Yuan-ti and snake symbolism

This post has spoilers about a Dungeons & Dragons adventure from In Volo’s Wake.

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On Wednesday nights I’ve been running a D&D campaign, and this week we had our third session. I’ve been using the scenarios from In Volo’s Wake (but I’ve also been mixing in some content from Lost Mine of Phandelver). Last night the party investigated what the yuan-ti were doing in the quarry near Old Owl Well. The yuan-ti are humanoids who worship snake gods. Through foul rituals, they have been modified into terrible, snakelike forms. In the adventure, the yuan-ti have captured inexperienced adventurers, who they plan to transform into yuan-ti.

Snake symbolism in European societies seems to be dominated by the snake from the Garden of Eden, which originates in the Hebrew scripture and but been reinterpreted in Christian thought. It’s often associated with evil, temptation and trickery – but it could also be associated with hidden knowledge. We could look at the story as being about humans choosing their own path and the conflict that causes with their creator.

Snakes can also be associated with rebirth or regeneration because of their ability to slough off their old skin and emerge with a shiny new skin. In the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, it is the snake who possesses the secret of immortality. In paradox, many snakes are also poisonous. So they could be understood as having power over life and death.

I’d say the portrayal of the yuan-ti picks up more of the negative aspects of snake symbolism – evil and the temptation of hidden knowledge. In our game on Wednesday I also wanted to bring out some of the idea of rebirth. A kind of rebirth occurs when a humanoid is turned into a yuan-ti, or when a yuan-ti turns into a more powerful form.

When the players were getting close to freeing all the prisoners, I had a yuan-ti abomination turn up (I have a great abomination miniature that I wanted to use) and invite Sardior the dragonborn paladin to join the yuan-ti and be reborn. Sardior rejected the invitation, so the abomination cast the spell ‘suggestion’ on Sardior, instructing him to kill Kwinn, the half-elf warlock… I let Saridor repeat the Wisdom saving throw each turn (even though the spell isn’t supposed to allow that) and he did manage to beat it before he was able to attack Kwinn. I didn’t want him to actually kill the mage, but I wanted the party to get the idea that they could be corrupted by the yuan-ti.

If you want to read more about snake symbolism in mythology, I’d suggest reading James Charlesworth’s book The Good and Evil Serpent.

Were the primal humans of Genesis immortal?

I’ve been gradually reading through Genesis and each Wednesday I’ve been posting some reflections. I recently appreciated getting a question from my friend Nat:

‘What’s your take on the significance  (i hope I’m remembering this properly) of there being no death in the garden? …ie, if it’s not literal truth’

When Nat asked me this I also wasn’t sure if I was remembering properly. I had a sense that I’d heard people say that there was no death before the humans ate the forbidden fruit. I wasn’t sure whether I’d read that in scripture or whether it was part of the folklore that’s attached to the story. So I thought I’d go back to the text and see if I could find anything suggesting that there was or wasn’t death in the garden.

In the first  section of Genesis I couldn’t find anything saying that their was no death in the garden. What I did find was YHWH Elohim becoming concerned about what would happen if the humans ate from the tree of life (and became immortal) after having already eaten from the tree of knowledge.

I’m wondering if other people presumed, like me and Nat, that the story said people were immortal in the garden? If human beings are descibed as already having a limited lifespan in the garden, does that change our attitudes about death?

I’m also wondering if there may be something I’m missing? If you can see something in the text suggesting that humanity was immortal, we’d be keen to hear.