Myths-Dreams-Symbols

Snake

     

Latin name

various

Polarity

Yin

Families

Boas, Pythons, Viperidae, Colubridae, Elapidae, Crotalidae

Element

Rune

Earth

Ior

Order

Sub-order

Squamata

Ophidia

Planet

Constellations

Mercury

Draco, Hydra

Etymology

from Old English snaca, cognate with Middle Low German snake, from Old Norse snákr, snókr

Deities

Mercury, Cernunnos, Aesculapius, Hygiea, Sophia, Minerva, Demeter, Zeus, Ammon, Apollo, Eileithyia, Tiamat, Ishtar, Astarte, Ningishzida, Quetzalcoatl, Coatlicue

 

Folklore

It was once believed that if snakes were attacked they would swallow their young and not let them go until they reached a safe place.  It was also believed that snakes could restore life to the dead or incarnate the soul of an ancestor.  People kept snakes as pets in Greece, Rome and Crete as guardians and bringers of fertility and healing.  It was also believed in ancient Greece that if a serpent licked your ears you would obtain the gift of prophecy.  Cassandra and Helenus were said to be so gifted, because serpents licked their ears whilst asleep in the temple of Apollo.  Snakes were also believed to be androgynous, and so represent self-creating deities and the generative power of the earth.  It lives in holes in the ground and disappears into cracks in the ground, and hence are associated with the underworld.  Being reptiles, they seem sinuous and mysterious, and as cold-blooded animals, they seem remote from human emotion.  Snakes were associated with fertility, and it was anciently believed that snakes could have intercourse with women and make them pregnant.  In some places it was believed that a snake's bite caused girls' first menstruation, and that women were more likely to have intercourse with serpents when menstruating.  For thi reason women were not allowed to go to springs or into the bush during menstruation in case they became pregnant by the snake.  (In other places the same legend is associated with fish.)  If a spring is inhabited by a sacred snake, women may go there on purpose to become pregnant.   

In the Punjab, the Mirasan people carried a snake made of dough from house to house at the end of August, and people made offerings of corn or dough to it.  When all the houses had been visited, the dough snake was buried, and a small grave was erected over it.  During the nine-day festival in September, the women would go to the grave to worship and make offerings of curds to the snake.  What ws left over would be taken home and given to their children.  In areas where there were a lot of real snakes, the curds  would be carried into the forest and left there for the snakes.  A member of the Mirasan tribe would not kill a snake, and its bite could not hurt them.  If they found a dead snake, they would dress it and give it a full funeral. 

The snake is associated with the Moon because of its ability to change or renew its skin, which is similar to the Moon's waxing and waning.  Both the Moon and the snake are associated with immortality, and the legendary soma drink (which bestows immortality) is brewed from the Moon tree.  The knowledge of it is given by the serpent which lives in the tree.    

In a Chinese folktale, White Snake (bai she) turns herself into a beautiful young woman, falls in love with a young man, and makes him rich.  A Buddhist monk persuades him that she is evil, and despite the fact that she is now carrying his child, they confine her to a pagoda.  Eventually the son grows up to be a celebrated scholar, and returns to visit and honour his snake-mother. 

In an old folk remedy, it was customary to wrap a snakeskin around the head as a cure for a headache.  Folklore also held that the snake had a jewel in its head. 

Mythology 

According to Greek myth, Hermes made the caduceus by using his staff to separate two serpents that were fighting, so it symbolises peace.  The two serpents also represent healing and poison, health and illness, binding and loosing, good and evil, fire and water, ascent and descent.  Together, they represent equilibrium, wisdom, and fertility.  In Alchemy, they are the masculine sulphur and the feminine quicksilver.  They represent the powers of transformation, sleeping and waking, the dissolution and coagulation processes within the Great Work, the synthesis of opposites, and mediation between the upper and lower realms. 

The caduceus also corresponds to the Kabbalistic Tree of Life (Ets Chaim), since the winged sun at the top can represent the Ain Soph, the left-hand snake is the Pillar of Severity, the staff is the Pillar of Clemency, and the right-hand snake is the Pillar of Mercy.  Each of their coils about the staff delineates one of the Four Worlds (Aziluth, the World of Emanation; Beriah, the World of Creation; Yezirah, the World of Formation; and Asiyyah, the World of Action). 

