Monstrous Mondays – The Amphisbaena Serpent

by Gabrielle Friesen, student staff

A two-headed serpent, with one head at the end of it’s tail, born from the blood of Medusa after she was slain, part of the tradition of monster blood begetting more monsters. It was born in Libya (although ancient texts often used Libya to refer to all of Africa) as Perseus flew over it on Pegasus, and blood dripped from the head he was clutching. The Serpent is also called the Mother of Ants, although because she eats them, not gives birth to them. When Cato the Younger’s army marched through Libya, during the Roman civil war against Caesar they supposedly encountered the serpent, which fed on the corpses the army left behind.

“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.” (Aelian, On Animals 9. 23)


In later medieval depictions, generally in bestiaries the creature evolved, sometimes having chicken feet, feathered wings, or horns. The tail-head became more fully formed, with the tail becoming a neck, resulting in a beast that met in the middle.

Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, Folio 54r

Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, Folio 54r

Although said to spew poison from both its mouths, the Amphisbaena had many medicinal or helpful properties. According to the Greek physician Nicander, wrapping the skin of an Amphisbaena around a walking stick would keep other snakes from approaching, as well as other biting predators. Preganant women wearing a live amphisbaena around their necks would have safe pregnancies, and wearing just its skin was supposed to cure arthritis.

 The Amphisbaena gave its name to the Amphisbaenia, a suborder of scaled reptiles that are limbless except for Bipes biporusm, and which likely were the inspiration for the original myth.

Iberian Worm Lizard

Perhaps one of the most interesting invocations of the amphisbaena monster is made in the Agamemnon, the first in The Oresteia trilogy, by the playwright Aeschylus (525/524 BC – c. 456/455 BC). “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?” Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1232 ff (trans. Weir Smyth).

Klytemnestra is the wife of the King Agamemnon, who goes to fight in the Trojan War. Before he leaves, he angers the goddess Artemis, who keeps his ships from leaving harbor, and in order to leave, he must placate her by sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia. He tricks Klytemnestra to sending their daughter to his camp by telling her she is to be married to Achilles. Once Iphigenia arrives, she is sacrificed, either actually killed or spirited away by Artemis to be her priestess, depending on the version, and Agamemnon’s fleet can leave. Klytemnestra is rightfully furious, and during Agamemnon’s extended stay in the ten year Trojan War, Klytemnestra takes over his kingdom and remarries. Once Agamemnon returns, bringing with him the Trojan princess Cassandra who he received as a prize of war. Klytemnestra kills Agamemnon in his bath for killing their daughter, leaving for Troy, and for favoring Cassandra. Klytemnestra and Agamemnon’s son Orestes then avenges his father by killing his mother, with the help of his surviving sister Electra. Klytemnestra’s crimes of leaving and killing her husband are reviled by the Greek poets, while Agamemnon’s acts are not, and although their son Orestes is hounded by the Furies for killing his mother, he is later acquitted by a court overseen by the goddess Athena. His vengeance is granted a legitimacy that Klytemnestra’s is not.

The invocation of the two particular monsters in interesting; both are linked to once beautiful women, transformed into monsters. The Amphisbaena is born of the blood of Medusa, a woman made monster by Athena after Poseidon raped her in the Goddess’s temple, and Scylla, who is turned by Circe, jealous that the God Glaucus loves Scylla and not her. Klytmenestra is linked to a beast called Mother, who does not give birth but devours instead, born of the blood of a woman turned into a monster, as well as to Scylla, the devourer of men made into what she was by an enchantress for the attention’s of a man. Klytemnestra, in taking actions that I’m really inclined to believe were not as monstrous as all that (her murder of Cassandra crosses a line for me, but who really has sympathy for Agamemnon) is reacting as a bereaved mother turned symbolic devourer. A Mother bereft of her children, consumed not by herself, but by her husband’s pride. She gobbles up Agamemnon’s kingdom in his absence, and then slays him, as Scylla would devour a man, or Medusa turn him to stone. Aeschylus sought to paint her as monstrous and unforgivable by linking her to the Amphisbaena and Scylla. However, he instead links her to a tradition of women wronged, that outside forces attempt to bring low, who rise up fiercer and stronger. Medusa is slain, but reborn in the beast Aeschylus mentions; while Klytemnestra is slain by her son the memory of her actions was so disturbing to the Greek poets, that they devoted endless words to trying to contain, refigure, stain her memory, which only succeeded in making the memory of a bereaved mother, shrewd tactician, and fierce woman persist. Her memory persisted against the bites of scornful men with forked tongues, as if shrouded by the Amphisbaena herself.



One thought on “Monstrous Mondays – The Amphisbaena Serpent

  1. Pingback: The Amphisbaena Serpent | Monster Repository

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