Brain Pickings

Snakes, Dragons, and the Power of Music: Strange and Wondrous 18th-Century Illustrations of Real and Mythic Serpents

“That there is not a wise Purpose in every thing that is made because we do not understand it, is as absurd as for a Man to say, there is no such thing as Light, because he is blind and has no Eyes to see it.”

In 1742, more than a century before Darwin parted the veil of creationist mythology to reveal the reality of nature, an English theologian by the name of Charles Owen published An Essay Toward a Natural History of Serpents — a curious artifact from the museum of sensemaking, a fossil from the tidal zone between ignorance and knowledge where the primordial waters of superstition are lapping at the slowly emerging terra cognita of science.

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Depicted as equally real alongside the common vipers familiar to every English child are the “poetick Griffins,” a “monstrous Serpent of four or five Yards long… very large and furious,” and the Ethiopian dragons, inherited from ancient Greek mythology and believed to kill elephants “by winding themselves about the Elephant’s Legs, and then thrusting their Heads up their Nostrils, fling them, and suck their Blood till they are dead.”

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What emerges is a kind of natural history tinted by supernatural inheritance — while Owen was inspired by the symbology of reptiles in a great many of the world’s religious traditions, he brought the mindset of a naturalist or “natural philosopher” (the word scientist was yet to be coined) to the endeavor. While his prefatory note to the reader is trapped in the mind and language of its time, speaking of the “Almighty Creator,” the “Divine Wisdom in the works of Nature,” and the immutability of species in their “Eternal Design,” he also advocates passionately for acknowledging the limits of our knowledge and savoring the rewards of observation, especially of looking more closely at what is commonly overlooked. Although his motive is theological, its end and effect are almost scientific:

That there is not a wise Purpose in every thing that is made because we do not understand it, is as absurd as for a Man to say, there is no such thing as Light, because he is blind and has no Eyes to see it.

For the Illustration of this, we may take a short View of Creatures, in vulgar account too diminutive and despicable as a Species, to deserve a close Attention.

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Even looking closely at the most “Noxious” of creatures, he suggests, brings us into more intimate contact with the consummate perfection of nature, for the more we consider them, the more we find not a particular reason why they should exist but no reason why they should not. A lovely notion to roll against the palate of the mind — a notion that sweetens a great many other contexts with its implications.

Available as a print and as a face mask.

Nestled between the serpents are other poison-wielding animals — spiders, scorpions, frogs, wasps, hornets, the tarantula (“a kind of an overgrown Spider, about the Size of a common Acorn,” against the deadly bite of which “the most effectual and certain Remedy is Musick.”)

Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print and as a face mask.

And then, in one of those glorious metaphysical meanderings lacing pre-scientific works of “natural philosophy,” Owen turns to the belief that music mitigates the effects of poisons, physical and moral, and adds a reverie to the canon of great writers extolling the power of music:

Musick appears to be one of the most antient of Arts, and of all other, vocal Musick must have been the first kind, and borrowed from the various natural Strains of Birds; as stringed Instruments were from Winds whistling in hollow Reeds, and pulsatile Instruments (as Drums and Cymbals) from the hollow Noise of concave Bodies. This is the Conjecture.

Musick has ever been in the highest Esteem in all Ages, and among all People. Nor could Authors express their Opinions of it strongly enough, but by inculcating, that it was in Heaven, and was one of the principal Entertainments of the Blessed.

The Effects ascribed to Musick by the Antients, almost amount to Miracles; by means thereof Diseases are said to have been cured, Unchastity corrected, Seditions quelled, Passions raised and calmed, and even Madness occasioned.

Musick has been used as a Sermon of Morality… The Pythagoreans made use of Musick to cultivate the Mind, and settle in it a passionate Love of Virtue… made use of it, not only against Diseases of the Mind, but those of the Body. It was the common Custom of the Pythagoreans to soften their Minds with Musick before they went to sleep; and also in the Morning, to excite themselves to the Business of the Day.

This Cure of Distempers by Musick sounds odd, but was a celebrated Medicine among the Antients. We have already considered, how those wounded by the Tarantula were healed by Musick; the Evidence of which is too strong to be overturned.

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Couple with biologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer, writing a quarter millennium after Owen, on how the overlooked splendor of moss refines the art of attentiveness to all scales of existence, then savor other stunning scientific and natural history illustrations from Owen’s era: the consummate illustrations for the world’s first encyclopedia of medicinal plants, which the young self-taught artist and botanist Elizabeth Blackwell painted to bail her husband out of debtor’s prison; the self-taught German artist and astronomer Maria Clara Eimmart’s haunting blue-and-gold renditions of the Solar System as it was then known; Sarah Stone’s paintings of exotic, endangered, and now-extinct species; and some wondrous illustrations of owls from Darwin’s century.

Published June 28, 2020




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