Snake me up before you go-go: An unusual case of ophidianthropy
In a previous blog I examined clinical lycanthropy, a delusional psychiatric syndrome or neurological condition in which individuals believe they are transforming (or have already have transformed) into a non-human animal (often – but not necessarily – a wolf). As I noted in that blog, these identity disorders should be really be referred to as ‘therianthropy’ (as noted in Dr. Edward Podolsky’s 1953 Encyclopedia of Aberrations) or ‘zoanthropy’ but in the psychiatric literature it is ‘lycanthropy’ that tends to be used as the ‘catch-all’ name of the disorder.
A 2004 study by Dr. Petra Garlipp and her German colleagues in the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica noted the different types of animal transformation that have occurred in the psychological and psychiatric literature. Obviously human-to-wolf (or other canine) cases exist, but they appear to be in the minority. Other types include humans believing they have transformed into cats, dogs, tigers, hyenas, horses, birds, frogs and bees. Predictably, psychiatry authors claimed that the mythology surrounding human-animal transformation is controversial in Western popular culture.
Perhaps one of the most unusual cases of therianthropy was a case described by Drs. Shivanand Kattimani, Vikas Menon, Manohar Kant Srivastava and Aniruddha Mukharjee in a 2010 issue of the online journal Psychiatry Reports. They published a case report of about a 24-year old well educated woman who believed she had turned into a live snake. They published the case study because of its rarity and unique phenomenology. The case also provided difficult diagnostic problems and treatment was a challenging. The authors wrote that she:
“…presented to us with complaints that she had died 15 days before and that in her stead she had been turned into a live snake. At times she would try to bite others’ claiming that she was a snake. Her food intake and other behaviour remained as normal. We showed her photos of snakes and when she was made to face the large mirror she failed to identify herself as her real human self and described herself as snake. She described having snake skin covering her and that her entire body was that of snake except for her spirit inside. She repeatedly said that her saliva was that of snake’s and very poisonous. She would often complain of difficulty in swallowing telling that was due to snake skin being wrapped around her neck. She had protruding sharp upper incisor teeth which she could claim were snake fangs. She was distressed that others did not understand or share her conviction. She felt hopeless that nothing could make her turn into real self. She made suicidal gestures and attempted to hang herself twice on the ward and once when she was sent for short leave home. There were depressive symptoms accompanying this theme. There was no significant contributory medical history”.
The woman was subsequently treated with ten sessions of electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) along with a variety of drugs. The authors first tried fluoxetine (but there was no response), followed by risperidone, then olanzapine, trifluperazine, and carbamazepine. She remained on the psychiatric ward for nearly half a year “and during each drug trial there was some initial improvement in her symptoms but later she would return back to same conviction of her beliefs”. The ECT was administered to inhibit her severe depression and suicidal ideation. At the time the case study was written up for publication she was administered a drug combination of escitalopram and quetiapine but still had the same psychopathology as when she entered treatment (in fact the authors . In a discussion of the case, the authors noted:
“Our initial diagnosis – as she predominantly presented with depressive symptoms and suicidal attempt along with delusion of nihilism – was a severe depressive disorder with psychotic symptoms…As she additionally had a delusion of being transformed into a snake we consider the diagnosis of an acute transient psychosis. While she remained in the ward her behaviour with our other patients and personal hygiene was well preserved except for brief periods of exacerbation of her psychopathology lasting for few hours to two days wherein she would enact being a snake”
The authors also considered possible diagnoses of both dissociative disorder and schizophrenia. However, the authors decided that her “psychopathology pointed towards something more than that”. They also noted that the delusion that she had become a snake “was bizarre from the point of view of the patient’s cultural background”. Consequently (and after discussion with other psychiatric colleagues) the authors reached no consensus on the diagnosis for the disorder (except that it was clearly a psychotic illness). They did, however, propose that this “novel delusion” could be called ‘ophidanthropy’. The patient’s relatives weren’t interested in diagnosis, only that she be treated. However, this was something that the authors admitted they “were unable to provide”. In the paper’s conclusions, the authors said they planned next to try “supportive psychotherapy in combination with pharmacotherapy” but the results of these therapies have not yet (to my knowledge) been published.
Interestingly, the authors commented in passing that the woman believed she was dead but they made no other reference to this at all in their paper. To me, this looks like a possible case of Cotard’s Syndrome (where individuals hold the delusional belief that they are dead). I did note in my previous blog on clinical lycanthropy that there was an interesting case report in the psychiatric literature of a man who had both clinical lycanthropy and Cotard’s Syndrome. This case was reported by Dr. A.G. Nehad and Dr. K. Toofani in a 2005 issue of the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. Their patient had a bipolar mood disorder, along with a psychotic delusion that he had transformed into a dog. He also suffered from the delusion that he was dead. There would certainly seem to be comparisons that can be made between these two cases.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Garlipp, P., Gödecke-Koch, T., Dietrich, D.E. & Haltenhof, H (2004). Lycanthropy: Psychopathological and psychodynamic aspects. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 109, 19-22.
Kattimani, S, Menon, V., Srivastava, M.K. & Aniruddha Mukharjee, A. (2010). Ophidianthropy The case of a woman who ‘turned into a snake’. Psychiatry Reports. Located at: http://www.priory.com/psychiatry/ophidianthropy.htm
Keck, P.E., Pope, H.G., Hudson, J.I., McElroy, S.L. & Kulick, A.R. (1988). Lycanthropy: alive and well in the twentieth century. Psychological Medicine, 18, 113–20.
Larner, A.J (2010). Neurological signs: Lycanthropy. Advances in Clinical Neurocience and Rehabilitation, 10(4), 50.
Nejad, A.G. & Toofani, K. (2005). Invited comment (on ‘Co-existence of lycanthropy and Cotard’s syndrome in a single case’). Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 111, 250-252.
Podolsky, E. (1953). Encyclopedia of Aberrations: A Psychiatric Handbook. New York: Philosophical Library.
Posted on November 3, 2012, in Case Studies, Compulsion, Culture Bound Syndromes, Mania, Obsession, Psychiatry, Psychological disorders, Psychology and tagged Cotard's Syndrome, Lycanthropy, Mood disorders, Ophidanthropy, Snake delusion, Therianthropy, Zoanthropy. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.