Sachamama

Variations: Sach’amama, Sacha-mama, Sach’a-mama, Sacha Mama, Sach’a Mama

Sachamama

Sachamama, “Mother of the Forest”, is one of the three ancient snake mothers of the Peruvian Amazon. She is the mythological boa constrictor, in the same way as the Yakumama is the anaconda. Sachamama is about forty meters long and two meters wide, with an iguana-like head and scales like stone plates. There is a bulldozer-like blade under her neck. Trees, bushes, vines, fungi, and all sorts of living things grow on her back, such that she never moves unless provoked.

Not that Sachamama needs to move. She has magnetic or hypnotic powers capable of drawing to her any animal that passes in front of her head. The animals living on her also have those magnetic powers. She can also cause storms, rain, and lightning, inducing fevers and headaches in anyone foolish enough to intrude in her domain. Illnesses caused by the Sachamama require shamanistic intervention to cure, usually involving chants and lots of tobacco smoke.

The plants growing on Sachamama’s back are unique – a veritable pharmacopoeia of medicinal herbs that would save countless lives if the Sachamama allowed it. There is boa huasca, a liana with healing resin. Lluasca huasca is another vine whose phlegm-like resin heals facial blemishes. Puma huasca and puma sanango are vines whose cooked stem and cooked root (respectively) cure sorcery and evil spells, and whose spirits are jaguars. Zorrapilla or shabumpilla is a herb that heals cuts and injuries. The lluvia caspi (“rain tree”), rayo caspi (“lightning tree”), or trueno caspi (“thunder tree”) is an enormous tree whose bark, cooked and eaten, grants the ability to create and quell storms.

Most encounters wth the Sachamama occurred during the rubber boom in Peru, when many rubber harvesters found themselves entering the snake’s domain. A man and his wife collecting rubber once sat by the trunk of what seemed to be a huge fallen tree. When they cut into it with their machetes, it bled; when they built a fire, the trees shook, and a torrential downpour extinguished the fire. Next day the “fallen tree” had vanished. In its spot was a wide road. The man consulted a shaman who told him what he was dealing with. “The Sachamama lives in one place but she has moved. She doesn’t like trespassers”. Despite the shaman and his wife’s advice, the man decided to follow the road and find Sachamama. He came upon the tree trunk in a meadow, in the midst of human and animal bones, and at the end of the meadow was a cave where mesmerized animals were congregating. The “trunk” was Sachamama’s tail, and the “cave” her mouth! He cut through the trance with his machete and ran for his life.

References

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

Montes, F.; Harrison, K. trans.; in Posey, D. A. (ed.) (1999) Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity. United Nations Environment Programme, Intermediate Technology Publications, London.

Stiglich, G. (1913) Geografia Comentada del Peru. Casa Editoria Sanmarti, Lima.

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.

Xicalcoatl

Variations: Jicara Snake, Chocolate Cup Snake, Malinche

xicalcoatl

Both large and small varieties of the Xicalcoatl, the Aztec “Chocolate Cup Snake”, exist, and may be found in the waterways of Mexico. They are black in color with variegated bellies. When they reach maturity, xicalcoatls develop an excrescence on their backs. This natural growth looks like a jicara (a gourd chocolate cup) down to the last detail, with colorful designs and patterns on its smooth surface.

Xicalcoatls lure humans to their doom by submerging themselves in water and allowing the painted jicara to show above the surface. A passer-by, seeing the chocolate cup seemingly floating on the water, will try to seize it, but their attentions only cause the cup to drift further and further away. When the victim reaches a sufficient depth, the xicalcoatl causes the water to churn and drown the unfortunate chocolate-seeker.

A watered-down version of this tale persists in Mexico in the form of the evil fairy Malinche, who leaves painted chocolate cups in the water to tempt children.

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.

