“Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite and furthermore always carry a small snake” – W.C. Fields
Darius the Great (550-468 B.C.) was the third king of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, ruling at the peak of its territorial expansion which encompassed West Asia, the Caucasus, parts of the Balkans, the Black Sea coastal regions, parts of the North Caucasus, Central Asia as far as the Indus Valley, and north Africa including Egypt, eastern Libya and coastal Sudan. He never managed to fully subjugate Greece, culminating in his defeat at the Battle of Marathon, but he nonetheless reorganized much of the Middle East and Asia. Basically, he was a pretty impressive dude attested to in everything from classical Greek histories to the Old Testament, but about a century prior to his arrival on the scene, the area known as Scythia (a region extending from Eastern Europe to Central Asia north of the Caspian Sea) was a rough and tumble province hemmed in to the east by the Sauromatae, Budini, and Geloni tribes, and to the west and north by the Agathyrsi, Androphagi, Melanchlaeni, and the Neuri. This was a pretty uncomfortable position to be in, most especially because rumor had it the Neuri were werewolves.
Now, it might seem like having a bunch of werewolves skulking about your northern borders would be cause for concern. Humans pride ourselves on being apex predators. Ever since we evolved opposable thumbs and invented useful concepts like “stand-off distance”, we’ve been a whole lot less scared of the natural world. Lions and tigers and bears aren’t quite as fearsome when you can stay out of claw’s reach and pump them full of projectiles. But just to remind ourselves of our humble primate origins, running terrified of our shadows on the veldt, we have historically endowed a number of supernatural species with strange powers, perhaps to signal to ourselves that the next apex predator is always just around the corner. Nevertheless, things with sharp teeth have generally found that it is prudent to avoid us. But what about those creatures of folklore that we recognize as super-predators? Well, we tell cautionary tales about them, warn the kids not to go off into the woods alone, and occasionally send in some monster hunters if they get unruly. From our lofty position in the Great Chain of Being, we recognize the need to be aware that something may eventually out-evolve us, but we feel relatively secure. Frankly, I find this foolhardy and shortsighted, particularly when I read accounts of monsters that other monsters were afraid of. No matter how tough you are, there’s always something bigger and meaner.
Which brings us to the Neurian werewolves. Greek father of history Herodotus, who spent a lot of time figuring out the geographical locations of the various peoples the Greeks looked down upon identified the area north of Scythia, west of the Southern Bug River (more or less modern northern Ukraine and southern Belarus) as the domain of the wolfen Nueri. Now, the Neuri were not in a permanent state of quasi-wolfishness, as observed by Roman Geographer Pomponius Mela around 43 A.D.
There is a preordained time for each of the Neuri at which, if they so desire, they metamorphose into wolves and back into who they were (Pomponius Mela, The Chorography, Book 2, Ch.11).
This is awfully convenient should you wish to be a civilized werewolf. It gives you time to get the crops harvested, slaughter the livestock, build monumental architecture, and lead the life of a responsible citizen, in between bouts of lycanthropy. It no doubt also gives the neighbors pause when they are considering a little sacking and pillaging. Yet, as fearsome as the Neuri may have been in their periodic regression to lupine form just for giggles, the Neuri are said to have been driven from their traditional homeland by a serpent invasion.
The Neuri observe the Scythian customs. In the age preceding this invasion of Darius, they were compelled to change their habitations, from the multitude of serpents which infested them: besides what their own soil produced, these came in far greater numbers from the deserts above them; till they were at length compelled to take refuge with the Budini; these people have the character of being magicians. It is asserted by the Scythians, as well as by those Greeks who dwell in Scythia, that once in every year they are all of them changed into wolves; and that after remaining so for the space of a few days, they resume their former shape (Herodutus, Histories, Book 4, Ch. CV).
