Talking animals are a motif in stories going back at least to the time of Aesop’s fables (ca. 620-564 BCE). You’ll commonly find them in myths and folktales, as well as stories for children, who are generally more willing to suspend their disbelief for the sake of a good yarn. There are even a couple of talking-animal stories in the Bible, which is your clue that the authors regarded them as fables. The most notable is the creation story in the Book of Genesis, when Eve is tempted by a smooth-talking serpent, described in the King James translation as the most “subtle” of God’s creatures — subtle in the sense of cunning. Old Testament stories did not dwell on what people thought; you knew what they thought based on what they said and did. If Eve was tempted to eat the forbidden fruit, you needed a dramatic foil to make the case. What better personage to give voice to her illicit desires than a slimy snake?
Of course, we don’t know that the serpent in the creation story was slimy; indeed, zoologists insist that such creatures are not. We impute certain characteristics to them based on their appearance and behavior, including certain human traits that they most likely do not possess, like cunning. “Encountering an animal is always a strange experience; they’re built of all the things you have learned about them, from books, television, magazines, conversations, images,” says Helen Macdonald, a writer and naturalist. “But behind all those is a self-willed, non-human entity that exists in its own umwelten, its own life-world. Animals aren’t just repositories for human meanings, even if we unthinkingly use them to reflect our own selves and concerns.”
If Adam and Eve were created in God’s image — and therefore presumably without sin, at least not at first — then you needed another party to incite them to mischief. And since there were as yet no other creatures like themselves, a talking serpent would do nicely. With his scaly skin, beady eyes and slithery body movements, he certainly fit the bill. And being the most subtle of God’s creatures, he would know how to appeal to the clueless woman in ways she could not resist. Why, it was almost as if she were talking to herself. Did God tell you not to eat the fruit of any tree in the garden? Yes, the one in the midst of the garden. He told us if we ate its fruit or even touched it, we would die. The serpent scoffed, You won’t die. And then the clincher: God knows if you eat from it, you will become like him, knowing good and evil.
The serpent spoke the truth after a fashion. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and they did not die — at least not on the spot. And they did come to know good and evil, although too late to keep them from recognizing that the serpent was up to no good. As for becoming like God, they were already like God, made in his spitting image. They had gotten themselves evicted from paradise because they wanted to become what they already were.
The psychologist Julian Jaynes has suggested that modern human consciousness emerged from an earlier ”bicameral” mind in which thoughts originating in the right hemisphere of the brain were perceived as direct commands from the gods. The human brain was anatomically modern but not yet dominated by the cognitive centers in the left hemisphere, so there was minimal self-awareness. Until about 3,000 years ago, Jaynes argued, human beings functioned as virtual zombies, taking their orders from unseen masters lodged in the nether regions of their own brains. He used some of the early Bible stories to illustrate his theory.
When God saw there was something amiss in Eden, he demanded an explanation from Adam, who pointed the finger at Eve, who fingered the serpent, as a small child might. Was Eve confusing the thoughts originating in the right side of her own brain with the importuning of the beady-eyed serpent coiling so alluringly around the trunk of the tree of knowledge? The Lord was having none of it. The woman was told she would deliver her children in pain and the man would rule over her. The man was condemned to labor by the sweat of his brow. The pair of them were banished from paradise. For his role in the caper, the serpent was condemned to crawl on his belly and to eat dust for the rest of his days. There was no mention that he was ordered to keep his mouth shut. We just know that the serpent and bis descendants have had nothing to say ever since.
Helen Macdonald, “Helen Macdonald: The Things I Tell Myself When I’m Writing About Nature,” Lit Hub, August 25, 2020