Snakes are Friends Not Satan

By Bianca Wooden and Jonathan Gonzalez

Growing up in an uber religious household as pastor’s kid (or “PK” for short) set me up on an interesting note at an early age. Sunday school taught me simplified concepts through felt boards and evangelical puppets. Honestly, I was too young to think anything different then, so it all just kinda programed me to fear specific things. Sometimes the rhetoric boiled down to concepts like “Don’t fall into temptation like Eve,” or “Be a better man than Adam and protect your future girl,” or “Say no to snakes– or sin, that’s what I mean…”     

My Sunday school upbringing skewed my perspective and daily perceptions in several unique ways. I still love Jesus, and the animal-cracker/goldfish combo was always a hit, but the experience came with an assortment of social setbacks.

Over time, I learned that some of these black-and-white concepts weren’t so simple, particularly when we talk about snakes. It’s definitely not a sin to be attracted to these reptiles if that’s your thing. Snakes are not sinister creatures and they are not descendants of the devil… in fact, they’re kind of cute.

The Serpent Stigma

Deconstructing the snakes-as-enemy complex is tricky, and the sly serpent in the book of Genesis is definitely not the only source contributing to snake shaming.

Throughout history, snakes have gotten a pretty bad rap as deceptive and dangerous creatures with an agenda of destruction. In Norse mythology, terrifying tales of Jörmungandr, a sea serpent encircling the entire world, trace a mysterious history packed with destruction and distress. In Greek lore, Medusa was punished by having her hair turned into snakes; this change is associated with her transition from good to evil. According to early medieval accounts, the king of the serpents was the basilisk, a fantastically fatal creature who could kill a person just by looking at him/her. In Dante’s Inferno, the eighth circle contains a pit of snakes that punish the souls of thieves. These depictions are far more frightening than the image of a snake sitting solo in a fruit tree.

Not all ancient and medieval texts have demonized snakes. According to the Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, Ancient Greek thought sometimes elevated snakes as symbols of “life-giving force.” Many nature goddesses, as well as the god Dionysus, have been associated with serpents and serpent imagery.

Pop culture seems to have picked up on mostly the negative depictions of snakes. Slithering across cinema screens, negative media portrayals elevate the snake scare. In Disney’s beloved cartoon interpretation of Kipling’s fiction, The Jungle Book, the snake Kaa is shown as a carnivorous enemy with the ability to hypnotize his prey. In the Harry Potter series, Slytherin is the Hogwarts House that contains the most sinister activity. Harry must also fight a basilisk (depicted as a giant snake) in The Chamber of Secrets. The 2006 thriller Snakes on a Plane exploits snake fears by creating a situation in which passengers are trapped on an airplane with a number of angry, venomous snakes.

Fearing the Fangs

Snakes can be dangerous, and there are many people that experience crippling fear when faced with one of these slithering creatures, but these fears are not always well-founded. In an article by Arne Öhman of the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and Susan Mineka of the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University in Illinois, it is suggested that snake fears occur in an irrational part of our brains. The article establishes snake fears as something inherited by mammals through centuries of conditioning, due to the threat that snakes and other forms of reptiles have posed.

These fears are carried into situations where it doesn’t make sense. For example, the same article describes a 1995 study in which participants were exposed to a number of slides. Some of these slides were paired with a shocking stimulus. Even though the pairings were completely random, participants imagined a correlation between the negative stimuli and the images of snakes. According to the study, “Similar illusory correlations were not observed for pictures of damaged electrical equipment and shock even though they were rated as belonging together better than snakes and shock.”

Forget What You Learned– Snakes Are the Best!

I think we’ve proven that snakes are pretty much innocent victims of sadistic symbolism that sufferer social rejection because people expect them to bring pain and evil. Snakes are friendly animals who need love just like any other critter.  As long as you don’t have a really intense snake-phobia, there’s a pretty good reason to try and get over any initial squeamishness– snakes are pretty dang adorable!

Just take a look at Simon, an elegant California Kingsnake– or “Queensnake.” A Slytherin herself, millennial Esther Kao is the owner of this cutie-pie. According to her, Simon is a great companion and very easy to care for. Simon’s flashy markings and quiet but vibrant personality are reflective of Esther’s own personality and style. Watch Esther talk about and feed her elegant snake in the following interview.

About Jonathan Gonzalez

My name is Jonathan Gonzalez. I hail from Austin, Texas and am currently pursing a double major in media communication and studio art at Wheaton College.