'The Temptation' - Hugo van der Goes, 1470
This thought-provoking subject has always been one of my favourite zoo-theological mysteries, so when I was preparing the text for my eventual book Mysteries of Planet Earth (2001), I penned a very extensive account devoted to it, but unfortunately this had to be edited down in order to fit the space allocated to it in the book. Now, however, for the very first time anywhere, I have great pleasure in presenting here - as a ShukerNature world-exclusive - the hitherto-unseen, original, unedited version of this account, which also includes some additional illustrations not published in the book.
An early passage in the Bible is responsible for one of the classic serpentine sources of theological speculation and controversy among scholars of Scripture. When God learnt that the serpent in the Garden of Eden had successfully tempted Eve and thence Adam to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, He cursed the serpent (Genesis, 3: 14-15):
"And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:
And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel."
According to this account, therefore, the serpent only acquired its present-day form, as a limbless creature slithering upon its undersurface, after it had been cursed - which begs the oft-posed theological question: "What did it look like before it was cursed?".
The Bible itself offers little in the way of clues. Apart from revealing that it could converse directly with Adam and Eve, the only reference to the pre-cursed serpent (Genesis, 3: 1) states: "Now the serpent was more subtil [sic] than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made". Even so, theologians and artists have offered many putative answers.
Some theologians have been in no doubt that the serpent was physically transformed by God's curse. Thus, in their Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 1 (1866), Carl F. Keil and Franz Delitzsch unequivocally stated:
"The punishment of the serpent corresponded to the crime. It had exalted itself above the man; therefore upon its belly it should go, and dust it should eat all the days of its life. If these words are not to be robbed of their entire meaning, they cannot be understood in any other way than as denoting that the form and movements of the serpent were altered, and that its present repulsive shape is the effect of the curse pronounced upon it, though we cannot form any accurate idea of its original appearance. Going upon the belly (=creeping, Lev. xi. 42) was a mark of the deepest degradation; also the eating of dust, which is not to be understood as meaning that dust was to be its only food, but that while crawling in the dust it would also swallow dust."
Notwithstanding the above authors' claim, rabbinical tradition formulated a number of ideas regarding the serpent's appearance before it received God's curse. According to the Zohar (Book of Splendour), which constitutes the main text of the Jewish Qabalah (Kabbalah) and provides a vast commentary upon the Pentateuch, in its pre-cursed form it had stood upright on two hind legs, just like humans, and was as tall as a camel. Similarly, certain ancient Egyptian carvings depict the pre-cursed serpent as an exceedingly slender biped with a long neck and tail, a pair of lengthy arms, and standing slightly taller than a human on two elongate hind legs, offering Adam a fruit with one of its paws. When it was cursed, however, God (or St Michael, according to St Barnabas's apocryphal gospel) cut off its arms and legs, thereby yielding the limbless snake known today. God also took away its power of human speech by splitting its tongue, so that it could only hiss thereafter.
Antiquarian engraving of a winged snake
Another school of thought favoured the idea that the pre-cursed serpent was a winged snake. In his Commentary Upon the Whole Bible (1708-10), Matthew Henry opined:
"Perhaps it was a flying serpent, which seemed to come from on high as a messenger from the upper world, one of the seraphim; for the fiery serpents were flying, Isa. xiv. 29. Many a dangerous temptation comes to us in gay fine colours that are but skin-deep, and seems to come from above; for Satan can seem an angel of light."
Other scholars have speculated that the serpent's transformation may not have been physical at all, but merely figurative. In his Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis (1948), John Calvin suggested that there is:
"...no absurdity in supposing, that the serpent was again consigned to that former condition, to which he was already naturally subject. For thus he, who had exalted himself against the image of God, was to be thrust back into his proper rank;...he is recalled from his insolent motions to his accustomed mode of going, in such a way as to be, at the same time, condemned to perpetual infamy. To eat dust is the sign of a vile and sordid nature. This (in my opinion) is the simple meaning of the passage."
And Frank E. Gaebelein, editing The Expositor's Bible Commentary (1990), opined:
"This curse does not necessarily suggest that the snake had previously walked with feet and legs as the other land animals. The point is rather that for the rest of his life, as a result of the curse, when the snake crawls on his belly, as snakes do, he will "eat dust." The emphasis lies in the snake's 'eating dust,' an expression that elsewhere carries the meaning of 'total defeat' (cf. Isa 65: 25, Mic 7: 17)."
