Etymological Serpents

Snakes get a bad rap.  There are biological, evolutionary reasons people tend to fear them (some are dangerous and the way they move is literally creepy), but snakes are a necessary part of our ecosystem and very successful reptilian forms.  Nevertheless they get associated with evil.  The other day I was consulting a book of Christian symbolism.  This was actually a book I’ve had since my childhood.  My eye fell upon the entry for serpent and the book gave the etymology as from Latin for “sin.”  I’d never heard this before and as I thought about it, “serpent” has the same ending as “repent,” so I wondered if the terms might indeed be related.  That most authoritative of lexicons, the Oxford English Dictionary, soon set me straight.  The etymology of serpent is from Latin (at least partially) but not for the word “sin” but from the word “creeping.”

Given what serpents do, that name origin makes sense.  The idea of sin being attached to snakes is a biblical one.  The Garden of Eden oh so long ago, and a serpent wrapped around a fruit tree.  That story has become one of the most influential in western culture, played and endlessly replayed with some combination of apple, woman, and serpent.  Genesis, of course, doesn’t specify the tree as an apple tree.  That association seems to come again from the Latin.  The word “apple” is malum, which may also be used for evil.  In Latin they have different vowel lengths and only become homophones in the languages of non-native speakers.  The serpent, on the scene at the primordial fruit tree, becomes associated with sin because of this story, not by its etymology.

The biblical view of snakes is not a positive one.  By the time of Revelation the serpent is associated with Satan.  It’s also called a dragon, which, as modern fantasy aficionados can tell you, is quite a different thing.  The dragon becomes associated with evil because of the Good Book also.  The reptile order generally doesn’t fare too well in the biblical world.  There do seem to be Sumerian prototypes for the story of the snake and the tree.  It’s not completely original with Genesis.  Still, you’d like to think that if someone is going to write a book about symbols they might take extra care with the etymologies.  People tend to fear snakes.  It’s hardwired into our primate biology.  That’s no reason to make them the bad guys, though.  All you need is a good dictionary to clear things up.

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