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Fear and Fascination

Sidebar: Objects of Awe

Admired for their cunning, patience, swift movements, and sometimes deadly powers, snakes have long inspired awe and reverence as well as fear. They figure in the creation stories and myths of world cultures more than all other animals combined. The Genesis account of the serpent tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden is often cited as the source of the snake’s image problem. But the Bible also contains some kinder references. In Proverbs, the writer marvels at “the way of a snake on a rock.” In the New Testament, Jesus instructs his disciples to be “wise as serpents.”

Green tree python

Asian cobra (Jessie Cohen/NZP)

Throughout human history, snakes have played a starring role in religious practices. A recently discovered African cave with a python-like stone entrance suggests that snake worship existed at least 70,000 years ago. Even today, some Christian sects handle venomous snakes as part of their worship service, taking literally Jesus’ words that those who believe in him “shall take up serpents.”

Snakes also represent healing in many cultures. Venom is an important ingredient in traditional medications, especially to treat pain, and drug companies continue to explore its properties for treating cancer and stroke. The very symbol of the medical profession today is the caduceus, a rod entwined with snakes.

 

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Smithsonian Zoogoer 39(5) 2010. Copyright 2010 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.