Cerastes

Variations: Kerastes (Greek); Ceristalis, Cristalis, Sirtalis, Tristalis (corrupted from original Latin Cerastes); Cerust (Arabian); Schephiphon (Hebrew); En Geburnte Schlang (German); Ceraste, Serpent Cornu (French), Horned Serpent (English)

cerastes

The Cerastes, “horned”, is one of the many snakes born from the blood of Medusa in the Libyan desert. It receives a passing mention in Lucan’s catalogue of snakes. Another cerastes mentioned by Theophrastus and Pliny, in the form of a two-horned herbivorous worm, is obviously a caterpillar.

No more than 2 cubits (about a meter) long, the cerastes is sandy-colored and white, with red streaks across its back. The skin is very soft and stretchable. On the head are two, four, or eight horns, described as worm-like or ram-like. The fangs are like those of a viper and are not crooked. Instead of a backbone, a cerastes has a cartilaginous spine, making it the most flexible of all snakes.

The horns of a cerastes have two documented functions. They are used as lures to attract birds, with the snake buried under the sand with only the horns protruding. Horned snakes can also be found guarding wild pepper plants in Arabia, and they use their horns to gore and kill people. To harvest the pepper, fire must be set to burn out the cerastes, blackening the pepper as a result.

It is said that Helen of Troy, while eloping with Paris, stepped on a cerastes’ back and broke it. This is why they move in such a sinuous, crooked fashion, causing their scales to rustle as they go.

No other snake can endure thirst as long as the cerastes. They seldom or never drink. As for reproduction, they bring forth live young. They are solitary and aggressive towards humans, but the Psilli of Libya live in harmony with them. If one of the Psilli is lightly bitten they spit on the bite to heal it. A stronger bite requires antivenin made by gargling water and spitting it into a pot for the victim to drink. The most severe cases are cured by lying naked upon the equally naked sufferer.

Cerastes bites cause necrosis, priapism, madness, dimness of sight, scabs, sharp pain like the pricking of needles, and inevitable death within nine days. Topsell recommends cutting off stricken flesh to the bone or outright amputation. The wound should then be dressed with goat dung and vinegar or garlic, or barley-meal, or cedar, rue, or nep juice, or otherwise salt, honey, or pitch. Daffodil, rue, radish-seed, cumin, wine, castoreum, calamint, and emetics should be imbibed.

The cerastes is the namesake of the Saharan horned viper Cerastes cerastes. The viper’s knack for sidewinding seems an obvious forerunner to the cerastes’ flexibility.

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.

Kitchell, K. F. (2014) Animals in the Ancient World from A to Z. Routledge, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon.

Lucan, trans. Riley, H. T. (1853) The Pharsalia of Lucan. Henry G. Bohn, London.

Tilbury, G.; Banks, S. E. and Binns, J. W. (eds.) (2002) Otia Imperialia. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

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

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.

Cenchris

Variations: Cenchros, Cenchrines, Cenchridion, Cenchrites, Cenchria; Millet; Milliaris (from millet); Punter-schlang, Berg-schlang (German); Lyon (due to its color and ferocity); Famusus, Aracis, Falivisus (Topsell gives those last three as barbarous versions)

Cenchris

The Cenchris or Millet is one of the many venomous snakes spawned from the blood of Medusa that live in the Sahara desert. It was listed in the catalog of serpents assailing Cato and his men, but did not receive a separate account describing the effects of its deadly venom. Situated in Libya according to Lucan, Topsell stated it to hail from Lemnus and Samothracia.

The most obvious characteristic of a cenchris is that it always move in a straight line, and does not coil or flex its body. For this reason it can travel fast in a straight line, but cannot make sharp turns. In color it is a dusky yellow, looking like the color of millet seed, but Aldrovandi suggests it to be at least partly green. Regardless of the color, the cenchris is attractively spotted and speckled, bringing to mind millet or marbled columns. The pointed tail is turned upwards, like a lion’s. A cenchris grows to two cubits (about one meter) long.

The cenchris is most active and aggressive when millet is at the peak of its growth, and head to the mountains in the summer. Unlike other venomous snakes, it will use its entire body when attacking, wrapping around its victim and beating it; meanwhile, it fastens its fangs in its prey and sucks its blood out.

Cenchris venom rots and putrefies flesh, causing lethargy, stomachache, and death within two days if left untreated. Lettuce, flax-seed, savory, rue, betony, and daffodil in three cups of wine, followed by two drams of centaury, gentian, hartwort, nosewort, or sesame, makes a good antidote.

While not easy to narrow to a single species, the rectilinear locomotion suggests the cenchris to be inspired by large, heavy-bodied vipers such as the puff adder.

References

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.

Jaculus

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)

Jaculus

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.

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.

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