Was a Žaltys a real snake?

Was a Žaltys a real snake?

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The Wikipedia article on Žaltys says (in its entirety):

A žaltys is a household spirit in the Lithuanian mythology. As sacred animal of the sun goddess Saulė, it is a guardian of the home and a symbol of fertility. People used to keep it as a pet by the stove or other special area of the house, believing that it would bring good harvest and wealth. Killing žaltys was said to bring great misfortunes upon the household. If žaltys was found in the field, people gave it milk attempting to befriend the creature and make it a sacred household pet.

The Britianica article says:

žaltys, in ancient Baltic traditions, a harmless green snake highly respected as a symbol of fertility and wealth. To ensure the prosperity of family and field, a žaltys was kept in a special corner of the house, and the entire household gathered at specified times to recite prayers to it.

On special occasions the snake was asked to the table to share the family meal from their plates; should he refuse, misfortune was imminent. To encounter a snake accidentally was also considered auspicious and portended a marriage or a birth. Paralysis or great misfortune awaited anyone who dared kill a žaltys, the “sentinel of the gods” and a favourite of Saule, the goddess of the sun.

This suggests that it was an actual snake that people would find and keep as a pet and feed milk to. Is there any record of pet snakes being kept in homes for this purpose, or was it likely to have been a snake effigy, carving, etc?

Snakes generally don't drink milk and I assume most snakes wouldn't sit quietly in a corner or share a meal at a table.

If it was an actual snake, was it a particular type/color of snake, or would any grass snake do?

Because this is linked to mythology, most of the references to them seem to be heavily invested in woo. However, it does seem that in this case, the snakes were real grass snakes (as the Wikipedia article notes, žaltys is literally 'grass snake' in Lithuanian) kept in the believer's homes.

Žaltys (pronounced zhal-TEES), a kind of grass snake, were kept in homes, usually near hearth fires, and were considered particularly sacred to the sun goddess. Saule was said to cry amber tears at the site of a dead žaltys. It was also believed that if a snake was given a fatal blow, it would not die until the sun had set. In 1604 a Jesuit missionary descrived the practice of keeping these house snakes, claiming the Balts had gone mad: "The people have reached such a stage of madness that they believe that deity exists in reptiles. Therefore they carefully safeguard them, lest someone injure the reptiles kept inside their homes. Superstitiously they believe that harm would come to them, should anyone show disrespect to these reptiles."

Drawing Down the Sun: Rekindle the Magick of the Solar Goddesses, Stephanie Woodfield

Prehistoric Snakes: The Story of Snake Evolution

Considering how diverse they are today--nearly 500 genera comprising almost 3,000 named species--we still know surprisingly little about the ultimate origin of snakes. Clearly, these cold-blooded, slithering, legless creatures evolved from four-legged reptilian ancestors, either small, burrowing, landbound lizards (the prevailing theory) or, just possibly, the family of marine reptiles called mosasaurs that appeared in the earth's seas around 100 million years ago.

15-Foot Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake

Claim: Photographs show a 15-foot diamondback rattlesnake captured in Florida.


Example: [Collected via e-mail, December 2009]

What a monster! I made a call to the St. John’s County Sheriff’s office and the lady who answered the phone said it is real and happened about two months ago which would put it in September or October, 2009. I have heard of Eastern Diamond Backs being killed that were in excess of long which is huge but this is almost twice that size. Makes you want to not go outside without a powerful flashlight at night.

Variations: Variant versions place the capture of the snake shown above in Canton, Texas, or “just south of Cape Town.”

Origins: The photographs displayed above do show an eastern diamondback rattlesnake which was captured in the Florida, area in September 2009. However, as is common with Internet-circulated pictures of snakes, the size of the serpent has been greatly exaggerated in the accompanying text.

Eastern diamondback rattlers average about in length, and the very largest specimens of the species might approach so a eastern diamondback would be a truly extraordinary (and unbelievable) occurrence. In fact, the apparent size of this rattler has been exaggerated in the photographs due to forced perspective (i.e., the snake is much closer to the camera lens than other objects in the frame), and the diamondback measured only than half the length claimed above:

It was an eastern diamondback rattlesnake that measured in length. According to the University of Florida, the record size for that type of snake is so this was definitely a large snake.

