Snakes and serpents count among the most common symbols in literature. Stretching back thousands of years in the literary cannon, these scaly creatures have evoked fear and awe in readers. From the first pages of the Bible to the tomes of Tolkien, snakes have served as important literary devices that move stories forward and leave lasting impressions on readers.
Variations on the Serpent
Looked at narrowly, the snake is a creature without legs that slithers on the ground, but the literary tradition of snakes actually includes a broader range of creatures than just the garden snake. Mythological animals such as dragons, sea serpents, and human-serpent or snake-animal combinations abound; and related literary characters include Medusa, the woman with a head full of snakes, and the dragon Smaug in "The Hobbit." The symbolism of these creatures aligns with some of the most common views of snakes in literature. The person studying these creatures in a work of literature can apply the same symbology as would be used for the common snake.
Symbols of Fertility and Immortality
Because they resemble phallic symbols, snakes often represent fertility in myth and literature, according to the Myths Encyclopedia. Additionally, some cultures such as the Chinese associate snakes with rain while others align these creatures with water and holes in the ground -- other representations of fertility. Some literary traditions have associated snakes with immortality and transformation as well, which could be seen as an extension of the birthing aspect of the fertility symbolism of snakes.
Temptation and Chaos
The interplay between the serpent and Eve in the Garden of Eden counts among the best-known examples of snakes as symbols of temptation. In this example, the snake's cunning entices Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, unleashing sin and chaos into the world. However, this imagery is not limited to only the Christian Bible. Snakes in Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures also symbolized chaos.
Snakes also symbolize healing in some literary traditions due to the belief that they can rejuvenate and have eternal qualities. In the medical profession, the caduceus, the symbol depicting two snakes wrapped around a pole topped by wings, has become synonymous with healing. The Mesopotamian tradition of literature shows this symbolism most strongly, according to the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at Brigham Young University.