“Their faming crests above the waves they show;
Their bellies seem to burn the seas below;
Their speckled tails advance to steer their course,
And on the sounding shore the flying billows force.
And now the strand, and now the plain they held;
Their ardent eyes with bloody streaks were fill’d,
Their nimble tongues they brandish’d as they came,
And lick’d their hissing jaws that sputter’d flame.”
———————————————————DRYDEN’S VIRGIL, Æ. ii.
THESE creatures constitute, by themselves a distinct class of Amphibia. The general character is that they breathe, like quadrupeds, through the mouth by means of lungs; and are, like fishes, destitute of feet. They have neither fins like eels, or feet like the lizards, yet they resemble the former by the pliancy of their annulous bodies, and the latter by the texture of their skins, which are often covered with scales, and by their pointed tails. In their motions they look like worms, but have lungs which the worms have not. All Serpents are formidable to man, and it is the form of this animal which the Arch-fiend borrowed to seduce the woman. It is since an emblem of flattery and insinuation. Milton describes it most beautifully when he says:
“ – on his rear,
Circular base of rising folds, that tower’d,
Fold above fold, a surprising maze, his head
Crested aloft and carbuncle his eyes.
With burnish’d neck of verdant gold, erect
Amidst his circling spires, that on the grass
Floted redundant; pleasing was his shape
And lovely… Oft he bow’d
His turret crest, and sleek enamell’d neck,
Fawning, and lick’d the ground whereon she trod.”
———————————————————–PARADISE LOST, B. ix.
The mouth of the Serpent is generally very wide, but the eyes are comparatively small; they have no exterior nostrils nor ears, and yet some species are endowed with a very sagacious scent, and with conspicuous auditory ducts. A peculiarity which unites the serpent tribe with some kind of insects, is that they undergo a sort of metamorphosis in changing their skins, which circumstance happens twice a year. This painful operation is performed in this way: the old skin parts near the head, and the creature creeps from it by an undulatory kind of motion, arrayed in a new skin of a more vivid beauty. The anatomical structure of the body is admirable, and it seems as if nature had taken a special delight not only in framing, but also in colouring this animal, and yet what a lesson to man, if he consider that all these exterior charms cover and disguise the mortal poison which this most dangerous creature contains in its teeth. This contrast we may observe nearly all through the whole creation. The bee produces the sweetest food by collecting honey, and yet possesses a venomous sting. The rose exhales the finest perfume and its colour and beauty proclaim it the queen of the flowers, and yet it is surrounded with thorns.
The ancients paid great honours to serpents, and sometimes called them good genii; they abided by the sepulchres and burying places, and were addressed like the tutelary divinities of these places. We read in the fifth book of the Æneis, that, when Æneas sacrificed to his father’s ghost, a serpent of this kind made his appearance.
“ – and from the tomb began to glide
His hugy bulk on sev’n high volumes roll’d,
Blue was his breadth of back and streak’d with scaly gold.
Thus riding on his curls he seem’d to pass
A rolling fire along and singe the grass,
More various colours through his body run
Than Iris when her bow imbibes the sun.
Between the rising altars and around,
The sacred monster shot along the ground;
With harmless play among the bowls he pass’d
And with his lolling tongue assay’d the taste:
Thus fed with holy food, the wond’rous guest
Withing the hollow tomb, retir’d to rest.”
It is impossible to guess at the origin of this curious, and, most likely, emblematic, superstition.
This reptile was extolled to the honour of being an emblem of prudence, and even of eternity, and is often represented for that purpose biting his tail and forming a circle, in Egyptian hieroglyphics. They are very numerous in Africa, and Lucan in his Pharsalia gives us a most extraordinary account of the different species, which he seems to have drawn partly from ancient Greek authors, partly from actual traditions. He says,
“Why plagues like these infect the Libyan air;
Why deaths unknown, in various shapes appear;
Why fruitful to destroy the cursed land,
Is temper’d thus by Nature’s secret hand;
Dark and obscure, the hidden cause remains,
And still deludes the vain enquirer’s pains.”
Unable to find out the natural cause which has peopled the African deserts with reptiles both so numerous and so poisonous, the poet refers their origin to a well-known fable, and thus leaves his reader pleased but not enlightened.
Serpents differ very much in size. The Liboya of Surinam grows to the length of thirty-seven feet. In the Isle of Java we are told of Serpents measuring fifty feet in length, and in the British museum there is a skin of one-thirty-two feet long. Pliny the elder assures us that he saw the skin of that enormous Serpent which opposed the passage of Regulus and his army, on the banks of the Bagrada; it measured a hundred and twenty feet.
Many Indians, and some jugglers of the south of France, tame these creatures, and teach them to dance, an art very well known and highly esteemed among the ancients, who took it for a sort of sorcery. David mentions it in the 58th of his Psalms, where he says: “They are like the deaf Adder that stoppeth her ear: which will not harken to the voice of charmers, charming ever so wisely.”