[One of the most important traditions about sea serpents killing people is the story of Laocoon and his sons during the Trojan War-DD.]
HistoryLaocoön is a Trojan priest of Poseidon (or Neptune), whose rules he had defied, either by marrying and having sons, or by having committed an impiety by making love with his wife in the presence of a cult image in a sanctuary. His minor role in the Epic Cycle narrating the Trojan War was of warning the Trojans in vain against accepting the Trojan Horse from the Greeks—"A deadly fraud is this," he said, "devised by the Achaean chiefs!"—and his subsequent divine execution by two serpents sent to Troy across the sea from the island of Tenedos, where the Greeks had temporarily camped.
Laocoön warned his fellow Trojans against the wooden horse presented to the city by the Greeks. In the Aeneid, Virgil gives Laocoön the famous line "Equō nē crēdite, Teucrī / Quidquid id est, timeō Danaōs et dōna ferentīs", or "Do not trust the Horse, Trojans / Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even bearing gifts." This line is the source of the saying: "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts."
According to Apollodorus, it was Apollo who sent the two sea serpents. Laocoön had insulted Apollo by sleeping with his wife in front of the "divine image".
Virgil employed the motif in the Aeneid. The Trojans, according to Virgil, disregarded Laocoön's advice and were taken in by the deceitful testimony of Sinon; in his resulting anger, Laocoön threw his spear at the Horse. Minerva, who was supporting the Greeks, at this moment sent sea-serpents to strangle Laocoön and his two sons, Antiphantes and Thymbraeus. "Laocoön, ostensibly sacrificing a bull to Neptune on behalf of the city (lines 201ff.), becomes himself the tragic victim, as the simile (lines 223–24) makes clear. In some sense, his death must be symbolic of the city as a whole," S. V. Tracy notes. According to the Hellenistic poet Euphorion of Chalcis, Laocoön is in fact punished for procreating upon holy ground sacred to Poseidon; only unlucky timing caused the Trojans to misinterpret his death as punishment for striking the Horse, which they bring into the city with disastrous consequences. The episode furnished the subject of Sophocles' lost tragedy, Laocoön.
In Aeneid, Virgil describes the circumstances of Laocoön's death:
The marble Laocoön provided the central image for Lessing's Laocoön, 1766, an aesthetic polemic directed against Winckelmann and the comte de Caylus. Daniel Albright reengages the role of the figure of Laocoön in aesthetic thought in his book Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Literature, Music, and Other Arts. [cite El Greco painting]
In addition to other literary references, John Barth employs a bust of Laocoön in his novella, The End of the Road. The R.E.M. song "Laughing" references Laocoön, rendering him female ("Laocoön and her two sons"). The marble's pose is parodied in the comic book Asterix and the Laurel Wreath. American author Joyce Carol Oates also references Laocoön in her 1989 novel American Appetites. In Stave V of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens (1843), Scrooge awakes on Christmas morning, "making a perfect Laocoon of himself with his stockings". Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly begins with an extensive analysis of the Laocoön story.
In Hector Berlioz opera Les Troyens, the death of Laocoon is a pivotal moment of the first act after Aeneas entrance, sung by eight singers and a double choir ("ottetto et double chœur"). It begins with the verse "Châtiment effroyable" ("frightful punishment").