Ole Worm and the copperplate lemming.

Among descriptions of Ethiopian manuscripts and Mesoamerican glyphs, the collected narwhal tusks, tortoise shells and fossils of the renowned wunderkammer of Ole Worm (1588-1654) we find this engraving in the posthumous catalog of his collection, the Museum Wormianum, seu Historia Rarum Rariorum (Amstelodami, 1655) on page 325. It’s a well-known topic, for anyone who has skimmed Wikipedia, or played Lemmings on their Macintosh LCIII, or watched the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation exposé of Disney filmmakers casting lemmings from a bluff above the Bow River in Calgary, or even remembers the lost pet lemming Ursula from the Thomas Pynchon novel Gravity’s Rainbow. But it’s worth posting, as the engraved image offers a potent visual counterpoint to a contemporary argument that lemmings were products of spontaneous generation.

In his Exotericarum excercitationum liber XV (1557) against the Subtilitate Reum of Giorlamo Cardano, Julius Caesar Scaliger compared voracious swarms of lemmings to locusts: Loscustarum simillima pestis ea, quae in Nortuegia frequenter incumbit é nubibus putridis (92.3, p.626); Worm took exception to this notion that the rodents could drop en masse from grotty clouds to the tundra below, without being swept from the glacial crags of their habitat by violent winds (326-329). After all, he had examined specimens of the mammals himself, and his credit was reinforced by the image above. Although the old Aristotelean idea (cf. Historia Animalium 5.1) had persisted through the centuries, it was slowly eroded by the attentiveness of naturalists like Worm and John Ray. On a final note, I think that the engraved lemming above is one of the more hilarious-looking things I’ve seen all week. It looks like a Paleolithic Totoro.