Yet another facet of this biblical event that has engendered considerable theological contention is whether the serpent was indeed merely a reptile, i.e. a corporeal animal, or whether it was Satan in the guise of a snake, or even a snake controlled by Satan. Leading on from this line of thought is whether, therefore, God's curse was indeed imposed upon the serpent, or whether it was actually imposed upon Satan. Quoting theologian Winterbotham:
"1. I lay down the position that no punishment in the way of physical degradation was inflicted by God in His sentence upon the serpent tribe.
2. I lay down the position, which I think no one will seriously dispute, that the real tempter was not the serpent at all, but the devil.
3. I conclude from the foregoing positions, and conclude with confidence, that the serpent was not really cursed at all, while the devil was."
A comparable diversity of views have manifested themselves in artistic representations of the serpent too. As already noted, early Egyptian carvings portrayed an erect, bipedal being, whereas early European painters tended to depict it as a normal, limbless snake coiled around the Tree of Knowledge. By the 12th Century AD, however, a shift in opinion had occurred, and European artists began portraying a somewhat more humanoid version - often with a snake's body but the head (and sometimes also the arms) of a woman - a trend that crossed from art into literature too. One famous early example is artwork by Benjamin the Scribe, produced in c.1280, portraying Adam and Eve flanking a serpent with the head, arms, and upper torso of a woman.
Adam, Eve, and draconopides version of Eden serpent - Benjamin the Scribe, c.1280
This hybrid serpent-woman monster also gained its own name, the draconopides (other variations upon this name include draconiopides, draconcopedes, and draconipes), which is actually a decidedly inappropriate name for a serpent-bodied entity lacking hind legs, bearing in mind that 'draconopides' translates as 'dragon-footed'! Intriguingly, moreover, the draconopides image was sometimes utilised by artists depicting Lilith.
Rabbinical lore claims that Adam's first wife was not Eve, but Lilith, made by God from dust like Adam (rather than from one of Adam's ribs, like Eve), and who therefore refused to be subjugated by Adam. Instead, she deserted him, becoming an evil demon, and in some texts she is made synonymous with the serpent - tempting Adam and his new wife, Eve, with the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and thereby causing humanity's Fall.
Adam, Eve, and draconopides version of Eden serpent in relief at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France
By the 15th Century, certain painters had created even more complex, elaborate serpents. Dating from c.1473, François Fouquet's painting 'Le Péché Originel' ('The Original Sin' - a title also used by several other artists for their versions of this same scene) depicts the serpent with a typically elongate anguiniform lower body, wrapped around the tree, but also with the upper body, arms, and head of a woman, and a pair of extended bat-like wings. A comparable depiction of this enigmatic reptilian entity but without the wings also occurs in the temptation scene portrayed in one of the panels comprising Michelangelo's glorious series of paintings on the ceiling of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel (1508-12).
Temptation scene, Sistine Chapel Ceiling - Michelangelo, 1508-12
Other draconopides portrayals were produced by the likes of Masolino da Panicale, Raphael, and Cornelius van Haarlem.
'The Temptation of Adam and Eve' - Masolino da Panicale, c.1425, fresco in Brancacci Chapel at the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, in Florence, Italy
'The Original Sin' - Raphael
'The Original Sin' - Cornelius van Haarlem, 1592
During 1425-38, Jacapo della Quercia had meticulously sculpted a stunning relief of Adam, Eve, and a draconopides Eden serpent for Bologna's San Petronio.
'Peccado Originale' ('The Original Sin') - Jacapo della Quercia, 1425-38
There have also been some very spectacular draconopides depictions portrayed in stained-glass windows. One particularly impressive example, dating from 1420, can be found in Ulm Cathedral, Germany.
Even more striking, however, is the Eden serpent as portrayed in 'The Temptation' in 1470 by 15th-Century Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes, constituting the left-hand panel of a diptych now housed at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum. As seen here at the beginning of this blog post and also below, van der Goes conceived it as a bipedal, web-footed lizard with a long tail and a woman's head, whose hair was plaited into horns, leaning against the Tree of Knowledge alongside Adam and Eve.
