The Serpent's Strangeness
W. H. Hudson

The following passages from the Queen of the Air, which refer to the serpent myth and the serpent's strange appearance and manner of progression, have, apart from their exceeding beauty, a very special bearing on the subject of this paper. And in quoting them I am only following Ruskin's own plan, when, in his lectures on natural history at Oxford, he considered in each case, first, what had been "beautifully thought about the creature." It would be hard, I imagine, to find a passage of greater beauty on this subject than Ruskin's own, unless it be that famous fragment concerning the divine nature of the serpent and the serpent tribe from Sanchoniathon the Phœnician, who flourished some thirty centuries ago. It is true that among the learned some hold that he never flourished at all, nor existed; but doctors disagree on that point; and, in any case, the fragment exists, and was most certainly written by someone.

Ruskin writes:

Next, in the serpent we approach the source of a group of myths, world-wide, founded on great and common human instincts.... There are such things as natural myths ... the dark sayings of men may be difficult to read, and not always worth reading; but the dark sayings of nature will probably become clearer for the looking into, and will very certainly be worth reading. And, indeed, all guidance to the right sense of the human and variable myths will probably depend on our first getting at the sense of the natural and invariable ones. . . . Is there indeed no tongue, except the mute forked flash from its lips, in that running brook of horror on the ground? Why that horror? We all feel it, yet how imaginative it is, how disproportioned to the real strength of the creature! . . . But that horror is of the myth, not of the creature; . . . it is the strength of the base element that is so dreadful in the serpent; it is the omnipotence of the earth.... It is a divine hieroglyph of the demoniac power of the earth, of the entire earthly nature.

Of the animal's motions he says:

That rivulet of smooth silver—how does it flow, think you? It literally rows on the earth, with every scale for an oar; it bites the dust with the ridges of its body. Watch it when it moves slowly; a wave, but without wind! a current, but with no fall! all the body moving at the same instant, yet some of it to one side, some to another, and some forward, and the rest of the coil backwards, but all with the same calm will and equal way—no contraction, no extension; one soundless, causeless march of sequent rings, a spectral procession of spotted dust, with dissolution in its fangs, dislocation in its coils. Startle it: the winding stream will become a twisted arrow; the wave of poisoned life will lash through the grass like a cast lance.

He adds: "I cannot understand this forward motion of the snake," which is not strange, seeing that Solomon, the wise man, found in "the way of a serpent upon a rock" one of the three wonderful things that baffled his intellect. And before Solomon, the old Phœnician wrote that Taautus esteemed the serpent as the most inspired of all the reptiles, and of a fiery nature, inasmuch as it exhibits an incredible celerity, moving by its spirit without either hands or feet. Thanks to modern anatomists, this thing is no longer a puzzle to us; but with the mere mechanical question we are not concerned in this place, but only with the sense of wonder and mystery produced in the mind by the apparently "causeless march of sequent rings."

From English Coniston, where snakes are few and diminutive, let us go to the pine forest of the New World, where dwells the famous Pituophis melanoleucus, the serpent of the pines. This is the largest, most active and beautiful of the North American ophidians, attaining a length of ten to twelve feet, and arrayed in a "bright coat of soft cream-white, upon which are laid, much in the Dolly Varden mode, shining blotches or mottlings, which beginning at the neck are of an intensely dark brown or chocolate colour, but which towards the tail lighten into a pale chestnut." A local Ruskin, the Rev. Samuel Lockwood, a lover of snakes, kept some of these reptiles in his house, and referring to their wonderful muscular feats, he writes as follows:

Owing to this command of the muscles the pine snake is capable of performing some evolutions which are not only beautiful, but so intricate and delicate as to make them seem imbued with the nature we call spiritual. I have often seen the Pituophis, spread out in loose coils with its head in the central one, wake up after a long repose and begin a movement in every curve, the entire body engaged in the mazy movements, with no going out or deviation from the complicated pattern marked on the floor. Observing this intricate harmoniousness of movement, I thought of the seer's vision of mystic wheels. Those revolving coils—"and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel." . . . The movements of a serpent are never started, rope-like, at one end, and then transmitted to the other; nor is the movement like the forcewaves sent through a ribbon vibrating in the air. The movement consists of numberless units of individual activities, all regulated by and under control of one individual will that is felt in every curve and line. There is some likeness to the thousand personal activities of a regiment seen on their winding way. And all this perfection of control of so many complicated activities is true, whether the serpent, like an ogre, be crushing its victim's bones, or, as a limbless posturist, be going through its inimitable evolutions. In our thinking a serpent ranks as a paradox among animals. There is so much seeming contradiction. At one time encircling its prey as in iron bands; again assuming the immovable posturing of a statue; then melting into movements so intricate and delicate that the lithe limbless thing looks like gossamer incarnate. In this creature all the unities seem to be set aside. Such weakness and such strength; such gentleness and such vindictiveness; so much of beauty and yet so repulsive, fascination and terror: what need to wonder that, whether snake or python, the serpent should so figure in the myths of all ages and the literature of the whole world! Yes, in the best and worst thinkings of man!

