The egyptian mongoose (Herpestes ichneumon) is one of the most widely-distributed mongooses, ranging across most of Africa as well as parts of the Middle East and Southern Europe. Just as the Egyptians are thought to have first domesticated the cat, to control mice and keep them away from grain stores, so it’s thought they may have domesticated the egyptian mongoose even earlier for the same purpose. Even today it is sometimes kept as a household pet.
Physically it is a fairly large species, with the coarse shaggy fur typical of their genus, Herpestes. This genus contains 40% of mongoose species and is the only one to extend outside of Africa – it also shares a name with the family itself, ‘Herpestidae’. This comes from the ancient Greek root ‘herpein’ which means ‘to creep’. This root has given us the mongooses, who creep around, the discipline of herpetology, which studies reptiles and amphibians (reptile in turn being from the latin word ‘repere’, ‘to crawl’), and the infection that creeps and spreads across your skin, herpes.
Interestingly, the Greeks may have referred to mongooses by a different name, ‘ichneumon’, which means ‘tracker’. This term passed into mythology as a creature that would fight against snakes, crocodiles and dragons. The term ichneumon has produced the species name of the Egyptian mongoose, the Genus name of the white-tailed mongoose, and a family of wasps.
I’ll be honest: imagining a mongoose killing a crocodile strains credibility. The same goes for killing a dragon. But then, if you didn’t already know, you might be suprised that they can kill cobras.
And as readers of either Medieval bestiaries or the second Harry Potter book will know, the only animal immune to the deadly glance of the basilisk is the weasel – an animal which bears a suspicious resemblance to the mongoose.
Also, in researching this post I stumbled across evidence that mongooses and dragons may actually be related.