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Title: Agnus scythicus
Original Title: Agnus scythicus
Volume and Page: Vol. 1 (1751), pp. 179–180
Author: Denis Diderot (biography)
Translator: Malcolm Eden [University of London]
Subject terms:
Natural history
Original Version (ARTFL): Link

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Citation (MLA): Diderot, Denis. "Agnus scythicus." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Malcolm Eden. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2003. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <>. Trans. of "Agnus scythicus," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 1. Paris, 1751.
Citation (Chicago): Diderot, Denis. "Agnus scythicus." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Malcolm Eden. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2003. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Agnus scythicus," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 1:179–180 (Paris, 1751).

Agnus scythicus. Kircher was the first to mention this plant. First, I will deal with what Scaliger wrote about it, to give an idea of the nature of the agnus scythicus , and then Kempfer and the scholar Hans Sloane will tell us what we should think about it. ‘Nothing,' said Jules Cesar Scaliger, ‘can compare with the wonderful Scythian bush. It grows mainly in Zaccolham, a region which is as famous for its antiquity as for the bravery of its inhabitants. The seed that is sown in the region looks rather like a melon seed, except that it is less oblong. It produces a plant that is about three feet high, and which is called barometz , or lamb, because it looks exactly like that animal – it has the same legs, hooves, ears and head. All that is missing are its small horns, in place of which the plant has a tuft of woolly hair. Agnus scythicus is covered with a thin skin that the local inhabitants use to make bonnets. It is said that its pulp is like the flesh of a crayfish; that when it is cut, blood flows from it; and that it has a very sweet taste. The plant's roots spread a long way under ground. What is even more extraordinary is that agnus scythicus eats the shrubs that grow around it, so that if ever these plants are uprooted or die, then it too will die. This is not in the least a matter of chance: every time the plant has been deprived of nourishment from neighbouring plants, it has perished. A further incredible fact is that wolves are the only carnivorous animals that are fond of it.’ (We could have almost predicted this last fact.) Scaliger goes on to say that the only things he did not know about the plant were how its ‘feet’ were produced and how they grew out of the main stem.

This then is the story of agnus scythicus , or the wonderful plant mentioned by Scaliger, Kircher, Sigismond, Hesberetein, Hayton Armenien, Surius, Lord Chancellor Bacon (Take note - Francis Bacon himself!) Fortunius Licetus, André Lebarrus, Eusebe of Nuremberg, Adam Olearius, Olaus Vormius, and a whole host of other botanists.

Could it be possible that after so many important authorities have vouched for the Scythian lamb's existence, that after Scaliger's detailed description, which included everything except how its feet were produced, could it be that the Scythian lamb should turn out to be a fable? And if this is the case, what else can be believed in natural history?

Kempfer, who was well informed in both natural history and in medicine, made great efforts to get hold of one of these lambs in the regions of Tartary, but without success. ‘Neither the common people nor the botanists here,' says the author, ‘have ever seen a grass-eating zoophyte; and all I have got out of my search is a feeling of shame for having been so credulous'. He adds that the fairy tale, which fooled him as it did so many others, originates in the use made in Tartary of the skins of certain lambs, which are killed before their birth, along with their mothers, for the fineness of their wool. The lambs’ skin is used to trim coats, dresses and turbans. Travellers, who were either mistaken about the nature of this skin due to ignorance of the local language, or for some other reason, have managed in turn to mislead their fellow-countrymen into believing that the skin of an animal was in fact the skin of a plant.

Mr. Hans-Sloane says that the agnus scythicus is a rootstock measuring about a foot long, with tubers, from the end of which grow a handful of stalks, about three of four inches long, which are quite similar to those of the fern. A large part of the plant's surface is covered with a yellowish-black down, measuring about a quarter of an inch; it is as shiny as silk and is used as a cure for spitting blood. He adds that in Jamaica several kinds of fern can grow as high as a tree, and that these plants are covered with a kind of down similar to that found on our maiden-hair ferns. It also seems that people try to give them the shape of a lamb, since the root looks like the body of this animal, and the stems look like its legs.

Here then is all the wonder of the Scythian lamb reduced to nothing, or at least to very little, to a hairy root which people twist and turn to make it look a little like a lamb.

This article will give us the occasion to express more useful ideas against superstition and prejudice than merely to question the usefulness of the Scythian lamb as a cure for spitting blood. Kircher, and following him, Jules Cesar Scaliger, wrote a wonderful fable; and they wrote it with the serious and persuasive tone that never fails to convince people. They are individuals whose intelligence and honesty are above suspicion: everything speaks in their favour: they are believed; and by whom? by the greatest minds of their time; and so a whole host of writers, with even greater authority than their own, arrive to lend the fable their support. In the process, such an imposing consensus is built up that those coming afterwards have neither the force nor the courage to resist it, and in the end, people believe that the Scythian lamb really exists.

All facts and events must be divided into two categories: the simple and ordinary, on the one hand, and the extraordinary and prodigious, on the other. The testimony of a few educated and truthful individuals is enough for simple events, but for anyone with any critical sense, extraordinary occurrences ask for stronger proof. Generally speaking, evidence must be in inverse proportion to the likelihood of the event; i.e. the less likely the event, the more the evidence supporting it must be plentiful and convincing.

Both extraordinary and simple events must be further divided into the ‘transitory' and the ‘permanent'. Transitory events are those that happened once and were never repeated. Permanent events, on the other hand, continue to take place and can be verified at any time. It is obviously easier to give credence to permanent events than to transitory events. When it is easy for us to check whether people are telling the truth or not, then they tend to be more precise and scrupulous in reporting events, and we feel more strongly inclined to believe them.

Transitory events must be divided into events which occurred in an enlightened age, and those which took place at a time of superstition and ignorance. Permanent events must be divided into those which took place in an easily accessible region, and those occurring in a more out of the way place.

We must both examine individual sources internally and also compare them with others. We must examine individual sources internally to make sure they are the work of enlightened and intelligent people, and that they do not contradict themselves. We must compare one source with others to make sure that they have not all simply copied each other, and that this mighty host of authorities – Kirker, Scaliger, Bacon, Libarius, Licetus, Eusebe, etc . is not by chance to be reduced to nothing, or to the testimony of a single individual.

We must consider if the evidence comes from people who were actually present at the scene they are describing. We must ask what risks they took in telling others about events which they claimed to have witnessed at first hand. It must be admitted that if individuals have put their lives at risk by affirming the truth of their testimony, then it will acquire a great force – and even more so when they have actually sacrificed and lost their lives.

We must not confuse an event which occurred before the eyes of an entire people, with one which was only witnessed by a small number of individuals. An event which takes place in relative obscurity, if it has anything incredible about it, hardly deserves our belief. An event which took place in the open, on the other hand, and against which no objections were raised at the time, or against which objections came only from a few ill-intentioned or ignorant individuals, can hardly be denied.

If we do not want to give ourselves up to dreams, if we are sincere in our love of truth, then these are some of the principles we must apply when deciding whether to believe or disbelieve. See Certitude, Probabilité, etc.