Snakes by Paul Shepard

The Bible classifies animals, according to Genesis, as occupants of land with legs, air with wings, or water with fins, each known by the appendages suitable for its habitat according to the creation story. But shrimps, crabs, and shellfish, though creatures of the sea, lack fins; snakes, though land animals, lack legs. These forms, anatomically defective, are disordered or polluted beings and thus are prohibited as food, perhaps a reminder against the failure to ignore biblical injunctions of all kinds. The Bible also prohibits eating hare, hyrax, camel, and pig on the grounds that the definition of edibility must include cloven hoof and cud-chewing. One suspects that the abominated foods had less to do with diet and more with distinctions between themselves and the camel-or pig-eating tribes around them. The Hebrews' chosen incongruities in animal taxonomy were a symbol of their discord with other peoples. Leglessness in snakes could likewise be seen as a kind of defilement by categorical standards, associating the stresses of perceptual disorder with enemies who worshiped snakes in their temples. Snakes embody the corruption of sex as they do the semantics of identity. Judaism and Christianity found other zoological, categorical equivalents of evil, such as the twilight forms (owls and bats in the dusk), those between earth and water (toads and other amphibians at the stream's edge), and those who undergo transformation (larvae, nymphs, and moulting forms). They serve as tension-inducing signs that can be appropriated for instruction, understanding, or tainting by association. Owls are the demonic equivocator of day and night; the larvae of insects and amphibians are the deceivers of appearance. The image or call of each can be appropriated to signify disarray. Passage makers--the fetus at birth, the individual between health and sickness, novitiates facing initiation, the shaman between worlds, the spirit at death--may be imagined as riding an animal intermediary, which is held in especially high or low esteem.

Animals shift habitats and change anatomically during their lives. Because of growth and development, all humans and other animals are in some degree "marginal" at times. But to say that an adolescent is "in-between" is difficult to convey or ritualize without some more sensible expression. Animals who live at the margins between farmlands and wilderness, such as deer, or between the household and the garden, like monkeys or dogs, at the water's edge, like the beaver, above and below ground, like the bats who compound their status by flying and having hair and living at the dusky edge of day and night, serve these purposes. We ourselves are descended from forest-edge "brush apes," provoking reflection on finding ourselves in the ecotone between forest and grassland--the savanna. Ecologically, "edge effect" is rich not only because it includes passage by the creatures of adjacent habitats, but also its own fauna, and is therefore perceptually enriching as well.

Our human transitions are penetrations into new states, the way dragonfly nymphs climb up the reeds out of a pond. In a thousand other ways, animals emerge from nonbeing, go through life stages by breaking from an egg, coming up through tunnels, leaving nests in hollow trees, or passing through the skin of a host. Despite their fixed appearance, each is, in this sense, two or more things in one, models of orderly transformation, masters of something both mundane and astonishing, embodiments of acceptance in the face of alteration and uncertainty. Like them we are each immersed in a personal becoming, evident in the physical aging of our bodies, and must cross "a shore" or "a river" into death, an underworld grave or a heavenly home.

Like the inhabitants of the savanna--where forest and grassland intergrade--all border forms stitch antitheses with their tracks and trails. We are the seamstress who makes sense of the fox at the fringe of the woods. Edge animals ourselves, we are our own most difficult task. As apes, dog-heads, yetis, fallen angels, diverse races, and emergent androids lurk in the margins of our identity, our species is beset with a problem of the categorical imagination.

A L L O W I N G that dandling tales and lullabies for infants may have come first, the ancestors of stories are probably narrations of foraging adventure, the hunt or the gathering, the essential form of the quest. Most of the memorable events of all forays have to do with animals. "Game" animals are those with whom we are engaged in a perpetual but episodic seesaw in which the "rules" of the game are in fact the habits of the animals, learned primarily from the observation of important animals. Perhaps, as humankind became increasingly reflective, the whole of the living world seemed encompassed by such rules. Instead of such rules applying to the animal only, our lives seem refracted by play with rules, which are metaphors of the habits of animals. These rules could be guides in miming the animals in fun. Games as play are reenactments of the quest, with its equilibrium between opposing sides. Play miniaturizes life, and in recollection it is narrated in a spirit of excitement and instruction, whether heard and enacted in the mind's eye or mimicked by actors.

Because they center on action, the narrative forms with animals have "game" equivalents connected to particular animals. Games progress like stories. In general, most societies tell all three kinds of stories--fairy tales, myths, and folktales--and play their game equivalents. But there are discernible differences. Egalitarian small-scale societies seem to emphasize games of chance and mythic narratives; hierarchic rural or village cultures prefer strategy games and folktales; urban peoples tell fairy tales and play games of skill. Skill and fairy tale deal mainly with physical and emotional aspects of the self; strategy and folktale deal with social circumstances; chance and myth deal with the larger cosmos.Within all human groups, social concerns are narrated as folktales, personal concerns as fairy tales, and spiritual matters as myths.

Games are "played out" and then recounted in story. Each narrative/ game form has its animals. Typical among them, the frog is the master in the fairy tale and the skills of life--a transformational icon with a kind of organic givenness, rising as it does from the muck of the earth at winter's end, going from the water to the land in summer, emphasizing the mysterious, inborn potential for growth and change that is like an enchantment in its power to transform life and our lives.

The fox and coyote are the famous rascals of the strategies of the folktale. Pigs and hens define gluttonous bureaucrats, hens the gullible or foolish, and lions the aristocracy or military. The environment is the social milieu, characterized as divided and contending. The animals are the avatars of flux and negotiations among people, where words are used not only to inform but to trick.

The snake is the supreme animal of myth. Unlike frog or fox, it is beyond calculation. It is the coiled serpent upon which creation rests: the keeper of the underworld and of time. Grasping its own tail, it is everything contained in cyclic duration, hence all the play of uncountable cosmic factors. Being ineffable, these factors interact to produce what we experience as chance and are spoken of in myths with multiple-leveled meaning.

If the three types of story, game, and animal are envisaged as having specific objectives in human life, a table of relationships can be constructed:




life stage





fairy tale
























This table associates the life cycle of the individual with widening horizons on the world. Despite the levels of meaning and sequential ordering, the three types of narration and game continue to figure throughout the individual's lifetime. None of the categories in the table, either vertically or horizontally, is intended to be exclusive or necessarily to wholly define a way of life. Their relative emphasis depends on the culture's attitudes toward the natural world in different economic and ideological systems (which in reality are often hybrids). Eclectic, modern urban society tends to blend all three and blur their distinctions. Although the animals in modern stories remain, they burlesque more often and are marginalized wherever cultures are dominated by otherworldly religions or metaphysics of subatomic microevents and celestial matters described in light-years. But in all cases, the scramble for certainty is more frenetic in a world without the assurance and mediation of the Others and their examples of repose and resolution in an otherwise baffling universe. The table, moreover, has an overarching implication: as a philosophy the myth line is clearly associated with maturity, the folktale line with thwarted development along juvenile lines of literal absolutes, and the fairy-tale line with therapy in societies where an elemental confidence in the self as an organism has gone awry in childhood.

Narratives in which animals are protagonists are not necessarily better than other stories, but they occur in all kinds of societies and in different forms at three stages of the life of the individual. Humans intuit the essential wisdom that animal figures are necessary to thought and communication ( just as they are physically necessary to the health of the natural community or ecosystem), that their efficacy is related to the accessibility of humans to wild animals, and that even in societies stuck in the juvenile absolutes of folklore animal images are shields against madness and despair.