Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Saturday, 18 October 2014


St Paul casts viper into fire, painting by Marten de Vos

It is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (28: 3-6) within the Bible's New Testament that when a ship transporting St Paul and other prisoners to Rome was shipwrecked on the island of Melita (known now as Malta), St Paul was bitten by a viper:

   "And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand.
   And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live.
   And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm.
   Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god."

What makes this incident memorable not only from a theological but also from a herpetological standpoint is that there is no known species of viper living today on Malta. So how can St Paul's ophidian attacker be explained?

St Paul casting viper into fire, 16th-Century woodcut

In their biblical commentary The Acts of the Apostles (1959), Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle suggested that just because there are no vipers on Malta today does not necessarily mean that there were none in St Paul's day. Perhaps they died out due to the expanding human population here in later times. However, American cryptozoologist and scriptures scholar Chad Arment has pointed out that there is no physical evidence to confirm that vipers have ever existed on Malta. Nor does the viper family's zoogeographical distribution in this region of Europe provide much support for such a notion.

Consequently, Chad considers it more plausible that Malta's mystery 'viper' was in reality the cat snake Telescopus fallax - a species of venomous rear-fanged colubrid that usually measures up to 2.5 ft long and is native to Malta. As its mouth is too small for its fangs to be used effectively when biting humans (which it will sometimes do if handled), the cat snake is not deemed to be dangerous. However, in cases where a person is allergic to the proteins contained in its venom, anaphylaxia and various complications can occur if not treated rapidly. Bearing in mind that its preferred habitat includes dry stony areas overgrown with low shrubs in which it can climb, this fairly small, lithe snake could easily be picked up with a bundle of sticks (unlike any of Europe's larger, bulkier vipers).

A Maltese specimen of the European cat snake (© Jeffrey Skiberras/Wikipedia)

Having said that, this particular line of speculation is taking as granted that the snake which bit St Paul was indeed venomous - but was it? Perhaps St Luke (author of the Acts of the Apostles) and/or the native Maltese islanders mistakenly assumed that it was, when in actual fact it was a harmless species. Certainly, in many parts of the world various non-venomous species of snake (and even lizards too) are erroneously deemed to be exceedingly venomous by their human neighbours.

Equally ambiguous is St Luke's description of St Paul's serpentine aggressor as fastening onto and then hanging from his hand. Might this mean that the snake did not actually bite St Paul's hand, but merely coiled around it, and that St Luke and the other observers only assumed that it had bitten him, when in fact it had not done so? Certainly there is no statement anywhere in the verses dealing with this incident in the Acts of the Apostles which claims that St Paul was miraculously cured of snakebite - only an assumption by St Luke and the others that he had been bitten.

St Paul and the supposed viper, engraving by Hendrik Goltzius, c1580

And so, as it has been for many centuries, the non-existent viper of Malta remains a herpetological as well as a biblical mystery – indeed, an enigma. Consequently, any thoughts or opinions concerning it from ShukerNature readers would as always be very greatly appreciated.

This ShukerNature post is adapted from my book Mysteries of Planet Earth.


  1. The most logical explanation for the Acts viper account is that it is completely fictitious. There are good reasons to believe that Acts is ahistorical and largely made up out of whole-cloth, particularly since Paul's travel itinerary is illogical for the 1st C. and not least because Acts often baldly contradicts Paul's own accounts of his travels in the epistles. That is leaving out the many miracles and wild supernatural events which are not attested to by any contemporary witnesses or historians.

    Nor is the authorship matter entirely sure, tradition states that Acts was written by Luke, but there is no evidence for this, pseudepigraphical works were ubiquitous. Acts is written way too late to be by a contemporary.

    In short, not much reason to go looking for a possible alternate identity for Paul's viper; the account is mythological.

  2. I think the story could be true, but it could be about ANY kind of snake, since countless people seem to have no DESIRE to tell a poisonous one from a non-poisonous one. Which is something that hasn't gone out of style at all, even in the "Information Age"!

  3. Being a Christian and having read through the bible, you'll find that every snake in it is referred to as a viper. If you'll remember, we didn't have an animal classification scheme back then, and species were usually given a common name. Snakes being called Vipers. Who knows what snake it could of been.