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animal infestation


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The horror of parasitic infestation is extended in folklore to include the fear that certain types of animal (usually frogs, toads, newts, or snakes) could live and grow inside people; allegedly true reports are fairly common from the 18th century to the present day. In most cases, the person is said to have drunk pond or river water containing the eggs or newly hatched young, which then grow in the stomach, causing great discomfort. Typical of the many realistic ‘medical’ reports is the following, reprinted in N&Q from The North Lindsey Star of 20 February 1892:A woman named Jane Rowe, residing at Marazion, in Cornwall, has for several years suffered from violent pains in the stomach, from which she has been unable to obtain any relief, although she has been continually under medical treatment. On Friday evening, after taking some medicine, she had a severe attack of vomiting, in the course of which she threw up a living lizard, from four to five inches in length. Dr. J. Mudge, who has been the woman's medical attendant, has preserved the lizard, which he believes must have been in her stomach for many years. Since the reptile was ejected, Mrs Rowe has been almost entirely free from pain. (N&Q 8s:1 (1892), 207)

A woman named Jane Rowe, residing at Marazion, in Cornwall, has for several years suffered from violent pains in the stomach, from which she has been unable to obtain any relief, although she has been continually under medical treatment. On Friday evening, after taking some medicine, she had a severe attack of vomiting, in the course of which she threw up a living lizard, from four to five inches in length. Dr. J. Mudge, who has been the woman's medical attendant, has preserved the lizard, which he believes must have been in her stomach for many years. Since the reptile was ejected, Mrs Rowe has been almost entirely free from pain. (N&Q 8s:1 (1892), 207)

In some stories, the creature is brought out alive by a simple expedient, on the advice of a ‘wise woman’: the sufferer must starve for a few days (or, alternatively, eat very salty food), and then bend over a bowl of milk or other tempting morsel. The hungry animal will come out to get some, and can then be caught and killed.

Such stories and beliefs could serve as explanations for chronic dyspepsia and unnatural hunger. In the latter case, the creature in the stomach could be visualised as much bigger and more aggressive. ‘He must have a wolf in his stomach’ was a common phrase, though it is not always clear what ‘wolf’ means in such contexts; there is a Yorkshire term ‘water-wolf’ which seems to refer to some form of super-newt.

The motif of animal infestation remains popular in contemporary legends. When the ‘beehive’ hairdo was fashionable, there were stories about girls who neither washed nor combed their hair for weeks, so spiders or bugs bred in it and gnawed into their skulls; more recently, stories about people returning from exotic holidays with a boil, which bursts to reveal hundreds of tiny spiders, or a mass of ant eggs. From antiquity to the mid-19th century, there are accounts (often supported by medical writers) of lice generating spontaneously on or in the human body. The notion that earwigs creep into people's ears if they lie down on the grass, and will there gnaw through your brain, ranges from the 18th century to modern children's lore.

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