Vatnaormur

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.

References

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.

Asp

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.

References

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.

Lomie

Variations: Lomi, Lossie, Los, Moose, Elk

The Lomie is a beast found within the forests of Bohemia. It has a sac-like bladder under its neck. If pursued by hunters, it pauses at a nearby body of water to drink and fill up its neck-bladder. Then it runs, heating the water to boiling. When cornered by hunters and their dogs, it vomits the boiling water onto them, scalding them and making good its escape.

Heylyn merely refers to the water as boiling-hot. The Book of Marvels adds that the boiling water is incredibly toxic, causing incurable wounds and making skin and flesh slough off.

The name is derived from the Polish Lossie, the plural form of moose, while Los is singular. It is probably a typographical error on Heylyn’s part. Topsell lists Los and Lossie as synonyms for the elk or moose, and also ascribes the regurgitation of scalding water to the moose.

References

Heylyn, P. (1621) Microcosmus: A Little Description of the Great World. John Lichfield and James Short, Oxford.

Heylyn, P. (1636) Microcosmus: A Little Description of the Great World. William Turner, Oxford.

Heylyn, P. (1657) Cosmographie in Four Books. Henry Seile, London.

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

Various. (1996) Les Merveilles du Monde. Editions Anthese, Arcueil.

Rhox

Variations: Rhax, Rhagion, Rhogalida (“grape-spider”)

The name Rhox indicates similarity to a grape. It may be the same as the spider known as rhogalida or “grape-spider” on Crete, although nobody is quite sure what a rhogalida is either. Aelian places it in Libya, but it is otherwise described as a common Mediterranean spider.

In any case the rhox, as described by Nicander, Philumenus, and Pliny, is a sort of spider or phalangion. has a toothed mouth in the middle of its stomach and short, stubby legs that move in succession – a description more reminiscent of a millipede or centipede than a spider. It is smoky or pitchy black in color. Its venom is instantaneously deadly, and known symptoms include web-like strands in the urine.

The short legs may be a misinterpretation, as the description and lethality both suggest the malmignatte or Mediterranean black widow.

References

Beavis, I. C. (1988) Insects and other Invertebrates in Classical Antiquity. Alden Press, Osney Mead, Oxford.

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

Quetzalcoatl

Quetzalcoatl, the “Feathered Serpent” or “Plumed Serpent” is one of the most iconic deities of the Mesoamerican pantheon. Sahagun also records a far more mundane creature by the same name.

The quetzalcoatl is found in the province of Totonacapan (Guatemala) and is the size of a medium water-snake. It is covered with feathers just like those of the quetzal bird. There are tzinitzcan, small light green feathers, on its neck, red feathers on its breast, and blue feathers on the tail and rings (coils?).

This snake is rarely seen, and when it does it flies and bites the person seeing it. Its bite is deadly and kills instantly, killing both it and its victim, for it exhales its venom and its life in one go.

References

Nuttall, Z. (1895) A Note on Ancient Mexican Folk-lore. The Journal of American Folklore, v. 8, no. 29, pp. 117-129.

Sahagun, B.; Jourdanet, D. and Siméon, R. trans. (1880) Histoire Générale des Choses de la Nouvelle-Espagne. G. Masson, Paris.

Musca Macedda

Variations: Musca Macèdda, Musca Machèdda, Musca Maghèdda, Musca Manchèdda da Mancu

Musca Macedda

A fabulous treasure awaits discovery in Sardinia. This treasure takes the form of two barrels, identical in appearance. One of those barrels contains riches beyond imagination. The other barrel is full of deadly flies – the Musca Macedda. Anyone opening the barrel full of flies brings about not only their own death, but the destruction of the world. This treasure may be found all over Sardinia, including near Alghero, Esterzili, Sorgono, the church of Valenza, and many other places. Nobody has dared open it.

The musca macedda’s name refers to the slaughter and massacre it brings about; it is also known as the musca manchèdda da mancu, i.e. of the left hand, for if the right hand is the hand of God, the left hand is that of the Devil. A musca macedda resembles a common fly but can be up to the size of a sheep. The one reported from Nuchis was as big as an ox’s head. A musca macedda has powerful wings, and in places where these flies are buried one can hear their infernal buzzing. The stinger is huge and deadly.

Only the local priest is spiritually strong enough to ward off a musca macedda. At Iglesias it was said that a holy man delivered the country from demonic flies that had already destroyed multiple towns such as Galte in Nuorese, Ilani near Orotelli, Oddini, and Thiddorai. The musca macedda at Nuchis tore the region apart before dying between the Church of San Cosimo and the Parish of the Holy Spirit, between two black boulders of volcanic rock.

