The Floitenthal, near the Ziller Valley in the Tyrol, has two great mountains, the Floitenthurm and the Teufelseck. The latter, the “Devil’s Corner”, is so name because the devil himself is said to descend from it in the form of a great fiery dragon glowing like an electric fire. The dragon flies a narrow hole, the Bleiarzkar, towards the Zillertal. This demonic dragon is known as the Alber, and it brings with it plague, war, and famine.
One time, during a night as black as pitch, two men climbed a cherry tree by the Mission Cross of Algund, near Meran. These men were Hanser, a tailor and a notorious ne’er-do-well, and old Loaserer Sepp, an honest villager.
To be fair to Sepp, he did not mean to participate in any unseeming behavior. Hanser had made a bet with some equally debauched friends to pick cherries from the tree near the cross, but, being an abject coward, he could not do it on his own, so he roped Sepp into accompanying him.
Both men climbed the tree, but Hanser filled his hat by the handful while Sepp could not find a single cherry no matter where he looked. Sepp was beginning to feel uncomfortable when, all of a sudden, the Alber flew by, throwing its burning light upon the scene.
Hanser was so scared he almost fell off the tree, but Sepp held the other man and prevented him from falling. “Are you so far gone, Hanser, that the devil gives you his blessing and lights your way?” said Sepp. “Then may God preserve you!” The honest man then turned to the fiery dragon. “Hi there! Wait a little until I find some cherries too!” The Alber left at once.
Sepp was a good, honest man, and the evil one had no power over him. His bravery was lauded long afterwards.
von Günther, A. (1874) Tales and Legends of the Tyrol. Chapman and Hall, London.
Variations: Grand’Gueule, Grande Goule, Grande Gueule; Bonne Sainte Vermine (Good Holy Vermin)
The Grand’Goule (corrupted from grande gueule, “great gullet” or more simply “big mouth”) is one of many French dragons associated with cities and their patron saints. In this case, it is linked with Poitiers. The current and best-known effigy, created by one Gargot, dates to 1677. The tradition itself goes back at least to 1466, where “the dragon” is mentioned in a list of banners and insignia carried during a rogation day procession.
As seen in its carved effigy at the abbey of Saint-Croix, the Grand’Goule is a monstrous bat-winged dragon with a gaping mouth. It is armed with hooked claws and a forked scorpion’s stinger. It is bronze green in color with a red collar around its neck.
The dragon terrorized Poitiers until it was slain. One account says that Saint Radégonde of Poitiers killed it through a fervent prayer – a prayer which literally flew like a projectile and hit the dragon like a crossbow bolt. Another tale says that a condemned criminal volunteered to slay the dragon, but he perished from its poisonous breath in his moment of triumph.
Scotsman John Lauder reported seeing the remains of a “hideous crocodile” with a huge mouth chained to a wall in a palais in Poitiers. The relic was believed to be centuries old and though to have been spontaneously generated from rotting matter in the prison, although Lauder expressed his doubt on the last matter. It killed several prisoners before being shot by a condemned man, who won his life by doing so.
Traditionally the Grand’Goule was brought out on rogation days, paraded along with the relic of the True Cross. It was decorated with ribbons and banderoles and treated with respect, with cherries, tarts, and pastries – golden-brown casse-museaux, literally “snout-breakers” – tossed into its mouth. It is affectionately referred to as the Bonne Sainte Vermine, the “Good Holy Vermin”.
de Chergé, C. (1872) Guide du Voyageur à Poitiers et aux Environs. Librairie Létang, Poitiers.
Clouzot, H. (1897) Spectacles Populaires en Poitou. La Tradition en Poitou et Charentes, pp. 305-317.
Clouzot, H. (1901) L’Ancien Théatre en Poitou. Bulletin et Mémoires de la Société des Antiquaires de l’Ouest, XXIV(2), pp. 153-521.
Foucart, E. V. (1841) Poitiers et ses Monuments. A. Pichot, Poitiers.
Lauder, J.; Crawford, D. ed. (1900) Journals of Sir John Lauder, Lord Fountainhall. University Press, Edinburgh.
de la Marsonnière, J. L. (1883) Un Drame au Logis de la Lycorne. H. Oudin, Poitiers.
de Plancy, J. C. (1863) Dictionnaire Infernal. Henri Plon, Paris.
Thakáne and her two brothers were the children of a Basotho chief. In some versions there is only one brother, Masilo; in some retellings the siblings are orphans, in others their parents are merely distant figures. Either way Thakáne was like a mother to her brothers. She cared for them, made their food, and filled their water jugs. When they had to go to school, it was Thakáne who took them there. When they were circumcised in the traditional grass huts, the mophato, it was Thakáne who took them there and waited on them until the ritual was over and they had rested. It was their sister who brought them the clothes they would wear as men.
But Thakáne’s brothers did not accept her choice of clothing. Only items made from the skin of a Nanabolele would do. They wanted shields of nanabolele hide, and shoes of nanabolele leather, and clothing of nanabolele skin, and hats cut from nanabolele, and spears tied up with strips of nanabolele. They refused to leave the mophato until their request was fulfilled.
