Stories from History: Tycho Brahe’s Elk

Once a week, I labour to provide you with an interesting tidbit of a story from history. Perhaps this serves as your reminder that truth is so often stranger than fiction, or maybe just to inspire your own creative juices when it comes to. Each entry will be coloured with my own writing style and viewed through my own lens, inherently limiting it in some way. The stories included here are true, as much so as anything is.

 Or maybe it was a moose, the sourcesare inconsistent.
Or maybe it was a moose, the sourcesare inconsistent.

There was, in the years 1546-1601, a Danish astronomer who was responsible for, among a great many other things, providing the raw data that Kepler would eventually utilize in developing his theories. He had a nose that has been mythologized as having been made of silver, but exhumations of his corpse have suggested it was more likely brass, and was renowned in his day for having more than a little bit of a hot head.

The man has already earned his place in history for his many efforts, but it is the strange footnote in history of his pet elk that we focus upon today. Given his success as an astronomer and within genteel society, he regularly held great gatherings at his home. Pierre Gassendi, a French philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician, wrote about Brahe’s elk, a tamed beast that apparently was often seen at these events.

The animal, who Gassendi tells us was named ‘Rix’ was considered by its owner to be faster than a deer and with smaller horns (further suggesting that it was more likely an elk). The translations I have consulted for this piece refer to the creature as both an elk and a moose, sometimes interchangeably.

It has also been passed down to use that Rix would trot alongside Brahe’s carriage, acting more like a tamed dog than anything, and lived within the home of its owner. Brahe was unable to resist showing off this strange creature, and was asked to send it to Landskrona to entertain the nobleman’s guests.

For whatever reason, Tycho sent his pet to Landskrona where it was a guest to the household. Another gentleman wrote to Tycho seeking to exchange this elk for a horse, but Tycho had to deliver bad news. The elk had, during dinner, drank a great deal of beer and fallen down the stairs. Despite the best care provided, the animal soon passed.

This suggests a great number of odd things happened here. First, it is important to note that the wealthy families, like the one at Landskrona that the elk was staying with, most often ate on the second floor of their home while the servants ate on the first floor. It is unclear whether the elk was invited to sup with them at the table, or somehow took it upon itself to climb the stairs and join them of its own accord. Both provide their own interesting visions.

Further, the elk was found to have drank a great deal of beer, the combination of drunkenness and attempting to descend stairs on four legs that did him in. This animal apparently had an interest in drinking beer, possibly prior to this incident. Perhaps we have been provided with some insight into how Brahe was able to tame this creature.

As for how the animal achieved this state of drunkenness, some sources report that the animal had a place at the dinner table, perhaps giving us some insight into the level of manners and civility in the day – when the servants were still required to eat downstairs, but we’ll certainly have an elk at the dinnert table as a guest of honour. Other sources remain relatively silent on this matte, perhaps in an effort for those at the dinner to not take responsibility for what seems to have certainly been a foolish idea.


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