Goose-human Hybrids?

Hybrids out of History

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EUGENE M. MCCARTHY, PHD, ΦΒΚ

     
Excommunication of Robert II The Excommunication of Robert II (Artist: Jean-Paul Laurens)
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
goose-human hybrid The supposed goose-human hybrid issue of Queen Bertha of France (Image: Liceti 1634, p. 181).

Fortunio Liceti
Fortunio Liceti
(1577-1657)


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

Cardinal Peter Damian, Archbishop of Ravenna, tells how Robert of the Gauls married a near relation who then gave birth to a son with the head and neck of a goose. [Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original Latin.]

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."

Conrad Lycosthenes Lycosthenes
(1518-1561)
goose-human hybrid The alleged goose-human hybrid (Lycosthenes 1557, p. 442).

There is a second 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,

near the Swiss town of Laufenburg, which lies on the Rhine, a child was born with a horrible face and with the hands and feet of a goose. [Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original Latin.]
swan-human hybrids Leda and the Swan (Bachiacca)

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.

And nearly six centuries after the Laufenburg birth, Australian newspapers carried a similar report. The following article appeared on page 3, column 5, of the June 11, 1857, issue of The Star, a newspaper published in Ballarat, Victoria (source). The Kilmore Examiner, where this story first appeared, was a newspaper published in Kilmore, Victoria.

    Lusus Naturae.—A woman, the wife of a laborer in this town [i.e., Kilmore], has lately given birth to a truly wonderful lusus naturae. The woman, who was confined rather unexpectedly, has given birth to a male child with an unheard of malformation. It possesses little or no upper lip, but in place thereof a curious cartilaginous excrescence, very much in the shape of the duck-like bill of the platypus [Apparently, a comparison is made here to a duck-billed platypus, instead of to a duck or goose, because the writer is Australian]. The child has no roof to its mouth, nor any appearance of nostrils; indeed, so remarkable an instance of malformation we never before witnessed. When we visited it, it was nearly five days old, but it seemed scarcely possible that it can long survive. It is able partially to imbibe its natural aliment from the mother, but with difficulty. Should it survive, it will be one of the most curious instances of the freaks of nature which has ever become known.—Kilmore Examiner.

This Australian case is reminiscent of reports about Sarah Walls, a girl in upstate New York, who was supposedly normal except for having the snout of a dog.

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Bibliography >>

Biology Dictionary >>

By the same author: Handbook of Avian Hybrids of the World, Oxford University Press (2006).

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