Apep

Variations: Āpep, Āapep, Aaapef, Apophis, Rerek; further names from the Papyrus of Nesi-Amsu listed by Budge are Nesht, Tutu, Hau-hra, Hemhemti, Qettu, Qerneru, Iubani, Amam, Hem-taiu, Saatet-ta, Khermuti, Kenememti, Sheta, Serem-taui, Sekhem-hra, Unti, Karau-anememti, Khesef-hra, Seba-ent-seba, Khak-ab, Khan-ru… uaa, Nai, Am, Turrupa, Iubau, Uai, Kharubu the Four Times Wicked, Sau, Beteshu

apep

Apep, Āapep, or Apophis in Greek, is the chief chthonic monster in the Egyptian cosmogony, born during the dark times of the First Intermediate Period and depicted as an enormous serpent with winding coils or alternatively as a giant crocodile, or with a human head and hands as in the Stele of Taqayna. He is described as being a hundred and twenty cubits (55 meters) long, or otherwise thirty cubits (14 meters) long, with the first eight cubits made of flint and with coils like sandbanks, lying on a sandbank 450 cubits (205 meters) long.

Apep is darkness, cloud, wind, rain, mist, and storm. The antithesis of light and life, his primary goal is the destruction of the sun god Ra and his solar barque, causing the elimination of light and day and the victory of chaos and darkness. Assisted by a retinue of lesser demons and serpents – the mesu betshet or “children of rebellion”, the snakes Seba, Af, and Nak, and the crocodile Seshsesh – he hides under the earth and below the horizon, and attempts to swallow Ra’s barque every night. Ra, aided by his cortège of gods, thwarts Apep’s attempts time and time again, allowing the sun to rise once more. Occasionally Apep gains the upper hand, causing storms, earthquakes, and solar eclipses, but those end as Ra is cut free from Apep’s stomach. The serpent’s inevitable fate is to be chopped up into pieces and cast back into the abyss, but he always returns the following night, as full of malice and venom as ever, in an endless cycle of destruction.

In a mythology revolving around the sun, Apep, sworn enemy of Ra, darkness personified, is as evil a creature as could exist in the Egyptian pantheon. Some degree of respect was granted him; the Hyksos pharaoh Apepi (r. 1590 – 1550 BCE) took him as his namesake, in a perverse move likely intended to instill fear in the native Egyptians. As a deity, he was never worshipped, but always avoided, spited and mutilated in effigy during natural disasters.

The apotropaic “Book of Overthrowing Apep” (4th century BCE) provides helpful instructions for the faithful, including exhortations for “Spitting on Apep”, “Trampling on Apep with the Left Foot”, “Taking the Knife to Smite Apep”, “Taking the Lance to Smite Apep”, “Putting Apep on the Fire”, “Fettering Apep”, and other such activities. The Book of the Dead features the soul of the deceased piercing Apep, praying for aid in destroying Apep at the apex of his power. Apep’s gruesome punishment is described at length – he is to be speared, stabbed with knives, each bone of his body separated by red-hot knives, scorched, roasted, and consumed by fire. Each name of Apep had to be cursed separately, and the Papyrus of Nesi-Amsu lists the serpent’s many names.

In time the role of Apep as the enemy of the Sun overlapped with that of the desert god Set, once the primary defender of the solar barque from Apep’s depredations, such that Apepi is described in ca. 1274 BCE as a monolatrous worshipper of Set.

References

Aldington, R. and Ames, D. trans.; Guirand, F. (1972) New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Paul Hamlyn, London.

Ames, D. trans. (1965) Egyptian Mythology. From Mythologie Generale Larousse. Paul Hamlyn, London.

Budge, E. A. W. (1913) The Papyrus of Ani: a reproduction in facsimile, vol. I. G. P. Putnam, New York.

Budge, E. A. W. (1913) The Papyrus of Ani: a reproduction in facsimile, vol. II. G. P. Putnam, New York.

Budge, E. A. W. (2015) The Gods of the Egyptians, vol. I. Dover Publications Inc., New York.

Budge, E. A. W. (2015) The Gods of the Egyptians, vol. II. Dover Publications Inc., New York.

ElSebaie, S. M. (2000) The destiny of the world: a study on the end of the universe in the light of ancient Egyptian texts. M.A. diss., University of Toronto.

Faulkner, R. O. (1937) The Bremner-Rhind Papyrus: III: D. The Book of Overthrowing Apep. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 23, no. 2, pp. 166-185.

Simpson, W. K., Faulkner, R. O., and Wente, E. F. (2003) The Literature of Ancient Egypt. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Turner, P. (2012) Seth – a misrepresented god in the ancient Egyptian pantheon? PhD diss., University of Manchester.

Wilkinson, R. H. (2003) The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames and Hudson, London.

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.