Pliny’s Natural History described the world as people in the Roman Empire knew it. While much of its information was useful and factual, other parts of the work were colored by rumors, legends, and misunderstandings.
One of the strange creatures described in Natural History was a predatory canine from Ethiopia and India. The crocotta, also known as the corocotta or leucrocotta, had a strange appearance and supernatural abilities that made it notably dangerous and frightening.
This monster from the edge of the world might not have been as bizarre as ancient descriptions supposed, however. Although Greco-Roman and medieval sources made the crocotta unnaturally powerful, it was likely inspired by a real animal.
Ancient writers described many creatures and races said to live in far off lands. While some are recognizable today, others are more bizarre and grotesque fantasy creatures.
One of these was the crocotta, said to live in Ethiopia and India. Although its appearance was not particularly unusual, its characteristics and behavior made it uniquely unnatural.
Strabo described it simply as a crossbred animal that was half wolf and half dog. While wolfdogs are not uncommon even today, this animal is not the same as what other writers called a crocotta.
Pliny wrote that the creature was a cross between a canine and a lioness. The resulting mongrel came in a wide variety of colors and females were seldom seen.
Its most notable physical attribute was the unbroken ridge of bone that lined its jaw. Instead of teeth, it had a continuous plate of bone protruding from a powerful, square jaw.
The crocotta also dug up human corpses. Although Pliny did not give a reason for this macabre behavior, he did note that it was the only animal to do so.
More bizarre, however, was the animal’s supernatural abilities.
When its shadow fell across an ordinary dog, the dog lost its ability to bark and sound out a warning to its owners. Instead, the crocotta used a false voice to lure unsuspecting humans and animals as prey.
It stalked the areas where shepherds drove their flocks. Hiding in the dark, it mimicked other voices to hunt both men and their animals.
Mimicking the cries of a sick or injured human, it lured dogs to it so it could attack them.
It also spent enough time watching humans that it would learn their names. Using a human-sounding voice, it would call out to make unsuspecting shepherds believe that a friend was calling to them instead.
Pliny differentiated the crocotta from the leucrocotta, although later writers would conflate the two.
The leucrocotta also had the ability to use a human voice and had a similar ridge of bone in place of teeth. It was much larger, however, and had the legs of a stag and the thick neck of a lion.
Medieval bestiaries further embellished ancient descriptions, giving the crocotta eyes made of gems that placed its victims under a spell. The animal shown by medieval artists was a predator but had an almost equine body type.
While ancient writers sometimes expressed doubt over the incredible animals they described, medieval accounts seem to have believed much more fervently in the existence of strange creatures like the crocotta.
With less first-hand experience with the wildlife of Africa and Asia than the Greeks and Romans, who traded extensively through Egypt and Anatolia, the men who compiled medieval bestiaries marveled at the unnatural creatures that were described in ancient accounts.
Amazingly, in the case of the crocotta its actual existence may not have been as unbelievable as it would first appear.
Even in Greco-Roman times, many writers theorized that the crocotta was based on second-hand accounts of hyenas. The connection between the legendary creature and the real animal is so strong that spotted hyenas were given the scientific name Crocuta crocuta.
Pliny specified that the crocotta was the only animal known to dig up human corpses. This behavior is well-attested in hyenas, so much so that they were associated with the god of embalmers in ancient Egypt.
It was also said that female crocottas were rarely seen. In nature, male and female hyenas are difficult to distinguish from one another without careful examination.
Even the most remarkable attribute of the crocotta, its ability to mimic human speech, was likely an exaggeration of real hyena behavior.
While real hyenas cannot mimic human names, they often make vocalizations that sound disarmingly human. The iconic laughing sound of a hyena, for example, can be mistaken for a human voice at times.
Descriptions of African hyenas were likely passed on through second- and third-hand accounts until they reached Greek and Roman writers in antiquity. Even though some immediately saw the similarities between hyenas and the stories they were told, they still recorded the crocotta in their bestiaries.
When these accounts were discovered by medieval writers who had even less experience with African animals, they were taken as factual accounts. Further embellishment and misunderstanding only created more of a divide between Strabo’s wolfdog and the creature found in medieval bestiaries.
The one notable attribute of the crocotta that cannot be easily explained as common to a hyena is that it has a single bony jaw ridge instead of teeth. While hyenas are known to have strong jaws, this description is a baffling detail.
While it is possible that the crocotta’s jawbone was an invention, it is possible that a hyena in the wild inspired this part of its anatomy as well.
Hyenas are primarily scavengers who often run off with their food to avoid having it taken from them by more powerful animals like lions. The sight of a hyena with a bone in its mouth could have been mistaken for part of its own anatomy, leading to the unusual description of the crocotta.
While the crocotta of the medieval bestiaries was a fantastical creature, its attributes were not entirely based in the imagination. Confused accounts of African hyenas led to the invention of a bizarre and unnatural legendary creature.
According to Greco-Roman era writers, the crocotta was a strange animal that was native to Ethiopia and India. Initially described as a cross between a dog and a wolf, its description became more bizarre over time.
Pliny described the crocotta in detail in his Natural History, claiming that it was a further cross between a wolfdog and a lioness. Like its canine father, the crocotta had strange and unnerving abilities.
Its strong jaw and the bony ridge that protruded from it made the crocotta a fearsome predator. Its seemingly supernatural abilities, however, made it truly dangerous.
The crocotta could mimic human speech and sounds, even learning people’s names to lure them into the darkness. It would even feast on dead human flesh, being noted as the only animal to dig up graves.
While the crocotta was a mythical creature, even some people in the ancient world recognized similarities between it and the hyena. From its human-like sounds to its scavenging of corpses, the hyena provides clear inspiration for nearly all of the crocotta’s unusual attributes.
While medieval artists and writers further embellished on the crocotta, its real-world origins are still evident in its behavior and abilities. The link between the crocotta and the spotted hyena is so clear that modern scientific classification has named the real animal in honor of its legendary counterpart.