Of The Nature Of Snakes.

The snake squeezes through a slot in a narrow tower. The straightforward snake is nonethless shown with wings. Although the text says the snake goes through a rima (crack) in a rock, most of the second family of Bestiaries show the snake going through a masonry tower. This image appeared due to a misreading of the word rima for ruina (ruin).

The snake squeezes through a slot in a narrow tower. The straightforward snake is nonethless shown with wings. Although the text says the snake goes through a rima (crack) in a rock, most of the second family of Bestiaries show the snake going through a masonry tower. This image appeared due to a misreading of the word rima for ruina (ruin).

Text Translation:

Of the nature of snakes. The snake has three characteristics. The first of these is that when it grows old, its eyes grow dim; if it wants to regain its youth, it fasts for many days until its skin grows loose; then it seeks out a narrow crack in a rock, enters it, and scrapes through, sloughing off its old skin. Let us, too, through much affliction and abstinence in Christ’s name, slough off our former self and garb, and seek Christ, the spiritual rock, and the narrow crack, that is ‘the strait gate’ (Matthew, 7:13).

The snake’s second characteristic is this: when it comes to a river to drink water, it does not bring its venom with it, but discharges it into a pit. When we come together in church, drinking in the living, eternal water, to hear God’s heavenly word, we too should get rid of our venom, that is, earthly and evil desires.

The snake’s third characteristic is this: if it sees a naked man, it fears him; if it sees him clothed, it attacks him. In the same way, we are to understand in spiritual terms, that for as long as Adam, the first man, was naked in Paradise, the serpent was unable to attack him; but after he was clothed, that is, in mortal flesh, then the serpent assaulted him. If you are clad in mortal clothes, that is, in your former self, and if you have grown old in evil days, the serpent attacks you. If, however, you divest yourself of the robes of princes and of the power of the darkness of this world, then the serpent, that is, the Devil, cannot attack you.

The snake, at the onset of blindness, wards it off by eating fennel. Thus, when it feels its eyes growing dim, it has recourse to remedies it knows, knowing that it can rely on their effect. The tortoise, when it feeds on the snake’s entrails and becomes aware of the venom spreading through its own body, cures itself with oregano. If a snake tastes the spittle of a fasting man, it dies.

Pliny says:It is believed that if the head of a snake escapes, even if only two fingers’ length of the body is attached, it continues to live. For this reason it places its whole body in the way to protect its head against its assailants. All snakes suffer from poor sight; they can rarely see what is in front of them. This is not without reason, since their eyes are not at the front but in the temples of the head, so that they hear better than they see. No creature moves its tongue as swiftly as the snake, to such an extent that it seems to have a triple tongue, when in fact there is only one.

The bodies of snakes are moist, so that wherever they go, they mark their path with moisture. The tracks of snakes are such that, since they seem to lack feet, they crawl using their flanks and the pressure of their scales, which are laid out in the same pattern from the throat to the lowest part of the belly. For they support themselves on their scales as if on claws, and on their flanks as if on legs. As a result, if a snake is struck on any part of the body, from the belly to the head, it is disabled and cannot get away quickly, because where the blow falls, it dislocates the spine, through which the foot-like movement of the flanks and the motion of the body are activated.

Snakes are said to live for a long time, to such an extent that it also claimed that when they shed their old skins, they shed their old age and regain their youth. The snake’s skin is called exuvie, because they shed it, exuere, when they grow old. We refer to clothing as both exuvie and induvie because it is both taken off, exuere, and put on, induere.

Pythagoras says that the snake is created from the marrow of dead men, which is to be found in the spine. Ovid has the same point in mind in the Metamorphoses, when he says: ‘There are those who believe that when the spine has rotted in the grave, the human marrow changes into a snake’. This, if it can be believed, has a certain justice, for as the snake brings about the death of man, so it is created by the death of man.

Folio 71r – the newt, continued. De natura serpentium; Of the nature of snakes.


  1. jrkrideau says

    I still do not like them. I spent much of my time “watching” The Raiders of the Lost Ark clutching my girlfriend’s arm and asking if it was safe to open my eyes.

    So much for my macho male image.

  2. kestrel says

    @jrkrideau: I had to laugh at your story. When my parents watched The Raiders of the Lost Ark, my mother told me disgustedly that my father knew every snake in that pit and furthermore knew that most of them were not venomous, and the ones that *were* venomous were behind a piece of glass. I guess she wanted to get more into the story line and not hear all the details? :-D

    I’m laughing at the description too: snakes are moist? Really? Obviously the author has never picked one up. These little treatises are so amusing!

  3. jrkrideau says

    @ 3 kestrel
    Each to their own so to speak. I have some, actually , great sympathy for your father.

    Long ago, well back in the 1970s, there was an excellent movie “Sounder” set in rural Louisiana in about 1933.

    As I remember it, there was an opening scene with a car driving along a dirt road, dust billowing, and herd of cows in the field to the right.

    The only problem was that the cattle were a breed that had not been imported to the USA until the 1960’s or 1970’s. One of these things that 99%+ of the audience would never notice but it niggled all through the movie for me.

    Everyone “knows” that snakes are “slimey” until they handle one. I do prefer not to handle a snake (actually a 2km separation seems good) but I have handled them.

    I attribute my extreme aversion to stepping on 2-metre long black snakes and accidentally grabbing a snake when I thought in was part of a tree. I was young.

  4. kestrel says

    @jrkrideau: OK, on that cow thing? Boy, I hear you there. That kind of stuff drives me nuts, although I can see the filmmaker might not know about that. Still, why not check? It’s not that hard.

    That sounds really scary, accidentally grabbing a snake… that would freak me out too. I was really lucky though, as I was taught that snakes are just another animal, and from a very early age, so right away I was fascinated by them and loved learning about them. By the time I was 10 my father had taught me to competently catch and handle snakes, so they just really never had a chance to scare me, I guess. In contrast my mother feels about snakes about the same way you do. She appreciates them more from a distance, of say, 5 miles or so.

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