Chap. XVI.

Of the Viper.

THAT the young Vipers force their way through the bowels of their Dam, or that the female Viper in the act of generation bites off the head of the male, in revenge whereof the young ones eat through the womb and belly of the female, is a very ancient tradition. In this sense entertained in the Hieroglyphicks of the Egyptians; affirmed by Herodotus, Nicander, Pliny, Plutarch, Ælian, Jerome, Basil, Isidore, seems countenanced by Aristotle, and his Scholar Theophrastus:[1] from hence is commonly assigned the reason why the Romans punished Parricides by drowning them in a Sack with a Viper.[2] And so perhaps upon the same opinion the men of Mileta when they saw a Viper upon the hand of Paul,[3] said presently without conceit of other sin, No doubt this man is a murderer, who though he have escaped the Sea, yet vengeance suffereth him not to live: that is, he is now paid in his own way, the parricidous Animal and punishment of murderers is upon him. And though the tradition were currant among the Greeks, to confirm the same the Latine name is introduced, Vipera quasi vi pariat; That passage also in the Gospel, O ye generation of Vipers![4] hath found expositions which countenance this conceit. Notwithstanding which authorities, transcribed relations and conjectures, upon enquiry we find the same repugnant unto experience and reason.

And first, it seems not only injurious unto the providence of Nature, to ordain a way of production which should destroy the producer, or contrive the continuation of the species by the destruction of the Continuator; but it overthrows and frustrates the great Benediction of God, God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful and multiply.5 Now if it be so ordained that some must regularly perish by multiplication, and these be the fruits of fructifying in the Viper: it cannot be said that God did bless, but curse this Animal: Upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all thy life, was not so great a punishment unto the Serpent after the fall, as encrease, be fruitful and multiply, was before.[6] This were to confound the Maledictions of God, and translate the curse of the Woman[7] upon the Serpent: that is, in dolore paries, in sorrow shalt thou bring forth; which being proper unto the Woman, is verified best in the Viper, whose delivery is not only accompanied with pain, but also with death it self. And lastly, it overthrows the careful course, and parental provision of Nature, whereby the young ones newly excluded are sustained by the Dam, and protected until they grow up to a sufficiency for themselves. All which is perverted in this eruptive generation; for the Dam being destroyed, the younglings are left to their own protection: which is not conceivable they can at all perform, and whereof they afford us a remarkable confirmance many days after birth. For the young one supposed to break through the belly of the Dam, will upon any fright for protection run into it; for then the old one receives them in at her mouth, which way the fright being past, they will return again, which is a peculiar way of refuge; and although it seem strange, is avowed by frequent experience and undeniable testimony.[8]

As for the experiment, although we have thrice attempted it, it hath not well succeeded; for though we fed them with Milk, Bran, Cheese, &c. the females always died before the young ones were mature for this eruption; but rest sufficiently confirmed in the experiments of worthy enquirers. Wherein to omit the ancient conviction of Apollonius,[9] we shall set down some few of Modern Writers. The first, of Amatus Lusitanus in his Comment upon Dioscorides,[10] Vidimus nos viperas prægnantes inclusas pixidibus parere, quæ inde ex partu nec mortuæ, nec visceribus perforatæ mansuerunt. The second is that of Scaliger,[11] Viperas ab impatientibus moræ foetibus numerosissimis rumpi atque interire falsum esse scimus, qui in Vincentii Camerini circulatoris lignea theca vidimus, enatas viperellas, parente salva. The last and most plain of Franciscus Bustamantinus, a Spanish Physitian of Alcala de Henares,[12] whose words in his third de Animantibus Scripturæ, are these: Cum vero per me & per alios hæc ipsa disquisissem servata Viperina progenie, &c. that is, when by my self and others I had enquired the truth hereof, including Vipers in a glass, and feeding them with Cheese and Bran, I undoubtedly found that the Viper was not delivered by tearing of her bowels; but I beheld the young ones excluded by the passage of generation, near the orifice of the seidge.[13] Whereto we might also add the ocular confirmation of Lacuna upon Dioscorides, Ferdinandus Imperatus, and that learned Physician of Naples, Aurelius Severinus.[14]

