Study Guide

Snow Crash Snakes

By Neal Stephenson


It turns out that serpents make an appearance in Snow Crash—not in action much, thank goodness, that'd be pretty over the top for our heroes to deal with—but more as symbols. Both Asherah and Eve are connected with snakes, or "ophidian" (30.49), to use the Librarian's fancier term.

Asherah's snakey connotation apparently goes back to her name, which "'in Ugaritic, […] means 'she who treads on (the) sea (dragon)''" (33.80). It's a little funky that Asherah is both associated with serpents and has defeated a dragon (representing primordial chaos), but hey, myths don't always make perfect sense.

Snakes also have some connection to language. While discussing the universal aspects of language, the Librarian uses the following analogy:

"Try to draw up the creature from the depths of the sea, and it will disintegrate or change form grotesquely." (36.48)

This is a little convoluted, so stay with us. The Librarian continues by saying:

"The universalists place the active nodes of linguistic life—the deep structures—so deep as to defy observation and description." (36.48)

In other words, these parts of the brain aren't just hard to understand, they're nearly impossible to both observe and describe. And in this way, the linguistic structures deep within our brains are like serpents, so deeply embedded that to try to bring them out in the open risks disfiguring them. It is, in other words, very high stakes.

The linguistic structures in our brains are also difficult to understand, just like snakes are to humans. If you're an upright bipedal, it's hard to grasp why and how a snake moves the way it does, right? And similarly, when we're used to using language to consciously communicate, it's weird to think about how there are language parts of our brain that we can't consciously observe or communicate about. It's pretty much impossible to conceive of, even though we're using the very mechanism—our brains—that contain these parts.

The moral of the story is this: Watch out for snake associations in this book, because they probably indicate that something deeper is going on. And remember: It's the serpent in the Bible who convinces Eve to try the apple, tempting her with the god-like ability to decipher good from evil. So go ahead and dig deep into the snake imagery as you read—we're sure the serpents would want you to, and you'll gain some key insights in the process.