Belief in the musca macedda appears to be an ancient one. It has been suggested that the flies arose with the Spanish invasion of Sardinia, since at least one tale says that they issued from the tomb of a Spanish saint. It is more likely that they are a personification of the diseases and epidemics that ravaged Sardinia at various points in its history.

References

Bottiglione, G. (1922) Leggende e Tradizioni di Sardegna. Leo S. Olschki, Geneva.

Fad Felen

Variations: Fall Felen

Fad Felen

When the Fad Felen, the “Yellow Pestilence”, “Yellow Death”, or “Yellow Plague”, came to Wales in the 540s, it took the form of a column of watery cloud, one end on the ground and the other high in the air. Any living creature caught in the pestiferous pillar died or sickened to death. It was called the Yellow Pestilence because of the livid, bloodless complexion of those stricken by it. Those physicians who tried to cure the afflicted themselves took ill and died.

Taliesin the poet prophesied the death of Maelgwn Gwynedd, King of North Wales. “A strange creature will come from the marsh of Rhianedd”, he said, “to punish the crimes of Maelgwn Gwynedd; its hair, its teeth, and its eyes are yellow, and this will destroy Maelgwn Gwynedd”. This manifestation of the Fad Felen was perhaps a hideous hag with baleful eyes, in the same way as the ague is referred to as the wrach or hen wrach (the “hag” or “old hag” respectively). Other accounts speak of it as a basilisk; the poet Rhys Tenganwy mentions a scaly monster with claws and pestiferous breath.

Maelgwn Gwynedd saw the Fad Felen through the key-hole of Rhos Church, and died as a result – presumably a poetic way of saying that he died of plague in the church.

References

Llwyd, R. (1837) The Poetical Works of Richard Llwyd. Whittaker & Co., London.

Rees, W. J. (1840) The Liber Landavensis, Llyfr Teilo. The Welsh MSS Society, Llandovery.

Rhys, J. (1884) Celtic Britain. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London.

Rhys, J. (1892) Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion. Williams and Norgate, London.

Sikes, W. (1880) British Goblins. Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, London.

Markupo

Variations: Macupo, Marcupo

Markupo

The Markupo is a serpent known to the Hiligaynon of the Philippines. It lives in the highest mountains of the historical province of Bulgas, between Marapara and Canlaon.

In appearance the markupo is a huge snake with a distinctive red crest. Its long tongue has thornlike hairs. It has sharp tusks and a forked tail.

The markupo sings sonorously on clear days. Its exhaled poison is instantly lethal to the touch. If sprinkled on plants, this poison withers the plant, kills any birds that land on it, and kills any beast touched by its shadow.

References

Ramos, M. D. (1971) Creatures of Philippine Lower Mythology. University of the Philippines Press, Quezon.

Ramos, M. D. (1973) Filipino Cultural Patterns and Values. Island Publishers, Quezon City.

Muscaliet

Variations: Muscardin; Dormouse; Musquelibet, Musquelibus, Musquilibet (possibly)

Muscaliet

Nobody is quite sure what a Muscaliet is. Our only source for this unusual rodent is found in the bestiary of Pierre de Beauvais, and it appears to have been cobbled together from multiple unrelated accounts.

The muscaliet is found in India, in the land of the three talking trees that predicted the death of Alexander the Great. This by itself is suspect, as the accounts of Alexander in India only mention two trees, consecrated to the sun and moon. Then again, the sun-tree was said to have spoken twice and the moon-tree once, making for three tree speeches. The life of a copyist was a thankless one.

Beauvais gives the muscaliet a body like a hare, but smaller. Its legs, feet, and tail are like those of a squirrel, but the tail, while held in a squirrel-like manner, is larger. It uses the strength in its tail to jump from tree to tree. Its head is rounded, its ears small and weasel-like, and its nose long and pointed like a mole. There is a tooth sticking out of its mouth on either side, like a boar’s tusks, and it has bristles around its snout like the bristles on a boar’s back.

A muscaliet is a highly adept climber. No animal can catch it in the trees, and its claws are so sharp that it can cling to any surface. It eats fruits, leaves, and flowers and digs out its dens in the roots of trees. It is so “hot by nature” (calde de nature) that the tree it lives in eventually rots, withers, and dies as the muscaliet gnaws away at the roots.

This is a moral lesson. The tree represents a human; its leaves and flowers are good deeds, and its fruits are the soul. But the muscaliet is Pride, its sharp teeth are cutting words that Cruelty brings, and its feet show that cruelty is tenacious. Once Pride takes up residence within us, Beauvais warns, it rots us from the inside out.

