top of page
  • Erica Wright

Snake Mythology: From Ancient Aztec Sculptures to Instagram Fans

Erica Wright


At seven months pregnant, I’ve never felt less like Mother Earth. At least not like most of the depictions: a woman with flowing hair embracing the planet or her growing belly with a smile of utter contentment playing on her plump lips. My lips haven’t been chapped since the first trimester, so I’ve got that going for me. But my ankles are swollen, my back aching, and my digestion shot. The blue veins on my chest do resemble rivers, I suppose, in the right light, but I forgot my own dog’s name for a moment last week. And those are only the symptoms I’m willing to share in public. There is one image that speaks to me, though: an ancient sculpture of Coatlicue—the Aztec earth-mother goddess—with two serpents as a face and a bevy of rattlesnakes as a skirt.


If you squint, she could be smiling a little, too, but it’s more wry than beatific, more “Would you get a load of this?” You can now see this masterpiece at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, but when it was originally discovered in 1790, it was considered too frightening to be displayed and immediately reburied. To be fair, it is fearsome. In addition to the menacing-looking snakes, we see remnants of her human victims by way of severed hands and hearts. Coatlicue was a symbol of destruction, but as with many uses of the snake as symbol, she also represented creation. Life and death at once. Contradiction is as human as it is serpentine.

While conducting research for my essay collection Snake, I was surprised by how often the serpent is expected to hold duality in its coiling body. Not only life and death, but also good and evil. In Italian and Greek mythology, we have Angitia, a goddess associated with snakes and healing, but then there’s the more famous Medusa with vipers for hair and a gaze that turns men to stone. In different Native American tribes, snake symbolism can vary widely, embodying everything from fertility to the underworld. For the Smithsonian Institute’s traveling exhibition “Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas,” Mami Wata is described as “protective yet dangerous.”


Nowhere do we encounter this duality more vividly than in antivenin. That is, venom can be used to create its own antidote. This isn’t a new medical advancement. The ancient Greeks created and used antivenin to treat snakebites. Famed snake handler, Bill Haast (former director of the Miami Serpentarium Laboratories before his death from natural causes at 100), was said to have been bitten by venomous species nearly two hundred times and, consequently, became immune. In addition to the antivenin that was made from the snakes he milked, his own blood was used to save several snakebite victims. Moreover, the rod of Asclepius—a staff entwined by a serpent—graces ambulances and hospitals throughout the world.


Perhaps even more surprising than contrasting symbolisms is the sheer proliferation of snakes in religion, art, and history. More than any other animal, humans seem intent on making this creature into something otherworldly. Often there’s fear in the renderings, but just as often fascination, twin sides of the same coin. It seems that we can’t get enough of these tiny dragons weaving their way over land and water. Since snakes shed their skin, it’s easy to see them as indications of renewal or rebirth. Growing up in rural Tennessee, I was told a whole host of superstitions, including that seeing one is bad luck but that dreaming about one means you are coming into money soon. Another superstition where I’m from is that one crossing in front of you means that your life is about to change.


In some ways, snakes are an embodiment of “awe,” something considered both awful and awesome at once. In 1757, philosopher Edmund Burke published a treatise that defined the sublime as a union of natural beauty with danger. A violent storm or erupting volcano, for example. This beautiful danger produces astonishment, “that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.” He points specifically to Milton’s Paradise Lost as an example of how this phenomenon could be shown in art. And Milton, more than you might expect in a retelling of the Garden of Eden story, takes a sympathetic view of serpents, particularly the one embodied by Satan to trick (or seduce) Eve.


Milton is certainly not the only poet to immortalize the snake. Emily Dickinson has her “narrow Fellow in the Grass,” and her contemporary Walt Whitman admires a rattlesnake that “suns his flabby length on a rock.” In D. H. Lawrence’s “Snake,” the speaker feels both afraid and honored by encountering a viper. Langston Hughes’s speaker in his own “Snake” expresses regret at wanting to kill a courteous traveler that lets him pass on the road. And of course, there’s Joni Mitchell’s “Snakes and Ladders” using the Indian board game—also known as “Chutes and Ladders”—as a metaphor for the trials of love.


One of my favorite modern usages can be found in Nathalie Diaz’s Love Poem in which snakes weave their way through the collection. In fact, the very first line includes a snakebite, and the penultimate poem is called “Snake-Light.” In one section of this long poem, the speaker finds a snakeskin dangling from a tree and touches it reverently. When she gives it to her love, she says, “like the snake, I am my own future.” What a beautiful way to think about this natural process of shedding skin to reveal the new layer underneath. It is not only beauty that Diaz admires, though, but power. She writes that in her language, Mojave, you call the rattlesnake “Hikwiir.” And then: “You can’t know the rattlesnake’s power.” The hikwir is said to be a supernatural snake, one that can take the form of a human. In Indian mythology, the ichchadhari naags have a similar ability; after being blessed by Lord Shiva, these cobras become shapeshifters.


In the Bible, Jesus instructs his disciples to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” To be fair, this is one of the few positive depictions of snakes in Christianity, but in John 3:14-15, Jesus uses the serpent as a symbol of eternal life. He explains that “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” In a way, this is a story coming full circle. The serpent being both the cause of mankind’s downfall and the source of mankind’s resurrection.


