Images of the Serpent and Eve

Chap. IV.

Of the Picture of the Serpent tempting Eve.

IN the Picture of Paradise, and delusion of our first Parents, the Serpent is often described with humane visage,[1] not unlike unto Cadmus or his wife, in the act of their Metamorphosis. Which is not a meer pictorial contrivance or invention of the Picturer, but an ancient tradition and conceived reality, as it stands delivered by Beda and Authors of some antiquity;[2] that is, that Sathan appeared not unto Eve in the naked form of a Serpent, but with a Virgins head, that thereby he might become more acceptable, and his temptation find the easier entertainment. Which nevertheless is a conceit not to be admitted, and the plain and received figure, is with better reason embraced.

For first, as Pierius observeth from Barcephas, the assumption of humane shape had proved a disadvantage unto Sathan; affording not only a suspicious amazement in Eve, before the fact, in beholding a third humanity beside her self and Adam; but leaving some excuse unto the woman, which afterward the man took up with lesser reason; that is, to have been deceived by another like her self.

Again, There was no inconvenience in the shape assumed, or any considerable impediment that might disturb that performance in the common form of a Serpent. For whereas it is conceived the woman must needs be afraid thereof, and rather flie than approach it; it was not agreeable unto the condition of Paradise and state of innocency therein; if in that place as most determine, no creature was hurtful or terrible unto man, and those destructive effects they now discover succeeded the curse, and came in with thorns and briars. And therefore Eugubinus (who affirmeth this serpent was a Basilisk) incurreth no absurdity, nor need we infer that Eve should be destroyed immediatly upon that Vision. For noxious animals could offend them no more in the Garden, than Noah in the Ark: as they peaceably received their names, so they friendly possessed their natures: and were their conditions destructive unto each other, they were not so unto man, whose constitutions then were antidotes, and needed not fear poisons. And if (as most conceive) there were but two created of every kind, they could not at that time destroy either man or themselves; for this had frustrated the command of multiplication, destroyed a species, and imperfected the Creation. And therefore also if Cain were the first man born, with him entred not only the act, but the first power of murther; for before that time neither could the Serpent nor Adam destroy Eve, nor Adam and Eve each other; for that had overthrown the intention of the world, and put its Creator to act the sixt day over again.

Moreover, Whereas in regard of speech, and vocal conference with Eve, it may be thought he would rather assume an humane shape and organs, then the improper form of a Serpent, it implies no material impediment. Nor need we to wonder how he contrived a voice out of the mouth of a Serpent, who hath done the like out of the belly of a Pythonissa, and the trunk of an Oak; as he did for many yeares at Dodona.

Lastly, Whereas it might be conceived that an humane shape was fitter for this enterprise, it being more than probable she would be amazed to hear a Serpent speak;[3] some conceive she might not yet be certain that only man was priviledged with speech; and being in the novity of the Creation, and in experience of all things, might not be affrighted to hear a Serpent speak. Beside she might be ignorant of their natures, who was not versed in their names, as being not present at the general survey of Animals, when Adam assigned unto every one a name concordant unto its nature. Nor is this my opinion, but the determination of Lombard and Tostatus; and also the reply of Cyrill unto the objection of Julian, who compared this story unto the fables of the Greeks.


* [My or others' notes are in square brackets]; Browne's marginalia is unmarked; {passages or notes from unpublished material by Browne is in curly braces}. Ross opposes Browne's points in Arcana Microcosmi, II.i.1, saying, among other things, that there are plenty of beasts with human faces.

1 [In various manuscripts, sculptures, and windows of the middle ages and the Renaissance, Satan is presented in varying degrees of snakiness, ranging from a complete serpent to a serpent with a human face to (quite commonly) a mostly human thing with serpentine features (often a tail, some scales, and the like) as in the stained glass in King's College Cambridge or the carving of the stalls of the cathedral at St. Bertrand-de-Comminges in France(pictures, as at the beginning of this chapter), to a human with perhaps a bit of snaky or other hideousness concealed from Eve. Wren: "See Munster's Hebrew Bible, where in the letter which begins the first Ψ the serpent is made with a Virgin's face." Wilkin: "In Munster's Hebrew and Latin Bible (Basil 1535, ex. Off. Bebeliana) at the commencement of the Psalms is the initial letter B, which is a wood-cut of Adam, Eve, and the serpent between them, with the face of a virgin.]

2 [Wren: See [I:vii] where he quotes Basil saying, that the serpent went upright and spake. 'T is probable (and thwarteth noe truth) that the serpent spake to Eve. Does not the text expressly saye soe? The devil had as much power then as now, and yf now he can take upon him the forme of an angel of light, why not then the face of a humane creature as well as the voice of man?]

3 [Wren: Itt might wel bee conceived (and soe it seemes itt was) by St. Basil, that a virgin's head (hee does not saye a humane shape) was fittest for this intention of speakinge, itt being most probable Eve would be more amazed to heare such a creature as a serpent speake with a humane voyce, then to heare a human voyce passe through the mouth of a virgin face. to hear a voice without a head must needs (as the subtile serpent knew full well) have started in Eve either the supposition of a causeless miracle, or the suspition of an imposture; therefore to cut off those scruples, which might have prevented and frustrated his ayme, tis most probable the subtile tempter assumed the face as well as the voyce of a Virgin to conveigh that temptation which he supposed Eve would greatly entertain.

Julius Scaliger, that magazin of all various learnings, in his 183rd exercitation, and 4th section, speaking of certaine strange kinds of serpents, reports that in Malabar, there are serpents 8 foote long, of a horrible aspect, but harmlesse unless they bee provoked. These he cals boy-lovers (pæderotas), for that they will for manye houres together stand bolt upright gazing on the boys at their sportes, never offring to hurte any of them.

These, saith he, while they glide on the ground are like other serpents or eeles (like conger eeles), but raising themselves upright they spread themselves into such a corpulent breadthe, that had they feet they would seeme to be men, and therefore he cals them by a coigned name, εγχελανθρωπους, eele-like men, though hee might more properly call them οφιανθροπους, dragon-like men. Now though we can yeeld noe greater beleefe to this story then the Portuguez that traffique thither deserve, yet bycause the world owes many excellent discoveryes of hidden truths to his indefatigable diligence and learned labors, seldome taxed for fabulous assertions, why may we not think that itt was this kinde of serpent, whose shape Satan assumed when he spake to Eve. (See what I noted long since on Gen.iii, 14 to this purpose in the Geneva Bible.) For since Moses tels us that God permitted the serpent to deceive our grandmother by faigning the voyce of man, wee may reasonably acquit St. Basil of error, or offring violence to trueth, that hee tooke it as granted by a paritye of like reason, that the serpent would rather assume such a face and appearance of humane forme as might suite with a humane voyce, at least would frame a humane visage as well as a human tounge, which is but a parte in the head of man, for which the head (rather then for any other sense) seemes to have been made by God, that the spirits of men (which till they discover themselves by language cannot be understood) might by the benefit of this admirable instrument, hav emutual commerce and intelligence, and conveighe their inwarde conception each to other. Surely yf ever such a strange serpent as this which Scaliger describes were scene in the world, we must perforce grant that they are some of that kinde which God at first created soe, and that Satan subtilly choose to enter into that kinde which before the curse naturally went upright (as they say the basiliske now does) and could soe easily, soe nearly represent the appearance and shew of man not only in gate but in voyce as the Scripture speakes. That they have no feete makes soe much the more for the conjecture, and that however itt seemes this kinde of serpent (which Satan used as an instrument of his fraud) did originally goe upwright, and can yet frame himselfe into that posture, yet by god's just doome is now forced to creep on his belly in the duste; where though they strike at our heele, they are liable to have their heade bruised and trampled on by the foote of man.

Wilkin continues: In one of the illustrations to Cædmon's [Metrical Paraphrase of Scripture History engraved in the 24th vol. of Archæologia] I find the serpent standing "bolt upright" receiving his sentence, and another figure of him lying on the ground, to indicate his condemnation to subsequent reptility. Some critics have complained of the painters for representing him without feet in his interview with Eve, whereas, say they, his creeping on his belly was inflicted on him as a punishment. had those critics been acquainted with professor Mayer's assertion, that rudimental feet are found in almost all the serpent tribe, they would doubtless have regarded it as a confirmation of their opinion....

Dr. Adam Clarke gives a very long and elaborate article on the temptation of Eve. His opinion is that the tempter was an ape; he builds his hypothesis on the fact that the Hebrew word (nachash, Gen. iii, 1) is nearly the same with an Arabic word, signifying an ape and the devil! He thus sums up: "In this account we find, 1. That whatever this nachash was, he stood at thehead of all inferior animals for wisdom and understanding. 2. That he walked erect, for this is necessarliyl implied in his punishment — on thy belly (i.e. on all fours) shalt thou go. 3. That he was endued with the gift of speech, for a conversation is here related between him and the woman. 4 That he was also endued with the gift of reason, for we find him reasoning and disputing with Eve. 5. That these things were common to this creature, the woman no doubt having often seen him walk erect, talk, and reason, and therefore she testifies no kind of surprise when he accosts her in the language related in the text." Granted, for a moment, the Doctor's five positions, I would ask, does he mean that the ape is a creature which now answers the description? Most certainly it does not, any more than the serpent. If on the other hand he means that the creature through whom Satan tempted Eve had previously possessed those advantages, but lost them as a punishment of that offence, then why not suppose it to have been a serpent, or any other creature, as well as the ape? ... The serpent certainly has one claim which the ape has not, namely, that its present mode of going is (in accordance with the Scriptural description) on its belly; which, with deference to the learned Doctor, "going on all fours" is not, unless he can justify what he in fact says, that quadrupeds and reptiles move alike! Moreover, his selection is specially unfortunate in this very respect, that of all animals the ape now approaches most nearly the human mode of walking, and exhibits therefore the most incomplete example of the fulfillment of the curse — "on thy belly shalt thou go".

Hadrian Beverland, in his Peccatum Originale, 12mo, 1676, has published his strange speculations as to the nature of the temptation, to which our mother yielded. But after all, neither on the one point nor another, which has not been clearly revealed, shall we be likely either to obtain or communicate any useful information. The indulgence of a prurient and speculative imagination on points which, not having been disclosed, cannot be discovered, and the knowledge of which would serve no good purpose, were far better restrained.]

This page is dedicated to the memory of Boo the Cat.

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