In Alchemy, the serpent was regarded as the embodiment of Fire: 

    "The body of the Serpent tells you it is a fierie substance, for a Serpent is full of heat and fire, which made the Egyptians esteem him divine: this appears by his quick motion without feet or finns, much like that of the Pulse, for his impetuous hot spirit shoots him on like a Squid.  There is also another Analogie, for the Serpent receives his youth, so strong is his natural heat, and casts off his old skin.  Truly the matter is a very Serpent, for she renews herself in a thousand ways." 

           (from "Magia Adamica" by Thomas Vaughan) 

The serpent on a staff is the fixation of quicksilver, the sublimation of the vital force.  A serpent passing through a circle is the alchemical fusion. 

The Greeks and Romans regarded the serpent as a guardian spirit, and it was often depicted as such on their altars.  At Athens, in the temple of Athena, they kept a serpent believed to be the reincarnation of Erichthonius in a cage, and it was called the guardian spirit of the temple.  According to legend, Alexander the Great was fathered upon Olympia by Jupiter Ammon in the form of a snake.  Snakes were also sacred to Demeter, with corn and poppies, because they were associated with initiation, and probably appeared in the Eleusinian Mysteries, possibly as part of a ritual of mystical union.  The temple at Eleusis had a snake called Kychreus.  They were also associated with saviour deities in the mystery religions (such as Orpheus).  Demeter placed snakes at the river Styx after Poseidon had tricked her into mating with him in the form of a horse (she was a mare at the time); this may be symbolic of a distinction between fresh water and the salt sea, sacred to Poseidon.  The snake was sacred to Zeus Cthonios.  The python at Delphi was sacred to Apollo after he slew it; it was originally the attribute of the Earth Goddess.  The shrine of Apollo at Spireus had a sacred snake which was tended by a naked virgin.  The Pelasgians said that they were descended from the cosmic serpent Ophion and the goddess Eurynome (one of the Oceanids).  The chimaera (see mythical animals) had a serpent's tail.  Its mother was Echidne, a winter snake-goddess, and its father was Typhon, the storm-god.  Typhon himself was a snake-headed giant.  He was the god of storms, created by Hera in her rage at Athene being born from Zeus' forehead.  He lived in a cave on Mount Parnassus.  He was identified with Set when the Hyksos invaders colonised Egypt around 1320-1200 bce.  He is sometimes confused with Typhœus, the son of Gaea and Uranus, whose lower body consisted of coiled serpents.  Snakes were often the personification of river deities, such as the River Acheloüs, which was a bull-headed snake, or capable of changing shape, first into a bull and then into a snake.  Heracles wrestled with the snake, then it transformed itself into a bull, and he tore off one of its horns, which the nymphs threw into the river, where it became the Cornucopia (horn of plenty).  Acheloüs was the son of Oceanus and Thetis and the brother of Nilus, according to Hesiod's Theogony. The Gorgons were the three daughters of Phorcys and his sister Ceto; they were winged monsters with serpents for hair.  Euryale and Stheno were immortal, but Medusa was mortal, and was killed by Perseus.  The winged horse, Pegasus, was born from her death-throes, though in some legends he was the result of her union with Poseidon.  Medusa's head was then fixed to Athena's shield (which she had lent to Perseus), and he went on to kill the sea-serpent to which Andromeda was to be sacrificed.  (The story is depicted in Edward Burne-Jones' Perseus Series, of which there are two versions, one in Southampton and one in Stuttgart.)  According to one story, Medusa's hair was turned to serpents by Athene because she dared to claim equal beauty with her.  Another Greek legend is that of Cadmus and Harmonia.  Cadmus was sent by his father to look for his sister, who had been abducted by Zeus.  On his journey, Cadmus stopped to make a libation to Zeus, and sent his companions in search of fresh water.  Whilst drawing water from a spring in "an ancient forest which no axe had ever touched, and in the heart of it a cave, overgrownwith branches and osiers", they disturbed the serpent of Mars, "a creature with a wonderful golden crest" whose eyes flashed with fire and whose body was full of poison, and it slew them all.  When Cadmus went in search of them, he encountered the snake and slew it too.  Then Pallas appeared to him and told him to sow its teeth in the earth.  He did so, and warriors came fully formed from the earth.  Many of them slew each other, but Pallas prevailed upon the last five to stop, and with these, Cadmus founded the city of Thebes, where he was married to Harmonia, the daughter of Mars and Venus.  After a while they left Thebes and went to Illyria, where they became King and Queen, and were eventually turned into great serpents.  The probable meaning of this is that they became identified with Illyrian snake deities.  In Libya, they honoured the goddess Lamia, and she had a cult with orgiastic priestesses.  In later Greek legend, she became a queen of Libya who was loved by Zeus and had her offspring taken away by Hera, who was jealous.  In medieval legend, she became the Lamiae, beautiful demonesses who seduced and vampirised travellers and devoured children.  Women with serpent hair (the Gorgons and the Erinnyes) represent powers of magic and sorcery.  The underworld goddess Hecate was sometimes depicted with the the head of a snake or with snakes in her hair.  In the legend of Jason, the people of Colchis gave him serpents' teeth to sow in the earth, which sprang up and grew into fierce warriors, but Jason threw a stone amongst them, whereupon they all turned on each other and killed one another.  The snake was also a phallic symbol, and was therefore associated with ithyphallic deities such as Priapus, Pan and Pallas in the temples of lunar goddesses.  Pan was worshipped in the temples of Selene, and Pallas and Priapus were worshipped in the temple of Vesta, the Roman hearth goddess.  The priestesses of the Moon goddess were sometimes virgins, and sometimes offered their sexuality to the goddess in the Sacred Marriage (hieros gamos).  Snakes were also kept in the temple of the Moon goddess. 

