So the LORD God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.

In classical art, the serpent is usually portrayed as a snake, coiled around the branches of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This misconception is due to ‘serpent’ being synonymous with ‘snake’ in English. However, Satan would not have been masquerading as a snake. When I first read the Bible, it struck me that God’s curse of the snake didn’t accomplish much: ‘you will crawl on your belly …’ If the serpent was a snake, this curse would have been an own goal for God: it was hardly a change in locomotion. So the serpent couldn’t have been a snake, that sinuous, slithering, non-nictitating reptile. It’s a snake now, but it used to be … any guesses?

To make sense of this conundrum we must ask: what would the curse have accomplished? A curse disadvantages someone; it hurts them. Crawling on your belly limits how far and fast you can move; it would be a curse if you used to have legs. So what would a snake with legs be? A reptile still; something lizard-like obviously; but what kind of reptile? A crocodile? It’s unlikely, because crocodiles still exist – we’re looking for something that is now extinct – and they’re only slightly faster than snakes (I estimate an average of 14.5 kph for crocs, compared to a 12 kph average for snakes).

Logic also says that whatever the creature was, it isn’t around anymore; so how about one of the dinosaurs? This seems probable, in the sense that dinosaurs are extinct reptiles. We’re looking for an animal that’s long, tubular and svelte that also has a reputation for being both cunning and subtle: the serpent deceived Eve using questions and half-truths. In fact, the serpent would have been the classic mythological ‘great lizard’ – that is, a dragon. Look at Revelation 12, especially verse 9.

And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down-that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

Something else we know is that in the creation stories of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures, there was a great enemy to be defeated. That enemy usually took the form of a dragon, as did Tiamat the goddess of primeval waters, in the Babylonian Enuma Elish. Whether it was like the creatures of Tolkienesque fantasy, including the ability to fly or breathe fire, who knows? Certainly both the Genesis serpent and Smaug were cunning and compelling, guiding their quarry to doubt what they believed. This means the creature could also talk: what about that? Have any animals that we know of, past or present, the ability to talk and the cognitive ability to think as humans do? Some have suggested that Satan spoke through the animal, others that he took its form.

As for what they looked like … on the Wikipedia website there is a picture of the Babylonian god Marduk with his pet dragon, which is the size of a medium-sized dog (say, a Collie), beside him. Statues of St George and the dragon show the dragon as about the same size as George’s horse. The Far Eastern kind of dragon, pictured in Oriental art, seems most like what we have in Genesis: essentially a snake with four or two legs [1]. Tear off the legs (and wings if it has them – Genesis 3 doesn’t say what parts were removed) and before you can say ‘booidea incorporae transmuto’, we have the snake: terror of the mouse, prey of the mongoose, and garish subject of 1980s fashion [2].

Having explained what the Genesis serpent was, a problem remains: no physical remains akin to any beast like a dragon have ever been found. But curiously, as with the story of the Flood, it seems that almost every culture has tales involving a dragon-like creature, even if some of them are little else than giant snakes (like the basilisk in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). They may or may not have wings or breathe fire; some have four legs, others two; some are large, others small; some hiss and shriek and carry disease; others are benevolent to humans and are a symbol of good luck.

So is the story of the Fall metaphorical, a myth to gild the bald proposition that God restricted the power of Lucifer the rebellious angel? Or if the tale of Genesis chapter 3 is literal, was the dragon a crocodile (which is what the Biblical Leviathan might have been), or a walking eel, a big brother of the axelotl [3]? Remember there was a river that ran through the Garden, and it’s only tradition that puts the serpent in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Perhaps the serpent was a garden-variety dinosaur, now extinct; a reptile that the ancients, unknown to us, called a dragon? Or was the serpent, in fact, a dragon like one of those to be found in the legends of the world?

[1] A serpent with two legs is called a wyvern.
[2] I can’t recall any 1980s fashion that wasn’t garish.
[3] The axelotl is also known as a Mexican walking fish.

copyright Troy Grisgonelle 2007.