Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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"Shaking His Hairy Chaps": The Iconography of Bearded Snakes

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posted on 2021-12-08, 12:24 authored by Murdoch, Jaimee

The bearded snake is an unusual motif that appears in a variety of contexts and media throughout the Classical world. It is used in Greek, Etruscan, Roman, and Egyptian art and literature. This thesis addresses the Greek use of the bearded snake. The beard of the snake, much like the beard of a human figure, varies in terms of its size, shape, and level of detailing. It may be a simple single line or a series of long, clearly defined hairs. The use of this human feature on serpents has received minimal attention. When the motif is discussed it is generally only considered in terms of its use in one context, such as on depictions of Zeus Meilichios or on the Lakonian hero reliefs. The aim of this thesis is to discuss the use of the bearded snake in the most common contexts in which it may occur in order to provide a better understanding of the meaning of this unusual motif. Such contexts include anguiform deities, pure serpents, hybrid creatures, and attributes of monsters and deities.  Two of the more influential explanations of the use of the beard are those by Aelian, from the third century AD, and Jane Harrison, from 1903. These interpretations consider the bearded snake in slightly different terms. Where Aelian believes the beard to indicate a male serpent, Harrison considers the feature to be a means through which the snake is implied to be an anthropomorphic deity. Chapter One provides the background interpretations of the snake and the beard as distinct motifs. The findings from this chapter will form the basis for the interpretations given in Chapters Two and Three. Chapter Two considers the flaws of Aelian’s explanation of the beard as an indicator of gender, by looking at the use of the beard in the context of divine and monstrous women such as Medusa and Athena. Chapter Three addresses Harrison’s anthropomorphic argument, by considering both anguiform and non-anguiform figures. This will provide a wider range of contexts than either Aelian or Harrison discuss. In doing so, I intend to consider the meaning of the bearded snake using a considerably larger range of sources, in order to give the best possible explanation for this unusual motif.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Classical Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies


Burton, Diana