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Working Title/Artist: Strigilated vase with snake handles and lid Department: Greek & Roman Art Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 05 Working Date: second half of 2nd century A.D. photography by mma, DP146531.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 4_2_08

Here is a marble vase crafted by unknown Roman master artisans in the latter half of the 2nd century A.D.  Two beautiful sinuous snakes coil around the edges of a sumptuous ogee shaped body.  The snakes’ bodies form the handles for the vase which is covered in lovely double “S” curves (as is the lid which is surmounted by a finial).  There are no inscriptions on the vase, so it is unclear if it was a funerary vessel, but the shape was a characteristic one for cremated remains.  Likewise, snakes had a religious significance in classical society. They were regarded as sacred to the gods below the Earth.  These serpents certainly have knowing expressions appropriate for chthonic intermediaries who know the secrets of the underworld.  However snakes have always looked like that to me.  Can you imagine carving this…out of stone…by hand?  I am pretty good with my hands, but the idea of all these perfect matched curves is beyond me.  Whoever this vase was originally meant for, it is now a monument to the master makers who lived nearly two thousand years ago.  It is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art right here in New York–hopefully it will there sit on an elegant plinth while adoring crowds coo at it for another 2,000 years…yet the future has a disturbing way of eluding our hopes.

DC12

Back during the glorious infancy of my blog I wrote a great deal about the demi-god Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules)–the greatest classical hero, who slew so many of the children of Echidna (and even grappled with Echidna herself).  For some reason, when I was growing up, I always had a mental picture of Heracles as a meat-head who solved every problem by means of brute strength; however, as an adult my perspective on the hero has changed greatly.  The craftiness with which Heracles faced problems like the Hydra and the journey to the underworld reveals that his cunning and his political guile became greater and greater as he ground on through his quests and labors towards godhood.  A big part of absolute power involves mastering craftiness…and manners. In fact the story of Heracles is really an epic quest to please a picky mother-in-law (but more about this later). At any rate, when his plans went awry, Heracles always had brute strength, but it often rebounded on him and was the source of his greatest problems as well as his greatest victories.

HeraklesSnakes

Which brings us all the way back around to Hercules’ first great exploit—which was purely of the brute strength variety.  Heracles was the son of Zeus and the beautiful shrewd mortal woman Alcmene (who had a magical pet weasel—but more about that another day).  Naturally Hera hated this rival and she chafed at the glorious prophecies of what the child of Alcmene would one day accomplish.  Hera tried to prevent the birth of Heracles by means of her subaltern, the goddess of childbirth.  When this failed, she resorted to brute force on her own right and she sent two mighty serpents to kill the baby in his crib.  Heracles grabbed one of the poisonous serpents in his right hand and the other in his left and throttled them to death with super strength. The first glimpse we get of Heracles is a majestic picture: an infant throttling two great snakes in his bare hands.  This image was sculpted and painted again and again throughout the history of western art.  It foreshadows Heracles’ difficult life, and his triumph, and his methodology.  Here is a little gallery of baby Heracles/Hercules throttling snakes:

baby Hercules

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635348500153224541_BabyHercules

Ceres with Poppies and Snakes (Roman, ca. 50 BC-50 AD, Stone Bas-relief)

Ceres with Poppies and Snakes (Roman, ca. 50 BC-50 AD, Stone Bas-relief)

I was going to write a post about the dwarf planet Ceres–which is currently being explored by the NASA New Horizons robot probe. The more we learn about the failed planetary fragment, the more enigmatic it becomes (the little exploded world seems to be covered with giant pyramid-shaped mountains and weird super reflective craters). However I decided to wait to write this Ceres post until August when New Horizons dips closer to the dwarf planet and we get some clear answers (or at least some better photos). Fortunately, as I researched the mysteries of Ceres, I came across the above statue of the goddess Ceres, and it immediately became one of my favorite artworks from classical antiquity (which is saying quite a lot).

