Beautiful 19th-Century chromolithograph of the remarkable phenomenon nowadays believed by zoologists to be the true explanation for bygone reports of the hazelworm (public domain)
One of the most extraordinary creatures to straddle the boundaries of mythology and reality must surely be the European hazelworm, and yet its fascinating history is all but forgotten today. High time, therefore, to resurrect it from centuries of zoological neglect and present its very curious credentials to a modern-day audience at last.
Back in the Middle Ages, the Germanic folklore of Central Europe's alpine regions contained many tales of a terrifying dragon of the huge, limbless, serpent-like variety known as the worm. But this particular worm was set apart from others by its sometimes hairy rather than scaly outer surface, and above all else by its proclivity for inhabiting areas containing a plenitude of hazel bushes. Consequently, it duly became known as the hazelworm (aka Heerwurm and Haselwurm in German, but not to be confused with a known species of legless lizard, the slow worm Anguis fragilis, which is also sometimes referred to as the hazelworm).
The slow worm, a familiar species of European legless lizard sometimes referred to as the hazelworm (© Wildfeuer/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
Additionally, Leander Petzoldt reported in his Kleines Lexikon der Dämonen und Elementargeister (2003) that according to some traditional beliefs, the hazelworm was nothing less than the Serpent that had tempted Adam and Eve with fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, and was therefore also accorded such alternative names as the Paradise Snake and the Worm of Knowledge.
After God had cursed it and banished it for its treachery, however, the Serpent supposedly sought sanctuary in hazel bushes outside Eden, where it feeds to this day upon their foliage, and winds its elongated body around their roots. Moreover, it subsequently became passive in nature, and can readily be recognised by its whitish colouration, thus yielding for it yet another name – the white worm or Weisser Wurm. And because it is said to surface just before the onset of a war, a further name given to this contentious creature is war worm.
Painting by William Blake depicting Eve with an inordinately lengthy Eden Serpent, reminiscent of medieval reports of the hazelworm (public domain)
Early retellings of its legends ascribed to the hazelworm an immense body length. Perhaps the most famous example is a local account penned by Rector and Pastor Heinrich Eckstorm (1557-1622) that appeared in Chronicon Walkenredense. Printed in 1617, this was the Latin chronicle of his monastery, Walkenried Abbey, situated in what is today Lower Saxony, Germany. Here is what he wrote.
One day in July 1597, a woman hailing from Holbach ventured into Lower Saxony's Harz mountain range to collect blueberries, but as she ascended she encountered an enormous hazelworm, which scared her so much that she promptly abandoned her basket of diligently-picked berries and fled to the village of Zorge. There she met a woodcutter named Old William, and pleaded with him to give her shelter, which he did, although he and his wife laughed heartily and disbelievingly when the woman told them about the hazelworm.
Eight days later, however, when inadvertently finding himself in the vicinity of where she had claimed to have seen the monster, Old William himself encountered it, lying across the road up ahead, and so big that he had initially mistaken it for a fallen oak tree – until it began to move, and raise its hitherto-concealed head from out of some nearby hazel bushes. He too duly fled to Zorge, where he told everyone what he had seen.
Old William estimated that the hazelworm had been around 18 ft long, was as thick as a man's thigh, was green and yellow in colour, and, of particular interest, possessed feet on its underparts, rather than being limbless. Several notable personages were present to hear his testimony, including lawyers Mitzschefal from Stöckei and Joachim Götz from Olenhusen, and doctors Johannes Stromer and Philipp Ratzenberg.
Two centuries later, in 1790, Blankenburg-based chronicler Johann Christophe Stübner, a major sceptic of hazelworm reports, nonetheless recorded that the skeleton of a charred hazelworm was supposedly discovered in Wurmberg, a Lower Saxony forestry village near Braunlage. He also noted that in 1782 a lengthy hazelworm could apparently still be found in Allröder Forest.
Conversely, as noted by renowned South Tyrolean folklorist Hans Fink in his book Verzaubertes Land: Volkskult und Ahnenbrauch in Südtirol [Enchanted Land: Folk Art and Alpine Life in South Tyrol] (1969), stories concerning the hazelworm that still abound today in the autonomous South Tyrol (occupying a region formerly part of Austria-Hungary but annexed by Italy in 1919) aver that it is no bigger than a cradle-fitting child in swaddling clothes. (This in turn has led to some confusion with another herpetological alpine cryptid, the tatzelworm – click here to read my ShukerNature article concerning this creature.) There are even claims that it has the head of a child too and can howl like a baby crying.