Postage stamp from Ajman depicting 'The Temptation' by Hugo van der Goes, 1470
Back in the days before Charles Darwin's explanation of limblessness in snakes - as a natural and advantageous evolutionary process - was accepted by the scientific community (which currently deems that snakes evolved from marine limbed lizards called mosasaurs), some naturalists offered their own input into the long-running discussion as to the pre-cursed serpent's likely morphology. One of the most memorable suggestions was proffered by enthusiastic amateur naturalist Frank Buckland, who was very intrigued that boas and pythons possess vestiges of hind legs beneath their skin, as well as two hook-like claws near their tail. In his book Curiosities of Natural History (1858), he explained these as follows:
"Supposing, then, the pre-Adamite [i.e. pre-cursed] snake to have gone on four legs, we might explain the passage by saying that after the curse the legs were struck off, but that the undeveloped legs were left (concealed, however, from casual observers) as evidence of what it formerly had been, and a type of its fallen condition."
In other words, these were remnants of earlier fully-formed limbs, exactly as postulated by evolution - thus providing an example of science and Scripture in full agreement.
Finally, and still on the subject of the original Eden serpent, several years ago a truly extraordinary claim attracted worldwide media interest - namely, that a mysterious sample of scaly skin preserved in a certain American institution reputedly originated from this selfsame reptile of biblical ill-repute! Here is what I wrote about this remarkable allegation and the facts behind it in my book Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo (2010):
"One of the most enigmatic yet hitherto-obscure zoological relics held in any scientific establishment must surely be the 8-inch by 4-inch piece of scaly rusty-red leathery skin contained inside Archive Box #1920.1714 within the very sizeable collection of the Chicago Historical Society. For according to its yellowing French label, this is supposedly a genuine piece of skin from the very serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden! Indeed, the label goes on to say that the serpent was killed by Adam on the day after its treachery to Eve, using a stake whose traces can be seen on this skin sample, which was preserved by his family in Asia. Affixed to the skin is a document written on velum or similar hide in an Asian script. The society purchased this mystifying exhibit, along with many other items, in 1920 from the eclectic collection of Chicago confectioner Charles F. Gunther - a grand collector of curiosities. Although the society's chief curator, Olivia Mahoney, has no doubt that it is a fraud (as opposed to a bona fide piece of snakeskin dating back to the dawn of time), no research has ever been conducted on it to ascertain what it really is. Moreover, Mahoney is very reluctant to permit any, in case the skin is damaged, and also because in her view it is so evidently a fake. That may well be, but it still doesn't answer what - if not a sample of skin from the Eden serpent - this anomalous object is.
"As noted by the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper's religion writer, Cathleen Falsani - who viewed and wrote about this biblical(?) relic in a 10 October 2003 report - after watching it being carried back in its box to the society's archives: "I couldn't help thinking about that scene from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, where the Ark of the Covenant, and all of its power, is crated up and wheeled into a military warehouse among thousands of other generic crates. I wonder what else might be hiding anonymously in a quiet corner of a museum archive somewhere else, waiting to shock us with its mystery". What else indeed?"
To conclude this account, here are a selection of paintings depicting 'The Original Sin' that feature the Eden serpent as a draconopides, but whose respective artists are currently unknown to me. So if anyone can identify any or all of them, I'd love to hear from you!
Interestingly, this last version depicts the Eden serpent not as a serpent-bodied woman but rather as a serpent-bodied male devil, thereby providing a more direct visual link between this reptile and Satan.
UPDATE: 12 August 2017
I've just discovered that on 18 October 2012, this entire ShukerNature blog article of mine was copied verbatim, together with all of its illustrations, by someone with the username FallenAngels TV onto their own blog, but without even doing me the courtesy of including a credit or link to my article - instead, it is actually attributed to this person ("by FallenAngels TV"). Moreover, it is currently still online (here), but does not include any means of contacting them without having first to become a member of their website, which I have no wish to do. It is often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so perhaps I should feel extremely flattered, but I don't. As far as I'm concerned, this is theft of my work, blatant infringement of my article's copyright, pure and simple, so if anyone reading this update has any suggestions as to what steps I could take, I would greatly appreciate them.