Because of the serpent’s relation to wisdom, it is said that this was traditionally the favourite legend of the Mayor of Rostock.
The bronze serpent by the northernmost double entrance pillars of the city hall front building, in the Neuer Markt, still maintains the secret to its origin. Right at the heart of the city, however, it ‘lives’ an inconspicuous life.
The way serpents shed their skins all year round is a symbol of immortality. This animal in Rostock has already been through several ‘skinnings’ and rejuvenation treatments, The Baroque-style front building of the town hall was built in 1727/29. However, the first oral tales of the serpent only date back to the beginning of the 19th century. It is safe to say that the reptile is over 130 years old, as local historian and city archivist, Ludwig Krause (1863-1924) drew it in 1882. At the time, the limestone serpent was coiled completely around one pillar.
In 1927, the town hall facade was painted and the serpent, very poorly preserved at the time, was laid between the two pillars in a tubular shape made of cement. It has retained its original length of 1.3 metres. It lived through bomb attacks on Rostock, as the town hall was largely undisturbed (maybe because of the serpent), with the exception of the late Gothic council chamber, while most of the surrounding buildings were reduced to soot and ashes.
By 1989, the appearance of the concrete animal had changed for the worse. As the reptile had also been referred to as an eel, people did not attach much importance to advertising this type of fish, which was rare at the time. Since December 1993, it was determined that it was a snake (maybe a viper?) - made for the first time from weather-resistant bronze, but it soon lost its split tongue again. In 1997, the serpent was torn from its base and forgotten about (but found years later). The ‘Rostocker Volks und Raiffeisenbank’ bank paid for a new one in 1998. The person behind the idea and the project manager was Dr Hartmut Schmied. Sculptor Erhard John created a novelty mythical creature: a serpent with the tail of an eel, thereby uniting the two legends. The tongue of the bronze animal is also in the shape of a number 5, in Roman numerals -
it is already the fifth-generation serpent (at least) to grace the town hall. The new serpent was formally given the name Johannes in 1998 on the birthday of the city, the 24th June (the feast day of St John, ‘Johannes’ in German). Stroking its head is supposed to bring good luck.
Eel or serpent? This is the debate that has raged over and over again, in light of the most desolate conditions it has been kept in. Legend has it was used as an eel measure for smoked eel merchants who had stands near the pillars in the Neuer Markt. Another explanation links this eel with a supposed flood in 1841. An eel was left hanging between the pillars once the waters receded. However, the marketplace is 16 metres above the normal level of the Warnow River, so there would have been written sources mentioning such a flood.
The cobblestone with the year 1841 engraved on it (new paving of the market) originally lay between the two southernmost pillars of the town hall’s front building and was the reason for another pleasant yet unproven theory. In this year, the old fountain display on the Neuer Markt was demolished and the cast iron fountain was installed. During this process, there could well have been a flooding; the eel merchants and their ‘protégés’ would have been driven into a frenzy and the eels would have swum up to the town hall. The stone from 1841 now lies at ground level directly underneath the serpent.
Much more interesting is the possibility that the ‘eel serpent’ could have been a landmark for travelling craftsmen. Those who really had passed through Rostock on their travels would certainly have seen this serpent and would have been able to describe it. The idea of a household spirit in the form of a snake, as in Mecklenburg legends, cannot be excluded, as the serpent has been attributed in verse to a lot of good, and the city was always in need of good luck. As the council’s wine vault is behind the pillars, the idea exists of a ‘snake in brandy’ being used as a superstitious remedy for drunkenness, but this can be excluded; it would have been nothing more than self-mockery.
Dr J. Becker favours the idea of the serpent as a symbol of wisdom. It is possible that Zacharias Voigt, the architect responsible for the Baroque front building of the town hall, placed it there after its construction. With this new construction, the old ‘Jesus as the Judge of the earth’ painting (from around 1300) was concealed by the new ‘Justitia’ picture (oil, around 1750) next to the entrance to the council’s cellar. Therefore, the councilmen had to hold their meetings between the watchful and wise serpent and the admonishing Justitia.
However, most architects were also clever people and they knew how long building material would last and where symbols were best placed. It is highly likely that the ‘limestone mass’, described for the first time in the 19th century, was mounted quickly and simply. It is presumable that
the animal never was in a condition that could be well preserved. It is possible that folklorists, art historians and historians have been following the wrong paths for decades. However, the challenge has been set to find the ‘culprit’ before the city’s 800th birthday in 2018.
A good viewing spot would be Rostock Town Hall at the Neuer Markt, the front building of the town hall, the middle entrance between the pillars underneath the gryphon, to the left of the northern double pillars, at their base.
Image: 1:1 image of the town hall’s serpent by sculptor Erhard John from 1998
Text, photo: Dr. Hartmut Schmied, www.hartmutschmied.com
Further fables and legends about Rostock and the area can be found in: Hartmut Schmied, Geister, Götter, Teufelssteine (Ghosts, Gods, Devil’s Stones). Sagen und Legendenführer MecklenburgVorpommern (Fable and Legend Guide Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania), Hinstorff Verlag, Rostock 2011 (sold at the tourist information desk) and at www.cryptoneum.de (CRYPTONEUM Legend Museum Rostock)