Liber monstrorum

A translation of the Old English text

By Andy Orchard



You have asked about the secret arrangement [or 'filthiness'] of the lands of the earth, and if as many kinds of monsters are to be credited as are demonstrated in the hidden parts [or 'births'] of the world, raised throughout the deserts and the islands of the Ocean and in the recesses of the farthest mountains, and you were particularly asking me to answer about these three kinds of the world's area which strike the greatest terror of fear in humankind, so that I should record the monstrous parts [or 'births'] of men, and the horrible and innumerable forms of wild beasts, and the most dreadful kinds of dragons, and serpents, and vipers. And whilst discussion of these things once shone almost everywhere for humankind as if with the brightness of a lofty star through the authority of many writings, I should have thought that those lies were unrepeatable to anyone, if the gust of your request had not cast me from the high poop quivering amongst the monsters of the deep. For I compare this task with the dark sea, since there is no clear way of testing whether that rumour which has spread throughout the world with the gilded speech of marvellous report is true or steeped in lies; of which things the writings of the poets and philosophers, which always foster lies, expound the greatest part. Only some things in the marvels themselves are believed to be true, and there are countless things which if anyone could take winged flight to explore, they would prove that, although they should be concocted in speech and rumour, where now there is said to lie a golden city and gem-strewn shores, one would see there rocks and a stony city, if at all. And first I will discuss those things which are in some part to be trusted, and then let each judge for himself the following material, because throughout these monster-filled caverns I shall paint a little picture of a sea-girl or siren, which if it has a head of reason is followed by all kinds of shaggy and scaly tales.

For first the discussion takes its beginning with those things which differ by a rather trifling amount from humankind, paying heed to the individuals that the earth, the mother of mortals, spawns, or is said once to have spawned, because now, when humankind has multiplied and the lands of the earth have been filled, fewer monsters are produced under the stars, and we read that in most of the corners of the world they have been utterly eradicated and overthrown by them, and now, cast out from the shores, they are thrown down to the waves, and that by the churning from the steep summit of the pole they turn from the edge of the entire circle and from every place on earth towards this vast abyss of the flood.


Indeed I bear witness at the beginning of the work that I have known a person of both sexes, who although they appeared more masculine than feminine from their face and chest, and were thought male by those who did not know, yet loved feminine occupations and deceived the ignorant amongst men in the manner of a whore; but this is said to have happened often amongst the human race.

And there are monsters of an amazing size, like King Hygelac, who ruled the Geats and was killed by the Franks, whom no horse could carry from the age of twelve. His bones are preserved on an island in the river Rhine, where it breaks into the Ocean, and they are shown as a wonder to travellers from afar.

Or like Colossus, who in his huge bulk like that of sea-monsters outgrew all men. When he was wounded the stream of the Tiber could not cover him, into which he had flung himself at the point of death, failing from his wounds. From him right out to the mouth of the Mediterranean (some eighteen miles) the water is said to have been mixed with so much blood that the whole river seemed to flow from his wounds.

Afterwards the Romans erected a statue of the greatest size - this work has been heard of throughout almost the entire world - which stands 107 feet tall and surpasses nearly everything in the city of Rome by its marvellous reputation.

And we read that there were certain extremely bellicose men of huge bodily size who had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot. Yet they were sound of mind, and differed from other people only in the addition of four digits.

Moreover fauns, who are called thus from their speaking (fando), are wood-dwellers, and have human appearance from the head to the navel (although their heads disguise curved horns in their noses), and the lower part of the two feet and the thighs is represented in the form of goats. The poet Lucan sang that, according to the opinion of the Greeks, they, along with countless other kinds of wild animals, were drawn to the lyre of Orpheus by his song.

Sirens are sea-girls, who deceive sailors with the outstanding beauty of their appearance and the sweetness of their song, and are most like human beings from the head to the navel, with the body of a maiden, but have scaly fishes' tails, with which they always lurk in the sea.

Hippocentaurs have the mingled nature of horses and humans, with heads shaggy like wild animals, but in another respect most like the human norm, with which they can begin to speak. But their lips are unaccustomed to human speech, and they cannot form any sound into words.

And we have heard of a person born in Asia from human parents with a monstrous mixture. He was like his father in the feet and stomach, but had two chests and four hands and two heads. And wide-spread rumour drew many people to marvel at him.

There are Ethiopians who are black in their whole body, whom the flaming sun continually burns with excessive heat, because they dwell under the third, most seething and torrid circle of the world's zones, and are protected by the recesses of the land from the vapour of the most burning stars. And likewise, on the other hand, we read of a certain race of humans near the Rhipaean mountains protected from the snowy cold by the land in winter, where the snows under the chill Great Bear of the North fall to a depth of seven ells.

Ass-centaurs seem to have the reasonable bodies of humans down to the navel, and the lower part is represented by the shaggy foulness of wild asses. In this way the diverse nature of different species naturally combines them.

And there was a certain human race in Sicily, where the flame of Mount Etna is read about; they have a single eye as broad as a shield under the roughest of foreheads. And they are called Cyclops and used to exceed the height of the tallest of trees and feed on human blood. And one of these is said in books to have lain in his cave holding two men in one hand, and to have eaten them raw.

Who does not admire the courage and weaponry of Hercules, who, at the western entrance to the Mediterranean, erected pillars of an amazing size as a spectacle for the human race, and who constructed trophies of his wars in the East by the Indian Ocean, as a memorial for posterity, and afterwards travelled in battles through almost the entire world, and spattered the earth with so much blood, and at the point of death wrapped himself in flames to be consumed?

And we have heard tell of a certain girl, not yet with swelling breasts, discovered on the western shores of Europe, whom the waves of the sea brought to land from the Ocean; they marked her size with stones. Indeed 50 feet was the length of her body, and she was seven feet wide between the shoulders. She had come dressed in a purple cloak, bound with saplings, and fatally wounded in the head.

It is reckoned that Scylla has been the monster most hostile to sailors in that channel which washes between Italy and Sicily, having indeed the head and chest of a maiden (like the sirens), but the belly of a wolf and the tails of dolphins. And what distinguishes the nature of sirens from Scylla is that they deceive seamen by their deadly song, whilst she with the strength of her force, girt about with sea-dogs, is said to have mangled the wrecks of the unfortunate.

And in India next to the Ocean we have learnt of a certain race of humans hairy in their whole body, who are said to live on water and raw fish, covered in natural nakedness only by bristles like wild animals. And the Indians call them Ichthyophagi ['fish-eaters'], and they are not only accustomed to the land, but dwell in streams and ponds and mostly next to the river Epigmaris.

Cynocephali are also said to be born in India, who have the heads of dogs, and spoil every word they say with mingled barks, and do not imitate humans but the beasts themselves in eating raw flesh.

And they say there is a race of people whom the Greeks call Sciapods ['shade-feet'], because lying on their backs they protect themselves from the heat of the sun by the shade of their feet. Indeed they are of a very swift nature. They have only one leg each for their feet, and their knees harden in an inflexible joint.

There are people in the East dwelling in the vast solitude of a certain desert who, so they say, have beards reaching right to their knees, and live on raw fish and by drinking water.

And amongst these incredible things there is described a certain race of joint sex, who have a right male breast for performing work and a left female breast for nourishing babies. And people say they reproduce by alternating sexual roles.

Also certain people from near the Nile and Brixontis rivers are described as having bodies of amazing whiteness, twelve feet tall, with a split face, long nose, and skinny body.

And there are people whom Creek tales say have no mouth like the rest of the human race, and eat no food, but are reckoned to live only by the breath of their noses.

Women, so they say, are born near the mountain of Armenia covered with hair, having long beards down to their breasts, who, since they are huntresses, rear tigers and leopards and swift kinds of wild animals instead of dogs.

And it is said that a certain hostile [or 'unseen'] race of people are born in caves and the hollow recesses of mountains, who are a cubit in height, and, it is reckoned, join war against cranes at harvest-time, in case they snatch their crops. And the Greeks call them Pigmies, from [the Greek word for] 'cubit'.

There are also men on an island in the river Brixontis who are born without heads, whom the Greeks call Epifugi. And they are eight feet tall and have all the functions of the head in their chests, except they are said to have eyes in their shoulders.

And in a reliable [or 'faithful'] narrative we find that a certain person had crescent-shaped feet with no more than two toes, and that their hands also are described as being formed after the measure of this pattern.

In the East also, next to the Ocean, we read of a beautiful race of people. And they claim that the cause of their pleasantness is that they eat raw meat and the purest of honey.

And there is another race of people who are said to have the briefest of spans to mark their life. Their women conceive at five years old, and they do not live beyond their eighth year.

There are, so they say, beautiful women living near the Red Sea, whose bodies shine with the brightness of marble, who are twelve feet tall and have hair flowing down to their ankles, cow-tails on their flanks, and the feet of camels.

And they say that there is a race differing from human nature in the following way: they have complete bodies, but the functions of the head seem at odds to the turned-back feet. And their footprints deceive those who do not know this.

Also in a certain desert fiery mountains are read about, in which people are born black in their whole body like Ethiopians, of whom we saw a certain one as black as coal, but with shining teeth and eyes and nails.

There was a certain monster in Arcadia called Cacus, in a cave by the river Tiber, spewing flames from his chest, and hairy all over, who stole four bull and the same number of cows from their herdsman, and through force of strength dragged them backwards by their tails to his cave, so that they would not be discovered.

And they say that there has been another monster in a certain spot near the Ocean, who saw from the shore a boat slipping on the waves, and the sailors, terrified by the sight of him, hesitating to come to shore, and he snatched the ship and its crew from the midst of the sea and placed it on dry land.

Also a race of people with huge bodies is born in the east of the river Brixontis black in body, and who reach eighteen feet in height; and, so they say, when they catch folk, they eat them raw.

And they say there are monsters in swamps with three human heads and they are alleged to live like nymphs under the deepest pools. It is a profanity to believe this, since floods do not flow there, where a huge monster enters.

Proteus also with his azure body is said to have been carried naked through the sea in a chariot of two-legged horses, and to have had dominion over every kind of fish, and is described as being able to turn himself into the shapes of all things.

And there is said to be an island in the eastern parts of the lands of the world, in which people are born reasonable in stature, except that their eyes shine like lanterns.

There was once a person of marvellous nature whom they called Midas, who, as the tales allege, turned everything which he touched into gold. And no one believes this unless scorning the truth.

Three Gorgons are also described with the monstrous nature of women, Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa, who are said to have lived on the borders of Libya next to Mount Atlas, who used to turn men to stone by their sight. Perseus slew one of them, protected by a glassy shield, and she is said, when her head was cut off, to have moved her eyes as though alive.

Argus is described as having had numerous eyes to see, and they say that nothing could be concealed from him completely, because, it is imagined, he was always on the lookout with some eyes.

There is a certain race of mixed nature on an island in the Red Sea, who are said to be able to speak the languages of all nations. In this way they astonish people who come from afar, by naming their acquaintances, in order to deceive them, and eat them raw.

Innumerable monsters are also said in books to have been on the borders of the Circean land, lions and bears, boars also and wolves, who, whilst the rest of their body kept the nature of wild beasts, had human faces.

And they say what is impious to be said, that there is a certain monster of the night, which always used to fly by night through the shade of the sky and the earth, terrifying people in cities with its dreadful cry, and it had as many eyes and cars and mouths, as it had feathers. And it is always said to have been without rest or sleep.

People are born in the regions of the East, who as the fables imagine, reach fifteen feet in height and have bodies of marble whiteness, and ears like fans, with which they cover and conceal themselves at night, and when they see a human, they flee through the vastest deserts [or 'most deserted wastes'] with ears outstretched.

