cobra

 

Indian cobra

Indian cobra – photograph: Kamalnv/Wikimedia Commons

The cobras constitute the genus Naja, or Naia. This is a modern Latin name, ultimately from Sanskrit nāga, snake.

In Indian mythology, a Naga is a member of a race of semi-divine creatures, often part-snake, associated with rivers, rain, etc.

 

 

 

The noun cobra is short for cobra de capello, a 16th-century Portuguese term literally meaning snake with hood, because this highly venomous African or Asian snake spreads out the skin of its neck into a hood when disturbed. The modern Portuguese name is cobra-de-capelo or cobra-capelo.

 

The Portuguese word cobra is from Latin colubra, meaning snake, serpent (this is also the origin of the French feminine noun couleuvre, grass snake). Although the Latin colubra is the feminine of coluber/bri and literally means a female serpent, it was also used as a generic term. (Both coluber/bri and colubra were also used as attributives of the hair of Medusa, the Furies, the Hydra, etc.)

The Portuguese capel(l)o, hood, is related to English cap, cape and capuchin, and to French chapeau, hat, as well as capuche and capuchon, which both mean hood.

 

In English, cobra de capello seems to have first been used in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London for the year 1669, in the inaccurate representation of the Portuguese capra capella:

Answers to Queries and Observations in the East Indies. By Sir Phil. Vernatti, President in Java Major:

There are serpents in these parts, which have a head on each end of their body, called capra capella. They are accounted sacred by these people, and fortunate to those in whose house and lands they are found; but pernicious to those who do them harm.

 

The Portuguese term first appeared in O livro de Duarte Barbosa (The Book of Duarte Barbosa), completed about 1518. Duarte Barbosa (circa 1480-1521) was a Portuguese India officer between 1500 and 1516-17, sometimes employed as an interpreter of Malayalam, the language of Malabar.

An English translation of O livro de Duarte Barbosa, printed for the Hakluyt Society in 1918, is titled The book of Duarte Barbosa; an account of the countries bordering on the Indian Ocean and their inhabitants, written by Duarte Barbosa and completed about the year 1518 A.D. Translated from the Portuguese text, first published in 1812 A.D., by the Royal Academy of Sciences at Lisbon, in Vol. II of its collection of documents regarding the history and geography of the nations beyond the seas, and edited and annotated by Mansel Longworth Dames.

In this translation, Barbosa, writing about the Kingdom of Cananor, thus described the cobra:

In the lands among the woods and thickets are found certain serpents which the Indians call Murcas and we call them cobras de capelo, (hooded snakes) for they make a hood over their heads. They are very poisonous and any man bitten by them lasts no more than two hours [and sometimes two or three days]. Many jugglers carry these about alive in earthen vessels so charmed that they bite not, and they gain thereby much money, putting them round their necks and showing them.

An annotation explains the word Murcas:

It is the Malaya Mūrkhan, ‘a cobra’, used in the term Eṭṭaḍi mūrkham, ‘8 paces cobra’, because a man dies within 8 paces of the spot where he is bitten. The usual name for a cobra is sarpam, ‘snake’, or nalla sarpam, ‘good snake’.

 

The entry Cobra, cobra de capelo of a book titled Portuguese Vocables in Asiatic Languages. From the Portuguese original of Monsignor Sebastião Rodolfo Dalgado. Translated into English with notes, additions and comments by Anthony Xavier Soares (1936) contains several interesting anecdotes:

The following citation from P. Francisco de Sousa, Oriente Conquistado (1697), will help to explain why the Portuguese gave the venomous reptile this name: “This is called cobra de capello, because it has on its head a cartilaginous skin, which it unfolds and closes, and which when it spreads out looks like the hood of a friar, or more properly resembles a woman with false hair on her head sticking out on both sides of the face and wearing a wimple. It is a most ferocious creature, and when provoked to anger spreads its hood, rears itself up … and emits such poisonous puffs of breath that it kills chickens, fowls, and small four-footed animals … The Hindus regard the cobra as sacred, and keep some in their temples … An author in Rome, once happening to refer to the cobra de capello, heard a Portuguese who had returned from India describe it, and the Portuguese not being able to give another word for ‘capello’, the author was much puzzled as to whether it stood for ‘hair’ or ‘hat’, because the Italian ‘capello’ denotes both these. As a result of this he had a cobra represented in one of his Latin books with more hair on its body than a bear, though there is not a trace of a hair on it, and with a hat on its head, with its tassels spread out. We laughed a great deal at the sight of this picture.” Not less provocative of good humour is the derivation or mistranslation of the name of this snake cited by Crooke from Christopher Fryke (1700): “Another sort, which is called Chapel snakes, because they keep in Chapels or Churches, and sometimes in Houses.” This description is obviously influenced by stories of the cobra being kept in temples, and also in private houses in India.

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