“Look like the innocent flower, But be the serpent underneath it.” – Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’
For as long as groups of humans have agreed on patterns of belief, symbols have existed, with signs of light and dark – good and evil – the most prominent among them. Like building blocks for morality, these symbols, particular, of course, to cultures and religions, are familiar to us all, and taught from an early age in stories – a means for our elders to pass down their values and cautionary tales. It seems to me that in these, no symbol appears more frequently than the snake. From Christianity’s Original Sin to Hadiths in Islam; Zulu tradition and iconography drawn from the Ancient Egyptians, in a world history so diverse and conflicted one thing appears to be agreed on: the snake is to be feared.
It is as much revered as it is reviled; a totem for some, representing the meeting of the living world with the afterlife, the snake slithers easily between two realms, shedding its skin; consuming itself, only to be born again, and commanding an uneasy respect from men.
While a great many species of animals are subject to projections of man’s metaphorical thinking, I don’t see another – not even venomous counterparts, like spiders or scorpions; or sharks which hide in murky depths, waiting (as the horror movies have us think) to rip us apart, which is thought of as so deadly and demonic. The snake is insidious, while the serpent is all-mighty and terrifying. From ancient symbols to pop culture and schlock horror, from Medusa to Freud, the snake is a single unifier, a common enemy unanimously held in hideous regard – it is, everyone agrees, evil.
Perhaps it’s simply the unfortunate by-product of its manner and appearance. The snake’s hissing, slithering behaviour neatly intersects with everything we believe about malice and deceit. The venomous, cold-blooded rattling, hunting silently and striking suddenly – there is no room to teach that they are simply animals looking to live and defend from attack, when the symbolism is so dark and alluring.
These images, then, are a result of my attempts to break down our suppositions of the animal. Photographed with warm light on bright colours, I am looking at their enchanting beauty and design, and their vulnerability, as creatures simply existing outside of the buckling pressure of the evil they are meant to represent.
As with all victims of an ‘othering’ process, the serpent deserves a second look, beyond its slithering and dark hypnosis.