Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Serpent Babel

Today I talk about the Bible and Snakes and Harry Potter and Milton, I guess.

Those who watched the video in the previous entry may have ventured further down the rabbit hole and decided to view some of the other doodle videos.  One of them contained a witty aside about two snakes that couldn't communicate because one spoke Parseltongue and the other spoke Python (for the terminally lazy, the link is here.)  Of course, my mind couldn't let that one go -- I'm known to overthink things, and after all, one would think that all animals would be able to naturally understand one another.  So I decided to take a look in my books and see what I could rustle up in way of explanation.  Here goes.

The Bible tells us that even humans once all spoke the same language in the story of the Tower of Babel, and that different languages are a punishment from God for human hubris:

1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. 3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. 4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. 5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children built. 6 And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. 7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. 9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:1-9)

Now we don't have an account of why in the world snakes would suffer a similar punishment.  Of course, snakes and God don't get along so well already.  Things started out smooth, but turned rocky after the whole Tree of Knowledge debacle.  The punishment meted out to the serpent in Genesis for his beguilement of Eve is as follows:

14 The LORD God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, cursed are you above all cattle, and above all wild animals; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.  15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel." (Genesis 3:14-15)

Nothing here to tip us off about a Babelification of the serpent's tongue.  However, the Bible doesn't exactly offer a very full account of the affair.  From here we turn to John Milton's Paradise Lost.  Milton writes of the punishment of the serpent as follows:

Which when the Lord God heard, without delay
To Judgement he proceeded on th' accus'd
Serpent though brute, unable to transferre
The Guilt on him who made him instrument
Of mischief, and polluted from the end
Of his Creation; justly then accurst,
As vitiated in Nature: more to know
Concern'd not Man (since he no further knew)
Nor alter'd his offence; yet God at last
To Satan first in sin his doom apply'd
Though in mysterious terms, judg'd as then best:
And on the Serpent thus his curse let fall.  

Milton explains that the serpent's punishment isn't really a punishment of the serpent, but simply a stand-in punishment for Satan.  That's just too bad for the poor ol' snake, but it still doesn't explain the language gap.  That comes later in Book 10, when the serpent's punishment kicks in for Satan:

His Visage drawn he felt to sharp and spare,
His Armes clung to his Ribs, his Leggs entwining
Each other, till supplanted down he fell
A monstrous Serpent on his Belly prone,
Reluctant, but in vaine: a greater power
Now rul'd him, punisht in the shape he sin'd,
According to his doom: he would have spoke,
But hiss for hiss returnd with forked tongue
To forked tongue, for now were all transform'd
Alike, to Serpents all as accessories
To his bold Riot: dreadful was the din
Of hissing through the Hall, thick swarming now
With complicated monsters head and taile...

Here we see the communication breakdown!  Satan is unable to communicate with his throng of fellow demons, and all are only able to hiss in frustration.  I point to this passage as the Serpent Babel.  

After this point, the demons are free to enter the world.  Milton writes that the pagan gods of the Greeks, Egyptians, and other ancient civilizations were actually demons.  The demonic diaspora parallels the post-Babelian human scattering, as people formed social groups based upon their new languages.  

As a quick aside, Parseltongue is likely an ancient language, possibly even dating back to the original split.  This hypothesis is right in line with the common association that Parseltongue has with dark wizards -- if it originated with Satan, it makes sense that it would be considered a language of evil.  Python, on the other hand, appears to be a relatively recent dialect, having only emerged in full in 1991 as an offshoot of ABC.  Languages naturally evolve, but it is certainly exciting from a historical linguistics to be able to pinpoint exactly when a language became its own entity.

I suppose the logical next question is why we are keeping all of these snakes locked up in zoos when we could be paying them in mice to program for us.  I'm still working on an answer to that one, but when I figure it out you can be sure I will post it here.

"Hannah, he’s a Parselmouth. Everyone knows that’s the mark of a Dark Wizard. Have you ever heard of a decent one who could talk to snakes?" - Ernie Macmillan 

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