Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

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Wednesday 9 March 2011


'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.
UPDATE: 6 November 2023
Today I visited a village called Rubery on the far side of Birmingham, England, from where I live on the recommendation of a friend, Tim, who had noted the abundance of its charity shops and the quality of their contents. He wasn't wrong! Here's what I purchased for just £2 - a very heavy 30" x 23.5" framed, glass-fronted reproduction of a detail from Raphael's famous 'Adam and Eve' painting in one of his frescos, c.1508. What makes it especially interesting to me is that he has portrayed the Serpent as Lilith (Adam's first wife according to certain theological writings and beliefs) in draconopides form (half-woman, half-snake). Not sure where exactly it will be accommodated within my house, as free wall space is at an absolute premium here now), but having written a great deal down through the years about the draconopides representation of the Eden Serpent, including this present ShukerNature blog article, there was no way whatsoever that I was not bringing this wonderful item back home with me! And here it is:
My framed, glass-fronted reproduction of a detail from Raphael's 'Adam and Eve' painting (photograph (c) Dr Karl Shuker / original Raphael painting in public domain)


  1. Isaac Said
    Great written piece, But I disagree with some of what you said. Of course I'm sure you have people disagree all the time. But I believe the Bible is true from the beginning and God only cursed the Serpent that tempted Eve there were other snakes around before the fall of man. The snakes were made on day 6 before man was made from the dust and then God mad Eve from Adams side. They were the first people there was no Lilith.

    I suppose the reason I am writing this is becasue the Bible and Evolution don't mix if you actually believe the entire Bible is true, and in your great article (it was very well write and put together also informative) You talk about a Biblical fact and then add in things that the Bible does not say when talking about the Bible,
    "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)"
    I realize I don't have to read your articles but I do find them informative, I just don't like it when people talk about the Bible but don't take the entire Bible as it was written.
    Sorry for the length I think I may have gotten carried away with it.
    A thankful reader

  2. In fact, there are countless theological hypotheses on offer as to the identity of the Eden serpent - including a bipedal humanoid reptile, a type of flying camel (truly!), a draconopides, a winged snake, and a fallen angel, to mention just a few.

  3. A bipedal serpent? Hmm. A certain group of "extinct" reptiles from 65 million years ago, pictured on the Ishtar Gate, comes to mind! It seems that the pre-cursed serpent was some sort of raptor, or a Mini T-Rex that somehow got shipped or arrived at pre-biblical Arabia! Why has nobody thought of this before? A brilliantly thought out article knowing how little there was to go on.

  4. Some scholars understand Eden is a recast of earlier Mesopotamian myths about a location called Edin, the floodplain of Lower Mesopotamia for the Sumerians. In these myths the gods make man to care for their city-gardens in the Edin. Man is portrayed as their naked gardener. These gods bore the Sumerian epithet ushumgal (ushum= serpent, gal=great, or "dragon") so, man was created by gods possessing a human form that were called ushumgals, "great serpents" or "dragons," who denied naked man their slave knowledge of good and evil, immortality, and required him to till their city-gardens in ancient Sumer's Edin to raise food for the gods' consumption. Cf. my recently released book, Eden's Serpent: Its Mesopotamian Origins (2010)for the details.

  5. A very enjoyable text, cheers!

    The third unidentified fragment is from one of the Paradise scenes by Lucas Cranach the Elder:

  6. Thanks for identifying this work of art - much appreciated!

    And many thanks equally for the Edin information, which was new to me and made fascinating reading!

    1. The original of the fifth unidentified picture is a 19th century wood engraving by a Frenchman named F. Bauchart: http://www.oldantiqueprints.com/product_info.php?products_id=6210

  7. So serpents (or dinosaurs) in the Garden of Eden (or the Garden of Edin)?

    Interesting! Puts a little spin on an old story. Do you think that the serpent could be based on dinosaurs from the lower Mesopotomian floodplains? Or fossils found in the area, if not live specimens?

