Leeches, Serpents, and the Song of the Dying Swan

by Albany Poyntz

In the conclusions of naturalists there is much to respect. But we must beware of false inferences.

For instance, no one will deny that swallows skim the surface of the earth on the approach of a storm. But it is simply because insects then swarm in the lower regions of the atmosphere. The swallows seek their prey where instinct teaches them that it is most abundant; not because a peculiar sympathy warns them of the coming storm. Swans, ducks, goslings, also, indicate hot weather by plunging oftener than usual, because the temperature being oppressive, they seek a fresher one under the water.

In the list of meteorological animals, leeches hold a prominent place. An English physician pretends that they are lively when the sky is clear and serene, and raise their heads above water to breathe the pure air. But if the sky be gloomy and clouded, they conceal themselves in the mud, and are evidently agitated at the approach of storms. The following are the observations of Dr. Vitet, in his “Treaty on Medical Leeches.”

“Close up a quantity of leeches in jars of equal size containing the same water, and expose them together to the open air. Never will you see identity of action. In one jar, they are at the surface, in another at the bottom, while in another they will be completely out of the water sticking to the cover. Again, you will see all the leeches of the same jar in all these different positions; some adhering by their tails from the borders of the jar, others balancing themselves with the most perfect regularity. It follows, therefore, that leeches are devoid of meteorological susceptibility.”

Had not Dr. Vitet made his experiments on so large a scale, a single leech, well-watched, would always have been said to announce changes of weather and temperature. In the case of the Rana Arboria, or tree-frog, which is sometimes confined in a glass jar to form a sort of living weather-glass, it may be noticed that, when two frogs of the same species are kept in the same glass, one is sure to be found at the top of the ladder and one at the bottom, proving how little such indications are to be depended upon.

To leeches is attributed another peculiarity, equally groundless; the faculty, namely, of ridding us of our corrupt blood, while they respect the pure; a fact disproved by daily experience.

According to a popular prejudice in many countries, snakes and vipers will creep down the throats of persons imprudent enough to sleep in the open fields with their mouths open; and strange things are related on this subject, especially in Germany.

About fifty years ago, the German newspapers announced that in Styria a young girl being asleep with her mouth open, a viper made its way into her throat. She was not aware of the fact; but a few days afterwards began to experience an insupportable irritation. On a subsequent day, the viper reappeared by the channel it had penetrated, hissing and raising itself on its tail as if overjoyed at its emancipation; and immediately afterwards, the girl vomited a quantity of viper’s eggs. This anecdote so charmed the French journalists, that they republished it in various directions, neither suspecting that they were renewing a fable of the Greeks, nor inquiring whether vipers were oviparous.

The adventures of the Styrian girl was nearly forgotten, when a French surgeon gave a fresh version of it in the following shape:

“In the month of June, 1806, a child of four years old having fallen asleep on the bank of the Canal de L’Ourcq with her mouth open, a snake crept in and passed into her stomach, where it remained for nineteen days; at the expiration of which, the child accidentally drank a glass of white wine, when forth came the snake in the presence of her whole family!” Witnesses were found to attest the fact; and the medical man who attended the child, asserted the reptile to have been eighteen inches long! Dr. Masson, surgeon to the civil Hospitals of Paris, made a report upon the subject to the Faculty of Medicine, attributing the attraction of the snake to the child having fed upon bread and milk, the predilection of those reptiles for that sustenance being well known.

Before we return to the above subject, we may as well inquire whether the predilection of snakes for milk be really true. The French peasants agree in this opinion with Pliny, Aldovrandus and Gesner. Yet all are wrong. Snakes are furnished with numerous little teeth at the extremity of their mouths, that their prey may not escape; so that if they sucked the cows as asserted by the peasants, their teeth must become inextricably entangled in the udder. The diminution of the milk in the dairies of the French provinces, is nevertheless often most conveniently ascribed to the interposition of snakes, innocent at least of this species of mischief.

We must, therefore, conclude that Dr. Masson’s little patient was not the victim of the passion of the snake in question for milk. Is it credible, however, that a snake eighteen inches long could introduce itself into the mouth of a sleeping child without awaking it, or creep down the æsophagus and into the stomach without being perceived? The marvellous snake was probably nothing more than a worm such as is frequently ejected from the mouths of children.

