and the tiger, and the features of both beasts, and also of the dog and the fox, curiously mixed together."

Later, bestiaries of the Middle Ages confused these various mentions, so that the mythical creature eventually gained different names and varied characteristics, both real and invented. Among these characteristics never found in ancient sources was the idea that the eyes of the crocus became gems when plucked out, and that they gave oracular powers to those who put them under their tongues.

Similarities to the hyena

The scientific name of the hyena (Crocuta crocuta) is inspired by the mythological crocota, and there are also some similarities in the way it is described. Hyenas have very strong teeth and jaws, a metabolism capable of digesting a wide range of foods, and are infamous for digging graves behind human bodies for food and for unnerving human-like vocalizations (such as the famous giggle).

Local folklores about hyenas often give them powers, such as gender reassignment (since it is difficult to distinguish males and females from them), metamorphosis, and emulation of the human voice.

All that underlies the folkloric beliefs surrounding the hyena may have contributed to the emergence of the myth of the crocodile.