Greek MythologyMythology

The Meaning and Role(s) of Snakes in Greek Mythology

Sneks! Big sneks! Small sneks! All sneks! Snakes in Greek mythology have an interesting role. Or, rather, roles. Ask enough people what their biggest fear is and it won’t be long before someone says “Snakes!”. Called ophidophobia, Cleaveland Clinic notes that it’s one of the most common fears. Whether this has anything to do with Christianity and its overbearing influence on Western society is an open question, but Greek myth takes a much more nuanced approach. We see good, bad, and neutral representations.

Table of Contents

Bad

What’s interesting is that negative portrayals of snakes are rarely the snakes in and of themselves. What we see instead is that snakes incorporated into various monster outs figures as aspects. Examples include typhoon with his hundred snake heads and Chimera with her three heads, one of which was a snake.

825ἣν ἑκατὸν κεφαλαὶ ὄφιος, δεινοῖο δράκοντος,

γλώσσῃσιν δνοφερῇσι λελιχμότες, ἐκ δέ οἱ ὄσσων

θεσπεσίῃς κεφαλῇσιν ὑπ᾽ ὀφρύσι πῦρ ἀμάρυσσεν:

πασέων δ᾽ ἐκ κεφαλέων πῦρ καίετο δερκομένοιο:

φωναὶ δ᾽ ἐν πάσῃσιν ἔσαν δεινῇς κεφαλῇσι

[825] grew a hundred heads of a snake, a fearful dragon, with dark, flickering tongues, and from under the brows of his eyes in his marvellous heads flashed fire, and fire burned from his heads as he glared. And there were voices in all his dreadful heads

Hesiod. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Theogony. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0129%3Acard%3D820

320δεινήν τε μεγάλην τε ποδώκεά τε κρατερήν τε:

τῆς δ᾽ ἦν τρεῖς κεφαλαί: μία μὲν χαροποῖο λέοντος,

ἣ δὲ χιμαίρης, ἣ δ᾽ ὄφιος, κρατεροῖο δράκοντος,

πρόσθε λέων, ὄπιθεν δὲ δράκων, μέσση δὲ χίμαιρα,

320 a creature fearful, great, swift footed and strong, who had three heads, one of a grim-eyed lion, another of a goat, and another of a snake, a fierce dragon; in her forepart she was a lion; in her hinderpart, a dragon; and in her middle, a goat, breathing forth a fearful blast of blazing fire.

https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0130%3Acard%3D304

Neutral

Snakes were sacred to Hera, such that when Tiresias was young and interrupted/killed (sources vary) a pair of mating snakes, Hera cursed him by turning him into a woman. Whether or not that’s a curse is debatable at best but just go with it.

​In monte Cyllenio Tiresias Eueris filius pastor dracones venerantes dicitur baculo percussisse, alias calcasse; ob id in mulieris figuram est conversus; postea monitus a sortibus in eodem loco dracones cum calcasset, redit in pristinam speciem.

https://www.thelatinlibrary.com/hyginus/hyginus5.shtml#tiresias​

On Mount Cyllene Tiresias, son of Everes, a shepherd, is said to have struck with his staff, or trampled on, snakes which were coupling. Because of this he was changed to a woman. Later, advised by an oracle, he trampled on the snakes in the same place, and returned to his former sex.

https://topostext.org/work/206​

Good

Snakes also often serve as sources of wisdom, particularly of healing and prophecy. The best example is probably Asclepius, the formerly-mortal son of Apollo. He was taught the healing arts by snakes, to such an extent that he could bring people back from the dead. Melampus is another example, who raised two snakes. They licked his ears clean (don’t ask, I don’t know), which allowed him to understand birds and gave him the gift of prophecy.

Κρηθεὺς δὲ κτίσας Ἰωλκὸν γαμεῖ Τυρὼ τὴν Σαλμωνέως, ἐξ ἧς αὐτῷ γίνονται παῖδες Αἴσων Ἀμυθάων Φέρης. Ἀμυθάων μὲν οὖν οἰκῶν Πύλον Εἰδομένην γαμεῖ τὴν Φέρητος, καὶ γίνονται παῖδες αὐτῷ Βίας καὶ Μελάμπους, ὃς ἐπὶ τῶν χωρίων διατελῶν, οὔσης πρὸ τῆς οἰκήσεως αὐτοῦ δρυὸς ἐν ᾗ φωλεὸς ὄφεων ὑπῆρχεν, ἀποκτεινάντων τῶν θεραπόντων τοὺς ὄφεις τὰ μὲν ἑρπετὰ ξύλα συμφορήσας ἔκαυσε, τοὺς δὲ τῶν ὄφεων νεοσσοὺς ἔθρεψεν. οἱ δὲ γενόμενοι τέλειοι παραστάντες αὐτῷ κοιμωμένῳ τῶν ὤμων ἐξ ἑκατέρου τὰς ἀκοὰς ταῖς γλώσσαις ἐξεκάθαιρον. ὁ δὲ ἀναστὰς καὶ γενόμενος περιδεὴς τῶν ὑπερπετομένων ὀρνέων τὰς φωνὰς συνίει, καὶ παρ᾽ ἐκείνων μανθάνων προύλεγε τοῖς ἀνθρώποις τὰ μέλλοντα. προσέλαβε δὲ καὶ τὴν διὰ τῶν ἱερῶν μαντικήν, περὶ δὲ τὸν Ἀλφειὸν συντυχὼν Ἀπόλλωνι τὸ λοιπὸν ἄριστος ἦν μάντις. [12]

Cretheus founded Iolcus and married Tyro, daughter of Salmoneus, by whom he had sons, Aeson, Amythaon, and Pheres.19 Amythaon dwelt in Pylus and married Idomene, daughter of Pheres, and there were born to him two sons, Bias and Melampus. The latter lived in the country, and before his house there was an oak, in which there was a lair of snakes. His servants killed the snakes, but Melampus gathered wood and burnt the reptiles, and reared the young ones. And when the young were full grown, they stood beside him at each of his shoulders as he slept, and they purged his ears with their tongues. He started up in a great fright, but understood the voices of the birds flying overhead, and from what he learned from them he foretold to men what should come to pass.20 He acquired besides the art of taking the auspices, and having fallen in with Apollo at the Alpheus he was ever after an excellent soothsayer. [12]

Apollodorus. Apollodorus, The Library, with an English Translation by Sir James George Frazer, F.B.A., F.R.S. in 2 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1921. Includes Frazer’s notes.

Conclusion

Neither completely one thing nor another, snakes simply are. We see snakes as parts of monsters, snakes as teachers, and snakes as simply neutral figures. This is a common theme in Greek mythology. Few beings, whether people, gods, or animals are wholly good or wholly bad, though our modern lens tends to make us want to view them as one or the other.

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