The Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust Contact Us
Adder pattern Add an Adder    
  "Everyday adders" - the Adder in Folklore

What’s in a name?

The Adder is also known as the Northern Viper – the word Viper developed from vipere (Old Middle English/ Old French) which in turn came from the Latin Vipera. Vipera comes from the combination of two Latin words: vivus (meaning ‘alive’) and parere (meaning ‘to give birth’) recognising the live bearing habit of this group of snakes.


The word Adder comes from the Old English word for the species Naeddre. Over time this became ‘Nadder’ and reference to “A Nadder”, soon became “An Adder”. In the development of language this process, whereby a letter is added or subtracted because of a nearby word, is called metanalysis.


In Welsh the words for adder or viper are Gwiber and Neidr. However a long time ago there was a legend about the 'gwiber' that was something quite different – namely a huge snake that could fly.


In Gaelic the species is called Nathair.

Modern Myths (or old myths perpetuated)

Our folklore is riddled with stories and beliefs relating to snakes, reptiles and dragons - weaving some ecological truths into fears and fantasies with interesting, and sometimes bizarre, effect. Even in modern Britain snakes in general, and Adders in particular, are the subject of much superstition; they are often attributed with powers of wisdom or a sly nature. Fortunately much of the Adder lore has drifted into obscurity, but without doubt the Adder has earned a significant place in our culture, spiritual and social history and literature. On this page, we’ve collected together a small selection of ‘Adder Stories’.


Female Adders swallow their young to protect them

Old natural history books often tell how female Adders swallow their young to protect them from danger. This myth is even perpetuated by some countrymen who have spent their lives amongst Adders. This story suggests a degree of parental care which is sadly lacking in Adders. If she did attempt to swallow her own young the strong stomach acids would digest them. In all probability, this story originated when a gravid female Adder was killed with well developed young inside her.


Snakes hypnotise their prey

Staring snake

Presumably this story arose out of the unblinking stare of a snake. This actually occurs solely because they have no eyelids, or, to be precise, their eyelids are fused shut but are transparent. Certainly, the tale is completely untrue even though it is referred to in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.


Adders will not die until sunset
 

There is a story that Adders that are mortally wounded will not die until sunset. It is likely this is based on the fact that Adders, like most reptiles, appear to be extremely resilient and will crawl away when seriously (and even mortally) wounded. Certainly they can often take time to die, but it is not because they are waiting until the sun sets!

 

The Adder and the Druids: the Glain Neidr

 

Snakes, and especially the Adder, were very significant to the Druids. They represented the renovation of mankind - a symbolism that probably related to the apparent re-birth of snakes every time they shed their skins. They were also kept by them and made important divinations and decisions based on their movements.

One particular association is the Glain Neidr, which translates variously as ‘glass of the serpents’, snake-stone, adder’s stone or adder’s egg - it was also known as Maen Magl. This was an amulet sacred to Druids in Wales, worn by them on a chain around the neck, that was supposed to possess many virtues. It had many healing powers, and especially for ailments of the eye; it could ensure that the owner was victorious over his enemies; it allowed seeing of future events; it could be a powerful poison; in some circumstances it also gave diverse powers such as finding hidden treasure or making the wearer invisible.

The sacred stone was said to be found amongst gatherings of Adders early in Spring, and especially on May Eve. Large numbers of snakes would meet ending in a large battle in which the snakes would writhe and hiss, and the area in which they met would become covered in froth. In the middle of this froth was the Glain Neidr. This looked like a perfectly round, polished pebble with a pale green, azure or ‘terracotta’ colouring.

It is likely that this tale arose at least in part due to the well known Adder Dances which are actually a form of quite ritualised combat between male Adders shortly after emerging from hibernation. This, of course, doesn't account for the “snake-stone” or, indeed, the froth.

Perhaps these pagan beliefs help explain another old superstition. According to this, whenever a snake is found under or near a hazel-tree on which the mistletoe grows, the creature has a precious stone on its head. These stones were attributed with varying powers, and they were always associated with witchcraft and magic. Conversely, the ash-tree is said "to have a spite against snakes."