For the Romans, snakes were associated with saviour divinities and deities of fertility and healing.  They are also an attribute of Minerva as goddess of wisdom.  The serpent was an attribute of Hercules, so the Romans identified him with a number of Celtic deities whose attributes were also serpents. 

In Scandinavian mythology, the World Serpent, Jörmungand, coils about the rim of Midgard, containing the ocean.  The god Loki was the father of the Midgard Serpent, the Fenris Wolf, and the goddess Hel.  For causing Balder's death, Loki was bound to a rock with a snake dripping venom above him, but his wife Sigyn sits beside him catching the drips in a bowl.  The Dread Biter, Niðhögg, lives at the foot of the World Tree, gnawing at its root. 

The Celts connected the serpent with the healing waters and the Goddess Brighid.  The horned or ram-headed serpent is connected with the Horned God, and he is depicted holding a ram-headed serpent on the Gundestrup cauldron.  A relief from Meigle in Perthshire, Scotland, shows a bull-horned god with serpentine legs, who is accompanied by a bear and either a wolf or an otter.  A relief found at Cirencester also depicts an antlered god with his legs as serpents which rear up beside him and end in a ram's head either side of his face.  This may be a Roman or Belgic import, but could equally well have orginated with the Dobunni (the full Roman name of Cirencester was Corinium Dobunnorum).  There are several altars with boars and serpents carved on them dedicated to Vitiris, a northern Celtic deity, whose name may mean 'the Mighty One'.  It is possible that the warrior god and the horned god were conceived of as two separate beings, but they are both associated with serpents.  The goddess of the River Wharfe, Verbeia, may have been associated with snakes, as there is a relief of a goddess holding two snakes which has been identified with her.  In any case, many aquatic cults incorporated the veneration of serpents.  Borvo, the god of healing springs, is shown with a horned serpent rearing up at him.  In the Mabinogion, in the story of the Lady of the Fountain, Owein witnesses a battle between a snake and a white lion.  He kills the snake but takes the lion with him as a hunting companion.  The Gaulish goddess Rosmerta was sometimes depicted with a caduceus, as she was the consort of Mercury in the synthesis of Roman and Celtic pantheons, especially in eastern Gaul.  Epona was sometimes depicted with what appears to be a snake.  A relief from Mavilly in France shows a snake coiling round an altar; on the other side is a goddess with two snakes in her left hand.  Similarly, an altar found at Lypiatt Park in Gloucestershire has a snake carved in relief twining around it.  A head wreathed in serpents represents fertility and protection.  Snakes may also be malevolent in Celtic legend.  In the epic of the Dindshenchas, there is a mighty snake which 'would have wasted all the cattle of the indolent hosts of Ireland by its doings', but that it was slain by the god Diancecht (the god of healing).  It made three turns and sought to consume Diancecht, but he slew it.  In the prose Dindshenchas, the warrior MacCecht slays Mechi, the son of the Morrigan (the raven and battle goddess).  Mechi had three hearts with a serpent in each, which MacCecht burnt, scattering the ashes on the River Berba (now the River Barrow).  Conall Cernach is regarded as the ancestor of the royal house of Dàl nAraide.  He was a wandering champion, a warrior, headhunter, and guardian of boundaries.  In the Táin Bó Fraich (Cattle Raid of Fraich) Conall Cernach, the hero of Ulster, attacked a castle guarded by a fearsome serpent, which submitted to him and slithered into his girdle.  It was foretold that Conall Cernach would be able to destroy the fortress, which  he does because his friend Fraech's wife and children are imprisoned within it.  The acquiescence of the guardian serpent suggests that he may have been a deity similar to Cernunnos; the name is certainly similar. 

