Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/A solo on the serpent


Let those who flatter themselves that they are adepts in natural history, and more especially in that part of the subject which relates to Reptilia, listen unto the words of Charles Owen, D.D., of Warrington, in the County of Lancaster, who published an essay on serpents one hundred and twenty years ago, and own themselves enlightened. If they will but read with proper faith, they will find that there were several things, besides serpents, in the year 1741, which “are not dreamt of in their philosophy.”

Our author does not claim a personal acquaintance with the wonderful creatures he describes. “I don’t pretend,” he says, in his preface, “to new discoveries, but only to collect and bring into one view what has been said by different persons, which is not to be found by any without many books and much time, and which, without the present English dress, would not be understood by others at all.” A most royal road to learning does he lay down in his 240 quarto pages; and those who please may take a short cut with us through the country.

Serpents, you will be good enough to remember, are of three kinds:—the terestial (sic); the acquatic (sic); and the amphibious. There be some with legs and some without; some viviparous and some oviparous; some carnivorous and some vermivorous, feeding upon worms and other reptiles in the summer time. In the winter they all live upon air, which is defined by Dr. Owen as being “that thin elastic fluid mass wherein we live, move or have our being,” but of the “real peculiar nature,” of which we only know “that it is the most heterogeneous body in the world, a kind of secondary chaos, being a compound of minute particles of various kinds. Earth, water, minerals, vegetables, animals, &c., collected together by solar or artificial heat.” The serpent is, therefore, not so badly off for variety of food at Christmas as we might be led to imagine. He has five courses at least for his dinner by merely drawing in his breath; and indeed it is not easy to see how some of the tribe could exist upon less generous fare, so huge is their size, as described by our author. “In Norway,” he tells us, “are two serpents of very large proportions: one is two hundred feet long, and lives in rocks and desolate mountains near the sea about Bergen, which in summer nights ranges about in quest of plunder, devouring lambs, calves, swine, and other animals that fall in its way. In a calm sea it ransacks the superficies of the water (being thus clearly of the amphibious division) and devours the polypus, and all sorts of sea crabs.” But his two hundred feet of carcass is not to be supported—as we shall see—upon such small fry. “Upon the approach of a ship this serpent lifts up its head above water and snatches at the mariners, and rolls itself about the ship the more effectually to secure its prey.” This is, of course, our old friend the great sea serpent, though Dr. Owen gives a more modest estimate of his dimensions than some navigators we could name. Lesser snakes, of fifty feet long, we are told, swallow surplus infants in the Dutch West Indies; and others, ten yards long and two hands broad, having eyes “as large as two small loaves,” infest the province of Caria. But as the enumerator approaches home, the tails of his serpents are considerably shortened. In Brazil, he tells us they measure thirty feet, and in Gresham College, London, is one preserved in spirits, “nearly two yards long.” It is curious how things shrink up when they are preserved in spirits and brought home, and what vast proportions they assume in Norway!

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The Sea Serpent.

To other serpents Dr. Owen introduces us, which, though small in person, are possessed of formidable attributes. The Hemorrhus, for example, “is little in body, but terrible in its executions, for when it wounds any person all the blood in his body flows out at all the apertures of it, which is immediately followed”—as might be expected,—“by convulsions and death.” The Attaligatus is “a small slender serpent, not exceeding (in size) the quill of a goose; not poisonous in nature, yet very mischievous; for these little creatures are one united body, and live in community, and never separate. They are a society without schism, which is more than can be said of all human societies, civil or ecclesiastic.” Our author, it will be perceived, is a bit of a cynic, and likes to have his little fling upon occasion. Being described as only “mischievous,” one might suppose that the Attaligatus attacked humanity in a playful but irritating manner, after the fashion of blue-bottle flies, for example. No such thing! “When these small harmonious reptiles go abroad”—which we hope is not often—“they travel in company, a hundred strong or more, and when they find any asleep they immediately seize the body, and with a force united and irresistible, they devour it.” Fancy being swallowed, all at once, by a hundred goose-quills! There is another little serpent who is painfully active in his movements, and a master of the science of projectiles. He springs upon his prey from beneath shrubs, &c., after having turned himself rapidly round and round upon the ground to obtain that rotatory motion for his flight which alone insures accuracy of aim. He is quite a Whitworth in his way, is this small serpent, the Acontia; and brings down his man at twenty cubits distance. The Paubera secures his prey with a hook, which is fastened to the end of his tail. He swallows oxen alive and entire, and consequently suffers severely from indigestion on account of the horns. Our old friends the asps, vipers, boas, anacondas, cobras, and rattlesnakes figure in this strange company, and we have many novelties concerning their nature and value. You would not imagine, now, that from vipers “many noble medicines are prepared,” and that “a wine from their flesh is singular in consumptive, leporous, and scorbutic cases,” or that “they afford also a volatile salt, the most generous cordial in nature.” Great is the power of simple things. If ever, dear reader, you meet a rattlesnake, don’t run away, but get a branch of wild penny-royal; then, having fastened it to the end of a stick, present it to the creature’s nose, and if it be only of the family,

