The faery goddess who takes serpent or
half-serpent form is found around Europe.
Her best-known incarnation is Mélusine,
whose fame spread from France to Russia.
The cluster of snakes on the travertine
behind the goddess
are engaged in creating a serpent's stone.
The Roman writer Pliny described how snakes were able
to manifest such a stone by blowing their breath in unison
until the vitality congealed into an amulet of magical virtue.
Celtic tradition also valued "snake stones," used by folk
Medieval Italians remembered the prophetic sibyls
of ancient Cumae, in the bay of Napoli.
Legend said that the last sibyl took refuge in a mountain
in the Appenines, and turned her into a pagan goddess.
Sibillia lived in a subterranean paradise of caverns
full of marvels and treasures. There the immortal Sibillia
and her faery women regularly assumed serpent form.
They taught the arts of magic.
Seekers entered this magical world through a grotto
with a magical spring-fed lake. Sibillia blessed those
who visited her mountain, and when they returned
to the world they passed the rest of their days in joy.
It was said that whoever stayed longer than a year
could no longer leave, but remained deathless
and ageless, feasting in abundance, revelry,
and amorous delights.
The story of Tannhauser belongs to this mythic complex.
He entered the caverns of the Venusberg, disporting himself
until overcome by fear of damnation for remaining in this pagan
world , and he left to seek absolution from the pope.
But the pontiff angrily refused, holding up a withered branch
and saying that it would have to sprout leaves and bloom
before he pardoned Tannhauser. In some versions he
brandishes the papal rod, itself a sterile branch. So Tannhauser
returned to the Venusberg despairing of his salvation.
Afterwards, the wand miraculously burst into flower.
The pope relented and sent out messengers to grant
but Tannhauser had vanished into the Venusberg forever.
See The Serpent in the Mound
for more on medieval pagan goddesses: