Some Ancient Wonders Explained by Moderns
IT is no incurious speculation to explain some of those incredible stories which the ancients have recorded of various phenomena they observed in nature. These wonderful relations have long existed, and were taken for facts, ’till within the last century; and facts they are, but misrepresented by the admiration and superstition of the first spectators. The following are a few of the most curious which have been collected. It was long believed that the CAMELEON existed on air; and it is but lately that we knew that this little animal lives by the less subtil nourishment of flies and other insects. All the ancients are full of strange narratives of PIGMIES, who war with CRANES when they arrive on the borders of the Red Sea. It is now confirmed by the accounts of many travellers, that these little men, said to be only a foot and a half in height, are only apes, who fight with the cranes, to preserve their young ones from the attacks of the latter. How long was it believed that certain SHELLS were metamorphosed into SEA BIRDS, after having been impregnated by the heat of the sun? it has however been discovered, that several sea birds deposit their eggs in these shells. The prudence and the sagacity of ANTS have long furnished an example for satirists and fabulists, with which to reproach human negligence. In satire or fable this is a valuable discovery; but the fact is, that these diminutive animals pass the winter in a torpid state, without feeling any want of food; and the grain and straws they previously collect serve to construct their habitations. The emigration of SWALLOWS in autumn, who pass the sea to seek a warmer climate, is another interesting story, which fancy must sacrifice to truth; it is I believe generally acknowledged, that those of the most northern countries remain in Europe, conceal themselves in subterraneous cavities far from observation, become torpid, and lie on each other in heaps till the return of spring, when its genial ardour infuses a renovated life, and recalls them to the fields. The exploded history of the PELICAN it is sufficient to mention; we know that it can deposit in its breast a great quantity of food; which it opens for its own wants, rather than for those of its young. On the faith of Aristotle it was long believed by naturalists, that all SHELL ANIMALS had no eyes; but Derham, Lister and others, by the aid of good microscopes, have observed that the horns of snails are two optical nerves, on the points of which each eye is placed. The insect so well known by the name of the DEATH-WATCH, and which terrifies so many of his Majesty’s liege subjects, which dashes the cup of revelry from the hand, and haunts the solitary listener by his fire-side, has indeed a funereal voice: which it is not however difficult to account for. De Reaumur informs us, that this alarming noise proceeds from the collision of its trunk with its two barbs, between which it is placed. The SHOWERS OF BLOOD which so much alarmed the ancients, and are so solemnly related in their histories, were nothing else, according to our academician; but the red excrements of a great number of butterflies or moths. This is ingeniously explained by Goldsmith; in his History of the Red-fly. All those phenomena, which are described so carefully by historians, as signs of the Divine wrath, were only the AURORA BOREALIS.—But it is time to conclude with a list of errors, which however it would not be difficult to augment.