Ptolemy II (king of Egypt from 285-246 BCE) was a brilliant leader, but an odd figure in his personal life. On the one hand, he was a skilled diplomatic maneuverer and an expansionist who extended his influence in all directions, but on the other hand, he was also the first Ptolemaic king to marry his own sister, an awkward trend that would be repeated by later members of his Ptolemaic Dynasty. A similar shaky balance between acclaim and criticism arose with Ptolemy II’s interest in wildlife. At times, he showed intellectual curiosity in the wide variety of animals that wandered near and around his realm. Yet, he also might have become obsessive in hunting and capturing exotic creatures. On this, the historian Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE) wrote, “expending on this hobby great sums of money, [Ptolemy II] not only collected great herds of war-elephants, but also brought to the knowledge of the Greeks other kinds of animals which had never been seen and were objects of amazement” (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 3.36). In particular, King Ptolemy II was reportedly proud of a giant snake that a team of hunters was able to capture alive. This huge serpent, however, had not been an easy prey for the trappers sent to retrieve it for the king.
Legends about Ptolemy’s pet snake were quite extravagant. The creature was reportedly 30 cubits long, equaling about 13.716 meters (or 15 yards or 45 feet), and although it was great in length, the circumference of its body was rather slender. Ptolemy’s hunters, so the story goes, tracked the beast down at an oasis, where the serpent lived in a hole in the ground when it was not feeding on the various animals that came to the watering hole for a drink. At first, Ptolemy’s fearful hunters allegedly tried to wrangle the huge snake with rope and sheer strength. According to legend, this initial battle of wills did not go well for the hunters. Diodorus Siculus wrote:
“With cowardly trembling they cast the nooses about its tail; but the beast, the moment the rope touched its body, whirled about with so mighty a hissing as to frighten them out of their wits, and raising itself into the air above the head of the foremost man it seized him in its mouth and ate his flesh while he still lived, and the second it caught from a distance with a coil as he fled, drew him to itself, and winding itself about him began squeezing his belly with its tightening bond; and as for all the rest, stricken with terror they sought their safety in flight” (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 3.36).
After that legendary and folkloric battle with the serpentine beast, Ptolemy’s hunters decided they could not take down the monster in a fair fight. Resorting to cunning and trickery instead, the hunters backed down and let the trappers take over the operation. As the story goes, the party waited until the serpent had slithered away from its home to hunt before they went into action. They filled in and covered up the snake’s original underground lair, and right beside it they dug a sizable tunnel, in which they placed a great net. With the trap set, the group waited for the snake to return. When the creature, indeed, slinked back to the region of its lair, the hunters and trappers launched their second attack. Instead of confronting it straight on, they now allegedly blasted away at trumpets, threw rocks, and did anything else within their power to raise an unbearable clammer. Faced with this onslaught of sound and projectiles, the serpent bolted toward its hole in the ground—yet, instead of entering its own lair, the creature instead mistakenly sought shelter in the manmade, net-lined trap. Seizing victory, the hunters tied the opening of the net shut and dragged the captured beast out of the hole. Diodorus Siculus described the supposed reaction of King Ptolemy II and his court when the giant serpent was hauled back to the city of Alexandria:
“When they had brought the snake to Alexandria they presented it to the king, an astonishing sight which those cannot credit who have merely heard the tale. By depriving the beast of its food they wore down its spirit and little by little tamed it, so that the domestication of it became a thing of wonder. As for Ptolemy, he distributed among the hunters the merited rewards, and kept and fed the snake, which had now been tamed and afforded the greatest and most astonishing sight for the strangers who visited his kingdom” (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 3.37).
Such, then, is the peculiar tale of the giant pet serpent of King Ptolemy II. It is a story laced with exaggeration and folklore since ancient times, possibly spread by the hunters, Ptolemy II himself, or other storytellers. It should be said that the snake likely did not kill two people before it was caught, but two hunters could have easily died on the expedition from other causes. Whatever the case behind this strange story, it is an interesting and entertaining tale.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (God and serpent, manuscript BL YT 13, f. 22, of the Book of Hours, Use of Sarum (‘The Taymouth Hours’), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and The British Library.jpg).
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).