The statue is Roman from the Augustan period. I assume the figure is Ceres (Demeter) but it is possible that it may be her daughter Proserpine (Persephone). Ceres is portrayed as the gentle and munificent goddess of agriculture who is friend to humankind. She is clad in the flowing raiment of a goddess and she holds the bounty of Earth, but her eyes are sad and full of wisdom. Her hands flow with full heads of wheat, but mixed in are the addictive poppies that soothe pain. Beside her two snakes whisper the secrets of the underworld. Agriculture gave us our knowledge and our power, but it also made our world of masters and slaves, and it looks like the goddess recognizes this in her ancient eyes.

A digital reconstruction of the Original Serpent Column (Greek, ca. 478 BC, bronze)

A digital reconstruction of the Original Serpent Column (Greek, ca. 478 BC, bronze)

The Serpent Column is a stunning work of ancient Greek sculpture which is two and a half millennia old. It was cast in the early fifth century to commemorate the Greek victories at Plataea and Mycale which effectively ended the threat of Persian annexation.  According to Herodotus, the column was made from the melted bronze armor and weapons of the defeated Persian army. It was set in front of the great oracle at Delphos to forever commemorate the power of Greek arms and to commemorate the 31 Greek city states which joined together to oppose the mighty Persian war machine. In its original form the 8 meter (26 foot tall) column consisted of three mighty snakes coiled together. On top of their bronze heads was a sacrificial tripod made of solid gold. During the Third Sacred War (356 BC–346 BC), the Phocian general, Philomelus, plundered the golden tripod and used the gold to pay for mercenaries (an act which was regarded as deepest sacrilege by the Greeks).

The last known serpent head missing the jaw (Greek, ca. 378 BC, Bronze)

The last known serpent head missing the jaw (Greek, ca. 378 BC, Bronze)

When Constantine the Great declared Christianity to be the state religion of the Empire and moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople, he ordered that the column be removed from Delphos and relocated in the new capital city. The Serpent Column was placed at the center of the city’s great Hippodrome (chariot-racing track) among other famous statues of gods, kings, and heroes. Eventually the column was converted into a magnificent fountain and the missing gold tripod was replaced with a huge golden bowl. During the misbegotten fourth Crusade, when excommunicated French knights sacked Byzantium as they tried to get to Cairo, the gold bowl was carried off.

An Ottoman Miniature Painting of the Column

An Ottoman Miniature Painting of the Column

Sometime in the seventeenth century the three serpent heads which had topped the column for countless centuries fell off. Some sources contend that they were removed by an extremely drunken Polish ambassador, but more reliable Ottoman sources assert that they simply toppled off the statue. One serpent head still remains in existence in a Turkish museum. The column itself is still where it has been since the time of Constantine the Great, although the Hippodrome is largely gone and has been replaced by a square named Sultanahmet Meydani.

The actual Serpent Column as it stands in Istanbul today (with the obelisk of Thutmose III behind)

The actual Serpent Column as it stands in Istanbul today (with the obelisk of Thutmose III behind)

Photo by Guido Mocafico

Photo by Guido Mocafico

Today is world snake day: maybe you should run out and do something nice for our scaly limbless friends (though don’t hug them—they don’t like that)! Sadly though, many people do not appreciate snakes. Not only are serpents taboo in the Abrahamic faiths (since, according to the creation myth, a snake convinced the original people to disobey the creator deity for the first time), humankind also seems to have an instinctual inbred panic reaction to them. Perhaps this is an evolutionary leftover from when our just-out-of-the-trees ancestors shared East Africa with a bevy of aggressive venomous snakes like the formidable black mamba (or whatever the mamba’s just-out-of-the-trees ancestor was). This human antipathy towards the Ophidia is a shame. Not only are snakes inimical to the rodents and bugs which spell true problems for modern agricultural humans, they are critical to most non-pelagic, non-Arctic ecosystems in numerous ways. Additionally, snakes are very beautiful. They are more colorful than most other creatures and they have a hypnotic sculptural beauty all their own. Just look at the lovely art photo by  Guido Mocafico at the top of the page.