It is read that there have been certain monsters, Harpies, on the islands of Strophades in the Ionian Sea, in the form of birds, but with the faces of maidens. And they could speak in human language, and were always insatiable with gnawing hunger, and with their hooked feet they snatched food from the hands of those eating.

A false [or 'empty'] tale also describes certain women, the Eumenides, who had viperous hair tied back with bloody headbands, in which azure snakes were thrashing in mad anger. And their iron bed-chambers are imagined in incredible fables to be in the underworld.

Likewise Satyrs and Incubi are called woodland folk, of which the top part is very like the human body, and the lower part is depicted with the forms of wild animals and fauns.

And a certain monster in the underworld is written of, that is Tityos, whom they have called Earth's nursling. And his body extends stretched out there for nine iugera.

Aegeon also is said to have been another monster with the most massive bulk and of incredible shape. And he had fifty heads and one hundred hands, and from every single mouth he used to vomit fire and spew forth crackling flames, and as instruments of war he carried fifty shields and the same number of swords.

The fables of the Greeks say that there have been people with huge bodies and of such bulk, similar, however, to humankind, except that they had dragon-tails, whence they were also called in Greek Dracontopodes.

But I shall depict the Minotaur, that deformed monster in the same fabulous Creek stories, who had the head of a bull, and, when enclosed in the labyrinth, is said to have groaned with both cries and bellowing, because he could not escape that house in Crete, which had a maze surrounded by a thousand walls.

It is read that the instruments of war of Eryx also exceed all human measure. He was not a monster, however, but a human of monstrous size. And seven ox-hides sewn with iron and lead used to cover his shield.

And they said that Triton was like a human in his head, a semi-wild thing in his chest, and like fish down below the navel. And he is described as having been seen in the Carpathian Sea of the Egyptians and around the shores of Italy. And it is not known whether he had his name bestowed from the swamp Triton in Lybia, or the swamp from him.

They also say that there is a race of humans under the globe which are called Antipodes, and according to the interpretation of that Greek name they tread the lowest foundation of the globe with feet directed straight up to our footprints.

Indeed giants used to grow to such an enormous size that it is said that all the sea were passable to them on foot. And their bones are often found, according to books, on the shores and in the recesses of the world, as a mark of their vast size.

They also write that the twin Aloidae were of such immense bodily size that they tried three times to destroy the sky with their hands, because of a burning desire to rule, so that they could hurl down Jupiter from high Olympus.

But Orion is imagined to have been such that he could cross all seas and overtop with his shoulders the waves of even the deepest flood. And thus he dragged mountain-ashes and huge oaks torn up by their roots from the mountains. They say he crossed the peaks of mountains, and knocked the high clouds of the sky with his head.


These are the huge monsters concerning which the wave of your request buffeted me, and those are the ones which I have gathered to these shores from the foaming torrents of fables. But there are still innumerable things which they have said have existed both on land and in the sea, concerning which it is tedious to wish to write more, even that which they say in highly disgraceful fables about hellish people, such as Chiron, Niobe, Daedalus. Triptolemus, Atlas, Coeus, Iapetus, Typhoeus, and certain others.




Whatever is found on land or in the sea of unknown and fearsome form of terrible bodily appearance can be called a beast. The kinds of sea-beast are almost innumerable, and with their so enormous bodies they churn up vast masses of waves as big as great mountains, and with their chests disrupt seas from the very bottom, whilst they direct their paths to the sweet river-courses and by swimming disturb the foamy depths with a great roar, and in that legion of the most enormous monsters, whilst they thrust aside the swelling sea, they lash the breezes with marbled foam, and thus with an enormous mass of limbs they sweep the stirred-up sea right up to the shore with a fearful flood so that they offer onlookers not so much a spectacle as a source of fear. Concerning these things I have thought nothing worth writing to you, because they are both innumerable, and knowledge of them is far removed from humankind, as if by the terrifying battlements of the sea-waves, and by a wall of sea. But nevertheless, lest the flood of neglect should drown the lamp of the questioning word, a discussion will provide you with a few things concerning these beasts and the horrible forms of unknown beasts which the poets and philosophers emptily depict in the gilded discourse of their writings to have once existed in rivers or lakes and swamps, or in the deserted recesses of the globe.

