Scytale

Variations: Scytalis (Latin), Scytall, Scicalis, Sciscetalis, Seyseculus, Picalis, Situla; Caecilia (erroneously)

scytale

The Scytale (Greek) or Scitalis (Latin), probably derived from scintilla (“spark” or “glimmer”), is one of the many venomous snakes born from the blood of Medusa in the Libyan desert. It was mentioned in the catalogue of snakes that plagued Lucan and his men, but does not get more than a cursory description.

A scytale shares a lot of characteristics with amphisbaenas: earth-colored, heavy-bodied, blunt-headed and blunt-tailed. But while the amphisbaena has two heads, the scytale only looks like it has two heads. Its tail is rounded, flatter, and thicker than the rest of its body, but the scytale only slithers in one direction. More notably, a scytale has scales, markings, or spots on its back that shimmer and gleam in the colors of the rainbow. Its body generates a lot of heat.

Slow and sluggish, the scytale has no means of running down prey. Instead, it uses the gleaming, iridescent markings on its back to mesmerize onlookers, causing them to draw near and within striking range.

The intense inner heat of the scytale allows it to emerge in the winter to shed its skin, even with frost still on the ground. It shares this cold tolerance with the amphisbaena.

Scytale venom is indistinguishable from amphisbaena and viper venom, and remedies for it are the same.

References

Aldrovandi, U. (1640) Serpentum, et Draconum Historiae. Antonij Bernie, Bologna.

Cuba, J. (1539) Le iardin de santé. Philippe le Noir, Paris.

Isidore of Seville, trans. Barney, S. A.; Lewis, W. J.; Beach, J. A.; and Berghof, O. (2006) The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Lucan, trans. Rowe, N. (1720) Pharsalia. T. Johnson, London.

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Serpents. E. Cotes, London.

Amphisbaena

Variations: Amphisbaina, Alchismus, Amphisilene, Ankesime, Auksimem, Double-head, Double-marcheur (French); Doble Andadora (possibly)

amphisbaena

The Amphisbaena, “goes both ways”, is one of the many snakes encountered by Lucan and his army in the deserts of Libya. It has also been reported from Lemnus, but it is unknown to the Germans. Unlike its biological namesake, the harmless burrowing lizards known as amphisbaenas, the Libyan amphisbaena is venomous and deadly, producing double the amount of venom a regular snake would.

Two heads are an amphisbaena’s distinguishing feature, with one head in the normal place and one at the end of the tail. How these heads affect locomotion is unclear. An amphisbaena may move like a regular snake, one head trailing behind, but changing directions instantly and going forward or backwards with equal ease. Alternatively, both heads could lead, leaving the body following behind in a loop. An amphisbaena’s sight is poor, but its eyes glow. Physically it resembles an earthworm, with an indistinguishable head and tail. It is blackish earth-colored, with a rough, spotted skin.

In addition to the amphisbaena described above, Pammenes tells of two-headed snakes with two feet near the tail in Egypt. Borges reports a creature from the Antilles called the doble andadora (“goes both ways”), also known as the two-headed snake and the mother of ants. It feeds on ants and can reattach itself if chopped in half. However, there is little outside of Borges’ account to corroborate it. The medieval amphisbaena became a two-headed dragon, in a wide variety of forms. Any creature in medieval art with an extra head on the end of its tail can be safely labeled an amphisbaena, although at this point the Greek two-headed snake is long forgotten.

Amphisbaenas are very cold-resistant, and are the first snakes to come out after winter, ahead of the first cuckoo song. Their temperament is correspondingly hotter than that of other snakes. Solinus believed amphisbaenas gave birth through the tail-end mouth. They take good care of their eggs, guarding them until they hatch and showing love to their offspring.

Amphisbaena venom is unremarkable and causes the same symptoms as viper bites – inflammation and slow, painful death. Besides drinking coriander, the antidotes for amphisbaena bite are the same as those used for vipers. Amphisbaenas themselves are hard to kill, except with a vine-branch. One amphisbaena woke Dionysus from his rest, and in retaliation he crushed it with a vine-branch.

Several remedies have been derived from amphisbaenas. A walking-stick covered with amphisbaena skin keeps away venomous animals, and an olive branch wrapped in amphisbaena skin cures cold shiverings. An amphisbaena attached to a tree will ensure that the logger will not get cold and the tree will fall easily. If a pregnant woman steps over a dead amphisbaena, she will abort instantly, as the vapor arising from the dead snake is so toxic as to suffocate the fetus. However, if a pregnant woman carries a live amphisbaena in a box with her, the effect is nullified.

