Throughout cryptozoology there have long been reports of all manner of strange creatures. One very weird corner of this phenomonon is that of flying snakes or serpents of some kind, which lurk about on the periphery of our understanding. One region which has long been a hotbed of such tales is Africa and the neighboring region of Arabia, from which come some very odd tales of these flying serpents.
One region long said to be inhabited by flying snakes are the remote desert wastelands of the African country of Namibia, on the southwest coast of Africa. The so-called “Namibian Flying Snake” supposedly has quite the striking appearance, measuring 9 to 25 feet in length, and being yellowish brown with light spots, or black in color, with the ability to camouflage itself like a chameleon and puff out its neck like a cobra, and is known for its loud, roaring vocalizations. They are said to live in caves during the day and come out at dusk, and that they are supposedly extremely aggressive and territorial. Locals are apparently terrified of the beasts, which they believe prey on livestock and even people. One of its oddest features is that it is said to be able to produce some sort of light or possibly bioluminescence from a crest on its head, which is often the first thing a witness notices when the nocturnal creatures come out.
The region’s flying snakes have been reported by outsiders since the days of the first African exploration of the region, and one of the more notable accounts supposedly occurred in 1942, in the vicinity of a farm near Kirris West, in south-west Namibia. The account goes that a farmer named Michael Esterhuise was tending to his flock of sheep when he smelled something like burnt tar and looked to see an enormous snake bounding down a hill before shooting straight up into the air on huge wings a sound like “wind blowing through a pipe” and a “great roaring noise.” Esterhuise would claim to encounter the creature on two more occasions after that, and it was compelling enough that it was investigated by Marjorie Eileen Doris Courtenay-Latimer, the South African museum official who in 1938, brought to the attention of the world the existence of the coelacanth.
In the 1950s, local farmers and missionaries in the region near Goageb were shocked when seven of their sheep were killed by one of the beasts and in 1978 there was another notable sighting, when a French farmer who was tending his cattle in the Karas region and noticed a light approaching him. As it drew closer, he could see that the light was emanating from a crest atop the head of a vast winged serpent, which would swoop down to attack one of his cows and fly off. He would say:
I saw what looked like… as the best matching description I can give you is that it looked like a dragon, it had a white bright light on its head, which was blinding me, the color of it was brown and yellow, it had green eyes, there was a tar-like smell coming from it and it had smoke coming out of its nostrils.
In 1988, professor and explorer Roy Mackal travelled to Namibia to investigate such reports, and although he was unable to see one of the creatures or gather any evidence, he came away convinced that the creature was real. Is there anything to this at all as Mackal thought, or is this just deep myth and legend, which the region is steeped in? Researcher Sigrid Schmidt, of Hildesheim, wrote a very interesting letter to R.Muirhead in response to his article The Flying Snake of Namibia: An Introduction, which published in the 1996 The Centre for Fortean Zoology Yearbook. Although Muirhead took a very cryptozoological approach in trying to understand if a real flesh and blood creature could be behind such reports, Schmidt takes a more mythological stance, saying in his letter:
Like the ghosts or UFOs in Europe, these snakes are seen by people who believe in them. And people who do not believe in them do not see them. A teacher once sarcastically told me: If at night people see the light of a motor-bike or a car where only one light is working people say: Oh, there is the snake again! And there are many people who delight to tell tales how they saw the snake or about other people who met the snake. Usually quite a number of different traits are attributed to these snakes, each narrator stresses different ones: its stench which alone kills people and attracts swarms of flies, its call which sounds like sheep or goats calling, the light, lamp, mirror, stone or white spot on its forehead, its face like a man`s face, sometimes even with a beard, its horns or ears, its fondness for women. In dry Namibia the snake (which is usually called the Big Snake) lives in the mountains, but in the permanent rivers, particularly the Oranje River, its aquarian lives in the water, has a palace under the water and keeps there his human wives which he steals at the shore. These snakes belong to a very ancient stratum of belief in Africa and in other continents as well. In southern Africa there are rock paintings of prehistoric times of huge snakes which probably were connected with rain or rain ceremonies.
The nearby region of Arabia has also long been said to be the home of some sort of flying serpent, notably in the area around the Arabian Sea, in the area of Egypt. They were typically described as looking like water snakes, only with bat-like wings upon which they could take flight, sometimes in vast numbers. They were said to lurk about under frankincense trees, and farmers harvesting these trees were so afraid of them that they would burn styrax, which is the resin of the Liquidambar tree, under the trees, which was said to drive the serpents away. If the snakes were not warded off in this manner, then the territorial serpents would supposedly viciously attack anyone who came near the trees, and were a constant menace for those who sought to collect the frankincense.