We place in the forefront of fearsome beasts the lion, which because of his dread and excessive strength poets and orators, as well as scientists, imagine to be the king of the beasts. They are generally of a tawny colour, but the Indus, however, is said to have had white lions with huge manes and bodies as large as bulls. And the same kind of lion of the most enormous size is described, which Hercules slew under the rock of the Nemean mountain.

But elephants, even if they themselves fear lions, are however bigger than all known living things. They are said to be born among the people of Cangeris and Indians and between the river Nile and the Brixontis. And Pyrrhus first brought twenty of them to Romania to help in battle, because they carry towers to war with archers interspersed, and strike the enemy with outstretched trunks. Alexander of Macedon described to the philosopher Aristotle that he had seen innumerable ones of white, black, red, and various colours in India.

Wild asses are animals, not beasts, but with great courage and often exulting in proud strength they tear rocks from the mountains. But there are those in the deserts of Persia which are described amongst incredible prodigies, having the horns of cattle, and with large bodies.

Tigers are wild animals of fearsome hostility, which are born in India and amongst the Hyrcanians and in Armenia. And they are extremely rapacious and of amazing speed; whence also the river Tigris of Assyria is said to have derived its name, since it rushes from Mount Caucasus with the swiftest of currents, just like that beast.

Lynxes are beasts with spotted bodies, which both have outstanding ferocity and are very like panthers in their mottled body. And they are born in both Syria and India, and in certain other areas.

The leopard is a rapacious wild beast of mixed colour on its whole body, and they caused harm to Alexander and the Macedonians, along with other beasts, just after he took by storm the Aornis Rock, from which Hercules had earlier retreated, put to flight by an earthquake. And on one occasion the king of India, since they are especially born there, sent two little leopards to King Anastasius of Rome on a camel and an elephant, which the poet Plautus jokingly named a Lucanian cow.

Some describe panthers as gentle, others as fearsome. And the poet Lucan sang that they were stirred from the Thracian desert along with other animals and beasts towards the lyre of Orpheus because of his sorrowful song. For he himself was sad, and, grieving by the waters of Strymon, he lamented in piteous song for Eurydice, who had been snatched away.

The fables of the Greeks tell of very many things in the books of their philosophy from ancient times which now seem to be incredible, as much about monsters as also beasts and serpents. And we are about to unfold a part of these, amongst which is described the beast of Lerna, which is now in the underworld, and which the Greeks, along with certain Romans, depict as being as horrible in its clamour as dreadful in its form.

Hippopotami are said to be beasts in India greater in body than elephants, and they say that they live in a certain river with undrinkable water. And once they are said to have dragged two hundred men in a single hour into the greedy eddies of the flood, and to have devoured them in a cruel fashion.

Legend itself holds that certain beasts are born near the Red Sea, and they imagine that they have eight feet on double limbs and two heads, with Gorgon's eyes.

The Greeks write that the chimaera was formerly a certain terrible beast of triple body with monstrous hideousness, which they say was armed with flames, in that it had three heads spewing fire.

And there are also, so they say, beasts in India [crocodiles], which they call eternal on account of their lively strength. And they bear serrated bones like swords on their heads, by which, when they attack shields, charging like a ram, the opposing shields are split apart.

And in Persis they imagine that there are beasts which they call Conopeni, beneath the dog-shaped heads of which a horse-like mane hangs from their neck, and they breath fire and flame from their mouth and nostrils.

