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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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a venomous serpent, more usually called the viper. In our translation of the Bible we find the word adder five times; but without sufficient authority from the original.

שפיפון , in Genesis 49:17 , is probably the cerastes; a serpent of the viper kind, of a light brown colour, which lurks in the sand and the tracks of wheels in the road, and unexpectedly bites not only the unwary traveller, but the legs of horses and other beasts. By comparing the Danites to this artful reptile, the patriarch intimated that by stratagem, more than by open bravery, they should avenge themselves of their enemies and extend their conquests.—פתן , in Psalms 58:4; Psalms 91:13 , signifies an asp. We may perhaps trace to this the Python of the Greeks, and its derivatives. ( See ASP .)—עכשוב , found only in Psalms 140:3 , is derived from a verb which signifies to bend back on itself. The Chaldee Paraphrasts render it עכביש , which we translate elsewhere, spider: they may therefore have understood it to have been the tarantula. It is rendered asp by the Septuagint and Vul gate, and is so taken, Romans 3:13 . The name is from the Arabic achasa. But there are several serpents which coil themselves previously to darting on their enemy; if this be a character of the asp, it is not peculiar to that reptile צפע , or צפעני , Proverbs 23:32; Isaiah 11:8; Isaiah 14:29; Isaiah 59:5; and Jeremiah 8:17 , is that deadly serpent called the basilisk, said to kill with its very breath. See COCKATRICE .

In Psalms 58:5 , reference is made to the effect of musical sounds upon serpents. That they might be rendered tame and harmless by certain charms, or soft and sweet sounds, and trained to delight in music, was an opinion which prevailed very early and universally.

Many ancient authors mention this effect; Virgil speaks of it particularly, AEn. vii, v. 750.

Quin et Marrubia venit de gente sacerdos, Fronde super galeam et felici comptus oliva, Archippi regis missu fortissimus Umbro; Vipereo generi, et graviter spirantibus hydris

Spargere qui somnos cantuque manuque solebat, Mulcebatque tras, et morsus arte levabat.

"Umbro, the brave Marrubian priest, was there, Sent by the Marsian monarch to the war.

The smiling olive with her verdant boughs Shades his bright helmet and adorns his brows; His charms in peace the furious serpent keep; And lull the envenom'd viper's race to sleep: His healing hand allay'd the raging pain,

And at his touch the poisons fled again." — Pitt.

Mr. Boyle quotes the following passage from Sir H. Blunt's Voyage into the Levant:—

"Many rarities of living creatures I saw in Grand Cairo; but the most ingenious was a nest of serpents, of two feet long, black and ugly, kept by a Frenchman, who, when he came to handle them, would not endure him, but ran and hid in their hole. Then he would

take his cittern and play upon it. They, hearing his music, came all crawling to his feet, and began to climb up him, till he gave over playing, then away they ran."

The wonderful effect which music produces on the serpent tribes, is confirmed by the testimony of several respectable moderns. Adders swell at the sound of a flute, raising themselves up on the one half of their body, turning themselves round, beating proper time, and following the instrument. Their head, naturally round and long like an eel, becomes broad and flat like a fan. The tame serpents, many of which the orientals keep in their houses, are known to leave their holes in hot weather, at the sound of a musical instrument, and run upon the performer. Dr. Shaw had an opportunity of seeing a number of serpents keep exact time with the Dervishes in their circulatory dances, running over their heads and arms, turning when they turned, and stopping when they stopped. The rattlesnake acknowledges the power of music as much as any of his family; of which the following instance is a decisive proof: When Chateaubriand was in Canada, a snake of that species entered their encampment; a young Canadian, one of the party, who could play on the flute, to divert his associates, advanced against the serpent with his new species of weapon: on the approach of his enemy, the haughty reptile curled himself into a spiral line, flattened his head, inflated his cheeks, contracted his lips, displayed his envenomed fangs, and his bloody throat; his double tongue glowed like two flames of fire; his eyes were burning coals; his body, swollen with rage, rose and fell like the bellows of a forge; his dilated skin assumed a dull and scaly appearance; and his tail, which sounded the denunciation of death, vibrated with so great rapidity as to resemble a light vapour. The Canadian now began to play upon his flute, the serpent started with surprise, and drew back his head. In proportion as he was struck with the magic effect, his eyes lost their fierceness, the oscillations of his tail became slower, and the sound which it emitted became weaker, and gradually died away. Less perpendicular upon their spiral line, the rings of the fascinated serpent were by degrees expanded, and sunk one after another upon the ground, in concentric circles. The shades of azure, green, white, and gold, recovered their brilliancy on his quivering skin, and slightly turning his head, he remained motionless, in the attitude of attention and pleasure. At this moment, the Canadian advanced a few steps, producing with his flute sweet and simple notes. The reptile, inclining his variegated neck, opened a passage with his head through the high grass, and began to creep after the musician, stopping when he stopped, and beginning to follow him again, as soon as he moved forward. In this manner he was led out of their camp, attended by a great number of spectators, both savages and Europeans, who could scarcely believe their eyes, when they beheld this wonderful effect of harmony. The assembly unanimously decreed, that the serpent which had so highly entertained them, should be permitted to escape. Many of them are carried in baskets through Hindostan, and procure a maintenance for a set of people who play a few simple notes on the flute, with which the snakes seem much delighted, and keep time by a graceful motion of the head, erecting about half their length from the ground, and following the music with gentle curves, like the undulating lines of a swan's neck.

But on some serpents, these charms seem to have no power; and it appears from Scripture, that the adder sometimes takes precautions to prevent the fascination which he sees preparing for him: "for the deaf adder shutteth her ear, and will not hear the voice of the most skilful charmer." The threatening of the Prophet Jeremiah proceeds upon the same fact: "I will send serpents" (cockatrices) "among you, which will not be charmed, and they shall bite you." In all these quotations, the sacred writers, while they take it for granted that many serpents are disarmed by charming, plainly admit that the powers of the charmer are in vain exerted upon others.

It is the opinion of some interpreters, that the word שחל , which in some parts of Scripture denotes a lion, in others means an adder, or some other kind of serpent. Thus, in the ninety-first Psalm, they render it the basilisk: "Thou shalt tread upon the adder and the basilisk, the young lion and the dragon thou shalt trample under foot." Indeed, all the ancient expositors agree, that some species of serpent is meant, although they cannot determine what particular serpent the sacred writer had in view. The learned Bochart thinks it extremely probable that the holy Psalmist in this verse treats of serpents only; and, by consequence, that both the terms שחל , and בפיר mean some kind of snakes, as well as פתן and תנין ; because the coherence of the verse is by this view better preserved, than by mingling lions and serpents together, as our translators and other interpreters have commonly done; nor is it easy to imagine what can be meant by treading upon the lion, and trampling the young lion under foot; for it is not possible in walking to tread upon the lion, as upon the adder, the basilisk, and other serpents.


to bind by oath, as under the penalty of a fearful curse, Joshua 6:26; Mark 5:7 . 2. To charge solemnly, as by the authority, and under pain, of the displeasure of God, Matthew 26:63; Acts 19:13 .

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Adder'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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