“Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” (Psalm 139:6)
Snakes mean something in human society in a way that other creatures do not. They inhabit the land and sea in all but the coldest regions of the planet. They also inhabit our dreams, mythologies and religions, and are entwined with our deepest fears and highest aspirations.
The Secret of the Gods is a short story in Lord Dunsany’s marvelous collection Time and the Gods (1906). This book offers a series of deceptively simple and disarming fables that communicate deep insights about human society and religion. Characters in the stories have unusual names, and typically personify natural forces and religious or political ideas. Several of the stories in Time and the Gods will remind readers of creation myths and pre-scientific explanations of natural phenomena.
The Secret of the Gods opens with this ominous line: Zyni Moë, the small snake, saw the cool river gleaming before him afar off and set out over the burning sand to reach it.” That is the last we hear about the snake until the very end of the story. Most of the tale describes the quest of the prophet Uldoon, who is disheartened by the prevailing religious wisdom in his “City by the River”. Dunsany summarizes Uldoon’s alienation from organized religion in these words:
“And Uldoon perceived that the mind of a man is as a garden, and that his thoughts are as the flowers, and the prophets of a man’s city are as many gardeners who weed and trim, and who have made in the garden paths both smooth and straight, and only along these paths is a man’s soul permitted to go lest the gardeners say, ‘This soul transgresseth’.”
Uldoon travels in the opposite direction to the snake; he goes away from the river and the city and out into the desert. He wants to know the Secret of the gods, and searches for many years. He tries to detect their voices in the sounds of thunder and in the voices of animals, but is unsuccessful. Then one day he hears the gods whispering and weeping. Morning Zai, the oldest god and father of all the other gods has died. “Oh, Morning Zai, oh, oldest of the gods, the faith of thee is gone, and yesterday for the last time thy name was spoken upon the earth.”
Uldoon follows the gods to the tomb of their father and listens to them speaking to each other. Finally he hears the Secret of the gods. Dunsany never says what this secret is, but remarks that it is “a simple thing such as a man might well guess—yet hath not.” Uldoon then returns to the river from across the desert and walks along its bank toward his home.
The people of the city recognize him in the distance and call out to him. They ask if he has found the Secret of the gods. He tells them that he has indeed, and is about to bring this knowledge to them when his path crosses that of Zynie Moë, the little snake. The snake bites him just as he is about to reveal the Secret. “And the gods are pleased with Zyni Moë, and have called him the protector of the Secret of the gods.”
Dunsany’s fable is an interesting retelling of the story from the book of Genesis, in which Adam and Eve are led into original sin by the wily serpent and cast out of the Garden of Eden. But there are many differences between the two stories, which lend considerable power to Dunsany’s work.
Paradise is created for Adam and Eve and surrounds them, as God does. It is a static land containing everything they need, including the forbidden ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’. This secret knowledge is kept from them—they must ‘transgresseth’ not this command from God. As long as they are obedient, nothing will change. In Dunsany’s tale, Uldoon leaves paradise on his own, (that is, the City by the River), and goes out into the desert to seek the gods and knowledge.
However the most poignant difference between the Genesis story and The Secret of the Gods is certainly the role of the serpent. “You will not surely die”, the biblical serpent says, regarding the forbidden tree, “for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The serpent, the enemy of God, wants to trick the first humans into acquiring forbidden knowledge, which will separate them from God. He succeeds, and culture and civilization begin, as humanity has to make it on its own outside of paradise. Everything changes for Adam and Eve at that point.
But in Dunsany’s tale, the serpent is an agent of the gods, their ally in preventing a secret and possibly useful knowledge from reaching humanity. He kills the enlightened prophet before he can speak. It is clear, from Dunsany’s opening remarks, that nothing will change in the City by the River, at least for the foreseeable future. The gods are safe for now.