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.