The Serpent

Serpent is a word derived from the Latin serpens and serpentis: something that creeps – a snake. In the Book of Genesis, the serpent is a symbol of deceit and lies, and I’ve seen some argue that this is associated with the creature’s ‘forked tongue’. The easiest example to conjure is that of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, Satan in disguise who tricked Adam and Eve to eat fruit from the forbidden tree.

Lamia, Herbert James Draper (1909). Source: Wikipedia

Lamia, Herbert James Draper (1909). Source: Wikipedia

Deceptive figures like this are known as ‘tricksters’. Many myths and legends portray tricksters as talking animals and their favours usually have a sting in the tail. Adam and Eve gained knowledge of good and evil but were exiled from Paradise. In modern terms, civilisation is only possible if man is alienated from nature. Religiously, this is called the Fall of Man, a rejection that sees us forced to live in disgrace while trying to get back on good terms with God. However, in a strange twist during the Enlightenment, Satan came to be considered a hero who freed man from God’s tyranny. That's right: the devil is a heroic liberator. Satan’s act is tainted only by his motives. (Refer to this excerpt from Percy Shelley's A Defence of Poetry - it's too long to quote in full here, but it's fascinating. Further digging will reveal that Shelley's ultimate hero is Prometheus, whose motives were much more noble.) 

Satan as liberator manifests in John Milton's Paradise Lost. Here, Satan infiltrates the Garden of Eden (Book IV, ll.347-350):

...close the serpent sly
Insinuating, wove with Gordian twine
His braided train, and of his fatal guile
Gave proof unheeded...

That's right: he's up to something. But then we see a glimpse of the hero, stunned that God would confine his creations within the bounds of Paradise, showering them with trinkets and baubles while they remain ignorant of the civilisation they could create on their own (Book IV, ll.514-520):

One fatal Tree there stands of Knowledge called,
Forbidden them to taste: knowledge forbidd’n?
Suspicious, reasonless. Why should their Lord
Envy them that? Can it be a sin to know,
Can it be death? And do they only stand
By ignorance, is that their happy state,
The proof of their obedience and their faith?

But to free Adam and Eve, Satan has to persuade, con, and trick. Means and ends.

Trickster figures appear regularly in myths and legends. These deities usually set out to break the rules of the gods, and it ultimately has positive effects. This rebellion takes the form of cons or thievery, so the trickster can be cunning or foolish or both. In Greek mythology, Hermes is considered a trickster, and is sometimes depicted outwitting others for his own gain or for the benefit of others. He’s a messenger god who carries around a staff called the ‘caduceus’ – two snakes coiled around a winged staff. Hermes is protector and patron of (among other things) travellers, merchants, orators, wit, gamblers, liars, and thieves.

Hermes makes an appearance in a poem called 'Lamia' by John Keats (referencing a myth that, it can be argued, eventually evolved into that of the vampire/succubus). Lamia was a beautiful queen who had an affair with Zeus. Cursed by a jealous Hera, Lamia became a monstrous serpent that devoured her own children and spent her days consumed with grief. In Keats’ poem, Hermes stumbles upon Lamia in her serpent form and changes her back into a woman (in exchange for a small favour). Lamia pursues Lycius in Corinth, and, through deception, he falls in love with her. Her scheme comes undone at the wedding, when the philosopher Apollonius sees Lamia for who she truly is. Apollonius cries out to Lycius:

“Fool! Fool!” repeated he, while his eyes still
Relented not, nor mov’d; “from every ill
“Of life have I preserv’d thee to this day,
“And shall I see thee made a serpent’s prey?

Her deception revealed, Lamia vanishes. Lycius, deceived by his emotions, is told by Apollonius:

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine —
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into shade.

This plea to balance desire with reason is of little consolation to Lycius, who dies after Lamia disappears, perhaps of horror or despair.

But maybe reason isn’t enough to save a serpent’s victim anyway. Snakes can be vicious creatures, defending themselves through the delivery of deadly bites that their victims don’t always see it coming. In fact, accidentally stumbling upon a snake’s territory could lead to a vengeful bite for an unwitting victim. Blameless or not, a snake will defend its space.

In fact, this reminds me of Voltaire’s words about the basilisk (quoted from Chapter 15 of Zadig, by Voltaire):

...an Animal, that will not suffer itself to be touch’d by a Man.

Aren’t serpents complicated creatures? Deceivers, liars, thieves, and tricksters; quick-witted and sly; cursed to be thought of as monstrous; insecure about their space, so much so that they will lash out viciously if their space is intruded. Cursed and considered monsters, they still bear a yearning to love, to be human, even when reason and logic are stacked against them.

Another great idea for a character, perhaps?