by Thanassis Vembos
Greek folklore is rich in stories about monstrous “haunted” snakes which roam the countryside. Sometimes these creatures have horns or behave bizarrely. Cases were reported even during the 20th century, not as old wives’ tales but as accounts with many witnesses.
Greek folklorist Nikolaos Politis in his monumental work Traditions (Athens, 1904, Vol. I, p. 216), relates the following strange incident.
"In 1835, the Fonias Lake in Helis [NW Peloponnese] had superfluous water which was absorbed into sinkholes and emerged at the headwaters of Roufias [a source of Ladon River]. Huge snakes came out with the waters. They had white neck and a head like that of an ox. The snakes went straight out for the sea. It is reported that a lot of people chased them but could not catch any”.
Politis says that the incident was reported in Sudostlicher Bildersaal by Puckler-Muskau (Stuttgart, 1841). He also mentions that Strabo refers to monstrous fish that were seen when Feneos Lake (North Peloponnese) was overflowing. These fish also ended in Ladon River.
I must remark here that Ovidius refers to a snake with head of an ox, reciting an old legend about the Clash of the Titans. In Greek Mythology, Ladon was a 100-head dragon guarding the Apples of Hesperides.
Fortean fellow investigator Theo Paijmans (visit his blog here) found the original account in Puckler-Muskau's 'Sudostlicher Bildersaal', volume 3, 1841. Theo comments that this is “an interesting book, composed of letters divided into chapters by German traveller Puckler-Muskau, describing his many visits to crumbling temples, ancient churches, offering scenic descriptions and coleur locale, as well as comments on the social state of affairs”. The account regarding the monster snaked is found on pages 397 and 398 as part of a longer letter dated 'Pyrgos, 17 July' (1836). Theo’s translation was posted in MagoniaX e-mailing list (February 2012) and is as follows:
(page 397) "I made an interesting acquaintance in another sphere with a doctor medicinae Agamemnon, a warm honourer of antiquity and a very educated man, who would be of extreme benefit to all who want to engage in the excavations in Olympia. He also had a very beautiful wife... This Agamemnon now told me of a wonderful affair, the truth of which he finds himself fully convinced. Aleady in ancient times the sea Phonia in Achaia was in the call of strange attributes and even now it is claimed that it exists for thirteen years and then disappears for thirteen years. This may be a fable, but that much is true, that it often dries up completely for a number of years, and then suddenly with dangerous floodings..."
(page 398) "... and without any external cause from unknown caves bursts forth, and then for a long time fills its green-muddy bottom completely. From this sea, Strabo says, monstruous fishes that one had never seen before showed themselves often during floodings, and those in Ladon, that springs forth from this sea, to Alpheaus, and through it are driven towards the sea. After a very prolonged time of rest, last year such an outbreak of seawater occurred, and the seamen as well as several peasants - who most certainly never heard of Strabo's account - came walking into town to report that they had seen colossal snakes with a head like a steer and a blinding white neck in Ladon, swimming towards the lake.They hunted one of these, weren't able to capture it however. The doctor interrogated them carefully, but found them unanimous in their testimonies. If the occurrence may still be an untruth, one has to at least find the assembly strange."
Peloponnese is quite rich in such stories. Sometimes there are material supportive “evidence” for claims about haunted snakes sightings. For example, the bones of a haunted snake are still kept at the Monastery of Saint Nicholas of Sintza, at the town of Leonidio (Arcadia, Peloponnese). Today only the tip of its tail survives but the monks say that in older times they used its skull as grain scoop, since it could hold ’12 kg of wheat’. According to the legend, the creature was appearing regularly until it was killed in 1917 by three Spartans. (Source: Menelaos Tsiklidis, I Agnosti Peloponnisos (The Unknown Peloponnese), Vol II, pp 287-288, Athens, 2001)
Haunted snakes appear all around Greece. Anthonis Bousboukis, professor emeritus of linguistics at Thessaloniki University, has unearthed some interesting cases. For example, one morning in 1921 at the village of Pialia (Trikala, central Greece), 14 year old Vasilis Khassotis was at the local graveyard when he saw a huge snake, approximately 4 m long with a head as large as than of a lamb, multicolored and with huge eyes. The snake was moving in a very extraordinary way: half-standing and half crawling (Bousboukis, True Stories of Paranormal Phenomena from Pindos, 1983, p. 87).
