The snake in Anglo-Saxon England twists and turns on metal and stone, on jewellery and on the illustrated manuscripts that have survived from these centuries, snaking its way to create a philosophical and visceral sense of time and our pattern in time. The snake with its simple intertwining, uninterrupted by legs and arms becomes a symbol for the journey of life and the interconnectedness of life. On the precious metal objects of the Staffordshire Hoard a multitude of serpents adorn religious objects and military regalia. More than one serpent is intertwined together with another snake on the dramatic pieces found in the Sutton Hoo hoard.
At school I drew the Sutton Hoo gold belt buckle, carefully copying the lines in clumsy 2B pencil, entranced by its design. It has been dated to the early 7th century AD and its rhythm of form is held together by the serpent motif. Although there are other animals buried in the design. They are difficult to decode. Archaeologists have identified thirteen different animals including birds, a dog and hoofed creatures. But notably, on the central raised portion two snakes intertwine which bite their own body to symbolise eternity. The road of the snake will continue forever, looping back on itself.
In Anglo-Saxon culture the serpent draws on Romano-British culture, scripture and pre-Christian Germanic ideas. It’s a complex symbology that gave birth to the images of the dragon that still haunt us. But the snake itself has its own slithering path of power, sliding its way through Anglo-Saxon imagery, incorporating itself into the many gravestones, making its presence felt in carved stone.
The wyrm, to use the more common Anglo-Saxon word, is connected with the idea of death, of the journey to to the grave. It disappears into the undergrowth, creeps away on its belly, underground, as the dead go into the underground world. It moves in an uncanny way, a strange way that is familiar but not familiar to most of the animal kingdom. It has an extreme anatomy that inspires fear.
It is this concept of fear that Anglo-Saxon art draws on to invigorate the power of the king and evoke power of death on religious stones. The presence of poisonous snakes, particularly the adder or viper underpinned this in the Anglo-Saxon landscape. Old English medical texts mention snake-bites frequently, disproportionately to the number of actual serpents in the everyday landscape. Four Old English medical texts talk at length of serpents, and of these two, Bald’s Leechbook and Lacnunga were created in Old English. They list remedies and songs and charms against the effect of venom. In the Old English medical texts there are two words for serpents, wyrm and naedre. The wyrm is used generally for parasites, but naedre means the true snake, the adder, the dangerous beast that is associated with power. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions a plague of adders, ‘wundorlice naedran’, in Sussex in 774. This was seen as a significant event and also an omen of some kind.
It is interesting to wonder what snake rituals were once carried out in Anglo-Saxon culture. In Cocullo in Abruzzo the Festa dei Serpari features processions with specially caught snakes, draped around the statue of San Domenica di Sora, the local protector against tooth ache and snake bites. The images are striking. Could snakes have been used in similar rituals and have been venerated for their impressive contribution to performance rites.
Serpents have given their name to villages and towns, some of which have stuck through the centuries. Worminghall, Wormhill, Wormington, Wormsley, Wormbridge, Wormley, Wormegay . . . although why these places have this nomenclature is uncertain. Snakes in England were never eaten by the Anglo-Saxons so looking for archaelogical evidence of serpents is not possible through manmade deposits. The way that snakes have wiggled their way into images of power and religion means that using their name could indicate many things but proliferation of snakes in art and text in importance suggests that it would be a powerful name to call a habitation, and that snakes could be invoked to signify the strength of a local leader. Such a talismanic animal would give protection. Places called wyrm rather than snaca, maybe because to call a place one lived after a snake was too powerful, stepping too far away from the human zone into one of magic or preternatural influence.
Was Wormley Wood in Broxbourne really a snake infested clearing? More convincing to me is the attribution of ‘Wormegay’ to ‘the island of Wyrm’s people’. Belonging to a leader who called himself Wyrm because that was a word associated with power. A motte and bailey earthwork, or castle is close to the village centre, built after the Norman conquest signifies the already existing strategic importance of the area. The Norman castle would have been very visible in early mediaeval times and the occupiers would have controlled the causeway across the marshland.
The serpent was an ally to those who could harness its capacity. It could protect those who were strong enough to manage its deadly threat and use its ability to their own ends. This could be done through charms of which word and image were two powerful components. Sound would also have been important, but this has been more ephemeral, unrecorded. A recent interest in sound art has meant many more interesting speculations on the use of sound in ancient cultures for ritual purposes. The acoustic properties of sites are being discussed for their possible contribution to ceremonial activities. Snakes are quiet, but their hissing sound is characteristic and synecdochic.
The Anglo-Saxon culture, transitioning from pagan to Christian cosmologies means that the significance of the snake shifts. What it means at each stage on each manifestation can seem confusing to identify. The powerful pagan symbol of eternity becomes split into good and evil. It is gradually moving towards being identified with evil and Satan as in the biblical tale from the Garden of Eden. But in the transitional phase the image of the snake and its link to eternity is used in religious symbolism as a representation of Christ’s victory over death.
The ‘Dream of the Rood’ illustrates this shift generally. In this acclaimed poem Jesus is seen as a warrior, fighting death, eagerly taking on the enemy. A part of the text is carved onto the 8th century Ruthwell Cross. The illustration of vine tracery on the front of the cross echoes the old rhythmic twists of the serpent. Christ triumphs over death in the poem, transforming from human to divine and on the Ruthwell Cross, this commemoration stone of the ultimate Christian sacrifice, the snake’s sinewy form slides its way quietly and effectively into a more acceptable nature imagery, one that can survive and survive and survive, as if for eternity.