Edgar Allan Poe - Four Beasts in One

2020-11-09 @Literature

Four Beasts in One (The Homo-Cameleopard), a short story of absurdity and satire on the one hand, houses further dimension. It’s one of my favourites of Poe, yet one of those works of lesser fame that you’ll hardly encounter but within anthologies of complete stories, so I thought I’d divulge.

One, it encases notable historical background and serves certain academic appeal for someone like myself who’s only ever assimilated anything historically intriguing by ways of fiction prose (and more recently poetry).

More interestingly, by synthesizing the academic with the sensibly absurd, the narrative better stimulates the visual part of the brain. This enables the academic to be retained in longer-term memory, while fostering great entertainment, in contrast to dry historical accounts.

(One could argue that it’s an exercise of mnemonic memory device such as a memory palace/dungeon and the such, albeit quiet incidental.)

Two, the story achieves all this casually: drawing on seemingly innocent day-to-day affair rather than broader historical accounts.

Three, it leverages a crafty ‘time travel’ literature device, transporting the reader to the scene of the events, enabling you to experience the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the aloofness viscerally, real-time.

Having said that, let’s proceed.

We meet Antiochus Epiphanes, an ancient Syrian monarch of the city Antioch - alternatively referred to as Antiochia Epidaphne. Some factual background of the city also proceeds the introductory section of the story.

The King has often been compared to the devil - part of the villainy you can discover in the story - it involves massacring Jews and, lest I mistake, is this not the same incestuous King Antiochus related in Shakespeare’s Pericles? - as I was saying, despite the impressive resume, this story cares less for historical accounts, and more for the impious, dastardly, cruel, silly, and whimsical achievements which make up the sum total of his private life and reputation.

As I’d mentioned, this is a time-travel account:

… we have arrived at the city itself. Let us ascend this battlement, and throw our eyes upon the town and neighboring country.

We’re quickly placed within a proper context:

You will remember that it is now the year of the world three thousand eight hundred and thirty. Were it later—for example, were it the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and forty-five, we should be deprived of this extraordinary spectacle. In the nineteenth century Antioch is—that is to say, Antioch will be—in a lamentable state of decay. It will have been, by that time, totally destroyed, at three different periods, by three successive earthquakes. Indeed, to say the truth, what little of its former self may then remain, will be found in so desolate and ruinous a state that the patriarch shall have removed his residence to Damascus.

While the city showcases alluring products of artistic antiquity:

Still there is an infinity of mud huts, and abominable hovels. We cannot help perceiving abundance of filth in every kennel, and, were it not for the over-powering fumes of idolatrous incense, I have no doubt we should find a most intolerable stench. Did you ever behold streets so insufferably narrow, or houses so miraculously tall? What gloom their shadows cast upon the ground! It is well the swinging lamps in those endless colonnades are kept burning throughout the day; we should otherwise have the darkness of Egypt in the time of her desolation.

We next encounter the Temple of the Sun, a site of Roman worship to take place later in history:

You need not look up at the heavens; his Sunship is not there—at least not the Sunship adored by the Syrians. That deity will be found in the interior of yonder building. He is worshipped under the figure of a large stone pillar terminating at the summit in a cone or pyramid, whereby is denoted Fire.

Before we can enter, a bunch of “ridiculous beings, half naked, with their faces painted, shouting and gesticulating to the rabble” appear:

Some few are mountebanks. Others more particularly belong to the race of philosophers. The greatest portion, however—those especially who belabor the populace with clubs—are the principal courtiers of the palace, executing as in duty bound, some laudable comicality of the king’s.

We also witness a conglomerate of unrestrained wild beasts throughout the town, although this is perfectly normal:

The lion, the tiger, and the leopard are entirely without restraint. They have been trained without difficulty to their present profession, and attend upon their respective owners in the capacity of valets-de-chambre. It is true, there are occasions when Nature asserts her violated dominions;—but then the devouring of a man-at-arms, or the throttling of a consecrated bull, is a circumstance of too little moment to be more than hinted at in Epidaphne.