It’s no wonder I’ve been thinking about the snake as a symbol of (re)birth recently, my living room cluttered with pregnancy advice books that promise carefully planned deliveries and sleeping infants. Even as a first-time mom, I’m skeptical of their portrayals of parental serenity, picturing at least a few years of utter chaos instead, those pristine hardcovers long gone by the time my little one can tie his own shoes.


In the Chinese zodiac, my son will be born in the year of the rat, which believers claim will make him quick-witted, imaginative, and perhaps a little timorous. The irony is not lost on me that we currently have a pandemic-induced rat problem in our back alley. When I get up to use the bathroom at midnight then two then four am, I can see them scurrying around the trashcans, looking for scraps with as much intensity as my beagle does on our daytime walks. We call rodent control, pick up loose garbage, and stuff holes with pea gravel, but the only solution seems to be an exterminator. Since I know they’ll use poison, a danger to other neighborhood critters, I don’t call, wishing instead that a few good rat snakes would find a way to embrace urban life.


I still remember the first time I met a pet snake outside of a shop. It belonged to a friend of a friend in California who lived in a bright, beautiful apartment with a large enclosure for his boa. My new acquaintance didn’t bring him out, but there was a striking iguana that greeted everyone. This was about a decade before I started writing a book about snakes, but I thought of this afternoon when I interviewed snake owners. I can’t say that I cooed over the scaly pets in the same way I would have a cat or a dog, but I was drawn to them. I couldn’t stop staring.


While the snake parents I contacted mentioned emotional attachment to their pets, they often also mentioned fascination, something I can’t say that I feel toward my beagle mix Penny unless it’s a fascination with her ability to find any scrap of food—no matter how small or unappetizing—that’s been dropped on my neighborhood sidewalks. (Not for nothing, beagles are trained to sniff out illegally transported plants and animals being smuggled into the United States via air travel.) Many owners expressed a curiosity beyond companionship, almost a scientific interest in how they move and behave.


My local Humane Rescue Alliance does not currently have any snakes up for adoption, but they do have a few turtles, including one named appropriately for our times: Zoom. I’m partial to Dunkin, though, who’s not quite two years old and sports bright orange spots near his eyes. It’s probably a box turtle, common here in the eastern part of the United States. The box turtle is considered an ecologically vulnerable species because its numbers are dwindling. Only this morning I read positive news on the turtle front, though, with Rachel Nuwer of The New York Times reporting that the Burmese roof turtle—a species previously thought to be extinct—now numbers nearly a thousand, mostly in captivity but a few released back into the wild. (John Virata in Reptiles Magazine reported on the first sixty to be released back in 2015.)


Unfortunately, people kill reptiles for all sorts of reasons, often having to do with misplaced fears. Some, however, are slaughtered for the other side of the coin, because of fascination or belief in their power. In addition to loss of habitat, the Burmese roof turtle all but disappeared because of hunting. Python skin is so popular that Kering, which owns luxury brands Gucci and Alexander McQueen, founded its own python farm in Thailand. We get the derogatory term “snake oil” from a real product that was an effective anti-inflammatory, particularly by nineteenth century standards. Chinese workers on the transcontinental railroad here in the United States brought over the ointment to help soothe their aching joints. According to Lakshmi Gandhi, when this oil started to gain attention, Americans tried to replicate the effects using rattlesnakes rather than Chinese water snakes, which was futile. Nonetheless, conmen hawked their wares, eventually leading to “snake oil salesman” being a synonym for swindler.


When we look at the snake historically, it’s easy to see how this animal has been mythologized. An encouraging recent development, though, relates to social media of all places. Young people have been giving their ball pythons and red-tailed boas an image makeup. In modern parlance? The danger noodle is getting a PR makeover. Move over El Greco and his Laocoön; we’ve now got Instagrammers and their pets. We see nope ropes and sneks in tiny accessories such as hats and scarves. Under the hashtag #cutesnakes, you’ll find a corn snake named David Hisslehoff and a western hognose named Lavender. “Siblings” Eden and Autumn have fourteen thousand followers. Marshmallow the Hoggie only has three thousand, but the photos dial up the adorable factor with heart and strawberry decorations as well as a porcelain unicorn bed. While the popularity of these and similar accounts may seem simply fun at first glance, they serve an important function in changing perceptions. Humans are less likely to harm animals they see as cute.


Yesterday, my husband and I worked on the nursery, hanging pictures and impressing ourselves by somehow assembling a changing table that arrived without instructions. I also washed and folded the baby clothes we’ve received, both mesmerized and terrified by how tiny the socks and onesies look. If we are expanding the definition of the sublime, couldn’t we include pregnancy? No, my body is not waves crashing during a storm, but the process has been both awful and awesome at once. Physically, there’s the challenging and the miraculous, the vomiting and the hearing a heartbeat for the first time. Emotionally, I daydream about snuggles and story times, but just as often I worry about the sleep deprivation and temper tantrums.


Like the snake, I am holding opposites, reflecting on the past while anxiously awaiting a new life.


 

Erica Wright is the author of the poetry collections All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned and Instructions for Killing the Jackal. She is the poetry editor at Guernica magazine as well as a former editorial board member of Alice James Books. Her latest novel is Famous in Cedarville. Find more at www.ericawright.org.

Current Issue

bottom of page