A story about an encounter with a giant snake was published in an Athens newspaper (Kairoi, May, 13, 1891).
"Last week at Rapsani village, Thessaly [Central Greece], police officer V. Theoharis and forest keeper N. Keramidas they were at the nearby forest when they heard a high pitched hissing and tree branches breaking loudly. They thought that a deer or another game was approaching and they prepared to shoot. But instead of the expected game, 150 steps away, the saw a giant snake 3 meters long with a head like that of an ox, having two small horns and with an estimated weight of 5,000 ocades (aprox 6 tons). Understandably they panicked, shot it but with no avail and they run away. After the incident was reported at Rapsani, the locals were panicked and everyone who had vineyards at the place of the sighting were afraid to go there".
Again, Politis refers this story in his Traditions, (Vol I, p.217) writing that it was reported also by Efimeris newspaper of the same date.
During the 20th century the pattern of haunted snake sighting was adapted to the zeitgeist. According to another report unearthed by Antonis Bousboukis, during the summer of 1969, at Kalohori (Thessaly, central Greece) two farmers saw a greyish-red-green snake 10-12 m long, thick as the thigh of a man, with two heads like that of a goat and twisted horns. Supposedly, many other farmers saw the creature moving in the cotton and turnip fields of the area. It is interesting to see what some locals’ interpretation was: “a goblin that came from another world or the Moon”. Of course the first lunar landing in July 1969 had played its part!
There are also interesting traditions and accounts regarding lake monsters in Greece. Sometimes haunted snakes and lake monsters stories are interweaved. An old report comes from Athens newspaper Evnomia, Sep 8, 1862.
"Α BIZARRE ZOOLOGICAL PHENOMENON was observed in central Peloponnese, according to the local newspapers. At the marshy field of Kafyes, the so-called Kandila Lake, people say that a monstrous snake was seen. Some call it a ‘horse of the river’; others say it had horns and was roaring tremendously; they say that the creature leaves a rut in its trail and hunting dogs run away terrified. Supposedly the creature came out from the deep chasms of the sinkholes. We do not know yet if it is a successor of the legendary Hydra".
Politis refers this case in Traditions (Vol II, p.955) regarding his examination of Greek traditions of “Itavros” –a mythical beast residing underground and emitting roars and booming noises that terrify the locals, especially in marshy areas, rivers or lakes. Politis also reports that, at 1793, a “hydra” appeared at the mouth of Acheloos river (Western Greece, Ionian Sea ). Reportedly, the “hydra” devoured many shepherds and scared the herds. Politis makes a tiny reference in Traditions (Vol II. p 957) only citing that the case comes from a French expedition in the area (Expedition Scientifique en Moree).
French traveler Mazieres reported that at Carla Lake (Thessaly, central Greece), sometimes “terrible roars” are heard which come from a beast in the depths of the lake. He refers that when some daring locals were approaching the source of the noise the roars were automatically heard from the other side of the lake. (Traditions, Vol I, p. 206 and Vol II, p. 961). The original source is Memoire sur le Pelion et l’ Ossa, Paris, 1853, p. 53.
Finally a report about a Greek lake monster comes from a story published in Salpigga newspaper (Larisa town, Thessaly) which was also published in Efimeris and Athinaiki newspapers (Athens) on March 31, 1870. At this month at the Nezeros Lake , near Rapsani village (Thessaly) a monster appeared described by the witnesses like a “large ox” emitting terrifying screams “like a human”. The locals were so terrified that they stayed away from the lake for long after. The screams were heard by some minor officers from a military company stationed nearby (the Greek border was not away then). According to some old peoples’ stories, the “beast” had appeared at the lake also around 1820 and after a few days, an epidemic claimed a lot of lives in the nearby villages (Traditions, Vol I, p. 205 and Vol II, p. 954).