The two heads of the amphisbaena understandably led to a healthy amount of criticism. Thomas Browne denied that amphisbaenas could exist, stating that an animal with two anteriors was impossible. Al-Jahiz recounts an interview with a man who swore that he saw an amphisbaena, and, unconvinced, chalked it up to fear-induced exaggeration. “From which end does it move?” he asked the man. “Where does it eat from, and where does it bite from?” The man replied “It doesn’t move forward, but it gets around by rolling, like boys roll on sand. As for eating, it eats lunch with one head and dinner with the other. And as for biting, it bites with both heads at the same time!”

References

Aelian, trans. Scholfield, A. F. (1959) On the Characteristics of Animals, vol. II. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Aelian, trans. Scholfield, A. F. (1959) On the Characteristics of Animals, vol. III. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Aldrovandi, U. (1640) Serpentum, et Draconum Historiae. Antonij Bernie, Bologna.

Borges, J. L.; trans. Hurley, A. (2005) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Viking.

Cuba, J. (1539) Le iardin de santé. Philippe le Noir, Paris.

Druce, G. C. (1910) The Amphisbaena and its Connexions in Ecclesiastical Art and Architecture. Archaeological Journal, v. 67, pp. 285-317.

Isidore of Seville, trans. Barney, S. A.; Lewis, W. J.; Beach, J. A.; and Berghof, O. (2006) The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Al-Jahiz, A. (1966) Kitab al-Hayawan. Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi wa Awladihi, Egypt.

Lucan, trans. Rowe, N. (1720) Pharsalia. T. Johnson, London.

Pliny; Bostock, J. and Riley, H. T. trans. (1857) The Natural History of Pliny, v. III. Henry G. Bohn, London.

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Serpents. E. Cotes, London.

Pareas

Variations: Parea, Parias, Paruas, Pharias, Parous, Baron, Pagerina, Anguis Aesculapij, Aesculapian Snake

Pareas

The Pareas is briefly mentioned in the Pharsalia’s catalogue of Libyan serpents. It always travels on its tail, leaving a furrow behind it in the ground. Its bite is harmless and gentle, and so it was consecrated to Asclepius, god of healers. Topsell classifies it among the innocent serpents.

Aelian describes it as being red with sharp eyes and a wide mouth. Topsell, on the other hand, gave its length as four spans, and its color as yellow with two long streaks down its side. Aldrovandi describes the pareas as being yellowish below and black above, with possible variations of green and white along its length. He dismisses the claim that it has a crest.

The tendency of the pareas to travel while holding itself clear of the ground has led to its association with the Eden serpent, which did not creep along the ground prior to being cursed. This claim has been contested by Alexander Neckham and Petrus Comestor, as the pareas very clearly does not conform to that curse. Petrus concluded that the curse must only have affected the individual serpent of Eden, leaving other snakes – including the pareas – uncursed.

References

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.

Isidore of Seville, trans. Barney, S. A.; Lewis, W. J.; Beach, J. A.; and Berghof, O. (2006) The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Kelly, H. A. (1971) The Metamorphoses of the Eden Serpent during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Viator, 2, pp. 301-328.

Lucan, trans. Rowe, N. (1720) Pharsalia. T. Johnson, London.

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Serpents. E. Cotes, London.

Prester

Variations: Presteros, Torridus (Torrid), Dipsas (Thirsty)

Prester

The Prester, “bellows-swelling”, “swollen veins”, or “inflater”,  is a deadly species of asp found in the deserts of Libya. Its name is derived from the gruesome effects of its venom, which were experienced firsthand by Lucan’s men. Aldrovandi believed it to be the same as the Dipsas, while Topsell saw it as distinct, since the prester kills by heat while the dipsas uses thirst.

Presters are so torrid that they keep their steaming mouth open to cool off, and foam constantly bubbles out from inside them. Topsell identifies presters with the fiery snakes that plagued the Israelites in the wilderness, but does not describe them beyond their extreme internal heat. They are fast-moving snakes, hurrying from place to place with their panting mouths wide open.

Aelian described the prester’s venom as causing profound lethargy, progressive weakness, loss of memory, inability to urinate, hair loss, choking, and eventually convulsions that lead to death. Flaubert specifies that mere contact with it causes debilitation.

Lucan describes more grotesque symptoms. The unfortunate Nasidius, upon suffering a scorching prester’s bite, feels the flames of the venom coursing through his veins. His entire body starts to swell, inflating and bloating and cutting through his armor, engulfing his limbs. The tumorous swelling ends only once Nasidius is a formless, headless heap. The remains are so disgusting that even the scavengers shun them.

