Man-Eating Snakes and Other Giants

Guest writer Hodari Nundu explores the biggest snakes on the planet. This is the second in a three-part series. 

So, now we know that dragons were originally snakes, and that python snakes seem like the obvious source of the myth, at least in Western countries (although Eastern dragons were also originally snake-like, and were later adorned with small lizard-like limbs, crests and whiskers). Does this mean that the dragon that protected the Golden Fleece was also a python snake? Or the one worshipped as a living god in Babylonia, according to the Bible? 

4th Century BCE image, with Jason stealing the Golden Fleece from a snake-like dragon

17th-Century painting by Salvator Rosa; the dragon has grown legs.

I think it’s likely. In 2006, archaeologists announced that they had found evidence of the oldest cult known to science in a cave in Botswana; this cult, over three thousand years older than the oldest known from Europe, had the python snake as its central deity. Even today, 70,000 years later, many African tribes still worship the python as a symbol of life, fertility and transformation. The same is true for some tribes of Southeast Asia.

What is it about the python that inspires such worshipping? I think it’s obviously their size and power. 

During my brief time as a zookeeper I had a few experiences with captive pythons of several species, but mostly, with the spectacular Burmese python. Kaa, the enormous and wise snake from Kipling’s stories, belonged to this species. Most large snakes used in Hollywood movies are Burmese too.

But although Burmese pythons are the favorites of zookeepers due to their relatively docile demeanor, they are not to be underestimated. Their strength, even when they are young and relatively small, is incredible. I learned this when one of the zoo’s Burmese pythons, an albino female named Aphrodite, developed an infection around its mouth (a very common disease among captive snakes, technically known as ulcerative stomatitis).

The vet needed to apply antibiotics on the snake’s mouth, but he needed several people to hold the snake still on the operation table. It wasn’t an easy task. Aphrodite was good tempered, but as soon as the antibiotics touched her infected skin, she started to thrash and squirm with incredible force, obviously in great pain. It took no less than four men, including myself, to hold the snake still long enough for the vet to apply the antibiotics. Today, Aphrodite must be a very large python; but back then, she was barely three meters long. I can only imagine what it must be like to wrestle a reticulated python over three times that size; it is no wonder that even leopards and sun bears fall victim to their coils. 

In another occasion, the senior keeper in the zoo ran out of terrariums, and he urgently needed to contain a new addition to his collection--a boa constrictor, a distant relative of pythons and the largest snake in my home country. In the end, he decided to put the boa in with a Burmese python of docile temperament. It was a mistake. The python launched such a vicious attack on the boa that the latter had to be rescued immediately. It survived, but barely; the python had bitten it repeatedly leaving enormous, bloody wounds on the unfortunate boa’s flesh.

Now, the teeth of a python are not designed to slash through flesh; they are simply grappling hooks, to hold on to the prey during constriction, and they also play a part during the swallowing of prey; but the python was seemingly not trying to eat the boa- instead, it reacted defensively, seeing the other snake’s presence as a threat to itself or its territory. A python’s bite can be potentially as dangerous as that of a venomous snake; the risk of infection is extremely high. That was, of course, the last time the senior keeper tried to put boas and pythons together in the same terrarium. 

Burmese Python by Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble/Creative Commons

So pythons are big, strong and dangerous. They are strong swimmers and skilled tree-climbers. And although there is some evidence that pythons may be “shrinking”-- that is, they no longer reach the huge sizes they were famous for, mostly because humans no longer allow them to live long enough-- they are still very large snakes, and they still kill people once in a while. 

In 2002, a child was collecting mangoes on an orchard in South Africa along with some friends, when he was suddenly attacked and strangled by an African rock python. It took the snake three hours to swallow the 10-year-old; his friends, who had climbed up a tree for safety, witnessed the whole process, and only climbed down when the snake slithered into a nearby stream and disappeared. The authorities said that it was the first instance known of an African rock python eating a person, at least in modern times.

Experts say that pythons are very unlikely to attack humans, and even when they do attack and kill someone, they don´t always eat their victim. Some say the shoulders of a human are too wide for even the largest snakes to swallow; others say that the snakes dislike our smell, and an interesting theory I learned of recently says that it’s not that they dislike our smell per se, but rather that of the cosmetics and chemical products we use. 

