The Changing Notions of Serpents in Antiquity

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Throughout ancient history, snakes have been venerated in some way. The ancient Greek cult of Ἀσκληπιός (Asklēpiós) flourished and its most famous temple was found in Epidaurus. Healing the sick was the main component to this religion. In light of the medical utility of this deity it is of no surprise that Romans established a temple to their latinized version, Aesculapius. According to Eric Orlin, in response to a dire plague that was ravaging the city, the Senate consulted Sibylline Books a set of oracles. They did this twice, the first time in 295 BCE, which elicited no clear course of action and the second in 293. The books dicated that “Aesculapius must be brought to Rome from Epidaurus.”2 So, the snake, who was housed in was in a temple at Epidaurus, as a representation of the god was taken and brought to his new temple in Rome in 291.

In the second century of the common era, there is the notorious cult of Glycon. The literary source for this is the satirist Lucian of Samosata. His work is titled “Alexander the False Prophet.” This biting account of the charlatan Alexander of Abonoteichus comments that he reportedly used a black snake from Macedonia, famous for their non-venomous and docility in his hoax. In short, Alexander created a cult to a snake deity, who he said was the son of Aesculapius and named him Glycon. The archeological evidence supports the prevalence and longevity of the cult long after the death of its founder. The most famous statuary was found in Tomis, Romania along with other statues and they are believed to have been buried for safekeeping.

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 However, to the proponents of Christianity, serpents are usually associated with evil, particularly Satan. Although a Syriac saint named Simeon (390-459 CE) who became known as Simeon Stylites lived out his life atop a pillar. David Frankfurter of Boston University wrote an article entitled “Stylites and Phallobates: Pillar Religions in Late Antique Syria.”1 This article discusses at great length the rise of this unique form of Christian asceticism. Simeon’s hagiography survived in both Syriac and in Latin. In one of the Latin codices, a scene takes place where the main characters are in fact a snake couple.

25. A large growth came upon a female serpent and, because of her sufferings, she tried to leave for about one mile when the male, suffering her pains with her, took hold of the female, and they came to lord Simeon. When they arrived at his pillar, they separated from one another, for the female did not dare to be seen by the righteous man, but went into the the woman’s section. The male  came in the midst of that crowd and prostrated himself before the pillar, shaking his head up and down, and prayed to the righteous man. When the crowd saw the huge size of the snake, they ran away from it, but when he saw this holy Simeon said to the crowds, ‘Do not run away, brethren, for he has truly come here to pray. His female is very ill and has gone into the women’s section.’ He said to the snake, ‘Take up clay from the ground and carry it to your wife. Place it on [her] and breathe on it, and it will heal her.’ The snake took some clay and went to his wife. When the crowds saw it they followed him to see what he would do. They saw the female standing  upright outside the barrier, and she had a large growth. The [male]   snake took the clay, placed it on [her] and breathed on her and, in the presence of all, it healed her. He then took her and went away, and when the crowds saw this mystery, they glorified God. 3

This interesting story breaks with the tradition that genesis laid down with the snake in Eden. The symbolic nature of these snakes could be taken to illustrate the holy man’s authoritas, his power, over evil. God punished snakes for all time in Genesis 3:14 by saying “Because you have done this,[Tricked Eve into eating the apple] you are cursed more than all animals, domestic and wild. You will crawl on your belly, groveling in the dust as long as you live.” However, Simeon seemingly converted the evil creature, who went to him in supplication and asked for a miracle for his snake wife.

In summation, snakes have been a source of religious veneration, scorn, and allegory in antiquity. Even within one religion, such as Christianity, the notion that snakes are either good or bad remains somewhat fluid. From serious cults devoted to healing the sick, to the puppet-like Glycon, and in Judeo-Christiain mythology, snakes played an integral role in shaping religious doctrine in antiquity.

1. David T. M. Frankfurter, “Stylites and Phallobates: Pillar Religion in Late Antique Syria,” Vigiliae Christianae 44.2 (June 1990).

2. Eric M. Orlin, Temples, Religion, and Politics in the Roman Republic, Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Publishers, 1997), 23.

3. The Lives of Simeon Stylites, Trans. Robert Doran. (Spencer Massachusetts: Cistercian Publications, 1992), 227.

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