In the literature of the whole world, true; but let no one run away with the idea that gems of this kind are to be picked up anywhere, and go out to seek for them, since for every one equalling these in lustre he will burden himself with many a bushel of common pebbles.

Lockwood called to mind the mystic wheels in Ezekiel's splendid imaginings—"for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels." His lissom beautiful captive might also have been likened to Shelley's dream-serpent in the Witch of Atlas


                                                            In the flame

                           Of its own volumes intervolved.


He had abundant reason to admire the creature's intricate and delicate movements when it appeared like "gossamer incarnate," after having witnessed its motions of another kind, and its deadly power. He had seen it lying extended, apparently asleep, on the floor of its box, when a rat, which had been placed with it, ran over it, but not quite over it, for, quick as lightning, it had wound itself round the rat's body, coil over coil, like hand grasping hand in squeezing a lemon, until the bones of the constricted animal cracked audibly; then it was dropped, dead and crushed and limp, on to the floor; and the serpent, having revenged the indignity, resumed its interrupted repose. With this lightning-like deadly quickness of motion and the melting mazy evolutions at the other times, he also contrasted its statue-like immobility, when, with head raised high and projecting forwards, it would actually remain for hours at a stretch, its brilliant eyes fixed on some object that had alarmed it or excited its curiosity.

This power of continuing motionless, with the lifted head projecting forwards, for an indefinite time, is one of the most wonderful of the serpent's muscular feats, and is of the highest importance to the animal both when fascinating its victim and when mimicking some inanimate object, as, for instance, the stem and bud of an aquatic plant; here it is only referred to on account of the effect it produces on the human mind, as enhancing the serpent's strangeness. In this attitude, with the round, unwinking eyes fixed on the beholder's face, the effect may be very curious and uncanny. Ernest Glanville, a South African writer, thus describes his own experience. When a boy he frequently went out into the bush in quest of game, and on one of these solitary excursions he sat down to rest in the shade of a willow on the bank of a shallow stream; sitting there, with cheek resting on his hand, he fell into a boyish reverie. After some time he became aware in a vague way that on the white sandy bottom of the stream there was stretched a long black line which had not been there at first. He continued for some time regarding it without recognising what it was; but all at once, with an inward shock, became fully conscious that he was looking at a large snake.

Presently, without apparent motion, so softly and silently was it done, the snake reared its head above the surface and held it there, erect and still, with gleaming eyes fixed on me in question of what I was. It flashed upon me then that it would be a good opportunity to test the power of the human eye on a snake, and I set myself the task of looking it down. It was a foolish effort. The bronze head and sinewy neck, about which the water flowed without a ripple, were as if carved in stone, and the cruel unwinking eyes, with the light coming and going in them, appeared to glow the brighter the longer I looked. Gradually there came over me a sensation of sickening fear, which, if I had yielded to it, would have left me powerless to move, but with a cry I leapt up, and, seizing a fallen willow branch, attacked the reptile with a species of fury.... Probably the idea of the Icanti originated in a similar experience of some native.

The Icanti, it must be explained, is a powerful and malignant being that takes the form of a great serpent, and lies at night in some deep dark pool; and should a man incautiously approach and look down into the water he would be held there by the power of the great gleaming eyes, and finally drawn down against his will, powerless and speechless, to disappear for ever in the black depths.

Not less strange than this statue-like immobility of the serpent, the effect of which is increased and made more mysterious by the flickering lambent tongue, suddenly appearing at intervals like lightning playing on the edge of an unmoving cloud, is that kind of progressive motion so even and slow as to be scarcely perceptible. But on this and other points relating to the serpent's strangeness I have spoken in the preceding chapter. Even in our conditions of self-absorption and aloofness—the mental habit of regarding nature as something outside of ourselves and interesting only to men of curious minds—this quality of the serpent is yet able to affect us powerfully. How great was its effect on the earlier races, and what great things resulted from it, when the floating scattered threads of all strange sensations and experiences, all unaccountable things, were gathered and woven into the many-coloured and quaintly figured cloth of religion, anthropology has for some time past been engaged in telling us.

