From Fortean Times 157 (April, 2002):

"What manner of thing is your crocodile?" - Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra.

Fort (Books, p592) found three reports (1836, 1862,1866) of mysterious sightings, all at Over-Norton, Oxfordshire, with jests about "a translatory current especially selective of young crocodiles."

Herodotus (Histories, bk2 chs68-70 - the earliest Greek account) is suggestively short on tall stories (none either in Pliny, Natural History, bk8 ch37 paras 89-94), though his modern editor WG Waddell (1939) calls the given average of 25ft (7.6m) "exaggerated"; Phylarchus (History, fr26) has a 40-footer (12m), Aelian (History of Animals, bk17 ch6) a pair around 70ft (21m).

Nothing on longevity. In their first Book Of Lists (Bantam, New York, 1977, pp133-4), D Wallechinsky/A Wallace/I Wallace put a 56-year-old alligator (no crocs) at 10th place in a tally of long-lived creatures.

Ancient authors and non-Literary papyrus texts agree that some Egyptians worshipped crocodiles - feeding, housing, mummifying them. Visiting Roman bigwigs had the privilege of watching them cat. Plutarch (On Isis and Osiris, ch72 para380h) says two communities went to war over mutual killings of their sacred reptiles. Others loathed crocs, lured them to shore by the squeals of beaten pigs, and netted them.

Aelian has the host yarns. These "villainous and crafty beasts" cover themselves with driftwood and attack people fetching water from the Nile, also making paths slippery by flooding them and thus grabbing their prey. They lay as many eggs as days needed to hatch them, usually 60. Scorpions are spontaneously generated from dead ones; cf. similar beliefs about bees from deceased lions (OT, Judges, ch14 v8 - immortalised on Tate & Lyle's Golden Syrup tins) or cows (Virgil, Georgics, bk4 vv281-314). Predicting the time and height of Nile inundations, they remove their eggs to safety in advance.

One hyper-prophetic croc, knowing that King Ptolemy was about to die, declined to he fed by him. Another carried off the daughter of King Psammetichus; the second Book Of Lists (Bantam, New York, 1980, pp1089) records that on 19 February 1945 crocs killed and consumed 980 of 1,000 Japanese soldiers trapped in a Bay of Bengal swamp.

They were first exhibited at Rome by the aedile Scaurus in 58 BC - perhaps one impetus for the considerable crocodile lore in Cicero's On The Nature Of The Gods - and later under Augustus, Domitian, Pius, and Elagabalus.

Pliny (bk28 ch107 para10) recommends crocodile parts as aphrodisiacs, eye-salves, and make-up; Horace (Epodes, no12 v1 0 derides a cosmetically-challenged hag as "swamped in crocodile shit."

Plutarch (Sagacity of Animals, para975a) heard of an old dame at Antaeopolis who copulated with one - eat your heart out, Linda Kozlowski!
Crocodile tears enter English c. 1400 in The Voyage and Travails Of Sir John Mandeville, ch28 (with spelling "cockodrill" ; cf. Peggoty's "crorkindill" in David Copperfield, ch2); then Shakespeare, Othello, 4.1.255-7: "...0 devil, devil!/If that the earth could team with a woman's tears,/Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile." Francis Grose's Classical Dictionary Of The Vulgar Tongue (1785) defines them as "the tears of a hypocrite."

Aelian (bk10 ch21) is the first to mention lachrymosity: they cry when netted and flogged. The fourth-century theologian Asterius (Homilies, no14 - reproduced in Photius, Bibliotheca, ch217 para503a) avers "crocodiles mourn over the human heads they devour and weep, not from repentance hut because heads have no edible flesh." - so, ancient crocs were not hypocrites, just greedy.

"A thing called the crocodile rock" - Elton John

NB: This column complements the reptilian remarks in FT151:17. I don't have CA Guggisberg's Crocodiles: Their Natural History, Folklore, and Conservation (Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, 1972), mentioned on the internet Crocodile Biology Data Base. Various authors misled by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary claim Shakespeare invented "alligator" (Romeo & Juliet, 51.43), but the word's history actually began in 1568.

Barry Baldwin
(reprinted with permission of the Author; blame any typically graphic transcription errors on dm)