Cassiodorus’ Serpent Devouring Deer

Cassiodorus’ Exposition on the Psalms was very well read by the Venerable Bede and his contemporaries. While doing some background reading on Bede’s abbreviation of Vulgate psalm 41, I came across Cassiodorus’ description of deer and their symbolic importance. The stag entry from The Medieval Bestiary, mentions the odd idea that deer eat snakes, but give different symbolic meanings.

Cassiodorus comments:

“2. As the hart panteth after the fountains of water, so my soul panteth after thee, O God. … Man is seen to be compared with a hind… It attracts snakes with its notstrils; when it has devoured them, the seething poison impels it to hasten with all speed to the water-fountain, for it loves to get its fill of the purest sweet water. The beautiful comparison with this animal fires our desire with longing, so that when we imbibe the poisons of the ancient serpent, and we are feverish through his torches, we may there and then hasten to the fount of divine mercy. Thus the sickness contracted by the venom of sin is overcome by the purity of this most sweet drink. The use of the phrase, fountains of water, in preference to “waters” is not idle, for Christ the Lord is the Fount of water from which flows all that refreshes us. Flowing water can often dry up, but a fountain of water always irrigates. So we are rightly told to hasten to the waters of the sacred spring, where our longing could never experience thirst. (psalm 41:2, p. 416)

And on psalm 17:

34. Who hath made by feet like the feet of a hart, and who setteth me upon high places. In the divine Scriptures this animal is often introduced in good sense, as in the passage: As the hart pants after fountains of water. It is cited there because of its excessive thirst, but here because of the speed of its running. Harts can leap over briars and jump over hazardous chasms, just as the Lord passed over sins of the world which afflict man’s salvation, and over the deepest pits of sin with His holy steps. Not too how this passage continues with the comparison with harts, for when they shun the plains they climb the mountain-heights. He means that He is set above every rank of creature; as Paul says: And God has given him a name which is above all names: that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth and under the earth. (psalm 17:34, p. 189)

On psalm 28:9:

9. The voice of the Lord prepareth the stags; and he will expose the thick woods: and in his temple shall speak his glory. He speaks of the seventh Spirit, the Spirit of fear of the Lord. Stags are timorous, it is true, but they imbibe poisonous draughts. They are rightly compared with those who both fear the divinity and swallow down all that is opposed to Him. They cannot be deceived or harmed by those known to oppose the Church of God with gall-steeped dispute. (p. 281)

Walsh, PG. trans. (1990) Cassiodorus: Explanation of the Psalms. Vol 1 Psalms 1-50. Paulist Press.

The only link here to Bede’s abbreviation of psalm 41 is Cassiodorus’ comment that fountains of water irrigate while flowing water can dry up. Yet, Bede’s abbreviation voices preparation , but also waiting, for irrigation with the waters.


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