Homeowner Howard McGaffney saw the snake on the perimeter of his neighborhood, Tuscany Village, near State and

Someone called the sheriff’s office and A1 Trapper Man, a local wildlife trapper, to deal with it.

Snakes Go Months Without Food. And Grow!

Imagine if you could stop eating for months, burn fat, grow taller, and be just fine! Marshall McCue at the University of Arkansas withheld food from 62 snakes &mdash ratsnakes, western diamondback rattlesnakes and ball pythons &mdash for about six months, typical for snakes in the wild, McCue and colleagues said. The snakes reduced their metabolic rates to survive, some by up to 72 percent. Amazingly, they also got longer, burning up their fat stores. "These animals take energy reduction to a whole new level," McCue said. [FULL STORY]

The snake as the symbol of medicine, toxicology and toxinology

We investigated the meaning and the roots of the snake's usage as a symbol of medicine, the medical profession, toxicology and toxinology by examining mythological, archeological data and a variety of texts from the ancient Greek world. The snake figure was associated with Asclepios, the ancient Greek God of medicine, and possessed benevolent properties. It was believed to be able to cure a patient or a wounded person just by touch. The snake is also connected with pharmacology and antisepsis, as snakes possess an antivenom against their own poison. The snake is related to sciences associated with poison and death, such as toxicology and toxinology, and it also implies a metaphysical idea. It is connected with the underworld, not only because it crawls on the ground, but because it can bring death, connecting the upper with the underground world. The ability of the snake to shed its skin has been associated with the circle of life, and the renaissance spirit also, ever since early Hellenic antiquity. Consequently, as a symbol of the modern medical profession, toxicology and toxinology, the snake twisted around a stick or the snake beside a pharmapeutic cup, which also implies the use of medicines or even poison, has its roots in the ancient Mediterranean area as proven by the archeological data combined with literary references. Its benevolent as well as its poisonous properties could be paralleled by the similar properties of medicines.

A History Of 'Snake Oil Salesmen'

"Snake Oil Salesman." The phrase conjures up images of seedy profiteers trying to exploit an unsuspecting public by selling it fake cures. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary defines snake oil as "a quack remedy or panacea." What the OED does not note, however, is that the history of snake oil is linked to an often forgotten chapter of Asian-American history.

Made from the oil of the Chinese water snake, which is rich in the omega-3 acids that help reduce inflammation, snake oil in its original form was effective, especially when used to treat arthritis and bursitis. Jagrap/Flickr hide caption

Made from the oil of the Chinese water snake, which is rich in the omega-3 acids that help reduce inflammation, snake oil in its original form was effective, especially when used to treat arthritis and bursitis.

Because the words "snake oil" are so evocative, it has been a favorite go-to phrase for politicians and lobbying groups on both sides of the aisle. Earlier this month, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell called his opponent in the Republican primary, Tea Party candidate Matt Bevin, a snake oil salesman in a campaign mailer. While campaigning for a second term last year, President Obama referred to the Romney-Ryan tax plan as "trickle-down snake oil" at a rally. In 2008, the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund took out full-page ads in The Washington Post to denounce then-President George W. Bush's plan to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, calling it "100 percent snake oil."

But what, exactly, is snake oil? And why is peddling it such a terrible thing?

The 1800s saw thousands of Chinese workers arriving in the United States as indentured laborers to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. According to historian Richard White's book Railroaded, about 180,000 Chinese immigrated to the United States between 1849 and 1882. The vast majority of the workers came from peasant families in southeastern China and were signed to contracts that ran up to five years for relatively low wages (compared with their white counterparts), wrote David Haward Bain in his book Empire Express.

