myths and monsters: the amphisbaena

“‘Monster’ comes from the Latin word monstrum, meaning ‘omen’, for the appearance of strange and sinister creatures was thought to herald unusual and disturbing events.”
—From A Dictionary of Monsters and Mysterious Beasts by Carey Miller.

What would we do without monsters, without myths, without curious legends?

For writers are magpies, constantly on the hunt for shiny ideas to line the manuscripts’ nest, and there is no greater source of the shiny than in old, dusty tomes filled with half-forgotten legends.

amphisbaena
photo © jinny

One particularly bizarre monster is the amphisbaena, a two-headed reptilian creature most often depicted as a dragon with a head growing out of the tip of its tail, although in some cases shown as a double-headed snake.

History

The word amphisbaena comes from the Greek words amphis (both ways) and bainein (to go), due to the creature’s ability to move both forwards and backwards. Its dietary requirements also led to the creation of a second name, the Mother of Ants.

Depictions of the amphisbaena are most commonly found in churches built between the 12th and 15th centuries, either carved out of stone (as in the photo, taken in a 12th century church), or decorating the underside of choir seats.

Although the amphisbaena is most commonly found in Medieval churches, the myth originates from far earlier times. As a matter of fact, the amphisbaena first appeared in Greek mythology, and was believed to have been born from the blood that dripped from Medusa’s severed head as Perseus flew over the Libyan Desert with it in his hand.

Due to these Greek myths, the amphisbaena is believed to live in desert climates, and feeds off of both ants and corpses.

Appearance

In Greek myths, the amphisbaena is depicted as a two-headed snake. But by Medieval times, the amphisbaena had become a far more frightening beast.

Wikipedia
Somehow, over time, the amphisbaena evolved, developing two or more chicken-like scaled feet, and feathered wings. Some drawings even show it as a horned dragon, with a smaller serpent-headed tail, whilst others have both necks and heads of equal size.

Nearly everyone agrees, though, that the amphisbaena’s eyes glow like burning candles.

Abilities

The amphisbaena is not just another pretty face, for its mouth is filled with poisonous fangs, and it can move on both land and water, being able to swim and burrow underground.

So what? you say. Nothing special, you think. Maybe so, and if that were all the amphisbaena could do, this would be a boring blog post indeed.

But fear not! For this creature can hypnotise, run like lightening, and its eye contact kills instantly, albeit only during a full moon.

And that is not all. If chopped it half, the two parts of the amphisbaena will reattach, and the beast will be alive and healthy once more.

Furthermore, the Ancient Greek version of the amphisbaena—the two-headed snake—could take one head in the mouth of the other and roll in a hoop, much like the mythological hoop snake of North America.

Folklore

Despite its rather fearsome history, the amphisbaena was believed to be very useful for medicinal and magical purposes, and was referenced by many notable persons, amongst which Pliny the Elder.

Pliny claimed that the best remedy for a cold was to wrap the skin of this beast around your body (a remedy which was later extended to include arthritis).

Woodcutters suffering from cold weather on the job could nail the carcass of an amphisbaena to the tree, which would prevent the woodcutter from feeling the cold, whilst making the process of felling the tree easier.

Furthermore, expecting women wearing a live amphisbaena around their neck would have safe pregnancies, although whether any women in Medieval times wanted to hang out with a reptile around their neck remains questionable.

As for magical remedies, eating the meat of an amphisbaena was said to boost one’s sexual attractiveness, and killing the poor beast during a full moon could give power to the killer, as long as—rather ironically—he or she was pure of heart and mind.

And the facts…?

An existing (and gross-looking) creature whose name derives from the amphisbaena may be the source of all these stories, a suggestion which was put forward by T. H. White in The Book of Beasts (which I really want to read!).

The amphisbaenia is a worm lizard native to the Middle East, South America, parts of Africa, and Western Europe, where many of the amphisbaena legends originated.

Like its mythical cousin, the amphisbaenia can move both forwards and backwards, and its head and tail are difficult to distinguish.

But who knows? Perhaps there is more truth to fiction than we realize.

Amphisbaena steak, anyone?

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About A.M. Harte

A.M. Harte writes twisted speculative fiction, such as the post-apocalyptic Above Ground and the zombie love anthology Hungry For You. She is excellent at missing deadlines, has long forgotten what ‘free time’ means, and is utterly addicted to chocolate.
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2 Responses to myths and monsters: the amphisbaena

  1. Ben Dawe says:

    It does seem to add weight to speculative fiction if you have researched the machinations of your monsters. And you have to trust a person with a name like Pliny the Elder…

    • It seems the discerning reader will much prefer a well-researched topic. I just like looking into these things because they’re a great source of ideas!

      And, you’re completely right about Pliny the Elder. Plus he was far more trustworthy than Pliny the Younger!

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