Topsell on the Amphisbæna
A note to Pseudodoxia Epidemica, Book III, chapter 15

From Edward Topsell (1608) The Historie of Serpents,pp. 151-153.


Because the Græcians call this Serpent Amphisbaina, and the Latines from thence Amphisbenæ, because it goeth both waies as if it had two heads & no tiale: and for this purpose it is never seene to turne his body, as it were to turne about his head. When it hath a purpose to avoyde that thyng which it feareth, or wherewithall it is offended, hee doth but onely change his course backward as he went forward; so that it is as happy a[s] Lyntius, whom the Poets faine to be very quick-sighted, or as those Monsters which are said to have eyes in their backs, or rather like to Ianus, which is sayde to have two faces, one forward, and another backward, and therefore I have called it Double-head, I trust fitly enough to expresse the Greeke word, although compounded of two words together, for so is the Greeke word also, which the French doe expresse by a like compounded word, Double-marcheur, that is, going two waies.1 It is likewise called Ankesime, Alchismus, & Amphisilenum. And thus much may suffice for the name.

It is said that this Serpent is found in the Iland Lemnus, but among the Germans it is unknowne. There is some question whether it may be said to have two heads or no. Galen affirmeth, that it is like a shippe having two fore-parts, that is, one behind, & another before . Pliny also subscribeth here-unto, and maketh it a very pestilent Serpent, Geminum habet caput Amphisbena, tanquam parum essent uno ore fundi venenum, saith hee: It hath a double-head, as though one mouth were not enough to utter his poyson, according to the saying of the Poet:

Est gravis in geminum surgitis caput Amphis-benæ
Serpens qui visu necat et sibilo.

Which may be englished thus;

This Serpent Double-head, is grievous to be seene,
Whose cloven-head doth kill with sight and hissing keene.

Unto this also Elianus subscribeth, that it is a true Serpent, and hath two heads, so that whensoever it is to goe forward, one of them standeth in the place of the tayle, but when it is to goe backward, then the head becommeth the tayle, and the tayle the head. So also Mantuan sayth it is a double-headed Serpent, and a fearefull stinging Aspe. And so generally all the Auncients, untill Mathiolus and Grevinus time, who first of all began to contrary this opinion, affirming it to be impossible in nature, for one Serpent to have two heads, except it be monstrous; and exceede the common course of nature. Such a one was that Serpent with two heads that Aristotle speaketh of, which doth easily happen to all those creatures which at one birth bring forth many young ones; for so theyr bodies may be conjoyned into one, whiles theyr heads stand asunder like twaine. And they say that this Serpent doth resemble a Worme of the earth, whose head and tayle is hard to be distinguished asunder except you see it going. And they say further, that this Serpent is like to the Scytall, of which we shall speake afterwards, differing from it in nothing except in going backward and forward, and this is all that they can bring against the opinion of the Auncients, whom I will not stand to confute, but leave the Reader to beleeve one or other: for it shall not bring to mee any great disadvantage, except the losse of his newe English name, for I have dealth faithfully with the Reader in setting downe the opinion of both sides, and if I doe fayle in a fit name, yet will I not swarve from the best description of his nature.

The Scytal

The Scytall: its appearance, says Topsell, is exactly that of the Amphisbaena, from which it differs only in that it moves in one direction. To me it appears to have no head, but there it is.

The whole proportion of his body is of equall magnitude or greatnes, and the two extremities doe answer the middle. His eyes are for the most part shut, the colour like earth, not blacke, but tending to blacknes, the skinne rough and hard, and set over with divers spots: all which properties, or rather parts, are thus described by Nicander.

Cuius perpetua est tæcum caligine lumen,
Quod latas utrinque genus porectaque menta,
Terreus est illi color et densissima pellis
Plurima quam varii distinctam signafigurant,
Plut alii alto serpentibus aggere tendat:

In English thus;

Whose eye is ever voyde of light, because
Two cheekes both broade & stading up it hides,
The colour earth, thicke skinne, with spots in rowes,
Then other Serpents with greater bulke it glides.

Solinus Polihistor affirmeth, that they ingender and bring egges forth of the mouth, that is, out of that mouth which is toward the tayle, if there be any such. There is no serpent that doth more boldly adventure to indure the colde then this doth, for it commeth out of his denne not onely before other Serpents, but also before the Cuckoe sing, or the Grasshopper commeth forth. They are exceeding carefull of theyr egges, and therefore sildome depart from them untill they be hatched, whereby also may be collected their great love to their young ones. And further, by their forward and timely comming out of their holes, Grevinus maketh a good observation, that theyr temperament or constitution, is more hote then any other Serpent.

The Græcians have all observed, that this kind of Serpent is hard to be killed, except with a vine-branch, which they say was demonstrated by Dionisius, who being turned by Iuno into madnes, one day falling fast asleepe, this Serpent leaped uppon him & awaked him, whereat he being angry, presently killed it with a Vine-branch. Some have affirmed, that a small rodde or batte covered with the skinne of this Serpent, and so laid beside a man, driveth away all manner of venomous beastes. A Wild-olive-branch or sprigge wrapped in this skinne, doth cure the sencelesse and benummed estate of the sinewes, and also is good for many thinges, as Nicander expresseth in these verses.

Hæc ubi iam crevit, cedentes ligna coloni
Sectam deglabrant oleastri exarbore virgam
Quale pedum, strictisque prehensi pellibus Anguis
Insectam obvoluunt, quas certis deinde diebus
Exarere sinunt, cantantes ante cicadas
Utilis hic bacalus frigentibus artubus esse
Fertur, ubi examiniis digitos corpedo fatigat,
Tunc quia constrictos, & eorum vincula, nervos
Calfacit immisso fovet extenditque calore.

Which may be englished thus;

When this is growne, the Peasants cutting wood,
Doe peele a branch taken from Olive-wilde,
A foot in length, of strained Snakes-skinne good,
rowling it up herein, till days fulfild,
And let it dry before Grashoppers greene:
Thus made, is good for sinewes cold,
Or nummed fingers, whose force hath beene
By heate extending what cold hand did hold.

The wounds that come by the byting or stinging of this Serpent, are not great, but very small, and scarcely to be discerned outwardly, yet the accidents that followe, are like to those which ensue the bytings of Vipers, namely, inflamation, & a lingering death. The cure therefore must be the same which is applyed unto the sting of Vipers. And peculiarly I finde not any medicine serving for the cure of this poyson alone, except that which Pliny speaketh of, namely Coriander drunke by the patient, or layd to the sore.

It is reported by Gallen and Grevinus, that if a woman with childe doe chaunce to goe over one of these Double-headed-serpents dead, shee shall suffer abortment, and yet that they may keepe them in their pockets alive without danger in boxes. The reason of this is given by Grevinus, because of the vapoure assending from the dead serpent, by a secrete antypathy against humane nature, which suffocateth the childe in the mothers wombe. And thus much for this Serpent.

1. The French is a better translation of the Greek, which has no reference to the number of heads.

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