Of Pepper and serpents

Ibi nascitur multitudo piperis, quod idem serpentes custodiunt...

By the time of Herodotus, the Mediterranean  world had heard of various aromatic tropical plants’ being guarded by snakes and by the time of Alexander, or at least of Hadrian, the Pepper vine was among them.   Difficulties attending the harvesting of pepper would continue to be mentioned in western works until the fifteenth century –  so for about two thousand years altogether.

The version of ‘pepper and its guardian serpents’ story in Cambridge, Trinity College MS O.2.48 (fol. 93r) seems close to the entry in Isidore’s Etymologies (Bk. XVII, viii.8) which I quote below, but with others involved in translating parts of the TCC manuscript,  I’ll leave its discussion aside for now.

Pliny’s invention of  devious and dishonest ‘natives’ to explain what he (in his ignorance of India) thought unlikely is an early example of a now not-uncommon phenomenon: a  self-confidence which resorts to imaginative hypotheses rather than historical enquiry to manage what it cannot explain.

Pliny didn’t like his compatriots’ using foreign spices and wasn’t keen on the sort of traders who, at that time, brought eastern produce and products to Rome. So Pliny created a version of the  legend of ‘pepper-guarding snakes’ that bolstered his self-image as rational and clear-minded, while simultaneously suggesting that pepper selling ‘natives’ were mercenary liars and those who paid a high price for pepper were fools.

A modern writer who like most western writers reports this “scepticism” with approval sees nothing odd in Pliny’s bias:

Venerable though it was, the idea that serpents surround and therefore impede the harvest of fragrant plants was not universally accepted. Pliny .. ridiculed Herodotus’s accounts of the dangers of gathering cinnamon and cassia – as deliberate fabrications put forth by natives of the regions where the spices grow in order to elevate prices. Pliny’s comment offers the first intimation of a commercial motive for such alleged marvels. Theophrastus in his authoritative botanical treatise also dismissed these stories as fables. [emphasis above, present author].

So what happened to that basic question: Is it true?

Is it true that ‘natives’ were able to raise prices by telling marvellous tales? No, as it happens. Pepper sales to foreigners were a monopoly in Kerala, and prices were set by quality and availability, and presumably further by competition between foreign buyers when resources were relative scarce.

The fact that pepper – unlike incense or balsam – was openly grown near the port where it was sold; that there were enclaves of foreign merchants resident there, and that any transient merchant who missed the west-bearing monsoons had to live in the port for months on end meant, altogether that  literally thousands of potential debunkers existed, over the two millennia while accounts continued to be given of the pepper-guarding serpents.

The ‘debunking’ never occurs among first-hand witnesses during the earlier centuries, to judge from the Latin texts. Quite the opposite, and as the same writer notes, in passing:

The difficulties of harvesting pepper are mentioned frequently in texts from the ninth to fifteenth centuries.”

Why?  The interesting historical question is not so much why the legend arose, than why it  continued to be maintained from the time of Alexander, or at least of Hadrian[1] to the fifteenth century.

So to Isidore,  writing in Spain in the seventh century.  The  English translation by Barney, Lewis, Beach and Berghof reads.

The pepper tree (piper) grows in India, on the side of the Caucasian range that faces the sun. Its leaves are like the juniper’s. Serpents protect the pepper groves, but the inhabitants of that region, when the peppers ripen, burn them, and the serpents are put to flight by the fire–and from this flame the pepper, which is naturally white, is made black. In fact there are several kinds of pepper fruits. The unripe kind is called ‘long pepper’; that unaffected by fire, ‘white pepper’; but that which has a wrinkled and bristly skin takes both its color (i.e. ‘black’) and its name (cf. !N, “fire”) from the heat of the fire. If a pepper is light in weight it is old; if heavy, it is fresh. But the fraud of the merchants should be guarded against, for they are wont to sprinkle litharge or lead over very old, moistened pepper to make it heavy.

