"Oh, I understand you very well" said the little prince. "But why do you always speak in riddles?"
"I solve them all," said the snake.
And they were both silent.
Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince
This will be an essay about a riddle, and about a snake who can aswer it. It is also about transformation. Whether it is actually Minoan, I cannot be sure. We have the story by way of the Myceneans, and so it might be Greek/Indo-European in origin, if any myth can truly be said to have an origin. But whatever its source, the riddle is imbedded within a story, and so we will begin with that.
Glaucus, the young son of Minos, king of Crete, while playing one day saw a mouse. He gave chase, and not looking where he was going, fell into a large jar of honey and was drowned. The body was not discovered, however, and no one could tell what had become of him. Minos consulted his seers, and they gave him this answer: "There is in your herds a heifer that changes its color three times a day, from white to red to black. Find the man who can interpret this sign, and you will discover your son."
Diligent search was made throughout the kingdom, and at last a man was found who could give the answer. "The cow," he said, "represents the mulberry tree, the fruit of which is first white, then red, then black." The son was found, but he was dead.
"Now, restore my son to life," Minos demanded. That the man could not do. Therefore, when the child was placed in the tomb, the man was put in with him, and given the choice of either restoring the child to life, or perishing in the tomb.
This is not the whole story, but so many problems have accumulated already that some of them need to be dealt with before continuing.
The answer, as is often the case in ancient riddles, seems rather disappointing. First, it seems invalid, since one could as well answer blackberry, raspberry, elderberry, dewberry, huckleberry, or a number of other fruits or berries that follow the same color sequence in the ripening process. Second, the answer seems meaningless--so what? The answer seems as much a riddle as the original question. There is also a logical problem in the story--how could this answer possibly provide a clue to the discovery of the child? We could assume that the Cretans were not bright enough to tell a coherent story, but it is never safe to underestimate our ancestors. Let us, therefore, approach the story as parable. If it seems to be only riddles within riddles, or worse, mere nonsense, remember Jesus' explanation of the purpose of parable: "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand.
Mark 4, 10-12.
"Chasing a mouse" is an oddly specific detail, and may suggest the ancient idea of the soul leaving the body at death in the form of a mouse. Honey was sometimes used as a perservative for corpses, and so what seems a rather bizarre fate does n a sense represent a conventional death and burial. And the king's question is the typical query of the bereaved when faced with the mystery of death--"Where is my child?" One man does provide an answer, but one which has proved but cold consolation to those in sorrow. He points out that nature is change and mutation. The black mulberry falls from the tree and is replaced the next year with a whole new generation of berries that grow, go through their changes, and fall. It is as though the man had said, "Here is your son, a corpse." The answer recognizes the reality of death, and so what it reveals is simply the dead body. Such an answer might possibly have satisfied the author of Ecclesiastes, but it is small wonder that the less philosophical Minos reacts as he does.
A Myth of Minoan Crete
The story, however, does not end here. The prince is placed in the tomb, and the man with him. But while he is disconsolately awaiting death from hunger and thirst, he seens a serpent crawl through a crack in the wall and slither toward the corpse. Thinking that the snake is going to eat on the body, he picks up a stone and kills the snake. Shortly another snake appears. When it sees the first, it craws quickly away, but returns with a sprig in its mouth. It places the sprig on the first snake's wound, and that snake comes back to life. Then both snakes crawl away. The man picks up the sprig and places it on the mouth of the dead boy, and he too recovers. The two of them set up a clamor, until they are heard and released.
The connection of the snake with both knowledge and rebirth is, or will be discussed elsewhere on this site, so I will pass over that matter. But let us return to the riddle of the magic cow that represents a mulberry tree. There is another answer that comes as easily to mind, and seems less absurd and improbable--the moon. Traditional moon colors are white, red, and black, and considering the central place of cattle in Cretan religion, it would seem only natural to identify the horned cow with the horned moon. The moon, too, is central to Cretan religion, as it generally is in religions which place a great deal of stress on the female and on fertility. The mulberry tree is a goddess symbol, not only because of its moon-colored fruit, but perhaps also because of the worms that eat its leaves, enshroud themselves, and are reborn as moths. The horned cow is also her symbol, as it is of Hera in Greece, and this particular cow is doubly so, since it daily undergoes the moon's sequence of Colors. The connection between the moon and vegetable nature is well known--planting and harvesting by the moon is still widely practiced, even in America. Fertility religions are religions of rebirth. The serpent is both symbol of rebirth, and an animal sacred too and closely identified with the Earth Mother.
Perhaps it is coincidence, but all three of the moon colors have life and death associations. To the present day, according to the culture, the usual funeral colors are either black or white. The first is associated with night, unconsciousness, the unknown, and the darkness of the grave. The second is the color of ghosts, bones, illness, and represents absence. Even its virtures, such as virginity, seem to be negative, a lack of something. Our odd ambivalence about whiteness is beautifully expressed in a chapter of Moby Dick called "The Whiteness of the Whale." Red, of course, is associated with blood, anger, violence. It too is a death color, not just because of its association with violence, but from the fact that applying red coloring to corpses was a practice that goes back to the very earliest days of humankind. Perhaps it was an antidote to the pallor of death. Red and black, of course, are also associated with fertility and vitality.
A remarkable story that seems to recall, or rather to call up these primal moon assoications is Nathaniel Hawthorne's "My Kinsman Major Molineux." This is a passage of life story, which is rebirth on a smaller scale. A young man or boy called Robin (red and blackish bird) arrives in Boston at the time the adolescent America is starting to break free of the mother country. He asks directions at places appropriate to adult males--tavern, barbershop, prostitutes house, and is first well received, but then driven away with mockery when he reveals his dependent status. He falls asleep during the night in the nitche of a church window, and awakens to the pale moon and its "awful raidiance." He next discovers that his kinsman, who was to be his surrogate father, has been disgraced by rioters led by a strange horned man whose face is half black, half red. He sees his uncle being ridden out of town, tarred and feathered, and suddenly joins in the collective mocking laughter of the crowd. He is approached by an elderly merchant, then, who offers him employment if he chooses to remain in the city and make his own way in the world, as opposed to his original idea of being advanced by the patronage of a powerful relative.
But to return to the riddle--it is not apparent that a mulberry has any other possibility than ripeness and death. The moon, however, dies monthly and is reborn. Perhaps a proper statement of the riddle's answer would be, "That which dies shall live again." Once the hero recognizes this truth, the tomb can no longer hold him.
My point has been pretty much stated by now, but I have a little more in case the reader thinks this essay is making far too much of what is merely one old story. It is not alone in its pattern. From Grimm's Household Tales collected in Germany around 3,400 years later we find a surprisingly close parallel called "The Three Snake Leaves." In this story we have the husband put into the tomb with the wife, the arrival of a snake that the man kills by cutting up, the arrival of a second snake with three leaves to place on the wounds and bring the first snake back to life. The man tries them on his wife and brings her back to life and then, like Glaucus and the prince, they beat on the door until freed. There seems no intent in the telling here to embody a religious truth, but the story does highlight one element of rebirth--you are not reborn as quite the same person. The wife now hates her husband, with distressing consequences. Rebirth did not work so well in Pet Semetary either.
It is remarkable how such distinctive details of the story reappear over so great a span of time, geography, and culture. There are other parallels as well, though not quite as close. I will provide a full telling of "The Three Snake Leaves," as well as other relevant stories on a separate page. This page is long enough already, and the storys in any case have relevance to other essays that will appear on this site, and so will be more convenient there.
Cretan Snake Goddess
This is the link to the page with the story of "The Three Snake" leaves, and other relevant snake stories.