The only time when the region was supposedly safe from these malicious winged snakes was during spring, when they were said to migrate to Egypt. Far from mere folklore, the Arabians described these as real animals, giving a good deal of detail on their behavior and life cycle. For instance, the female was said to kill the male during mating, that the young would eat their way out of the womb, killing the mother, and that their primary predator was ibis birds. Occasionally these winged snakes were seen by outsiders, and in the fourth century B.C., Greek historian Herodotus passed through the region and learned much about these creatures from the locals. They told him of the snakes’ habitats and behaviors, even showing him the mountain pass they were said to pass through during their annual migration, and how the ibis birds would congregate there in great numbers during this time to feed on the serpents. He would claim that he had also seen large numbers of skeletons from these snakes at the pass. Herodotus would write of these creatures at length in his tome Histories, saying:
There is a region moreover in Arabia, situated nearly over against the city of Buto, to which place I came to inquire about the winged serpents: and when I came thither I saw bones of serpents and spines in quantity so great that it is impossible to make report of the number, and there were heaps of spines, some heaps large and others less large and others smaller still than these, and these heaps were many in number. The region in which the spines are scattered upon the ground is of the nature of an entrance from a narrow mountain pass to a great plain, which plain adjoins the plain of Egypt; and the story goes that at the beginning of spring winged serpents from Arabia fly towards Egypt, and the birds called ibises meet them at the entrance of this country and do not suffer the serpents to go by but kill them. On account of this deed it is, say the Arabians, that the ibis has come to be greatly honored by the Egyptians, and the Egyptians also agree that it is for this reason that they honor these birds. As for the serpent its form is like that of the watersnake; and it has wings not feathered but most nearly resembling the wings of the bat. Let so much suffice as has been said now concerning sacred animals.
Again, Arabia is the most distant to the south of all inhabited countries: and this is the only country which produces frankincense and myrrh and casia and cinnamon and gum-mastich. All these except myrrh are difficult for the Arabians to get. They gather frankincense by burning that storax which Phoinikes (Phoenicians) carry to Hellas; they burn this and so get the frankincense; for the spice-bearing trees are guarded by small Winged Snakes of varied color, many around each tree; these are the snakes that attack Aigyptos (Egypt). Nothing except the smoke of storax will drive them away from the trees.
So too if the vipers and the Winged Serpents of Arabia were born in the natural manner of serpents life would be impossible for men; but as it is, when they copulate, while the male is in the act of procreation and as soon as he has ejaculated his seed, the female seizes him by the neck, and does not let go until she has bitten through. The male dies in the way described, but the female suffers in return for the male the following punishment: avenging their father, the young while they are still within the womb gnaw at their mother and eating through her bowels thus make their way out. Other snakes, that do no harm to men, lay eggs and hatch out a vast number of young. The Arabian Winged Serpents do indeed seem to be numerous; but that is because (although there are vipers in every land) these are all in Arabia and are found nowhere else. The Arabians get frankincense in the foregoing way.
It is just about the oddest thing to find among all of Herotodus’ writings, and it is hard to imagine what might be going on here. Were there really swarms of violent flying snakes terrorizing the region, or is this a bit of myth possibly based on a grain of truth? Research scholar and author Adrienne Mayor, author of The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myths in Greek and Roman Times and The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, has suggested some possibilities, saying:
Classicists, natural historians, and cryptozoologists have long puzzled over what Herodotus saw and where he saw it. Were there any germs of truth in his account of the Egyptian lore? Was the lore based on legendary hordes of large flying insects, perhaps locusts, preyed on by huge flocks of birds? Was there once a population of “parachuting” lizards or “gliding” snakes in the Sinai? (Draco volans and Chrysopelia, respectively, are now only found in southeast Asia). Note that Herodotus was never shown live specimens, only heaps of jumbled bones of different sizes. Could the Egyptian tales have arisen to explain mysterious fossil deposits of spinosaurid dinosaurs (with a membrane “sail”), or a large mixed deposit of fossil birds and reptiles eroding out of a salt valley now obliterated by the Suez Canal? The true identity of the winged snakes of ancient Arabia remains a tantalizing unsolved enigma.
What are we to make of such reports? Is it just misidentifications of known animals or is there some true mystery lurking here? Or is it all just legend, myth, and tall tales? Although there are certainly known to be gliding snakes that actually exist, there is nothing known that matches any of these truly bizarre accounts. What are we dealing with here? For now it remains a mystery, and a strange corner of the world of cryptozoology.