Keep The Snakes Away


There is an iconic scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones discovers a long lost tomb and is ready to venture down into it. After prying open the seal, he drop a torch into the depths to see what is below. As soon as it lands, the ground begins to writhe and coil, revealing a pit filled with venomous snakes. Indy, filled with a mixture of disgust and terror, rolls over onto his side away from the opening:

Indy: Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?

Sallah (leaning over to see): Asps. Very dangerous. (patting Indy on the arm) You go first.

Throughout human history snakes have been understood as existing in some sort of enmity with the rest of the creation. In Genesis there is the equally iconic narrative of the temptation of Adam and Eve, in which the serpent lulls them into complacency and deceives them into sin. The curse pronounced against the ancient snake is that he will always crawl on his belly in the dirt, and be locked in a life or death struggle with all of mankind.

For many even to this day the thought of a snake brings out the same reaction as Indian Jones, even among those as intrepid as him. Whether the distinctive clatter of the rattlesnake that heralds imminent danger or the rising and unfolding hood of the cobra as it prepares to strike, the initial bite is not as fearsome as the venom that remains, working its dark and poisonous way to the heart, striking with silent terror and remorseless efficacy.

Lucan in his Pharsalia fittingly describes the terror of coming face to face with this coiling menace:

Nay, though the witch had power to call the shades
Forth from the depths, ’twas doubtful if the cave
Were not a part of hell. Discordant hues
Flamed on her garb as by a fury worn;
Bare was her visage, and upon her brow
Dread vipers hissed, beneath her streaming locks
In sable coils entwined. (Lucan, Pharsalia, Book VI, 770-777)

Sometimes all one can do is run. But surely we are not meant to always be on retreat, left in our fear of the serpent’s fangs.

In the same way that serpents have occupied a certain metaphorical place in human thought, so has an enemy of this slithering foe which at first blush seems absurd: the deer.

As strange as it seems to moderns, the ancients often depicted deer (or the hart or the stag, as they were often called) as the hunter and destroyer of the snake. Thus, artistic representations from the medieval period and before would often have deer attacking, eating or trampling snakes. Nor is this phenomenon limited to ancient sources, as some writers in the late 19th century have seen similar incidents:

Old Uncle Jim Barnette said that on one occasion while he was hunting on the west side of Little North Fork he saw 4 deer kill a rattlesnake on a ridge 1 ½ miles above the mouth of Pond Fork. The deer just before leaping on the snake would close their legs together and after alighting they would instantly spring away. Only one deer at a time would hit the snake. The reptile was cut nearly to pieces with the deer’s feet. (S.C. Turnbo, The Silas Turnbo Manuscripts, Deer Killing Snakes)

According to ancient sources the hart would hunt a snake by finding its den and then either breathing into the den or spitting water into it to draw the snake out. Other writers indicate that the hart would devour the snake, and then find a water-brook or fountain from which to drink, which in turn would counteract the poison of the consumed serpent.

Another curious account of the hart was that its antlers were believed to excrete a substance or a smell that kept snakes at bay. In fact, it was thought that burning a deer’s antlers would provide protection from snakes:

and they burn
Larch, southern-wood and antlers of a deer
Which lived afar. From these in densest fumes,
Deadly to snakes, a pungent smoke arose;
And thus in safety passed the night away. (Lucan, Pharsalia, Book IX, 1078-1082)

So prevalent was this notion that (so the story goes) when the Crusaders journeyed to the isle of Rhodes (then named Ofiusa which means “has a lot of snakes”) they brought along deer to serve as protection. Evidently some of these deer escaped and eventually formed the population of deer that currently inhabits Rhodes.

This is perhaps all a fascinating look into ancient bestiaries, but the historically perceived enmity between the hart and the serpent carried enormous symbolic and allegorical import, especially for early Christian writers crafting expositions on the Old Testament. St. Augustine in his exposition on Psalm 42 considers the nature of the hart and likens its thirst for the water as a type of baptism, in which the believer is brought into friendship with God and filled with a thirst that becomes greater the more it is sated. In the opening words of the Psalmist St. Augustine sees a fitting description of those preparing for their baptism at Easter:

And indeed it is not ill understood as the cry of those, who being as yet Catechumens,are hastening to the grace of the holy Font. On which account too this Psalm is ordinarily chanted on those occasions, that they may long for the Fountain of remission of sins, even “as the hart for the water-brooks.” (St. Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Psalm 42, 1)

However, baptism is not the real quenching of thirst, the mere washing away of sins not the end of the Christian life. Rather, much like a spark which is kindled is not yet a fire, so the thirst which has tasted of God’s goodness cannot help but desire more, and is further intensified the more it tastes:

Nevertheless, it appears to me, my brethren, that such “a longing” is not fully satisfied even in the faithful in Baptism: but that haply, if they know where they are sojourning, and whither they have to remove from hence, their “longing” is kindled in even greater intensity. (St. Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Psalm 42, 1)

The Christian life is thus a journey of continual longing, since the restless soul of which St. Augustine speaks elsewhere cannot be satisfies with anything else than God himself and God alone. The hart must return time and again to the water-brook to renew itself and to slake its thirst; likewise we must return to our baptism in confession of our sins to find God’s goodness and taste of his mercy and love. And just as the deer does not come to water-hole out of fear but rather for refreshment, so our returning to God time and time again is not out of despair or terror but rather to find once again the fountain of life. Another common image of the hart is its speed; while it may walk at a leisurely pace from time to time, its nature is to be swift in movement, fast to quench its thirst in the fountains. In a similar manner we are meant to be swift in our pursuit of God, letting nothing stand in our way:

Run to the fountain; long for the fountain; but do it not anyhow, be not satisfied with running like any ordinary animal; run thou “like the hart.”What is meant by “like the hart”? Let there be no sloth in your running; run with all your might: long for the fountain with all your might. For we find in “the hart” an emblem of swiftness. (St. Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Psalm 42, 2)

But St. Augustine sees in the hart another deep symbol of the spiritual life: it is the enemy of the snake. Within the Christian imagination the serpent carries with it a connotation of evil in memory of the ancient snake who led out first parents into sin. And in ancient Christina baptismal formulations it was common for the catechumen to profess his renunciation of sin and the devil. Tertullian relates that

When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. (Tertullian, De corona, iii)

The enmity between the hart and the serpent thus underscores for St. Augustine the deep foreshadowing of the sacrament of baptism in the Psalmist’s words. Other ancient writers recounted that the hart, after destroying the snake, would be understandably inflamed with thirst. St. Augustine assets that it’s thirst is now more “keen” than before, meaning that it is the destruction of the snake that brings intensity and clarity to the thirst. The obvious implication for St. Augustine’s take on the is Psalm is obvious: it is in the renunciation and defeat of sin that one’s thirst and desire for God is ignited and enflamed:

The serpents are your vices, destroy the serpents of iniquity; then will you long yet more for “the Fountain of Truth.” (St. Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Psalm 42, 3)

But trampling on snakes is not without its dangers, for the snake is crafty and may yet bite:

Perhaps avarice whispers in your ear some dark counsel, hisses against the word of God, hisses against the commandment of God. And since it is said to you,“Disregard this or that thing,” if you prefer working iniquity to despising some temporal good, you choose to be bitten by a serpent, rather than destroy it. Whilst, therefore, you are yet indulgent to your vice, your covetousness or your appetite, when am I to find in you “a longing” such as this, that might make you run to the water-brooks?… (St. Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Psalm 42, 3)

Sin must not be trifled with, but needs be understood as the fearsome and poisonous enemy that it is. Just as the ancients believed that the hart could be cured from the serpent’s poison by returning to the water-brook, so the one entrenched in sin must swiftly bound to the fountains of life and be cured of the deadly wound. In this the hart is not alone but is supported by the Church, other believers who share the same struggle and can help carry the heavy burdens:

It is reported of stags…that when they either wander in the herds, or when they are swimming to reach some other parts of the earth, that they support the burdens of their heads on each other, in such a manner as that one takes the lead, and others follow, resting their heads upon him, as again others who follow do upon them, and others in succession to the very end of the herd; but the one who took the lead in bearing the burden of their heads, when tired, returns to the rear, and rests himself after his fatigue by supporting his head just as did the others; by thus supporting what is burdensome, each in turn, they both accomplish their journey, and do not abandon each other. Are they not a kind of “harts” that the Apostle addresses, saying, “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the Law of Christ”? Galatians 6:2 … (St. Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Psalm 42, 4)

In all of this the hart is longing for the waters, always on the watch out for snakes in the grass, those little sins which can both entangle us and deal the deadly blow. But rather than always be on retreat, the spiritual life is mean to be on the offensive- we are meant to trample on snakes. We ultimately must not just react to temptation, but as Paul says:

Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, lust, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is the service of idols. (Colossians 3:5, Douay-Rheims)

As St. Augustine suggests, the more we trample down on our sins, the greater our thirst for God will intensify, leading us back to the fountains of life, the water-brooks for which our souls long to drink deeply.

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