But Cerberus is described as having had three heads. And poets and philosophers reckon that he deters mortals from the gates of Hell with his triple barking. Yet however they put out in a shameful lie that the most celebrated Hercules dragged him trembling in chains from the throne of Orcus, king of the underworld, and that the defiant hero provoked the enraged beast by mad barking.

Among the other empty things which they say, they maintain that there are ants on a certain island, and claim that they have six feet and a black colour and amazing speed. Alongside them there is described an incredible abundance of gold, which they guard in their diligence.

Moreover there was a beast on the borders of India, so they say, larger than an elephant and black in colour, which the Indians call 'Tyrant's tooth [rhinoceros]. It bore three horns in the middle of its cruel forehead, and it was of such savagery that when it caught sight of humans, it would shun no weapons or fires or any dangers. They say that Alexander at last pierced it with hunting-spears, after twenty-six of his soldiers had died, and slew it.

And amongst these incredible things they imagine hippopotami of awful size, which they maintain to have three kinds of colour. And in the breadth of their mouth they are compared to a winnowing-fan. But they are so shy that, if anyone follows them, they flee until they sweat blood.

Leopards are wild and fearsome, and have a body of fearsome form mixed from the twin shape of the most dreadful wild animals, since they are produced from lions and panthers. They say that they are born next to the Red Sea and in certain other areas.

The poets also imagine that there are azure dogs in the Mediterranean, the hind parts of whose bodies they share with fish; also girt round with these same sea-dogs Scylia is described tearing apart the ship of Ulysses.

And they say that there are night-beasts, and not so much beasts as grim prodigies, since they are never seen in the light, but in the nocturnal shadows. They say that these are able to change themselves into the shapes of all beasts when they are disturbed by the fear of pursuers.

But the river Nile, which, running into seven mouths, is swallowed in the Mediterranean, produces all kinds of monsters, like wild animals, in that flood where it flows towards the East, and where again, turning from the Red Sea, it flows back into the West.

And they say that in India there is a beast which had two heads; it bore one (imagine!) the image of a two-horned moon, the other of a crocodile. And with its serrated back and armed with savage teeth it is described once as having leapt out on Alexander's soldiers and killed two.

But that beast is said to be amongst the fiercest of all brutes, in which they assert that there is such a quantity of venom that lions fear it although it is an animal of weaker body, and they reckon that its poison has such strength, that the cutting-edge even of iron, dipped in it, melts.

And next to the river Euphrates they write that there is an animal which is called antelope, because with its long horns which have the shape of a saw it cuts through mighty oaks and fells them to the ground.

In the river Nile they say that there are crocodiles, beasts of no mean size, which stretch themselves out in the heat of the sun on the banks, and are greedy for humankind if they sense any near when they are roused from their sleep. And these beasts lurk mostly in water and on the edges of shores.

Balena, an unbearable wild animal, is also born in India, where most of the wonders of almost the entire globe are read about. And from the hides of these balenae a certain race of Indians puts together coverings of clothing.

The river Ganges in India, which yields gold and precious stones, produces wondrous races of monstrous ferocity. But writers about these beasts claim to have kept quiet about them because of their incredibly-formed figures.

And along with the Greeks the Romans write in their poetic fantasies of incredible things, that there are two-footed horses in the Mediterranean, which have most of the front part of their body in the shape of horses, and the rear of fish.

Alexander of Macedon described to Aristotle that he had seen mice in India the size of foxes, and they used to tear men and pack-animals with their destructive biting.

And in a place near the mountains of Armenia, where pearls are said to be produced, a certain very high mountain yields lions and tigers, lynxes and leopards and all kinds of horrible wild beasts.

In Brixontis certain beasts called Celestes, not large, but unknown to almost all nations, are said to be born. And we have described the river, in which they are born, near the Nile, the source of which is unknown, according to most. Amongst the Egyptians it is called Archoboleta, that is 'great water'.

The fables of the Greeks imagine that all beasts and land-animals, along with various kinds of monsters and beasts are in the Mediterranean, and with only two feet, because from the chest to the tail they have scaly bodies.

