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Thursday 10 July 2014

How the puffin, the turtle and the guinea pig turned into a fish

Published 10/03/2005|00:11

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The period of Lent, which will shortly come to a close, is widely known as a time for abstinence and reflection. What is less widely known is that once upon a time all those weeks of pious abstinence spurred some of the Catholic Church's finest minds to reflect on how Lent might be made less of a Purgatory.

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The period of Lent, which will shortly come to a close, is widely known as a time for abstinence and reflection. What is less widely known is that once upon a time all those weeks of pious abstinence spurred some of the Catholic Church's finest minds to reflect on how Lent might be made less of a Purgatory. They came up with an ingenious and deeply bizarre form of a la carte Catholicism to spice up the smorgasbord of life.

Eight centuries before the Treaty of Europe, the European economic community doing the biggest business was the Hanseatic League, an alliance of cities which controlled trade right across the north of the continent. The League linked the salt mines of the East with the rich fishing grounds of the West and made a fortune supplying all of Europe with salted fish.

The salted fish tasted more of salt than fish but it had two massive selling points. The first was that the Catholic Church said you couldn't eat meat on Fridays or throughout Lent if you were a Catholic. The second was that the Catholic Church said you had to be a Catholic. For the League, with its virtual monopoly on salted fish, the 40 days before Easter were like Christmas come early.

But the Universal Church didn't become the biggest thing in Christendom without having the knack of being all things to all men. As Fr Ted Crilly put it: "The great thing about Catholicism is that it's so vague." Rather than condemn everyone to eating salted fish for 40 days non-stop, the Church blurred nature's boundaries with a series of sly derogations. By the time the theologians had finished, beavers, turtles, certain birds and other animals had been reclassified as fish, and therefore kosher to enjoy freshly served during Lent.

The monastic settlement of Skellig and its surrounds on the Kerry mainland enjoyed a special dispensation to eat puffins on fast days. One reason was that since puffins swim and eat fish logic dictates that they must be fish. The case of the barnacle goose provoked an even more convoluted theological debate. It looked like a goose and it walked like a goose, but the Church decided to determine whether it was a fish or a fruit.

The monks observed barnacle geese when they wintered in Ireland and Britain, but couldn't figure out where they went each spring to nest. (In fact, they flew to the Arctic, but that wasn't part of the Known World for medieval bird-watchers.) Never having seen a barnacle goose egg or a gosling, the monks sought other birth channels for these creatures.

According to one tradition, the Church decided that the geese hatched from the vaguely egg-shaped barnacles attached to driftwood, officially making them fish.

According to another, they emerged from the buds of the goose barnacle tree which is native to Ireland, officially making them fruit. After a couple of weeks of salted herring for breakfast, dinner and tea, either must have been greeted as equally plausible.

When Spanish missionaries first encountered South America's giant hamster, the capybara, during the 16th century, they wrote to Rome for guidance. Actually, they weren't so much looking for guidance as for the Church to rubber-stamp the admission of yet another reluctant member to the fish family. The missive read: "There is an animal here that is scaly but also hairy, and spends time in the water but occasionally comes on land. Can we classify it as a fish?"

Despite the fact the capybara isn't remotely scaly, they got the answer they wanted and today most of the 400 tonnes of capybara meat consumed annually is eaten during Lent. In case you're curious, it tastes like pork.

The capybara isn't under any threat of extinction, but the sea turtle is, and conscientious Catholics are a big part of the problem. It has been illegal to harvest and eat sea turtle meat in Mexico since 1990, and in bordering California since 1973, but the turtle population in the region continues to plummet because of illegal hunting.

This is the most perilous time of the year for the South Californian sea turtles, with as many as 35,000 perishing to provide traditional Lenten fare for the faithful. It's estimated that 5,000 turtles are consumed in Easter Week alone. Concerned groups have petitioned Pope JP2 to clear up the issue and stop the slaughter, but the Vatican has kept its head down.

As well it might if it thought addressing the matter would open an embarrassing can of worms about the whole goose/fruit connection. Of course, it could always solve that one by simply declaring worms to be fish.

That incredible Provo message - 'Look, if you want proof of how much the IRA cares, just say the word and we'll shoot people' - bears dismal echoes of the folk-tale about the Honest Injun and the snake. The hungry snake asks the Indian to take him to the other side of a river.

The Indian says: "No, you'll bite me."

The snake replies: "I promise you I won't. I just want to get to the green pastures on the other side."

So the Indian agrees to swim across with the snake on his back. Midway across this Rubicon, the snake bites the Indian.

"What did you do that for," snarls the Indian, "now we'll both die."

The snake says: "I did it because that's my nature. I'm a snake."

Damian Corless

damianc@tinet.ie

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