I don’t know about you, but if I was a werewolf, it would take a little more than your garden variety snake to put the fear of God into me. Yet, the Neuri were driven from their traditional homeland by an incursion of serpents. Those must have been some bad-ass snakes. Interestingly, if you poke around in contemporary Middle Eastern mythology, it seems that the Neuri were not the only one’s contending with serpents. In the ancient Middle East, “serpent” was the general appellation for anything with scales, thus one wonders what monstrosities not only worried humans, but similarly concerned werewolves.
Were the serpents whose defeat was observed by Croesus at Sardis, of the same species as the serpents which, the generation before Darius, drove the Scythian Neuri from their country? Would they be also the Dragons mentioned by Jeremiah, chap, li., v. 37? (Lassale, p295)
Croesus (595-546 B.C.) was King of Lydia (modern day eastern Turkey), and at about the same time, faced a puzzling serpent invasion in his capital city of Sardis.
While Croesus was forming these plans the whole suburbs were filled with serpents, and when they appeared, the horses, forsaking their pastures, came and devoured them. When Croesus beheld this, he considered it to be, as it really was, a prodigy (Herodotus, Histories, Book 1, Ch.78).
Clearly, something was going on in the 6th Century B.C. in the Near East involving snakes or snake-like critters of a more monstrous inclination, so much so that even werewolves were abandoning their traditional stomping grounds and seeking refuge with their neighbors. Now, I’m not a big fan of snakes, but I’m hardly about to emigrate on account of them. Frankly, I’m probably more afraid of werewolves than snakes. Sadly, we never get a good description of the snakes which infested the Neurian homeland, so we have to use our imaginations and try to envisage what kind of snake was so horrific that an entire werewolf culture picked up stakes and moved in with the neighbors. It takes a strong fellow to abide a snake, perhaps because we recognize they are distantly related to creatures that once dominated the earth, and would still if they hadn’t had the bad luck to get pummeled by an errant asteroid. And a legless carnivore seems like a bit of a joke, until it bites you or tries to swallow you whole. Maybe our aversion is more existential, like Rudyard Kipling, who said, “I hate and fear snakes, because if you look into the eyes of any snake you will see that it knows all and more of the mystery of man’s fall, and that it feels all the contempt that the Devil felt when Adam was evicted from Eden. Besides which its bite is generally fatal, and it twists up trouser legs”.
Herodotus. Herodotus. London ed. New York: P.P. Berresford, 1828.
Herodotus. Herodotus. A new and literal version from the text of Baehn, with a geographical and general index by Henry Cary. London: George Bell & Sons, 1879.
Lassalle, Charles. Origin of the Western Nations & Languages: Showing the Construction And Aim of Punic, Recovery of the Universal Language, Reconstruction of Phoenician Geography, Asiatic Source of the Dialects of Britain, Principal Emigrations From Asia, And Description of Scythian Society ; With an Appendix, Upon the Connection of Assyrian With the Languages of Western Europe, And Gaelic With the Languages of Scythia. London: J. Heywood, 1883.
Mela, Pomponius. Pomponius Mela’s Description of the World. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.
I can’t document this, but it seems that in ancient times any animal that slithered like a snake would be called a serpent, even though they had four legs (usually small). The serpent of Genesis could have had legs, in fact.
Excellent as always! The Neuri are one of my favorites, but I had forgotten about the snakes…
Which is interesting, because–though it is not a synchronic reckoning which allows this–it might be a sort of “reverse” St. Patrick. According to some accounts, some of the Irish who resisted St. Patrick were turned into werewolves by him, and a century or so later, we start to get the story of Patrick driving the (non-existent!) snakes out of Ireland.
I don’t know if there is any useful conclusion that can be drawn from this, other than to say that it is interesting that these various beasts do appear together in Patrick’s varied Vitae, and he had a hand in creating the werewolves himself! 😉
I wonder what people the serpentine beasts transformed from? I think I met one on the subway…. Great, engrossing read!
Werewolves, snakes, myth AND history. This be my kind of post. Thanks for a great read!
Wow! Personally I have a great fear for snakes. Looking at this picture really scares me but it is very cool.
Fear of snakes seems like one of the more reasonable phobias to me.