Serpent People: The Myths, the Fiction and the History
As soon as I start talking about serpent people, I find that people look at me as though they think I’ve gone crazy. That’s probably David Icke’s fault, but we’ll get to that.
What can I say? I just think that serpent people are cool, and some of my favourite stories of all time have featured serpent people in some form or other. Some of the very best are those that just use the classic myths as a background and then build on them.
Today, I’m going to be telling you everything you need to know about serpent people, from their origins in classical mythology to the science behind them and the place they’ve earned for themselves in popular culture. Let’s slither on in.
Serpent people have been around for years, and we can see signs of them in the tale of Medusa, the woman with snakes for hair who turned people to stone with her gaze, although she’s technically a (wo)man serpent. Snakes have long been associated with evil, presumably because of the very real fear of death due to a snakebite. It makes sense that they’d show up as a personification of evil.
In most tales, serpent men are depicted as human-like figures with scaly skin and the heads of snakes or other reptiles. They’re typically descended from a lineage that goes way back, often essentially evolving in parallel in the same way that homo sapiens descended from apes.
Another common theme with serpent men is that they usually have the ability to disguise themselves as human beings. This is where the idea of “lizards in people suits” comes from, although the older legends usually say that they’re able to do this because they have magical powers or other abilities.
Note that serpent men are different to “man serpents”, which are typically depicted the other way round, having the bodies of giant snakes but the heads of human beings. Medusa is a classic example of this, and indeed many other man serpents have the hypnotic stare and superhuman strength that the snake queen is known for.
Nagas and Lamias
Another mythic type of serpent people are the nagas and lamias, although they’re pretty similar to Medusas and as such are more like man serpents. Usually depicted with a human’s head, arms and torso and a snake’s lower body, they’re basically the reptilian equivalent of centaurs. Female nagas and lamias are usually supernaturally beautiful.
The origins of these creatures can, of course, be traced back to folklore. In the traditional tales, Lamia was a Libyan queen who ate children, but it’s thought that the popular image of her was subverted by John Keats, who might have combined Lamia with Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who’s associated with the snake in the Garden of Eden.
Nagas, meanwhile, come from India. If you’ve read the Harry Potter series then you’ll remember Nagini, Voldemort’s snake. She takes her name from the term for a female naga, with male nagas usually being called nagin. Nagas show their Hindu roots because they’re often depicted with more than one pair of arms. Sometimes, they even have multiple heads.
Robert E. Howard
The first appearance of true “serpent people” was in Robert E. Howard’s King Kull stories. Howard, as you might remember, is the creator of the Conan series and an icon in sword and sorcery communities. He’s arguably the reason why sword and sorcery is popular in the first place.
Howard called his creation “serpent men”, and they first appeared in a story called The Shadow Kingdom, which itself was published in the iconic Weird Tales magazine at the end of the 1920s. Interestingly, they were given a second life in the 1970s when Marvel released its Kull the Conqueror adaptations, effectively introducing serpent men into the Marvel cinematic universe.
H. P. Lovecraft
Another important thing to note is that in Howard’s work, the serpent men were one of the few examples of creatures from long, long ago, their dominion being measured in terms of the cosmos as opposed to the lifespan of man. This in some ways makes it a precursor to the unique brand of cosmic horror that H. P. Lovecraft helped to pioneer, a subject that I’ve written about at length before.
The interesting thing about Howard’s serpent men is that they were then adopted as a part of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, although most of the legwork was done by Lin Carter and Clark Ashton Smith. Some of Lovcecraft’s own short stories, including The Nameless City and The Haunter of the Dark, mention pre-human races of lizard people.
In fact, this also means that serpent people are directly connected to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, and the two of them officially live in the same universe. That’s pretty cool because they also pop up in Spider-Man, making them also part of the Marvel EU. I love the way that they all relate back to each other, even though some of the links are a little obscure. There’s even a cross between a demon and a serpent man that fought against the Avengers.
According to the mythos, the serpent people lived at roughly the same time as the dinosaurs, although they weren’t wiped out by the fateful meteorite. Instead, they dispersed all over the world, warring with mankind and eventually going underground.
Other names for serpent people include “snake men”, “serpent men”, “serpent folk” and “valusians”. And perhaps unsurprisingly, most named serpent people have names that evoke their flickering tongues and serpent-like features. Just a few of the most well-known serpent people include Ssathasaa, Sss’haa, Ssrhythssaa and Zloigm. Try saying those after you’ve had a few drinks.
In popular culture, when we talk about serpent people, most people’s minds automatically go to reptoids. Also known as reptilians, lizard people, saurians, draconians and reptiloids, reptoids are theoretical reptilian humanoids, and the concept was popularised by conspiracy theorist David Icke.
Icke believes that shape-shifting reptoids control the human race by assuming human forms and taking on important positions in global governments and at the top of society. It’s a bit like the Illuminati, except that the Illuminati isn’t made up of serpent people in lizard suits.
I don’t want to spend too much time dwelling on Icke’s ideas because you can look them up for yourself if you’re interested. I’m not too interested in them myself, but I do think it’s fascinating that they’re almost certainly inspired by (if not based on) the serpent people of Robert E. Howard.
In fact, most historians agree that Icke’s theories draw upon earlier myths and legends, and it’s pretty easy to see the parallels. Loosely speaking, Icke says that the world is being run by blood-drinking, shape-shifting serpent people who are adopting positions of power (including in the British Royal family and the Bush family).
They come from the Alpha Draconis star system and are living in underground bases while plotting to overthrow the human race. And whether you believe Icke or not, it’s hard to ignore the fact that at least some people do. According to one 2013 poll, as many as 4% of registered US voters believe in Icke’s ideas.
As for me, I’d rather read Howard or Lovecraft.
Now that you know a little more about serpent people, it’s over to you so that you can start carrying out a little more research of your own. If you’re a novelist, perhaps you can start to use serpent people as a plot device, while if you’re a keen movie buff then you could check out some of the movies that use serpent people as a plot device.
Of course, if you’re into conspiracy theories then you could also look into David Icke and what he thinks, although I’d caution you to take that with a pinch of salt. Far more interesting to me is the history behind snake people and where the legends come from. Snakes themselves have a lot of symbolic power, and you see them being represented everywhere from stories about Medusa to the parceltongue in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
So now you’ve heard a few of my thoughts, I want to hear from you. Be sure to let me know your thoughts on serpent people and the legends that they feature in by leaving a comment, or by reaching out to me on your favourite social networking site. Until next time!