EUGENE M. MCCARTHY, PHD
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
—William Butler Yeats,
Leda and the Swan
Various medieval accounts allege the actual occurrence of goose-human hybrids, stories which, though presented as nonfiction, smack heavily of myth.
One such tale is that of the weird offspring of Queen Bertha, wife of Robert II of France. In the year 996, Robert put aside his first wife in order to marry his cousin Bertha, daughter of Conrad of Burgundy. But when the Pope ordered them to separate for reasons of consanguinity, they refused and were both excommunicated.
Three years later, in 999, Bertha supposedly gave birth to a monstrosity with the head of a goose. Faced with this dreadful portent, so the story goes, Robert repudiated Bertha, who then retired into a nunnery.
This birth is cited as fact by various antique scholars, though the actual occurrence of such a creature does seem highly unlikely, more the stuff of Greek myth or ancient Egyptian religion than of modern science. Thus, the seventeenth-century physician and philosopher Fortunio Liceti (1634, p. 180) writes that
Peter Damian (1007-1072) is a saint of the Catholic Church. He cited this goose-headed child as an example of "the terrible judgments handed down even in this life by omnipotent God."
There is at least one other alleged case of a goose-human, supposedly birthed some three centuries after Robert and Bertha’s ill-starred marriage. Thus, according to the Renaissance encyclopedist Conrad Lycosthenes, in 1274,
This case was cited by many writers in the early scientific era, and is even mentioned by certain modern scientists (e.g., Valentin 1938, pp. 266-267), who seem now to attribute it to a condition known as acrocephalosyndactylia. However, the other birth, which supposedly had the actual head of a goose, cannot be assigned to any conventional medical condition.
Of course, merely making up a long name for a syndrome does absolutely nothing to explain why that syndrome occurs. For example, one might call the condition of having a goose head “anserocephaly” without having the least notion of its underlying causes.
By the same author: Handbook of Avian Hybrids of the World, Oxford University Press (2006).
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