In Slavonic mythology, the Syen are guardian spirits of the home who can enter the bodies of snakes, dogs, humans, and hens. 

In France, the legendary lady Melusine had the form of a woman with two serpent tails.  She appears in Irish, Scottish and French myth.  In Poitou folklore, she was the wife of Raymond de Lusignan, whom she married on the condition that he never asked where she was on a Saturday, which was the day that she was transformed into a serpent.  He eventually broke this condition, whereupon she grew wings and flew away weeping.  This is a common theme in folklore, where the bride (or in some tales the groom) must retain an element of mystery for the marriage to be successful.  In Basque legend, the husband of the goddess Mari is Sugaar, the serpent.  

In Hinduism, essential spiritual energy is represented as the Kundalini, a white serpent lying coiled at the base of the spine in the muladhara-chakra.  The adjective kundalin means circular, annulate, or coiled; kundalini is a feminine noun meaning serpent.  The Kundalini lies dormant until it is awakened by yogic and/or spiritual practices.  It then begins to ascend through the chakras, integrating the powers associated with each, until it reaches the highest point of awareness.  The Kundalini is the primordial shakti, the sleeping serpent power of the psyche.  Uncoiling the Kundalini serpent is to ascend to a mythical level of awareness, where enlightenment may be achieved.  This process is analogous to the serpent shedding its skin, just as the Moon sheds her shadow.  The Moon represents the light of immortal consciousness manifesting in the realm of space and time, and the kundalini reaching the sahasrara-padma (the crown chakra) is like the Full Moon, when its light is almost as powerful as the Sun's.  The flickering tongue of the serpent shows the light within.   The Kundalini is generally regarded as feminine, and a manifestation of the universal life force. 

    "The goddess is more subtle than the fibre of the lotus...  She uncoils herself and raises Her head, and enters the royal road of the spine, piercing the mystic centres, until She reaches the brain.  These things are not to be understood in a day... you taste Her nectar, and know that She is Life."

                  (a Tantric Yogini, quoted by Yeats-Brown in Bengal Lancer) 

The serpent is also a manifestation of the fire god Agni, who is the fierce serpent; the dark serpent is the potentiality of fire.  Vishnu rides on a cobra as the cosmic ocean, and sleeps on the coiled serpent of the waters.  He is also accompanied by two nagas, with intertwined bodies, which represent the fertilised waters from which the Earth Goddess arises.  Between incarnations he is cradled by the serpent Shesha, a thousand-headed serpent born from his mouth in his incarnation as Balarama, as he lay dying.  The serpent also has a malefic aspect as Kaliya, which was vanquished by Krishna.  He is often depicted dancing on the head of Kaliya.  Another malefic serpent was Ahi, the throttler, a three-headed snake which was killed by Indra.  Vritra, also slain by Indra, was another three-headed snake who imprisons the waters, causing drought, but may release them with his thunderbolt.  The ruler of all snakes is the thousand-headed serpent Ananta, who represents infinity (his name means 'endless') and is coiled about the axis of the world, or floats on the Ocean of Milk, the mother of all life.  Vishnu is sometimes depicted couched upon Ananta, and the serpent's energy gives him the impulse to dream the world into being.  The sleep of Brahma is symbolised by two snakes, one with downward movement which represents the Divine Sleep, and one moving upward which represents the Divine Awakening.  The lingam of Shiva is sometimes carved with a snake twining around it.  The snake is one of the animals that supports the world in Hindu cosmology, along with the elephant, the tortoise, the bull, and the crocodile. 

In Buddhism, the serpent is sometimes associated with the Buddha because he changed into a naga to heal the people.  It is also one of the animals at the centre of the Round of Existence, where it represents anger.   

