By Jack Gayer
When people think of what snakes represent in literature, the first thing that likely comes to mind is the snake in the Garden of Eden. However, snake symbolism in literature goes beyond representing temptation. They’ve been used as a diverse symbol for thousands of years, going back to Celtic mythology in 4000 B.C. Further, despite representing something malicious and deceitful in the Bible, snakes have more often been representative of positive, or at least neutral, themes. The following topics are but a few of the literary devices that snakes represent in literature.
One of the most recognizable things snakes represent in literature is medicine. If you have ever seen an ambulance, or a hospital you’ll have seen the image of a single snake wrapped around a pole. This represents the Rod of Asclepius, who was the Greek god of healing. However, this image has also been confused with Hermes and the image of two snakes wrapped around a pole, despite the two-snaked (and winged) version having nothing to do with medicine. Besides Greek mythology, snakes have also represented medicine in Italian literature. Something to keep in mind when you’re hunting for a topic in your next essay.
Thanks largely to their phallic (at rest) shape, snakes are often used as a symbol of fertility in various cultures’ literature. For example, Irish literature has used snakes to depict fertility. Closely related to the idea of fertility is the sub-idea of rebirth. Some sources argue that snakes’ ability to shed their skin has been used to show the idea of rebirth. This symbolism even extends outside of literature as the Hopi Native American tribe would use snakes to encourage rainfall in a “snake dance,” where performers would drape various types of snakes over their necks, or pop them in their mouths.
Not dissimilar from fertility, snakes have also represented transformation in literature. This is seen in fairy tales in particular. For example, this is seen most transparently in the Russian fairy tale, “Transformation into a Nightingale and a Cuckoo.” However, unlike their representations of medicine and fertility, Snakes association with transformation is not immediately clear but it can be inferred that, like its association with rebirth, the connection has to do with how snakes shed their skin. While its symbolic origins here may not be as explicit as the latter entries, what is clear is that this representation also extends to literature globally.
To analyze literature effectively, it helps to have a solid foundation of symbolic representations. When a reader encounters a snake in a work, the mind generally doesn’t jump to positive connotations. However, snakes have been used repeatedly throughout world literature to represent themes such as medicine and rebirth, inarguably positive areas. They can also represent a broader, more abstract notion such as transformation, which can be good or bad. The main takeaway for students of literature is that when you see a snake in literature, don’t assume a red light has gone off that signals bad things ahead.