Myths, Legends and Folklore Surrounding Reptiles

John Grundy News, Revealing Reptiles


Mostly a load of ill-observed, speculative nonesense. But lets have a laugh…

Bad press for reptiles and snakes in particular, started of course with one book about a talking snake in a tree representing temptation and evil. It is often depicted as a horned serpent and my own theory for this is, that in the middle East the cerastes is a common viper. They are indeed horned and bury themselves in the sand waiting to ambush small desert geckos and invertebrates. As sandal wearers, the locals most likely associated this well camouflaged little snake as a problem. Hence it was easy for the writers of the book to pin it with the label for evil. It has pretty much gone downhill from there.

The Horned Viper Cerastes cerastes buried in the sand. (ferrebeekeeper)

Cerastes was itself a mythical creature from Greek legend; A goat-headed serpent which burrows in the ground waiting to ambush passing prey.

North American tribes hold lizards in high esteem with some believing they are symbols of healing, survival and masculinity. Others, like the Cheyenne, still deem it bad luck to kill a lizard. I hope to spread this one around the world. The Navajo and some other Southwestern tribes associate lizards with good fortune, protection of children and prosperity.

Apep was an Egyptian serpent demon who was arch enemy to the sun god, Rah. The stories surrounding Apep have led to a deep distrust of snakes in Egypt.

During my own travels in Africa I came a cross a lot of negativity towards reptiles. Even the humble chameleon is distrusted amongst many African tribes, with most having tales and legends about the colour changing lizard being a harbinger of bad news.

The chameleon – The bringer of bad news according to many African tales.

In India of course cobra are worshiped in many Hindi rituals and there are several long winded folk lore stories about daughters-in-law and the serpents they cared for. If you want to pour through them this is well worth a read.

Dragons are mythical creatures which occur in many nations around the world. China is most associated with dragons and they have many gods in dragon form. The fact that dragon stories turn up in many nations across the globe makes me wonder are they not all tied in with finding fossil remains. Huge winged reptiles spread across rock faces or massive three toed footprints in solid rock must have given rise to early tales of mythological creatures. Early man coming across such finds would have been filled with fear and dread as well as wonder as to what they were. Then again, some mysteries are best left as they are.

In ancient Chinese legend are tales of two serpent gods who created the people. This is also mirrored in a tale from Sumeria of a serpent god being the creator of life.

Closer to home the Norse folk have Jormungand, the world encompassing serpent. Thor was said to have emptied the seas in order to rid the world of the serpent. I wonder if this will ever get made into a film?

Our very own County Durham legend of  young Sir John who went fishing in the Wear and ‘catched a fish upon he’s heuk, he thowt leuk’d vary queer’. But we’ll not dwell on such nonsense. We all know how the hill got its famous contours – Shoddy engineering!

Wherever you look in reference books and wherever you travel around the globe folk lore and legend involving reptiles, be it bad or good, is sure to be found. Such magnificent creatures are the stuff of legend and rightly so. Even if a lot of it is utter tosh.

John Grundy

John has spent more than thirty years honing his skills as a spotter of our region’s elusive and well-camouflaged reptiles. He can often be found wandering the moors of Durham looking for signs of life in the undergrowth. As the Revealing Reptiles Project Officer John frequently delivers reptile survey training to groups and individuals.

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