The Mistress of Serpents.

one of which was so dealt with by Captain Silas Taylor, in the year 1657, it will turn and wriggle, labouring hard to avoid the potent herb, and die in less than half an hour from its mere scent. In order that there may be no mistake as to the identity of the reptile to be thus disposed of, we subjoin a portrait of the rattlesnake, copied from plate 7 of the work now before us. It differs somewhat from the conventional idea of that reptile, and the experimenter will do well not to trust to penny-royal for deliverance from any other variety. The Amphisbæna serpent is said to have two heads, but the doctor is not quite prepared to believe this statement. “Perhaps”—he says—“the reason for ascribing two heads to this serpent might be because it is said to poison by the tail and teeth. Others say that both ends are so alike in figure and bulk that they are not easily distinguished.” Why not describe it, then, as having two tails?
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The Winged Dragon.

“Amongst serpents,” writes Dr. Owen, “authors place dragons—creatures terrible and fierce in aspect and nature. They are divided into Apodes and Pedates, some with feet and some without them; some are provided with wings, and others are destitute of wings and feet. Some are covered with sharp scales which make a bright appearance in certain positions. Dragons have been observed about the Ganges, “whose eyes sparkle like precious stones.” In Ethiopia—a favourite venue of our author’s, by the way, for marvellous annals—the ordinary land-dragon grows to be thirty paces[1] long, and kills elephants in this wise. He twines himself round the legs of his victims, and then, “thrusting his head up their nostrils, stings them, and sucks their blood till they are dead.” The accompanying fac-simile of this dragon’s portrait will show how admirably nature had adapted him—he is at least seventy-five feet long, remember,—for thrusting his head up the nostrils of an elephant.

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The Ethiopian Dragon.

The winged dragon is represented as a Saurian of a decidedly mild and aristocratic cast of countenance. But the most curious illustration in the book is that of the Basilisk of the deserts of Africa. So deadly is this creature that the sound of his voice puts all the serpents to flight. “Tradition says that its eyes and its breath are killing, and its venom is said to be so exalted that if it bites a staff it will kill the person who makes use of it; but this,” Dr. Owen remarks, “is without a voucher.” Our author is not the sort of man to be humbugged, you see, with idle tales. It is no use telling him that the cockatrice is an illicit offspring of chanticleer, or that the alligators of the Nile are baked by the sun out of mud, or that the salamander is able to live in the fire. Nor will he credit Sir William Temple’s account of the conversation between Prince Maurice and the “Rational Parrot” of Brazil, and, remarking that it was believed in by Mr. Locke, thus moralises: “Wonder not, then, if you meet in this history with some romantic sentiments entertained by learned men concerning serpents when two such illustrious pillars of the commonwealth of letters gave way to a relation that has so much of the marvellous in it.”

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The Sea Scolopendra.

In the second part of his work Dr. Owen bids farewell to the physical, and enters upon the supernatural history of serpents, discoursing in deliciously quaint language upon the character and appearance of the reptiles which we meet with in Scripture, beginning with the old serpent of Eden himself; and gravely argues that it was not a real terrestial creature which tempted mother Eve, but the Prince of Darkness in the guise of a serpent, or mounted upon one, as some Rabbinical writers say, “in bulk equal to a camel, and known by the name Sammael, an Evil Angel.” Most learnedly does he discourse touching the Pagan worship of serpents; but into this we cannot follow him. Who can say that future generations will not take up some of our scientific works, and derive as much amusement from the mistakes they may be found to contain, 120 years hence, as the reader may have now out of the honest Warrington doctor’s “Solo on the Serpent?”

A. Fonblanque, Jun.

  1. A note explains that a geometrical pace is five feet; “but,” adds our author, “if it be the lesser pace only, viz., the measure of two feet and a half, it must needs be a monstrous animal.” We are inclined to agree with him.