Chap. XV.

Of the Amphisbæna.

THAT the Amphisbæna, that is, a smaller kind of Serpent, which moveth forward and backward, hath two heads, or one at either extream, was affirmed first by Nicander,[1] and after by many others, by the Author of the Book De Theriaca ad Pisonem, ascribed unto Galen;[2] more plainly Pliny,[3] Geminum habet caput, tanquam parum esset uno ore effundi venenum: But Ælian most confidently, who referring the conceit of Chimera and Hydra unto Fables, hath set down this as an undeniable truth.[4]

Whereunto while men assent, and can believe a bicipitous conformation in any continued species, they admit a gemination of principle parts, not naturally discovered in any Animal. True it is that other parts in Animals are not equal: for some make their progression with many legs, even to the number of an hundred, as Juli, Scolopendræ,[5] or such as are termed Centipedes: some fly with two wings, as Birds and many Insects, some with four, as all farinaceous or mealy-winged Animals, as Butter-flies, and Moths: all vaginipennous or sheath-winged Insects, as Beetles and Dorrs.[6] Some have three Testicles, as Aristotle speaks of the Buzzard;[7] and some have four stomachs, as horned and ruminating Animals: but for the principle parts, the Liver, Heart, and especially the brains regularly they are but one in any kind or species whatsoever.

And were there any such species or natural kind of animal, it would be hard to make good those six positions of body, which according to the three dimensions are ascribed unto every animal, that is,[8] infra, supra, ante, retro, dextrosum, sinistrosum: for if (as it is determined) that be the anterior and upper part, wherein the senses are placed, and that the posterior and lower part which is opposite thereunto, there is no inferiour or former part in this Animal; for the senses being placed at both extreams, doth make both ends anterior, which is impossible; the terms being Relative, which mutually subsist, and are not without each other. And therefore this duplicity was ill contrived to place one head at both extreams, and had been more tolerable to have setled three or four at one. And therefore also Poets have been more reasonable then Philosophers, and Geryon or Cerberus less monstrous than Amphisbæna.[9]

Again, If any such thing there were, it were not to be obtruded by the name of Amphisbæna, or as an Animal of one denomination; for properly that Animal is not one, but multiplicious or many, which hath a duplicity or gemination of principal parts. And this doth Aristotle define, when he affirmeth a monster is to be esteemed one or many, according to its principle, which he conceived the heart, whence he derived the original of Nerves, and thereto ascribed many acts which Physitians assign unto the brain:[10] and therefore if it cannot be called one, which hath a duplicity of hearts in his sense, it cannot receive that appellation with a plurality of heads in ours. And this the practice of Christians hath acknowledged, who have baptized these geminous births, and double connascencies with several names, as conceiving in them a distinction of souls, upon the divided execution of their functions; that is, while one wept, the other laughing; while one was silent, the other speaking; while one awaked, the other sleeping; as is declared by three remarkable examples in Petrarch, Vincentius, and the Scottish History of Buchanan.[11]

It is not denied there have been bicipitous Serpents with the head at each extream, for an example hereof we find in Aristotle, and of the like form in Aldrovandus we meet with the Icon of a Lizzard; and of this kind perhaps might that Amphisbæna be, the picture whereof Cassianus Puteus shewed unto the learned Faber.[12] Which double formations do often happen unto multiparous generations, more especially that of Serpents; whose productions being numerous, and their Eggs in chains or links together (which sometime conjoyn and inoculate[13] into each other) they may unite into various shapes and come out in mixed formations. But these are monstrous productions, beside the intention of Nature, and the statutes of generation, neither begotten of like parents, nor begetting the like again, but irregularly produced, do stand as Anomalies in the general Book of Nature. Which being shifts and forced pieces, rather then genuine and proper effects, they afford us no illation; nor is it reasonable to conclude, from a monstrosity unto a species, or from accidental effects, unto the regular works of Nature.

