Western Traditions of the Serpent and the Fall

Seeing that all mankind are descended from the pair who were tempted to disobedience, under the enticements of the serpent, and whose disobedience—

“Brought death into the world, and all our woe.”

we should expect to find throughout the world variously corrupted traditions of that event. The subject is a large one, and we may but touch upon it here. But the fact that such traditions do exist, and that in them all the main circumstances, as related by Moses, may be recognized, is of very material importance. The variations are not greater than might be expected to arise in the course of ages, among different nations, in different regions, under different degrees of cultivation, and within different systems of religious corruption. Indeed, taking these differences into account, the substantial agreement among them in the essential facts is wonderful, and can in no other way be accounted for than by the literal truth of the account of this event which the  Scripture has given to us, and by the belief that, as Moses affirms, all the races of men have a common origin. It ought to have some influence upon our judgment, as to the actual instrumentality of a serpent, to find how that animal figures in these accounts. In this, and other points, had the relation we possess been merely a Hebrew allegory, we should be able to see how the traditions of the remote and ancient nations came to be in substantial agreement with that narrative. But all becomes plain everywhere, if we regard that account not only as true, but as literally true; for then the facts, as stated, must have been known to those who survived the deluge, and would be borne by their descendants to the various regions into which they dispersed.

Let us glance, very hastily, at some of the most remarkable of these traditions.

According to the simpler legend of Hesiod’s “Weeks and Days,” the ancient Greeks supposed that man originally lived wifeless and ignorant, but innocent and happy. Prometheus, however, steals fire from heaven, and teaches man its use. The incensed Jupiter threatens vengeance. He orders Vulcan to form a woman of clay, on whom the gods bestow every grace and beauty, but at the same time fill her heart with vanity, and cunning, and all violent devices. This woman, Pandora, Jove presents to Epimetheus, who accepts the gift and marries her, notwithstanding the dissuasions of Prometheus, his brother. From that moment disease and evil of all sorts have been the lot of men. Here there is much substantive coincidence. In both accounts, the unlawful thirst of forbidden knowledge (in this account represented by fire, and in our account by the tree) is the great offence, and in both the woman is the instrument by which evil is introduced.

We have before us the whole history of this transaction in an engraving Note: See Creuzer’s Symbolik.—pl. 158.] from an ancient bas-relief; and what is most remarkable, there are two groups at each extremity of the tablet, offering, as it were, a biblical key to the whole scene. 

At one hand are a man and woman, standing naked under a tree, the woman in a drooping and disconsolate posture, the man with one hand raised to the tree, and the other directed towards the woman. It is such a picture that a child would at once say, “that is Adam and Eve!” At the other extremity is a sedate and august figure, seated upon a rock, and strangling the serpent with his outstretched hand.

In the history of the sacred persons of heathen mythology, many remarkable allusions to the same circumstances may be found, and they are the more remarkable for the intimations they afford that the promise of ultimate victory over the old serpent was not forgotten by mankind. Thus Apollo is represented as the son of the supreme God. Out of love to mankind he destroyed the serpent Python, by shooting him with an arrow. After his victory the conqueror underwent a lustration in the Vale of Tempe. Here also he was crowned with laurel, and, according to some, with that mysterious fruit, the gathering of which had proved the source of all evil, and occasioned the necessity for the defeat of the serpent.

So, of the garden of the Hesperides we read that, being situated at the extreme limit of the then known Africa, it was said to have been shut in by Atlas on every side by lofty mountains, on account of an ancient oracle that a son of the deity would at a certain time arrive, open a way of access thither, and carry off the golden apples which hung on a mysterious tree in the midst of the garden. Having procured access to the garden, the hero destroyed the watchful serpent that kept the tree, and gathered the apples. Here we have a strange mixture of the internal and external incidents of Paradise, the ideas of the primeval people viewing from without the Eden from which they were excluded, and coveting its golden fruits, mixed up with those which belong properly to the fall, the serpent, and the tree of life, or of the tree of knowledge—for in these old traditions the trees are not so well distinguished as in the Mosaical account. In this legend of Hercules, the idea seems to be that the access to the tree  of life is impossible, till the Son of God opens the way, and overcomes the serpent by whom that access is prevented. It deserves remark, that in most of these accounts of the dragon or serpent, whom the heathen regarded as the source of evil, and which could be vanquished only by the Son of God in human form, he is called Typhon or Python, a word which signifies “to over-persuade, to deceive.” Now this very name Pitho, or Python, designates the great deceiver of mankind. When the damsel at Philippi is said to have been possessed by “a spirit of divination,” it is called in the original “a spirit of Python;” Note: Act_16:16.] manifestly showing that the pagan Python was and could be no other than “that old serpent, called the devil and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world.” Note: Rev_12:9.]

