Subtle beasts

7 November 2014 by Zachary

Bakongo Chief's staff collected by A. Ridyard in 1895. WML

Bakongo Chief’s staff collected by A. Ridyard in 1895. WML

Snakes hold a universal fascination, so it is not surprising that our new ‘Sssnakes Alive‘ exhibition at World Museum is drawing large audiences. We all know that some snake species are highly venomous, but people’s fascination with snakes cannot be explained by the fear factor alone. 

In fact, the snake has been described as the primary and most essential of all animal symbols in human culture. The limbless snake is frequently seen as a primordial being, which has not yet acquired a particular form, and snakes have been given prominent roles in the origin myths of many human cultures around the world.

Snakes are widely associated with spirits, whose forms are similarly considered to be undecided, or unknowable. Perhaps partly because snakes glide over the earth on their bellies, they are often identified with spirits of the land. In many African societies they were linked to cults that helped preserve access to important local resources.

Bakongo chief's staff with snake winding up the shaft. Republic of Congo. Collected by A. Ridyard in 1895. WML

Bakongo chief’s staff with snake winding up the shaft. Republic of Congo. Collected by A. Ridyard in 1895. WML

Our new display of snake-related exhibits in the World Museum atrium contains two staffs of office that belonged to Bakongo chiefs in Central Africa. They are from our African collection and show a snake winding up the shaft of the staff to the handle at the top. By following the path of the shaft up from the earth, the snake is seen to bring the earth’s powerful forces to the hand of the chief who grasps the staff’s handle.

The universal association of snakes with spirit beings continues in British culture, famously in John Milton’s epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’ (1667).

In his poem Milton (1608-1674) called the snake:

“…subtlest beast of all the field”

He characterized it as the devil’s instrument. Milton’s literary and biblical image of the snake does not fit the beautiful creatures that I have been lucky enough to encounter in their natural habitats.

As well as being essential symbols in human culture, snakes are essential members of the communities of living organisms that make up the world’s ecosystems. For these reasons, and not just because of their venom, snakes deserve our healthy respect.

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