Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: folklore, latin, literature, lizards, reptiles, science, top ten
One of my secret, silly passions in life is the history of biology, and from that rich and varied history, one of my favorite parts is the medieval bestiary. For those of you who have never seen one, a bestiary was a richly illustrated textbook somewhere between Animal Planet and Sunday School. Illustrations of animals would be accompanied by text that described, in greater or lesser detail, their natural history, and what religious lessons could be drawn from these animals and their lives: Pelicans, for example, said to feed their young on their own blood, represented the incredible mercy and self-sacrifice of Christ, while serpents, of any kind, generally represented the devil.
Now, medieval bestiaries were written by monks, who very rarely got into the fresh air, and while they might have been fairly familiar with the habits of common barnyard dogs and cats, they had to take a little license and a lot of faith when describing animals they had never seen; like crocodiles, elephants and giraffes. Understandably, they didn’t always get things right: while we might, today, associate the giraffe with the fabulous camelopard, it’s a far cry from its description today, and no one has yet found a living unicorn or (my personal favorite) bonnacon.
That being said, sometimes natural history has a way of sneaking back on you and asserting itself in the strangest of medieval legends. Take the following passage from Isidore of Seville (my very rough translation follows, and better classicists than me are invited to tell me that I have failed).
Amphisbaena dicta, eo quod duo capita habeat, unum in loco suo, alterum in cauda, currens ex utroque capite, tractu corporis circulato. Haec sola serpentium frigori se committit […] Cuius oculi lucent veluti lucernae.
Etymologies, Book 12
It is said of the Amphisbaena that it is a serpent with two heads, one in its proper place, the other on the tail. It can run in the direction of either head, moving its body in a circular motion. This is the only snake able to live in the cold. His eyes shine like lamps.
Like I said, I’m no classicist, and the translation is a pretty rough one. (I know enough to get the gist of a text, not enough to stake my life on knowing what it says.) But, what’s interesting is that there’s a real-life beast called an amphisbaenian, named after the mythological monster.
And while they don’t look exactly like their medieval counterparts, they are more similar than you might think. We’re going to take a look at one particularly unique member of the group. So, by all means, read on to find out more. Continue reading