Undergraduate Honors Theses

Thesis Defended

Spring 2015

Document Type


Type of Thesis

Departmental Honors




The snake is a practically omnipresent figure in Athenian visual culture from the Archaic to the Hellenistic periods and has been commonly understood in relation to the earth, autochthony, death, and domestic settings. However, primary literary sources, secondary scholarship, and Athenian visual culture—including vase painting, sculpture, and architectural embellishments—illustrate the serpent’s complex, often liminal role in Athenian culture. Using as models Walter Burkert’s insights on the uncanny, Victor Turner’s theory of liminality, and Tzvetan Todorov’s theory of the fantastic, this thesis will explore how the serpent’s occupation of multiple interstices created its symbolic meaning. Through careful attention to these sources it will become clear that the snake does not conform to categorization, but instead exists in the tension between modes of classification. The snake’s symbolic representation of boundaries between critical modes of reality, such as mortality and immortality, complicates our understanding of its identity and purpose. I will suggest that the serpent’s omnipresence in Athenian visual and material culture symbolizes a fantastic lack of control.