Variations: Iaculus, Jaculare; Sagitta (Latin); Acontia, Acontias, Saetta (Greek); Cafezati, Cafezasi, Altararat, Acoran, Altinanti (Arabic); Orchilanne (Turkish); Saettone (Calabria and Sicily); Ein Schosse Oder Angelsch Lang (German); Decurtati (Hungary)
The Jaculus, “javelin” or “dart”, is one of the many snakes that attacked Lucan’s forces during their march through the Libyan desert. While catalogued as a Libyan desert snake, Topsell expanded its range to include Rhodes, Lemnos, Calabria, Sicily, Germany
It can be considered a flying snake, although the “flight” is long-distance leaping over ten to thirty feet. They get into trees and bushes, bunch themselves up in bow and hoop shapes, and fling themselves at high speed onto their prey. Traveling as fast as a thrown javelin, they can puncture clothing and flesh alike. Jaculi are cunning and cruel, and will lie in ambush for human prey, but their presence is given away by the noise they make while coiling in dry plants.
The appearance of the jaculus varies, but it usually has small black ocelli, no bigger than lentils, on its body. The jaculi of Rhodes are ash-colored with a white belly and two black lines running from its head to the tip of its tail; the cafezati or “jumpers” of the Middle East are red, and have been posited as the Biblical fiery serpents. The Hungarian jaculi or decurtati are thick and short-tailed, only two hands long.
A jaculus killed Paulus, one of Lucan’s men, by darting from a distance before it could be seen. It was not venom that felled its victim, but rather the gaping hole left behind after it passed through Paulus’ head at the temples. Topsell believed it was a jaculus that attacked the apostle Paul and bit his hand. Another such snake coiled around the arm of a Zurich peasant; even though it didn’t bite, the arm ended up putrefying and requiring yearly bleeding to drain the black blood inside.
Topsell attests that the same antidotes used for viper venom can be used for jaculus bites. He adds that jaculus gall with Scythian stone yields eye-salve.
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.
Lucan, trans. Rowe, N. (1720) Pharsalia. T. Johnson, London.
Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Serpents. E. Cotes, London.