Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Good Snake, Bad Snake

Today in class, I don’t think we quite arrived at a particular conclusion concerning St. Francis’ interaction with the snake in the Fifty Animal Stories of St. Francis. There is definitely a parallel between the stories of Brother Snake and “Cruel Sister Sow.” Both animals committed grave offenses against people, one by injuring actual human beings and the other by eating someone’s lamb. However, they aren’t the only animals in the stories that brought mischief against people. The wolves of Lugnano, Alessandria, Gubbio, and Greccio and the fox of Carignola all stole, ate, or injured livestock and humans but St. Francis merely chastised them and brought them under the influence of his sanctity. Were various animals held to different standards by St. Francis?

An average person’s knowledge or memory of snake symbolism in the bible will most likely be the serpent that caused Eve to commit the first sin in Genesis. The author of Genesis writes, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. HE said to the woman….” (NIV Translation) Soon after, the serpent is cursed to crawl on the ground and eat dust. The serpent in Genesis, unlike most animals in the Bible, is gendered to show that it was acting on behalf of Satan, a male figure- though ironically, the serpent in the Eden is often feminized in medieval art and sculptures. Now, where else do we see snakes in the Scripture? Are they always used to symbolize Satan? As we discussed in class, the answer is no. The snake appears in the Old Testament as a symbol of God’s sovereign power over His people. In the Book of Numbers, Chapter 21, “the Lord sent venomous snakes, among them [Israelites]” so that they would repent. After Moses prayed on their behalf, God instructs Moses to make a snake to hang on a pole so that those bitten can behold the snake and be healed. Both the venomous snakes and the bronze snake symbolized God’s power but the first was a curse to man and the second was man’s redemption. The positive symbolism of snakes is reversed in II Kings, which reveals that the Israelites turned the bronze snake into and idol by “burning incense to it.” Can this duality of the snakes’ role in Christian symbolism, going back and forth between bearer of deceit and bearer of God’s will, help to explain medieval perception of snakes as an animal that is dangerous and not to be reconciled with?

I want to contrast this dual depiction of snakes in the Scripture with that of sheep. From the top of my mind, I can’t recall any instances where a sheep or lamb is referred to be a gender-specific pronoun. Here are just a few verses (out of the many) that mention sheep. In the Gospel of John, Peter (who had previously denied Jesus three times) confirms his loyalty through a repetitive a dialogue with Jesus. First, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him the most. Peter answers “yes” and Jesus tells him to “feed my lambs.” This is repeated three times. In Chapter 25 of the Book of Matthew, Jesus talks about the Judgment, where “he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” To list every verse that mentions lambs or sheep will be useless but I guess my point is that there are no ambiguities behind sheep/lamb symbolisms. Whenever a sheep or lamb is mentioned, it is always referring to people (disciples, followers, etc) or Christ, who is also considered the shepherd. Basically, sheep and lamb were portrayed and seen by medieval people as meek and spotless. I can’t recall any examples where a sheep or lamb was portrayed negatively. Thus, in my mind, the positive light in which sheep symbolism always appears in medieval writing and art makes a lot of sense.

Given this traditional thought of them being the example of a “good” animal, we are not at all surprised at St. Francis’ tender treatment of the sheep and lamb he encounters. Likewise, at first, we aren’t THAT surprised with the story about Francis killing the snake with a sickle without hesitation, other than the fact that it is the only recorded incident of the saint killing an animal. As for me, I felt that this could be explained by the snake’s appearance in the Bible until Professor Brown brought up Moses’ snake. Whereas the devil was clearly working through the serpent in Genesis, in Moses’ time, it was God displaying his authority through the snakes. The bronze snake was even a symbol for Jesus. Was it the gravity and magnitude of the Fall that permanently fixed the snake as an inherently evil animal in the minds of medieval Christians? It seems as if the more positive instances of snake imagery had no impact on medieval thought, not even enough to render Francis merciful towards the snake as he was towards the wolves and the fox.

One last thing. There is certainly the aspect of the natural repulsion many people feel towards snakes. My mom is probably the best example...she embarrassed the heck out of me when I was 10 by screaming in the pet store when I wanted her to see this yellowish snake. In all honesty, we all have animals that we are prejudiced about and while they can range from cats to flies, I think it's safe to say that many (if not most) people don't find snakes so appealing. I don't think medieval people were so different.


  1. One of the things I have thought was interesting about medieval v. modern ideas of the lamb is that, like you said, there doesn't seem to be any negative imagery attached to the sheep during the Middle Ages. However, now we can be quite negative toward sheep. We think that they're stupid animals (which is arguably true) and associate them with things like groupthink. The word Sheeple refers to people who just follow the crowd like sheep I don't know for sure whether there is no negative imagery connected to sheep, but if there is not then sheep would seem to be a very curious example of Biblical imagery completely overriding a potential symbol.

  2. You're absolutely right! We do perceive sheep as being blind followers- sometimes to their own demise. However, would it be safe to say that because of their meek/docile nature plus the fact that they really pose no harm to humans or other animals, sheep are inherently "good" animals? The snakes on the other hand, even though they were sent from God (in the Bible) they are nonetheless dangerous to human beings.

  3. Excellent meditation on the scriptural images that most likely influenced Francis' reactions (and/or his biographers') to snakes and lambs. I like very much the way you read the snake as potentially ambiguous (I don't remember mentioning Moses' use of the brazen serpent, but I'm glad you did!). It is very interesting, given our present-day use of sheep to mean "blind followers", that sheep were so consistently unambiguous in medieval thinking. My suspicion is that our present-day use is conditioned not only by such animal stories as Animal Farm but also by the changing valuation of faith as such. So long as it is considered a virtue to follow faithfully, sheep come off well, but with the criticisms that modern thinkers have brought against faith, so the sheep suffers symbolically. Likewise, there are those now who would use snakes positively, although, off the top of my head, the only examples that occur are negative (the basilisk in Harry Potter 2, the snake sisters in Pratchett's Witches Abroad, the snake that Martin battles in Redwall). I do suspect that our relative inability to use snakes positively even in stories stems from the innate fear that snakes seem to provoke in our species (snakes are one of the few animals that seem to elicit particular phobias), but there are theories that the reason that the snake in Genesis in fact symbolized the older Mesopotamian cults that the Hebrews rejected. Whether this meant that the snake in these religions was positive as such is another question.


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