We learn of some massive event to shortly take place. Note the visceral detail that follows:

… some gladiatorial exhibition at the hippodrome—or perhaps the massacre of the Scythian prisoners—or the conflagration of his new palace—or the tearing down of a handsome temple—or, indeed, a bonfire of a few Jews. The uproar increases. Shouts of laughter ascend the skies. The air becomes dissonant with wind instruments, and horrible with clamor of a million throats.

Situated presently on the main street of Timarchus, the ‘sea’ of people arrive through the alley of Heraclides, where the King is said to be among the crowd.

We shortly take refuge in the vestibule of the temple of Ashimah, noticing the image of god Ahimah in person:

You perceive, however, that he is neither a lamb, nor a goat, nor a satyr, neither has he much resemblance to the Pan of the Arcadians. Yet all these appearances have been given—I beg pardon—will be given—by the learned of future ages, to the Ashimah of the Syrians.


… it is an ape!”

True—a baboon; but by no means the less a deity. His name is a derivation of the Greek Simia—what great fools are antiquarians!

We finally make sense of the tumult roaring the streets. It’s a commemoration of having just slayed a thousand chained Jews. The crowd proceeds to sing a Latin celebratory hymn to the regard, here ommitted. Shortly after:

the king is coming! See! the people are aghast with admiration, and lift up their eyes to the heavens in reverence. He comes;—he is coming;—there he is!

But we can’t see the king. All we see is a “gigantic camelopard”:

I see nothing but a tumultuous mob of idiots and madmen, who are busy in prostrating themselves before a gigantic cameleopard, and endeavoring to obtain a kiss of the animal’s hoofs. See! the beast has very justly kicked one of the rabble over—and another—and another—and another. Indeed, I cannot help admiring the animal for the excellent use he is making of his feet.”

It turns out the cameleopard is the very Antiochus Epiphanes, “at present ensconced in the hide of a beast.” A more elaborate description:

With how superior a dignity the monarch perambulates on all fours! His tail, you perceive, is held aloft by his two principal concubines, Elline and Argelais; and his whole appearance would be infinitely prepossessing, were it not for the protuberance of his eyes, which will certainly start out of his head, and the queer color of his face, which has become nondescript from the quantity of wine he has swallowed.

The ever esteemed King thus heads for the hippodrome to be ‘crowned with poetic wreath’ in light of the forthcoming Olympic games. Now here the tale acquires the major air of suspense. It seems the King’s anthropomorphous appearance has offended the wild beasts:

The singular appearance of the cameleopard and the head of a man, has, it seems, given offence to the notions of propriety entertained, in general, by the wild animals domesticated in the city. A mutiny has been the result; and, as is usual upon such occasions, all human efforts will be of no avail in quelling the mob. Several of the Syrians have already been devoured; but the general voice of the four-footed patriots seems to be for eating up the cameleopard. ‘The Prince of Poets,’ therefore, is upon his hinder legs, running for his life.

For the story remainder, the King flees from the beasts towards the hippodrome:

‘Glory of the East,’ thou art in danger of mastication! Therefore never regard so piteously thy tail; it will undoubtedly be draggled in the mud, and for this there is no help. Look not behind thee, then, at its unavoidable degradation; but take courage, ply thy legs with vigor, and scud for the hippodrome!

Heavens! what a power of speed thou art displaying! What a capacity for leg-bail thou art developing! Run, Prince!—Bravo, Epiphanes! Well done, Cameleopard!—Glorious Antiochus!—He runs!—he leaps!—he flies! Like an arrow from a catapult he approaches the hippodrome! He leaps!—he shrieks!—he is there!

This is well; for hadst thou, ‘Glory of the East,’ been half a second longer in reaching the gates of the Amphitheatre, there is not a bear’s cub in Epidaphne that would not have had a nibble at thy carcase.

The crowd lastly embraces the King with a wreath (flower arrangement) for his display of immeasurable agility and the anticipatory victory at the Olympics.

That ends the story. At merely several pages of narrative we’ve travelled through time down the ancient streets of Epidaphne (Antioch), visited a handful of tourist sites, marvelled in divine artifacts, participated in a good bit of entertaining upheaval among the human and animal crowd, and acquired some academic insight.

Questions, comments? Connect.