It was a tall order. The nanaboleles, they who shine in the night, were horrid, reptilian creatures that live underwater and underground. They glow in the darkness, giving off light like the moon and stars do. They were deadly predators. Surely there was some mistake! “Why do you ask the impossible?” asked Thakáne. “Where am I supposed to find nanabolele skin? Where? Ná?” But her brothers would not be swayed, declaring that it became them, as the sons of a chief, to wear nanabolele skins.
So Thakáne set out, knowing that if their father was around, he would have done the same. It fell upon her to accomplish the task in his stead. She set off with oxen, beer calabashes, sweetcorn balls, and a large retinue in search of the nanaboleles. She sang as she went:
My brothers won’t leave the mophato, nanabolele!
They want shields of nanabolele, nanabolele!
And shoes they want of nanabolele, nanabolele!
And clothes they want of nanabolele, nanabolele!
And hats they want of nanabolele, nanabolele!
And spears they want of nanabolele, nanabolele!”
When Thakáne sang, the waters of the nearby stream parted, and a little frog hopped out. “Kuruu! Keep going!” it told her. Thakáne kept going from river to river, following the directions given by frog after frog, until at last she came upon the widest and deepest river yet. She sang her song, but nothing responded. Then she tossed some meat in, followed by an entire pack ox, but nothing happened.
Finally, the waters stirred, and an old woman stepped out, greeting Thakáne and inviting her to come in with her. Thakáne followed the old woman into the river, followed by her company. To her surprise, there was an entire river under the water, dry and breathable. But there was nobody there. It was empty and silent as the grave.
“Where are all the people, Grandmother?” said Thakáne to her guide. “Alas”, said the old woman. “The nanaboleles have eaten them, adults, children, cattle, sheep, dogs, chickens, everything! Only I was allowed to live, I am too old and tough to eat, so they make me do their work for them”. “Yo wheh!” said Thakáne. “We are truly in danger then”. But the old woman bade them hide, leading them into a deep hole which she covered with reeds.
It wasn’t long after Thakáne and her friends had hidden that the nanabolele returned to the village, sounding like a huge herd of oxen. The creatures glowed, shining like the moon and the stars, but they did not sleep, instead sniffing around intently. “We smell people!” they snarled. But they found nothing, and eventually tired and went to sleep.
That was the opportunity Thakáne had been waiting for. She and her companions emerged from hiding and, singling out the biggest nanabolele, quickly slaughtered it before it could wake up the others. Then they flayed it in silence and prepared to leave.
Before they left, the old woman gave Thakáne a pebble. “The nanabolele will follow you. When you see a red dust cloud against the sky, that will be them on your trail. This pebble will save you from them…”
Sure enough, dawn had barely broken when Thakáne saw the cloud of red dust. The nanaboleles were in pursuit! Thakáne quickly dropped the pebble on the ground, and it grew, becoming an enormous mountain that she and her friends climbed. They took refuge at the top, while the nanaboleles exhausted themselves trying to climb it. Then, as the reptiles lay catching their breath, the mountain shrank, Thakáne picked up the pebble, and the chase continued.
Thus it went on for several days, with the nanaboleles catching up only to be worn out by the pebble-mountain. But when Thakáne reached her home, she called upon all the dogs of the village to attack the nanaboleles. The creatures, terrified, turned tail and ran back to their abandoned village under the river.
There was only one thing left to do. The nanabolele skin which gives off light in the dark was cut and prepared into items of clothing and armor and weapons, and Thakáne herself took them to her brothers in the mophato.
Nobody else had seen such wondrous items, and Thakáne’s brothers rewarded her handsomely, giving her a hundred head of cattle.
Dorson, R. M. (1972) African Folklore. Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company, New York.
Jacottet, E. (1908) The Treasury of Ba-Suto Lore. Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London.
Postma, M. (1974) Tales from the Basotho. University of Texas Press, Austin.
Variations: Olgoi khorkhoi, Olgoj chorchoj, Allergorhai-horhai, Allergorhai horhai, Allghoi khorkhoi, Temen-Sul-Khorkhoi, Temeen Suul (Mongolian name of Tartar sand boa), Intestine Worm, Mongolian Death Worm, Tartar Sand Boa, Eryx tataricus
It has forever been in human nature to exaggerate the lethality of animals, regardless of whether or not the animal is actually deadly or even poisonous. Salamanders become fiery creatures whose breath slays, water shrews are accused of poisoning and killing cattle, geckos are so virulent they cause leprosy, viper venom causes the human body to melt… the list is endless.
One of the victims of this demonization is the creature known in Mongolia as the Olgoi-khorkhoi or “intestine worm”, also known in English by the even more sensationalistic name of “Mongolian death worm”.
