ABC will resume updating Mondays and Fridays starting next week! Of course, if there are any specific requests, feel free to suggest them (and I will or will not get to them ASAP).
Nope, no update today or for a while. I’m taking a break for the holidays. It’s been a miserable month at the end of a miserable year trapped in the most wretched country on Earth with no hope of escape, but I’m proud of having made it this far. Sorta.
I will notify you in January as to when operations will continue, if at all. Until then, stay monstrous.
Variations: Water Serpent, Lake Serpent; Lagarfljotsormurinn, Lagarfljot Worm; Lyngorm, Slug
The lakes of Iceland are home to a wide variety of Vatnaormar, “water serpents”. These serve as the Icelandic equivalent of lindorms, water-horses, and other malignant freshwater monsters.
Most famous of these is the Lagarfljot serpent. This creature originated in a farm in the Herad, near Lagarfljot Lake. A woman gave her daughter a golden ring, and suggested she put it under a lyngorm – a slug, literally “heath snake”. In a few days the snake was so big it was bursting through the linen-box where the ring was kept. The terrified girl tossed box, snake, and ring into the Lagarfljot.
With the passing of years the snake grew big enough to prey on people and livestock. It would also spew venom onto the land. In the end it met its match in either Bishop Gudmundur Arason, two Lapp sorcerers, or a magically-empowered poet. Regardless of who it was, they were brought in to kill the serpent, but found the creature too powerful to kill. So instead it was bound, with a rope tied around its neck and another around its tail. The beast now lies bound at the bottom of Lagarfljot for all time; occasionally it arches its back over the water, and that is an ill omen. It has been sighted multiple times in 1479, 1555, 1594, 1749-1750 and 1819, appearing as a great snake with humps or spikes on its back, or a monstrous horse. Sometimes it stretches itself onto the riverbanks while spewing massive amounts of poison. It is referred to in a 1590 geographical map of Iceland, with the ominous text “A huge monster has its lair in this lake, constituting a danger to the inhabitants and appearing ahead of significant events”.
The serpent that grows along with the treasure it guards is a recurring motif, first appearing in the saga of Ragnar Lodbrok where the serpent eventually has to be slain by the titular hero.
The story of the serpent of Skorradalsvatn is identical to and older than that of the Lagarfljot serpent; it appears that its account was transposed to Lagarfljot over time.
Other Icelandic water serpents include the Hvalvatn serpent (striped with a cat-like head), the huge Hvita River serpents (gaudy in Arnessysla, striped in Borgarfjordur), the Kleifarvatn serpent (30-40 meters long and black in color), the large Skafta River serpent (multi-colored), and the mysterious dry-land serpent of Surtshellir.
Boucher, A. (1994) Elves and Stories of Trolls and Elemental Beings. Iceland Review, Reykjavik.
Hlidberg, J. B. and Aegisson, S.; McQueen, F. J. M. and Kjartansson, R., trans. (2011) Meeting with Monsters. JPV utgafa, Reykjavik.
Simpson, J. (1972) Icelandic Folktales and Legends. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.
Among the many stories told in the Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings, is that of Haftvad. Haftvad had seven sons, as his name indicates, and lived in a poor but hard-working town on the Persian Gulf during the reign of Shah Ardashir.
It came to pass that Haftvad’s daughter, who was busy spinning cotton, interrupted her work to eat an apple. Inside her apple there was a worm. Instead of tossing it aside in disgust, she saw it as a good omen, and put it in her spindlecase. “Thanks to this lucky worm”, she told her friends, “you will be amazed at what I’ll do”. The other girls laughed, but by the evening she had spun twice as much as she usually did.
Thus Haftvad’s daughter went on spinning, and every day she fed the worm a piece of apple, and the cotton practically spun itself into fine thread. Her industriousness did not go unnoticed by her parents, and she willingly showed them her secret. Haftvad decided to abandon all his work to care for the wondrous worm. He fed it nourishing food, and the worm grew larger and larger, outgrowing the spindlecase. Its skin was like black musk with a saffron-colored pattern on it, and Haftvad put it in a black chest.
The worm brought fortune to Haftvad and the whole town. Eventually a nobleman complained about Haftvad’s success, but Haftvad recruited an army from among his followers, took control of the town, and killed the nobleman.
