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)
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.
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.