“And then I knew that the voice of the spirits had been let in as intense as an epileptic aura and that no longer would I sing alone.”
Transformations, by Anne Sexton. The poet Anne Sexton wrote in this work several poetic retellings from the Grimm’s tales, including the “White Snake” from where these introductory verses came.
Between 1806 and 1857 the Brothers Grimm collected tales and legends preserved in the folk culture of Germany. Their initial efforts turned into the first edition of Household Stories in 1812 which counted 86 tales. The seventh edition of 1857, saw an increase to 211 folkloric narratives.
Among the new acquisitions was the tale of the White Snake. At first glance it is clearly inspired in the Genesis story, but this time with an inversion of values and a happy ending. This is the first thing that called my attention, and made me wonder about the frame of mind of the unknown person that decided to challenge the wisdom of the Bible, shamelessly borrowing and changing some of its core symbols. The second was the reference to the “language of the birds”, or the “language of the animals”, otherwise also known as “the green language”. These are different ways to spell an ancient concept inherited from the Proto-Indo-European culture, when an early distinction was made between the “language of the gods” and the “language of men”. Between both there was an intermediary form of speech, poetry.
THE POET AND THE SEER
We are very far from our ancestor roots to properly understand the past importance given to poets, especially in the pre-literate times. Poets were the keepers of all accumulated knowledge, and were the only ones who could bestow upon kings and heroes their most prized achievement: the immortality of their names and deeds. Poets were also supposed to be in a special kind of relationship with the deities, receiving from them the inspiration necessary to create and sing their verses. The appeal of Homer in the beginning of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the confession of Hesiod that he received his poetic gifts after an encounter with the Muses in the Mont Helicon were much more than mere poetic devices: they testified to their divinely inspired status without which they would not be accepted as true poets.
The seer shared in the divine inspiration, but had different functions. Some seers were adept at reading signs and omens, especially the flight of the birds. Others could receive divine inspiration, being even possessed by a deity, or inherit mantric powers. Here we see again the elusive presence of the serpent. Serpents were associated with oracle centers, like the Oracle of Delphi, but even more interesting for us here is that they could confer prophetic powers: serpents licked Cassandra’s ears thus giving her the ability to see the future. In other legends, they could confer to their chosen the ability to understand the language of the animals or the language of the birds.
THE TALE OF THE SNAKE
Let us now see the story itself. In its introduction, the setting is displayed being centered on the concepts of wisdom and secrecy. The king famed for his wisdom brings immediately to the mind the legends of the most wise of all kings, Solomon.
A LONG time ago there lived a king who was famed for his wisdom through all the land. Nothing was hidden from him, and it seemed as if news of the most secret things was brought to him through the air. But he had a strange custom; every day after dinner, when the table was cleared, and no one else was present, a trusty servant had to bring him one more dish. It was covered, however, and even the servant did not know what was in it, neither did anyone know, for the King never took off the cover to eat of it until he was quite alone.
Like Solomon’s the wisdom of this king has a supernatural origin: the covered dish contained a white snake that when eaten conferred magical powers. The tale does not say how the king come to enjoy the gift, but traditionally Solomon was blessed after his piety. In the Old Testament he sacrificed to God and prayed for wisdom. God personally answered his prayer, promising him great wisdom because he did not ask for self-serving rewards like long life or the death of his enemies. And the founding text of Solomonic magic says
Now when I Solomon heard this, I entered the Temple of God, and prayed with all my soul, night and day, that the demon might be delivered into my hands, and that I might gain authority over him. And it came about through my prayer that grace was given to me from the Lord Sabaoth by Michael his archangel
On Grimm’s tale the king’s secret is betrayed by the servant who carries the dish. Overcome by curiosity, he lifts the cover and found the white snake. Even more, he could not win over the temptation and ate a piece of it. We must inquire ourselves why a serpent would look so delicious to tempt the servant to eat it. We are here back to the Genesis scenery where Adam and Eve were tempt by the serpent to eat the fruit of knowledge, the serpent standing for the fruit but holding its seductive powers. The theme of the language of the animals is already subtly present in Genesis also, as at least Eve was capable of talking to the serpent before eating the fruit. In Grimm’s tale the piece of the snake gives back to the transgressor servant the ability lost by our forefathers:
No sooner had it touched his tongue than he heard a strange whispering of little voices outside his window. He went and listened, and then noticed that it was the sparrows who were chattering together, and telling one another of all kinds of things which they had seen in the fields and woods. Eating the snake had given him power of understanding the language of animals.
The serpent defeated (eaten) is also an old mythologem. Calvert Watkins’ acclaimed study on comparative Indo-European poetics, How to Kill a Dragon, tracks the presence of what he call the “basic formula” of this myth – HERO KILLS SERPENT – through the broad specter of relate cultures, but he also acknowledges its universality:
One or more myths about a god or hero killing a dragon or other reptilian adversary, usually just called ‘snake, serpent`, is found in a vast number of cultures around the world; it may be a quasi-universal. We cannot speak of an exclusively Indo-European dragon
Calvert attests the presence of the ´signature´ formula for the myth of the killing of the serpent in the Rig Veda, in Iranian holy books, Hittite myths, Greek epic and lyric, Celtic and Germanic epic and saga and Armenian oral folk epic. He defines it as “a precious and precise tool for genetic as well as typological investigation in the study of literature and literary theory.
FRIEND AND FOE
Through the many different retellings of the myth, the serpent or dragon is repeatedly portrayed as the guardian of treasure. From the archetypical fountain guarded by a serpent and freed by a hero at the root of the Indo-European myths to the hundred-headed dragon Ladon of the Hesperides, the mythical reptile is there to prevent man from achieving something of great value as knowledge or eternal life. . The pattern repeats cosmogonical motifs where a primordial serpent has to be killed to allow creation itself to take place: the original slaying must be repeated in a smaller scale inside the created world if the hero wish to achieve the best the world can offer: knowledge, wisdom and eternal life to enjoy it.
However, there are variations where it is the serpent who offers these gifts to man. Despite the distortions made by the scribe who penned the myth of Genesis, a glimpse of the original ideas still shine on the narrative, and they are striking. First and foremost, a close reading shows us that God lied and the serpent spoke truth. As the text goes:
But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die
So far it seems that God gave Adam and Eve fair and sound advice: if you eat, you will die. Then came the snake:
And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil
As we all know, Eve sided with the serpent and convinced Adam: they ate. Surprisingly, they did not die. And God seems to betray himself when he admits that:
Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.
God was not then concerned with Adam and Eve eating and dying, he was afraid of them also eating from the Tree of Life and living forever, now that they “become as one of us.” Of course, when the religion was reinterpreted in a later stage to testify to an omnipotent and omniscient God, the entire tale became even more ripe with contradictions. But this inconsistencies in the myth are clarified when we move to their original sources.
To Be Continued in Issue 3, The White Snake Part 2. Where we move onto Serpentine Gods of Magick.