Etymologies Bk XVII.viii.8

The Latin:

Piperis arbor nascitur in India, in latere montis Caucasi, quod soli obversum est, folia iuniperi similitudine. Cuius silvas serpentes custodiunt, sed incolae regionis illius, quum maturae fuerint, incendunt, et serpentes igni fugantur; et inde ex flamma nigrum piper efficitur. Nam natura piperis alba est, cuius quidem diversus est fructus. Nam quod inmaturum est, piper longum vocatur, quod incorruptum ab igni, piper album; quod vero cute rugosa et horrida fuerit, ex calore ignis trahit et colorem et nomen. Piper si leve est, vetustum est; si grave, novellum. Vitanda est autem mercatorum fraus; solent enim vetustissimo piperi humecto argenti spumam aut plumbum aspargere ut ponderosum fiat.

Etymologiae Bk 17. 8.8.

The practical details are pretty right, overall.  All the varieties of colour do come from the same plant;  the heavier, rather than the lighter, pepper is the fresher; complaints of adulteration at the European end of the trade-route are so common  that we accept those too. But the supposedly ‘deceitful natives’ are created from pure imagination by Pliny; the basic information is that snakes prevented free access to certain tropical aromatics.

Whether fire was once used to disperse reptiles before gathering pepper I cannot discover, but heat (now from the sun) is certainly part of the processing before sale.

The same modern scholar whom I’ve quoted above only wishes Pliny and other western writers had been more consistent in disbelief:

… Pliny and Theophrastus are not consistent in their scepticism, for elsewhere they describe other aromatic plants [cassia and cinnamon among them]  being infested with very small, very poisonous serpents. On one level the snakes and the burning pepper trees form another enduring bit of classical and medieval lore about the Orient as a place of luxuries and wonders…

Cinnamon and Cassia.

It is indisputable that snakes do infest the tropics where cinnamon and cassia were and are grown.  In Kerala, from which pepper was sold to the eastern and western markets, one find every venomous snake of India,  and indeed, as classical authors say, some are quite small and are deadly.

Consider cinnamon country – (the next quote slightly edited; the original is here).

Cinnamomum zeylanicum [occurs among] species which range from other rare and valuable trees and shrubs to an incredibly rich and diverse collection of animals..  Some of the common .. include … venomous snakes (Merrem’s Hump-Nosed Viper or Russell’s Viper the most common).

Full grown, the average length of the Hump-nosed pitviper is  half a meter. (see Hypnale hypnale.)

So harvesting cinnamon and its neighbour cassia was, in fact, as people kept telling  inhabitants of the western Mediterrnean, hampered by the proximity of ‘small, poisonous snakes’.

The case is still more definite, clear and positive with regard to pepper, which is an evergreen perennial vine that flourishes in clearings within the dense tropical forests of Kerala and the western Ghats.

Within Kerala are to be found no fewer than twenty different snakes and of them I illustrate some which have a positive preference  for living in vines and trees. That shown to the lower right (below) has evolved its camouflage from the vines and  Ahaetulla nasutais also one of those rare snakes which gives birth to live young. (To see 20 serpents native to Kerala and the western Ghats – here).

Another modern author [2] speaks of the vine’s growing easily in more accessible places, too:

While growing up in Kerala, black pepper was just another spice for me. The perennial pepper creepers grew in people’s backyards on areca and coconut palms, mango trees and jackfruit trees.[3]

(below) Pepper mixed with coconuts – carried by the seventeenth-century ‘Pepper wreck’ to Portugal.

Before swelling foreign demand had led to the creation of pepper ‘farms’ laid out like vineyards, the pepper was gathered where it naturally grew –  in those forest clearings described above and illustrated below.

Here too, even today, these glades contain relics of once numerous serpent-shrines and temples. The pepper vines had serpent guardians in more sense than one.

One of the most ancient of these forest-glade temples or shrines is Mannarasala which is active to this day and is deemed one of India’s ‘seven wonders’.