In China, the serpent is a rain-bringer and a creator, and represents the fertilising power of the waters.  It can also symbolise deceit, cunning, and sycophancy.  It is the sixth animal of the Twelve Terrestrial Branches (the Chinese Zodiac).  The brother and sister Fo-hi and Niu-kua are sometimes depicted as snakes with human heads, representing yin and yang.  Hsuan-T'ien Shang-Ti (Supreme Lord of the Dark Heaven) is the enemy of evil spirits and demons, and the ruler of Water.  He is depicted as a tall barefooted man with loose hair, standing on a turtle surrounded by a snake.  From the period of the Warring States (500-250 bce) under the Chou Dynasty (1027-256 bce) comes a coiled bronze snake of 3½ turns, which closely resembles the sleeping kundalini serpent, which is also depicted as having 3½ turns.  In the province of Guang-xi, there were believed to be snake deomns with human heads.  If one of these called to you, it was best not to answer.   

In Japan, the snake is the personification of Susanoo, the god of thunder and storms. 

The rainbow is associated with the serpent in many cultures.  In French, African, Indian, and indigenous American legends, the rainbow is a serpent which quenches its thirst in the sea.  The African rainbow serpent encircles the Earth, and is a guardian of treasures.  In Australia, the Rainbow Serpent can be male or female, and represents rain, water, and rivers, without which life could not be.  Some areas regard the Rainbow Serpent as male, others as female.  It causes rivers to flow to the sea, and is very important in the training of magicians.  In Arnhem Land, the Rainbow Serpent is said to send a flood to destroy those who offend against the sacred lore.  It is also associated with lightning.  In the rites of the Fertility Mother in Arnhem Land, which take place just before the rainy season, you can hear the sound of the storm blowing through the Rainbow Serpent's horns.  As the dancing and singing begins, it arches up into the sky.  In the Kimberleys, it is associated with childbirth and the birth of spirit children.  It is frequently depicted in Aborigine art.  Some of their names for it are Julunggui, Yurlunggui, or Wonambi.  There are also Rainbow Snake Women, the offspring of the Rainbow Serpent and crocodiles, who entice men to their deaths with sweet songs and honeyed words.  Protection from them may be obtained from red ochre from caves, which represents the Earth Mother's menstrual blood.  In Victoria, there is a goddess called Karakarook, who descended to earth to defend women who were attacked by snakes when they were out digging for yams.  She killed the snakes with a huge stick till it broke, then gave the pieces to the women. 

In Maori mythology, the snake represents earthly wisdom, a worker in the swamp.  In Oceanic mythology, the snake was a creator of the world, and is also associated with pregnancy.  One some islands it is believed that the Cosmic Serpent lives underground and will eventually destroy the world.  In Melanesian myth, the goddess Walutahanga (Eight Fathoms) is a huge guardian serpent, the provider of edible plants.  In Fiji, Ngendei or Ngendel is the supreme god, who holds up the earth, causes earthquakes, and is lord of the dead and the father of comets.  He is portrayed as half-man, half-snake. 

In Algonquin and other forest peoples' mythology, snakes and aquatic creatures are believed to communicate with the powers of the underworld.  In Iroquois and Huron myth, the Big Water Snake devours humanity, but is slain by Hino the Thunder Spirit and his warriors.  The Great Manitou takes the form a serpent with horns when transfixing the Dark Manitou in the form of a toad.  Onnioni is a horned snake god of Huron mythology whose horn could pierce mountains and rocks.  Warriors carried pieces of his horn into battle to give them courage. 

Jeff King was a medicine man of the Navaho (Dineh) people, who died aged about 110 in 1964.  He produced pollen paintings, which he said were derived from a stone carving outside a cave 'on the east slope of a certain mountain'.  The carving (and the paintings) portrayed two intertwined snakes with the heads facing east and west (similar to the Inca carving described below).  The carving was unfortunately destroyed by water. 

Among the Hopi, snakes are regarded as vital messengers.  In the snake dance, they carry prayers.  Before the ceremony, snakes are gathered (regardless of whether they are venomous or not).  They are ceremonially purified with water and smoke (smudging), given cornmeal, and then released below the mesa to carry the people's prayers.  There is no snake katsina (spirit) but there is a snake yom (clan).  It is absolutely forbidden to eat snakes among the Hopi. 