 
The Adder in Arthurian legend
 

One of the significant events attributed to the Adder in folklore appears in Arthurian legend. The Adder is said to have caused the start of the Battle of Camlan, the battle in which King Arthur was killed (in 537 AD). As the armies of King Arthur and Mordred (Arthur’s illegitimate son) faced each other an Adder emerged suddenly. One of Arthur’s men drew his sword to kill the animal, but Mordred believed this to be a sign of attack, prompting the battle to begin.

  Knight in armour
 
The Adder and the Anglo Saxons
  The Anglo-Saxons believed it was only necessary to say the word "Faul" to overcome the effects of Adder bite.

Faul; a word used as a charm against the bite of an adder:-Sume án word wið nædran bíte lǽraþ to cweðenne, ðæt is, Faul some teach us against bite of adder to speak one word, that is, Faul, L. M. 1, 45; Lchdm. ii. 114, 2.

Since almost everyone would survive Adder bite - albeit suffering some discomfort, this belief probably seemed to work quite well !

 
The Adder's "sting"
 

The Adder is the only venomous snake in much of northern Europe, generating widespread fears about being bitten or, as was often wrongly considered the case, ‘stung’ (by the flicking tongue). Consequently a whole range of folklore developed, and an equally wide range of medical cures were invented. One suggestion was that if a man was ‘stung’ by a snake, he should quickly catch it, or another serpent, and cut the body open lengthwise. Inside would be a long roll of white fat which, if applied to the wound, would give a guaranteed cure. Similarly in medieval times gypsies would kill the snake and either rub the whole snake on the bite or fry the animal’s fat and spread that on the wound; this ‘cure’ is even documented in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native’ written in 1878. These cures will not work - and any attempts to grab the offending snake would more than likely end in another series of bites!

Early 17th century doctors would hold a live pigeon to the wound to draw out the venom - others killed chickens or sheep and held the warm carcass to the injury until the carcass turned black. Herbal remedies included rosemary and betony ointment or goose-grass juice and wine. In parts of Wales jumping over water within sight of the snake was believed to offer a cure by neutralizing the poison.

Even today, some people will see an Adder, or indeed any snake, flicking its tongue and will wrongly identify that as its sting.

 
The Adder as a curative
 

There are many tales in Wales in particular, but also throughout the rest of Britain, of the power of Adders and other snakes, or of parts of their body applied in various ways to alleviate or even totally cure a vast range of illnesses. Dried Adder skins wrapped around the ailing part of the body were thought to cure rheumatism, thorn pricks and headaches even into the 19th century; and powdered Adder skin was considered valuable for ailments of the spleen and, if added to soup, a cure for constipation into the 20th century.

Various stories from Wales tell of snakes that ate herbs and grasses and moved over the bodies of afflicted people curing their ailments with their saliva: (this accounted for) cures of scurvy and bad skin conditions (were attributed to this).

There are also benefits for animals: a snake skin plaited into a whip and used by a waggoner enables the animal to pull much heavier loads.

However there may be other beneficial side effects - if a person can bring themselves to eat the flesh of the white snake then they will soon be able to understand the languages of animals!

While there is no evidence to support any of this,  it is perhaps noteworthy that one of the Adder's relatives, the Rattlesnake, has its venom (in extremely small doses) used as a medicinal treatment.


The Adder as an omen
 

Simply crossing the path of the Adder was believed by Ancient Britons to be a sign of bad luck - later this became refined to simply giving bad luck to your selling or buying if you met an Adder on the way to market.

In the Dorset area, to find an Adder on a doorstep was a bad omen. Someone in the household was sure to die. Elsewhere the snake had to be found within the house, and this meant that someone would die within a year. In some parts of Wales tradition gave a different interpretation to this story. Every farmhouse had two snakes, a male and a female. They would only appear just before the death of the master or mistress of the house - whereupon the snakes would also die.

