Sunday, March 22, 2009

Vipera berus

Viper, Gjerrild Nordstrand
photo May 2008: stig bachmann nielsen
Naturplan Foto

The venomous viper species is widespread and can be found throughout most of Europe and all the way to Far East Asia. They are not regarded as highly dangerous; bites can be very painful but are seldom fatal. The viper is Scandinavia's only venomous reptile and is named hugorm. Averagely it is about 50-70 cm long. A 90 cm long viper was found in Sweden. The colour pattern varies, but most have some kind of zigzag dorsal pattern down the entire length of the body and tail.

In Denmark the viper is found in forest-moors and -meadows but is most frequent in heaths, dunes, dikes and other dry, sunny places. From 1900-1947 in average 70 persons were treated each year after a viper's bite, six children and one grown-up died. Before the serum injection became obligatory, the mortality death rate was 2,4 per mille. After 1925 it went down to 1,2 per mille.

Petroglyphs showing snakes are found in Denmark upon stones from Bjergagergård in East Jutland and upon Benzonhede at Djursland. From Bronze Age are bone-findings of viper/grass snake with other things in a leather purse. (Hvidegårdsfundet at Lyngby, North Zealand) - and in a bronze box from a woman's burial in Magleby at Frederikssund. They were probably used by magicians. A story about Harald Hardrade says that when he in 1061 was upon his ship in Limfjorden, he sent his men out to find a viper which had to show him where to find fresh water.

Before Gravlev Sø (lake) in Rebild Bakker dried out, it was commonly known that vipers lived in the bedstraw, but people were not scared, they said the vipers hurt no one if left in peace. The vipers crept into the house through cracks in the mud-built walls, and they were hiding in the heather bundles in the bottom of the boxbed, from where they showed up in spring when the bundles had to be renewed. When people built at house they had to put a viper in a pot together with special portion of food, cover the pot with a stone-lid and bury it in the house. In many old houses were found vipers buried under the doorstep by the entrance.

Heath, Mid Jutland,
photo 2008: grethe bachmann

There are several stories about vipers drinking milk together with children. Many children have told about their eating milk porridge together with a viper. Upon a farm in Brande Hede a viper came regularly during milking in summer to have a drop of milk. It had its own little bowl in the stable - and nearby the cats had their milk in another bowl, and no one bothered.

Bad luck and sickness were often put down to evil supernatural powers or creatures - and people looked for averting charms against the viper. Some recipes from the 1300s by Henrik Harpestreng told that the scent of violets, the smell of ambra and the smoke from burning mallows forced away the viper. People could buy burnt or dried viper at the pharmacy and used it against baldness, leprosy, boils, rheumatism, migraine and much more - a powder from sun-dried viper's skin was also good in milk or snaps.

A wise woman Maren Haaning from Vindblæs gave her patients crushed viper and tar and a man in Ejerslev at Mors earned a living in the 1870s by selling vipers to the pharmacy. A viper caught in 1902 in Villestrup Skov was sold to a woman who claimed that placed upon the breast it was an unfailing means against asthma. The farmers used it to help their livestock - but they also had some Scorpion-oil ready if their livestock got a viper's bite. In Jutland it was common practice to put a viper's skin or slough among the woolen clothes to protect them against moths.

It was sometimes a mix of medicine and magic. The viper powder was also used in love potions. People had various incantations against a viper's bite. If they rubbed their hands in garlic or washed them in horse-radish water, or if they wore some leaves from ash - then the viper could not bite them. On a farm at Borris in Jutland everyone had to eat a piece of dry bread from Christmas on Easter morning, then they were protected against viper bites all year. A very tough means was to place the viper's head upon the bite-wound, then the venom would be sucked up again!

A small viper, Skagen
photo 2007: grethe bachmann

Some wise people were said to be able to "læse over" (read for) a viper in order to tie or untie it with magic formulas. A tied viper was harmless, it was not able to bite until a magic formula untied it. There is a large bunch of various old writings and material about the viper, and the superstition around this animal, which was considered a magic and mysterious creature both before and after in the Middle Ages, is so enormous that it is impossible to describe in a short article. The stories about the Viper's singing and the Viper King are interesting.

The Singing of the Vipers.
Some people said that vipers can sing. The guys on a farm in the heath east of Skørping in North Jutland told in the 1880s that vipers early in the morning stuck up their heads from the heather singing. Still as late as 1954 a man in Bjørnlund by Dronninglund, also in North Jutland, claimed that the viper can sing in the evening; he said that most people knew about this, both young and old people.

The Viper King.
It was said that every viper's den was ruled by a king. He was seldom seen, he was always surrounded by many subjects who were defending him, and when the group had a debate he stood on his tail. The Viper King is larger than other vipers, he might be white with a red ring around his neck, or all white or yellow, upon his head he wore a crown, and down his back was a long mane. He might also be transparent blue like glass with wings in the neck. The Viper King could like other vipers bite himself in the tail and then roll like a wheel faster than any horse, but only in the wheeltracks on the road, so it was possible to escape by running across the field.

A man digging peat in Store Vildmose found a kingdom several feet down with a white viper among a heap of common vipers.

Viper, Aqua Ferskvandscenter, Silkeborg
photo 2009: grethe bachmann

A small girl found a bundle of 14-15 snakes, one with a golden crown on his head. She put her white apron upon the ground close to the snakes, and shortly after the largest snake, the Viper King, crept forward and put his crown upon the apron. She took the crown and the king cried so loud that she became deaf. The crown was pure gold with many precious green stones and she sold it and got herself a fortune.

The snakes have a queen whose crown is pure gold , if you get hold of it then you'll become rich for the rest of your life, if you've got just a piece of it you can take piece after piece of gold, it grows out again.

Omens and Sayings:
If the vipers are out walking it will be rain.
If you killed a viper their king took revenge .
Dreams about vipers are a sign of wealth to come.
The owner of a white viper will be able to see the future.
The owner of the Viper King's crown becomes immortal.
Dead vipers must not be carried into the house. It means bad luck.
Vipers always go about two and two and help each other. They are able to attract a pidgeon just by staring at it.

Dyr og Vækster, Lademanns Naturfører
Naturguide Magasin
Natur og Miljø, Magasin
Skov og Natur
Folk og Fauna 1, 1985

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