A snake with four tales

Blog 24 Apr 2020

More time spent at home means you can indulge in extracurricular interests (outside of working hours of course!). Among the topics that I have had time to explore, is classical history where I stumbled across a collection of curious myths concerning snakes and a mysterious herb. This herb was reputed to have extraordinary healing and revivification powers. Unsurprisingly, there is no supporting scientific evidence for either snakes possessing knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants or the existence of such a mirabilia-herba, as described. However, what is fascinating is how closely tied the relationship between snakes and medicinal knowledge is. This contrasts with the common perception of these creatures as a danger, feared because of the harm they can cause. Current estimates of individuals developing clinical illness from snake bites are as high as 1.8-2.7 million per year; resulting in 81,000-138,000 deaths. There is even evidence to suggest that the threat snakes had posed to primates resulted in an arms race of sorts, with primates developing a highly acute visual sense in order to spot snakes, many of which use camouflage. This ancestral history may still be playing a part in our psychological relationship with snakes; studies have shown that a fear of snakes (ophidiophobia) remains one of the most common phobias.

With all these negative relationships between humans and snakes, it is curious to encounter snakes playing such a positive role (either actively or passively) in multiple legends and myths from different cultures and periods in time. The following are a collection of stories I have come across which share the common motif of a snake and a healing herb, presenting an intriguing riddle.

The first story is Hungarian in origin and focuses on a young prince seeking a fantastical bird, accompanied on his quest by a fox. The young prince is ultimately betrayed by his older brothers, the resulting violent encounter results in his head becoming separated from his body. All seemed lost until the fox spots a snake nearby carrying a herb in its mouth. The fox uses the herb to re-attach our young protagonist’s head to the rest of his body and restore him back to life (the prince then goes on to live happily ever after).

The second story is from ancient Greece (approx. 400 BC) and involves a young prince, this time named Glaucus (you may have heard of his more famous father, King Minos of minitour fame). However, unlike the Hungarian prince he did not have any help in ending his life as he accidently fell into a large jar of honey, where he subsequently drowned (perhaps the origin of the phrase “coming to a sticky end”?). Unable to find his son, King Minos requested the help of a man called Polyidus to locate the prince, which he promptly did. Rather than give his son a burial, King Minos then ordered Polyidus to bring his son back to life and locked him in a wine cellar until he did so (spare a thought for Polyidus next time you complain your line-manager has set you an unreasonable task). Whilst locked in the wine cellar Polyidus comes across a snake and kills it, however, a second snake then appears and discovers its dead compatriot. This second snake leaves and returns with a herb which it uses to revive its fallen friend. Having seen this, Polyidus then uses this same herb to restore Glaucus back to life.

The third story is from China (dated to around the 1500 AD) and involves a white demon snake named Bai Suzhen who takes human form and marries a local man named Xu Xian. Unaware that he has just married a snake demon, Xu sets up an apothecary shop with Bai to sell medicines and treat the local townsfolk. However, a terrapin demon, with a long-held grudge against the demon Bai, tricks Xu into giving his wife a drink that would reveal her true form, in the hopes that this would end the marriage between the human Xu and the demon Bai. Unaware of the trick, Xu offers the drink to Bai who proceeds to drink it. The effects of the wine result in Bai appearing as a large white snake. Seeing his wife in her true form, poor Xu promptly dies of shock. However, despite being a demon, Bai truly loves her husband and travels to a distant mountain where she obtains a mythical herb and uses it to restore her dead husband to life. The story has a happy ending with Xu looking past his wife’s demonic nature and the couple remaining happily married, much to the chagrin of the terrapin demon.

The fourth and final story is also the oldest, and by that I mean it is the oldest known written story in the world, dating back to the 18th century BC (some 3,800 years ago). This poem describes the adventures of King Gilgamesh, one of the rulers of the primordial City of Uruk, located in present day Iraq. Towards the end of the story, having witnessed the death of his friend Enkidu, the king is troubled by his own death and so seeks immortality. The story describes a plant or herb that can grant eternal life and it is this plant that Gilgamesh seeks and eventually obtains. However, with plant in hand, our hero falls asleep and whilst he is unaware, who should steal the herb of immortality but a snake!

What can we make of these four stories from across a wide range of geographical and temporal locations that share such a similar specific motif? Do they indicate a root myth from a root civilisation, and if so, how far back in time can this myth be traced?

Back to the 21st century, our own institute, LSTM, possesses a vast collection of snakes, with research conducted to mitigate the negative effects of human/snake interactions and also explore ways in which snakes may provide a novel source of drugs and treatments, co-opting their venoms for therapeutic purposes. Currently there have been no reports of herb-carrying snakes at LSTM’s herpetarium but if one is discovered we may know what to expect. I hope these stories and questions provide some diversion for those seeking it.