In Crete, snakes appear to have played an important ritual role in the Minoan period. Indeed, one of the most famous archaeological findings listed in Heraklion Museum is the statuette of the goddess of fertility, known as the Goddess of Snakes, who holds two snakes with both of her hands. Snakes were also used for treating diseases, from where the symbol of Asclepius comes, preserved in medicine even today.
Moreover, when Hercules arrived in Crete for the labor with the Bull of Crete, he wanted to pay honors to the birthplace of Zeus (ie Crete). Thus, he cleared the island from all hazardous animals. This beautiful ancient tale explains why Crete has no harmful animal species (and venomous snakes). However, snakes are widely falsely thought as the evil-doers, with the dark intent on poisoning us with their painful venom.
The snakes someone might meet in Crete is the Balkan whip snake, the dice snake, the cat snake and the leopard snake. Among them, only the cat snake has venom, but it is very weak and actually harmless.
Balkan whip snake (Coluber gemonensis)
The Balkan whip snake (scient. Hierophis gemonensis or Coluber gemonensis) is a medium sized snake, which is commonly met in the island of Crete. It can reach a length of 1m, but is usually much shorter.
It is completely harmless for humans, as it’s non-venomous. When caught and feared, it may bite fiercely, but cannot cause any trouble. It usually lives in rocky areas near sea level, as it prefers warm places, but has also been observed at altitudes up to 1400m. Whip snakes are diurnal and usually like sunning during the day.
It preys mainly on other reptiles, large insects, small mammals and, occasionally, young birds. It hunts mostly on the ground but climbs very skillfully on bushes and low trees. In fact its Greek name dendrogalia, meaning treecat, is taken after its cat-like climbing on trees. When hanging it stands still and it is very difficult for someone to distinguish the snake from the branches.
The whip snake mates in late spring and females lay 3-10 eggs in mid-summer. In winter it hibernates, like all snakes on the island.
Dice snake (Natrix tessellata)
The dice snake (scient. Natrix tessellata) is a kind of water snake, which occurs frequently in the permanent wetlands, the sea shores and rock pools of Crete. Many Cretans call it as water snake, but this name actually belongs to the relative species of Natrix natrix, which is absent from the island. Finally there is the suspicion that the dice snake of Crete belongs to a separate species, but it hasn’t been confirmed yet.
The dice snake passes much of his time hunting in the water (both fresh and salty), up to 1000m altitude. Inside water it moves very fast and smartly. Its main diet consists of fish, frogs and toads.
If picked up, this snake will rarely bite, but it can and does emit a strong-smelling fluid and make a whistling sound in an attempt to put its tormentor off. It also pretends being dead by turning upside down, with open mouth and its tongue out. It is non-venomous and usually reaches 80cm in length. It mates in the spring and females lay 5-25 eggs in the summer.
Cat Snake (Telescopus fallax)
The cat snake (scient. Telescopus fallax) is the only snake in Crete with venom. However, the poison is too weak to hurt humans and is excreted in the back of its mouth, making it actually harmless. The snake feeds on small lizards and uses the poison for relaxing their bodies.
The cat snake, in contrary to the other snakes of Crete, hunts during night, when the lizards are sleepy and slow. For this reason, meeting a cat snake is rare. Its eyes look like cat eyes, hence its name.
Females lay 5-9 eggs which usually hatch in mid-August. They usually "whistle" if caught and pretend attacking, but they bite very rarely.
The cat snakes in Kefalonia island (in Ionian Sea) are called holy snakes, as they are linked to a religious tradition dating back in ancient times. The wonder takes place every year at the church of Virgin Mary in Lagouvardo, known also as Virgin Mary of Snakes. According to the tradition, when the nuns were once threatened by the Turks, they prayed to Virgin Mary. Then, snakes appeared miraculously everywhere and surrounded the monastery, scaring Turks off. Since then, every year between 6-16 August, small snakes with a small cross on their head appear in the rocks of the belfry. The snakes are believed to bring good fortune and non-appearing is perceived as a bad omen. It is characteristic that the snakes did not appear in 1940 and 1953, the years of the Second World War (in Greece) and the catastrophic earthquake in Kefalonia, respectivelly.
Leopard snake (Elaphe situla)
The leopard snake (scient. Elaphe situla or Zamenis situla) is the most beautiful species of snake in Greece, with characteristic orange-red markings on its back. In Crete it is called ochentri, which means viper, which is incorrect as the snake is completely harmless. This false impression has been caused by a V sign on its head, which is similar to that of vipers. The greek name is spitofido, i.e. house snake, originates from Cyclades Islands, where people deliberately brought leopard snakes in their cellars and storage areas, so as to control mouse populations.
It has similar behavior with the whip snake (mentioned above), but prefers wetter habitats. It reaches up to 1.2m in length and prefers places up to 1600m altitude. It feeds on rodents, lizards and sometimes young birds, ambushing among rocks and over bushes. They mate on late spring and females lay 2-8 eggs. If caught it is very likely to bite, but still it is harmless.