Ajaju

The Ajaju was the terror of the Garo people of Achik Asong and Dura Hill in the Garo Hills of India. Nowadays members of this carnivorous species are a lot harder to find.

An ajaju looks like a chameleon with long kneeless legs. Its head may be like a human head or a chameleon’s head in appearance. It has twelve long, sharp, forked tongues that are very flexible and which it uses to lick up its prey’s flesh and blood.

The kneeless legs of an ajaju are like bamboo stalks without nodes. In the trees an ajaju can swing from branch to branch with ease, but movement on land is a lot harder. Chasing someone downhill is virtually impossible for an ajaju, but anyone running uphill would be immediately caught by the creature’s long sickle-like tongues, swallowed, and stripped of flesh and blood by the tongues. Then there would be nothing left save a few bones for the ajaju to spit out with distaste.

To attract prey an ajaju will call out in a shrill voice, “wa-o, wa-o, wa-o”. If someone responds, the ajaju will continue calling, coming nearer and nearer each time. That is why, if venturing into ajaju territory, one must call out in a high-pitched voice. If the ajaju responds, then one must remain silent and focus on putting as much distance as possible between them and the creature.

Ajaju parts are of great medicinal value, including as a substitute for missing bones when resurrecting someone. One narrator claimed to be in possession of ajaju parts from Rongkugiri, taken when a couple of ajajus were killed decades ago.

References

Rongmuthu, D. S. (1960) The Folk-tales of the Garos. University of Gauhati Department of Publication, Guwahati.

Beast of the Charred Forests

Variations: The Beast, Dhu Guisch (“Of the Black Firs”)

Tradition holds that the dense, impenetrable forests of Scotland once covered most of the Highlands and Outer Hebrides, but fell to the Norsemen. The Scandinavians burned down the forests to dominate the trade in timber, and to prevent potential ambushes from forested areas.

In Sutherland the destruction of the forests is attributed to a dragon, the Beast of the Charred Forests. This terrifying, powerful monster was born from a fire that burned for seven years and lived in fire. It once stalked over northern Scotland, breathing fire and incinerating trees. There was no escaping its wrath, and people would abandon their villages to the dragon whenever they heard it was near. Only a man who saw it before it saw him could slay it.

But the Beast itself met its match in Saint Gilbert. When it came upon St. Gilbert’s Church in Dornoch, it roared “Pity on you, Dornoch!” Saint Gilbert, who had previously dug a hole and hid in it to see the dragon before it appeared, emerged from his church armed with a bow and arrows, and repeated the Beast’s boastful statement to its face. “Pity on you, Dornoch!” The beast prepared to breathe fire on Dornoch, but the Saint’s first arrow pierced and killed it immediately. It was buried on the moor between Dornoch and Skibo, and a stone – the Beast’s Stone – was placed over it.

The presence of charred pine stumps in the peat moss of Ross, Sutherland, and the Reay is evidence of the Beast’s ravages.

References

Dempster, M. (1888) The Folk-lore of Sutherlandshire. Folk-Lore Journal v. VI p. 3, pp. 149-189.

MacGregor, A. A. (1937) The Peat-Fire Flame: Folk-tales and Traditions of the Highlands and Islands. The Moray Press, Edinburgh.

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.

Mahwot

Variations: Mahwot’, Mawhot’

The Mahwot is a monstrous creature that makes its home in the Meuse River snaking through the Ardennes. A lizard-like amphibious monster the size of a calf, it runs back and forth on the bottom of the river from Revin to Liège and back. It has been sighted at Revin and Givet on a July night in 1870.

Its primary purpose lies in keeping children away from the water. As an aquatic bogey, it will not hesitate to pull in and devour any child foolish enough to play too near the Meuse.

