Friday, 15 August 2014

The Heilingrode Cryptid

 In the world of Cryptozoology, The Heilingerode Cryptid has long been recognised as an established hoax. Currently held in the vaults of the Übersee-Museum Bremen, its original discoverer was one Freidrich Moller, an antiquarian and naturalist who made his discovery public at an exhibition in 1954. The 'Heilingroden Käfer', or Heilingerode Beetle, as Moller dubbed it, was one of many curiosities discovered in the ruins of the University of Leipzig following its destruction during the Second World War. Its reappearance came during the desperate efforts to preserve they university's surviving treasures of art and literature from the destruction wrought by the allied bombing of 1945.

The ruins of the Leipzig Universitat following the allied
bombing of 1945

The beetle itself was found in what appears to have been a long concealed room, whose discovery resulted from the collapse of a stairwell in the east wing of the Augusteum building. The name 'Heilingrode Käfer', Moller specifies, originates from an engraving upon a small brass plaque on the base of a shattered glass cabinet in which the beetle was discovered, which read “Kollection Heilingrode 1627”. The identity of Heilingerode themselves is unknown, but they are thought to have been a patron of the university in the early part of the 17th century.

The prevailing historical opinion is that the Heilingerode Cryptid is the product of a little known trend in the late 19th century. This movement saw students of the nascent biological sciences create what they termed Lebensformenspekulativen, or, Speculative Life Forms. It was described by one critic at the time as “A rather macabre movement, yet one to whose scientific validity its adherents would vehemently attest”. In this practice the biologist would take the bones and other such enduring parts from a number of different animals, and combine them into chimerical creations outside of any known evolutionary branch. These came to be known as kunstformenatura. Essays would then be written, and meetings addressed, upon the potential conditions which may have given rise to such animals.

Much of the inspiration for the Lebensformenspekulativen movement came from the idea of Homoplasy, a concept which would later be theorised as Convergent Evolution: the idea that random evolutionary changes within non-random external factors could produce idential physiological characteristics in life forms which share no direct genetic relation. Hence why the Heilingrode Käfer, despite being formed of entirely avian and mammalian parts, so closely resembles a beetle.

Damiur Curilli, Sophia Beidt 1903 

The movement was popular among small university societies, who saw it as much as a game as a genuine exercise in applied biology. Their collective endeavours would usually take the form of competitions for who could make the “best” creature. The winner of such competitions was ostensibly the scholar able to come up with the most ecologically viable life form; this would invariably necessitate the most feasible back story for its particular evolution. Leipzig Universität in the 1890s was home to just such a society. This would continue to practice for several decades, until formally disbanded by university authorities following an outbreak of flux attributed to the purportedly unsanitary practices involved in acquiring the constituent parts for the Kunstformenatura.

To many, then, it seems reasonable that the beetle-thing discovered in the ruins of the Leipzig Universität is the product of fanciful students, separated from its myriad kin of the same origin. Yet a small collection of detractors believe the Heilingrode Cryptid to be something of far older, and far stranger in nature and design. To them, it is the last surviving remnant of a curious phenomenon that took place in the Universität in 1609, to which it is the sole physical testament to the events of that year. They know it by another name: Scarabus Bibliophagus, the Book Eating Beetle.

A manuscript, badly damaged 
by beetle larvae

Since classical times, libraries have been the storehouses of knowledge across the known world, but these great bulwarks have never been unassailable. Their history has borne witness to a tragic roll-call of disasters. Books have many foes, from mould and moisture, to the fires of war, and the malice of zealous vandals. Some books even have a tendency to destroy themselves – compounds found in certain inks breaking down and becoming acidic, dissolving themselves through the pages. Yet a greater and more enduring threat is that of pests, most notably the beetle. Known among librarians as the Bane of Alexandria or The Chittering Menace, an infestation of certain varieties of beetle, especially their voracious larvae, has long been the nemesis of the printed page, spreading like an invisible fire beneath the noses of helpless scholars.

In many ways, the events of 1609 closely resemble many similar disasters wrought upon libraries by the ravages of nature. Books were found all but destroyed within a night, and attempts to separate unscathed volumes served only to spread the contagion. Yet from what little is known of these events, the reaction by staff and students of the time would seem to set it apart in a number of key respects. By this time, an experienced librarian or antiquary was quite capable of containing the spread of such outbreaks with a systematic and rigorous process of quarantine and restoration. Yet in the case of Liepzig, the traditional methods of containment seem to have failed catastrophically, prompting a far more unorthodox response to the unfolding crisis

The main problem, it seems, was that the culprits for the ruined volumes could not be found to be identified. Worms, beetles and rodents all leave their particular calling cards. Yet aside from the destruction wrought upon the books themselves, the only evidence found was a proliferation of animal bones, mostly rabbits and chickens, thought to have found their way there from the kitchen waste bins. In the absence of a material explanation, the staff were forced to turn to ever more improbable theories to explain the destruction. It would not be long before the crisis came to take on a supernatural quality.

