Wikipedia claims:

A snake as a source of knowledge is a recurring theme in Greek mythology, though sometimes the snake brings understanding of the language of animals rather than an ability to know the future. Likewise, prophets without honor in their own country reflect a standard narrative trope

Source: Cassandra (Wikipedia)

Other than the myth of Cassandra, what other examples of snakes as a source of knowledge can be found in Greek mythology? I'm interested in examples featuring actual snakes, not so much in mythical creatures with serpentine / draconian features like Python, the Delphi serpent.

  • My sense is that "snake as a source of knowledge is a recurring theme", but more so in Greek religion/ritual than in Greek mythology. That said, I can think of plenty of examples in Greek mythology -- the oracle of delphi being the most obvious. See also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snake_worship#Greek_mythology, although I'm not sure if that list is 100% accurate (to be expected bc it's wikipedia)
    – user62
    Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 23:30
  • Good catch there @Hamlet, however I'm interested in actual snakes, not so much in mythical creatures with serpentine / draconian features like Python. I'll clarify the question.
    – yannis
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 7:03
  • @Yannis Since you mention Cassandra, I'll bring up Laocoön. In his story, the snakes are an agent of the suppression of knowledge, sent to discredit his exhortations about the mortal danger of the wooden horse.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 20:53
  • @Yannis This distinction between "mythical" monstrous snakes and "actual" snakes may be problematic. The Greek word from which we derive "Dragon", δράκων, almost certainly originally merely meant a big snake, such as a python (lowercase p.) Authors like Homer embellished by adding legs, but this should not be taken too seriously. The word is related to δρακεῖν, "to see", so this idea of snakes equated with knowledge is directly linked to this "monstrous" form of the animal, and not the little snakes (ὄφις) to which you're restricting the question.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 18:04
  • 1
    Apollodorus does use ὄφεις and ὄφεων, both forms of ὄφις ("ophis"), to refer to Melampus' snakes. I utilized the Perseus Project lexicons to search for other instances of this word in Classical literature and found no additional mention of snakes representing knowledge. Rather, the predominant usage of serpents is as guardians or instruments of vengeance and divine wrath.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 15:16

1 Answer 1



He told his servants to not kill two snakes, and he in turn learned the language of the Animals.

When Melampus lived with Neleus, he dwelt outside the town of Pylos, and before his house there stood an oak tree containing a serpent's nest. The old serpents were killed by his servants, and burnt by Melampus himself, who reared the young ones. One day, when they had grown up, and Melampus was asleep, they approached from both sides and cleaned his ears with their tongues. Being thus roused from his sleep, he started up, and to his surprise perceived that he now understood the language of birds, and that with their assistance he could foretell the future. In addition to this he acquired the power of prophesying, from the victims that were offered to the gods, and, after having had an interview with Apollo on the banks of the Alpheius, he became a most renowned soothsayer (Apollod. i. 9. § 11; Eustath. ad Hom. p. 1685).

Specifically from Apollodorus's Library,

Amythaon dwelt in Pylus and married Idomene, daughter of Pheres, and there were born to him two sons, Bias and Melampus. The latter lived in the country, and before his house there was an oak, in which there was a lair of snakes. His servants killed the snakes, but Melampus gathered wood and burnt the reptiles, and reared the young ones. And when the young were full grown, they stood beside him at each of his shoulders as he slept, and they purged his ears with their tongues. He started up in a great fright, but understood the voices of the birds flying overhead, and from what he learned from them he foretold to men what should come to pass. He acquired besides the art of taking the auspices, and having fallen in with Apollo at the Alpheus he was ever after an excellent soothsayer.

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