The Monitor in Folklore and Art

Monitors are often said to have provided the inspiration for mythological dragons, but many other animals have equally strong claims. Marco Polo's description of the Great Serpents of Karazan could easily refer to a Komodo dragon:

"Here are great serpents ten paces in length and ten spans the girth of the body. At the forepart near the head they have two shon legs, each having three claws like those of a tiger, with eyes larger than a four-penny loaf and very glaring. The jaws are wide enough to swallow a man, the teeth are large and sharp and their whole appearance is so formidable that neither man nor any other animal can approach them without terror."

The earliest known depictions of monitor lizards come from cave paintings near Bhopal made about 10,000 years ago (Das 1989). They frequently appear in ancient and modern Australian art, but they are conspicuously absent from the an of the ancient Egyptian civilisations. According to Rose (1962) monitor lizards were often depicted and embalmed by the ancient Egyptians. However the Egyptians did not begin to mummify reptiles until the later dynasties (about 4,000 years ago) when they were associated with the sun god Atum, and a search of the mummified reptiles in the British and Cairo Museums has not revealed a single specimen of monitor lizard (Bennett & Akonnor ms). The most likely reason that the varanids were excluded from the afterlife is that they prey on the eggs and young of crocodiles, which, although despised, were considered highly sacred by the ancient Egyptians. Folklore is rich in superstitions and anecdotes concerning monitor lizards. In some places they are despised or even feared, but many cultures appreciate the lizards and some hold them in great reverence.

Stories that monitor lizards are venomous or even poisonous abound in the early literature. The siliva is considered poisonous in Bengal and in pans of Borneo they are always cooked with ginger as a precaution, because if a poisonous individual has been selected for the pot the mixture will tum black (Saha 1983; Auffenberg 1982). Mason & Theobald (in Gaddow 1901) claimed that Burmese Karens ate monitor lizards, but discarded the heads because they considered them poisonous. The secretive rough-necked monitor was believed have so venom so strong it could kill an elephant (Lekagul 1969). In Sri Lanka water monitors are often considered unpalatable whilst Bengal monitors are eaten with relish (Deraniyagala1953). However treading on the faeces of the lizards may cause your feet to erupt with sores (de Silva, pers.comm.).

The lizards' ability to prey on venomous snakes is recognised in many cultures and in Australia, Egypt and Algeria their immunity is often attributed to their habit of seeking out medicinal plants after receiving a bite (Reed 1987 , Anderson 1898, Mamir. pers comm.).

Monitors can bestow bad luck on people in a number of ways. In Borneo they are sometimes depicted on the shields of warriors in order to strike dread into the hearts of opponents. If one crosses the path of an advancing army mutiny may result unless the battle is postponed. If one is seen at a wedding the union is presumed doomed from the beginning (Auffenberg 1982). In parts of Pakistan it was considered essential to keep your mouth tightly closed in the presence of a monitor lizard; one glimpse of the teeth and the reptiles' spirit could infect your soul (Minton 1966). If a monitor ran between your legs in Khazakstan your chance of having children in the future was rated as zero (Nickolskii 1915). In parts of Thailand some people dare not even pronounce the name of the monitor lizards, whilst others use it as a term of abuse (Nutphand undated). Further south, when the moon is full, some unfortunate people break out in scales and develop a long forked tongue. These "weremonitors" prowl about searching not for beetles and caterpillars, but for warm human flesh (Auffenberg 1982).

Many cultures distinguish clearly between good monitor lizards and bad ones. Around the Garo Hills in India water monitors with clouded markings were considered evil creatures that dragged men underwater and drained them of blood. Those with bright patterns (known as Aringgas) were supposed to be friendly and are depicted on the doors of Bachelors' houses belonging to the Atong and Ganching tribes. Another Garo clan, the Dawa, have the following story about their founder.

Once upon a time when Dawa was a young man, he came across a baby Aringga which was feeding on melon leaves in one of the village fields. He caught it and put it in a cage, feeding it with fruit. Every day the baby monitors' parents would come and visit their imprisoned child, and when Dawa saw the two enormous Aringgas he became terrified in case they decided to take revenge on him or his people while they were crossing the river. So he dressed the youngster in a yellow coat, put earrings in its ears, released it and promised the parents that he would never catch monitors again, and asked them in return not to eat any of his clan if they identified themselves before they entered the water. The young Aringga became Dawa's friend, and when it grew up used to carry him across the river on its back. To this day Garos never kill Aringgas, and always callout "I am a son of Dawa" before entering the river. If one is accidentally caught it is given some earrings by way of an apology and released (Parry 1932).

According to legend, bark canoes were first invented by Mertens' goannas, who had to learn how to climb in order to get the raw materials for their crafts (McConnel 1957). The industrious and ingenious goannas became lazy when they arrived in southern Australia. They abandoned farming and took to catching small defenceless animals, eventually resorting to stealing food from porcupines after stupefying them with honey (Reed 1987).

In Malaya it was believed that water monitors hatched from crocodile eggs, but stayed on the land whilst some of their brothers and sisters made straight for the water and thus became true crocodiles (Ridley 1899). Strangely a similar belief persisted in Egypt, where the Nile monitor was believed to be the first stage in the life cycle of the crocodile, and Herodotus (circa. 450 BC in Anderson 1898) described the desert monitors he saw in Libya as land crocodiles.

Attribution / Courtesy: Daniel Bennett. 1995. A Little Book of Monitor Lizards. Viper Press U.K.