In February 1506, a magnificent, mostly-intact marble statue in the Hellenistic baroque style was unearthed within the grounds of a vineyard owned by a Felice de Fredis, near Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy. As his great interest in classical works was well known, Pope Julius II was duly informed of the statue's discovery, and he in turn swiftly sent a team of experts to the vineyard in order to evaluate it personally and report back to him; the team included a young Michelangelo.
The statue consisted of three human figures, of which the central, adult male figure was approximately life-sized, whereas the two male youths flanking him were slightly less so, thereby enhancing the central figure's dramatic appearance. The faces and bodies of all three figures were contorted and twisted with tortured agony and fear – and for good reason. Two huge snakes were coiled around this unfortunate human trio, savagely attacking them with lethal intent. The statue was taken to the Vatican, where it has remained on public display ever since in one of its museums.
There has been much controversy as to whether this very dynamic work of art is one and the same as a certain statue written about in ancient works, and which dated back to the 2nd Century BC; or whether it is a somewhat later copy of that early statue (which some believe may actually have been created from bronze, not marble); or whether it is a much later, original work, possibly inspired by but not a direct copy of the 2nd-Century BC statue. One or other of the last two options is now deemed the most likely identity.
The time period of this vineyard-unearthed statue's creation has also attracted dissension, with proffered dates ranging from c.200 BC to the 70s AD, with an approximate time-span of 27-BC-68 AD being the most favoured nowadays. Moreover, it is believed to have spent some time adorning the palace of the Roman Emperor Titus (reigned 79-81 AD). Its creators may have been a trio of Greek sculptors from Rhodes – namely, Agesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus.
One aspect concerning the vineyard statue for which there is absolutely no controversy, however, is who and what it depicts, because the fraught scene in question is one of the most famous in all of classical Graeco-Trojan mythology. The central figure is the Trojan priest Laocoön, and the two youths are his twin sons Antiphantes (aka Antiphas) and Thymbraeus. Accordingly, the title by which this statue is officially known in the art world is 'Laocoön and His Sons'.
But what is of particular interest and relevance to this present ShukerNature article is the zoological nature of the giant serpents lethally encircling the doomed trio's bodies, which are named Porces and Chariboea (aka Curissia or Periboea). Based upon the statue alone, they simply look like muscular, constricting snakes, quite possibly inspired by the African rock python Python sebae, often kept as a pet in ancient Greece and Rome too. Consequently, they have been readily accepted as such by some authors. Conversely, ancient written accounts of their morphology and origin suggest something rather more exotic.
As with the specific identity and age of the statue, there is contention regarding the precise background of Laocoön and why the snakes – or whatever they are – were attacking him and his sons, with different ancient sources making differing claims. As this is not the relevant place to examine and discuss in detail each of these sources and claims, suffice it to say therefore that the three major claims are that Laocoön was:
A Trojan priest who warned the Trojans not to trust the huge wooden horse offered to them as a gift by the opposing Greeks; his warning went unheeded and the Trojans fatally wheeled the horse into their city, thereby precipitating their destruction at the hands of the Greek soldiers concealed inside it, but to punish him for trying to prevent the horse from being accepted, the goddess Athena (the Greeks' divine supporter) sent two giant snakes to kill him and his sons.
Or: A Trojan priest of Apollo who broke his oath of celibacy by fathering his sons, so as a punishment Apollo sent two giant snakes to kill him and his sons.
Or: A Trojan priest of Poseidon who desecrated his temple by indulging in sexual intercourse within its perimeter, so as a punishment Poseidon sent forth two great serpents of the sea across the waves to kill him and his sons.
Of these, the third version is the one most commonly cited and favoured, and is featured dramatically within ancient Roman poet Virgil's classic epic The Aeneid (written 29-19 BC):
Two snakes from Tenedos (I shudder to think of it) come on over the peaceful sea unwinding their huge coils and swim abreast towards the shore. Their breasts rise among the billows, their bloody crests tower over the waves; their flanks skim the abyss, and their vast tails curve in sinuous coils, the waves carrying the spume. Already they have reached the beach: their burning eyes shine, red with blood and flame; their tongues, like a dart, flicker in their mouths, which they lick, hissing...
Tenedos is an island in Turkey where according to legend the Greeks hid their army, to fool the Trojans into believing that the war between their two nations was finally over – a treacherous ruse augmented by their deceitful gifting to the Trojans of the Trojan Horse.
Way back in the 1970s, I studied sections of The Aeneid (including the above one) as part of my Latin O-Level course, and I can still well remember thinking how very reminiscent Poseidon's fire-crested sea serpents were of a certain huge and highly distinctive species of marine fish. Moreover, when I subsequently acquired and read veteran cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans's classic tome In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents (1968), I discovered that I wasn't the only one to have recognised this similarity. Here is what Heuvelmans wrote:
The colour of these snakes' crests makes one suspect that Virgil's terrific picture may be inspired, in parts at least, by one of the most mysterious of the world's larger fishes, the oarfish Regalecus glesne...It is long and serpentine, and right along its spine is a crest of bright coral red which it can raise into a sort of plume on its head.
Just how long this surreal but wholly inoffensive ribbon-like fish can be is very much a matter for conjecture, as I examined in an entire chapter devoted to it within my book A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), and also here on ShukerNature. It is certainly known to measure over 30 ft long, but some plausible if unconfirmed lengths of up to 50 ft have also been documented.
Consequently, whereas the vineyard statue's visual portrayal of Laocoön and his sons' dreadful fate at the coils of their constricting nemeses was probably more naturalistic, merely inspired by pythons, verbal versions of the Laocoön legend like that of Virgil in which the giant serpents were huge crested snakes of the sea sent across the waves by Poseidon were more melodramatic, and conceivably inspired by rare sightings and strandings ashore of the spectacular oarfish. (They certainly do not recall any of the known, elapid species of sea snake currently documented.) Or, as Heuvelmans put it:
It is therefore more likely that the two serpents from Tenedos whose "bloody crests tower over the waves" were modelled on oarfish. There is even less doubt that these huge fragile fish could not have done the least harm, even to a newborn baby left upon the beach. But poetic licence will explain much...
Indeed it will.