Now although the Tradition be untrue, there wanted not many grounds which made it plausibly received. The first was a favourable indulgence and special contrivance of Nature; which was the conceit of Herodotus, who thus delivereth himself.[15] Fearful Animals, and such as serve for food, Nature hath made more fruitful: but upon the offensive and noxious kind, she hath not conferred fertility. So the Hare that becometh a prey unto Man, unto Beasts, and Fowls of the air, is fruitful even to superfætation; but the Lion, a fierce and ferocious Animal hath young ones but seldom, and also but one at a time; Vipers indeed although destructive, are fruitful; but lest their number should increase, Providence hath contrived another way to abate it: for in copulation the female bites off the head of the male, and the young ones destroy the mother. But this will not consist with reason, as we have declared before. And if we more nearly consider the condition of Vipers and noxious Animals, we shall discover an higher provision of Nature: how although in their paucity she hath not abridged their malignity, yet hath she notoriously effected it by their secession or latitancy.[16] For not only offensive insects, as Hornets, Wasps, and the like; but sanguineous corticated Animals, as Serpents, Toads, and Lizzards, do lie hid and betake themselves to coverts in the Winter. Whereby most Countries enjoying the immunity of Ireland and Candie,[17] there ariseth a temporal security from their venoms; and an intermission of their mischiefs, mercifully requiting the time of their activities.

A second ground of this effect, was conceived the justice of Nature, whereby she compensates the death of the father by the matricide or murder of the mother: and this was the expression of Nicander.[18] But the cause hereof is as improbable as the effect; and were indeed an improvident revenge in the young ones, whereby in consequence, and upon defect of provision they must destroy themselves. And whereas he expresseth this decollation of the male by so full a term as ἀποκόπτειν,[19] that is, to cut or lop off, the act is hardly conceiveable; for the Viper hath but two considerable teeth, and those so disposed, so slender and needle-pointed, that they are apter for puncture then any act of incision. And if any like action there be, it may be only some fast retention or sudden compression in the Orgasmus or fury of their lust; according as that expression of Horace is construed concerning Lydia and Telephus.[20]

———Sive puer furens,
Impressit memorem dente labris notam.

Others ascribe this effect unto the numerous conception of the Viper; and this was the opinion of Theophrastus. Who though he denieth the exesion or forcing through the belly, conceiveth nevertheless that upon a full and plentiful impletion there may perhaps succeed a disruption of the matrix, as it happeneth sometimes in the long and slender fish Acus.21 Now although in hot Countries, and very numerous conceptions, in the Viper or other Animals, there may sometimes ensue a dilaceration of the genital parts; yet is this a rare and contingent effect, and not a natural and constant way of exclusion. For the wise Creator hath formed the organs of Animals unto their operations, and in whom he ordaineth a numerous conception, in them he hath prepared convenient receptacles, and a sutable way of exclusion.

Others do ground this disruption upon their continued or protracted time of delivery, presumed to last twenty days; whereat excluding but one a day, the latter brood impatient, by a forcible proruption anticipate their period of exclusion; and this was the assertion of Pliny,[22] Cæteri tarditatis impatientes prorumpunt latera, occisâ parente; which was occasioned upon a mistake of the Greek Text in Aristotle,[23] τίκτει δ᾽ ἐν μία ἡμέρᾳ καθ᾽ ἕν, τίκτει δὲ πλείω ἣ εἴκοσιν, which are literally thus translated, Parit autem una die secundum unum, parit autem plures quam viginti, and may be thus Englished, She bringeth forth in one day, one by one, and sometimes more then twenty: and so hath Scaliger rendred it, Sigillatim parit, absolvit una die, interdum plures quam viginti; But Pliny, whom Gaza followeth, hath differently translated it, Singulos diebus singulis parit, numero ferè viginti; whereby he extends the exclusion unto twenty days, which in the textuary sense is fully accomplished in one.[24]