Topsell recommends wild purslane, castoreum or beaver-stones, opoponax and rue in wine, and sprats as a remedy for prester bite.

References

Aelian, trans. Scholfield, A. F. (1959) On the Characteristics of Animals, vol. III. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Aldrovandi, U. (1640) Serpentum, et Draconum Historiae. Antonij Bernie, Bologna.

Batinski, E. (1992) Cato and the Battle with the Serpents. Syllecta Classica, Vol. 3, pp. 71-80.

Eldred, K. O. (2000) Poetry in Motion: the Snakes of Lucan. Helios 27.1, p. 63.

Flaubert, G. (1885) La Tentation de Saint Antoine. Quantin, Paris.

Isidore of Seville, trans. Barney, S. A.; Lewis, W. J.; Beach, J. A.; and Berghof, O. (2006) The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Lucan, trans. Rowe, N. (1720) Pharsalia. T. Johnson, London.

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Serpents. E. Cotes, London.

Haemorrhois

Variations: Haemorrhous, Haemorrhe, Blood-letter, Blood-flower, Affodius, Afudius, Alsordium, Halsordium, Sabrine (Topsell gives the last five as corrupted, barbarous versions)

Haemorrois

The Haemorrhois – “bleeder” or “blood-letter” – is one of the many Saharan snakes feared for its venom. True to its name, it produces a violent hemotoxin that forces its victims’ blood out of their bodies. Topsell seemed uncertain as to whether it was an asp or a viper, but its appearance and effect of its venom strongly imply a viper.

Descriptions of the haemorrhois consistently agree that it is one foot long and has horns of some sort. Aelian gave it bristling horns, but Aldrovandi sets the number to one. It is pitch black or fiery in color, with bright eyes; Topsell believed it to be sandy yellow with black spots. The head is broad, tapering to a short, pointed tail. The scales of a haemorrhois are rough and make a rustling sound as the snake moves, suggesting that it may have been inspired in part by the saw-scaled viper. They are slow and sluggish animals, and make winding nests in rocky areas.

Sexual dimorphism is known. Males tend to hold their head up when traveling, while females remain close to the ground. Aelian adds that the venom of female haemorrhois specifically targets the gums and fingernails.

Envenomation by a haemorrhois is particularly gruesome. As the venom spreads, blood begins to leave by every opening possible, draining out through the eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, even the very pores. Scars reopen. Teeth and nails fall out. The entire body becomes one bleeding wound, and death comes through catastrophic blood loss. Lucan, in describing the fate of young Tullus, compared the dying Roman to a statue gushing water, weeping and sweating blood.

One of these snakes was encountered by Menelaus and his men in Egypt. Helen crushed it and extracted its poison for reasons unknown. Since then, all haemorrhois have been slow creepers.

Topsell recommends a number of substances as antidotes to haemorrhois bite. These cures include vine-leaves with honey; powdered haemorrhois head taken with water; garlic with fleur-de-lis oil as an emetic; and raisins. To staunch the bleeding, plasters made of vine leaves and honey or purslane and barley leaves should be applied, and the wound washed with cold water. Finally, he concedes that the same remedies used for other snakes may prove effective. Hard eggs with salted fish, or a potion of radish seeds, poppy juice, lily roots, daffodil, rue, trefoil, cinnamon, cassia, and sweet myrrh can help.

References

Aelian, trans. Scholfield, A. F. (1959) On the Characteristics of Animals, vol. III. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Aldrovandi, U. (1640) Serpentum, et Draconum Historiae. Antonij Bernie, Bologna.

Batinski, E. (1992) Cato and the Battle with the Serpents. Syllecta Classica, Vol. 3, pp. 71-80.

Eldred, K. O. (2000) Poetry in Motion: the Snakes of Lucan. Helios 27.1, p. 63.

Isidore of Seville, trans. Barney, S. A.; Lewis, W. J.; Beach, J. A.; and Berghof, O. (2006) The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Lucan, trans. Rowe, N. (1720) Pharsalia. T. Johnson, London.

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Serpents. E. Cotes, London.

Seps

Variations: Sep, Sepedon

Seps

The Seps – “putrefaction” – is a deadly snake found in the deserts of Africa. It is especially feared for its corrosive venom, which melts flesh and bone alike to leave its victim a smear on the ground. Lucan awarded it the title of Libya’s greatest plague.

A seps is about two cubits (about a meter) long, and varicolored along its length; some say it can also change color like a chameleon. It uniquely has four hollow fangs in its lower jaw. Topsell attests to its speed, describing its motion as going “by spires and half-hoops”, possibly a reference to sidewinding. Aldrovandi gives the seps a horn on the nose and large triangular scales. Seps can be found in valleys, deserts, and under rocks. They can survive winters thanks to their natural warmth.