Even so, pythons are opportunistic eaters, and if they are hungry, they are likely to launch an attack regardless of what species their prey belongs to; they have been known to kill and constrict animals that are too big for them to swallow. Their gluttony often ends up badly for them; in 2006, a reticulated python in Malaysia found itself in trouble when it swallowed a pregnant sheep. Even though the snake was 5.5 meters long, it was unable to cope with such a monstrous meal-- it eventually had to regurgitate the sheep to be able to move again. A Burmese python in Florida wasn´t so lucky; it swallowed an alligator so large that the snake seemingly burst open afterwards. There’s also a famous story of a python that was shot while trying to swallow an adult man; apparently, the snake had swallowed the head of the man but had became stuck on the shoulders. Interestingly, this gluttony is a common theme in many ancient dragon stories, and it often spells the dragon’s doom.

Other than its man-eating tendencies, the most controversial issue about pythons today is their maximum size. It is often said that the largest reticulated pythons-- usually considered the longest snakes in the world-- reach up to 10 meters long. Due to lack of solid proof, however, many scientists are skeptic about this. In modern days, no such monster has been seen, and the largest pythons are usually around seven meters long. Even these giants-- fed in captivity with goats and dogs-- are very uncommon. 

I don´t think this is surprising, though. The world has changed a lot since the days of Python of Parnassus. Rainforests in Africa and Asia are more and more fragmented each day. In Africa, rock pythons are hunted in large numbers for their meat, or for their body parts, used by witch doctors for potions or amulets. In Asia, pythons are considered dangerous or mistaken for venomous snakes and often killed on sight. Many of these pythons are young; very few have the chance to reach truly enormous sizes. It seems very significant to me that the more we go back in time, the larger snakes are in reports, tales and legends.

In Mexico, my home country, the elders still tell stories about gigantic boa constrictors. They claim that a long time ago, when the forests were still large and rich in wildlife, boas grew to phenomenal sizes. My own grandfather used to tell of his own close encounter with a monster snake. He was driving with another man-- I don´t remember if it was a relative or a friend-- through the densely forested state of Chiapas, when suddenly the car hit something in the road.

They thought at first that it had been a speed bump, but almost immediately they reasoned that such a thing didn´t make any sense in such a lonely road in the middle of the jungle. They stopped the car and walked back to the “speed bump,” only to realize that it was a gigantic snake crossing the road. Amazingly, it hadn´t been injured, or at least, it didn´t seem too badly hurt. It continued to slither across the road slowly and eventually disappeared into the jungle. According to him, the snake must have been around ten meters long.

Of course, if you ask a herpetologist, he will tell you that boas rarely grow to four meters long and would certainly never grow to over six meters long. Giant boas are the product of exaggeration, bad measuring techniques and ancient legends mixed with the natural fear country people have of snakes.

They will also tell you that the ancient Mexican name for the boa constrictor, mazacoatl, “deer snake”, comes from a mythical creature that was half snake and half deer. But the elders are more practical; they say the boa is called mazacoatl simply because it eats deer. And it takes a gigantic snake to eat even the relatively small Mexican white-tailed deer.

So, who’s to be believed? 



  1. Very interesting, the paintings :>

  2. What do you make of the pattern on that top "dragon"? Seems very snaky to me.

  3. It screams "reticulated python" to me. I even see some resemblance in the head shape too.

  4. I thought retic too. . . but how did an Anicent Greek artist see one?

    1. That's what got me thinking too. I would suposse they were more familiar (relatively at least) with Indian and African rock pythons which were besides more widespread back then- the pattern in the dragon does look like a retic's, but then again, retics have simpler skin patterns than Burmese or Rock pythons, and drawing triangles on it may simply have been easier for the artist. On the other hand, if I'm not mistaken reticulated pythons are still found in India. Megasthenes and other Greek writers/historians were living in India in 4thBCE (although I don´t know if any of them wrote about pythons/dragons)... The point is that any Greek expedition to India may have brought pythons, or at least their skins, back to Greece. I'll have to research more...

  5. I checked on a book about the Greek and indeed, Megasthenes wrote about pythons "big enough to swallow bulls", and interestingly, he speaks too of how people would often preserve "skin and jaws" of the largest specimens, and even mentions one that was preserved in Rome.

  6. Fascinating! I gotta read up on Megasthenes.


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