By then Haftvad’s power had grown – and so had the worm. Now too big for the chest, it was relocated to Haftvad’s mountain fortress, where a specially-built stone cistern accommodated it. There it was fed on rice, milk, and honey by Haftvad’s daughter till it grew as large as an elephant.
Haftvad was unstoppable. Backed by armies, a fortune, and the good luck that the worm brought, no power on earth could stand up to him. His renown finally reached Shah Ardashir, who sent two armies to destroy Haftvad – but the power of the worm could not be undone, causing the defeat of the first army and the demoralization of the second.
It was then that Ardashir was informed of the worm’s true nature. It was no ordinary worm, but a devil in disguise, a creation – perhaps even an incarnation – of Ahriman. Only its death would allow the defeat of Haftvad.
Armed with this knowledge, Ardashir and a hand-picked group of men infiltrated the fortress disguised as merchants. They brought with them gold, jewels, wine, two chests of lead, and a bronze cauldron. “I have prospered thanks to the worm”, announced Ardashir to the guardians of the fortress, “and have come to pay homage to it”. As a further sign of good faith, he offered wine to all those that the worm commanded – and soon, the keepers were drunk.
That was when Ardashir made his move. The lead was melted in the cauldron and brought over to the worm’s cistern. The worm raised it head, opened its mouth, and stuck out its red tongue in anticipation of its meal, only to have boiling lead poured down its throat. Its death throes shook the very foundations of the fortress.
The death of the worm brought an end to Haftvad’s fortunes. His fortress was rapidly captured, and he and his eldest son were gibbeted and riddled with arrows.
Ferdowsi, A.; Davis, D. trans. (2006) Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. Viking, New York.
Welch, S. C. (1976) A King’s Book of Kings: The Shah-Nameh of Shah Tahmasp. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Variations: Aiotochth, Aiochtochth, Armato, Contexto, Tatus
Ayotochtli, “tortoise-rabbit”, is Nahuatl for armadillo. Two somewhat mangled forms of the word appears in Topsell’s work.
Topsell attributes the description of the Aiochtochth or Aiotochth (also known in Spanish as Armato and Contexto) to Cardanus. It is found in Mexico, near the Alvaradus River. An aiotochth is no bigger than a cat and has the snout of a mallard, the feet of a hedgehog, and a very long neck. It is covered by a segmented, lobster-like shell resembling the trappings of a horse. It protects itself with that shell such that neither its head nor neck are clearly visible, with only the ears sticking out. Some of these creatures were brought back to London gardens where they were put to use destroying worms.
The entry for the aiochtochth immediately follows that of the Tatus or Armadillo, and Topsell claims they are comparable.
Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Four-footed Beasts. E. Cotes, London.
Tylor, E. B. (1861) Anahuac, or Mexico and the Mexicans, Ancient and Modern. Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, London.
According to Spencer, the term amixsak refers to any skin covering, such as the covering of an umiak or kayak. A modern Yupik dictionary gives amiq as meaning “skin” and amirkaq as a sealskin ready for use; the latter may be a more correct term.
When hunting a walrus, it is traditional to butcher the carcass on the ice and take as much as possible back home. If any amount of meat and skin has to be abandoned, the carcass must be given fresh water to drink and the skin must be dissected. If the skin is left behind on the ice, it will sink and become an amixsak, a vengeful monster. An amixsak will come up under an umiak, reach its flippers over the gunwales, and pull the boat under.
Removing the skin covering the flippers on a carcass prevents this danger.
Jacobson, S. A. ed. (2012) Yup’ik Eskimo Dictionary, v. I. Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
Spencer, R. F. (1959) The North Alaskan Eskimo; a study in ecology and society. United States Government Printing Office, Washington.
Variations: Hantu Burong (Malay), Bird Spirit
Bès Chèm, “Bird Spirit”, is applied to a number of Malaysian spirits. One of them is a jungle bird-spirit that lives on big branches touching each other. As the wind moves the branches, they make a sound – e… e… e… – which means the spirit is on the branch. If anyone passes by underneath the branches, the bird spirit passes urine and scatters tiny, poisonous feathers onto the interloper. These cause anyone they touch to become thin forever.
Another bird spirit lives deep in the jungle and visits villages at night. It makes a sound – pok… pok… – which children are not allowed to repeat. If they do the spirit enters the house, prevents them from sleeping, and makes them cry.
Other bird spirits protect padi fields from destructive animals, cause headache and sneezing, possess little children and cause convulsions, steal the souls of sleepers, and cause children to be born with gap teeth.
Werner, R. (1975) Jah-hět of Malaysia, Art and Culture. Penerbit Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.
Variations: Aspic, Aspis, Egyptian Asp, Egyptian Cobra, Egyptian Viper, Aspic Viper, Chersaiai, Chelidoniai, Hypnalis, Ptuades; Akschub, Pethen, Zipheoni (Hebrew); Plasyos, Hascos (Arabic); Aspe, Aspide (Italian); Bivora (Spanish); Schlang Gennant (German)
The Asp was the first snake to be born from Medusa’s blood, and it has the most poison in its body of any snake. As such it has garnered a fearsome reputation in classical sources. When speaking of the asp it is important to differentiate between the Egyptian cobra, the aspic viper, and the asp of legend, which is both and more besides. It is never clear exactly what the asp in ancient literature is supposed to be; indeed, it is best regarded as a composite of all that was feared in venomous snakes.
According to Topsell’s reference to Aristophanes, the name is derived from an intensive of spizo, “to extend”. It is also the name of a shield, an island in the Lycian Sea, and an African mountain, among other things.
Lucan gives the asp pride of place in his catalogue of snakes, but it is not described killing in gruesome detail. The reference to a “crest” and a “swelling neck” suggests a cobra.
Nicander says that the asp can grow up to a fathom (about 1.8 meters) long. It has four fangs and two tuloi (“cushions” or “mats”) over its forehead. It rears its body up from a coiled position, and its bite causes painless death.
Philoumenos specifies three types of asp. The chersaiai (“terrestrial”), Egyptian asp, or Egyptian cobra is 3 to 4 cubits long and pale grey, black, or red in color. There are three rows of black-bordered rufous spots on its back that join to form a zigzag band towards the tail. The chelidoniai (“swallow-colored”), asp viper, or water asp is smaller, 1 cubit in length, mottled with chestnut markings on a light brown background. There are reddish stripes on the head. The ptuades (“spitters”) or spitting cobras are 3 feet long and are grey, green, or gold in color. To that may be added the Hypnalis, so called because it sends its victims to eternal sleep.
Asps themselves are preyed upon by ichneumons, who coat themselves in an armor of dried mud. The asp can still win the battle by biting the unprotected nose. Ichneumons also eat asp eggs.
Asps are highly common in Egypt, and are regarded as the sacred snake of the Pharaohs. Pharaonic crowns show the asp to represent the king’s power. It is likely this is the snake Cleopatra used to kill herself.
The primary reference to the asp in Christian symbolism is Psalm 58. Asps have poor eyesight and will stop up their ears to avoid being charmed. To prevent themselves from hearing the music of charmers they close one ear with their tail and press the other to the ground. Thus they represent those who reject the message of God by stopping up their ears.
Not all asps are irredeemably bad. One female asp fell in love with an Egyptian boy, warning him of danger and keeping watch over him.
While very venomous, asp bites are sometimes nonlethal. The venom spreads rapidly to the core of the body. Typical symptoms include suffocation, convulsions, and retching. It can cause blindness by breathing in a victim’s eyes.
Aelian believed the bite of the asp to be beyond curing. He also contradicts himself by saying that the asp’s bite can be cured through excision or cautery. Pompeius Rufus supposedly tried to prove that an asp’s venom could be sucked out and neutralized, and had an asp bite him on the arm to make his point. He died because someone took away the water he would have used to rinse out his mouth.
Topsell denied allegations that asp bites were incurable. He suggests cutting into the flesh at the bite and drawing out the venom with cupping-glasses or reeds. Rue, centaury, myrrh, and sorrel, opium, butter, yew leaves, treacle and salt, induced vomiting, garlic and stale ale, aniseed, and a number of other remedies are prescribed.
