Chameleon Tales from Pliny

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 10.12

12 Concerning the miraculous tales which Pliny the Elder ascribes most unworthily to the philosopher Democritus; and also about the image of a flying dove

In the twenty-eighth book of his Natural Histories, Pliny the Elder reports that there was a book by the most noble Philosopher Democritus On the Power and Nature of the Chameleon and that he had read it himself. He ascribes to it many silly and ridiculous things, allegedly written by Democritus—a few of which I remember, unwillingly, since they are so repulsive. For instance, that Democritus claimed that a hawk, the fastest of all birds, if he flies over a chameleon by chance, is suddenly dragged to the ground by a chameleon crawling below it and that after it comes down by some force offers itself willingly on the ground to be taken and torn to pieces by other birds!

Another thing that is beyond all human belief: if the head and neck of a chameleon is burned with the wood which we call oak, rain and thunder occur suddenly; the same thing, allegedly, happens if that animal is burned on the top of a house. There is still another tale which, by Hercules, I doubted that I should include since it is so absurd. But I have decided clearly that it is necessary that we speak what we think about the false incitements that come from this type of wonder—the types of things by which many sharp minds—indeed, those which are most desirous of knowledge—are often possessed and which lead them especially to ruin. But I return to Pliny. He says to roast the chameleon’s left foot with iron heated in a fire along with a herb  which bears the same name (“chameleon”), and to mix both into an ointment and to rub it into paste and place it in a wooden container. Whoever carries that, even if he is in the middle of a crowd, can be seen by no one.”


12De portentis fabularum, quae Plinius Secundus indignissime in Democritum philosophum confert; ibidem de simulacro volucri columbae.

1 Librum esse Democriti, nobilissimi philosophorum, de vi et natura chamaeleontis eumque se legisse Plinius Secundus in naturalis historiae vicesimo octavo refert multaque vana atque intoleranda auribus deinde quasi a Democrito scripta tradit, ex quibus pauca haec inviti meminimus, quia pertaesum est: 2 accipitrem avium rapidissimum a chamaeleonte humi reptante, si eum forte supervolet, detrahi et cadere vi quadam in terram ceterisque avibus laniandum sponte sua obicere sese et dedere. 3 Item aliud ultra humanam fidem: caput et collum chamaeleontis si uratur ligno, quod appellatur “robur”, imbres et tonitrus fieri derepente, idque ipsum usu venire, si iecur eiusdem animalis in summis tegulis uratur. 4 Item aliud, quod hercle an ponerem dubitavi, – ita est deridiculae vanitatis – nisi idcirco plane posui, quod oportuit nos dicere, quid de istiusmodi admirationum fallaci inlecebra sentiremus, qua plerumque capiuntur et ad perniciem elabuntur ingenia maxime sollertia eaque potissimum, quae discendi cupidiora sunt. 5 Sed redeo ad Plinium. Sinistrum pedem ait chamaeleontis ferro ex igni calefacto torreri cum herba, quae appellatur eodem nomine chamaeleontis, et utrumque macerari unguento conligique in modum pastilli atque in vas mitti ligneum et eum, qui id vas ferat, etiamsi is in medio palam versetur, a nullo videri posse.

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