In engravings from gems and other ancient remains, many representations of this scene may be found. In all of them the Python is a serpent, and in all of them he is wreathed around the fruit-laden tree, exactly as modern painters represent him in their pictures of Eve’s temptation. But in these are variations of the pictorial, as well as in the written legend. In some the fruit is gathered for the hero by one of the Hesperides, while another lulls the watchfulness of the serpent; but in others the hero takes the fruit by force, while the serpent cowers his head in submission. In one, a very remarkable bas-relief representing this scene, the serpent hangs unwreathed and drooping on the tree, while Hercules deals one more tremendous blow to end the strife. We are to recollect that the worship of Hercules and the traditions connected with it, was avowedly derived from the east—and that the place where he was held in chiefest honor was Tyre. Let it also be remembered that Hercules is represented as the mortal son of the supreme God, and was attacked even in his cradle by two large serpents, which he destroyed.

Still more of Hercules. At Cadiz, which was originally a Phoenician colony, there was a pleasant garden, consecrated by mystic rites and ceremonies to idolatrous worship. In the  midst of it were two very remarkable trees, which grew out of the tomb of another of the monsters (Geryon) whom Hercules overthrew. One of these was of a mixed nature, and it was affirmed of it that it distilled drops of blood. This seems to point to the tree of life, the living tree. Near this, upon an islet in a small lake, was a temple in which Hercules was worshipped under the name of the savior. From this sacred enclosure all women were driven away, as their sex was looked upon as the cause of all calamity and mischief. The whole temple was, moreover, guarded by lions and a flaming fire, which turned every way to forbid the approach of the unholy and profane. Within the sacred enclosure was also an altar dedicated to old age, and those who attended it are mentioned as the only persons who sang paeans in honor of death. Near this were three other altars, dedicated to poverty, hard labor, and to Hercules the savior. Here, surely, are too many coincidences to have been the result of accident.
Again, in the rites of Bacchus, who was worshipped as the first planter of trees and cultivator of gardens, the god is represented naked, drawn in a car by leopards, lions, and other beasts of prey, in manifest allusion to the primitive state of man, and the harmlessness of the wildest animals in that golden age. The persons who took part in the ceremony bore serpents in their hands, and waved them, shouting “Eva! Eva!” with frantic screams. When it is recollected that in the eastern pronunciation the name of Eve is always given in two syllables, there is little question that these orgies had some reference to the circumstances of Paradise.

There were other sacred enclosures of the same nature; but without pausing to describe them, let us notice that traditions of the same kind are embodied with still more remarkable distinctness, in the theology of the remoter north. Thor is represented, in the Edda, as the first-born of the principal divinity; and is exhibited as a middle deity—a mediator between God and man. He is said to have wrestled with death, and, in the struggle, to have been brought upon  his knees—to have bruised the head of the great serpent with his mace; and in his final engagement with the monster, to have beaten him to the earth and slain him. The victory, however, costs the life of the mediator-god; for, recoiling back nine steps, he falls dead upon the spot, suffocated with the flood of venom which the serpent vomits forth upon him.

What shall we say to these things? This: That the nations embodied in these traditions, the remembrances of paradise, of the fall, and of the promised deliverance. In respect to the past, they are tolerably distinct; but they become vague, uncertain, and conflicting, when they darkly set forth their ideas respecting the promised Deliverer, who was to bruise the serpent’s head, and respecting the nature of that deliverance he was to accomplish.