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Source: Kongelige Bibliotek (Bestiarius - Bestiary of Anne Walsh (Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4)) Copyright 2003 Kongelige Bibliotek / Used by permission Manuscript description Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4, Folio 57r



Latin name: Serpens

Other names:

The snake crawls with hidden steps


General Attributes

The snake does not move by stepping, but crawls with small movements of its scales. All snakes are coiled and twisted, never straight. It is said that there are as many poisons, deaths and griefs as there are kinds of snakes.

When a snake grows old, it begins to lose its sight, which it can regain by eating fennel. To renew its youth, it fasts until its skin becomes loose, then it crawls through a narrow crack and sheds its old skin. When a snake goes to a river to drink, it spits its venom into a hole and retrieves it later. Snakes attack clothed men but flee from naked men. If a snake is attacked, it will protect its head. A snake that tastes the spit of a fasting man dies.

The snake is the enemy of the stag and the stork. The smoke from burning stag antlers is deadly to snakes.


The snake shedding its skin reminds us that we must shed the old self by going the crack (the "narrow way to salvation") in the rock (Christ). The snake spitting out its venom shows that before going to church one should get rid of evil desires. The snake fleeing the naked man represents the way the devil will flee from a man who has thrown off his wicked ways, but will attack one still clothed in worldly affairs.

The idea of the snake fleeing a naked man may also contain an allusion to the biblical creation story in Genesis. After Adam and Eve sinned, they realized they were naked and clothed themselves; the "naked man" could therefore represent the "pure" state of humanity, before sin, and the "clothed man" the corrupted state of humanity, subject to sin.

Sources (chronological order)

Lucretius [1st century BCE] (De natura rerum, book 4): In explaining why something can be deadly to one species but not to another, Lucretius notes that the snake is so affected by human spittle that it bites itself to death.

Lucan [1st century CE] (Pharsalia, book 9, verse 1078-1081): "...they burn / Larch, southern-wood and antlers of a deer / Which lived afar. From these in densest fumes, / Deadly to snakes, a pungent smoke arose...".

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 8, 35): Some snakes have scales and others colored markings, but all have a deadly venom. Snakes usually travel in mated pairs, and if one of the pair is killed the other will go to great lengths to take revenge on the killer, finding him even in crowds, traversing great distances and overcoming all obstacles, being stopped only by rivers. Snakes are more quickly excited by sound than sight, because they have poor eyesight and their eyes are on the side of the head. Snakes fight to the death with their enemy the ichneumon. (Book 8, 41): A snake can shed its excess winter skin through the use of fennel sap; the process starts at the head and takes 24 hours to complete, as the snake folds the skin backward so that what was inside becomes the outside. When its sight is dimmed by hibernation it restores its eyes by rubbing against a fennel plant. To cure numbness in its skin, a snake will scratch itself on a juniper. Large snakes cure their spring nausea with juice from the wild lettuce. (Book 10, 5): A certain large serpent fights with eagles; it tries to take the eagle's eggs, and in the fight wraps itself around the eagle's wings so that it falls. (Book 10, 82): Snakes embrace when they mate, twining around each other so closely that the appear to be one animal with two heads. (Book 10,90): Snakes are driven away by the smell of burnt stag's horn, and by the scent of styrax-tree gum.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 4:1-3): All snakes can be coiled and twisted, thus their name (anguis) because they are always angular and never straight. Snakes (serpens) are also so called because they move with hidden steps, using small exertions of their scales. Snakes have as many poisons (venena) as there are kinds (genera); cause as many deaths (pernices) as there are species (species); resulting in as many griefs (dolores) as they have colors (colores). (Book 12, 4:39-48): Snakes are cold by nature and do not strike until they warm up; they are therefore more dangerous by day than by night. A person who is struck by a snake's poison first becomes numb (as from cold), but when the poison becomes hot it burns and immediately kills the man. Its poison (venenum) is so called because it runs through the veins; therefore the poison can do no harm unless it touches the blood of a man. Snakes have a certain sharpness of sense; as is said in Genesis (3:1) "The snake was wiser than all the beasts of the earth." The snake throws its body ahead toward any who would strike it, because if its head escapes harm it will live. Snakes have feeble vision because their eyes are on their temples; they hear before they see. Their bodies are wet so their path is marked by moisture. Snakes live a long time; when their tunic becomes old they cast it off and return to youth. These tunics are called exuviae because they put them off (exuunt), or ex-uviae and ind-uviae because they are put off and put on. Some say that snakes are generated from the spine of a dead man, so while the death of the man is caused by the snake, the snake comes to be by the death of the man. It is said that a snake does not dare to touch a naked man.

Albertus Magnus [13th century CE] (De animalibus, Book 22.12): If the saliva of a man who has fasted for a long time falls into the mouth of a snake, the creature dies immediately.

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 17): And ash hath so great virtue that serpents come not in shadow thereof in the morning nor at even. And if a serpent be set within a fire and ash leaves, he will flee into the fire sooner than into the leaves. (Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)


One of the three natures of the snake is usually illustrated. The snake shedding its skin is probably the most common, though the scene of the snake and the naked man is also often presented. The shape of the snake varies; it sometimes has legs or ears. In British Library, Royal MS 2 B. vii (f. 127r & 128v) the artist has somehow confused the snake with its enemy the stag, and shows a deer fleeing a naked man and attacking a clothed man.

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