Serpentine Images of Power: Benevolent and Malevolent Depictions of Snakes in the Minoan, Greek, and Roman World
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The image of the snake evokes the same terror and awe today as it did in the ancient Mediterranean world. In the mythology, literature, and religious traditions of the Greek and Roman sphere, snakes were understood to exhibit benevolent and malevolent characteristics simultaneously: they symbolized the fertility of a mother goddess in the Roman cult of Isis, they were harbingers of prophetic doom in Virgil’s tale of the destruction of Troy, they were healers in the Greek and Roman cult of Aesclepius, and they envenomated travelers in Aesop’s famous fables. Snakes also provide a link to the Underworld, and, by doing so, control the realms of life, death, and rebirth. Snakes guarded the omphalos, the “navel” or center of the world. Above all snakes embodied power because they were both commonplace and deified, as well as universally feared in the ancient Mediterranean world. By the time of the first century Roman writer Virgil, all of the aforementioned images of snakes were used to depict power, both benevolent and malevolent.