Also, it was once greatly sought after. As documented by Claudia Liath in Der Grüne Hain [The Green Grove] (2012), this was because anyone eating the flesh of a hazelworm would supposedly become immortal, remaining forever young, handsome, and healthy, and would also gain all manner of other ostensibly desirable but otherwise unobtainable benefits, such as the ability to talk to and understand the speech of animals, to discover hidden treasures, and to be fully versed in the healing properties of plants. Indeed, some of his envious, less gifted contemporaries actually avowed that the extraordinary scholarly abilities of Swiss physician, alchemist, and astrologer Theophrastus Paracelsus (1493/4-1541) must surely be due to his having secretly consumed the meat of a hazelworm.
In Hexenwahn: Schicksale und Hintergründe. Die Tiroler Hexenprozesse [The Witch Delusion: Fates and Backgrounds. The Tyrolean Witch Trials] (2018), Hansjörg Rabanser recorded that during one such trial – that of the alleged sorcerer Mathaus Niderjocher, held at the Sonnenburg district court in 1650/51 - the defendant claimed that he and a locksmith named Andreas had once hunted a hazelworm by magical means. After consulting a book of sorcery, they had drawn a magical circle around a hazel bush, then dug out the bush itself, and found at knee-deep level in the earth a stony plate, beneath which was a hazelworm that was very long, thick, and white in colour. Despite recourse to evocation spells from the book of sorcery, however, they were unable to control or capture the hazelworm, which bit Andreas in the hand before disappearing.
If such claims as those presented above were factual, there may even be opportunities to repeat them in the present day, judging at least from some tantalising reports of hazelworms having been killed in modern times, as collected and presented in an extensive German-language article on this subject by Swiss chronicler Markus Kappeler (click here to read it).
For example, not far from Ilfeld monastery in Honstein county at the foot of the Harz Mountains are the ruins of a castle named Harzburg, where a hazelworm was reputedly seen for three consecutive years around half a century ago, until killed by two woodcutters there, after which its body was hung from a tree, attracting many interested viewers coming from near and far. It was said to be 12 ft long, with a head reminiscent of a pike's in general form. (Back in 1712, within his major opus Hercynia Curiosa oder Curiöser Hartz-Wald, Dr Georg H. Behrens had claimed that very large, hideous-looking hazelworms inhabited these very same castle ruins.) The skin of another slain hazelworm was allegedly exhibited at one time in Schleusingen, a city in Thuringia, Germany.
A hazel bush of the common hazel Corylus avellana, around whose roots the hazelworm is traditionally believed in alpine folklore to entwine its very lengthy, elongate body (© H. Zell/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
Even today, locals inhabiting what was formerly the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg in northwestern Germany (now the Kingdom of Hanover and Duchy of Brunswick) claim that this rangy reptile is still quite common, that it sucks the milk from the udders of cows and poisons the meadows, and that they therefore still go out at certain times of the year to hunt young specimens measuring 3-4.5 ft. Make of that what you will!
For in reality, the mysterious hazelworm has long since ceased to be a mystery, at least for zoologists. Indeed, as far back as the 1770s, physician August C. Kühn documented that sightings of supposed hazelworms were actually based upon observations of long moving columns of army worms – a popular name given to the black-headed, white-bodied larva of Sciara (=Lycoria) militaris and several other dark-winged species of fungus gnat. Subsequent studies by other naturalists swiftly confirmed his statement. The exquisite 19th-Century chromolithograph heading this ShukerNature article and presented again below depicts one such procession (and click here to view a short video of one on YouTube).
An extremely lengthy procession of fungus gnat larvae, nowadays deemed to be the identity of the very long, white-bodied hazelworm of traditional alpine lore (public domain)
Columns or processions of these insect larvae moving in a nose-to-tail manner, i.e. each larva following immediately behind another, can measure up to 30 ft long and several inches in diameter (as such columns can each be many larvae abreast). Accordingly, such a procession might well be mistaken for a single enormously lengthy, elongate snake-like entity if seen only briefly or during poor viewing conditions (e.g. at twilight, during mist or fog), and especially if unexpectedly encountered by a layman too terrified to stay around for a closer look!
Similarly, sightings of noticeably hairy hazelworms were ultimately discounted as columns of hairy caterpillars walking in single file and belonging to the pine processionary moth Thaumetopoea pityocampa. The hazelworm was no more, merely a closely-knit procession of insect larvae, not a single, uniform entity in its own right after all.
A single-file procession of processionary moth caterpillars, whose hairy bodies should never be touched as the hairs cause extreme irritation (public domain)
Of course, the above identification does beg the question: if this is truly all that the hazelworm ever was, how can we explain the reports of exhibited hazelworm skins, a charred hazelworm skeleton, and other physical evidence purportedly originating from this officially non-existent creature?
Nothing more than tall tales and baseless folklore – or a bona fide cryptozoological conundrum still awaiting a satisfactory solution?
From Iconographia Zoologica, the larva, adult, and pupa of Sciara militaris – the minute origin of a monstrous mystery…? (public domain)