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What is an Amphisbaena?

Niki Acker
By
Updated May 16, 2024
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An amphisbaena is a mythological two headed-snake. While real two-headed snakes exists, they have two heads on the same side, while the amphisbaena has a head on each end. The word amphisbaena is derived from the Greek word for "to go both ways."

The amphisbaena first appeared in Greek mythology, which held that it was born from the blood that dripped from Medusa's severed head. It is said to be poisonous and to feed on ants and corpses. Later, the amphisbaena became a part of cultural lore throughout Europe.

In the Middle Ages, depictions of the amphisbaena, like those of many mythological beasts, were varied. Sometimes, it was a winged serpent, and in other depictions, it was hardly a serpent at all. The medieval amphisbaena could have legs, horns, ears, and a smaller "rear head" growing in place of a tail.

Like a real two-headed snake, the amphisbaena has separate brains in each of its heads. In some tellings, it can separate into two creatures, while in nearly all descriptions, it can travel in either direction. The snake-like amphisbaena can also take one head in the mouth of the other and roll in a hoop, like the mythological hoop snake of North America.

Though the amphisbaena is poisonous, it had some uses in medieval folk magic and medicine. Wearing a live amphisbaena around the neck was said to promote safe pregnancy, perhaps suggestive of just how dangerous pregnancy was in those days. The skin of an amphisbaena was said to help with arthritis or a cold. Killing an amphisbaena or eating its flesh were powerful forms of magic, allowing the practitioner to become pure of heart or to attract a lover.

A real animal that takes its name from the amphisbaena, the amphisbaenia, is a "worm lizard" native to South America and parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Mediterranean Europe. Novelist T. H. White suggested that this creature may have inspired the mythical amphisbaena. The amphisbaenia is similar in color and appearance to a worm, but is actually a relative of lizards and snakes. Like its mythical cousin, the amphisbaenia can slither equally well in either direction, and its head and tail are difficult to distinguish at a glance.

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Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a WiseGeek editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By donasmrs — On Aug 12, 2014

@turquoise-- I'm definitely not an expert on this topic but I think that amphibaena was probably a giant worm lizard. I think that giant worm lizards look a lot like what the Greeks drew. They probably used their imagination for the added features. Since the thickness of the worm lizard's body is the same everywhere, the tail does resemble a second head. A close observation makes it apparent that it's not, but from a distance, it looks that way. This genus also has a fairly large and thick head as well.

By turquoise — On Aug 11, 2014

@bear78-- Like the article said, different cultures depicted amphisbaena differently, so there are many different types of depictions out there. As you said, some resemble dragons, whereas others look like regular snakes, with a second head where the tail is. In others, the creature has wings and yet in others, the head resembles the head of an eagle or a wolf.

Considering the fact that there actually is a two headed snake in nature and a genus carrying the same name, I wonder if the mythological amphisbaena really existed?

By bear78 — On Aug 11, 2014

For history class, I read a little bit about amphisbaena, the mythological creature. I saw various pictures of it and in some depictions, it looks a lot like a dragon in some depictions, especially the head. When I first imagined a two headed snake, I had thought of a creature that lays on the ground. But in some of these pictures, the amphisbaena is standing upright on two feet. It's very interesting but not at all what I had expected to see.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a WiseGeek editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of...
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