Ever since the oldest times, before science developed enough to explain ordinary things, people have tried to explain such mysterious or strange things through the most absurd myths. Even though technology and science have developed, some of these superstitions and myths about reptiles and amphibians still exist nowadays. If you haven’t heard about these legends yet, well you shall hear about them now. Most of them were gathered by a young man interested in herpetology, named Alexandru Buzatu.
1. It is considered that newts are water lizards, which is totally wrong, considering first of all that they are amphibians. Actually they are aquatic salamanders which spend their lives in water starting with spring until the end of the reproduction season.
2. The fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra) is a terrestrial amphibian which resembles a lizard, but from the point of view of its evolution it is closer to frogs. Its popular name ‘’the fire salamander’’ was born with the following myth ‘’if it is thrown into the fire it doesn’t burn and it doesn’t get hurt’’. Such facts are totally unreal! It can resist longer than a lizard into the fire due to the humidity of its skin, but left there it will have a painful death.
3. The toad (Bufo viridis), which is very well known in our folklore and in ancient legends, is not guilty at all for the ‘’accusations’’ brought to it, that it carries and spreads scabies. Scabies is a skin disease generated by a small acarian scientifically called Sarcoptes scabiae. This acarian has nothing to do with amphibians. The popular name of the species comes from the aspect of its skin which seems to have blains on it. The toad’s skin secretes a toxic substance used to defend against predators.
4. The European green lizard (Lacerta viridis) is one of the most beautiful lizards in Romania, the body of the adult males being covered with emerald green and light blue. Their size which is quite big makes them look like an imposing species. Such attributes gave birth to some fabulous superstitions among the popular believes. Some of these superstitions would be that ‘’the European green lizard is venomous, aggressive and in case it is attacked it can jump to the male reproductive organs or crawl under the trousers up to these organs’’. All these are nothing but unfounded superstitions. The only real fact is that if a European green lizard is caught it will not hesitate to bite but its bite is totally harmless and insignificant to man.
5. Another victim of superstitions is the spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca ibera) which is a vegetarian and could never be aggressive to another species. In rural Dobrogea people are convinced that these wonderful animals attack their chickens. These tortoises often venture to civilized areas, to gardens or small pastures and they end up in people’s court yards where they seek for food and shelter. People who find then crush their carapace and leave them die in agony. Another false information among people is that the spur-thighed tortoise’s organs can treat cirrhosis and improve sex life. A very important thing to remember is that tortoises are of two kinds, water and land tortoises. The spur-thighed tortoise is a land species and many people are wrong thinking it can swim. Tortoises are often thrown into water when they are found near it because people think that is their habitat and what actually happens is that they drown.
6. Unlike the spur-thighed tortoise the European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis) is a carnivore species. It hunts small aquatic insects, crustaceous, mollusks, worms, larvae as well as sick fish thus making a great service to aquatic habitats and fauna by avoiding potential epidemics. Unfortunately there are many cases when fishermen catch the unfortunate turtle in their fishing nets and the competition of the human species exaggerated the activity of the little reptile to the extent of a great damaging species for fishing. People consider that it badly damages their fishing nets. Thus, if fishermen catch a turtle either they throw it into the boat and leave it to die of starvation or they sting it with a knife and throw it back into the water.
7. The grass snake (Natrix natrix) is the main character of one of the best known oral stories in Romania. Unfortunately it is one of the few stories which make us look at snakes in a positive manner. It is said that “the grass snake lives hidden in the walls of the house and under the foundation of the house and it only comes out if you put a bowl of warm milk; it is said to be responsible with the luck, welfare and balance of the house and during summer nights it ticks as a clock with its tail against the wall; it doesn’t make as many babies as many souls are in the house and if you kill it you will only experience bad luck, death and bad things and sometimes the house can end up in a fire”.
8. About the dice snake (Natrix tessallata) it is said that “it is a snake which lives in or around water, it eats fish; if you want to catch it you must put your hand under the water and push it with its head beneath the surface, this way it won’t bite you because if it opens its mouth under water it drowns and if you take it out of the water it will spread garlic odor all over you; the dice snake often catches frogs and pleasantly swallows them alive just to hear them cry with horror; if it makes its nest near a pond it makes many babies and they eat all the fish and frogs in the pond”.