And through a certain picture of Greek art we have learnt that men whom the azure dogs did not devour with their first bite, have been carried unharmed on the backs of beasts of the above-named kind, after Scylia, surrounded with the same monsters, had plundered the ship of Ulysses of its sailors, and so with marine lions, tigers, panthers, wild asses, lynxes, and leopards, and all kinds of wild beasts and animals they passed through their own areas of her sea.

And so they imagine that they did not harm humans because they wanted a mingling of human seed, and from there a race of triple form is said to have been born. And in empty fictions of the same kind I saw that they thought that children produced in the sea by these men and beasts were swimming in the sea with conches for the sake of milking, so that they might take food for themselves from their own parents.

There was a King Aeeta who reigned in Colchis, whom they write had bulls breathing fire and a golden fleece, on account of which Thessalian Jason sailed to Colchis. The king conceded to him the taming of the flaming bulls so that he might deserve the fleece.

And amongst the beasts of India a certain kind is said to have had two tails which doubled to the size of six feet in length, when it open both claws, with which it used to strike and wound humans.




The fables of poets imagine that a snake of Lerna had dreadful breath, and was poisonous with Tartarean venom, and terrible with its triple tongue. From the middle of its forehead a huge crowd of monsters and serpents used to seethe, and hair of the viperous kind of the Eumenides, like fearsome prodigies, used to bubble around the face of this snake, in countless gatherings of knots. It is once said to have surrounded Hercules with this crowd of serpents and hissing heads, and in that situation nothing is said to have availed him.

Serpents are also said to be born in the Assyrian desert which have two heads and twist the enormous coils of their body and shine with their four eyes through the nocturnal shadows like lanterns.

The Hydra is described as having been an armed snake which struck Eurydice, the wife of Orpheus, in the head on a river-bank, and drowned her in the flood; an just as Scylla was girt about with monsters, so too this is imagined to have been girt about with serpents. Hercules used to wear such a sign on his shield, along with a hundred other snakes.

Now, Stares are serpents said to be born in India with a huge body, terrible in their varied colour, and they used to glitter with the brightness of gold in some of their scales, and were separately seen in white and purple and black colours. And Alexander of Macedon is once said to have waged war against them.

In the valleys of Calabria there was also a snake of marvellous size in the time of Caesar Augustus, which in spring, living in the pools and swamps, sated its fierce greed on frogs and fish. But after the swamps dried up, burnt by the heat of the sun, then the enraged pest, lacking food and water, roamed the fields with flashing eyes and caused an excessive plague to mortals.

On the border of the Red Sea and Arabia there are said to be serpents from whom white pepper is produced, which humans gather, blackened by the licking flames, after the place has been burnt and the snakes flee underground. The snakes are called Corsiae and have ram's horns; anyone struck by them swells up and quickly dies.

And in India serpents of this sort are said to be born which, so they say, have the thickness of columns and have two or three crested heads, and journeying from the mountain hideaways they used to travel to water with puffed-up breasts, and so with curving movements and scales, they rendered the earth worn away, and with their eyes shining with horrid venom their mouths used to quiver with triple tongues and they breathed out deadly breath.

And it is said that a serpent has been seen in Sicily that sliding on the slippery sinuousness of its sides dragged its sevenfold coils with its rounded body, and mingled its azure appearance with a golden sheen throughout all its scales.

A certain serpent of horrendous size is also described as having been discovered by the Roman army in Africa near the River Bagrada. And, in revenge for the soldiers whom it devoured in its initial attack, all the Romans surrounded it with all their spears, and finally, struck by a mill-stone thrown from a ballista, its spine cracked, after it had previously repelled all the spears with its scales, like the slanting testudo of shields. Its hide was brought across the Mediterranean to Rome, and is said to have been 120 feet long.

And at the destruction of Troy, as the whole population looked on, two serpents thrashed with a great noise the waves from the island of Tenedos with their curving motion, and swam to shore with puffed-up breasts. As Vergil, the outstanding poet, sang, they had bloody crests and their eyes were grim with fire and gore. They tore apart in poisonous bites two little boys in their first attack, and a third man coming to their aid.

