Man and Serpent

folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 285D
translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2000-2014


  1. The Gold-Giving Snake (The Panchatantra).

  2. Of Good Advice (Gesta Romanorum).

  3. The Man and the Serpent (Aesop).

  4. The Rattlesnake's Vengeance (Native American, Cherokee)

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The Gold-Giving Snake

The Panchatantra

In a certain place there lived a Brahman by the name of Haridatta. He tilled the soil, but his time in the field brought him no harvest. Then one day, as the hottest hours were just over, tormented by the heat, he lay down in the shade of a tree in the middle of his field for a sleep. He saw a frightful snake, decorated with a large hood, crawl from an anthill a little way off, and thought to himself, "This is surely the goddess of the field, and I have not once paid her homage. That is why the field remains barren. I must bring her an offering." After thus thinking it over, he got some milk, poured it into a basin, then went to the anthill, and said, "Oh, protector of this field, for a long time I did not know that you live here. For this reason I have not yet brought you an offering. Please forgive me!"

Having said this, he set forth the milk, and went home. The next day he returned to see what had happened, and he found a dinar in the basin. And thus it continued day by day. He brought the snake milk, and always found a dinar there the next morning.

One day the Brahman asked his son to take the milk to the anthill, and he himself went into the village. The son brought the milk, set it there, and returned home. When he came back the next day and found a dinar, he said to himself, "This anthill must be full of gold dinars. I will kill the snake and take them all at once!" Having decided this, the Brahman's son returned the next day with the milk and a club. As he gave the milk to the snake, he struck her on the head with the club. The snake, as fate willed it, escaped with her life. Filled with rage, she bit the boy with her sharp, poisoned teeth, and the boy fell dead at once. His people built a funeral pyre not far from the field and cremated him.

Two days later his father returned. When he discovered under what circumstances his son had died, he said that justice had prevailed. The next morning, he once again took milk, went to the anthill, and praised the snake with a loud voice. A good while later the snake appeared in the entrance to the anthill, and said, "You come here from greed, letting even your grief for your son pass by. From now on friendship between you and me will no longer be possible. Your son, in his youthful lack of understanding, struck me. I bit him. How can I forget the club's blow? How can you forget the pain and sorrow for your son?" After saying this she gave him a costly pearl for a pearl chain, said, "Do not come back," and disappeared into her cave.

The Brahman took the pearl, cursed his son's lack of understanding, and returned home.

Of Good Advice

Gesta Romanorum

In the reign of the Emperor Fulgentius, a certain knight, named Zedechias, married a very beautiful but imprudent wife. In a certain chamber of their mansion a serpent dwelt. Now, the knight's vehement inclination for tournaments and jousting brought him to extreme poverty. He grieved immoderately, and, like one who was desperate, walked backward and forward, ignorant of what he should do. The serpent, beholding his misery, like the ass of Balaam, was on that occasion miraculously gifted with a voice, and said to the knight, "Why do you lament? Take my advice, and you shall not repent it. Supply me every day with a certain quantity of sweet milk, and I will enrich you."

This promise exhilarated the knight, and he faithfully followed the instructions of his subtle friend. The consequence was that he had a beautiful son, and became exceedingly wealthy. But it happened that his wife one day said to him, "My lord, I am sure that serpent has great riches hidden in the chamber where he dwells. Let us kill him and get possession of the whole."

The advice pleased the knight, and at the request of his wife he took a hammer to destroy the serpent, and a vessel of milk. Allured by the milk, it put its head out of the hole, as it had been accustomed; and the knight lifted the hammer to strike it. The serpent, observing his perfidy, suddenly drew back its head; and the blow fell upon the vessel. No sooner had he done this, than his offspring died, and he lost everything that he formerly possessed.

The wife, taught by their common loss, said to him, "Alas! I have ill counseled you; but go now to the hole of the serpent, and humbly acknowledge your offense. Peradventure you may find grace." The knight complied, and standing before the dwelling place of the serpent, shed many tears, and entreated that he might once more be made rich.

"I see," answered the serpent, "I see now that you are a fool, and will always be a fool. For how can I forget that blow of the hammer which you designed me, for which reason I slew your son and took away your wealth? There can be no real peace between us."

The knight, full of sorrow, replied thus, "I promise the most unshaken fidelity, and will never meditate the slightest injury, provided I may this once obtain your grace."

"My friend," said the serpent, "it is the nature of my species to be subtle and venomous. Let what I have said suffice. The blow offered at my head is fresh upon my recollection; get you gone before you receive an injury."

The knight departed in great affliction, saying to his wife, "Fool that I was to take your counsel!" But ever afterwards they lived in the greatest indigence.


My beloved, the king is God; the knight is Adam, who by following his wife's advice lost Paradise. The serpent in the chamber signifies Christ retained in the human heart, by virtue of baptism.

The Man and the Serpent


A countryman's son by accident trod upon a serpent's tail, which turned and bit him so that he died. The father in a rage got his ax, and pursuing the serpent, cut off part of its tail. So the serpent in revenge began stinging several of the farmer's cattle and caused him severe loss. Well, the farmer thought it best to make it up with the serpent, and brought food and honey to the mouth of its lair, and said to it, "Let's forget and forgive. Perhaps you were right to punish my son, and take vengeance on my cattle, but surely I was right in trying to revenge him. Now that we are both satisfied, why should not we be friends again?"

"No, no," said the serpent. "Take away your gifts. You can never forget the death of your son, nor I the loss of my tail.

Injuries may be forgiven, but not forgotten.

The Rattlesnake's Vengeance

Native American (Cherokee)

One day in the old times when we could still talk with other creatures, while some children were playing about the house, their mother inside heard them scream. Running out she found that a rattlesnake had crawled from the grass, and taking up a stick she killed it. The father was out hunting in the mountains, and that evening when coming home after dark through the gap he heard a strange wailing sound. Looking about he found that he had come into the midst of a whole company of rattlesnakes, which all had their mouths open and seemed to be crying. He asked them the reason of their trouble, and they told him that his own wife had that day killed their chief, the Yellow Rattlesnake, and they were just now about to send the Black Rattlesnake to take revenge.

The hunter said he was very sorry, but they told him that if he spoke the truth he must be ready to make satisfaction and give his wife as a sacrifice for the life of their chief. Not knowing what might happen otherwise, he consented. They then told him that the Black Rattlesnake would go home with him and coil up just outside the door in the dark. He must go inside, where he would find his wife awaiting him, and ask her to get him a drink of fresh water from the spring. That was all.

He went home and knew that the Black Rattlesnake was following. It was night when he arrived and very dark, but he found his wife waiting with his supper ready. He sat down and asked for a drink of water. She handed him a gourd full from the jar, but he said he wanted it fresh from the spring, so she took a bowl and went out of the door. The next moment he heard a cry, and going out he found that the Black Rattlesnake had bitten her and that she was already dying. He stayed with her until she was dead, when the Black Rattlesnake came out from the grass again and said his tribe was now satisfied.

He then taught the hunter a prayer song, and said, "When you meet any of us hereafter sing this song and we will not hurt you; but if by accident one of us should bite one of your people then sing this song over him and he will recover."

And the Cherokee have kept the song to this day.

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Revised August 29, 2014.