Even dreaming about Adders was a bad omen. It was a warning sign of one's enemies plotting against the dreamer.

Killing the first Adder of Spring was supposed to bring the perpetrator good luck and protection against adversity - bashing an Adder with an ash stick before sunset would also supposedly neutralize evil sprits and protect the snakes attacker.

To capture an Adder a circle had to be drawn around the snake and a cross put in it.

An Adder skin hung above the hearth helped to ensure good luck and protection against fire.

 

Shakespeare’s quotes

  William Shakespeare made many references to Adders; a few are as follows:
  • Aware of the Adder’s love of sunshine, and the need to tread carefully, Shakespeare wrote:"It is the bright day that brings forth the Adder,and that craves wary walking" [Julius Ceasar, Act II, Scene 1]
  • "Art thou, like the Adder, waxen deaf?" [Henry VI Part 2; Act III, Scene 2]
  • "In so profound abysm I throw all care
    Of other’s voices, that my adder’s sense+
    To critic and to flatter stopped are." [Sonnet 112]

"my adder’s sense" = my hearing: which is like that of the Adder who was considered to stop up its ears to external sound rather than listen to unpleasantness. It was believed that Adder’s blocked their ears by placing one to the ground and stopping the other with the tip of his/her tail. Of course there is a basic anatomical fault in this logic; the absence of ears in Adders rather ruins this interpretation so perhaps Shakespeare merely meant that he 'turned a deaf ear'?


  • Perhaps the most famous reference, which touches on all aspects of British herpetology, is found in:
  "Eye of newt and toe of frog.
Wool of bat and tongue of dog
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting
Lizards leg and owlets wing." [Macbeth Act IV, Scene 1]
Three witches
 
Adders & Place names
 

The study of place names can often allow an insight to what a place was like, since areas are often named after something about them that was special. We have found reference to Adders or snakes in a few places in England, Scotland and Wales, for example:-
 

  • NETHERFIELD in Sussex, [Nedrefelle] literally meant “Open land infested with Adders” (naeddre = "adder") in Old English.

  • MEALL NATHRACH in Argyllshire, means “Round hill with adders” (Gaelic),

  • ALLT NAN NATHAIR in Sutherland, means “the adder stream” (Gaelic),

  • WORMWOOD SCRUBS in Greater London [Wermeholte] meant “Snake infested wood” (wyrm (or wurm) = ‘Snake’ or reptile) in Old English.

  • WORMLEY in Hertfordshire [Wermelai] meant “Woodland clearing infested with snakes” in Old English.

  • CARREGWIBER, near Llandrindod Wells, Brecknockshire means “Adder Rock” (Welsh)

  • ALLT Y WIBER near Carmarthen, Carmarthenshire means “Adder Hillside” or “Adder Wood” (Welsh)

  • WIBERNANT near Penmachno, Caernarfonshire means “Valley of the Gwiber or Viper” (the Gwiber here may have referred to the mythological ‘winged’ serpent) (Welsh)



However, places such as Adderbury in Oxfordshire (Eadburggebyrig = “Strong hold of a women called Eadburh”), Adderley in Shropshire (Eldredelei = “Woodland clearing of a woman called Althryth”) and Adderstone in Northumberland (Edredeston = “Farmstead of a man called Eadred”) seem to have nothing to do with snakes at all!

 
       
  Next generation folk-lore

"There’s nothing madder than a trodden on Adder!" (Spike Milligan)

The fascination of, and our 'love-hate' relationship with, the Adder’s character continues into contemporary story telling. Perhaps the best example of this is the popular TV series Blackadder. Just as this series traced the fates & fortunes of the devious Blackadder dynasty through the ages, so we hope – through the Add an Adder project – to trace the fates and fortunes of the Adder in Britain. A cunning plan indeed.

Tony Robinson, who played Baldrick in the series wishes us luck with this project.


See the REAL Black Adder here

  Tony Robinson - Blackadder's Baldrick