This isn’t one of my deeper posts. It’s just something I find amusing regarding a cultural symbol, especially in the context of Biblical creationism. One of the core stories of the Bible is the temptation of Eve by a serpent who brought her to disobey God. In other words, sin came into the world because of a snake. The Garden of Eden wasn’t perfect, because one animal was bad and woman was weak. This myth’s origins go back to Sumer, but that’s irrelevant to this observation. The question is: why a snake? Why was this animal, out of all of dangerous creatures out there, chosen as the symbol of sin?
Snakes are carnivores, but most of the charismatic megafauna, such as tigers, eagles, and wolves, are. Yet few of those seem to inspire the reflexive fear that snakes do. Many of these animals are more dangerous to us than snakes. Yet we view lions and hawks with awe, not disgust or dread.
The most likely answer is not what creationists would prefer: it’s evolution that leads us to view snakes in such a way. Most land mammals– even large ones, to whom most species of snake are harmless– seem to have some degree of fear of snakes, and humans are no exception. Most religions have a strong view of this animal– some positive and reverent, but many negative. Why? Hundreds of millions of years ago, when our mammalian ancestors were mostly rodent-like in size, snakes were their primary predators. A fear of swift, legless reptiles was an evolutionary advantage. Seeing one meant you were about to die.
We don’t have this fear of lions or tigers because such creatures aren’t that old. Large cats have only been with us for a few million years, during which time we were also large and predatory, so there’s a mutual respect between us. Snakes and mammals, on the other hand, go way back.
Related to this is the legend of the dragon. No one can prove this, obviously, but the concept of a dragon seems to have emerged out of our “collective unconscious” as mammals. We have to go back 65 million years to find creatures that were anything like dragons, but a large number of cultures have independently invented such a mythical creature: a cocktail of small mammalian terrors (reptiles, raptors, fire, venom) coming from a time when we were small and probably defenseless prey creatures.
The key to understanding long-standing myths and symbols such as Biblical creation turns out, with some irony in the fact, to be evolution. Serpents ended up in our creation myths, because after all this time, we haven’t gotten over what they did to us 100 million years ago.