  8. The Biblical story of the serpent Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden is ambiguous vague and open to interpretation. The location of the blessed Garden of Eden is likely under the waters of the Persian Gulf or what would have been southern Iraq thousands of years ago. Dates are also unknown ranging anywhere from 6000 years to 32000 years ago for Adam and Eves existence. I find that God is mean cruel unfair and unreasoning here as He allows Adam and Eves sin to be transmitted to ALL future unborn humans and He curses and punishes the ENTIRE CREATION along with Adam and Eve including innocent animals. Sin disease violence predation heat cold starvation loneliness toil painful childbirth crimes wars genocides centipedes scorpions venomous snakes and enmity with snakes hurricanes tsunamis pestilence tapeworms crop failure aging and death are all the sad end results of Adam and Eves sin. Its excessive cruel unjust and irrational to ruin the entire creation just because Adam and Eve ate a forbidden fruit thousands of years ago. Why do animals have to suffer and die for Adam and Eves sin? Its most unjust. This story of the Fall or Original Sin is used to explain why ther is evil and sin in the world and to explain why there is suffering and death in the world. To me its an inadequate explanation. There is overwhelming evidence that suffering death and extinctions are older than Adam and Eves sin or older than humanity. Violence and predation has existed for hundreds of millions of years and diseases have existed for tens of millions of years. Modern humans are anywhere from 200000 to 400000 years old and before that human were hominids. Tooth decay and arthritis existed in prehistoric humans and in hominids and tooth decay existed in prehistoric mammals during the Tertiary period and tooth decay cancer and broken bones existed in Dinosaurs since the late Cretaceous period. Plus Dinosaurs were pestered by ticks mosquitoes worms and flies and many Dinosaurs killed and ate eachother. Adam and Eves sin cannot explain the evil suffering death and extinctions in the PRE HUMAN PREHISTORIC WORLD. Some believe that Satan or the Devil or Demons corrupted and ruined the natural world before Adam and Eves sin or before humanity. If thats so then why has God allowed it? Why does God continue to allow suffering death and evil? Anyway getting back to the Garden of Eden I have seen many pictures of it. The Bible doesnt even tell us how long Adam and Eve stayed in the Garden before they were kicked out into the cold cruel dangerous world outside the Garden. In the book of Adam and Eve the pair are again tempted by Satan and they fail again and God continues to punish them. This God allows a talking temptijg snake and a Satan to tempt Adam and Eve and refuses to forgive Adam and Eve and refuses to give them a second chance. It makes me sad and angry. Its cruel and unjust. The world should have remained a Garden of Eden. The world should have remained a peaceable kingdom. Instead the world is like a horror movie and a warzone.

    1. One may also read in Romans, where one feels that the sin of Adam and Eve exists as a pattern in all humans and so the death being just and logical.

  9. Hello here another intesting take from The Book of eden:
    The mortal combat with the serpent.
    WHEN the accursed serpent saw Adam and Eve, it swelled its head, stood on its tail, and with
    eyes blood-red, did as if it would kill them.
    2 It made straight for Eve, and ran after her; while Adam standing by, wept because he had no
    stick in his hand wherewith to smite the serpent, and knew not how to put it to death.
    3 But with a heart burning for Eve, Adam approached the serpent, and held it by the tail; when it
    turned towards him and said unto him:--
    4 "O Adam, because of thee and of Eve, I am slippery, and go upon my belly." Then by reason of
    its great strength, it threw down Adam and Eve and pressed upon them, as if it would kill them.
    5 But God sent an angel who threw the serpent away from them, and raised them up.
    6 Then the Word of God came to the serpent, and said unto it, "In the first instance I made thee
    glib, and made thee to go upon thy belly; but I did not deprive thee of speech.
    7 "Now, however, be thou dumb; and speak no more, thou and thy race; because in the first
    place, has the ruin of my creatures happened through thee, and now thou wishest to kill them."
    8 Then the serpent was struck dumb, and spake no more.
    9 And a wind came to blow from heaven by command of God that carried away the serpent from
    Adam and Eve, threw it on the sea shore, and it landed in India.
    So maybe dig a bit more in India...?
    Martin Albers

    1. There is a tone of material about NAGAS (powerful semi-serpent creatures) in Indian mytology.
      As for "dust eating" part of the curse (mentioned from Zohar): In Book of Genesis physical body is described as dust, so ...

  10. I can't say what the serpent looked like only God knows and I won't judge that.

  11. I just discovered this old article, and am delighted to find it. A couple of blogs I've written in the past few years touch upon both the biblical walking/talking serpent and the various feathered and bipedal serpents from around the world's mythologies. Evolved dinosaurids immediately spring to mind, especially now we understand that many dinosaurs were indeed feathered!
    Great article Karl, thanks!

  12. Gracias por tan excelente información.