A horned viper – the identity of Tunisia's tantalizing taguerga? (public domain)
Many mystery serpents have been reported from remote, little-explored, inaccessible and/or inhospitable regions of the world – but not all. Down through the ages, a number of mysterious, unidentified forms have also been documented from various countries and islands lying on either side of the Mediterranean Sea, including the following thought-provoking threesome.
THE COLOVIA – A MEDITERRANEAN MEGA-SNAKE?
In various of his writings, veteran cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans referred to the alleged presence in the Mediterranean provinces within France, Spain, northern Italy, and Greece of an unidentified snake claimed by observers to be 9-12 ft long (and occasionally ever longer).
Other mystery beast investigators have also reported this serpentine enigma, which is often said to be dark green in colour, and in Italy is referred to as the colovia. One such snake was actually responsible for a traffic accident when it unexpectedly crossed a busy road near Chinchilla de Monte Aragón, in Spain's Albicete Province, on 22 July 1969. Back in December 1933, a colovia was tracked down and killed in a marsh close to the Sicilian city of Syracuse, but its carcase was not preserved.
Eastern Montpellier snake (Barbod Safaei/released into the public domain)
If we assume that the colovia's dimensions may well have been somewhat exaggerated or over-estimated by eyewitnesses, a plausible identity for it is the Montpellier snake Malpolon monspessulanus. Named after a city in southern France, this mildly-venomous rear-fanged colubrid is common through much of the Mediterranean basin. It is quite variable in colour, from dark grey to olive green, and can grow up to 8.5 ft long, possibly longer in exceptional specimens. Its presence has not been confirmed in Sicily nor anywhere in mainland Greece (its eastern subspecies, M. m. insignitus, deemed a separate species by some workers, occurs on a number of Greek islands, as well as on Cyprus), but these areas are certainly compatible with its survival.
So perhaps reports from there of unidentified colovia-type mystery snakes indicate that the Montpellier snake's distribution range within Europe's Mediterranean lands is even greater than presently recognised.
THE VIRGIN MARY SNAKES OF CEPHALONIA
Cephalonia is the largest of western Greece's seven principal Ionian islands, lying in the Ionian Sea - which is in turn an elongated embayment of the Mediterranean Sea. Every year on 16 August – known here as the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady (the Virgin Mary) – the small southeastern village of Markopoulo hosts a Marian celebration, but its most famous, and mystifying, attendants are not of the human variety. Virtually every year for more than two centuries, during the fortnight leading up to this festival considerable numbers of snakes mysteriously appear at the foot of the Old Bell Steeple by Markopoulo's Church of Our Lady, and just as mysteriously vanish again when the festival ends.
Their unusual behaviour has earned these serpents the local names of 'Virgin Mary snakes' and 'Our Lady's snakes'. This religious association is heightened by the small black cruciform mark that they allegedly bear on their heads and also at the forked tip of their tongues. They all appear to belong to the same single species, but which one this is does not seem to have been formally ascertained by herpetologists. However, they have attracted the attention and interest of several correspondents of mine, as first revealed in my book Mysteries of Planet Earth and now in greater detail here.
Four-striped snake (public domain)
According to one of them, Cephalonia chronicler Victor J. Kean, these snakes are non-venomous, are said to have "skin like silk", and are popularly believed by the villagers to possess thaumaturgic powers. One plausible candidate is the four-striped snake Elaphe quatuorlineata, a non-venomous constricting species of colubrid that occurs on Cephalonia, and whose head can bear a variety of dark markings, especially in its bolder-marked juvenile form. Moreover, herpetologist Dr Klaus-Dieter Schulz has pointed out that this species is known to be associated with Christian traditions elsewhere in southern Europe, including the annual snake procession at Cucullo, Italy, in honour of St Dominic.
When he paid a visit to Markopoulo on 16 August one year during the mid-1990s, Alistair Underwood from Preston, in Lancashire, England, observed the Virgin Mary snakes congregating outside the Church of Our Lady, where they were freely handled by the local villagers, who even draped them fearlessly around their necks. The villagers also allowed them to enter the church, and to make their way towards a large silver icon of the Virgin Mary. Some websites that I have seen in which this ceremony is described (e.g. here) claim that the species in question is the European cat snake Telescopus fallax. This is a colubrid that is indeed native to Cephalonia and several other Greek islands too. Moreover, it is actually venomous, but because it is rear-fanged its venom is rarely injected in defensive biting, so it is not deemed to be a threat to humans.
19th-Century engraving of a European cat snake (public domain)
According to Cephalonian researcher Spyros Tassis Bekatoros, the only years in which the Virgin Mary snakes have not made an appearance at Markopoulo's Marian festival are those spanning the German occupation of Cephalonia in World War II (during which period the occupying forces may have banned the Marian festival after learning about its ophidian participants), and the year 1953, when much of the island was devastated by an earthquake. This latter information may hold clues concerning the link between these snakes and the festival.
Although snakes are generally deaf to airborne vibrations (i.e. sounds), they respond very readily to groundborne ones. Consequently, Alistair Underwood suggested that the increased human activity and its associated groundborne vibrations during the Marian festival and its preceding preparations may explain the coincident appearance of the Virgin Mary snakes during those periods. If so, then the exceptional terrestrial reverberations that occurred during the 1953 earthquake would have greatly disturbed the snakes, disrupting their normal behaviour and obscuring the lesser vibrational stimuli emanating from human activity at the Marian festival that year.
THE HORNED TAGUERGA OF TUNISIA
In the first volume of his scholarly publication Exploration Scientifique de la Tunisie (1884), French archaeologist and diplomat Charles Tissot reported the alleged occurrence of a very sizeable Tunisian mystery snake known as the taguerga, which supposedly bears a pair of short but sharp horns on its head. Vehemently believed by the locals to be extremely venomous, this greatly-feared reptile is said to be as thick as a man's thigh, and to attain a total length of 7-12 ft. It reputedly frequents the mountains of southern Tunisia's Sahara region.
Horned viper (Patrick Jean, released into the public domain)
The locals consider taguergas to be specimens of the common horned viper Cerastes cerastes (a species that is indeed native to Tunisia) but which have attained an exceptionally venerable age and have continued growing throughout this abnormally-extended period of time, thus explaining their great size, as horned vipers do not normally exceed 3 ft long. Conversely, Dr Bernard Heuvelmans speculated that it may be a puff adder Bitis arietans, which sometimes bears horn-like scales upon its head. However, this species only rarely exceeds 5 ft long, and is not known to occur in Tunisia, although it is recorded from Morocco.
For an additional Mediterranean mystery snake, please click here to access my ShukerNature blog article investigating the possible taxonomic identity of St Paul's mystifying Maltese viper.
St Paul bitten by Malta's alleged viper, engraving by Hendrik Goltzius, c1580 (public domain)