Among the items the Chinese railroad workers brought with them to the States were various medicines — including snake oil. Made from the oil of the Chinese water snake, which is rich in the omega-3 acids that help reduce inflammation, snake oil in its original form really was effective, especially when used to treat arthritis and bursitis. The workers would rub the oil, used for centuries in China, on their joints after a long hard day at work. The story goes that the Chinese workers began sharing the oil with some American counterparts, who marveled at the effects.

So how did a legitimate medicine become a symbol of fraud? The origins of snake oil as a derogatory phrase trace back to the latter half of the 19th century, which saw a dramatic rise in the popularity of "patent medicines." Often sold on the back pages of newspapers, these tonics promised to cure a wide variety of ailments including chronic pain, headaches, "female complaints" and kidney trouble. In time, all of these false "cures" began to be referred to as snake oil.

As word of the healing powers of Chinese snake oil grew, many Americans wondered how they could make their own snake oil here in the United States. Because there were no Chinese water snakes handy in the American West, many healers began using rattlesnakes to make their own versions of snake oil.

This set the stage for entrepreneur Clark Stanley, aka The Rattlesnake King. In an 1897 pamphlet about Stanley's life and exploits, the former cowboy claimed he had learned about the healing power of rattlesnake oil from Hopi medicine men. He never publicly mentioned Chinese snake oil at all. Stanley created a huge stir at the 1893 World's Exposition in Chicago when he took a live snake and sliced it open before a crowd of onlookers.

Joe Schwarcz, the director of McGill University's Office for Science and Society, described the scene in this 2008 article:

How did a legitimate medicine become a symbol of fraud? Wikimedia Commons hide caption

"[Stanley] reached into a sack, plucked out a snake, slit it open and plunged it into boiling water. When the fat rose to the top, he skimmed it off and used it on the spot to create 'Stanley's Snake Oil,' a liniment that was immediately snapped up by the throng that had gathered to watch the spectacle."

There were two major problems with Stanley's claim about his oil:

First, rattlesnake oil was far less effective than the original Chinese snake oil it was trying to emulate. A 1989 letter to The Western Journal of Medicine from psychiatrist and researcher Richard Kunin revealed that the Chinese oil contained almost triple the amount of a vital acid as did rattlesnake oil.

Secondly, Stanley's Snake Oil didn't contain any snake oil at all. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 sought to clamp down on the sale of patent medicines and it was that legislation that led to Stanley's undoing. After seizing a shipment of Stanley's Snake Oil in 1917, federal investigators found that it primarily contained mineral oil, a fatty oil believed to be beef fat, red pepper and turpentine. That's right — Stanley's signature product did not contain a drop of actual snake oil, and hundreds of consumers discovered they had been had.

It was probably around then that snake oil became symbolic of fraud. Snake oil salesmen and traveling doctors became stock characters in American Westerns. The first written usage of the phrase appeared in Stephen Vincent Benet's epic 1927 poem John Brown's Body, when the poet refers to "Crooked creatures of a thousand dubious trades . sellers of snake-oil balm and lucky rings." About 30 years later, playwright Eugene O'Neill referred to snake oil in his 1956 play The Iceman Cometh, when a character suggested that a rival was "standing on a street corner in hell right now, making suckers of the damned, telling them there's nothing like snake oil for a bad burn."

As for what happened to Clark Stanley after it was found that his whole empire was based on a lie? He was fined $20 (that's about $429 in today's dollars) for violating the food and drug act and for "misbranding" his product by "falsely and fraudulently represent[ing] it as a remedy for all pain."


A detailed view of Aztec art depicting the god Tez-Calipoca and Quetzalcoatl (right) devouring a human being.

PHAS/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Among the most prominent deities in Mesoamerican cultures, Quetzalcoatl, or �thered Serpent,” was a mix of bird and rattlesnake (coatl is the Nahuatl word for serpent). The Aztec god of wind and rain, as well as learning, agriculture and science, Quetzalcoatl was said to have played a key role in the world’s creation. In one version of the creation story, he and another god, Tezcatlipoca, transformed themselves into snakes and ripped a giant sea monster named Cipactli in half one part of her became the earth, the other the sky. Though the earliest depictions of Quetzalcoatl show him clearly as a snake with a plume of feathers, later cultures represented him in human form.

