Decade after decade, serpent phobia (along with fear of spiders) ranks in the top five fears and loathings of Americans. This is noteworthy, since we’ve modified our surroundings to the extent that the chances of running across an actual snake—other than one pancaked on the freeway—are exceedingly rare.
Greeks and Romans, on the other hand, thought highly of serpents. They had more relaxed attitudes about scaly wildlife and housekeeping styles, too. In those days, the temples, public buildings, and houses of everyone, including the most lah-di-dah, were easily accessible by members of the reptilian family.
Whenever a snake happened to glide into the kitchen of a Greek housewife, she was pleased by her “good luck” visitor and set out a saucer of milk. Sometimes she invited the snake in; snakes were and still are excellent predators of vermin, so there was common sense in this positive attitude.
Romans were even more effusive, painting a large snake as the guardian of the hearth on each family lararium or altar. The snake was a stand-in for the male head of household’s “genius,” which back then didn’t define dad’s IQ, merely his powers of procreation.
Beyond their roles as mousers, symbols of fatherly potency, and less cuddly substitutes for rabbit’s feet, snakes carried additional meaning. Serpents had prophetic qualities and healing powers. For instance, when Rome was afflicted by a plague in 293 B.C., the city got help fast when a good-sized specimen of Elaphe longissima longissima crawled off a ship and onto an island in the Tiber River. The helpful staff at the healing sanctuary in Epidaurus, Greece, had sent the six-foot-long serpent as a physician’s assistant of their healing god, Asclepius. In no time the snake had settled in, the plague had abated, and builders were at work, constructing a new temple for the Asclepius deity in herpetic form.
The city of Athens had similar heartwarming tales of a guardian snake at the Acropolis that was fed on honey cakes and was sage enough to skedaddle when everyone else did during the Persian invasion.
Other healing cults around Italy copied the success of Asclepius; at the temple of Bona Dea Subsaxana, for instance, female worshippers could hardly move without stepping on one of the harmless serpents underfoot.
About A.D. 150 the god Asclepius, clearly tired of all the attention lavished on his serpent stand-ins, changed from a deity in human form into a large snake with shaggy hair and primate ears. The only person to witness this transformation was a glib, good-looking, out-of-work prophet named Alex in the Black Sea town of Abonutichus. In short order, Alex founded an oracle, won an audience, and got credulous souls to chip in for a shrine and a daybed for the snake god, who wanted to be known as Glykon.
Alex and Glykon carried on oracling for thirty years, scoring several important prophetic hits. Although the cult had detractors, Alex had the goods to carry off the role. As he “channeled” Glykon’s messages, he often had seizures and drooled—excess saliva being a sure sign of divinity. Decades after the demise of both the snake and Alex, the oracle was still in operation. Even Emperor Marcus Aurelius sought oracle answers from the Glykon cult.
Two thousand years ago almost every man, woman, and child was savvy enough to distinguish poisonous serpents from harmless ones—called dracos or dracones—which often served as household pets. An elderly snake was a favorite of Emperor Tiberius, who fed it with his own hands until the aging slinky got so weak it was destroyed by ants. Dracos were often brought in to enliven smart dinner parties, slithering about amid the dining couches of fashionable ladies.
Given their remarkable acceptance in Greco-Roman society, it’s easy to see why long-ago snakes played a leading role in dreams, portents, legend building, and salacious celebrity gossip. The life story of Olympias, the fiery mom of Alexander the Great, is a case in point. She and her future husband Philip II of Macedon met at a mystery religion orgy on the Greek island of Samothrace. A cult priestess, Olympias handled serpents and wore them on her body as she danced by torchlight. Despite the involuntary retch this inspired in Philip, he fell for her. They made love, wed, and made a baby.
One evening, as Philip fondly peeked in on his new wife, he saw an immense snake lying next to Olympias as she slept. Instant libido loss on his part. Being a Macedonian ruler with multiple wife-visitation options, Philip kept mum but scratched Olympias off his nocturnal visit list.
In due course, Queen Olympias gave birth to Alexander, who from the get-go was a clearly superior boy. The marriage got stormier. Olympias took to drinking too much wine at dinner and had a regrettable tendency to impugn Philip’s paternal role by telling everyone about the night that Zeus took the form of a serpent and fathered her child.
Ancient cultures weren’t phobic about snakes. To them, certain reptiles had healing powers; that’s why Asclepius, god of healing, had a serpent companion.
Meanwhile, Philip sought counseling from the prophetic Pythia of the oracle at Delphi. The oracle warned that someday Philip would lose the eye with which he’d spied on his wife doing the nasty with a major god in snake form. And of course that is what transpired; in one of his endless battles, Philip caught an arrow in the face.
The Greeks and Romans’ awe of snakes is perhaps why one of their most powerful symbols for infinity was the ourobouros, a snake that held its tail in its own mouth. Serpents also representing healing and wisdom to the ancients, and we see traces of that today in the serpent-twined caduceus, the familiar medical symbol.