The myth of the crocodile slithers between the unconscious and the contradictions of the human soul: a real creature of intrigue and mystery…

Making their first appearance 90 million years ago, crocodiles belong to that group of reptiles whose physical features have remained virtually unchanged over the ages. This means that more than an animal, the crocodile is actually a living fossil. A crocodile can easily reach 7 metres in length and his diet largely consists of fish and small vertebrates but once he have reached adult size he can attack bovines or even humans (though only when seriously provoked). These reptiles can also tolerate long periods of fasting and can even survive six months of complete abstinence from food.

Lindsay Baker, NiteOwl Tattoo, Northampton, USA
Lindsay Baker, NiteOwl Tattoo, Northampton, USA

A single creature, two universes

Symbolically speaking, the crocodile is a creature suspended between two realms, seeing that it divides its whole life between water and land and thus becomes the absolute paradigm of existential contradictions. A crocodile (especially if female) can serve as the perfect metaphor for fertility as well as for sudden destruction.

The Sobek cult

This dualistic vision originated in Ancient Egypt where there was a thriving cult of Sobek, the son of the goddess Neith and considered “lord of the waters and fertility”. He was represented as a man with the head of a crocodile wearing a uraeus (the famous Egyptian headgear in the form of a snake) and holding an ankh (the key of life) tightly in his hand. Historians note how Sobek was venerated both for his benevolent qualities (when the Nile burst its banks it irrigated the surrounding fields generating new life), but also as a fierce punisher and primary cause of the prolonged periods of famine.

A primordial monster?

For some peoples, the crocodile also represents the passage from this world to the next, and in Cambodia a flag bearing its image is used during funerals. In the Aztec horoscope, the crocodile is seen as the first element and symbol of the beginning of life: anybody born under its sign is considered to be lucky, destined for a prosperous life. The Maya, on the other hand, see it as a symbol of “plenty” and the animal that represents the four cardinal points. In Mexico, the crocodile, like the toad, is symbolic of the Earth. Some scholars have drawn parallels between the crocodile and the dragon in the Middle Ages, seeing both as primordial monsters who can suddenly erupt into primitive chaos.

Miryam Lumpini, On The Road, Los Angeles, USA
Miryam Lumpini, On The Road, Los Angeles, USA

Suspended between morality and vice

Other schools of thought see crocodiles as synonymous with the devil or Leviathan, the huge sea creature mentioned in the Old Testament and described as the most bitter foe of God. There is also many an ignoble description of the crocodile in Medieval Bestiaries which associate it with the figure of the “hypocrite, miser and libertine”. Which makes perfect sense seeing as how the crocodile lurking in the muddy water at night is like the man who strays from Good and wallows in corruption and vice.

The meaning of his “tears”

This negative judgment (of a clearly moralistic bent) is what is behind the famous expression about shedding “crocodile tears”, used to describe someone who repents a little late in the day after knowingly committing some terrible deed. Some linguists claim that the expression has a purely scientific origin linked to the awful habit of the female of carrying their eggs in their mouths with the risk of breaking them and even swallowing them in an involuntary act of cannibalism. At the same time, these animals are prone to frequent lachrymation of the eyelid which requires constant lubrification so that they can see in poor light.

Noa Yannì, Noaink, Montecatini Terme, Italy
Noa Yannì, Noaink, Montecatini Terme, Italy

“Crocodile”, aka the last journalistic farewell

This negativity associated with the animal means that in journalistic circles, a “crocodile” means an obituary written in advance especially for prominent figures in politics, entertainment and sport. The “crocodiles” for one celebrity or the other are prepared weeks if not months in advance.