Lebraude

Variations: Enfleboeuf, Souffle, Soufflet

Lebraude

Sometimes the toxicity of reptiles and amphibians was so powerful that their breath became a deadly weapon. The rarely-seen toads and salamanders in particular were blamed for all sorts of evil deeds.

The Lebraude is a sort of large lizard or salamander with black and yellow skin. It breathes once per day, and anything that contacts its noxious exhalation dies instantly. Humans perish, livestock expires, and even trees and grass wither up. In Puy de Dôme the Souffle (“Breath”) is a small snake or salamander whose breath kills anyone it sees first. Toads in Provence kill birds with their breath. In Vaucluse a salamander’s breath will cause humans to swell up until they die in their skin. The Souffle, Soufflet (“Bellows”), or Enfleboeuf (“Ox-sweller”) of Auvergne inflates and kills cattle.

Sometimes it is not the exhalation, but the inhalation that is feared. In the Cher, it was said that toads sucked bees out of hives, opening their mouths wide for the insects to come in. Reptiles born from a rooster’s egg in the Hautes-Pyrénées can inhale and swallow anything nearby, including birds and children.

References

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

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.

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.