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Bonnie 31 March 2009 09:13 PM

Capybara = fish

Lent [in V<?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com /><st1:country-region alt=</st1:country-region>enezuela]</ST1:p is to capybaras as Christmas is to turkeys: a season of terror and slaughter. It has been for nearly 500 years, ever since the first Spanish colonists, noticing that this ungainly creature spent much of its life in the water, secured a ruling from the papacy defining it as a fish.

The annual hunt comes before Easter, when capybara has a status in <st1:country-region w:st="on"><ST1:pVenezuela</st1:country-region> similar to that of turkey during Thanksgiving. While the Roman Catholic Church generally forbids eating meat during certain days of Lent, many Venezuelans insist that the capybara is more akin to fish than to meat. That may have something to do with how salted capybara tastes, resembling a mixture of sardines and pork. Legend has it that eating capybara, known here as chigüire (pronounced chee-GWEE-reh), got a boost in the 18th century when the local clergy asked the <st1:country-region w:st="on"><ST1:place Vatican</st1:country-region> to give capybara the status of fish.

That's an oft-repeated assertion, but I've never been able to find anything in the historical record (at least in English) to support the notion that the <st1:country-region w:st="on"><ST1:pVatican</st1:country-region> at some point – for the purpose of Venezuelan Lent – declared the capybara to be fish. Does anyone happen to know more about this?

-- Bonnie

Chloe 31 March 2009 09:22 PM

I have heard the same story about barnacle geese:

Apparently addressed by Giraldus Cambrensis:

Bonnie 01 April 2009 12:48 AM

Thanks for that, Chloe. I was unfamiliar with that theme.

It appears that, during his travels in Venezuela around 1800, Humboldt described a practice among Jesuit missionaries of considering capybara (and other non-fish species) as fish (or, at least, amphibibious) and, therefore, Lent-appropriate. (Still, there's no mention of a papal decree. And this is, after all, from Humboldt and not from Jesuit priests.)

The following appeared in an extract of Personal Narrative of the Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799-1804 (Humboldt and Bonpland), which was published in The Port Folio (September, 1821).


[Observations are made on the Rio Apure.]

[The flesh of the chiguire] has a musky smell somewhat disagreeable; yet hams are made of it in this country, a circumstance which almost justifies the name of 'water-hog,' given to the chiguire by some of the older naturalists. The missionary monks do not hesitate to eat these hams during Lent. According to their zoological classification they place the armadillo, the thick-nosed taper, and the manati, near the tortoises; the first, because it is covered with a hard armour like a sort of shell; and the others because they are amphibious. [p. 141]

[The flesh of the manatee], which, from what prejudice I know not, is considered unwholesome and catenturiosa, is very savoury. It appeared to me to resemble pork rather than beef. It is most esteemed by the Guanoes and the Ottomacks; and these two nations addict themselves particularly to the catching of the manatee. It's [sic] flesh, salted and dried in the Sun, can be preserved a whole year; and, as the clergy regard this mammiferous animal as a fish, it is much sought for during Lent. [p. 151]
Bonnie "Chiguire of the Sea" Taylor

Floater 01 April 2009 08:34 AM

If beavers can be considered fish for the same reason so why not capybaras?

llewtrah 01 April 2009 09:09 AM

I recently read a historical novel that stated seals were considered fish.

Floater 01 April 2009 09:18 AM

Along the Swedish West coast you can see fishmongers' signs (at least you could before all specialised shops died out) advertising "Fisk och Sill" = "Fish and Herring".

Richard W 01 April 2009 10:42 AM

Apparently for similar reasons rabbits are supposed to be a sort of bird in Japan... (they use the same counting system as birds, I think).

Bonnie 01 April 2009 12:44 PM

That Wikipedia page is interesting, Floater, because footnote 23 reads,


Lacoursière, Jacques. Une histoire du Québec ISBN 2-89448-050-4 Explains that Bishop François de Laval in the 17th century posed the question to the theologians of the Sorbonne, who ruled in favour of this decision.
It should be easy enough, then, to find contemporaneous (or roughly so) accounts describing Laval's appeal to academics at the Sorbonne. (At least we should be able to find historical treatments of such. I haven't gone looking yet.)

What's also interesting about that footnote is that a discussion elsewhere cites a 1974 source holding that Padre Sojo (1739-1799), Venezuela's most famous cleric, "went to Italy at the end of the XVIII century and obtained [a bull] from the Pope whereby it was established that the capybara, because of its amphibious habits, was legitimate lenten fare, just like fish." Is there documentation for this trip or at least for a decision from the Vatican or from European (perhaps Spanish) academicians?

In the end, I'm curious about the circumstances that led to the Venezulan practice of considering capybaras (and other non-fish species) fish for purposes of Lent. Specifically, I'm interested to know whether there was a particular appeal to a European clerical body or official or whether this practice was adopted locally without obtaining consent from higher authorities.

Thanks for the replies, everyone.

-- Bonnie

TrishDaDish 01 April 2009 01:42 PM

What was really confusing for me is I read the thread's title as Chupicabra = Fish.

Bassist 02 April 2009 01:05 AM


Originally Posted by Floater (Post 918761)
If beavers can be considered fish for the same reason so why not capybaras?

*snark* "Beaver" = Fish. Wonder if the smell had anything to do with the similarity? :fish:

I apologize, and will crawl back into my hole now :duh:

NewZer0 02 April 2009 10:21 AM

There's a Rasputina song called "Rats" that deals with this theme, but songwriter Melora Creager has said it's not based on anything.

Very many years ago, the Bolivians were starving so.
They had rats as big as ponies there. They asked the Pope
To declare them fish.

We thank the Pope for granting us this wish.
When Friday comes, we'll all call rats fish.
We catch them with a net, kill with the gun.
We'll call it all forgotten when we're done.

They didn't look like rats at all, but like some horrendous horse doll.
Still they had to eat this thing.
In gratitude, the Pope-they kissed his ring.


SatansHobbit 02 April 2009 10:52 AM

That Jesus fella is overrated.

I reckon with 5 loaves and a couple of capybara, even I could whack on a pretty decent BBQ for a multitude of my mates.

snopes 21 March 2013 11:19 PM

Comment: I have heard that the Catholic Church declared capybaras OK to
eat during Lent back in the 1500s, as they were deemed "fish" due to their
aquatic nature. This provided a nice source of protein for the
Conquistadors. True or not true?

snopes 24 May 2013 12:09 AM

Once Upon a Time, the Catholic Church Decided That Beavers Were Fish
In the 17th century, the Bishop of Quebec approached his superiors in the Church and asked whether his flock would be permitted to eat beaver meat on Fridays during Lent, despite the fact that meat-eating was forbidden. Since the semi-aquatic rodent was a skilled swimmer, the Church declared that the beaver was a fish. Being a fish, beaver barbeques were permitted throughout Lent. Problem solved!

Elkhound 13 February 2014 01:20 PM

I can't find it, but there was a letter posted on some website from the RC Archbishop of New Orleans posted that declared that alligator was considered 'fish' for Lenten fasting purposes.

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