It sits squarely on the route up the eastern coast from the pepper country and early foreigners’ port of Muziris (near modern Kollam) in the south, and that northern port known to classical and medieval Latins as Barygaza or Broach.

With the pepper-trade located in the south, and its monopoly formally granted to the Community of Thomas (some say from the 1stC AD, but certainly in the 13thC) one might expect some effort made to  ensure that traders trying to take pepper north and avoid the monopoly might find some barrier to passage along the route. Whether this occurred at Mannarasala with its 30,000 serpents in stone, history has not revealed (so far), but in one sense or another it marked the gateway and the barrier to the pepper .

Mannarasala  is unique in many ways, not its antiquity but also for  its being maintained by a line of priestesses.  Its promise is of  health and life,  as Asclepius’ cult was in the Mediterranean. One online site says that it is part of the temple’s religious protocol that noting – not even a leaf- may be taken from the forest.

(left) a smaller shrine within Mannarasala; (right) one of the 30,000.

Today Mannarasala  is visited chiefly by women hoping for a full-term pregnancy but a ritual saying of the priestesses there suggests prosperity and  general good health were promises made as part of the founding legend:

“Those who worship me with faith and devotion will have everything and be free from diseases.” 

Those who worship me with devotion will have children, will be cured of diseases, will have long life and health and wealth; the men of the family will have the title of ‘Vasukisridevi”. He reminded that the rituals and customs suggested by Parasurama are inviolable. (quote from Mannarasala.org).

In any case, and whether in the literal, spiritual or geographic sense, pepper vines were certainly guarded by serpents.

Cuius silvas serpentes custodiunt…

Pool and vines.. Mannarasala


[1] from Paul Freedman, ‘Spices and Late-Medieval European Ideas of Scarcity and Value’, Speculum, Vol. 80, No. 4 (Oct., 2005), pp. 1209-1227 (n.2 p.1209)

Edmond Faral, “Une source latine de l’histoire d’Alexandre: La lettre sur les merveilles de l’Inde,” Romania 43 (1914), 119-215 and 353-70, at p. 205 (version A): “Ibi nascitur multitudo piperis, quod idem serpentes custodiunt; homines vero per industriam suam sic colligunt: cum maturum fuerit, incendunt eadem loca, et serpentes sentientes ignem fugiunt et sub terra se mittunt m?rito propter flammam: piper ipsum nigrum efficiet et sic eligitur, verumtamen natura piperis alba est.” On the relation between this text and Isidore of Seville, see pp. 354 and 358-59. On the complex history of the letter, see Ann Knock, “Wonders of the East: A Synoptic Edition of the Letter of Pharasmanes and the Old English and Old Picard Translations” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of London, 1982).

[2] Ammini Ramachandran’s story is particularly interesting because, though her early life was spent in Kerala -and she surely knows its snakes and their habitat – she repeats the ‘official’ fantasy by Pliny, adapting it to the fourteenth century and so now making those duplicitous ‘natives’ into Arab merchants, elaborating the tale as has been so often done:

In order to protect their market and to enhance the price of the spices and also to discourage competitors, Arab traders artfully withheld the true sources of the spices they transported from Kerala. According to a 14th century book, The Nature of Things, pepper is the seed or fruit from a tree that grows in the lush forests on the southern side of the Caucasus Mountains in the hottest sunshine. The pepper forests are full of snakes that guard the trees. When fruits are ripe, people set fire to the forest, the snakes flee, and the thick flames blacken the pepper fruits and make them sharper

It isn’t a fourteenth-century story: it’s very much older.

[3] ‘Jackfruit’ (Artocarpus heterophyllus),a species of tree in the fig, mulberry, and breadfruit family (Moraceae).  I read folio 3v as reference to the Artocarpus group and the image in Beinecke MS 408 shows the makers’ reognition of its ‘fig-like’ characteristics. The post is entitled ‘fol 3v: Figs and festivals’ (July 14th., 2012).

More pictures of Mannarasala  here.


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