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  • The Napalm Snake Mystery November 18, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

    In ancient and medieval and, indeed, modern times geographers frequently got things embarrassingly wrong for those there-be-dragons areas outside the circuit of their little worlds. So the early Greeks believed that the Gobi desert was full of flightless griffins. The Byzantines were convinced that the air in Scotland was poisonous. And the British in the sixteenth through nineteenth century were prepared to fund missions into the American interior to look for Welsh-speaking Indian tribes…

    Many of these misunderstandings can be traced back to a failure of communication – certainly the three above are explicable in terms of present knowledge. But every so often a report comes to us from a geographer of the past that defies all rational explanation. Take Ctesias of Cnidus’s ravings about the Napalm Snake of India.

    First a little background on Ctesias himself. A far travelled Greek, Ctesias was a doctor who gained employment in the late fifth century BC at the Persian royal court, under Artaxerxes II. Ctesias had travelled many hundreds of miles from his home in Asia Minor to reach distant Persopolis and gainful employment in what is today Iran.

    He did not – to the best of our knowledge – travel any further, but he was curious about the east writing a work Indica about – you’ve guessed it – India. This book – as is typical of the most interesting books of antiquity – does not survive in its entirety. However, there is an inadequate summary by one Photius and this includes the following curious passage (46).

    (46) In the river Indus a worm is found resembling those which are usually found on fig-trees. Its average length is seven cubits, though some are longer, others shorter. It is so thick that a ten-year-old child could hardly put his arms round it. It has two teeth, one in the upper and one in the lower jaw. Everything it seizes with these teeth it devours. By day it remains in the mud of the river, but at night it comes out, seizes whatever it comes across, whether ox or camel, drags it into the river, and devours it all except the intestines. It is caught with a large hook baited with a lamb or kid attached by iron chains. After it has been caught, it is hung up for thirty days with vessels placed underneath, into which as much oil from the body drips as would fill ten Attic kotylae [i.e. c. 250 cubic cm x 10]. At the end of the thirty days, the worm is thrown away, the vessels of oil are sealed and taken as a present to the king of India, who alone is allowed to use the oil. This oil sets everything alight – wood or animals – over which it is poured, and the flame can only be extinguished by throwing a quantity of thick mud on it.

    It is possible that Aelian (5, 3) writing in the second century AD was more faithful to the original. Certainly there are far more details in Aelian.

    The river Indusis devoid of savage creatures. The only thing that is born in it is a worm, so they say, in appearance like those that are engendered in, and feed upon, timber. But these creatures attain to a length of as much as seven cubits, though one might find specimens both larger and smaller. Their bulk is such that a ten-year old boy could hardly encircle it with his arms. A single tooth is attached to the upper jaw, another to the lower, and both are square and about eighteen inches long; and such is the strength of their teeth that they can crush with the greatest ease anything that they get between them, be it stone, be it animal, tame or wild. During the daytime they live at the bottom of the river, wallowing in mud and slime; for that reason they are not to be seen. But at night they emerge on to the land, and whatever they encounter, whether horse or ox or ass, they crush and then drag down to their haunts and eat it in the river, devouring every member of the animal excepting its paunch. If however they are assailed by hunger during the day as well, and should a camel or an ox be drinking on the bank, they slide furtively up and seizing firmly upon its lips, haul it along with the utmost force and drag it by sheer strength into the water, where they feast upon it. Each one is covered with a hide two fingers thick. The following means have been devised for hunting and capturing them. Men let down a stout, strong hook attached to an iron chain, and to this they fasten a rope of white flax weighing a talent, and they wrap wool round both chain and rope to prevent the worm biting through them. On the hook they fix a lamb or a kid, and then let them sink in the river. As many as thirty men hold on to the rope and each of them has a javelin ready to hurl and a sword at his side. Wooden clubs are placed handy, should they need to deal blows, and these are of cornel-wood and very hard. Then when the worm is secured on the hook and has swallowed the bait, the men haul, and having captured it and killed it, hang it up in the sun for thirty days. From the body there drips a thick oil into earthenware vessels; and each worm yields up to ten kotylai. This oil they seal and bring to the Indian King; no one else is permitted to have so much as a drop. The rest of the carcass is of no use. Now the oil has this power: should you wish to burn a pile of wood and to scatter the embers, pour on a kolyteand you will set it alight without previously applying a spark. And if you want to burn a man or an animal, pour some oil over him and at once he is set on fire. With this, they say, the Indian King even takes cities that have risen against him. He does not wait for battering-rams or penthouses or any other siege-engines, for he burns them down and captures them. He fills earthen vessels, each holding one kotyle, with oil, seals them, and slings them from above against the gates. When the vessels touch the embrasures they are dashed into fragments; the oil oozes down; fire pours over the doors, and nothing can quench it. And it burns weapons and fighting men, so tremendous is its force. It is however allayed and put out if piles of rubbish are poured over it. Such is the account given by Ctesias of Cnidos.