Snakes, vipers, and serpents have always been leading features in fable, and, at times, in history. Without alluding to the serpent-tempter, we have the serpent of Aaron, which also serves as the attribute of Esculapius, and ornaments the Caduceus of Mercury. We have the serpent Python, and those which entwined themselves round the Laocoon and his sons; the serpent concealed under the flowers, whose sting caused the death of Eurydice; and finally, the asp of Cleopatra. But upon such matters, the moderns have gone far beyond the ancients. If, for instance, the asp which bit the bosom of Cleopatra had pertained to the species which Father Charleroix saw at Paraguay, it might have been the rival of Anthony; for the Padre expressly asserts that serpents are ever on the watch to carry off females in the forests of that province. These may be considered rivals to the Great Sea Serpent of the Americans.

Bertholin, the learned Swedish doctor, relates strange anecdotes of lizards, toads and frogs; stating that a woman, thirty years of age, being thirsty, drank plentifully of water at a pond. At the end of a few months, she experienced singular movements in her stomach, as if something were crawling up and down; and alarmed by the sensation, consulted a medical man, who prescribed a dose of orvietan in a decoction of fumitary. Shortly afterwards, the irritation of the stomach increasing, she vomited three toads and two young lizards, after which, she became more at ease. In the spring following, however, her irritation of the stomach was renewed; and aloes and bezoar being administered, she vomited three female frogs, followed the next day by their numerous progeny. In the month of January following, she vomited five more living frogs, and in the course of seven years, ejected as many as eighty. Dr. Bertholin protests that he heard them croak in her stomach! The utter incompatibility of the nature of these reptiles with the temperature of the human stomach, renders denial of the truth of this scientific anecdote almost superfluous.

The Journal des Débats, then called the Journal de l’Empire, published the following circumstances as having taken place at Joinville, in the Department of the Meuse.

“Marie Ragot, a widow, having complained for two years of a distaste for food, and suffered from internal cramps.

“These symptoms were at first attributed to an aneurism of the viscera; but were soon found to proceed from some strange substance in the stomach. After two months, Marie Ragot ejected from her mouth a living reptile in the presence of many; who, on seeing it creep away, in the hurry of the moment, inconsiderately crushed it. This reptile belonging to the lizard class, was thin and long, its colour light grey, brown on the back, and dark yellow under the belly. It had four small legs, each having nail-tipped feelers, a triangular head, rather obtuse at the nose, bent, a short tail and filiform at the extremity. This is all we have been able to learn, the witnesses having stupidly destroyed the reptile. Ragot died soon afterwards, and it remains undecided whether her death was caused by the reptile remaining so long in her stomach. The lizard we have described was doubtless the grey common wall lizard. It is supposed to have crept into her mouth when asleep.”

While occupied by consideration of the marvels of physiological history, we must not omit to mention the song of the Dying Swan; formerly applied as a standard of composition for the highest pitch which melody could attain, and as typical of the last strains emanating from the soul of the poet. Virgil, Fénélon and Shakspeare, are known as the Swan of Mantua, the Swan of Cambray, and Swan of Avon. Pliny, whose propensity for handing down popular fallacies we have already noticed, says, in treating of the gift of song conceded to swans by the poets: “The doleful strain attributed to the swan, at the moment of death, is a prejudice disproved by experience.” Modern observation confirms his opinion that the song of the swan is a mere metaphor. To urge this matter further would be equivalent to pleading after judgment; had not Dr. Bertholin, who attended the woman of the eighty frogs, endeavoured to revive the idea of the ancients; quoting the declaration of one of his friends, Grégoire Wilhelmi, that having seen one of a flight of swans expire, the others hastened to its aid, giving forth harmonious sounds, as if singing the funeral dirge of their departed companion.

This story is evidently a romantic fiction. But if the domestic swan be mute, it is not so with the wild one, which is guilty of the most discordant noises, instead of the fabulous harmony so long attributed to it. The Abbé Arnaud carefully observed two wild swans which sought refuge on the waters of Chantilly, more particularly, as regarded their cries. Buffon notices that they have a shrill, piercing shriek, far from agreeable, and are quite insensible to the sound of music.

The song of the swan, therefore, must be admitted to be as much a creation of the poets as the song of the syrens which, according to Homer, attracted the vessel of Ulysses.