Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Serpents

Snakes and serpents have long been emblems of Evil and stealth, thanks to their silence, sinister leglessness and venom; but the sloughing and regeneration of their skins can also signify renewal, as noted in George Bernard Shaw's Back to Methuselah (1921) and Avram Davidson's The Phoenix and the Mirror (1969). In Norse Myth, the Midgard serpent coils around the world (> Worm Ouroboros) and symbolically around the World-Tree Yggdrasil, whose roots (in some accounts) it gnaws. Gorgons have snakes for hair, and snakes are recurring agents of death in Greek myths: e.g., Orpheus's Eurydice died of a snake-bite. The Aztec Pantheon features Quetzalcoatl the Feathered Serpent, who is incarnated in Kenneth Morris's The Chalchiuhite Dragon (1992); Australian Aboriginal tales of the Dreamtime include the Rainbow Serpent. The serpent of Eden (> Satan), celebrated from the Bible and John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), reappears in many guises throughout Christian Fantasy – for example, taking over a human body in C S Lewis's Perelandra (1943); a woman suffers similar Possession by a serpent Archetype in Charles Williams's The Place of the Lion (1931). Geoff Ryman's Revisionist Fantasy treatment in The Warrior who Carried Life (1985) identifies the tempter serpent with Adam (> Adam and Eve), who was punished with this Transformation. Woman/serpent Shapeshifters (> Lamias) are almost invariably malign, as in Bram Stoker's The Lair of the White Worm (1911) and C S Lewis's The Silver Chair (1953); some legends place Lilith in this category. The perceived Wrongness of a woman's being also a phallic snake is given a perverse twist in Philip José Farmer's Blown (1969), where an attached, symbiotic serpent-creature resides in one female character's vagina. It is the ultimate Debasement when Elric's wife is made into a serpent-bodied chimera in Michael Moorcock's Stormbringer (1965); Greg Bear's The Serpent Mage (1986) features the eponymous transformed and debased Wizard, inhabiting Loch Ness. The more naturalistic python, Kaa, of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (coll 1894) possesses the power of Mesmerism often ascribed to snakes. Huge serpents are common "encounter Monsters" in Fantasyland and in Games; one appears in 7 Faces of Dr Lao (1964). That in Paula Volsky's Illusion (1991) is, unusually, a Technofantasy machine (> Automata). [DRL]

see also: Dragons; Sea Monsters; Worm/Wyrm.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.