Lastly, The ground of the conceit was the figure of this Animal, and motion oft-times both ways; for described it is to be like a worm, and so equally framed at both extreams, that at an ordinary distance it is no easie matter to determine which is the head; and therefore some observing them to move both ways, have given the appellation of heads unto both extreams, which is no proper and warrantable denomination; for many Animals with one head, do ordinarily perform both different and contrary Motions; Crabs move sideling, Lobsters will swim swiftly backward, Worms and Leeches will move both ways; and so will most of those Animals, whose bodies consist of round and annulary fibers, and move by undulation; that is, like the waves of the Sea, the one protruding the other, by inversion whereof they make a backward Motion.[14]

Upon the same ground hath arisen the same mistake concerning the Scolopendra or hundred-footed Insect, as is delivered by Rhodoginus from the Scholiast of Nicander: Dicitur à Nicandro, άμφικαρὴς, id est, dicephalus aut biceps fictum vero, quoniam retrorsum (ut scribit Aristoteles) arrepit, observed by Aldrovandus, but most plainly by Muffetus, who thus concludeth upon the Text of Nicander:[15] Tamen pace tanti authoris dixerim, unicum illi duntaxat caput licet pari facilitate, prorsum capite, retrorsum ducente cauda, incedat, quod Nicandro aliisque imposuisse dubito: that is, under favour of so great an Author, the Scolopendra hath but one head, although with equal facility it moveth forward and backward, which I suspect deceived Nicander, and others.

And therefore we must crave leave to doubt of this double-headed Serpent until we have the advantage to behold or have an iterated ocular testimony concerning such as are sometimes mentioned by American relators; and also such as Cassianus Puteus, shewed in a picture to Johannes Faber; and that which is set down under the name of Amphisbæna Europæa in his learned discourse upon Hernandez his History of America.


* [My or others' notes are in square brackets]; Browne's marginalia is unmarked; {passages or notes from unpublished material by Browne is in curly braces}. Ross defends the amphisbaena, rather ingeniously, Arcana Microcosmi, Book II, Chap. 9.

1 [Nicander, Theriaca 372-383; in the 1557 Latin translation of Jean de Gorris (page 26):

Nunc caput in geminum vergentem corpore parvo
Nosce Amphisbænam, cui languent luminis orbes
Protensis utrinque genis, spatioque relicto
Disiunctis, hebetes. illam cutis æmula terræ
Et robusta tegit, variisque interlita guttis.
Hanc, ubi speluncis primum processit, adultam
Lignator rapiens, ramo sylvestris olivæ
Exciso, ante novae teretismata verna cicadæ,
Tergore disrepto spoliat. sic pluribus illa
Pelle sua prodest, Boreæ cum flamine segnes
Obriguere manus & victe figore torpent,
Aut laxa molles nervi compage laborant.

See also Topsell on the Amphisbaena for (part of) this Englished, as well as much more on the beast.]

2 [(The vagaries of scholarship being what they are, this work is now often ascribed to Galen, but the direction to Pisonem is doubted.) de Theriaca ad Pisonem, cap. 9; in the 1545 Latin translation of Johann Winther, pp. 1062-1063:

Amphisbena (est autem animal biceps, quem ad modum sane & navigia utrinque proram habentia, cui natura ex superfivo substantiae bina capita est largita) hoc inquam animal, aiunt, si mulier gravida supergressa fuerit, male abortum facit. Quare non est mirabile, si etiam viperarum corpora, amputatis illis partibus, adhuc auxiliandi robur obtineant. etc.]

3Pliny , HN viii(85); Englished by Holland, Book 8, Chap. 23.]

4 [Aelian, Nat. Animal. IX cap. xxiii; also, on the amphisbaena's skin, VIII cap. viii. See Aelian on the Amphisbaena for Latin translations of these chapters.]

5 [Iuli, Scolopendrae: what we would call millipedes]

6 ["Dor", in general, is any insect (or sometimes bird) that makes a loud noise in flight; the word is of unknown origin. The dung beetle or "dumble dor" and several other beetles are called dor-beetles; there are also dor-flies. The dor-bee is the bumble-bee.]

7 [History of Animals VIII.iii, IX.1, IX.36; implied by the Greek name of the bird, τριόρχης (or τρίορχος); probably Buteo vulgaris.]

8 [Aristotle, De incessu animalium; On the Gait of Animals, parts 2 and 4.]

