May 14, 2009

Fish on goat action

I’m off fishin’ in Norfolk in a couple of weeks, so I thought I’d consult a guide. What better place to start than the greatest fishing manual ever written, Isaak Walton’s Compleat Angler (1653/1676)?

There I found this intriguing piece of information about a fish called the ‘sargus’:
The adult’rous Sargus doth not only change
Wives every day, in the deep streams, but (strange)
As if the hony of Sea-love delight
Could not suffice his ranging appetite,
Goes courting she-Goats on the grassie shore,
Horning their husbands that had horns before.
This sargus is variously taken to be the sea-bream or bass, or, in Cotgrave’s definition of the French ‘sargon’, ‘the Gilthead, or Goldeney; as some hold; howsoever, it is a verie lecherous fish’. Walton has evidently taken some liberties in translating his source Du Bartas (that horny witticism was too much of a temptation), who does not go so far as to suggest a successful congress between fish and goat:
L’adultere Sargon ne change seulement
De feme chaque iour sous l’ondeus Element:
Ains, come si le miel des voluptés des ondes
Ne pouvoient assouvir ses amours vagabondes,
Les Chevres il courtise, et sur les bors herbus
Veut goûter les plaisirs qu’ont leurs maris barbus.

La Semaine ou Création du monde (1581)
Du Bartas’s source, a second-century poem on fishing by Oppian of Corycus, gave a fuller account of the hirco-piscine intercourse in question:
The Sargo scorns the natural Embrace,
Admires the Goat, and courts the bearded Race,
The scented Females of the Mountains craves,
Himself a Native of th’inconstant Waves.
Strange that the Hills and briny Seas should share
A Lover in a kind consenting Pair!
With eager Hast th’unwieldy Sargo’s move,
By Nature slow, but swift to meet their Love.
With wanton Gambols greet the horned Fair,
Vault o’er the Waves, and flutter in the Air:
Tumultuous round the rival Lovers throng,
Display the Finn, and roll the busy Tongue.
Intent the Shepherds view th’unusual Sight,
Surpriz’d at once with Wonder and Delight.
The willing Goats receive the soft Address,
While those repeat the Bliss, and unfatigu’d caress.
Thus when their Dams return at Close of Day
From distant Meads, their bearded Wantons play
Within their Folds, vocal they frisk around,
And crooked Vales repeat the bleating Sound.
Joyous the Shepherds gaze, in gentle Tides
Along their Hearts the silent Transport glides.
But not the Kids nor Shepherds Pleasures rise
To equal half the finny Lovers Joys.

Oppian’s Halieuticks, trans. John Jones (1722)
So in Oppian, successful congress does indeed take place, and it would appear that the fish, at least, achieves orgasm; whether the she-goat does too is left ambiguous.

Apparently fishermen used to disguise themselves as she-goats and give the come-on to the finny lovers. There’s an image of this in Alciato’s Emblems, the moral of the story being that ‘the she-goat represents the whore, the sargue is like the lover, who perishes, wretched fellow, in the toils of unwholesome love.’

Aelian gave a similar account of the phenomenon; but he altered one crucial detail, so that the amorous advances of the sargus result not in an inter-species orgy but a meal for the goats. The Neapolitan natural philosopher Giambattista della Porta followed this version:
The Sargi love Goats immeasurably. And they are so mad after them, that when so much as the shadow of a Goat, that feeds near the shore, shall appear to them, they presently leap for joy, and swim to it in haste, and they imitate the Goats, though they are not fit to leap. And thus they delight to come unto them. They are therefore caught by those things they so much desire.

Magiae naturalis (1584); English translation 1658
A more probable conclusion, to be sure, but one that lacks the complex eroticism of the original.

Lacépède debunked the legend in his Histoire des poissons (1798): ‘We may find the origin of this ridiculous belief in a few tales clumsily substituted in ignorance for an opinion which was itself probably false’, namely that the sargus had relations with another fish, the female of which species was popularly known by the same word in Greek as the she-goat.

I find in a nineteenth-century edition of The Compleat Angler a different explanation:
The notion was derived probably from the fish crowding round the goats to feed on the vermin, &c., which fell from them.
Such is the difference between the poetic and the scientific worldview.


Conrad H. Roth said...

Excellent stuff! I had forgotten this bizarre episode, which I came across in Oppian a few years ago; so thanks for reminding me, and for tracing its progress.

modiFIed said...

Beautiful - I think this is deserving of further examination. Field work, anyone? Also, the "you better not be a robot" code below my comment entry, which I must reproduce to prove I am flesh, not metal - is "hagme" - a fitting coda indeed.

Jonathan said...

Norfolk, Virginia?

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