We have seen in the history of palæontology that, when the fossil remains of some long-extinct animal have been discovered, in some district still perhaps inhabited by one or more representatives of archaic form, naturalists have concluded that the type was peculiar to the district; but subsequently fresh remains have been discovered in other widely separated districts, and then others, until it has been established that the type once supposed local has, at one time or another, ranged over a very large portion of the habitable globe. Something similar has been the case in the extension of the area over which evidences of serpent-worship have been brought to light by inquiries into the early history of mankind. It had existed in Phœnicia, India, Babylonia, and, in a mild form, in Greece and Italy in Europe; Persia was added, and, little by little, Cashmir, Cambodia, Thibet, China, Ceylon, the Kalmucks; in Lithuania it was universal; it was found in Madagascar and Abyssinia; the area over which it once flourished or still flourishes in Africa grows wider and wider, and promises to take in the entire continent; across the Atlantic it extended over a greater part of North, Central, and South America, and exists still among some tribes, as it still does in Egypt, India, and China. Meanwhile the area over which it once held sway in Europe has also been extended; among those who once regarded the serpent as a sacred animal we now include the Goths, British Celts, Scandinavians, Esthonians, and Finns. It would no longer be rash to say that in every part of the earth inhabited by the serpent this animal has at one time or other been reverenced by man.

Into the subject of serpent-worship, about which scores of books and hundreds of papers have been written, I do not wish to go one step further than I am compelled by my theme, which is, primarily, the serpent, and the effect on the human intelligence of its unique appearance and faculties. At the same time the two matters are so closely connected that we cannot treat of one without touching on the other. We find that the authorities are divided in their opinions as to the origin of this kind of worship, some holding that it had its rise in one centre—Furgusson goes so far as to give the precise spot —from which it spread to other regions and eventually over the earth; others, on the contrary, believe that it sprang up spontaneously in many places and at different periods.

The solution of this question is, I believe, to be found in ourselves—in the effect of the serpent on us. Much is to be gained by personal experience and observation, and by close attention to our own sensations. Just as the individual who has passed the middle period of life, or attained to old age, has outlived many conditions of mind and body so different and distinct that when recalled they seem to represent separate identities, and yet has preserved within himself something of them all—of adolescence, of boyhood, even of childhood and infancy—an ineradicable something corresponding to the image, bright or dim, existing in his memory; so do we inherit and retain something of our forgotten progenitors, the old emotions and obsolete modes of thought of races that have preceded us by centuries and by thousands of years.

In the next chapter, dealing with the subject of man's irrational enmity to the serpent, there will be more said on this subject; nevertheless, at the risk of some overlapping, I must in this place dwell a little on my own early experiences, which serve to illustrate the familiar biological doctrine that the ancient, outlived characters of the organism tend to reappear for a season in its young. The mental stripes on the human whelp are very perceptible.

From an aesthetic, that is, our aesthetic, point of view, there is not much to choose between an English infant, whether of aristocratic or plebeian descent, and a Maori, Patagonian, Japanese, or Greenland infant. The Greenland infant might be the fattest—I do not know. After the features and expression change, when infancy and early childhood is past, they are still alike in mind. The similarity of all children all the world over sometimes strikes us very forcibly. One day I stood watching a group of a dozen children playing in a small open green space in London; its openness to the sky and the green, elastic turf under their feet had suddenly made them mad with joy. Watching them I could not help laughing when all at once I remembered having once watched a group of children of about the same size as these on a spot of green turf in a distant region, playing the same rude game in the same way, with the same shrill, excited cries; and these were children of unadulterated savages—the nomad Tehuelches of Patagonia! In some savage tribes the adults are invariably of a gloomy, taciturn disposition—the "buoyant child surviving in the man" would be as astonishing a phenomenon to them as a fellow-creature with the melodious throat of a Rubini, or a pair of purple wings on his shoulders. The children of these people sit silent and unsmiling among their elders in the house, as if the burden of eternal care had been inherited by them from birth; but every day the grave young monkeys find a chance to steal off, and when they have got to some secluded spot in the woods, out of earshot of the village, a sudden transformation takes place: they are out of school, and as merry and shrill at their games and mock battles as any rough set of urchins just released from their lessons in our own land.

