Worm Your Way

Looking into mythology and fiction involving giant worms is a little tricky because it seems like a lot of early societies thought worms and snakes were variations on the same thing. I guess they didn’t want to investigate all that closely. For instance, I’ve seen it proposed that the snake on Asclepius‘ staff was originally supposed to be a guinea worm. By extension, the German “Wurm” and Old English “wyrm” were also used for dragons, with the monster Beowulf fought being called both a wyrm and a draca.

As such, British legends like the Lambton and Sockburn Worms were more likely serpents or dragons than what we now think of as worms.

And even that is pretty complicated, as the class Vermes used by Carl Linnaeus is no longer in scientific usage, and animals called worms can belong to any of three different phyla. The fictional worms I’m looking at are primarily, if not entirely, annelids, which means they have segmented bodies. One of the first giant worms known to legend is the skolex, or Indus Worm, described by Ctesias in the fifth century BC as resembling a white worm that infests fruit, but over ten feet long.

Each of its jaws has a single square tooth over four feet long, which can crush basically anything up to and including rocks. They stay in the mud of the Indus River during the day and hunt at night, capturing and devouring horses, camels, donkeys, and cows. The people in the area would catch them with hooks and extract a highly flammable oil from their bodies. Another legendary creature of the same basic sort is the olgoi-khorkhoi, literally “large intestine worm,” but known colloquially in English as the Mongolian Death Worm. They’re said to be between two and five feet long (even though they don’t have feet) with thick bodies like sausages.

Picture by Peter Dirkx
There are real earthworms that are considerably longer than that, with the largest being an African species that can reach lengths of up to twenty-two feet, but they’re nowhere near as thick as the mythical creature. The Mongolian Death Worm inhabits the Gobi Desert and is incredibly poisonous to the touch. Later sources claim that you can see it coming because it displaces the sand, and it’s most likely the source for giant sandworms like the ones in Dune.

The worms of Arrakis are much bigger, however, sometimes over 1300 feet in length. Even before that, J.R.R. Tolkien mentioned the “wild were-worms of the Last Desert” in The Hobbit, but never actually used them in any of his writing that I know of. In early drafts, they were specifically said to live in the Gobi Desert, but Tolkien later excised references to modern place names. In the film The Battle of the Five Armies, were-worms are shown on screen, and they’re depicted as enormous worms used by the Orcs to dig tunnels.

The sandworms in Beetlejuice were probably inspired by the ones in Dune, although their appearance draws from other sources.

The head with the smaller head inside is reminiscent of the Xenomorphs with the smaller mouths inside their mouths in the movie Alien.

And the stripes just seem to be an aesthetic Tim Burton really liked. Beetlejuice implies that their home world is Saturn, but it doesn’t look anything like the actual planet of that name. Ghosts are apparently transported there when they attempt to leave their assigned area, and the sandworms try to eat them. At the end, one of them eats Beetlejuice, and he ends up in the afterlife waiting room. Sandworms also appeared in the cartoon series, which repurposed a lot of elements from the movie. They live underneath the inhabited part of the Neitherworld, and lawbreakers are banished to their desert. They have purple and pink stripes instead of black and white, and I don’t think their second heads are ever shown either.

Beetlejuice came out in 1988, and two years later there was a movie called Tremors where sandworms were a main plot point. I haven’t seen it, but I understand the worms are called Graboids.

Sandworms appear in several of the Final Fantasy games, starting with the first one, where they live in deserts and have the ability to cause earthquakes. They vary a bit in appearance from one game to another, but generally seem to have the typical appearance of fictional sandworms, being basically sausage-shaped with a giant maw ringed with sharp teeth at the front.

Final Fantasy X shows them with flaps on their mouths, which was also how John Schoenherr, the original illustrator of Dune, drew the sandworms of Arrakis.

And in FFV, your party has to kill a sandworm to make a bridge in the Desert of Shifting Sands. It isn’t a particularly dangerous enemy, but it has the annoying habit of hiding in holes.

FFVI has another sort of giant worm, the Zone Eaters of Triangle Island, which can suck your party into a strange cave where the Mimic Gogo lives.

The Moldorms in the Zelda games come from the same…well, mold, usually showing up in sandy caves in the first Legend of Zelda.

They’re made up of various segments, and while the first game makes you kill each segment individually, A Link to the Past makes them only vulnerable at the end. Hitting them anywhere else will knock Link backwards.

Futurama used a few different types of giant worms, and made a few possible Dune references in doing so. The episode “Fry and the Slurm Factory” is largely a Willy Wonka parody, in which the crew visits the planet Wormulon where the highly addictive soda known as Slurm is made. Wonka himself is parodied with a worm named Glurmo, who according to the commentary was actually called “Slurmy Slonka” in an early draft. Eventually, the crew discovers that Slurm is actually the waste product of the enormous and disgusting Slurm Queen.

Fry likes Slurm so much, however, that even after knowing the gross secret, he thwarts Professor Farnsworth’s attempts to get it banned. Later, in “Yo Leela Leela,” the Queen craps Slurm directly onto Leela’s head in a parody of the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, so maybe the secret got out anyway and nobody much cares. Or people haven’t put together that the brightly-colored worm slime is the same as the popular soft drink. I don’t know for sure that this is a Dune reference, but the substance that’s addictive to humans being excreted by a giant worm sounds pretty similar. I don’t think Slurm gives prophetic powers, though. In “Crimes of the Hot,” Al Gore claims to have ridden the mighty Moon Worm, which is much like what Muad’Dib did. We later see an actual Moon Worm in a zoo in “Fry and Leela’s Big Fling.” It swallows Bender, Amy, and Dr. Zoidberg and they spend a week inside its bowels, but they come out the other end no worse for wear.

This entry was posted in Animals, Authors, Cartoons, Etymology, Final Fantasy, Futurama, Greek Mythology, J.R.R. Tolkien, Language, Monsters, Mythology, Science, Television, Video Games, Zelda and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Worm Your Way

  1. The Star Wars expanded universe contains numerous appearances of giant annelids and dragons (including an ancient intelligent species called Star Dragons), and sometimes blurs the two as well. In A New Hope, you can spot the remains of a Krayt Dragon on Tatooine, and in The Empire Strikes Back, one example of a giant annelid (called Exogorths) swallowed the Millennium Falcon. Some of these giant annelids and dragons were created (or summoned or augmented) by ancient Sith practitioners. The Leviathans fall into this category.

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