A letter, surviving from the time, captures the climate of mounting hysteria within the hallowed halls of the university: It is a frightful and miserable turn of events that the greatest concentration of minds from across Christendom, once so possessed of philosophic calm, is now driven to a whirlwind of desperation.

A sketch of the Scarabus Bibliophagus
1610s, artist unknown.

The author describes how the college chaplain is seen ringing bells and reading psalms in a declamatory fashion, whilst the apothecary burns combinations of noxious herbs, and warding sigils once used to drive off witches are found etched into the shelves. The anonymous correspondent laments:

The history of our arts has hitherto seen a string of triumphs over the kingdom of mystery;even when darkness thwarts the senses, the light of logic has assailed the unseen and brought it low. Yet where logic fails, it seems that madness masquerading as logic is all too ready to usurp its place.

Other letters and records from the time indicate a growing undertone of moral fervour beginning to colour the events. Some took it as a punishment from God, divine retribution for their intellectual vanity and abandonment of theological scholarship for esoteric teachings. They point to the destruction of Aristotle's Organon and the alchemical treatises of Albertus Magnus as evidence of this. Yet sacred as well as secular works were to perish also, and before the disaster abated the Civitate Dei of St Augustine, as well as numerous bibles, psalters, and liturgical books were to join the reams of the lost. Thus, the plague was seen as not the work of God but the devil, working to spite the divinely wrought intellect of man by destroying its greatest accomplishments.

A lone voice, however, would emerge from the chaos, and offer a very different insight into the events. It comes as a fragment of a diary by an unknown author (believed by some to be Heilingrode himself) found in a collection currently in the special archives of the university. In the diary, he not only claims to have seen the culprits, but seems to have had ample time to study them, and reached some curious conclusions:
A plate from the Liber Parvorum 
Spirituum, attributed to Arthur Hazyard.

It seems that their attraction to the books has little to do with the substance from which the books are made, but the content of the writings therein. While this presupposes many things which are still mysteries to even our wisest scholars, I believe that these beasts are denizens of the spirit world which lies beyond the physical boundaries of our own mortal plain. From this world, these beasts are ostensibly are interlopers. Where they come from, the essential properties of things in our world are inverted. Thus, what constitutes thoughts in our world, becomes matter in theirs (much speculation can, and has, been made on this). Let us suppose, then, that our thoughts take forms like vegetable matter, with deep ponderances taking the form of tall, hard trees, and idle thoughts being as low cabbages. As in our world, these are the food stuff to many creatures, among them the beetle and the worm. This then, explains perhaps why great thoughts and vivid experiences endure so long after their inception, even after the death of the thinker, and idle musings are forgotten as swiftly as they are conceived - being prey to caterpillars and the like.

He continues:

As interlopers, entering into our world from places uknown, they are without physical form, and are forced to create bodies of their own, giving life to whatever materials are at their disposal. It seems natural, then, that they seek residence in skulls, the wellspring of thoughts, to best compliment their nature in the spirit world. Thus, their instinctual similarity to beetles suggests some kind of natural affinity to the scarabine denizens of our own world. [...] Unable to acquire the life-giving thought material which is their sustenance in the void from which they come, they prey on what most closely represents this, which they have learned exists in our world as books. Nonetheless, they gain no actual sustenance from them, their attraction being purely one of similitude.

Little further evidence of what befell the university survives. It is suspected incredulity, paired with embarassment in the wake of the hysteria that gripped the university for several months, resulted in a collective suppression of information which has lasted to this day. It is not then known what eventually saved the library and its collection. The anonymous diaist proposes no solution based on his curious insights, and no accounts testify an apparent cessation to the distruction. If these creatures were truly beings trapped between worlds in a physical shell, then perhaps the force that held them there simply dissipated, and they escaped once more to the realms beyond, leaving only a physical shell.

The Heilingerode Cryptid is part of the Urbanmancy collection, and can be seen at Yallop's Gallery on St Augustine's Street in Norwich from the 22nd to the 24th of August. See for more details.

Photography by Norwich Artist Chris Richford


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