Tlilcoatl

Variations: Acoatl

acoatl

The Tlilcoatl (“black snake”) or Acoatl (“water snake”) is a long, powerful snake found in the swamps and waterlogged caves of Mexico. This glossy black snake is thick enough that a man’s arms can just barely wrap around it. The scales are a glossy black in color. The head is large, with blazing eyes and beardlike appendages at the back similar to those of the barbel. The tail is bifurcated.

The powerful mouth of a tlilcoatl can generate a suction strong enough to draw in prey from a distance. Tlilcoatls feed mostly on fish, but they are not above drowning and eating people. They can spit venom as passers-by, incapacitating them enough to suck them in, pull them underwater, and devour them.

Sometimes a more elaborate stratagem is required. A tlilcoatl will dig out a small pool and stock it with fish to serve as bait. It pauses after depositing a new catch of fish, looking around, then going back to get more. It is tempting to profit from the snake’s absence to steal fish. But the tlilcoatl, standing erect, easily detects thieves, and chases them so fast that it seems to fly over the grass. Once in the snake’s coils there is no escape; the tlilcoatl pushes both ends of its tail into the unfortunate victim’s nostrils (or any other opening) before squeezing the life out of them.

There is, however, a means of stealing a tlilcoatl’s fish cache and escaping alive. All that is required is a hollow tree. When chased by the serpent, would-be fish thieves should hide within the tree. The tlilcoatl will coil around the unyielding trunk and squeeze so hard that it dies.

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. (1830) Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España, v. III. Alejandro Valdés, Calle de Santo Domingo, Esquina de Tacuba, Mexico.

Kranokolaptes

Variations: Kephalokroustes, Sklerokephalon

kranokolaptes

Nicander classified the Kranokolaptes, the “Head Striker”, as a phalangion or spider. This is all the more puzzling because the description has nothing arachnoid about it. No doubt its deadly bites were seen as reason enough to list it after wolf spiders and malmignattes.

The kranokolaptes is an insect found in Egypt, and which develops in the persea tree (perhaps Mimusops). It has the appearance of a moth, with four downy felt-textured wings that leave an ashy dust behind. Philoumenos described it as green in color, but that is apparently a misreading of Nicander. The head of the kranokolaptes is hard, heavy, and nodding; its abdomen is thick and fat. It has a deadly stinger located below its head.

A kranokolaptes will use its stinger to attack the heads and necks of humans and cause instant death. Kranokolaptes stings are deadly unless victims are treated with its antidote – a kranokolaptes drowned in oil.

It has been suggested that hawkmoths (Sphingidae), with their impressive sizes, thick abdomens, and prominent probosces, are at the root of the kranokolaptes tale. The vampire moth Calyptra thalictri is even more compelling. Having evolved from fruit-piercing moths, vampire moths use the same methods to puncture skin and drink blood – and they rock their heads back and forth as they penetrate, explaining the “nodding” aspect. The similarities end here, however, as a bite from Calyptra merely causes swelling and irritation.

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.

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.

Muirdris

Variations: Muirgris (erroneously); Sínach, Sinech; Píast Uiscide (“Water Beast”); Úath (“Horror”)

muirdris

Fergus mac Léti, the King of Ulster, was an inveterate swimmer. Captured while sleeping by water-spirits, the lúchorpáin or “small bodies” (actually the first appearance of leprechauns), he was awoken by the cold water they tried to carry him into. This allowed him to turn the tables on his would-be captors, and he seized three of the lúchorpáin. Fergus demanded that the sprites grant him three wishes: the ability to breathe underwater in seas, pools, and lakes.

The sprites granted him his wish, in the form of enchanted earplugs and a tunic to wear around his head. But like all wishes granted by the Fair Folk, it came with a caveat. Fergus was not to use his gifts at Loch Rudraige (Dundrum Bay) in his own land of Ulster.

Of course, Fergus arrogantly disregards the rule and swims underwater at Loch Rudraige anyway. There he encounters the Muirdris, the “Sea Bramble” or “Sea Briar”, a huge, mysterious, undefined horror that inflates and deflates, expands and contracts like a bellows. It has features of a thorn-bush, with branches and stings, and its appearance alone is deadly.

Fergus does not take well to his encounter with the muirdris, and he is horribly disfigured after seeing it, with his mouth moving to the back of his head. His courtiers are dismayed, as a man with a blemish cannot be king, but they somehow keep this defacement a secret from Fergus for seven years. They prevent him from accessing mirrors, and surround him only with people who will protect the king’s deformity. He finds out only after Dorn, a highborn slave, taunts him about it after he strikes her with a whip. She is bisected for her troubles, and Fergus goes to face his nemesis alone.

The battle between Fergus and the muirdris lasts a day and a night, during which the water of the loch bubbles like a giant cauldron. Finally Fergus slays the monster with his bare hands, and emerges from the loch holding its head in triumph – only to collapse and die from the ordeal.

