Thursday, February 5, 2009


If you study antiquity for any length of time, you'll realize that the ancients had a fascination with serpents. Not just with the cunning serpent in Gen. 3, but throughout all ancient cultures with multiple responses: they were ambivalent creatures, capable of death and rejuvenation at the same time. One might remember in the Epic of Gilgamesh how a serpent stole the plant that gives the power of rejuvenation from Gilgamesh. They were the symbol of Asklepios (Lat. Aesculapius), the god of healing, and, in fact, remain a symbol of medicine to this very day (the serpent around the staff). In fact, if you go to my academic bio page on the right, you'll see me standing next to Asklepios at his great sanctuary in Epidauros.

They were symbols of the chthonic gods--the Furies, for example, have serpentine qualities and inhabit the area beneath the Acropolis in Athens. One might notice that Athene often has serpentine imagery. The fringes of her robes in her statues in Athens are snakes! She also has the Medusa, whose hair was snakes, on her shield.

This semester, while teaching the Aeneid, my students were interested in the story of Laocoon, who along with his sons, were attacked by snakes for, it seems, impiety towards Minerva (a.k.a., Athene). See photo of Laocoon and his sons from the Vatican:

And the primal serpent, in fact, in Greek mythology has the power of prophecy as the inhabitant of Delphi. Apollo took this power when he conquered the serpent. But, afterwards, the prophetess at Delphi would always be called the "Pythia" (depicted below), retaining the serpentine associations of prophecy. Indeed, here and in the Bible, the serpent is associated with a type of wisdom: cunning in the Bible and foreknowledge at Delphi.

These early figures may derive from Bronze Age Greece. When you visit the sites of the Mycenaean period, you find statuettes of goddesses and serpents! They all have little holes, probably to hang things (perhaps offerings) on them.

I thought it would be an interesting project to start collecting all of these serpent representations and just see where it takes me. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) Jim Charlesworth beat me to the punch with an enormous book on it, called The Good and Evil Serpent: How a Universal Symbol Became Christianized. I haven't read it yet nor do I have time for a while, but I am fascinated by all of this.

This is all to say, in the news today was a discovery of an ancient serpent's bones found in Colombia. It probably weighted 1 ton!!! It was more than twice as large as any known Anaconda and probably ate alligators for a snack. Here is the article from NPR (but you can find it in most newspapers today). Apollo's massive Python, interestingly enough, that took his full quiver of arrows to bring down (at least according to Ovid), in fact, might not be far off (except without the ability to predict the future).


Ken Schenck said...

My favorite serpent story for the week is the rumor Alexander the Great's mother may have started about Zeus visiting her in the form of a serpent. :-)

Jared said...

See! The serpent is everywhere! I recall that Oliver Stone made a big to-do about all this in his horribly edited film on Alexander the Great.

Liam said...

Yeah, didn't Cassandra's curse have something to do with snakes? And of course there were the brass serpents in Exodus.