The Amphisbaena is a reptile in European legends and heraldry, [2] commonly described as a snake with a head at both ends. [1] Its name stems from a Greek word that means 'to go both ways,' [2] which Amphisbaena earned because it was believed that it could move backward or forward with equal ease. [5]

Physical Description

Amphisbaena inspired from medieval manuscript artwork.

Figure 1. Amphisbaena with bird claws and wings inspired by medieval manuscripts.
© K. 'drago' McCormick. 2012.

Amphisbaena is described as a two-headed serpent, one above the neck and one at the end of its prehensile tail, [2] sometimes depicted with the claws and legs of a bird and the pointed wings of a bat. [5]

In bestiaries and manuscripts, depictions of the amphisbaena have its jaws wrap around its own tail/neck, creating a hoop that can either roll [3] or move like a cartwheel. [2] When both heads try to move forward, the dragon forms a circle. [3]


Habitat, Hunting, and Life Cycle

The Amphisbaenae live in the deserts of North Africa. [2] They are widespread throughout the desert, and they lie in wait for unwary animals or travelers in the desert. [3]

Amphisbaenae are formidable adversaries. [2] They can run at spectacular speeds in either direction [2] and can change direction with ease to surprise prey or elude capture. [3] On top of its speed, they secrete a dangerous and excruciating position that kills quickly. [3] No one is safe from an Amphisbaena, even at night, because its glowing eyes penetrate the darkness. [2]

After an Amphisbaena lays its eggs in the warm sands, [2] the parents keep watch. While one of its head sleeps, the other keeps watch, with eyes as bright as fire. [3]

Winged Amphisbaena

Figure 2. Winged Amphisbaena inspired by medieval manuscripts.
© K. 'drago' McCormick. 2012.

The Amphisbaena in Legend

In Greek myth, the blood of the Gorgon Medusa spawned many deadly serpents as Perseus carried the head of the Gorgon over the Libyan Desert. Among those serpents was the first Amphisbaena. [3] When Cato's army marched across the desert, amphisbaena fed upon the fallen soldiers. [1]

Classical writer Pliny the Elder describes the Amphisbaena, and Lucan makes an account of one in Pharsalia. [2]

Medicinal and Other Uses of Amphisbaena

Amphisbaena inspired by medieval bestiary descriptions

Figure 3. Amphisbaena inspired by medieval bestiary descriptions.
© K. 'drago' McCormick. 2012.

Despite its dangerous venom, capturing an Amphisbaena can prove its worth. Its dried skin can cure rheumatism [2] and remedy chilblains because it reduces the swelling of the hands and feet when inflamed by the cold. [3]

A living Amphisbaena is an excellent talisman for any pregnant woman. [2] In fact, prophetesses and women of prestige or high rank wore golden bracelets carved in the resemblance of an amphisbaena, as this signified power and protection. [1]

In the Libyan Desert there is a reptile that has the name Amphisbaena, although its nature is far less fantastical than the dragon species described here. [2]

Amphisbaena is the scientific name for a genus of legless worm lizards capable of moving both ways with camouflaged tails. [3] When one raises its tail, it appears as if there is an additional head, and, with this clever camouflage, the lizard protects its eggs and eludes predators. [2]



These are quotations from people of the past who are describing this strange creature.

A smaller kind of serpent, which moveth forward and backward, hath two heads...Which double formations do often happen unto multiparous generations, more especially that of Serpents; whose productions being numerous, and their Eggs in chains or links together (which sometime conjoyn and inoculate into each other) they may unite into various shapes and come out in mixed formations.

-- Sir Thomas Browne Pseudodoxia Epidemica [4]

...slow in motion, two-headed, always dull of eye...

-- Nicander, Greek poet from the second century B.C.E. [1]

Legless Amphisbaena.

Figure 4. Legless Amphisbaena inspired by medieval manuscript artwork.
© K. 'drago' McCormick. 2012.


  1. Allardice 18
  2. Rose [Monsters] 16
  3. Nigg [Dragons] 43
  4. Amphisbaena
  5. Cirlot 9

For more information on footnotes and references, please see the bibliography.