Catoblepas

Variations: Katoblepas, Catablepon, Katoblepon, Catobleponta, Gorgon (erroneously)

Catoblepas

The Catoblepas, “that which looks downwards”, is probably the most hideous and repulsive of living things, so horrid that its mere glance is lethal. Pliny locates it in Ethiopia, around the source of the Nile, Aelian puts it in Libya, and Topsell gives a range of Hesperia and Lybia.

According to Pliny, the body of a catoblepas is of small size, and its limbs are heavy, but its massive head is too heavy to be held up and always looks downwards. This is a good thing, as anyone who saw the eyes of a catoblepas died.

Aelian gives more detail, describing it as the size of a bull, but with a grim expression, shaggy eyebrows, and small bloodshot eyes. It looks downwards, and has a horselike mane that starts on its head and covers its face. The catoblepas feeds on poisonous plants; when threatened, it shudders and raises its mane in warning before opening its mouth and belching a foul, toxic gas. This gas poisons the air around it, and anything that breathes it loses its voice, collapses in convulsions, and dies. Other animals give it a wide berth because of this. There is no mention of a deadly gaze.

Topsell combines the catoblepas with the Gorgon, stating that the myth of Perseus originated from a war with African Amazons led by Medusa. The snake-hair of the gorgons was inspired by the catoblepas’ messy mane. His fanciful description borrows liberally from gorgons and adds thick eyelids, scales like a dragon, tusks like a boar, no hair on the head, wings, human hands, and a size between that of a bull and a calf. He also denies that a catoblepas can kill with its breath, which is unheard of in the animal world; it is far more likely to kill with its eyes like the well-known cockatrice. He gives as proof an anecdote of Marius’ soldiers encountering a catoblepas and thinking it a sheep, only to die immediately when it looked up at them. It was eventually killed in an ambush by spear-men, and its skin was sent to the temple of Hercules in Rome.

It is in Flaubert’s Temptation that we get the most nightmarish vision of the catoblepas. Here it is a sprawling, long-maned black buffalo with the head of a pig dragging on the ground. Its neck is long and thin like an emptied intestine. It is also granted the power of speech, addressing Anthony. “Fat, melancholy, wild, I perpetually feel the warmth of mud under my belly, hiding infinite rot under my armpit. My skull is so heavy that I cannot lift it. I roll it around me, slowly; – and, jaws opened, I tear with my tongue poisonous herbs watered with my breath. Once, I ate my paws by accident. No-one, Anthony, has ever seen my eyes, or those who have seen them are dead. If I lifted my eyelids – my pink and swollen eyelids, straight away, you would die”.

Cuvier suggested that this maned, hoofed, and downward-looking abomination of nature was inspired by the harmless gnu or wildebeest.

References

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

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

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

Pliny; Holland, P. trans. (1847) Pliny’s Natural History. George Barclay, Castle Street, Leicester Square.

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Four-footed Beasts. 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.