Mongolian folklore is ambivalent on snakes. They are associated with dragons and the water world, and thus are worthy of respect and should not be killed; on the other hand, they are symbols of malice, antagonists to the forces of good, and hostile beings that should be destroyed. Saying the word mogoi (“snake”) is not recommended, with euphemisms like urt khorkhoi (“long worm”) or khairkhan (“holy” or “merciful”) used instead.
The olgoi-khorkhoi is a serpent that looks like a sausage, two feet (0.6 meters) long, and lacks a head and legs. Its color is a white brocade. It is so poisonous that looking at it is dangerous and anyone who touches it dies instantly. It lives in the sandiest, driest areas of the Western Gobi desert. If it shows up in a yurt, the inhabitants move out. It comes out after the rains when the ground has become damp.
Paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews was informed of the olgoi-khorkhoi’s existence by the Mongolian Premier, and went on to hear much about it. Usually people had not seen one themselves, but knew others who had, and every time they went to a play where the olgoi-khorkhoi was said to be abundant, the inhabitants told them the creature could be found a few miles away. The scientist was optimistic about his chances of capturing one thanks to the neutralizing powers of dark glasses and steel forceps. No specimen was ever seen or captured, however.
The existence of the olgoi-khorkhoi was popularized by Andrews and fellow paleontologist and science-fiction author I. A. Efremov, and much has been posited since about its appearance, habits, and true nature.
However, the real identity of the olgoi-khorkhoi is far more prosaic: it is the Tartar sand boa, a desert-dwelling, nonvenomous snake. This was confirmed by Gorelov, who showed a specimen of the boa to people in the Gobi. They asserted that it was indeed an olgoi-khorkhoi and that they were afraid of it. Gorelov also reported an individual olgoi-khorkhoi preserved in a jar and exhibited in Dalaanzadgad Town during a holiday.
Andrews, R. C. (1926) On the Trail of Ancient Man. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York.
Andrews, R. C. (1932) The New Conquest of Central Asia. The American Museum of Natural History, New York.
Kuzmin, S. L.; Dunayev, E. A.; Munkhbayar, K.; Munkhbataar, M.; Oyuunchimeg, J.; and Terbish, K. (2017) The Amphibians of Mongolia. KMK Scientific Press, Moscow.
Shuker, K. P. N. (2003) The Beasts that Hide From Man. Paraview Press, London.
The Kurrea is an enormous reptilian creature from the Boobera Lagoon, the Barwon River, and the Narran River in New South Wales, Australia. It may be considered the local variant of the rainbow serpent, although the lumping of such entities may be overzealous. The term kurrea, a Euahlayi word, has also been translated as “crocodile” in the one Narran River account, but a “serpent” interpretation is probably more correct. A 39-foot carving of the kurrea is clearly snake-shaped.
The deepest part of the Boobera Lagoon is bottomless and that is where the kurrea lives. An enormous serpentine creature, it is incapable of moving on dry land. When a kurrea wants to travel, it tears up the ground on the banks of the lagoon, excavating channels along which it can swim. The many shallow channels around the lagoon are evidence of the kurrea’s movements.
Anyone who dared fish, swim, or paddle in the Boobera Lagoon would immediately be attacked and devoured by the kurrea. This hostile behavior could cause serious shortages, as the lagoon had large flocks of waterfowl and schools of fish.
Once a man called Toolalla, of the Barwon River, decided to rid his people of the kurrea. He was a skilled hunter and, armed with his sharpest and strongest weapons, he stood on the bank of the lagoon. Before long the kurrea had noticed him and swam towards him. But despite all his preparations, Toolalla discovered that even his best weapons could not even injure the kurrea.
Toolalla made the wise decision to flee for his life. The kurrea followed him, gouging out a channel at high speed and rapidly gaining on his prey. Toolalla managed to climb up a tall bumble tree where the snake could not reach him. The bumble tree is also the kurrea’s mother-in-law, and the only thing it fears. Eventually, frustrated and disappointed, the kurrea returned to the Boobera Lagoon, where it continued to be a threat to all who trespassed on its domain.
Today the kurrea is harder to see. Its descendants are the gowarke, the giant, black-feathered, red-legged emus of the Baiame swamps.
Buchler, I. R. and Maddock, K. (eds.) (1978) The Rainbow Serpent: A Chromatic Piece. Mouton Publishers, The Hague.
Mathews, R. H. (1907) Notes on the Aborigines of New South Wales. William Appleworth Gullick, Sydney.
Reed, A. W. (1982) Aboriginal Myths, Legends, and Fables. Reed, Wellington.
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.
Rongmuthu, D. S. (1960) The Folk-tales of the Garos. University of Gauhati Department of Publication, Guwahati.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lambot, J. (1987) L’Ardenne. Pierre Mardaga, Brussels.
Meyrac, A. (1890) Traditions, coutumes, légendes et contes des Ardennes. Petit Ardennais, Charleville.
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.
Doke, C. M. (1931) The Lambas of Northern Rhodesia. George G. Harrap and Company Ltd., London.