The mahwot rarely leaves the water. Its appearance on land is believed to be a bad omen, presaging death, war, or pestilence. More importantly, it will haul itself onto land at the beck and call of angry mothers to eat naughty children. As the warning in the local dialect goes, “V’la le Mahwot, si tu n’ti tais nai, d’ji vas t’fouaire mandjie!” (“here’s the mahwot, if you don’t shut up right now, I’ll have you eaten!”). The phrase is effective.

References

Lambot, J. (1987) L’Ardenne. Pierre Mardaga, Brussels.

Meyrac, A. (1890) Traditions, coutumes, légendes et contes des Ardennes. Petit Ardennais, Charleville.

Funkwe

The Funkwe is a colossal snake from the folklore of the Lambas of Zambia. It is approximately eighty miles in length and has a tail like that of a fish. These serpents live at the sources of the Kafulafuta and Itabwa rivers, coiled up in holes deep beneath the surface.

When a funkwe wants fish to be abundant, it starts swimming downstream, followed by schools of fish. Eventually its head reaches the great Kafue river while its tail is still at the source of the Kafulafuta – a span of eighty miles. It returns from the big river and brings the big fish with it.

References

Doke, C. M. (1931) The Lambas of Northern Rhodesia. George G. Harrap and Company Ltd., London.

Cueille-Aigue Serpent

The small neighborhood of Cueille-Aigue, in the Montbernage area of Poitiers, was once witness to a reptile of extraordinary resilience. An event of this magnitude, of course, led to wildly divergent and contradictory accounts. The one reproduced here is the most implausible – and, therefore, the most correct.

One fine morning, an inhabitant of the Cueille-Aigue discovered an enormous serpent in his cellar. He called the neighbors to aid him, and, armed with spades, picks, and other gardening utensils, they attacked the monster. The snake responded by retracting its head into its body, like a turtle into its shell.

As everyone knows, a snake cut in two will regenerate unless the head is destroyed. The serpent was chopped in half, into quarters, into increasingly fine pieces until it was nothing but mincemeat. Alas, they never could find the head.

References

Ellenberger, H. (1949) Le Monde Fantastique dans le Folklore de la Vienne. Nouvelle Revue des Traditions Populaires, 1(5), pp. 407-435.

Chipique

A serpent lives at the foot of Victoria Falls – at least, that’s what Dr. Livingstone presumed. Barotse folklore holds that this monster, the Chipique, came from the ocean, traveling over a thousand miles to rest at the falls.

The chipique rules the river by night, and it is unsafe to approach Victoria Falls during that time. Thirty feet in length, the chipique can easily grab a canoe and immobilize it. Its head is small and slate-grey, while its serpentine, heavy body winds in black coils.

Eyewitnesses include Mr. V. Pare, who saw the chipique in 1925. It reared and disappeared into a cave.

References

Green, L. G. (1956) There’s a Secret Hid Away. Howard Timmins, Cape Town.

Chipekwe

Variations: Chimpekwe

Melland gives chipekwe as referring to a one-tusked elephant in the Kaonde language of Zambia. This is probably irrelevant.

The Chipekwe is a massive, allegedly reptilian, pachyderm-slaying creature found around and in Lake Bangweulu in Zambia. Most encounters consist of unrecognizable spoors, or the noise of some large animal splashing through the water.

A chipekwe has a hairless, smooth, dark body and a single smooth horn, white as polished ivory. Chipekwes do not take well to humans invading their territory. Canoes are destroyed and their occupants are killed. Hippos fare no better – the chipekwe kills them by tearing their throats out. At least one chipekwe is known to have been slain in the Luapula, brought down by the same large harpoons used for hippo hunting.

All of the above could very well be exaggerated references to one-tusked elephants. This is probably relevant.

References

Mackal, R. (1987) A living dinosaur? E. J. Brill, New York.

Melland, F. H. (1923) In Witch-bound Africa. J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia.