But what hath most advanced it, is a mistake in another text of Aristotle,[25] which seemeth directly to determine this disruption, τίκτει μικρὰ ἐχίδεια ἐν ὑμέσιν, αἵ περιήγνωηται τριταῖοι, ἐνίοτε δὲ και ἔσωθεν διαφαγόντα αὐτὰ ἐχέρχεται which Gaza hath thus translated, Parit catulos obvolutos membranis, quæ tertio die rumpuntur, evenit interdum ut qui in utero adhuc sunt abrosis membranis prorumpant. Now herein probably Pliny, and many since have been mistaken; for the disruption of the membranes or skins, which include the young ones, conceiving a dilaceration of the matrix and belly of the Viper: and concluding from a casual dilaceration, a regular and constant disruption.

As for the Latine word Vipera, which in the Etymologie of Isidore promoteth this conceit; more properly it may imply vivipera. For whereas other Serpents lay Eggs, the Viper excludeth living Animals; and though the Cerastes [26] be also viviparous, and we have found formed Snakes in the belly of the Cicilia[27] or Slow-worm; yet may the Viper emphatically bear the name. For the notation or Etymology is not of necessity adequate unto the name; and therefore though animal be deduced from anima, yet are there many animations beside, and Plants will challenge a right therein as well as sensible Creatures.

As touching the Text of Scripture, and compellation of the Pharisees, by Generation of Vipers, although constructions be made hereof conformable to this Tradition; and it may be plausibly expounded, that out of a viperous[28] condition, they conspired against their Prophets, and destroyed their spiritual parents; yet (as Jansenius observeth) Gregory and Jerome, do make another construction; apprehending thereby what is usually implied by that Proverb, Mali corvi, malum ovum; that is, of evil parents, an evil generation, a posterity not unlike their majority; of mischievous progenitors, a venomous and destructive progeny.

And lastly, Concerning the Hieroglyphical account, according to the Vulgar conception set down by Orus Apollo, the Authority thereof is only Emblematical; for were the conception true or false, to their apprehensions, it expressed filial impiety. Which strictly taken, and totally received for truth, might perhaps begin, but surely promote this conception.

More doubtful assertions have been raised of no Animal then the Viper, as we have dispersedly noted: and Francisco Redi hath amply discovered in his noble observations of Vipers;[29] from good reasons and iterated experiments affirming, that a Viper containeth no humour, excrement, or part which either dranke or eat, is able to kill any: that the remorses or dog-teeth, are not more then two in either sex:[30] that these teeth are hollow, and though they bite and prick therewith, yet are they not venomous, but only open a way and entrance unto the poyson, which notwithstanding is not poysonous except it touch or attain unto the bloud. And that there is no other poyson in this Animal, but only that almost insipid liquor like oyl of Almonds, which stagnates in the sheaths and cases that cover the teeth; and that this proceeds not from the bladder of gall, but is rather generated in the head, and perhaps demitted and sent from thence into these cases by salival conducts and passages, which the head communicateth unto them.


* [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 this story against Browne and the "Neotericks", most entertainingly and energetically, Arcana Microcosmi, Book II, Chap. 9.

1 [Horapollo treats the conjoint legend in separate parts, lib. ii caps. 59 (female bites off male's head) and 60 (children devour mother); in the 1940 edition of Francesco Sbordone, pp. 172-174:

59. [Πῶς γθναῖκα μισοῦσαν τὸν ἑαυτῆς ἄνδρα]

Γυναῖκα μισοῦσαν τὸν ἴδιον ἄνδρα, καὶ έπιβουλεύσυσαν αὐτῷ εἰς θάνατον, μόνον δὲ διὰ μῖξειν κολακεύουσαν αὐτὸν βουλόμενοι σημῆωαι, ἔχιν ζωγραφοῦσιν· αῦτη γάρ, ὄταν συγγίνηται τῷ ἄρρενι, στόμα στόματι ἐμβαλοῦσα, καὶ μετὰ τὸ άποζευχθῆναι άποδακοῦσα τὴν κεφαλὴν τοῦ ἄρρενοσ, αναιρεῖ.

