All cultures that know them have found serpents fascinating. Indeed serpents are said to ‘‘fascinate’’ their prey, cast a spell on them with a look; human cultures seem to have fallen under their sway. Snakes can be extremely dangerous, being both venomous and ‘‘subtle’’ or sneaky; they strike without warning from grass or coverts; they can look beautiful in their glittering multi-colored skin; they creep on their bellies but can rear up; they shed their skin and seem rejuvenated; they sidle or meander; and in legend at least some can fly, some swallow their own tails, and some have a head at each end. The symbolic possibilities are rich and often ambiguous.
The most important serpent for western literature, of course, is the one in the garden of Eden, who persuaded Eve to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and thus brought about the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden and the advent of death. He was ‘‘more subtil than any beast of the field’’ and simple Eve was no match for him (Gen. 3.1–7). St. Paul worries that ‘‘as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty,’’ the minds of Christians might be ‘‘corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ’’ (2 Cor. 11.3). The serpent was thus connected with knowledge or wisdom, though a false or even fatal knowledge, and with human mortality. Behind these connections may lie the notion that serpents are themselves immortal because they shed their skins; their wisdom might be due to their great age or to their intimate relation with the earth (they even look wise). In the Sumerian/Babylonian Gilgamesh epic, a snake denies Gilgamesh the plant of immortality by snatching it, eating it, and then shedding its skin; a structuralist would call this a variant of the Eden story. As for wisdom, despite the serpent’s evil connotations, Christ calls on his followers to be ‘‘wise as serpents’’ (Matt. 10.16).
In the Christian scheme the serpent of Eden became ‘‘the great dragon,’’ ‘‘that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world’’ (Rev. 12.9); ‘‘Oure firste foo, the serpent Sathanas,’’ in Chaucer’s phrase (Prioress’s Tale 1748); ‘‘The infernal Serpent’’ of Milton (PL 1.34). Goethe’s devil Mephistopheles invokes ‘‘my aunt, the famous snake’’ (Faust I 335). The ‘‘dreadful Dragon’’ that Spenser’s Redcrosse Knight vanquishes after a terrible battle (FQ 1.11.4–55) is the dragon of Revelation, and the Knight reenacts the victory of Michael and the angels (Rev. 12.7).
The older belief that serpents are wise, and not just subtle or cunning, was revived in the gnostic sects of snake-worshippers, known as the Naasenes (from Hebrew nahas, ‘‘serpent’’) and Ophites (from Greek ophis, ‘‘serpent’’). They seem to have believed that the serpent in the garden was trying to bring true wisdom and divinity to Adam and Eve, who were trapped in the fallen world by a wicked creator god; as the embodiment of gnosis or wisdom the serpent descends again as Christ. Something of this inversion of Christian symbols may be found in Shelley, who stages an elaborate allegorical contest between ‘‘An Eagle and a Serpent wreathed in flight’’: the Serpent, ‘‘the great Spirit of Good did creep among / The nations of mankind, and every tongue / Cursed and blasphemed him as he passed; for none / Knew good from evil’’ (Laon and Cythna 193, 373–76). Keats’s poem Lamia might be taken as another swerve from orthodoxy, for the lovely serpent-woman whom Lycius loves is defeated by a cold skeptical philosopher; the wisdom of this serpent is imagination and love.
Another biblical serpent is the one Moses made out of brass at God’s command, the sight of which cured the Israelites of snakebite (Num. 21.8–9). Much later this piece of magical homeopathy did not sit well with Hezekiah, who destroyed it (2 Kgs 18.4). Nonetheless John cites it as a type of Christ crucified, faith in whom cures us of all ills (John 3.14–15).
‘‘Serpent’’ comes from Latin serpens, serpent-, from a root meaning ‘‘crawl’’ or ‘‘creep.’’ A meandering river could be called ‘‘a serpent river’’ (Jonson, ‘‘To Robert Wroth’’ 18) without evoking Satan. The river in London’s Hyde Park is called The Serpentine, as several Greek rivers were called Ophis or Drakon. When Milton describes the early rivers of creation ‘‘With serpent error wandering’’ (PL 7.302), however, it is hard to rule out suggestions of the Fall. If to sin is to wander in error (Latin errare means ‘‘wander’’), a snake’s sidling, meandering motion seconds its evil associations.
In Homer snakes are often omens. The Greeks recall a ‘‘great sign’’: a snake (drakon) devours eight sparrow nestlings and their mother, and the seer interprets it to mean that nine years must pass before they sack Troy (Iliad 2.301–30); it is as if the snake symbolizes time, or eternity, which swallows the bird-years. Another omen is the appearance of the eagle with a serpent in its talons; the serpent stings the bird, who lets it drop; the Trojan seer takes the portent to mean they will not drive the Greeks away (12.200–29).
