‘A creeping thing’: the motif of the serpent in Anglo-Saxon England
thesisposted on 02.01.2018, 16:17 by Charlotte Elizabeth Ball
The image of the serpent is pervasive in the art and literature of Anglo-Saxon England. In Old English medical literature the serpent is by far the most frequently represented animal, often as an adversary of humans and human health. In poetry, too, the serpent appears often; although it is primarily about the exploits of its outlandish hero, Beowulf is littered with serpentine adversaries, including the dragon of the poem’s conclusive battle. In scriptural poetry, the Anglo-Saxon understanding of the biblical serpent is illuminated and elaborated upon, and in exegesis the serpent plays a key symbolic role as tempter, diabolical agent and heretic. Anglo-Saxon visual art is populated by a multitude of serpentine creatures, ranging from the snake-like zoomorphic interlace to the winged dragons of the Sutton Hoo helmet. It is generally agreed upon that the image of the serpent is symbolically charged, and there has been scholarly speculation on how the image of the serpent operated symbolically in each of these contexts. However, there has been no single study of the image across genres and across media. This thesis aims to survey and interpret the symbolic role of the serpent in a number of different, clearly defined contexts and look for common associations and continuities between them. In finding these continuities, it will propose a underlying, fundamental symbolic meaning for the image of the serpent in Anglo-Saxon England. It will argue that this fundamental meaning is death; the transience of mortal life, physical decay and transition.