Monday, October 9, 2017

Gothic Elements: Snakes and Toads


Forked tongue, venomous fangs and sinuous coils of sleek scales. What's not to love? The serpent is a beautiful and at times deadly creature and a darling addition to any dark storytellers bag of tricks.

Ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes, is #2 on top ten list of most common fears according to So, if your purpose is to fill your audience with dread, add a snake and your chances of accomplishing this increases, exponentially.

While the Snake has many meanings, I feel its key Gothic meanings are Immortality, Death, Secrets, and Deception. Volumes have been written on snake symbolism and it's made multiple appearances in mythology and folklore, too many to reference here. But, if interested you can visit here to learn more about snakes in mythology and here to learn more about their symbolic meanings.

However, I've chosen a few of my favorite snake associations to share with you. I'd love to hear yours.

Snake and Skull: "Dead men tell no tales" is the line that jumps immediately to mind when I see this symbol. The snake meaning knowledge, secrets, immortality and the skull representing death, the association here to me is the secrets we take to the grave or the knowledge we carry beyond it. It also speaks to life after death, whatever that form might take. We may slough off the mortal coil, but the spirit remains. One of my favorite uses of this imagery is in the Harry Potter books, as the Death Eaters sign is a skull and snake.

Medusa: The Greek creature, a Gorgon (meaning "dreadful"). And whether it is the beautiful woman turned Gorgon after being raped in Athena's Temple or born as one of three Gorgon, she is ultimately beheaded and to me a tragic figure. Medusa is many things, but for me the snakes on her head represent deception. Self-deception, feminine deception, deception of evil or against evil as her head was depicted on shields and doorways to ward of evil and for protection. Carl Jung also refers to her as the devouring mother, which is a theme I'm fascinated with. If you are interested as well, more on that can be found here.

Growing up Medusa ©Shadow Leitner

Serpent and Eve: Another form of deception is the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden by none other than a serpent. It wasn't a cow or bird that tempted her, it was a serpent. This is where the forked tongued is relevant, its dual nature, but mostly what fascinates me about the symbology of this particular serpent is that everything the serpent has ever represented can be rolled up into this one. Deception, Death, Immortality, Knowledge, Secrets, Poison, Chaos, and the list goes on, this snake bears it all.  It may not be the first time in mythology and folklore that snakes are associated with evil but it has cemented our association of snakes with the Devil.

Ouroboros: The snake or dragon eating its own tail is a symbol that means infinity or the cyclic representation of nature, as well as life and death. Its most notable Gothic association is the use of this symbol in magic, from Ancient Egyptian to Renaissance magic. It is also a prominent symbol used in alchemy. Another example of the Ouroboros is Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent of Norse Mythology. A serpent that grew large enough to surround the world and bite its own tail.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Damballah (Voodoo Loa): A common element in Southern Gothics is Voodoo or Voudoun. The common loa (intermediary between "God" and "Man") depicted is Damballah Wedo (Li Grande Zombi) one of the most important loa and is characterized by a snake or serpent. Damballah represents balance, creation and water/rain and has its origins with the African creation deity, Nzambi. Snakes are often used in rituals invoking this loa who can possess a human and speaks with hisses. More on serpent worship and Li Grande Zombi can be learned here.

Photo by Jack Hamilton on Unsplash


Toads as a Gothic element usually pertain to magic, magical folklore, and superstitions.  I'm sure we've all heard that rubbing a toad on your warts can cure them. Some accounts state you have to impale it on a tree rubbing it on your warts and leave it to die, only then will it cure your warts. Poor frogs. Don't do that, neither rubbing or impaling said toad will cure you of warts.

Though, many a witch's spell call for frog parts. And modern science has confirmed that some frogs do have medicinal properties. However, some botanicals have the word frog in their common name. For example, when the witches of Shakespeare's Macbeth call for Toe of Frog it may actually be a variety of buttercup with the common name of Frog's Foot. Okay, that may be a stretch, but you get the gist.

Many ancient cultures viewed the frog and toad as positive symbols of luck, fertility, and protection One such example is the Ancient Egyptian Goddess with a frog head Hekt, who was associated with fertility and protection. Frogs were so sacred to Egyptians that they were often embalmed after death. The toad was sacred in other cultures, as well, because they either held the souls of dead children, as told in some European myths or were responsible the cycles of life and death and rebirth.

It wasn't until the Middle Ages that the toad fell from its sacred toadstool, as it were and become an element of evil. This is when they became known as witch familiars, doing the devil's work and were a common ingredient in witches brews and spells, according to the witch hunters of that day. Most accounts of their evilness describe their filthy habitats, cold and slimy skin, calculating eyes and harsh croaking. Hmm...sounds like some of my old boyfriends.

Anyway, I'd love to hear your favorite serpent or toad references or if you've used either in your stories. Let me know in the comments.

Also, if you are on Instagram, be sure to post your snake and/or toad images this week, using the hashtag #DarkInklings for a chance to be featured across my social media channels on Friday. They can be old or new images.

@shadowleitner on Instagram

As always, stay beautifully haunted!

♥ Shadow.

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