9. There is also a legend about the rat snake (Elaphe sauromates) in the south-east of Romania. According to this legend “the rat snake only eats birds and eggs and searches for them in nests and tree hollows; it can also sit still on a branch and it hypnotizes the birds that stop near it with its eyes and the hypnotized bird slowly hops singing its last song to death; sometimes the rat snake enters the hens’ nets and eats the chickens; it also crawls into the attics looking for pigeons and sparrows”. Another legend about this snake sais that ”if a snake gets under the ground it hides there for 7 years and after this period of time it comes out under the shape of a winged dragon”.
10. The Caspian whip snake (Dolichophis caspius) is very well known in Romanian folklore due to its legendary aggressiveness. “It chases you and if you bother it, it bites your chin or your eye; it bites grazing cows from their mouth or their udders and hangs there sucking their milk as calves do. The cow’s udder deteriorates and the milk becomes sour or the udder becomes very small and it gives no more milk. “. Another myth says that “during spring time when the Caspian whip snake reproduces it gathers in large balls producing some kind of foam which once it becomes solid is called sacred stone and it is valuable because of its mystical powers”.
11. Even though vipers are fascinating species they have been very much feared and hated in our country for a long time. Religion has had an important role in transmitting such legends associating vipers with demons or the fact that vipers have been cursed by God to be stepped over and crushed by Eve who also had to bear the pain of child birth and its venomous bite in her heal. The lack of knowledge about the life and habits of this wonderful creature has been replaced with numerous legends. Here are some of them: “It is said that vipers can sting with their tongue, with the end of their tail or with the horn on their snout and all these parts of the viper’s body are venomous; it can jump up to 1, 3 or 12 meters high (depending on how impressionable is the person telling the story); vipers can climb on top of the trees and from up there they can jump down on the branches and they can bite, or they can jump and pierce you as a spear does; if you bother a viper which sits on a hill it will bite its tail and roll down as a wheel to catch you and when it will get you it will jump and bite you. The only way to escape is to hide suddenly beneath a tree and the viper will hit the tree instead; vipers only live in pairs and if you kill one of the them, the other will look for you and bite you; vipers grow very big, up to 1,5-2 meters (the species in Romania don’t actually exceed 90 cm).
12. “Frogs can live in a person’s belly if swallowed by mistake”;
13. ”Lizards have a venomous bite”;
14. ”Turtles can get out and enter their carapaces whenever they want”;
15. “Snakes don’t bite under water”;
16. ”Snakes can sting with the end of their tails and with their tongues”;
17. “Snakes can be lured with warm milk”;
18. “If you give a deadly hit to a snake it will not die until sunset”;
19. “Snakes can reach huge dimensions, they can get as thick as a car wheel and as long as 4-5 or even 10 meters”;
20. ”All snakes are venomous”;
21. ”If a snake doesn’t go underground until Cross Day it must be killed because it means that it has bitten somebody and the earth doesn’t receive it anymore”;
22. ”If you go for a picnic you must be careful not to fall asleep with your mouth opened because a snake might enter your mouth and stay in your stomach. If this happens you have to lure it out with a bowl of warm milk and a handy man should wait the snake and catch its head when it comes out; if you do not take it out it will eat all the food you eat and you will starve to death”;
23. “If a snake has a headache it will come close to a road and it will lie on the road to get stepped over”;
24. “If you kill a snake you actually kill a demon and you will be forgiven for one of your sins”;
25. ”If you see a snake and you don’t kill it you will lose your manhood”;
26. ”The person who eats a boiled snake gets younger”;
27. ”If a snake tries to eat a frog and it is killed with a nut tree branch that branch can be used in order to stop the rain”;
28. “Snakes are immortal because they lose their skin and they fool death”;
29. “People can be possessed by snakes if they look into their eyes”;
30. “Snakes are sticky, slippery, wet and cold”;
31. “Snakes can hear”;
32. “Snakes can hypnotize people”;
33. “If you kill a rat snake you will fall ill for a few days”.
Of course all these legends are absurd and totally untrue!