As with all snakes, asps are frequently given legs and dragon’s features in medieval illustrations. A creature with its ear stopped up is unquestionably an asp. In Romanesque sculpture it appears as a dragon with a crest or mane; the asp from the Saint-Sauveur church of Nevers is a sort of six-legged lizard with a flattened head and a mane running the length of its body.
Aelian, trans. Scholfield, A. F. (1959) On the Characteristics of Animals, vol. I. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Aelian, trans. Scholfield, A. F. (1959) On the Characteristics of Animals, vol. II. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Aldrovandi, U. (1640) Serpentum, et Draconum Historiae. Antonij Bernie, Bologna.
Anfray, M. (1951) L’architecture religieuse du Nivernais au Moyen Age. Editions A. et J. Picard et Cie., Paris.
Braun, S. (2003) Le Symbolisme du Bestiaire Médiéval Sculpté. Dossier de l’art hors-série no. 103, Editions Faton, Dijon.
Druce, G. C. (1914) Animals in English Wood Carving. The Third Annual Volume of the Walpole Society, pp. 57-73.
Hippeau, C. (1852) Le Bestiaire Divin de Guillaume, Clerc de Normandie. A. Hardel, Caen.
Kitchell, K. F. (2014) Animals in the Ancient World from A to Z. Routledge, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon.
Macloc, J. (1820) A Natural History of all the Most Remarkable Quadrupeds, Birds, Fishes, Serpents, Reptiles, and Insects in the Known World. Dean and Munday, London.
Robin, P. A. (1936) Animal Lore in English Literature. John Murray, London.
Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Serpents. E. Cotes, London.
Variations: Wild Beast of Barrisdale, Loch Hourn Monster
The Beast of Barrisdale lives near Loch Hourn in Scotland. Unlike other lake monsters, it has three legs, two in front and one in back, which leave distinctive tracks in Barrisdale Bay. It also has huge wings which allow it to fly. It makes its lair in the Knoydart Hills, near the dark cliffs of Ladhar Bheinn.
At the end of the 19th century, a crofter from Barrisdale said he frequently saw it soaring high over the Knoydart hills. Once it chased him with malicious intent, but he made it home safely – slamming the door in its face, no less, as he used to relate. An old man by the name of Ranald MacMaster also claimed to have found the tracks of the monster in the hills and along the sandy beaches around Barrisdale Bay. The monster’s frightful roar is said to be heard by night.
Fleming, M. (2002) Not of this World: Creatures of the Supernatural in Scotland. Mercat Press, Edinburgh.
MacGregor, A. A. (1937) The Peat-Fire Flame: Folk-tales and Traditions of the Highlands and Islands. The Moray Press, Edinburgh.
Mitchell, W. R. (1990) It’s a Long Way to Muckle Flugga: Journeys in Northern Scotland. Souvenir Press, London.
Variations: Macrostoma saxiperrumptus (Cox)
The greatest hazard of the Colorado mountains is not avalanches or bears, but rather the Slide-rock Bolter. This is a colossal creature the size of a whale. Its enormous mouth, something like that of a sculpin, goes behind its small eyes and ears, and drools copious amounts of thin grease from the corners. The flipper-tail is separated into grappling hooks, which allow the slide-rock bolter to cling to the top of a ridge or mountain.
Slide-rock bolters live where the slopes are steeper than 45°. They can wait for days until prey comes within reach – typically a clueless animal such as a tourist. When a slide-rock bolter spots a tourist, it releases its hook-tail and slides down the slope, lubricated by its grease secretion. It slides like a nightmarish toboggan, bulldozing trees and obstacles, snapping up the tourist, and, carried by momentum, traveling back up to the top of another slope. There it sinks its hooks in and goes back to waiting.
Guides have become increasingly reticent about leading treks through bolter country, as entire groups of tourists can be lost to the behemoths. Slide-rock bolters can be lured away with appropriate tourist decoys – scarecrows with Norfolk jackets, knee breeches, and Colorado guidebooks. One ranger near Ophir Peaks rigged such a tourist decoy with powder and blasting caps, luring in the bolter at Lizzard Head. The detonation scattered enough bolter flesh to feed local vultures for the rest of the season.
Cox, W. T. (1910) Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods with a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts. Judd and Detweiler, Washington D. C.