Snakes, Serpents and Dragons (in Greek Myth)

Published October 2, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Before I write up a myth re-telling, I like to check and make sure I’m not overlooking any interesting variations.  (Admittedly, I don’t always do that.  But I try to.)  The way I check is to read up on them in Timothy Gantz’s Early Greek Myth, possibly one of the most indispensable research tools in the history of mythological studies.

In reading up on Cadmos for yesterday’s post, I came across the following tidbit:

In art we have only a little evidence.  Our earliest illustration is probably a Lakonian cup of the mid-sixth century now in the Louvre; on it a warrior with helmet, shield, and spear attacks a serpent that has twisted itself around a column of a shrine or fountain house and rears itself up to strike (Louvre E669).  Most often this is taken to represent Achilleus at the fountain house where he will ambush Troilos, but without Troilos present it is hard to see how customers would recognize the story, unless a preliminary encounter with a snake was a standard part of the literary tradition.  We will see in chapter 16 that a snake does in fact appear with Achilleus in several artistic representations of the ambush, but never as an object of Achilleus’ concern.

That got me to thinking, because the little disc-shaped ceramic offerings found at the temple to Achilles on Leuke often featured a depiction of a snake.  And yet I certainly can’t think of any surviving myth about Achilles involving a snake.  (Admittedly, I don’t know all of them, and I’ve only read half, maybe two-thirds of what Gantz has to say about the Trojan War, ’cause there’s a heck of a lot of it.  But if you think about it, the Trojan War is much more human-vs-human than it is mortal-vs-monster, so it seems unlikely that there is such a myth, unless — as Gantz says here — there was one in the encounter with Troilos, which is an encounter for which we have no surviving text.)

Moving on from there, I started wondering just what snakes, serpents and dragons represented in the ancient Greek mind.  (Beings identified in modern translation as “dragons” are generally more accurately “serpents.”  Or that seems to be the case from what I’ve seen, anyway.)  Snakes — by which we’re to assume normal snakes such as can actually be found in reality — seem to play any number of roles, from the unwitting (and unwilling) cause of Tiresias’ transformation into a woman and back again, to the source of oracular powers, to the (unwitting) teachers to grant Polyidos the ability to restore Minos’ son Glaucos back from the dead, to the expected convenient cause of death.  There’s a lot of death here, and the ones not connected to death are still liminal; snakes would seem to have been viewed as agents of transformation in some way, connected to more than one realm.  Between the poisonous bite of some species of snake and the fact that they live in holes in the ground (and the ancient Greek afterlife was (almost) entirely underground) it’s easy to see how they would be seen as connected to both the realm of the living and the realm of the dead.  (Which ought to explain their presence on the Leuke tablets…except that the White Island was the one afterlife not located underground.)  As to serpents (here meaning gigantic snakes not found in nature), they were monsters to be slain, and yet they were also sacred guardians of holy sites, a fact that didn’t stop them from being slain, though it often led to punishment for the one who slew them.  (Apollo’s slaying of Python being the major exception to the punishment thing.  Gods rarely suffered punishment, no matter how many awful things they did.)  If I follow the classification I just laid out, then the thing that bit Philoctetes must have been a serpent, not a snake, since it was the guardian of a holy site, and he suffered horribly for having killed it.  But on the other hand, it was probably not gigantic, which would make it simply a snake.  I’m fairly sure it’s usually described as a snake, not a serpent, which would mean either my division of roles between snakes and serpents is either not accurate, or it has exceptions.  Or it could mean the Philoctetes myth underwent late changes, after most of the other myths had been formed.

On top of this, let’s not forget other snakey associations.  Some monstrous females — the Gorgons and the Furies, especially — had snakes for hair, Maenads were said to wear snakes in their hair, and some particularly monstrous monsters — Typhon especially, but also Echidna — had serpents for legs, at least in some vase paintings, if not in any textual sources.  And some things that weren’t serpents were very much serpent-like, such as the Lernean Hydra.  Again — apart from the Maenads — monsters, associated with death.  (And, actually, the Maenads did have a reputation for tearing things — and sometimes people — into pieces, so maybe they’re not such an exception.)

