Variations: Groot Slang, Big Snake, Great Snake, Great Snake of the Orange River, Ki-man
The Grootslang, literally “big snake” or “great snake”, dwells in or around the Orange River in the Richtersveld, South Africa, in association with fabulous diamond deposits. Its home may be in the Orange River itself, a pool underneath the King George Cataract, a big rock, or a semi-mythical cave known as the “Wonder Hole” or the “Bottomless Pit”. The cave is said to be the source of the diamonds of South Africa; from there they move down a pipe to the river, which carries them to the sea.
As its name implies, the grootslang is an enormous snake, big enough to take cattle at the water’s edge. It has huge diamonds in its eye-sockets, and its presence exerts an evil influence on all who see it. It is some forty feet long, and leaves a serpentine spoor on muddy river banks that is 1.5 to 3 feet wide. There are never traces of feet associated with the grootslang’s spoor.
Over time the grootslang has accumulated elephantine features. This stems partly from the cryptozoological desire to connect it to the mokele-mbembe and other such surviving dinosaurs, and partly from Rose’s description of it as “huge, like an elephant, with the tail of a serpent”.
Cornell, F. C. (1920) The Glamour of Prospecting. T. Fisher Unwin Ltd., London.
Green, L. G. (1948) Where Men Still Dream. Standard Press Ltd., Cape Town.
Rose, C. (2000) Giants, Monsters, and Dragons. W. W. Norton and Co., New York.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Quetzalcoatl, the “Feathered Serpent” or “Plumed Serpent” is one of the most iconic deities of the Mesoamerican pantheon. Sahagun also records a far more mundane creature by the same name.
The quetzalcoatl is found in the province of Totonacapan (Guatemala) and is the size of a medium water-snake. It is covered with feathers just like those of the quetzal bird. There are tzinitzcan, small light green feathers, on its neck, red feathers on its breast, and blue feathers on the tail and rings (coils?).
This snake is rarely seen, and when it does it flies and bites the person seeing it. Its bite is deadly and kills instantly, killing both it and its victim, for it exhales its venom and its life in one go.
Nuttall, Z. (1895) A Note on Ancient Mexican Folk-lore. The Journal of American Folklore, v. 8, no. 29, pp. 117-129.
Sahagun, B.; Jourdanet, D. and Siméon, R. trans. (1880) Histoire Générale des Choses de la Nouvelle-Espagne. G. Masson, Paris.
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.
Ellenberger, H. (1949) Le Monde Fantastique dans le Folklore de la Vienne. Nouvelle Revue des Traditions Populaires, 1(5), pp. 407-435.
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.
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.
The Markupo is a serpent known to the Hiligaynon of the Philippines. It lives in the highest mountains of the historical province of Bulgas, between Marapara and Canlaon.
In appearance the markupo is a huge snake with a distinctive red crest. Its long tongue has thornlike hairs. It has sharp tusks and a forked tail.
The markupo sings sonorously on clear days. Its exhaled poison is instantly lethal to the touch. If sprinkled on plants, this poison withers the plant, kills any birds that land on it, and kills any beast touched by its shadow.
Ramos, M. D. (1971) Creatures of Philippine Lower Mythology. University of the Philippines Press, Quezon.
Ramos, M. D. (1973) Filipino Cultural Patterns and Values. Island Publishers, Quezon City.