60. [Πῶς τέκνα δηλοῦσιν ἐπιβουλεύοντα ταῖς μητράσι]

Τέκνα ἐπιβουλεύοντα ταῖς μητράσι σημῆναι βουλόμενοι, ἔχιδναν ζωγραφοῦσιν· αῦτη γὰρ ἐν τῇ (γῇ) οὐ τίκτεται, αλλ᾽ ἐκβιβρώσκουσα τὴν γαστέρα τῆς μητρὸς έκπορεὐεται.

In the Italian edition of 1547, 115 and 116. Pierius, among other symbolic meanings of the viper, gives "Uxor inimica marito" and "Filii conspirantes in matrem" (1602, Lib. XIII, pp. 143-144). Herodotus, III.109, tells both stories of the "Arabian vipers", but mentions (108) that he believes it is true of "vipers". (He also says that lionesses would give birth to more cubs, but that the sharp claws of the infants rip her uterus and make it both painful and difficult to give birth.) Nicander, de Theriaca, 115-134:

εἰ δέ που ἐν δακέεσσιν άφαρμάκτῳ χροὶ κύρσῃς
ἄκμηνος σίτςν, ῞οτε δὴ κακὸν ἄνδρας ἰάπτει,
ἆιψά κεν ἡμετέρῃσιν ἐρωήσειας έφετμαῖο. αἶ
τῶν ἤτοι θήλεια παλίγκοτος άντομένοισι,
δάχματι, πλειοτέρη δὲ καὶ ὁλκαὶην ἐπὶ σειρήν·
τούνεκα καὶ θανάτοιο θοώτερος ἵξεται αἶσα.
ἀλλ᾽ ἤτοι θέρος βλαβερὸν δάκος ἐξαλέασθαι
πληιάδςν φάσιας δεδοκημένος, αἵ θ᾽ ὑπὸ ταύρου
ἀλαίην ψαίροθσαι ὀλίζωνες φορέονται·
ἢ ὅτε σὺν τέκνοισι θερειοιμένοισιν άβοσκής
φωλειοῦ λοχάδην ὑπὸ γωλεὰ διψὰς ἰαύῃ,
ἢ ὅτε λίπτῃσιν μεθ᾽ ἑὸν νομόν, ἢ ἐπὶ κοῖτον
ἐκ νομοῦ ὑπνώσοθσα κίῃ κεκορημένη ὕλης.
μὴ ού γ᾽ ἐνὶ τριόδοισι τύχοις ὅτε δάχμα πεφυζώς
περκνὸς ἔχις θυίῃσι τθπῇ ψολόεντος εχίδνης,
ἡνίκα θορνυμένου ἔχιος θοερῷ κυνόδοντι
θουρὰς άμὺξ ἐμφῦσα κάρην ἀπέκοψεν ὁμεύνοθ·
οἱ δὲ πατρὸς λώβην μετεκίαθον αὐτίκα τυτθοί
γεινόμενοι ἐχιῆες, ἐπεὶ διὰ μητρὸς ἀραιήν
γαστέῤ ἀναβρώσαντες ἀμήτορες ἐξεγένοντο·