Boiúna

Variations: Anaconda, Boi-úna, Cobra Grande, Cobra-grande, Eunectes murinus, Mae-d’agua, Mae-do-rio, Mboia-açu (“Large Snake”), Mboiúna; Mru-kra-o (Kayapo); Vai-bogo (Desana)

Boiuna

Boiúna or Cobra Grande is one of the most widespread and polymorphic myths of the Amazon basin. The name is applied to concepts and creatures ranging from a goddess of the water to a synonym of the green anaconda (Eunectes murinus).

In lingua geral the term boi denotes a snake (such as jiboia, the boa constrictor). Una means black. Thus a boiúna or mboiúna is a black snake, a name it shares with the mussurana. Its other name of cobra grande (“big snake”) is even less descriptive.

But a cobra grande is nothing if not big. It grows up to two hundred meters long and ten meters wide. Its enormous eyes, 0.5 to 1 m apart, glow like searchlights, with colors including orange-yellow and blue. Sometimes it has large, sharp canines on its lower jaw that stick out through holes in its upper jaw like horns. It has a powerful stench that can make people dizzy, and it makes loud rumbling sounds. Its massive bulk easily hides in the underwater holes it digs. Sometimes it appears as a ghost ship, a steamboat or a sailboat.

Boiúna can be found at the bottom of streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds, but it usually avoids the rainforest and dry land. When water levels fall in the dry season boiúnas slither out in search of deeper water, gouging out new stream channels and troughs. Its mere presence in the water can impregnate women.

When it swims a boiúna leaves a distinctive, huge, v-shaped bow wave. It protects the fish of its waters. It has a magnetic power that allows it to immobilize ships in the middle of the river, and release them at its discretion; inexplicable boat malfunctions can be ascribed to a meddling boiúna. The glowing eyes of a boiúna can mesmerize anyone who looks at them, rendering the victim enchanted (encantado). The snakes can also kill people by stealing their shadows. A de-shadowed person (assombrado) wastes away and dies in a few days. It can take a more direct approach by attacking small boats and eating the passengers, although it may also take its captives to its underwater kingdom, a sort of watery afterlife, to live with it as river snakes.

Boiúnas are intelligent. They can be summoned in séances, where they are quite talkative. They can also take on human form and mingle with people. Norato was a boiúna who would leave the Tocantins river and head into Carolina at night to party. He was an avid dancer who swapped his scaly hide for a dashing white jacket. A man once saw a giant snake leave the river and turn into a man, leaving his skin behind. Horrified, the onlooker decided to burn the skin. Norato returned to find that he was stuck as a human.

Sometimes a boa constrictor that grows too big becomes a boiúna. Sometimes a boiúna is spawned from human behavior. The boiúna of the Itacaiunas River was conceived by a girl who became pregnant and hid her condition from her parents. When she gave birth she was too scared to tell her parents, and threw the baby into the Itacaiunas. There it metamorphosed into a huge snake that terrorized river traffic. The boiúna revealed in a séance that it wanted to be disenchanted; the way to do so involved luring it with hot milk, slashing its throat, and turning around without looking back. Nobody took it up on the offer.

Tales of giant snakes are common throughout the Amazon. These include the mru-kra-o of the Kayapo and the vai-bogo of the Desana. In the Peruvian Amazon the giant anaconda is known as the Yakumama, the Mother of Water.

References

Barbosa, A. L. (1951) Pequeno Vocabulario Tupi-Portugues. Livraria Sao Jose, Rio de Janeiro.

Cascudo, L. C. (2000) Dicionario do Folclore Brasileiro. Global Editora, Sao Paolo.

Fonseca, F. (1949) Animais Peconhentos. Instituto Butantan, Sao Paolo.

Galeano, J. G.; Morgan, R. and Watson, K. trans. (2009) Folktales of the Amazon. Libraries Unlimited, Westport.

Osborne, H. (1986) South American Mythology. Peter Bedrick Books, New York.

Smith, N. J. H. (1981) Man, Fishes, and the Amazon. Columbia University Press, New York.

Smith, N. J. H. (1996) The Enchanted Amazon Rain Forest. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.