Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.01.42 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.01.42

Sébastien​ Barbara, Jean Trinquier (ed.), Ophiaca: diffusion et réception des savoirs antiques sur les Ophidiens / Ophiaca: diffusion and reception of ophidian lore in antiquity. Anthropozoologica 2012 - 47(1)​.   Paris:  Publications Scientifiques du Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle​, 2012.  Pp. 378.  ISBN 07613032.  

Reviewed by Kenneth F. Kitchell, Jr, University of Massachusetts Amherst (

[The Table of Contents is given below; online access is available through the subscription database BioOne.]

The current volume originated in a "table-ronde" held February 2, 2010 at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris Anthropozoologica is a semi-annual journal created to study "the relationship between man and animals, from the origins down to modern times" (377) and this issue is devoted to the thorny matter of ancient Greek and Roman serpents. Each article is accompanied by an abstract in English and contact information for the authors. The end of the volume contains an interesting list of conferences, past and future, designed to study similar subjects as well as abstracts of recent theses concerning animal lore.

The first three articles are concerned with the history of herpetological knowledge. Barbara's article deals with the rather frequent scene in ancient works (e.g. Lucan, Book 9) where an army encounters particularly large or deadly snakes. It offers a survey of such scenes occurring in places such as Egypt, India, Baluchistan and the Caspian and attempts to identify some of the species encountered. The text is accompanied by eight color photographs of species mentioned. Barbara also discusses the role of an army as a means of exploration and how their reports help to define exotic locales through (often exaggerated) descriptions of their fauna. Thus, armies were serving the same function as earlier logographers, travelers, and geographers before them Zucker offers a careful study of the "iological" ("concerning poisons") works of such important, but often overlooked authors as Philoumenos (De venenatis animalibus, Aelius Promotus and Pseudo-Dioscorides. His article can serve as an excellent introduction to the genre of iology and as a study of the interrelationship of the various authors who worked within it. Bodson, the preeminent name today in classical animal studies, continues her study of the ways in which the ancients named animals new to them. Basically, the Greeks created names for more than 80 serpents as they did for all other animals – stressing a prominent physical attribute (e.g. the cerastes or "horned" snake), venomous symptoms (e.g. dipsas, "causing thirst”, kauson, "burner"), or human characteristics. The first two types form the bulk of her article, with the latter receiving only a single, long paragraph (136), since it is less relevant to serpents. In the process of focusing on the dipsas, she also studies the echis/echidna, ammoates, ammobates, ammodutes, kentrines, kentris, melanouros, kauson, and prester. Her logical presentation and the presence of 6 color plates and 9 clarifying charts help guide the reader through the maze created by ancient synonyms and modern (mis)identifications.

The next section of the volume concerns the physiology of ancient serpents. Luccioni studies the common belief that snakes eat herbs which change their temperament and sometimes bestow their venom upon them. The list of plants that have serpent-based names and the serpents that eat them is quite useful. The explanation of the origin of the patently false belief that snakes are herbivorous is ingenious, if not quite compelling. Offering a counterbalance, Trinquier investigates the interesting beliefs that certain snakes drank wine, water, and blood. He bases the accounts of which snake drank which liquid on ancient views of their compositions (hot, cold, moist, dry). Imbedded in this piece is a study of the legendary battles between the elephant and the giant snakes who would bathe in its blood (202-11).

The third section of the volume studies the relationship between serpents and health. The first article, by Aufrère, is a welcome study of the "Brooklyn Papyrus." This Egyptian papyrus, copied in the 4th century B.C., is in two parts, one describing the bites of 38 reptiles and rating their toxicity, and the other discussing cures for such bites. Aufrère includes a summary of both parts of the papyrus, including initial identifications of the serpents named in each. This list of deadly effects is counterbalanced by the article by Gaillard-Seux, which treats and classifies the uses of snakes, especially the adder, in curing human diseases and complaints. The author adduces evidence both from physicians such as Galen or Dioscorides and from popular cures found in authors such as Pliny. Dasen and Nagy's article studies the magical gems adorned with the lion-headed, serpent-bodied Egyptian god Chnoubis from the Roman imperial age and traces that god's influence into Byzantine times and beyond. Invoking Chnoubis was thought to be useful for stomach ailments and was good for the uterus.

The fourth section of the volume is something of a catch-all for interesting, but hard to categorize papers. Mazoyer's paper brings us into a realm little known to the average classicist –Hittite cosmology. Essentially a survey article, it first relates the myth of the lion-headed serpent named Illuyanka (representing the underground third of the world where it sits, wrapped around the roots of the tree of life ). Next, the symbolism of the serpent-god is briefly addressed. In the final article of the collection, Gourmelen addresses the well known bearded serpent of Greek art by studying a series of reliefs to Zeus Meilichios found at Munychia. The cult is described and the serpent is identified as the Four-lined snake (Elaphe quatuorlineata). While the information on the role of this snake in ancient Athenian ritual is useful, the argumentfor seeing a specific species as the origin of the serpent—which the author himself sees as tentative—is indeed tenuous. In the final article, Perrot addresses the hissing of snakes and their relationship to ancient music. Although their hissing might not normally be thought of as musical, Perrot reveals that compositions were created and performed about Pytho's hiss at the Pythian Games and that the sound of the aulos was used to represent this hissing. It is interesting that a modern (1987-88) composition by Brian Elias entitled "Pythikos Nomos" uses the alto saxophone while another piece, of the same name, by Andrew MacDonald (1996) uses two oboes. Perrot's use of the ancient literature and music treatises is fascinating and is yet another indication of how deeply animals were integrated into all aspects of the ancients' lives.

