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328 THE VIPER'S HEAD.
lines, from the Serpent doomed to crawl on its belly in the dust, to the Serpent that is lifted up ! Now let us turn to the page of Jules Michelet, and read what the Serpent signified to one mood of his sympathetic nature. “It was one of my saddest hours when, seeking in nature a refuge from thoughts of the age, I for the first time encountered the head of the viper. This occurred in a valuable museum of anatomical imitations. The head marvellously imitated and enormously enlarged, so as to remind one of the tiger's and the jaguar's, exposed in its horrible form a something still more horrible. You seized at once the delicate, infinite, fearfully prescient precautions by which the deadly machine is so potently armed. Not only is it provided with numerous keen-edged teeth, not only are these teeth supplied with an ingenious reservoir of poison which slays immediately, but their extreme fineness which renders them liable to fracture is compensated by an advantage that perhaps no other animal possesses, namely, a magazine of supernumerary teeth, to supply at need the place of any accidentally broken. Oh, what provisions for killing ! What precautions that the victim shall not escape | What love for this horrible creaturel I stood by it scandalised, if I may so speak, and with a sick soul. Nature, the great mother, by whose side I had taken refuge, shocked me with a maternity so cruelly impartial. Gloomily I walked away, bearing on my heart a darker shadow than rested on the day itself, one of the sternest in winter. I had come forth like a child; I returned home like an orphan, feeling the notion of a Providence dying away within me.'" Many have so gone forth and so returned ; some to
* “L’Oiseau, par Jules Michelet.
UNIQUE CHARACTERS OF THE SERPEMT: 329
say, ‘There is no God;’ a few to say (as is reported of a living poet), “I believe in God, but am against him;’ but some also to discern in the viper's head Nature's ironclad, armed with her best science to defend the advance of form to humanity along narrow passes. The primitive man was the child that went forth when his world was also a child, and when the Serpent was still doing its part towards making him and it a man. It was a long way from him to the dragon-slayer; but it is much that he did not merely cower; he watched and observed, and there is not one trait belonging to his deadly crawling contemporaries that he did not note and spiritualise in such science as was possible to him. The last-discovered of the topes in India represents Serpent-worshippers gathered around their deity, holding their tongues with finger and thumb. No living form in nature could be so fitly regarded in that attitude. Not only is the Serpent normally silent, but in its action it has “the quiet of perfect motion.’ The maximum of force is shown in it, relatively to its size, along with the minimum of friction and visible effort. Footless, wingless, as a star, its swift gliding and darting is sometimes like the lightning whose forked tongue it seemed to incarnate. The least touch of its ingenious tooth is more destructive than the lion's jaw. What mystery in its longevity, in its self-subsistence, in its self-renovation | Out of the dark it comes arrayed in jewels, a crawling magazine of death in its ire, in its unknown purposes able to renew its youth, and fable for man imperishable life Wonderful also are its mimicries. It sometimes borrows colours of the earth on which it reposes, the trees on which it hangs, now seems covered with eyes, and the ‘spectacled snake' appeared to have artificially added to its vision. Altogether it is unique among natural forms, and its vast
history in religious speculation and mythology does credit to the observation of primitive man. Recent experiments have shown the monkeys stand in the greatest terror of snakes. Such terror is more, and more recognised as a survival in the European man. The Serpent is almost the only animal which can follow a monkey up a tree and there attack its young. Our arboreal anthropoid progenitors could best have been developed in some place naturally enclosed and fortified, as by precipices which quadrupeds could not scale, but which apes might reach by swinging and leaping from trees. But there could be no seclusion where the Serpent could not follow. I am informed by the King of Bonny that in his region of Africa the only serpent whose worship is fully maintained is the Nomboh (Leaper), a small snake, white and glistening, whose bite is fatal, and which, climbing into trees, springs thence upon its prey beneath, and can travel far by leaping from branch to branch. The first arboreal man who added a little to the natural defences of any situation might stand in tradition as a god planting a garden; but even he would not be supposed able to devise any absolute means of defence against the subtlest of all the beasts. Among the three things Solomon found too wonderful for him was ‘the way of a serpent upon a rock’ (Prov. xxx. 19). This comparative superiority of the Serpent to any and all devices and contrivances known to primitive men—whose proverbs must have made most of Solomon's wisdom— would necessarily have its effect upon the animal and mental nerves of our race in early times, and the Serpent would find in his sanctity a condition favourable to survival and multiplication. It is this fatal power of superstition to change fancies into realities which we find still protecting the Serpent in various countries.
JDUBUFE'S PICTURE. 33 I
From being venerated as the arbiter of life and death, it might thus actually become such in large districts of country. In Dubufe's picture of the Fall of Man, the wrath of Jehovah is represented by the lightning, which has shattered the tree beneath which the offending pair are now crouching ; beyond it Satan is seen in human shape raising his arm in proud defiance against the blackened sky. So would the Serpent appear. His victims were counted by many thousands where the lightning laid low one. Transmitted along the shuddering nerves of many generations came the confession of the Son of Sirach, “There is no head above the head of a serpent.’
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An African Serpent-drama in America—The Veiled Serpent—The Ark of the Covenant—Aaron's Rod—The Worm—An Episode on the Dii Involuti—The Serapes—The Bambino at Rome—Serpenttransformations.
ON the eve of January 1, 1863–that historic New Year's Day on which President Lincoln proclaimed freedom to American slaves, I was present at a Watchnight held by negroes in a city of that country. In opening the meeting the preacher said, though in words whose eloquent shortcomings I cannot reproduce :- Brethren and sisters, the President of the United States has promised that, if the Confederates do not lay down their arms, he will free all their slaves to-morrow. They have not laid down their arms. To-morrow will be the day of liberty to the oppressed. But we all know that evil powers are around the President. While we sit here they are trying to make him break his word. But we have come together to watch, and see that he does not break his word. Brethren, the bad influences around the President to-night are stronger than any Copperheads." The Old Serpent is abroad tonight, with all his emissaries, in great power. His wrath is great, because he knows his hour is near. He will be in
* A deadly Southern snake, coloured like the soil on which it lurks, had
become the current name for politicians who, while professing loyalty to the Union, aided those who sought to overthrow it.