Many years ago, at a previous job, I often went for a mental health walk during my lunch hour. This was back when we were allowed the luxury of a full hour off for lunch, sometime in the last century. One day, as I rounded the corner of a familiar intersection, I did a double-take: an item in the corner of my eye demanded closer attention, a thing that was flagrantly wrong, a violation of natural law.
To my left, sunning itself on a large rock, about an arm’s length or two away, was a snake. But it was not the familiar garter snake or milk snake, which are common around here. This one was an evil charcoal gray color, peculiar in that it had a cowl that widened from the base of its head, then narrowed back into the line of its serpentine body. The back of the cowl displayed the vague outline of a death’s head.
Encountering a cobra on a lunch hour walk in Michigan is very rare. Locally, our most venomous serpent is the pathetic Massasauga, the smallest rattlesnake in the United States of America, and the one with the least toxic venom. It is a humble and diminutive creature, an afterthought in the mind of the Creator, hunting its prey of mice and frogs mainly by laying still and waiting for them to arrive within biting distance. Unsurprisingly, it is now an endangered species.
The owner of the property where the cobra was sunning itself charged up the hill towards me, waving me to move on. “I’ve already called animal control,” he said, “They’re on the way.” I did not have to ask him how the poisonous reptile arrived in his garden, for he anticipated the question. “It’s damn college kids and their pets,” he said. I continued my walk, but with increased attentiveness to my surroundings.
Snakes are often found unexpectedly, slithering about underfoot, occasionally in surprising places. Most of us are familiar with the Serpent, the one that persuades Adam and Eve that it is possible to become like gods by eating forbidden fruit, that is, by acquiring specialized knowledge. But there is ambivalence across time and cultures regarding the interaction of the serpent with humankind: is he merely an avatar of the Evil One, or is his role more nuanced? Is he an agent of wisdom?
Besides the primordial trickster serpent in Genesis, there are other interesting references to snakes in the Old and New Testaments. Here are a few that show a range of representations:
Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a miracle,’ then say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh,’ and it will become a snake.” So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. (Exodus 7:8-12)
The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, “make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake, and looked at the bronze snake, he lived. (Numbers 21: 7-9)
[Meanwhile, centuries later…]
He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.) (2 Kings 18: 4)
[And still later…]
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14)
I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. (Matthew 10:16)
Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead, but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god. (Acts: 3-6)
Overall, serpents get bad press in the Bible—reasonable given the prevalence of venomous snakes in the Holy Land, (ten different species, including asps, vipers, adders and cobras). Where there is variation in perspective—as in the veneration of the bronze snake—the influence of other nearby cultures may be in view. Besides Satan, snakes are associated with the Biblical creature Leviathan, the “fiery flying serpent” mentioned in the book of Isaiah, and perhaps most fearsome, the “enormous red dragon” that appears in Revelation.
It is no surprise that serpents and serpentine imagery are frequent in horror entertainment, given the potential hazard of individual species as well as the connection with Biblical depictions of evil. In the context of horror and fantasy literature of the early twentieth century, snakes appear with varying degrees of emphasis in the work of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, but have different connotations. This will be the topic of the next post.