Web Theoi
AMPHISBAINA
 
Greek Name Transliteration Latin Spelling Translation
Αμφισβαινα
Αμφισβαιναι
Amphisbaina
Amphisbainai
Amphisbaena
Amphisbaenae
Walking both Ways
(amphi-, bainô)
Amphisbaena, Der Naturen Bloeme manuscript c. 1350, National Library of the Netherlands
Amphisbaena, Der Naturen Bloeme manuscript
c. 1350, National Library of the Netherlands

THE AMPHISBAINA (or Amphisbaena) was a fabulous Libyan serpent with a head at each end of its body. A similar creature said to inhabit mythical southern isles in the far south had a tortoise-like body and legs.

The creature was popular in Medieval bestiaries.


THE AMPHISBAENA SERPENT

Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1232 ff (trans. Weir Smyth) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.) :
"Such boldness has she [Klytaimestra, Clytemnestra], a woman to slay a man. What odious monster shall I fitly call her? An Amphisbaina (Amphisbaena)? Or a Skylla, tenanting the rocks, a pest to mariners, a raging, devil's mother, breathing relentless war against her husband?"

Aelian, On Animals 8. 8 (trans. Scholfield) (Greek natural history C2nd A.D.) :
"Nikandros (Nicander) asserts that the slough of the Amphisbaina (Amphisbaena) if wrapped round a walking-stick drives away all snakes and other creatures which kill not by biting but by striking."

Aelian, On Animals 9. 23 :
"The Amphisbaina (Amphisbaena) is a snake with two head, one at the top and one in the direction of the tail. When it advances, as need for a forward movement impels it, it leaves one end behind to serve as tail, while the other it uses as a head. Then again if it wants to move backwards, it uses the two heads in exactly the opposite manner from what it did before."

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 8. 85 (trans. Rackham) (Roman encyclopedia C1st A.D.) :
"The Amphisbaena [serpent] has a twin head, that is one at its tail-end as well, as though it were not enough for poison to be poured out of one mouth."

Nonnus, Dionysiaca 5. 146 ff (trans. Rouse) (Greek epic C5th A.D.) :
"[A description of the mythical cursed necklace of Harmonia:] It was like a serpent with starspangled back and coiling shape. For as the twoheaded Amphisbaina (Amphisbaena) in very sooth winds the coils between and spits her poison from either mouth, rolling along and along with double-gliding motion, and head crawling joins with head while she jumps twirling waves of her back sideways: so that magnificent necklace twisted shaking its crooked back, with its pair of curving necks, which came to meet at the midnipple, a flexible twoheaded serpent thick with scales; and by the curving joints of the work the golden circle of the moving spine bent round, until the head slid about with undulating movement and belched a mimic hissing through the jaws. With the two mouths on each side, where is the beginning and the end, was a golden eagle that seemed to be cutting the open air, upright between the serpent's heads, high-shining with fourfold nozzle of the four wings [i.e. an eagle grasps the amphisbaina in its claws]."


THE AMPHISBAENA TORTOISE

Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 2. 58. 2 - 4 (trans. Oldfather) (Greek historian C1st B.C.) :
"[An amphisbaena-like creature was said to inhabit the legendary Seven Isles of the Indian Ocean:] There are also animals among them, we are told, which are small in size but the object of wonder by reason of the nature of their bodies and the potency of their blood; for they are round in form and very similar to tortoises, but they are marked on the surface by two diagonal stripes, at each end of which they have an eye and a mouth; consequently, through seeing with four eyes and using as many mouths, yet it gathers its food into one gullet, and down this its nourishment is swallowed and all flows together into one stomach; and in like manner its other organs and all its inner parts are single. It also ahs beneath its all around its body many feet, by means of which it can move in whatever direction it pleases. And the blood of this animal, they say, has a marvellous potency; for it immediately glues on to its place any living member that has been severed; even if a hand or the like should happen to have been cut off, by the use of this blood it is glued on again, provided that the cut is fresh, and the same thing is true of such other parts of the body as are not connected with the regions which are vital and sustain the person's life.”


Sources:

  • Aeschylus, Agamemnon - Greek Tragedy C5th B.C.
  • Aelian, On Animals - Greek Natural History C2nd - C3rd A.D.
  • Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History - Greek History C1st B.C.
  • Pliny the Elder, Natural History - Latin Natural History C1st A.D.
  • Nonnos, Dionysiaca - Greek Epic C5th A.D.

Other references not currently quoted here: Aristophanes Frag 19D, Nicander Theriaca .372