    Indus fluuius bestiarum ferarum expers est: solum in eo nasci uermem aiunt, speciemque eorum, qui ex ligno gignuntur et aluntur, gerer: ad septem cubitorum longitudinem et eo amplius procedere; eius crassitudinem decem annos natus puer utroque brachio uix complecti queat. Ei in superiori oris sede unus dens inest, in inferiori alter, ambo quadranguli, cubiti fere longitudinem habent; tam ualidi, ut lapum, uel quodcunque ail iis corripuerit, siue cicur siue ferum, facillime conterat. Interdiu ima in sede fluminis uersatur, coeno gaudens et latitans; noctu uero ad terram procedit, et in quodcunque inciderit, uel equum, uel bouem, uel asinum, conficit, is in suas sedes trahit, et in flumen abstrusus membraia, excepto uentre, exedit. De die etiam si fame premitur, siue camelus siue bos in ripa bibit, clam subrepens uiolentissimo impetu summa labra mordicus comprehendit, et robusto tractu in aquam abreptum edit. Eius pellis duorum digitorum crassitudine est. Eiusmodi autem machinatione capitur: Hamum robustum ad ferream catenam alligant, adiuncto etiam fune ex albo latoque lino; lanis autem et hamum et funem inuoluunt, ne a uerme praemordeatur; tum agnum aut hoedum ad illecebram hamo affigunt, deinde in fluuium demittunt. Triginta uiri, singuli cum iaculo amentato, et ense accincti, ad funem adstant; adsunt et e corno sudes bene robustae, si percutere sit necesse; deinde cum illecebras deuorauit, hamo captum trahunt, et abstractum interficiunt, et triginta dies appensum ad solem sinunt, is ex eo in fictilia uasa crassum oleum stillat. Singuli uermes quinque olei sextarios reddunt, quod quidem ipsum regi Indorum apportant uasis obsignatis; neque enim alii cuiquam uel guttam illius possidere licet. Corpus reliquum inutile. Huius ea est uis olei, ut sine ullo igne eius infusa hemina quemcunque lignorum aceruum comburat; ac si uel hominem uelis uel aliud animal exurere, primum ut hoc infuderis, funditus statim deflagrauerit. Eodem ipso Indorum regem aiunt capere hostium urbeis, neque arietes, testudines, aliaque bellica tormenta ad eas capiendas opus esse; nam cum fictilia uasa unius heminae capacia eo impleta, et obstructa, in portas iaculatur, uasa quidem ad portas allisa rumpuntur; at oleum delapsum ignem circumfundit, ut restingui non possit, et flamma insaturabilis comburit homines pugnantes pariter cum armis. Restinguitur autem multa inutili congerie, qualis per terram et uicos conuerritur, in eum iniecta. Haec Ctesias Cnidius narrat.

    Now Ctesias, it is commonly said, collected wonders like magpies collect shiny things. He simply could not resist including tall tales he had heard in the Persian court. And this means that we learn of dog-headed men in the Indian mountains, bird-droppings more deadly than cyanide and a tribe characterised by white hair.

    As a result modern scholars have largely rejected his evidence – despite Ctesias’ insistence that his information was based on his own testimony or reliable witnesses.

    There may be though some injustice in this. Ctesias suffered at the hands of Photius who chose only the most ‘curious’ stories for his summary: other writers, like Aelian, likewise chose extraordinary tales over pedestrian ones. The original – if only it had survived – would have perhaps been more sober than what has come down to us.

    And in and among the nonsense there is material rooted in fact. For example, Ctesias describes a bird named a ‘parrot’ as having a human tongue – a nonsense obviously, but likely a report of parrots ‘talking’.

    So could the snake tale quoted above contain any truth?

    Well, working backwards the oil, at least in Aelian, sounds like naptha for which there is some evidence in early India.

    Would any snake oil be flammable at this level? Beachcombing doubts it.

    As to the animal itself, can we glimpse a giant Indian python? There is one Indian python on record from Pakistan that weighed in at 52 kilos and was four and a half metres long (Minton 1966). This was a record-breaker but gives us an idea of the possible terrifying scale of these creatures in the wild.

    Yet if this was a python how was the connection between snake oil and naptha made?

    Could it be that both were prerogatives of the king?

    Or was there an attempt to keep from Ctesias’ Persian ‘witnesses’ the true origin of naptha that would have been a valuable weapon against the armies of Persia? There are equivalent Greek attempts to retain the secret of Greek fire as a royal monopoly.

    Beachcombing wants to know more but doesn’t – to be honest – know where to start: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    Dec 1, 2010: Beachcombing was over the moon to get an email from the amazing Ashok Captain, wildlife photographer extraordinaire employing his knowledge of Indian snakes. ‘Hi Dr Beach, Greetings from India… Nothing, I know matches exactly, but read on . . . . 1. The burning oil thing could certainly be a ref to naptha. I’ve heard folks in Arunachal talk about something long ago that burned so fiercely that it would burn for ages and even underwater. 2. Several of the ‘Indian’ critters are hung over fire (yuk) to extract oil – monitor lizards (Varanus), spiny-tailed lizards (Uromastix old name) and bats (dunno Genus). 3. The snake-like critters that lie deep in river mud might be fresh-water eels. Some grow quite large.’ Thanks to Ashok!

    4 Dec 2010: J.Thirks kindly sent in this link to a creature that reminded her of the underwater antics of the Napalm Snake. Enjoy the photo particularly.