A similar image grips Orestes in Aeschylus’ Choephoroe. He sees himself and his sister as fledglings of eagle-Agamemnon, who was killed by a deadly viper (echidna), Clytemnestra (246–59). The imagery continues in the play: the viper stands for underhand domestic treachery, as it does in Sophocles’ Antigone, where Creon denounces Ismene as ‘‘a viper lurking in the house’’ (531). Close to this sense of betrayal is Aesop’s fable of ‘‘The Snake and the Rustic’’: the peasant rescues a frozen snake by placing it in his bosom, but when it thaws out it bites him. ‘‘You are nourishing a viper in your bosom’’ (Petronius, Satyricon 77) became proverbial: ‘‘O familier foo, . . . // Lyk to the naddre [adder] in bosom sly untrewe’’ (Chaucer, Merchant’s Tale 1784–86); ‘‘O villains, vipers, . . . // Snakes, in my heart-blood warmed, that sting my heart!’’ (Shakespeare, R2 3.2.129–31). Racine’s Oreste warns Pyrrhus against raising the son of Hector in his home ‘‘lest this serpent reared in your bosom / Punish you one day for having saved him’’ (Andromaque 1.2.167–68). Dryden’s Antony accuses Cleopatra and Dolabella of being ‘‘serpents / Whom I have in my kindly bosom warmed, / Till I am stung to death’’ (All for Love 4.1.464–66). This snake thus becomes the emblem of ingratitude. ‘‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is,’’ Lear cries, ‘‘To have a thankless child’’ (1.4.288–89).
The snake in the bosom grew more internal and metaphorical until it could represent an entirely mental pain or poison. In Envy’s bosom, according to Spenser, ‘‘secretly there lay / An hatefull Snake’’ (FQ 1.4.31), while Malbecco, followed by jealousy and scorn, was ‘‘So shamefully forlorne of womankynd, / That, as a Snake, still lurked in his wounded mynd’’ (3.10.55). Cowper seems to echo Milton on rivers as he begins his ‘‘Progress of Error’’ by asking the Muse to sing how ‘‘The serpent error twines round human hearts’’ (4). ‘‘Every mortal,’’ says Chénier, ‘‘hides in his heart, even from his own eyes, / Ambition, the insidious serpent’’ (‘‘Le Jeu de Paume’’ st. 15).
The most common snake in the mind or heart since the Romantics, at least, is remorse or guilt. Coleridge addresses a dissolute man who gaily laughs during nightly orgies ‘‘while thy remembered Home / Gnaws like a viper at thy secret heart!’’ (‘‘Religious Musings’’ 285–86); later he dismisses his own ‘‘viper thoughts’’ of remorse in ‘‘Dejection’’ (94). Wordsworth writes of a man suffering from ‘‘the stings of viperous remorse’’ (1850 Prelude 9.576). Shelley imagines a bloated vice-ridden king trying to sleep, but ‘‘conscience, that undying serpent, calls / Her venomous brood to their nocturnal task’’ (Queen Mab 3.61–62). Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is ‘‘gnawed by the snake of memory and repentance’’ (1.46); Pushkin himself, in the darkness, feels ‘‘the bite of all the burning serpents of remorse’’ (‘‘Remembrance’’).
Homer compares Paris’ sudden fear at the sight of Menelaus to that of a man who comes upon a snake and suddenly steps back ‘‘and the shivers come over his body, / and he draws back and away, cheeks seized with green pallor’’ (Iliad 3.33–35, trans. Lattimore; see Virgil, Aeneid 2.379–81). Half a line of Virgil’s, ‘‘a cold snake lurks in the grass’’ (Eclogues 3.93), has led to a proverbial phrase. Fortuna, according to Dante’s Virgil (who quotes himself), shifts the world’s goods about according to her judgment, ‘‘which is hidden like a snake in grass’’ (Inferno 7.84). Spenser’s Despair comes ‘‘creeping close, as Snake in hidden weedes’’ (1.9.28). This image merges with the biblical account of the subtle serpent in the garden, and with the traitor cherished in one’s home, to yield the symbolism of King Hamlet’s murder. The Ghost tells his son ‘‘ ‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, / A serpent stung me’’ (1.5.35–36); young Hamlet has already felt that the world is ‘‘an unweeded garden / That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely’’ (1.2.135–37); the serpent turns out to be the king’s brother.
Work Cited: Ferber – A Dictionary of Allusions and Symbols