The Sun King and the reptiles

When did humans begin to keep reptiles? Of course we don’t know exactly, but crocodiles and snakes played a major role in the religion of Ancient Egypt. Crocodiles had temples of their own and so did snakes. It is probable that every type of animal maintenance was originally for religious reasons. The keeping of animals in the Stone Age, during the so-called Neolithic revolution, was undoubtedly originally influenced by religion. Otherwise why were cattle domesticated, but not bison? To the present day there are cult practices involving cattle, based on ancient myths, for example bull fighting in southern Europe and holy cows in India. But reptiles certainly weren’t domesticated back in the days of the ancient civilizations, and their culture wasn’t a matter for the common people, and certainly not for pleasure.

Nile Crocodiles were worshipped in temples more than 4,000 years ago.

For many thousands of years swamp and aquatic turtles have been revered as symbols of longevity, wisdom, and good luck in Asia; they are kept in artificial ponds, but here too the religious aspect is pre-eminent.

In the Mediterranean area (and undoubtedly elsewhere as well) tortoises were regarded as live food reserves; there is considerable evidence that numerous populations that exist today are descended from introductions by ancient peoples, above all the Romans. In addition the majority of European occurrences of the European Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon) are thought to originate from the introduction by humans of specimens from North Africa or western Asia (where, despite its popular name, the species has its main distribution). But a date cannot be put on this.

Meanwhile for thousands of years it was only snakes that were kept and worshipped in temples; sometimes these were venomous species, but more frequently harmless ones. The tradition of snake charming is very ancient and probably dates back to the cobra cult in Ancient Egypt. The indigenous Egyptian Cobra (Naja haje), also known as the Asp, was a component of the crowns of the Pharaohs, where it represented both a “third eye” and a defense against enemies. There is a nice list of snake cults in Wikipedia at

Sculpture of the Pharaoh Amenophis III (ca. 1360 BC) with Asp.

The Asp (Naja haje) is used by snake charmers in Egypt to the present day.

But leaving aside cults and religions, the keeping of reptiles first began at the end of the Middle Ages and the associated period of enlightenment. It was, however, and still is to the present day, invariably plagued with superstition and lack of understanding on the part of those who didn’t keep reptiles. For this reason it has always been very special people who dedicate themselves to the terrarium hobby.

As far as I know, the first real terrarium keeper (i.e. someone who keeps reptiles of their own free will without any useful purpose in mind) was in all probability Louis XIV of France, famous as the Sun King, who embodied absolutism as a form of government (“I am the state”). So he can certainly be described as a very special person … Louis XIV maintained one of the first modern menageries. A menagerie is a collection of live animals where the latter are kept solely for the edification of their keeper, without the scientific and educational requirements of a zoological garden.

Photos 1-2: European Chameleon (Cyprus) / Photos 3-6: European Chameleon / Photo 7: European Chameleon (Turkey)

The Louvre in Paris is one of the most important museums in the world for works of art. Its collections also contain a number of splendid drawings made by the Dutch artist Pieter Boel (1622 – 1674) in the menagerie of Louis XIV. In addition to the usual species that might be expected in such a collection, i.e. hoofed animals, monkeys, pachyderms, small predators, big cats, and a multitude of birds, there were also the European Chameleon and the Green Lizard (Lacerta viridis)! I find that very very noteworthy, as generally speaking the people of the 17th century didn’t regard such reptiles as “attractive”. The drawings by Boels are so true-to-life as to evidence the excellent state of health of the animals maintained in the menagerie. This would have been anything but guaranteed, as the term “hygiene” was completely foreign to the people of that period. But the animals were obviously doing well, their body posture shows that they were alert and interested in their surroundings. There was certainly no cruelty to animals involved in the maintenance of the menagerie of Louis XIV.

Photo 2 shows a female Green Lizard, all other indivduals are males.

Nevertheless the chameleon(s ?) probably didn’t live all that long there, as an adult chameleon has a natural life expectancy of only around two years. In particular overwintering is most unlikely to have been successful given the state of knowledge back then, but who knows? No information on the subject has been handed down, and it is quite conceivable that these creatures spent the cold part of the year in the orangery, where they should generally have been able to survive the winter.

Be that as it may, the Sun King was probably the first terrarium keeper in the modern sense!

Frank Schäfer

A wonderful de luxe volume of the drawings of Pieter Boel has been published by Paola Gallerani at Officina Libraria. ISBN: 978-88-89854-74-7. The home page of the publisher can be found at

Further literature on chameleons can be found at


About the author Frank Schäfer

Biologist Frank Schäfer, born in 1964, has had a passion for keeping animals and plants since his earliest childhood. Right from the start his particular interest has been fishes, but he is also fascinated by reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, small mammals, and birds, as well as a multitude of plants...

Since 1980 he has been a member of the Verein für Aquarien- und Terrarienkunde Hottonia e.V. (Hottonia Aquarium and Terrarium Society), where since 1982 he has also repeatedly been a member of the committee (Garden Curator, Editor of the society's journal, First Secretary); since 1982 a member of the Internationalen Gemeinschaft für Labyrinthfische (IGL, International Labyrinthfish Society) and since 1992 the European Anabantoid Club (EAC) as well. His first articles, on the maintenance and breeding of Puntius vittatus, Macropodus opercularis, Trionyx ferox, and Polypterus senegalus, appeared in the Hottonia-Post in 1981; his first major fish-collecting trip to the Tropics was in 1983, to Sumatra, resulting in numerous articles in the Hottonia-Post, the magazines Der Makropode and Das Aquarium; from then on regular publications in numerous aquarium magazines, both national and international. In addition for many years he has given several illustrated presentations annually at national and international conferences.

He studied biology in Darmstadt from 1984-1989, leading to a Diploma in Biology with examination papers in zoology, botany, ecology, and psychology. His thesis (under Professor. Ragnar Kinzelbach) was on the topic of the host specificity of the glochidia of Anodonta anatina.

He has made numerous fishing, collecting, and research trips to other European countries, Turkey, Zambia, and above all India; the focus of his research has been the freshwater ichthyofauna of the Ganges with the goal of a complete revision of the work of Francis Hamilton (1822): An account of the fishes found in the river Ganges and its branches. Edinburgh & London. He published the original scientific description of Oreichthys crenuchoides and, together with Ulrich Schliewen, that of Polypterus mokelembembe. He has made research visits to and worked for short periods in the zoological collections of London, Paris, Brussels, Tervuren, Vienna, Berlin, Frankfurt, and Munich.

From 1996 to the present he has been editor at Aqualog and scientist responsible for fish identification at Aquarium Glaser, Rodgau. During this period he has been author or co-author of more than 20 books and more than 400 major articles, not just at Aqualog but at practically all German-language publishers in the field, as well as occasionally in international publications. Since 2009 he has been responsible for the website and Newsletter at Aquarium Glaser, with 3-5 posts per week. He remains passionate about keeping animals and plants, right across the board: aquarium (fresh water and marine), terrarium, pond keeping, and small birds.

Frank Schäfer is married and has two daughters, born in 1989 and 1991.

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