The Burrow: Serpensortia: Behind the Snake

by Cindy Eric

During our time in the Harry Potter universe, we have been exposed to Hippogriffs, Dragons, Puffskeins, and all sorts of other magical creatures. But the one that keeps subtly sneaking up on us, in many different forms be it real, ornamental, or metaphorical, is the serpent. In Book 1 we met the Boa Constrictor “Thanksss, amigo,” in Book 2 the basilisk stole the show, in Book 4 we saw Nagini for the first time, and in Book 5 we spent quite a considerable amount of time in number 12 Grimmauld Place – a house displaying an amazing amount of snake paraphernalia.

But Salazar Slytherin was not the only wizard to use the serpent as his emblem. An Asp was the traditional emblem of Egypt, conspicuous on the royal diadem. No one bitten by an asp survived, and it was therefore an appropriate symbol of the invincibility of the Egyptian rule.

In the classical world the snake was thought to be wise, an idea continued in the Gospels: “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” However, in the Old Testament, the serpent had been synonymous with evil, and it’s wisdom was the cunning of the Devil: “the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field.” In Greek mythology Medusa was the only one of the three Gorgons (three sisters who had snakes for hair and the power to turn anyone looking at them to stone) who was mortal, the sight of her head was so terrible that even after her death anyone who saw it was turned to stone… Or were they petrified? Her name is used allusively with reference to her snaky hair and stony gaze.

There is also a serpent gazing down at us from the night sky. The constellation Serpens ‘The Serpent’, and Ophiuchus, ‘The Serpent Holder,’ originally formed one constellation. The Serpent appears to be cut in two by Ophiuchus, with Serpens Caput (representing the head of the snake), to the west, and Serpens Cauda (representing the tail of the snake), to the east. Always related to the healer Aesculapius, a serpent’s venom can cure as well as kill, and the shedding of its skin is representative of the renewal of life, two factors which strengthen this association.

The basilisk (also known as the King of Serpents) was according to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, by Newt Scamander: “first bread by Herpo the Foul, a Greek Dark wizard and Parselmouth“. Muggles may not know this but they do know that the basilisk was a mythical serpent hatched from a cock’s egg, the king of serpents, which could reputably strike someone dead with it’s stare. In fact, Pliny suggests that it is so called from a spot, resembling a crown on its head.

From the information gathered above, it is obvious that Salazar Slytherin chose correctly. But it is also interesting to note that although the serpent has been given quite a bit of negative press throughout history, it has also received a respectable amount of positive coverage. Thus proving the point that the world really “isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters” (Book 5), nor is divided by lions and snakes.

I leave you with this charming quote from William Shakespeare’s Richard III (1597):
Gloucester: Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine. Anne: Would they were basilisks, to strike thee dead!