Monday, October 29, 2007

The Snake Stone

In reading a book review tonight at The New York Times of "The Snake Stone," I was sufficiently intrigued by this comment:

The title of "The Snake Stone" refers to the bronze column created after the Battle of Plataea in 479 B.C. and installed at Delphi until it was transported to Constantinople, where its serpent-adorned head disappeared.

that I decided to do a little further research.

Well, darlings, I didn’t recall reading about a snake stone in all the years I’ve been researching, including plenty of research on serpent iconography! And I didn’t know anything about a Serpent Column. That just goes to show, Ya Nevah Know, to quote Rosanne Rosannadanna (at least, I think it was Rosanne Rosannadanna).

Delphi was the site of a spectacular Temple to Apollo, the god of prophecy, and his equally famous female Oracle, known as the Pythia. Pythia is, of course, "python," and is an oblique reference to the antiquity of the site, the serpent iconography of which predates Apollo, who slayed the serpent in some accounts, but which survived in the person of the Pythia; and possibly a link to the archaic form of the Goddess Athena, an archaic bird goddess that became associated with the serpent. In later times in Greek mythology Athena was depicted with an owl as one of her icons, representing "wisdom." I’ve written about Athena and her link to serpents and her association with ancient bird goddess iconography here.

I did a quick Google search under "snake stone" and quickly discovered that it might be associated with quartz and is credited with healing. In a related form, there is an entry at Wikipedia that briefly discusses a "snake" or "serpent" stone being made out of materials other than a stone or gemstone – usually made out of bone – and used much as a bezoar – reputedly with the ability to cure snake bite by removing the venom from a snake-bite victim. See also this entry.

That line of inquiry wasn’t taking me where I wanted to go – so I tried a new search and ended up with direct links to information about the Serpent Column at Delphi.

Unfortunately, it seems that no representations of this artifact – long ago disassembled – exists in contemporary accounts. There are written descriptions, but these are somewhat vague and have lead to different interpretations of what the column topped by its golden basin (resting on a tripod?) must have looked like. The golden basin, crafted out of booty taken by the Greeks after they defeated the Persians at the battle of Plataea in 479 BCE, was melted down in circa 345 BCE by Phocian forces (who then controlled the Temple area) to pay their mercenaries, and only the "serpent column" remained. The column was comprised of three intertwined serpents (not just one serpent) and ended in the serpents’ heads, upon which the golden basin rested. However, as the golden basin was said to rest upon a golden tripod, there is speculation that an underlying tripod (with an encircling gold band that rested either inside or outside the three serpents heads?) with three golden legs of equal length to the serpent column was also incorporated into the memorial.

Constantine the Great removed what was left of the memorial (the brass serpent column) from Apollo’s Temple at Delphi to take a place of honor in his newly constructed Hippodrome in Constantinople in the 4th century CE. (Gee, what a Christian guy!) There it remained until the city was conquered by Mehmet II in 1453 CE. It is said that Mehmet II partially damaged at least one of the serpent heads (jaw area) with a battle ax or mace, but all three of the serpents’ heads evidently remained intact until circa 1700 CE. The graphic at the beginning of this post is from Wikipedia, which described it as follows: Ottoman miniature from the Surname-ı Vehbi, showing the Column with the three serpent heads, in a celebration at the Hippodrome in 1582. See

The mystery of the goddess lives on. If Jason Goodwin is writing about one serpent head, what happened to the other two? Does someone have them, and are they still considered sacred talismans?

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