The term “muscaliet” itself is an archaic French term for the common dormouse or muscardin (Muscardinus), that which Buffon described as “the least ugly of all the rats”. Its name is derived from its presumed musky odor; whether this attribution came before or after Beauvais’ usage is unclear. The –caliet part of the name superficially suggests heat, which would have inspired our bestiarist to describe it as “hot by nature”. Alternative, “muscaliet” may have been derived from the musquelibet, a creature like a roe deer in size, with an abscess-like growth that produces musk. This is the musk deer Moschus moschiferus, which does have tusks like a boar but little connection to the muscaliet otherwise – not even musk is mentioned.

Is this the fox-sized mouse described by Aristotle? It was a wonder of India found by Alexander, a mouse the size of a fox and with a noxious bite that harmed animals and humans. This sounds like a rat, and perhaps an early allusion to the diseases carried by those animals – rats were unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans, with black rats appearing in late antiquity and brown rats showing up in the 16th century. Tales of rats with toxic bites combined with dormouse and musk-deer anecdotes are likely the basis for the tree-poisoning muscaliet, which exists as a moral warning and not a zoological account.

References

de Beauvais, P.; Baker, C. ed. (2010) Le Bestiaire. Honoré Champion, Paris.

Buffon, G. L. L. (1775) Oeuvres completes de M. le Cte. De Buffon, t. II. Imprimerie Royal, Paris.

Cahier, C. (1856) Bestiaires. Melanges d’Archeologie, 1856(IV), pp. 55-87.

de Cantimpré, T. (1280) Liber de natura rerum. Bibliothèque municipale de Valenciennes.

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

Godefroy, F. (1901) Lexique de l’Ancien Francais. H. Welter, Paris.

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

Magnus, A. (1920) De Animalibus Libri XXVI. Aschendorffschen Verlagbuchhandlung, Münster.

Unknown. (1538) Ortus Sanitatis. Joannes de Cereto de Tridino.

de Xivrey, J. B. (1836) Traditions Tératologiques. L’Imprimerie Royale, Paris.

Loðsilungur

Variations: Lodsilungur, Lod-silungur, Shaggy Trout; Loðufsi (Shaggy Pollock)

The Loðsilungur, or “Shaggy Trout”, is one of the most toxic fishes to inhabit Iceland. The earliest accounts date from the mid-17th century, where it is obliquely referred to as the “poisonous menace”. Illness and death follow the consumption of a loðsilungur.

The appearance of the Icelandic shaggy trout varies, but a trout-like shape and the presence of hair are diagnostic. Loðsilungurs tend to be ugly and strange. The one described in Nordri in 1855 had a beard of reddish hair on its lower jaw and neck as well as hairy patches on its sides and hairy fins. Another account distinguishes between trout with shaggy hair near the front of their head, and trout with hairy manes on either side. The adipose fin is either reduced or absent, and scales may not be present. The most detailed description specifies that it is no bigger than an Arctic char, and is often the size of a man’s finger. The tail is narrower and the front thicker than in other trout. The small, deep-set eyes are set ahead of a bulbous skull. The short snout has a distinctive overbite. The teeth are pitch black. Finally, the loðsilungur is covered with fine, downy, cottony-white hair. This hair, the namesake of the trout, resembles mold and is visible only when the fish is dead and in the water; on dry land it lies flat against the scales and becomes invisible. This makes it easier to confuse with edible trout – and makes it that much more deadly.

Across Iceland the tale is told of a tragic group poisoning. In 1692 the inhabitants of the farm called Gröf were found dead around a table with a cooked loðsilungur. Two brothers in a hunting lodge near Gunnarssonavatn Lake died with plates of trout on their knees. The most notorious poisoning incident is that of the Kaldrani farm, where an entire household were killed by a meal of loðsilungur. Only one young pauper girl had no appetite at the time, and avoided a terrible death.

Dogs and birds of prey, normally indiscriminate in their eating habits, will refuse to eat a loðsilungur. The shaggy trout are also tenacious and will cling stubbornly to life as long as possible. A group of fishermen in Hoffellsvatn Lake found that out the hard way; they left a catch of fish out overnight, only to find a live loðsilungur squirming on top of the pile. The entire catch was discarded and the lake abandoned.

References

Davidsson, O. (1900) The Folk-lore of Icelandic Fishes. The Scottish Review, October, pp. 312-332.

Hlidberg, J. B. and Aegisson, S.; McQueen, F. J. M. and Kjartansson, R., trans. (2011) Meeting with Monsters. JPV utgafa, Reykjavik.