Now, to back off the whole “symbols of transition” thing, as it’s very much an external, artificial label, applied to beliefs not held by oneself, I want to try and suss out what the snakes really represented to the ancient Greeks themselves.  Obviously, there’s a lot of fear involved in the myths connected to them.  Or rather, a lot to fear.  Because given the way women lived in ancient Greece, no man would want to be turned into a woman in those days, so the tale of Tiresias’ transformation was obviously something one didn’t want to emulate.  Admittedly, gaining oracular powers doesn’t sound like a bad deal, and Melampos made good use of the powers he gained when the snake licked his ears, but the powers gained by Cassandra (and/or her twin brother Helenos) by being licked on the ears by a snake…those powers were no picnic.  (Especially in Cassandra’s case.  Helenos at least survived the war…but he was the only one of Priam’s 50 sons to survive!  So while his powers may have let him survive, he still had to watch his entire family slain horribly.)  And as to the serpents!  They were monsters that went around killing people (sometimes, anyway) and yet killing them might well turn out to be even worse than letting them live!

So the myths definitely send a message of “run the other way if you see one” regarding snakes and serpents.  But why?  I know almost nothing about the fauna of ancient Greece, so I don’t know if they had any particularly venomous snakes living in their area, but even if they did, I’m not sure that follows as a good etiological reason to make snakes into such objects of fear.  After all, in Egypt the deadly poisonous snakes were a symbol of royal power!  (Though that, too, might have had the message of “stay away” to the average Egyptian…)

I know there’s a tendency in the modern world for men to be afraid of snakes.  Well, of course there is!  Snakes are an obvious phallic symbol, and yet unless the snake is very tiny, it’d have to make most men feel rather (or very) inadequate.  Among some men that would be reason enough to fear them.  If that same, rather Freudian explanation for fear of snakes also applied to the ancient Greeks (and I’m not at all sure it does), then that might explain the mythic depiction of snakes…but I don’t really buy that as an explanation.  (Despite that I’m the one who just said it.)

Stepping into a different time and place for a moment, it has often been pointed out that the famous tale that St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland can’t be true, because Ireland never had snakes to begin with, and that thus the snakes in that tale are symbolic, representing the pagan gods, which he “drove out” by taking away their followers.  In the same way, Python is often said to be the original god worshiped at Delphi, and that when Apollo slew it, he took over its holy site, making it his own holy site.  (Unfortunately, I can’t remember now if that’s something that’s exclusively said by modern scholars, attributing the earlier worship at the site to a pre-Greek earth deity that metamorphosed into Python over time, or if there were actual myths that said something to that basic effect.  I could look it up in Gantz, to see if there were such myths, but by now it’s almost 11:30 pm, so I don’t want to take the time.)  However, I don’t think one can extend that to any other monstrous serpents — or other deadly figures associated with snakes, like Typhon or the Gorgons — and assume that they, too, were symbols of pre-Greek gods.  There are a number of reasons why that seems unlikely, not the least of which being that too many pre-Greek gods seem to have been folded into the Greek mythic structure without becoming monsters.  (Though some, like Helen, didn’t exactly become paragons of virtue, either.)  And, of course, that explanation particularly falls flat because there’s no reason that the gods of defeated peoples (who were not really “defeated” anyway) would become snakes/serpents in the new mythos anyway.  (In St. Patrick’s case, the snake analogy makes sense, because of the snake in the Garden of Eden, giving snakes a particularly bad reputation in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.)

So what is the explanation?

Beats me.

But I’d love to find out.  If I had the time — and if I was actually getting my degree in mythology/folklore, or ancient literature — I would definitely like to track down all the mentions of snakes in the surving mythological texts, and maybe the ones in the non-mythological texts as well (philosophy, history, et cetera) and see what kind of conclusions I could draw from that.  I think that would be a really interesting and informative study.

But I don’t have the time, and I’m not getting my degree in mythology.

So right now all I can do is think “wow, I wonder what’s up with that?” and maybe idly search on Amazon to see if someone else has already done this research and written a book on it.  (Though I kind of doubt that they have.  This is awfully specific stuff.)

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