Pliny, HN X.lxxxii 169-170 (in Holland's EnglishChap. LXXII). Plutarch, de Garrulitate, figuratively; in Holland's (1607) translation, p. 200.4-10: "They claspe and conteine in their bosoms secret speeches, resembling serpents, which they are not able to hold and keepe long, but are eaten and gnawen by them. It is said that certaine fishes called the Sea-needles, yea and the vipers doe cleave and burst when they bring foorth their yoong; and even so, secrets when they be let fall out of their mouthes who cannot containe them, undo and overthrow those that reveal them." Ælian, de Nat. Animal. , I.xxiv and XV.xvi, expressing doubt in the first passage and outright denial (at least of Herodotus's version) in the second; in other sections (e.g., I.l, IX.lxvi) Aelian tells us that vipers will mate with muraena, who presumably keep their heads. St. Jerome, ?. Isidore, EtymologiaeXII.iv.10, Aristotle, History of Animals, V.34; "seems" because the passage says that the young eat their way out of the egg, but it is not entirely clear:

With regard to serpents or snakes, the viper is externally viviparous, having been previously oviparous internally. The egg, as with the egg of fishes, is uniform in colour and soft-skinned. The young serpent grows on the surface of the egg, and, like the young of fishes, has no shell-like envelopment. The young of the viper is born inside a membrane that bursts from off the young creature in three days; and at times the young viper eats its way out from the inside of the egg. The mother viper brings forth all its young in one day, twenty in number, and one at a time. The other serpents are externally oviparous, and their eggs are strung on to one another like a lady's necklace; after the dam has laid her eggs in the ground she broods over them, and hatches the eggs in the following year.

For Aristotle's student, Theophrastus, see Aelian XV.xvi, as above.]

2 [On the punishment for parricides — drowning in the sea sewn in a bag with a cock, a viper, a dog, and perhaps an ape — prescribed by the Lex Cornelia de sicariis, extended by the Lex Pompeia de parricidiis, see the article in Smith's Dictionary on the Leges Corneliae.]

3 [Acts 28: 3-4; the viper came from a bundle of wood Paul was gathering]

4 [Matthew 3:7, 12:34, 23:33; Luke 3:7]

5 Gen. 1 [But compare, say, the salmon and many other creatures who die in procreating, or as a result of it. Ross deals with this point disingenuously, but cleverly, Arcana Microcosmi, loc. cit.]

6 [But compare Book VII, chapter I, where Browne objects to the identification of the Serpent with serpents in general, or with any particular breed of serpent. In fact, if we follow Ross's argument, the injunction for creeping things to multiply is post-lapse, and therefore might be, by stretching a point, considered a curse.]

7 [Genesis 3:16; the remainder of the curse is normally left out, so in the spirit of women's liberation, we shall insert it here: "in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee."]

8 [Wilkin has a long note on the subject of mother vipers eating their children. On the "undeniable testimony", Wilkin refers us to Scaliger, Exercit. 101, ἐξ αὐτοψία. I presume this is a misprint for 201:

Plinius in nono Belone dehiscere ventrem scribit propter foetuum multitudinem: deinde coalescere. Quod qui & ille caecis Serpentibus commune prodidit, & vulgus affirmat Viperis evenire: existimavi aliquando inter studiorum nostrorum rudimenta catulos Belonam parere. Id quod ut constantius crederem, adducebat me eiusce piscis spina, quae mihi ad chartilaginis naturam propius accedere videbatur: donec ex divino didici praeceptore, ova grandia parere Belonem, in tertio De generatione animalium. Viperas vero ab impatientibus morae foetibus numerosissimis, atque idcirco erumpentibus rumpi, atque interire, falsum esse scimus: qui in Vincentij Camerini circulatoris lignea theca vidimus enatas Viperillas parente salva.

Wren notes: "The like is sayde of the weasel, that shee brings forth at the mouth, bycause they saw her remove her young ones with her mouth. And that Juno turned Galanthis, Alcmena's mayd, into a weasel, εἰς τὴν γάλην, bycause shee had cousened her with a lye, that her mistress was brought a bed."]

9 [Philostratus' Vita Apollonii has various things to say on the subject, none of them friendly to the vulgar errors. See the note for some extracts.]

10 [In Dioscoridis Anazarbei de Medica materia; in the 1558 edition, Lib. II cap. xiv, p. 249: "vidimus enim nos, & plures alij experientia comprobarunt, viperas prægnantes pyxidibus inclusas parere, quæ index ex partu, nec mortuæ nec visceribus peforatæ manserunt", and it goes on to knock down most of the ancient authorities.]

