Latin name: Aspis
Other names: Aspic, Aspide, Emorois, Haemorrhois, Hypnalis, Ipnalis, Prester
Blocks its ear with its tail so as not to hear the charmer
The asp is a serpent that avoids the enchantment of music by pressing one ear against the ground and plugging the other ear with its tail. In some versions the asp guards a tree that drips balm; to get the balm men must first put the asp to sleep by playing or singing to it. Another version holds that the asp has a precious stone called a carbuncle in its head, and the enchanter must say certain words to the asp to obtain the stone.
The Haemorrhois, Prester and Hypnalis are other varieties of asp.
The asp represents the worldly and wealthy, who keep one ear pressed to earthly desire, and whose other ear is blocked by sin.
|Sources (chronological order)|
Bible (Psalm 58:5-6): "...they are like the deaf adder that stops her ear; which will not hearken to the voice of charmers, charming never so wisely".
Lucan [1st century CE] (Pharsalia, book 9, verse 821-839): "First from the dust was raised a gory clot / In guise of Asp, sleep-bringing, swollen of neck: / Full was the blood and thick the poison drop / That were its making; in no other snake / More copious held. Greedy of warmth it seeks / No frozen world itself, nor haunts the sands / Beyond the Nile; yet has our thirst of gain / No shame nor limit, and this Libyan death, / This fatal pest we purchase for our own". (verse 830-832): "Haemorrhois huge spreads out his scaly coils, / Who suffers not his hapless victims' blood / To stay within their veins". (verse 845-846): "Greedy Prester swells / His foaming jaws...". (verse 928-936): "...a Prester's fang / Nasidius struck, who erst in Marsian fields / Guided the ploughshare. Burned upon his face / A redness as of flame: swollen the skin, / His features hidden, swollen all his limbs / Till more than human: and his definite frame / One tumour huge concealed. A ghastly gore / Is puffed from inwards as the virulent juice / Courses through all his body...". (verse 946-955): "On Tullus great in heart, / And bound to Cato with admiring soul, / A fierce Haemorrhois fixed. From every limb, / (As from a statue saffron spray is showered / In every part) there spouted forth for blood / A sable poison: from the natural pores / Of moisture, gore profuse; his mouth was filled / And gaping nostrils, and his tears were blood. / Brimmed full his veins; his very sweat was red; / All was one wound".
Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 8, 35): When the neck of an asp swells up, the only remedy for its sting is to immediately amputate the bitten part.
Augustine of Hippo [5th century CE] (Sermo 316:2 - In Solemnitate Stephani Martyris; Duri Iudaei in Stephanum): "Sicut enim dicuntur aspides, quando incantantur, ut non prorumpant et exeant de cavernis suis, premere unam aurem ad terram, et de cauda sibi alteram obturare, et tamen incantator producit illas..." (As indeed of asps it is said, that when they are lured by incantations, in order that they may not be drawn from their caves they press one ear to the ground, and use their tail to stop up the other, and yet the enchanter can bring it forth...). This appears to be the first time this method of blocking both ears was described.
Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 4:12-16): The asp (aspis) kills with a venomous bite, and from this it gets its name, for the Greek word for poison is ios (as). When an enchanter calls an asp out of its cave by incantations and it does not want to go, it presses one ear to the ground and covers the other with its tail, so it cannot hear the enchantment. There are many kinds of asp, but not all are equally harmful. The dipsas is a kind of asp, called in Latin situla because one bitten dies of thirst. The hypnalis is a kind of asp that kills in sleep, as Cleopatra was freed by death as if by sleep when bitten by one. The haemorrhois is called an asp because anyone bitten by it sweats blood; for the Greek word for blood is haima. The prester (or praester) is a kind of asp that always runs with its steaming mouth open; one bitten becomes distended for rot follows the bite.
Aberdeen Bestiary [c. 1200 CE]: "The emorrosis is an asp, so called because it kills by making you sweat blood. If you are bitten by it, you grow weak, so that your veins open and your life is drawn forth in your blood. For the Greek word for 'blood' is emath. ... The prester is an asp that moves quickly with its mouth always open and emitting vapour... If it strikes you, you swell up and die of gross distention, for the swollen body putrefies immediately after... There is a kind of asp called ypnalis, because it kills you by sending you to sleep. It was this snake that Cleopatra applied to herself, and was released by death as if by sleep."
The usual illustration of the asp shows the enchanter reading from a scroll, with the snake at his feet blocking its ears. The asp guarding the balsam tree is occasionally illustrated.