Seps bwSeps venom is highly virulent, causing massive necrosis and putrefaction of tissues. Skin, muscle, blood, bone – everything rots and dissolves away, and if the bite is not treated, the victim literally melts into oblivion, leaving nothing behind. Eldred points out that the original Greek seps killed in the same way as the dipsas – by inducing extreme thirst. Lucan alters that to better suit the snake’s name.

For antivenin, Topsell recommends the same measures as with other venomous snakes, as well as sponges soaked in warm vinegar; a concoction of ashes, butter, and honey; or otherwise millet, honey, bay, oxymel, and purslane.

Lucan describes the fate of a Roman soldier after being bitten by a seps. The unfortunate Sabellus’ skin, flesh, and sinews shriveled away from the bite, exposing bare bones before they, too, succumbed to the venom. The putrefying venom worked its way upward from the bite, and the soldier melted like a candle.

While no snake has venom as powerful as that of the seps, the symptoms of seps bite seem to be an exaggeration of actual necrosis caused by snake bite.

References

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.

Batinski, E. (1992) Cato and the Battle with the Serpents. Syllecta Classica, Vol. 3, pp. 71-80.

Eldred, K. O. (2000) Poetry in Motion: the Snakes of Lucan. Helios 27.1, p. 63.

Isidore of Seville, trans. Barney, S. A.; Lewis, W. J.; Beach, J. A.; and Berghof, O. (2006) The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Lucan, trans. Rowe, N. (1720) Pharsalia. T. Johnson, London.

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Serpents. E. Cotes, London.

Dipsas

Variations: Dipsa, Dipsades (pl.), Ammobates (“sand crawler”), Arida (“arid”), Kausone (“burner”), Melanurus (“black-tail”), Prester (“inflater”, erroneously), Situla (“bucket”), Torrida (“torrid”)

Dipsas

The Dipsas – “thirsty” or “thirst-causer”, among its many names – was one of the deadly snakes encountered by Cato’s army in the African desert. It was feared for its venom, which induced unquenchable, desperate thirst in its victims. Aelian and Aldrovandi believed it to be the same as the prester, a conclusion which Topsell disputed.

Aelian points out that the dipsas is white with two black stripes on its tail; Topsell mentions its black tail and black-and-yellow spots on its anterior; Aldrovandi pictures it with longitudinal black and white stripes and prominent scales on its head. Dipsades may be found near sources of water, including springs and marshes, and they will also lie in wait in ostrich nests.

The small size of the dipsas makes it easy to overlook, and its bite is painless; its victims often are oblivious to the cause of their unnatural thirst. The venom seeps into the bones, sets fire to the organs, absorbs vital fluids, and parches the tongue and throat. Sometimes victims are driven to drink so much that their stomachs explode; if there is no water around, they eventually succumb to internal burning.

Lucan describes the effect of a dipsas bite on the Roman standard-bearer Aulus, bitten after he accidentally stepped on a dipsas. No amount of water could quench his thirst, and, after trying in vain to drink up a river, he tore his wrists open in a last-ditch effort to drink his own blood. His suicide was practically a mercy.

Aelian mentions a tale told where a donkey, charged by Zeus with bestowing immortality on mankind, stopped by a spring to drink. That spring was guarded by a dipsas, which refused to allow the donkey to drink until it had given it the secret of immortality – and since then, the snake sheds its skin and rejuvenates itself, while humans, much like the unfortunate Gilgamesh, lost their chance at eternal youth. This story was also told by Sophocles and a number of other authors. Dipsades also guard a spring in the Pharsalia, and Cato (correctly) points out that snake venom is harmless in water. In both of these cases, we have the dipsas causing thirst not by its bite, but by denying access to water.

The descriptions of dipsas venom may be close to the actual effects of some snake venoms, notably the burning sensation and the parched throat. Nowadays Dipsas refers to a genus of New World snakes that only pose a threat to snails and slugs.

References

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.

Batinski, E. (1992) Cato and the Battle with the Serpents. Syllecta Classica, Vol. 3, pp. 71-80.

Eldred, K. O. (2000) Poetry in Motion: the Snakes of Lucan. Helios 27.1, p. 63.

Isidore of Seville, trans. Barney, S. A.; Lewis, W. J.; Beach, J. A.; and Berghof, O. (2006) The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Lucan, trans. Rowe, N. (1720) Pharsalia. T. Johnson, London.

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Serpents. E. Cotes, London.