The Chariot Hall or Royal Funerary Chariot Hall at the Wat Xieng Thong in the UNESCO world heritage town of Luang Prabang in Central Laos contains King Sisavang Vong&aposs gilded, carved wooden funeral carriage, decorated with large Naga snakes at the front. 

Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket/Getty Images

In the eastern religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, a mythological semi-divine race known as the naga (Sanskrit for “serpent”) took half-human, half-cobra form𠅊lthough they could shift shapes to fully take on one or the other. The Hindhu god Brahma was said to have banished the naga to their underground kingdom when they became too populous on Earth. In Buddhism, naga were often depicted as protectors of Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha, and the dharma (Buddhist teachings), but they were also seen as powerful, and potentially dangerous when angered. Of the many naga mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures, one particularly famous one was Mucalinda, a naga king who spread his great cobra hood to shelter the Buddha from a storm that arrived while the prophet was deep in meditation.

Did St. Patrick Really Drive Snakes Out of Ireland?

It's the stuff of legend: The reptiles never existed on the Emerald Isle.

St. Patrick's Day, which is celebrated worldwide on March 17, honors St. Patrick, the Christian missionary who supposedly rid Ireland of snakes during the fifth century A.D.

According to legend, the patron saint of Ireland chased the slithering reptiles into the sea after they began attacking him during a 40-day fast he undertook on top of a hill. (Related: "St. Patrick's Day: Facts, Myths, and Traditions.")

It's admittedly an unlikely tale. Ireland is one of only a handful of places worldwide—including New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica—that Indiana Jones and other snake-averse humans can visit without fear.

But snakes were certainly not chased out of Ireland by St. Patrick, who had nothing to do with Ireland's snake-free status, Nigel Monaghan, keeper of natural history at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, told National Geographic.

Monaghan, who has trawled through vast collections of fossil and other records of Irish animals, has found no evidence of snakes ever existing in Ireland.

"At no time has there ever been any suggestion of snakes in Ireland. [There was] nothing for St. Patrick to banish," Monaghan said. (Read about the top ten St. Patrick's Day celebrations.)

Snakes likely couldn't reach Ireland. Most scientists point to the most recent Ice Age, which kept the island too cold for reptiles until it ended 10,000 years ago. After the Ice Age, surrounding seas may have kept snakes from colonizing the Emerald Isle.

Once the ice caps and woolly mammoths retreated northward, snakes returned to northern and western Europe, spreading as far as the Arctic Circle.

But snakes have not existed in Ireland for thousands of years. Britain, which had a land bridge to mainland Europe until about 6,500 years ago, was colonized by three snake species: the venomous adder, the grass snake, and the smooth snake.

But Ireland's land link to Britain was cut some 2,000 years earlier by seas swollen by the melting glaciers, Monaghan noted.

Animals that reached Ireland before the sea became an impassable barrier included brown bears, wild boars, and lynx—but "snakes never made it," he said.

"Snake populations are slow to colonize new areas," Monaghan added.

Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, said in 2008 that the timing wasn't right for the sensitive, cold-blooded reptiles to expand their range.

"There are no snakes in Ireland for the simple reason they couldn't get there because the climate wasn't favorable for them to be there," he said.

Other reptiles didn't make it either, except for one: the common or viviparous lizard. Ireland's only native reptile, the species must have arrived within the last 10,000 years, according to Monaghan.

Pagans: The Metaphorical Snakes

So unless St. Patrick couldn't tell a snake from a lizard, where does the legend come from?

Scholars suggest the tale is allegorical. Serpents are symbols of evil in the Judeo-Christian tradition—the Bible, for example, portrays a snake as the hissing agent of Adam and Eve's fall from grace. (How much do you know about St. Patrick's Day? Take our quiz.)

The animals were also linked to heathen practices—so St. Patrick's dramatic act of snake eradication can be seen as a metaphor for his Christianizing influence.