9 [Thus Amphisbæna (I have read)
At either end assails;
None knows which leads, or which is led,
For both Heads are but Tails.
— Pope, On Burnet and Ducket

On Geryon, triple-bodied giant, see Apollodorus, 2.5.10; Pausanias, 5.19.1; on Geryon, triple-headed (τρικέφαλον) giant, see Hesiod Theogony 287. On Cerberus, fifty-headed monster, see Hesiod Theogony 310; on Cerberus, three-headed monster, Pausanias 3.25.5-6.]

10 [On counting monsters, Aristotle Generation of Animals, Book IV:

Outgrowths differ from the production of many young in the manner stated before; monsters differ from these in that most of them are due to embryos growing together. Some however are also of the following kind, when the monstrosity affects greater and more sovereign parts, as for instance some monsters have two spleens or more than two kidneys. Further, the parts may migrate, the movements which form the embryo being diverted and the material changing its place. We must decide whether the monstrous animal is one or is composed of several grown together by considering the vital principle; thus, if the heart is a part of such a kind then that which has one heart will be one animal, the multiplied parts being mere outgrowths, but those which have more than one heart will be two animals grown together through their embryos having been confused.

(None, says Aristotle, is born without a heart; by "born", he means born alive.) On the heart's primacy, see Aristotle Parts of Animals, Book III.]

11 [Petrarch ?; "Vincentius", Vincent de Beauvais, Speculum Majus; Buchanan, in his Rerum Scoticorum Historia, XIII; in the 1690 Translation, History of Scotland, Book 13, "James the Fourth", pp. 4-5:

About this time a new kind of Monster was born in Scotland; in the lower part of its Belly it resembld a Male Child, not much differing from the ordinary shape of a humane body newly born; but above the Navel, the Trunk of the Body and all the other Members were double, representing both Sexes male and female. The King gave special Order for its careful education, especially in Musick, wherein it arrived to admirable Skill; and moreover it learned several Tongues; and sometimes the two Bodies did discover several Appetites, disagreeing one with another, and so they would quarrel, one liking this, another that; and yet sometimes again they would agree and consult (as it were) in common, for the good of both: This was also memorable in it, that when the Legs and Loins were hurt below, both Bodies were sensible of the Pain in common; but when it was pricked, or otherwise hurt above, the sense of the pain did affect one Body only; which difference was also more perspicuous in its Death; for one of the Bodies died many days before the other; and that which survived, being half putrified, pined away by degrees. This Monster lived twenty eight years, and then died, when Johnwas Regent of Scotland. I am the more confident in relating this Story, because there are many honest and creditable Persons yet alive, who saw this Prodigy with their Eyes.]

12 [Aristotle. Generation of Animals IV.iv, as a monstrosity; in Arthur Platt's translation:

Hence also such monstrosities appear very rarely in animals producing only one young one, more frequently in those producing many, most of all in birds and among birds in the common fowl. For this bird produces many young, not only because it lays often like the pigeon family, but also because it has many embryos at once and copulates all the year round. Therefore it produces many double eggs, for the embryos grow together because they are near one another, as often happens with many fruits. In such double eggs, when the yolks are separated by the membrane, two separate chickens are produced with nothing abnormal about them; when the yolks are continuous, with no division between them, the chickens produced are monstrous, having one body and head but four legs and four wings; this is because the upper parts are formed earlier from the white, their nourishment being drawn from the yolk, whereas the lower part comes into being later and its nourishment is one and indivisible.

A snake has also been observed with two heads for the same reason, this class also being oviparous and producing many young. Monstrosities, however, are rarer among them owing to the shape of the uterus, for by reason of its length the numerous eggs are set in a line.

Aldrovandus; Faber]

13 [Graft or implant, as in horticulture, in + oculus, bud or eye]

14 [Wilkin notes that "this explanation is quite correct", as indeed it is, regarding the creature now called the amphisæna. Those creatures, as the Encyclopædia Britannica has it, "harmless, legless lizards", are American and have little to do with the current discussion. It is difficult to tell one end of the amphisbæna from the other, but it would be more likely that one would say it was headless than that it has two heads.]

15 [Thomas Moffet, Theatrum Insectorum, Lib. II, Cap. VIII, sect. 1 "De scolopendris"; page 200 of the 1634 edition.]

This page is dedicated to the memory of Boo the Cat.

Valid XHTML 1.0 TransitionalValid CSS