 

Adam and Eve (Albrecht Durer, 1504, engraving)

Adam and Eve (Albrecht Durer, 1504, engraving)

Other ancient religions were not as opposed to snakes as the Canaanites and Israelites (who, were, after all, herding people who lived in a dust colored-desert filled with poisonous dust-colored reptiles). Hindus respect the powerful nagas and worship Vasuki, the cobra-king of all snakes. Buddha was sheltered by a hooded cobra. The Chinese creation myth centers on Nüwa, the serpent-goddess who first gave life to animals and humans. In ancient Greece, snakes represented the secrets of the underworld, the healing power of medicine, and the foresight of divine augury. The pre-Greek Cretan culture worshiped a sinuous bare-breasted snake goddess who held a serpent in each hand as she danced. Sadly we know little about this compelling deity other than what is revealed by sculpture.

Minoan Snake Goddess (Crete, ca. 1600BC)

Minoan Snake Goddess (Crete, ca. 1600BC)

Going back even farther, the oldest written story humankind currently possesses features a snake as a villain: after all of his trials, Gilgamesh loses the herb of immortality when it is stolen by a water snake. People from the Fertile Crescent really seem to dislike snakes…although that presumes that the Biblical serpent actually was the villain. Maybe the snake was the real hero of Genesis (after all, it is never demonstrated that the tree of knowledge does not perform as advertised). Don’t we long to become as Gods? Isn’t wisdom our greatest collective treasure? What is so great about obedience? After all, did we really want to live forever as naked childlike near-beasts? Perhaps the snake is a pivotal figure in imagining our transition from hunter-gatherers to agricultural folk–which is to say from nature to civilization.

The Serpent Steals the Herb of Immortality from Gilgamesh (illustration by Ludmila Zeman)

The Serpent Steals the Herb of Immortality from Gilgamesh (illustration by Ludmila Zeman)

If the snake does represent our coming of age it is ironic: the majority of city-dwelling modern humans probably never see wild snakes in our monstrous concrete cities. This strikes me as a shame. For good or for ill, there really is something sacred about the snake.

Honduran Milksnake

Honduran Milksnake

The Head of Medusa (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1617-1618, oil on canvas)

The Head of Medusa (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1617-1618, oil on canvas)

Here is a dark Baroque masterpiece.  Using a polished shield as a mirror, Perseus has just severed the dreadful head of Medusa, a gorgon capable of turning anyone who sees her into stone.  Medusa’s head was subsequently used by Perseus as a weapon to slay the sea monster sent to devour Andromeda–but the weapon proved too dangerous for him to keep so he gave the head to Athena, goddess of victory and wisdom.  She set it on her shield (or sometimes her breastplate) and the Gorgoneion thus became a symbol of divine protection and luck as well as a charm for warding off evil.

Through the artist’s imagination, we are allowed to see what Perseus is not: the horrible head of the demigoddess with her countenance contorted in mortal outrage.  Despite her death, the many serpents which make up her hair remain alive and infuriated.  One even bites her forehead in pique. Where her blood pours on the ground, serpents and worms spring to life.  Spiders, scorpions and lizards appear in order to abet the general creepy horror of the scene (as do the stormy clouds and desolate landscape.

Detail

Detail

Rubens was the master of using color and motion to express the sensual and the grotesque.  The full dynamism of his style is evident in this grisly tableau which simultaneously evokes the drama of earlier Medusa paintings by Da Vinci & Carravagio while also bringing some of the detail and imagination of Flemish still life composition to play.

Saint Patrick Expelling the Snakes

Just kidding—aside from zoos and the pet trade, Ireland actually famously has no snakes.  It is one the few snake-free large islands on Earth joined only by New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica (well—everywhere far enough north or south is snake-free: the reptiles don’t really thrive in places where there is permafrost or truly cold winters).  Legend has it that it was Saint Patrick who drove the snakes out of Ireland.  Standing on a great hill he lifted up his crosier and focused divine energy upon the unlucky reptiles which then writhed en masse into the sea and never returned to the emerald island.

"Ssseriously, why are you doing thisss?"

It has always been a bit unclear to me why Saint Patrick would do such a thing. Ecoystems which undergo such catastrophic changes tend to go haywire with great alacrity!  Fortunately the story is entirely a myth.  If snakes ever lived in Ireland (and it doesn’t seem like they did), they were long gone by the time the first Christians showed up.  The real reason is even more interesting than the dramatic Moses-like power of Saint Patrick, but as with most actual answers it is also more complex.

