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.

Dungavenhooter

Variations: Crocodilus hauriens

dungavenhooter

The Dungavenhooter is a Fearsome Critter found lurking in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, although it once ranged as far as Maine. This cunning and dangerous swamp-dweller resembles an alligator with short legs and a thick, powerful tail. Notably, a dungavenhooter lacks a mouth, instead sporting enormous nostrils. The call is a loud snort.

Dungavenhooters ambush prey by hiding in whiffle bushes. They are especially attracted to inebriated loggers, presumably avoiding competition with the teetotal hidebehinds. Anyone passing within range is clubbed with the creature’s tail, then pounded into a gas which the dungavenhooter inhales.

References

Tryon, H. H. (1939) Fearsome Critters. The Idlewild Press, Cornwall, NY.

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.

Rahara

Variations: The Beast

rahara

Deep, permanent lagoons in Brazil and Venezuela are home to the Rahara. According to the Yanomami, this aquatic monster once lived in a large lagoon called Akrawa. Since then the rahara has moved upstream in the Orinoco, finding suitable lagoons to inhabit, or enlarging small lagoons to better fit inside. A rahara lagoon never dries out and can be recognized by observing the shore – there are tracks leading in, but none leading out.

The rahara is the uncle of the anaconda, and grows to greater sizes. It may or may not have feet. Its serpentine body is like a rotten pawpaw tree or a manioc strainer. It is capable of drawing people towards it and swallowing them whole. A rahara will be attracted to fire as it is sure to find a meal there; it will also rush out of its submarine hole to swallow anyone foolish enough to say its name out loud, so it is usually referred to as “the beast”. When in a good mood, raharas make a snapping sound and alert others to their presence. Silence is dangerous.

Raharas have pets in the form of hoatzins and curassows, which roost above the waterholes to entice hunters.  Snakes are also associated with the raharas. One talking boa constrictor turned into a live baby rahara after being shot dead by a hunter. It was kept as a pet in a water-filled palm spathe until it grew big enough to devour its entire adopted village. Finally, the raharas are responsible for floods, tsunamis, and other water-based disasters.

It is advisable to avoid known rahara haunts, and refrain from drinking, bathing, or fishing in those waters. A messenger once ignored those warnings and bathed in such a pond, and was immediately swallowed by a rahara. He called out “Help! Over here!” from inside the creature’s belly, and men arrived from the village with bamboo lances. They began running the rahara – and its prey – through. “Stop! You’re hurting me!” he screamed from inside, but they ignored him until both he and the rahara were dead.

Presumably the man was not well-liked.

References

Albert, B.; Becher, H.; Borgman, D. M.; Cocco, L.; Colchester, M. E. M.; Finkers, J.; Knobloch, F.; Lizot, J.; and Wilbert, J.; Wilbert, J. and Simoneau, K. eds. (1990) Folk Literature of the Yanomami Indians. UCLA Latin American Center Publications, University of California, Los Angeles.

Lizot, J.; Simon, E. trans. (1985) Tales of the Yanomami. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Indombe

indombe

Indombe is fire, Indombe is life, Indombe is motherhood, Indombe is a slave to the power of death. She is an enormous copper snake over three feet wide, and several miles in length, and she makes her home in the trees of the Congo. Her cupreous body glows red with internal heat; she is immeasurably old, associated with the sun and the sunset in particular. Her tale is mysterious and metaphorical, and her ancestry is probably Semitic.

Itonde, hero and creator figure of the Congo, had been sent on a bizarre errand. His sister-in-law was pregnant, and she had developed a craving for snakes, so Itonde and his brother Lofale went into the forest to find them. There they saw Indombe coiled in a tree, shining bright as the sun. “Great Indombe”, said Itonde, “come down and let us talk together”. As Indombe refused to leave her perch, Itonde started chanting: “Indombe of the Bakongo, come down so I may carry you!” The giant snake was furious. “How dare you try to bewitch me?” she roared, causing her flames to flare and illuminate the entire forest. She then put her red-hot head on Itonde’s shoulder, severely burning him and leaving him for dead.

Fortunately for Itonde he was the owner of a magic bell, and he rang it, immediately recovering from his injuries. He did not want Indombe to gain the advantage of nightfall, so he captured the sun itself. Indombe next tried to constrict him, but Itonde kept ringing his bell, causing him to grow taller and stronger while the snake weakened.

It was in this state that Itonde triumphantly carried Indombe back to his village. He set her down outside the entrance of the village, and Indombe immediately coiled around the village and swallowed every last man, woman, and child. “You monster!” cried Itonde. “I’ll kill you, cut you up, and eat you!” Itonde produced his enchanted machete, and Indombe, seeing her death approaching, warned the hero. “If you kill me, eat me all today; you will not survive if you leave a single piece”. She was then promptly decapitated, cut into slices, and fried in oil. Itonde ate every piece, but left the inedible head, putting it under his bed.

Next morning, he awake to the horrifying discovery that Indombe was still there – but was now a ghost! “I told you eat all of me” she explained, “so now I return as a spirit, to aid you and show you a good place to live”. The spectral copper snake led Itonde to her village, a beautiful, disease-free location for future generations. Itonde then found out that Lofale was dead, killed by Indombe; but he could not avenge himself on a ghost, so he sought out a man in the forest. His quarry tried to hide by transforming into the first sugar-cane, but Itonde found and killed him as an expiatory sacrifice, discovering sugar-cane in the process.

“This village shall be yours because you are a strong fighter”, said Indombe. “Your name shall now be Ilelangonda. Farewell to you all”. With that the ghostly snake coiled up, jumped into the river, and disappeared.

References

Knappert, J. (1971) Myths and Legends of the Congo. Heinemann Educational Books, London.