The Dipsas is a deadly species of asp found in the deserts of Libya. Its name is derived from the gruesome effects of its venom, which were experienced first hand by Lucan’s men.
The Pharsalia (also known as De Bello Civili meaning On the Civil War), is a Roman epic poem written by the poet Lucan that tells of the civil war between Julius Caesar and the forces of the Roman Senate.
In Book IX, Cato, a politician and leader of the republics army, leads the Senate soldiers across Africa. As the army marches, Lucan references the myth of Perseus and Medusa and describes the various serpents that rose from the blood that dripped from Medusa’s severed head onto the desert sand. These include the Cenchris, whose belly is tinged with various spots; the unnumbered Scytale, which shed in vernal frosts; the thirsty Dipsas, with a venon that drieds and desecates the body; the dread Amphisbaena with its double head; and the swift Jaculus, almost invisible because of the speed of its attack. These same creatures also appear in Dante’s Inferno XXIV.
Aldrovandi believed it to be the same as the Prester, while Topsell saw it as distinct, since the prester kills by heat while the dipsas uses thirst. Prester are so torrid that they keep their steaming mouth open to cool off, and foam constantly bubbles out from inside them. Topsell identifies dipsas with the fiery snakes that plagued the Israelites in the wilderness, but does not describe them beyond their extreme internal heat. They are fast-moving snakes, hurrying from place to place with their panting mouths wide open.Aelian described the prester’s venom as causing profound lethargy, progressive weakness, loss of memory, inability to urinate, hair loss, choking, and eventually convulsions that lead to death. Flaubert specifies that mere contact with it causes debilitation.
Lucan describes more grotesque symptoms. The unfortunate Nasidius, upon suffering a scorching dipsas's bite, feels the flames of the venom coursing through his veins. His entire body starts to swell, inflating and bloating and cutting through his armor, engulfing his limbs. The tumorous swelling ends only once Nasidius is a formless, headless heap, then it dries up to a fragile shell. The remains are so disgusting that even the scavengers shun them.
-Batinski, E. (1992) Cato and the Battle with the Serpents. Syllecta Classica, Vol. 3, pp. 71-80.
-Flaubert, G. (1885) La Tentation de Saint Antoine. Quantin, Paris.
-Lucan, trans. Rowe, N. (1720) Pharsalia. T. Johnson, London.