Snakes in Ancient Art Hiss-tory

Each of my classes this quarter has its own distinct personality. My ancient art students are especially curious, and I love the questions that they raise in class. And for some reason, a lot of our recent topics have meandered (or perhaps slithered?) toward a discussion of snakes. I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising, since snakes held symbolic significance in a lot of ancient cultures. Here are some of the works that we have been discussing at length (and some topics that we’ll be discussing in the next few weeks):

I can’t even express how much I love the Minoan Snake Goddess (shown left, c. 1700-1550 BCE, image courtesy Flickr via Xosé Castro). This was one of the first statues that I loved as an AP art history student in high school. A few weeks ago, my students and I discussed how the snake could have held multiple symbolic associations for the Minoans. Snakes are associated with rejuvenation in many ancient Mediterranean cultures, since snakes can rejuvenate themselves by shedding their skin. Snakes are also associated with resurrection, since they can move both above and beneath the ground.

Last week, when discussing Hellenistic art, a student asked why Alkyoneos (depicted in part of the Gigantomachy frieze at the Altar of Zeus, Pergamon, c. 175-150 BCE) was entwined with a snake. (We were also looking at another Hellenistic sculpture, the Laocoön (1st century BC), and the student noticed a visual similarity between the writhing snakes.) I had never paid attention to the Alkyoneos snake before, but discovered that the snake helps the viewer to identify that Alkyoneos is battling with the Olympian goddess Athena. The snake aids Athena in her victory, similar to how serpents aid the Olympian gods (specifically Athena, according to some accounts) in the killing of Laocoön, the Trojan priest.

Athena was often identified with snakes (I joked with my students that she might have been a Parselmouth). Not only was the snake associated with wisdom (which was one of Athena’s attributes), but snake also served as the symbol for Erectheus, the mythical king of Athens. As the patron goddess of Athens, it makes sense that Athena would also be associated Erectheus (and Athens) through the snake symbol. Athena was depicted with a snake in the monumental “Athena Parthenos” statue by Phidias (original dated 438 BC, see reconstruction from Royal Ontario Museum here).

In about a week, I’ll be talking about snakes with my ancient art students again, this time in connection with the Etruscans. Scholar Kristen Lee Hostetler recently explored how snake imagery is found in depictions of Etruscan demons (such as the wall painting of the demon Tuchulcha, Tomba dell’Orco II, Tarquinia, last quarter of the 4th century BC; shown left). It appears that snakes (specifically the extremely poisonous adder) were feared by the Etruscans. Hostetler points out that the distinct adder markings are noticeable in the demon imagery1. In addition, some of these Etruscan demons have blue flesh (as seen in the “Tomb of the Blue Demons” in Tarquinia, late 5th – early 4th century BC), which is reminiscent to the skin discoloration caused by an adder snakebite.2

Earlier in the quarter, my students and I have discussed the significance of the enraged uraeus snake in Egyptian pharaonic imagery (as can be seen in the funerary mask of King Tutankhamun, c. 1327 BCE). The snake is a reference to the Wadjet, the cobra goddess of Lower Egypt. According to mythology, the pharaoh sat at coronation to receive his crown from this goddess.3 The cobra was one of the earliest of Egyptian royal insignia.

Do you have a favorite work of art which includes snake imagery? It’s interesting that snakes have obviously fascinated (and intimidated) the human race for so many centuries. I can think of many other examples, even extending outside the realm of ancient art. Biblical images of Eve with snakes have been popular in Christian art for centuries. Snakes can also appear in conjunction with the Virgin; my favorite Baroque example is Caravaggio’s Madonna with the Serpent (1606 CE).

1 Kristin Lee Hostetler, “Serpent Iconography,” in Etruscan Studies 10, no. 16 (2007): 203.

2 Ibid., 206.

3 Nancy Luomala, “Matrilineal Reinterpretation of some Egyptian Sacred Cows,” in Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, eds. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1982), 27.

  • H Niyazi says:

    Super post M!

    Inherited from medieval tradition, the devil was often shown as a snake with a woman's torso/head – something used by both Michelangelo and Raphael in their Vatican frescoes. There's a great post on this visual tradition here, a cryptozoology site.

    My own favourite variation of this theme is Belgian Symbolist Jean Delville's 'Tresors des Satan' (Treasures of Satan). I have always been enchanted by the symbolists, who made less of a fuss in the media than their contemporaries, the PRB and the impressionists, but were arguably more original. Image link

    Kind regards

  • Benjamin (Ben) says:

    No real favourite snake image that comes to mind, but your post made me think of Poussin's "Man Killed by a Snake," which TJ Clark writes (AT LENGTH!) about in his Sight of Death book. Almost made me wonder how many cultures have been inspired by snake skins…. for decorative motifs, etc.

  • Val S. says:

    Ugh, snakes. Like Indiana Jones, my bete noire is snakes. I can't bear to watch the intro for I, Claudius (or Black Adder II).

    No favorite snake art for me then. I'd have to say that I prefer Laocoon to Caravaggio's "Madonna and Serpent" because the Caravaggio is so graphic – the snake writhing off the ground is creepy.

    Like they say, you have to have a bad guy, and the snake is perfectly cast in that role.

  • dcbyron says:

    You've already touched on some of my favorites. The second midterm in my survey 1 course this semester included a comparison of the Minoan goddess and the Laocoön!

    My favorite more recent work that depends on snake imagery is Blade Runner. I feel a blog post coming on….

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments! H Niyazi, I love that cryptozoology post. Those are some great images of snake-women. I especially like this depiction of the Fall from Notre Dame cathedral. Along with this connection between women and snakes, there is an interesting depiction of Eve from Reims cathedral (13th century), in which Eve cradles and adoringly strokes the serpent.

    Ben, I wasn't familiar with Poussin's Man Killed by a Snake before your comment. What a great example of "snake art." Now I'll have to go and read what T.J. Clark said about it.

    Val S and dcbyron: I think it's funny that you both mentioned films with Harrison Ford ("Indiana Jones" and "Blade Runner"). Perhaps Harrison Ford has a personal interest in snakes? 🙂 Even if that isn't the case, it's interesting to observe that snake imagery and themes extend to the world of cinema.

  • Dandy says:

    And of course, sex.

  • M says:

    Yes, Dandy, I didn't even mention the sexual associations with the snake. Kristin Lee Hostetler mentions this ideas as well (in the article I cited for this post), discussing how the snake is "analogous to the male member" (Hostetler, p. 203). The phallic properties of the snake also explains why the snake is traditionally seen as a symbol of life and prosperity.

  • heidenkind says:

    In one of my classes, someone wrote a paper about images of Medusa and connected their evolution to the development of matriarchal/patriarchal cultures in the Ancient Mediterranean. The image of the snake seems very tied to femininity, which I find interesting–you would think it would be a masculine symbol, but no.

  • M says:

    Kelsey, I like that you brought our snake conversation up-to-date with a contemporary artist. I love Serra's work.

    heidenkind, I was thinking about Medusa this morning. I agree with you: I think that snakes are often connected with females instead of males. And it is rather strange, considering how the snake has phallic properties. That being said, I wonder if there could be any psychoanalytical/feminist explanations for this connection between women and snakes?

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.