Many pages might be filled with similar instances. And when we consider what the law is, and that the period during which the human species has existed in any kind of civilisation, making its own conditions, is but a span compared with its long life of simple barbarism, it would be strange indeed if we did not find in the civilised child the psychological representative of primitive man. We do not look for the emotions and inherited or traditional habits proper to the adult. The higher mental faculties, which have had their growth in a developed social state, are latent in him. His senses and lower mental faculties are, on the contrary, at their best: in the acuteness of his senses, and the vividness and durability of the impressions made on him by external stimuli; in his nearness to or oneness with Nature, resulting from his mythical faculty, and in the quick response of the organism to every outward change, he is like the animals. His world is small, but the bright mirror of his mind has reflected it so clearly, with all it contains, from sun and stars and floating clouds above, to the floating motes in the beam, and the grass blades and fine grains of yellow sand he treads upon, that he knows it as intimately as if he had existed in it for a thousand years. And whatever is rare and strange, or outside of Nature's usual order, and opposed to his experience, affects him powerfully and excites the sense of mystery, which remains thereafter associated with the object. I remember that as a child, or small boy, I was affected in this way on seeing mushrooms growing in a chain of huge rings in a meadow; also by the sensitive-plant, when I saw it shrink and grow pale at the touch of my fingers. Other plants and flowers have affected me with a sense of mystery in the same way; and throughout the world, among inferior or savage races, plants of strange forms are often regarded with superstitious fear or veneration. Something of this—the mythical faculty of the primitive man and of the child—remains in all of us, even the most intellectual. There is a story told of an atheist who, coming from an orchid show, said that he had been converted to belief in the existence of a devil. A feeling, about which he probably knew little, was father to the witticism.

To pass from plants to animals. As a child I was powerfully moved at my first meeting with a large owl. I was exploring a dimly lighted loft in a barn, when, peering into an empty cask, I met its eyes fixed on mine—a strange monster of a bird with fluffed, tawny plumage, barred and spotted with black, and a circular, pale-coloured face, and set in it a pair of great luminous yellow eyes! My nerves tingled and my hair stood up as if I had received an electric shock. Recalling this experience, the vividness of the image printed on my mind, and the sense of mystery so long afterwards associated with this bird, it does not seem strange that among all races in all parts of the globe it should have been regarded as something more than a bird, and supernatural—a wise being, something evil and ghostly, a messenger from spirit-land, and prophet of death and disaster; a little sister or some other relation of the devil; and finally the devil himself; also, as in Samoa, a god incarnate. Its voice, as well as its strange appearance, had doubtless much to do with the owl's supernatural reputation. The owl is first, but only one, of a legion of feathered demons, ghosts, witches, and other unearthly beings, usually nocturnal birds with cries and notes that resemble the human voice expressing physical agony, incurable grief, despair and frenzy, always with something aerial and ventriloquial in it, heightening its mysterious and terrible character; and the birds that emit these sounds are of many families—nightjars, herons, rails, curlews, grebes, loons, and others.

But great as the owl is among birds that have been regarded as supernatural, or in league with the unseen powers, it has never risen to the height of the serpent in this respect: it had only its strange appearance, silent flight, and weird voice; the serpent had many and more impressive qualities. First and foremost is the strength and lastingness of the impression produced by its strangeness, and its beautiful, infinitely varied, and, to the unscientific mind, causeless motions; its spectre-like silence and subtlety; its infinite patience and watchfulness, and its power to continue with raised head and neck rigid as if frozen to stone for a long period; and its wonderful quietude when lying day after day in sun or shade on the same spot, as if in a deep perpetual sleep, yet eternally awake, with open brilliant eyes fixed on whosoever regards it. A sense of mystery becomes inseparably associated with its appearance; and when habitually regarded with such a feeling, other qualities and faculties possessed by it would seem in harmony with this strangeness, and outside of the common order of nature:—its periodical renewal of youth; the power of existing without aliment and with no sensible diminution of vigour for an indefinite time; the faculty of fascination—a miraculous power over the ordinary lower animals; and the deadliness which its venom and the lightning-like swiftness of its stroke give it, and which is never exercised against man except in revenge for an insult or injury. To this inoffensiveness of the lethal serpent, together with its habit of attaching itself to human habitations, about which it glides in a ghostly manner, may be traced the notion of its friendliness and guardianship and of its supernatural power and wisdom; the belief that it was a reincarnation of a dead man's soul, a messenger from the gods, and, finally, the Agathodæmon of so many lands and so many races of men.

