A snake in the hand is worth...
July 24, 2018 1:25 PM   Subscribe

I was doing some research for a logo that I'm working on, and came across this image that intrigued me.

I've only found it as a scrimshaw cane topper during whaling folk art era, but no words on the symbolism of it. Any idea what a fist firmly grasping a live, non-harmful snake might mean?
posted by ikahime to Media & Arts (4 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It's certainly a symbol that has been used at different times. See this Victorian brooch, for example. And it looks like it even appeared as a motif in Elizabethan England.

Snakes have been used to symbolise all sorts of things - power, wisdom, even evil. A hand grasping something is often used to indicate human power over a thing - whatever you decide the snake represents.
posted by pipeski at 2:01 PM on July 24, 2018

Best answer: From Stuart M. Frank, Ingenious Contrivances, Curiously Carved: Scrimshaw in the New Bedford Whaling Museum:
Human fists also abound, on canes and ubiquitously elsewhere. The fist may be a left or right hand, with or without a shirt-cuff, and is often holding a stick, rod, or staff, the meaning of which has been debated interminably but never settled. Serpents are also frequently encountered, either looping around the top end to form the handle, or wrapped around the shaft and fist-shaped handle, with the fist grasping the snake at the throat.
(link to excerpt). Elsewhere it is mentioned again that "Serpents are often an elaboration upon the plain clenched fist motif, as they are also on crimpers, bodkins, and other sailor-made implements."

It does not appear that there is any citation to or further discussion of the 'interminable debate' regarding the meaning of the motif, however.
posted by jedicus at 2:03 PM on July 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I don’t know what the symbol means, exactly. But there are clues that you can follow.

The Esmerian Collection, including this cane handle, was exhibited at the American Folk Art Museum. They have a library ; maybe their librarian can lead you in the right direction?

Snakes on a cane (heh) made me think of the staff of Asclepius, who was a renown healer demi-god in Greek mythology. One story has it that he brought Hyppolitus back from the dead after he perished from a sea monster. Even if whoever made this didn’t know the sea monster connection, it would make sense for a sailor to carry something like a healing amulet, seeing as long voyages at sea were perfect disease vectors.

One of the things I found online referred to this type of cane as a “going ashore” cane. Some sailors used canes ashore when they still had their “sea legs.” Something this elaborate and large could have belonged to a captain. Canes at that time were extremely popular men’s accessories. It’s easy to imagine that a powerful person such as a whaling ship’s Captain would want to wield a symbol of authority such as a cane topped with a fist. Additionally, a clenched fist has long been a symbol of protection, on Victorian jewelry such as “figa charms,” although I don’t really know how widespread that symbol was in the States.

The 1860s, when this handle was created, saw a huge revival of snake themed jewelry. Queen Victoria received an engagement ring in the shape of a snake with emerald eyes. After that, snakes were everywhere— it’s possible that the artist was capitalizing on this trend.
posted by shalom at 4:18 PM on July 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I dunno, sometimes a snake is just a snake. My dad carves figural walking sticks from time to time, and he pretty much just makes whatever strikes his fancy. That's not to say the scrimshander who made this wasn't influenced by contemporary trends or imagery, but I've known enough people who just make stuff for their own enjoyment that I wouldn't have assumed there was any particular meaning behind it.
posted by Funeral march of an old jawbone at 5:04 PM on July 24, 2018

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