Anyone in Ireland looking for serpents to exile would probably have to settle for the slow worm, a non-native species of legless lizard that is often mistaken for a small snake. (Also see "Blind, Legless Lizard Discovered—New Species.")

First recorded in the early 1970s, the species is thought to have been deliberately introduced in western Ireland in the 1960s, according to Ireland's National Parks and Wildlife Service.

However, the reptile doesn't appear to have spread beyond a wildlife-rich limestone region in County Clare known as the Burren.

In the future, genuine Irish snakes are a possibility, Monaghan said.

Pet snakes deliberately released by their owners would be the most likely source, though they wouldn't be welcome.

"No alien species is without risk to well-established fauna," Monaghan explained. "The isolated nature of an island population makes Ireland highly vulnerable to any introduction, no matter how well-meaning or misguided."

Henry Kacprzyk, curator of reptiles at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPQ Aquarium, said in 2008 that Ireland's indigenous wildlife would not be prepared for snake introductions. (See National Geographic's Ireland pictures.)

Invasive snakes such as the brown tree snake have already wreaked havoc in Guam and other island ecosystems, he added.

Nor would getting rid of any such unwanted creatures be as easy as St. Patrick made it look.

"I don't want to completely burst the celebratory myth of St. Patrick," Kacprzyk said. "I want to keep some of it alive."

Largest snake the world has ever seen is being brought back to life by Smithsonian Channel

The story behind this significant scientific revelation began in 2002, when a Colombian student visiting the coal mine made an intriguing discovery: a fossilized leaf that hinted at an ancient rainforest from the Paleocene epoch. Over the following decade, collecting expeditions led by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida opened a unique window into perhaps the first rainforest on Earth. Fossil finds included giant turtles and crocodiles, as well as the first known bean plants and some of the earliest banana, avocado and chocolate plants. But their most spectacular discovery was the fossilized vertebrae of a previously undiscovered species of snake, one so large it defied imagination.

Together with their research teams, Jonathan Bloch of the Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida and Carlos Jaramillo of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, joined forces with one of the world’s foremost experts in ancient snakes, Jason Head of the University of Nebraska, to unlock the mysteries of this ancient time and discover exactly how Titanoboa appeared, lived and hunted. The fossilized remains revealed that, after the extinction of the dinosaurs, the tropics were warmer than today and witnessed the birth of the South American rainforest, in which huge creatures battled it out to become the planet’s top predators. Dominating this era was Titanoboa, the undisputed largest snake in the history of the world.

Most of the fossil record of ancient snakes is comprised of vertebrae like the one that launched the Titanoboa investigation. Snake skulls are almost never found as they are extremely fragile and usually disintegrate – making it almost impossible to create a full and accurate picture of these extinct creatures. But during the filming of Titanoboa: Monster Snake, the scientists managed to uncover not just one, but fragments of three skulls, allowing them to derive for the first time what this ancient giant looked like.

A scientifically accurate, life-sized replica of Titanoboa appears in the film and will go on display for the first time at the National Museum of Natural History beginning March 30, 2012. The exhibition will travel to museums across the country beginning in fall 2013. Titanoboa: Monster Snake is a collaboration between the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida in Gainesville, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Tropical Research Institute, and is circulated by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.

The two-hour special explores how this monster snake would have lived by visiting its living cousins, boa constrictors and anacondas, in the Florida Everglades and the Venezuelan Grasslands. The scientists’ research yields some intriguing and terrifying insights, including the climate in which it lived and size of the snake. All of these clues come together to paint a picture of Titanoboa’s world, which is brought back to life in stunning CGI. Here we see how the colossal snake ruled as an ancient apex predator among a land of tropical mega-beasts.

Titanoboa: Monster Snake follows the scientific sleuths back to the mine, into the labs, and on an expedition to understand modern giant constrictors. It creates a picture of the then largest predator on the planet—a creature that until now has only populated fiction and nightmares, but can finally be displayed as a marvel of nature.

Watch the video: Žaltys. Grass Snake (October 2022).

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