Evidence suggests that snakes evolved 130 million years ago during the Cretaceous.  At the time Ireland was, um, underwater at the bottom of a warm chalky sea.  Early snakes slithered their way across landbridges, rafted to islands on washed away logs, and swam (like the sea snakes) from island to island but, during the Mesozoic, there was no Ireland for them to go to.

Europe in the Ice Age (the pale white area was under a huge sheet of ice)

When the Mesozoic era ended in the great ball of fire, the continents again shifted.  Snakes went through a substantial evolutionary period during the Miocene and the original python-like snakes evolved into many different forms.  These new varieties of snakes slithered into grasslands, deserts, forests, and oceans around the world, but they still could not get to Ireland (now above the waves) because a cold ocean was in their way.  Then the end of the Miocene brought an ice age.  To quote the National Zoo’s essay on “Why Ireland Has No Snakes”:

The most recent ice age began about three million years ago and continues into the present. Between warm periods like the current climate, glaciers have advanced and retreated more than 20 times, often completely blanketing Ireland with ice. Snakes, being cold-blooded animals, simply aren’t able to survive in areas where the ground is frozen year round. Ireland thawed out for the last time only 15,000 years ago.

So Ireland remains snake-free because of the world’s temperamental geology. The island was underwater or covered by ice during certain eras when the snakes might have arrived–geography has conspired against serpents coming to Eire and setting up shop.  The age of humans however has been marked by numerous introduced species cropping up everywhere.  I wonder how long Ireland will be snake free when a pet shop accident or crazy hobbyist could unleash a plague of serpents on the green island.  The fact that such a thing has yet to happen seems almost as miraculous as the original myth.

Although many people construe the whole story to be an allegory of Saint Patrick driving paganism and the old gods from Ireland (as seen here).

Here is an enigmatic painting by an enigmatic artist.  Henri Rousseau (1844–1910) did not start painting until he was in his forties—around the time his wife Clémence Boitard died.  The couple had six children but only one survived to adulthood (the rest died as infants or succumbed to childhood disease).  Rousseau made his living with a dull career as a toll collector. Later, when he was working as an artist, detractors belittled him as Le Douanier “the customs officer”.  He never visited the tropics or saw a jungle, but painted from illustrations, taxidermied animals, and Parisian hothouses. Initially ridiculed as childlike and flat, Rousseau’s works commanded the attention of a new generation of modern artists like Picasso, Matisse, Delaunay, and Brâncuşi, all of whom were influenced by him (as were several succeeding generations of artists).  However, just as his work began to gain traction, he died.

The Snake Charmer (Henri Rousseau, 1907, oil on canvas)

Commissioned by Comtesse de Delaunay,  Rousseau’s painting The Snake Charmer (above) was finished in 1907.  The painting features strange snakes made of empty space gliding out of a fecund jungle towards a nude musician also composed of darkness.  A spoonbill stares at the scene with a crazy empty smile.  Behind the figures, a green river ripples under the tropical sun.  Rousseau was not trying to titillate his audience with an exoticized picture of an oriental snake charmer (like the exquisitely crafted picture below by the great French salon artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose work was the pinnacle of French art a generation earlier).

The Snake Charmer (Jean-Léon Gérôme,1870, oil on canvas)

Instead of Gérôme’s ethnic stereotypes and off-putting eroticism, there is a sense of true menace and mystery in Rousseau’s painting.  Within the lush strangling wall of plants there are tendrils of nothingness which move in obedience to some otherworldly music. The universe is not the place we think.  Rousseau painted The Snake Charmer two years after Einstein’s “year of wonders” when the Swiss physicist, then working as a lowly patent clerk, conceived several radical theories which fundamentally changed how we look at space and time.  Whether, by accident or by design, The Snake Charmer captures some of the uncertainties that were winding their way through art, politics, and science in the era just before the first World War.   Unlike many other paintings from that era, Rousseau’s work has stayed fresh and disturbing.  Whenever we think something is certain, we start to see the alien serpents of oblivion wound up in the landscape, belying what we think we know.

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