This monstrous mythical beast is known to have been described in print just twice, in each case in an improper riddle. Its sole appearance in this spelling is in the 1785 first edition of Captain Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: “A monster with six eyes, three mouths, four arms, eight legs, five on one side and three on the other, three arses, two tarses, and a *** upon its back”.
Tarse is worthy of attention in its own right, since it is an old Germanic term for the penis. You will not be surprised therefore to learn that the “***” should be expanded to cunt and that the monster is a distant cousin of the beast with two backs.
A sighting in North America twenty years earlier suggests the fame of the riddle and this beast in the oral tongue was both widespread and ancient. A notice in the New York Mercury of 16 February 1761 announced that an example had been caught in Canada and had been brought to James Elliot’s tavern at Corlear’s Hook, where “it will be exhibited at said House till the Curious are satisfied”:
This MONSTER is larger than an Elephant, of a very uncommon shape, having three Heads, eight Legs, three Fundaments, two Male Members, and one Female Pudendum on the Rump. It is of various Colours, very beautiful, and makes a Noise like the conjunction of two or three Voices. It is held unlawful to kill it, and is said to live to a great Age. The Canadians could not give it a Name, ‘till a very old Indian Sachem said, He remembered to have seen one when he was a boy, and his Father called it a GORMAGUNT.”
Captain Grose gave the game away in his entry by explaining that it was “a man on horseback, with a woman behind him.” (His “five legs on one side” description is easily explained — the woman was riding side-saddle.) Jonathon Green suggests in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang that, in the form gormagon, the word is a blend of gorgon and dragon.
In the interests of completeness, it should be noted that in the early eighteenth century a word of the same spelling was applied to a member of a society imitating the Freemasons. Jenny Uglow’s book Hogarth: A Life and a World describes its genesis. The early days of Freemasonry in London in the 1720s were marred by an internecine dispute over its constitution. A member of one of the opposing parties posted a hoax notice full of “mumbo-jumbo and pointed invective”, announcing that the Ancient Noble Order of the Gormagons had recently come to England. Hogarth drew a cartoon in 1725, The Mystery of Masonry Brought to Life by the Gormagons. The Oxford English Dictionary proposes that in this sense gormagon is meaningless and probably pseudo-Chinese (because the notice said that it had been brought into England by a Mandarin), but it seems more likely that the name of these fictitious Gormagons is linked to that in the beast in the coarse riddle in some way.