The layout of the volume is impressive, with high quality paper and clear, color photographs. The English of the abstracts is occasionally strained or clumsy, but not egregiously so.

In summary, this is a volume that continues well the mission of the journal Anthropozoologica, which continually offers articles of interest to those studying animals in antiquity. It contains information useful for any scholar studying serpents in antiquity as they appear in the natural history authors, in literary works, in travel and geographical works, on vases, as shield types, coins, gems and elsewhere. But the volume also suffers from the problems rife in this area of study of antiquity, namely the overly facile identification of ancient animals. Throughout the individual studies, authors offer specific attributions with little basis for doing so. Bodson's article on the dipsas should be taken as a model for the sort of cautious approach that is required. To give a sense of the problem, consider the Horned viper (Ammodytes vipera) which has, at various times and by various scholars, been identified as the asp, cerastes, echidna, and seps.1

The field of animal studies has been making steady headway into the consciousness of classicists over the past few decades. One goal of these studies has been to bring reasonable scientific identifications to bear on the descriptions of animals made by ancient authors. Such identifications are complicated by a host of problems. Most ancient authors had no pretension to using scientifically accurate nomenclature when using most animal names. While the "camel-leopard" is clearly a giraffe, terms such as "spider," "lizard," "butterfly," or "panther" were used, as is still the case today, to cover a wide variety of animals. Authors such as Aristotle or Philoumenos often tried to indicate particular species and describe them, but they too were limited by the times in which they lived, geographical isolation, and the lack of a modern, scientific method. To this day, the taxonomy of many animals is disputed, often only resolved through DNA studies. Ancient artists, of course, were not academic illustrators, and their depictions are subject to countless limitations as well, not the least of which was that they often had not seen the animals they depict.

Such a host of limitations has encouraged the overly facile identifications of ancient animals with modern binomial nomenclature. Identifications which have appeared in our major lexicons or reference works are outdated and based on tenuous information. The lists presented throughout Pauly-Wissowa are especially flawed. Yet once in such reference works, they are continuously repeated. What is needed, throughout the field, are scholars with the credentials of D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, who, equally qualified as a scientist and classicist, authored numerous works on science, translated and annotated Aristotle and left us his revered studies on birds and fish.2 Failing such luminaries, recent books on insects have turned to collaborations between classicists and zoological specialists either as co-authors3 or as consultants.4 Despite the excellent work contained in the current volume, what is still needed is a work on ancient serpents written by a classicist and a group of herpetologists working in close collaboration, and which relies on actual descriptions of anatomy and behavior from antiquity to make its identifications.

Table of Contents

Avant-propos, 7-14
1. Histoire des connaissances herpétologiques
Sébastien Barbara, " Armées en marche et découvertes herpétologiques dans l'Antiquité," (14-50)
Arnaud Zucker, "Registres et savoirs invoqués dans le De venenatis animalibus de Philoumenos," (51-72)
Liliane Bodson, "Introduction au système de nomination des serpents en grec ancien : l'ophionyme dipsas et ses synonymes," (73-153)
2. Le régime des ophidiens: Questions de physiologie
Pascal Luccioni, " L'herbe au serpent," (157-76)
Jean Trinquier, " Serpents buveurs d'eau, serpents œnophiles et serpents sanguinaires : les serpents et leurs boissons dans les sources antiques," (177-221);
3. Les ophidiens et la santé
Sydney H. Aufrère, "Symptomatologie des morsures d'ophidiens d'après le papyrus Brooklyn nos 47.218.48 et 85 : aspects épistémologiques d'un texte égyptien ancien recopié au IVe siècle avant notre ère," (223-61)
Patricia Gaillard-Seux, " Le serpent, source de santé : le corps des serpents dans la thérapeutique gréco-romaine," (263-89);
Véronique Dasen and Árpád M. Nagy, " Le serpent léontocéphale Chnoubis et la magie de l'époque romaine imperial," (291-314)
4. Observations naturalistes et constructions culturelles
Michelle Mazoyer, "Histoire de serpents dans le monde hittite," (315-21)
Laurent Gourmelen, "Le serpent barbu : réalités, croyances et représentations. L'exemple de Zeus Meilichios à Athènes," (323-43)
Sylvain Perrot, "Le sifflement du serpent : du son inarticulé à la mise en musique," (345-61)


1.   See the full study on the seps by Liliane Bodson, L'interprétation des noms grecs et latins d'animaux illustrée par le cas du zoonyme sēps-seps. Bruxelles: Académie royale de Belgique, Classe des Lettres. Bodson concludes that the word seps was used in antiquity for a viper, one or more lizards, a millipede, and a caterpillar.
2.   A Glossary of Greek Birds (Oxford: 1936) and A Glossary of Greek Fishes (Oxford: 1947).
3.   Malcolm Davies and Jeyaraney Kathirithamby, Greek Insects (Oxford: 1986).
4.   Ian Beavis, Insects and Other Invertebrates in Classical Antiquity (Exeter: 1988). ​

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010