The serpent's strangeness and serpent-worship are thus seen as cause and effect. Now, there is another effect, or another subject, so mixed up with the one I have been considering that this paper might appear incomplete without some notice of it—I refer to the widely prevalent belief in the existence of serpents of vast size and supernatural powers; in many cases the dæmons or guardian spirits of rivers, lakes, and mountains. Given the profound veneration for the natural serpent, and the mental condition in which the mythical faculty is very strong, men would scarcely fail to see such monsters in certain aspects of nature coinciding with certain mental moods; and that which any person saw, and gave an account of, as he would have done of a singular tree, rock, or cloud which he had seen, the others would believe in; and believing, they would expect to see it also; and with this expectation exciting them, when the right mood and aspect came they probably would see it.

Even to our purged and purified vision nature is full of suggestions of the serpent—that is, to those who are familiar with the serpent's form and have been strongly impressed with its strangeness. Ruskin has called the serpent a "living wave," and compares it in motion to a "wave without wind." In many of its aspects the sea is serpent-like; never more so than when the tide rises on a calm day, when wave succeeds to wave, lifting itself up serpentwise, gliding noiselessly and mysteriously shorewards, to break in foam on the low beach and withdraw with a prolonged hissing sound to the deep. Again, he has compared the serpent in motion to a "current without a fall." Before I had read Ruskin, or knew his name, the swift current of a shallow stream had reminded me on numberless occasions of a serpent in rapid motion. When rushing away at its greatest speed, the creature, as one looks down on it, changes its appearance from a narrow body moving in a sinuous line to a broad straight band, the outward and inward curves of the body appearing as curved lines on its surface, and the spots and blotches of colour forming the pattern as shorter lines. The shallow pebbly current shows a similar pattern on its swiftly moving surface, the ripples appearing as light and dark slanting lines that intersect, cross, and mingle with each other.

Viewed from an elevation, all rivers winding through the lower levels, glistening amidst the greens and greys and browns of earth, suggest the serpent form and appear like endless serpents lying across the world. Probably it is this configuration and shining quality of rivers, as well as the even, noiseless motion of flowing water, which has given rise to the belief among many savage tribes of huge water-serpents, like that of the stupendous Mother of the Waters, supposed to lie extended at the bottom of the Amazon, Orinoco, and other great rivers of tropical South America. The river boa of these regions is probably the largest existing serpent on the globe, but it is a small creature to the fabled monster that rests beneath the flood—so small comparatively that it might well be regarded as one of the unseen monster's newly born young.

There is also something in the hypnotic effect produced by deep clear water when gazed on steadily and for a long time which may have given rise to the African superstition of the Icanti already mentioned.

Among some North American tribes there also existed a belief in a serpent of enormous size that reposed at the bottom of some river or lake, and once every year rose to the surface showing a shining splendid stone on his head.

The mountains, too, have their serpent-shaped guardians: thus, it was believed by the neighbouring tribes that a huge camoodi, or boa, rested its league-long coils on the flat top of the table mountain of Roraima in Venezuela. Doubtless a serpent of cloud and mist; of the white vapour that, forming at the summit, dropped down in a long coil, or crept earthwards along the deep fissures that score the precipitous sides.

Other beliefs of this kind might be adduced, and other resemblances to the serpent's form and motion in nature traced, but enough on this point has been said. If it is due to these resemblances that the savage is disposed to see the life and intelligent spirit he attributes to nature, and to all natural objects, take the serpent form, may we not believe that the serpent-myths of the earlier civilised races originated in the same way? Doubtless in many cases, with the development of the reasoning powers and the decay of the mythical faculty, the fable would be somewhat changed in form and embellished, and perhaps come at last to be regarded as merely symbolical. But symbolism does not exist among barbarians and savages: it comes in only when the intellect has progressed sufficiently far to become enamoured of subtleties. When the savage Shawnees heard the hissing of a great snake in the thunder, and saw in the lightning a fiery serpent descending to the earth, the beings they heard and saw were real—as real as the rattlesnake. The same may be said of the monster serpent with a precious stone for a crown of the Iroquois and Algonquins; and of the mighty Onnient, the serpent of the Hurons, bearing a horn on its head with which it was able to pierce through rocks and hills.

Greater than these (as gods are greater than heroes) were some of the serpents of old, and they also had a vastly greater influence on human destiny; but in their origins they were probably the same— merely the strange births of the mythical faculty and the lawless imagination of the primitive mind: the Mexican Cihua Cohuatl, "the woman of the serpent," and mother of the human race; and the serpent of the Edda that encircled the world; and Persian Ahriman, "the old serpent having two feet," who seduced Mechia and Mechiana, the first man and woman; and, most awful of all, Aphôphis, "the destroyer, the enemy of the gods, and devourer of the souls of men; dweller in that mysterious ocean upon which the Boris, or boat of the sun, was navigated by the gods through the hours of day and night, in the celestial region."