A thirteenth-century retelling of Fergus’ tribulations renames the monster sínach or sinech. In this version, it is the king’s wife who reveals his secret after an argument.

The muirdris is a monster, but is it rooted in fact? Surely the expansion and contraction, the comparison to a thornbush, and the disfiguring stings strongly suggest a large jellyfish, perhaps the lion’s mane jellyfish.

References

Borsje, J. (1996) From Chaos to Enemy: Encounters with Monsters in Early Irish Texts. Brepols Publishers, Turnhout.

MacKillop, J. (2005) Myths and Legends of the Celts. Penguin Books, 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.

Margot la Fée

Variations: Margot-la-Fée, Margot, La Bonne Femme Margot (The Good Woman Margot), Ma Commère Margot (My Godmother Margot), Fée Morgant

Margot

The Margot la Fée, “Margot the Fairy”, or more simply Margot, are fairies native to Brittany, particularly Collinée, Lamballe, Moncontour, and most of the Côtes-d’Armor. They are generally seen as benevolent and protective, but capable of deadly violence when provoked. The name of Margot – also used for magpies – is probably derived from Morgan or Morgana, as evidenced by the alternative name of Morgant; most local names are placatory terms of affection. Margot fairies are closely associated with megaliths, caves, treasures, and snakes, leaving the beaches to the Fées des Houles and the Groac’h.

Like most fairies, Margot fairies vary a lot in appearance, appearing as both young and old women as well as animals. They spend part of their time as snakes, both willingly and against their will, in which form they are most vulnerable. They possess considerable magical powers, dance in circles at night, haunt dolmens, swap babies with voracious changelings, and flee religious symbols.  Sometimes a Margot would take a fancy to a handsome young shepherd and choose to keep him in a cave for herself. In those cases time itself would seem to slow down, such were the pleasures that the fairy offered.

Margot fairies happily care for the livestock of their neighbors, even going so far as to feed them in the caverns while their owners were away. The Margot’s own livestock remained in the caves, emerging only to feed. On the other hand, hungry Margot fairies will tear a cow to pieces and devour it, only to restore it to life by the next morning, missing only any pieces that had been eaten by humans during the feast.

Margot fairies are often the guardians of fabulous riches. They will handsomely reward those who aid them, and punish any who take advantage of their generosity. If they tell you to take a certain amount of treasure and no more than that, you would be wise to follow their instructions to the letter. One man who took more gold from the Crokélien Hill fairies than he was instructed to had his son taken away from him, never to be seen again.

Other gifts of the Margot are more prosaic. They will offer piping hot loaves of bread to the hungry – loaves that never get smaller, no matter how many slices are cut from them. But if a piece is offered to someone else deemed unworthy by the fairies, the loaf will no longer regenerate.

Small acts of compassion are looked on with great favor. Two harvesters, resting after scything wheat, encountered a little grass snake eating the breadcrumbs they left behind. One tried to kill it, while the other stopped him, saying it would be wrong to kill a small, harmless animal. In the evening a Margot appeared to the second man and thanked him for protecting her daughter. She gave him two belts, one for him and one for his friend, telling him not to mix them up. His was of pure gold, while the other he tied to an oak tree, which wilted overnight.

Another man working near the hill of Crokélien encountered a Margot, who asked a favor of him. “Bring a large washtub with you”, she said, “and go to the Planchettes Bridge at sunrise. There you will find a grass snake. Put the washtub over it and sit on top. If anybody asks you why you’re there, tell them you’re waiting for the blacksmiths to fix the tub. At sundown, remove the tub, and you shall be richly rewarded for your help”. The man did as he was told, and sure enough, the snake was there at the bridge as the fairy had said. He covered it with the washtub and sat patiently there for the rest of the day, weathering the taunts and jeers of passers-by with aplomb. At sunset he removed the tub to find a beautiful maiden underneath. She was the Margot’s daughter, who transformed into a snake one day every year, and would have been killed had it not been for the man’s intervention. As promised, he never wanted for gold or silver for the rest of his life.

Human midwives will also be recruited by Margots to aid them in childbirth, gifting them with the power of second sight for the occasion. But woe to her if she let on that she could still see the fairies! A vindictive Margot would gouge her eye out, or spit in her face and blind her.

References

Dubois, P.; Sabatier, C.; and Sabatier, R. (1996) La Grande Encyclopédie des Fées. Hoëbeke, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1887) Légendes Locales de la Haute-Bretagne: Les Margot la Fée. Maisonneuve et Ch. Leclerc, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1904) Le Folk-Lore de France, Tome Premier: Le Ciel et la Terre. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1905) Le Folk-Lore de France, Tome Deuxième: La Mer et les Eaux Douces. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1906) Le Folk-lore de France, Tome Troisième: La Faune et la Flore. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1968) Le folklore de la Bretagne. Éditions G. P. Maisonneuve et Larose, Paris.