11 [Exercit. 201, as quoted above.]

12 [I.e., Juan Bustamante's De reptilibus vere animantibus sacrae scripturae, III.2. A Browne favorite source .]

13 [The rectum]

14 [Lacuna, or Laguna, in his Acerca de la materia medicinal, y de los venenos mortiferos; Ferdinando Imperato, Dell'Historia Naturale; Marcus Aurelius Severinus, Vipera Pythia, who cites the first two, among a number of other authorities and witnesses (page 197), but does not himself claim to have seen a live birth without matricide.]

15 [Herodotus, III.108.]

16 [Or hibernation]

17 [Crete; both supposed to be free of venemous snakes, and of venemous things in general. Browne was much interested in the subject of Ireland's putative freedom from noxious creatures; see, for example, Book VI, Chapter VII.]

18 [De theriaca, 132-134, as cited above; in the Latin translation of Jean de Gorris, (wth a bit more for context):

turgida dum secum coeunti mordicus haeret,
Et dente impuro rescindit colla mariti.
Aut poenas repetunt natae pro caede paterna
Viperulae ultrices, perque intestina parentis
Ros aluo emergunt in lucem matre carentes.]

19 [131; "ἀπέκοψεν"]

20 [Horace Carm. I: xiii.]

21 Needle-fish, found sometimes upon the sea shore, consisting of four lines unto the vent, and six from thence unto the head. [A line is 1/12 inch. Among the "others" ascribing this effect, if it be an effect, unto numerous conception, Aelian, Aristotle, and Plutarch, all in the places cited above.]

22 [Pliny HN X.170; in Holland's English, Chap LII.]

23 [Aristotle, Hist. Animal. 558a(line 31), V.34, which has μιᾷ .]

24 [The Mayhoff edition of Pliny reads "tertio die intra uterum catulos excludit, dein singulis diebus singulos parit, XX fere numero"]

25 [Hist. Animal. 558a(29-30), which reads τίκτει δὲ μικρὰ ἐχίδια ἐν ὑμέσιν, οἳ περιρήγνυνται τριταῖοι· ἐνίοτε δὲ καὶ τὰ ἔσω διαφαγόντα αὐτὰ έξέρχεται.]

26 [Cerastes, or horned vipers, also members of the Viperidae, most or all of which give birth to live snakelets.]

27 [1646: Cecilia. Presumably a reflex of scytale, often translated slow-worm. ]

28 [1672: viparous .]

29 [In his 1664 Osservazioni intorno alle vipere, whose publication necessitated some major changes in the text of Browne's chapter. Browne's list is taken from pages 55-56, where Redi sums up his observations: "Si che per raccorre il tutto in poche parole, dicoui, che la Vipera non ha umore, escremento, o parte alcuna, che beu[u]ta, o mangiata abbia forza d'ammazzare; Che la coda non ha con che pugnere; Che i denti canini tanto ne' maschi, quanto nelle femmine non sono più, che due, e voti sono dalla radice alla punta, e se feriscono, non sono velenosi, ma solamente aprono la strada al veleno viperino, che non è veleno, se non tocca il sangue, e questo veleno altro non è, che quel liquore, che imbratta il palato, e che stagna in quelle guaine, che cuoprono i denti, non mandatoui dalla vescica del fiele, ma generato in tutto quanto il capo, e trasmesso forse alle guaine per alcuni condotti saliuali, che forse metton capo in quelle." He goes on to detail the various ways in which the antiques wrote falsely about the anatomy of the viper.]

30 [In 1646 (and editions up to 1672), Browne had the following passage (1646 p.145) following hardly conceiveable, "for the female hath but foure considerable teeth, and those so disposed so slender and needle-pointed", etc.]

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

Valid XHTML 1.0 TransitionalValid CSS