Serpents are also said to be born in India in a valley which is called Iordia, in whose necks are found very precious stones, and their glitterings are called emeralds. They are fed on laser and white pepper. Alexander of Macedon carried off a few of the stones from the valley, closed off by pyramids with a length of five hundred and five feet.

There is a certain island in the Mediterranean which, before humans, almost all kinds of serpents used to inhabit, amongst which there was a ruler-serpent which was bristly with such huge bodily bulk that those who saw the places in which it hid assert that a cow could enter.

And the pagans, in their rumour-filled talk, describe the black Styx amongst the underworld as the greatest snake in the whole world, which, they imagine, hugely surrounds nine times with its black rings Tartarus in a piteous manner, through the Stygian swamp of wailing souls. And thus the Styx with its viperous wall, and the swamp with its putrid wave, whose horrible edge none dares approach, seals in souls groaning, so they think, in eternal tears.

The salamander is also described as being of such fierceness that no force of flame can harm it, but it is said to be able to live in fire like fish in water.

Cerastes are horned serpents, but they do not harm so much with their horns as with their mouth and tongues. They are said to have excessive fierceness, and are born in many regions.

Chelydri are serpents black in colour, who are born in cold and stony lands, and they roam the gravel of the countryside for hiding-places and stuff for food. And King Aeeta, whom we have described above, the father of the maiden Medea, is described as having had such teeth of serpent's kind that if anyone furiously forced them together, as a result armed men would leap up, furious to kill. But some think they were the teeth of a dragon.

Coluber is a kind of very dreadful and poisonous snake, which usually retreats to the shadows and shade and so causes unexpected harm with its poisonous bite. The grammarian Octavianus [Priscian] placed Colubra amongst the feminine gender.

But the viper is so called because it gives birth by violence. About which scientists write that they have a certain unknown kind most like the human form down to the navel, which receives seed in the mouth and in death gives birth through its split side.

And in India amongst certain other prodigies the Ophitae serpents are born of the most atrocious kind, which they say are distinguished by shades of almost every colour.

For, according to what the poet sang, Hercules strangled and crushed two snakes in his hand, which of a new and unknown kind he destroyed amongst other monsters.

Hydri are aquatic serpents, who live in rivers and ponds, just as is described of other worms in India. And a certain race near the Ocean is said to have dragged them out of the river Occluada for food, thicker than a human thigh, and redder than scarlet.

The asp does not produce live young, but nourishes eggs, and causes less harm alive than dead. Its head is like a turtle-dove's beak. If the head of this serpent punctures anyone, they swell with its viperous touch.

For it is described in these fictions of poets that twin snakes with monsters and clouds barking from the sky chased off to the Nile the terrified Cleopatra, who along with Anthony waged a naval battle against Caesar. And just as a lie has created monsters and etherial snakes on this queen's back, so too do the lying fables of poets wilfully fake very many things for themselves which do not occur.

They also say that in the underworld Tisiphone is girt round with a bloody mantle, injuring souls with a viperous whip, and guards the vestibule of the city, which (they lie) has been surrounded with a triple wall, and with the flaming flood of Tartarean Pyriphlegothontis, which, they think, dashes resounding rocks with swift flames, and they imagine that a Hydra guards the inner vestibule of the city, which, they reckon, inhabits the Tartarean seat with fifty heads.


Now, amongst these serpents which we have described above, some true things are found, and some lacking all truth. There are also still very many snakes of serpentine kind, like Dispades, Reguli, Haemorroides, Spelagi, Natrices, concerning which I have now found nothing remarkable or worthy of notice.


This translation is taken from Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf Manuscript, by Andy Orchard. It is used without permission, but with awe and admiration. No profit comes from it. Those who like the subject matter, go to Amazon and buy the book!

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Posted August 18th 2003