In Aztec mythology, Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, is a god of the air and the Sun.  He was the founder of agriculture, metallurgy, and other arts, associated with the east, fertility, life, the sun, wind, water, rain, thunder and lightning.  He was said to have invented the calendar.  He was particularly associated with the maize plant, which is interesting in that the Navaho (Dineh) sand painting of the ascent of the spirit depicts a pollen path climbing a maize stalk, which is analogous to the ascent of the kundalini up the sushumna.  It is possible that his association with the serpent had a similar significance.  He was driven out of Mexico by a superior deity (who apparently vanquished him by means of alcohol), and set sail in his magic boat for the land of Tlapallan.  He was said to have been tall, pale-skinned, with long flowing hair and a beard.  Hence the arrival of the Spaniards was initially greeted with enthusiasm by the indigenous peoples of Mexico.  Another snake deity was Coatlicue, a woman with a skirt of snakes, who is also an Earth Mother and a lunar goddess.  The snake was also the White God whose black bowels are the clouds from which the rain falls.  A bird of prey dismembering a snake represents the birth of humanity, which was born from the blood of the snake.  In this myth the snake represents the original uniformity of matter, which is differentiated by the coming of light in the form of the solar bird of prey.  An Aztec codex written in the year 15 ce depicts an altar with two intertwined snakes facing in opposite directions.  In Mayan mythology, Ixchel was the lunar goddess of disastrous floods, portrayed with a snake on her head, and Kukulcan (the feathered snake whose path is the waters) gave the calendar to humanity and was the patron of craftsmen; he was later merged with Quetzalcoatl.  In Toltec mythology, the sky is symbolised by the sun god looking out of the jaws of a snake.  The Incas had a deity called Urcaguay, the guardian of underground treasures, who was portrayed as a big snake with a deer's head, with his tail decorated with little gold chains. 

The Araucanian Indians of Chile have a legend that if you sleep in the forest overnight, Pihuechenyi the winged snake will suck your blood. 

In Egyptian mythology, Apep was the snake god, the lord of the powers of darkness.  Every night Apep menaced the boat of the sun god, called the Boat of a Million Years.  The boat was defended by the good serpent Mehen, which lived in the bows of the boat.  The sun can only rise in the morning thanks to powerful spells of Tehuti.  Apep is a manifestation of Set, and hence the enemy of the sun god and of the dead, who cannot return to life unless he is defeated.  He was portrayed as a huge serpent called the Roarer.  He was said to have been slain by Ra at the foot of Nut's sacred sycamore at Heliopolis.  He sometimes attacks the sun god during the day, causing eclipses.  In another myth Apep is defeated and bound by Selkhet, the scorpion goddess, whose husband was Nekhebkau, an underworld snake god with the limbs of a man.  Another underworld dweller was the snake goddess Sati, who preyed on the dead (not to be confused with Satet).  The two serpents either side of the solar disk (as seen in the crown of Horus) represent the two serpent goddesses who banished the enemies of Ra.  Another ally of the sun god was Uraeus, a flame-breathing asp who destroyed Ra's enemies.  Heh, the revealer of wisdom, was a serpent goddess.  The snake goddess Buto manifested as a cobra. She may be the same as the serpent goddess Uto, who was called 'great in magic'.  Rennutet was the snake goddess of the harvest and the ruler of the month of Pharmuthi.   Mafdet, the lynx goddess, was famed as a killer of serpents,  the lynx being a solar creature and the snake watery or cthonic.  In the western desert, the snake god Ash was honoured; he was sometimes depicted with three heads, of a lion, a snake, and a vulture.  The Ogdoad of Hermopolis were the first eight living beings created by Thoth (Tehuti).  The males were frogs and the females were serpents, brought into being by the sound of Tehuti's voice.  In the Graeco-Roman period of Alexandria, the Egyptians honoured Agathodaimon (the good spirit), a serpent god of fortune.   

In African mythology, the snake is a symbol of royalty.  There is a cult of the sacred python, and snakes are associated with fertility, rain, the rainbow, and thunder and lightning.  The snake can be an incarnation of an ancestor and a guardian of treasure.  It is also a culture hero who taught humanity smithcraft and agriculture.  At Benin, one of the gods was a snake god called Danh. 

In Haitian voodoo, the god Simbi is the patron deity of springs, rain, and magicians.  His symbol is a snake.  Ti-Jean Petro may also be a snake god; he is one-footed or footless (see Tiamat below).  His origins are indigenous American rather than African. 

In Sumerian mythology, Tiamat, the footless one, was the serpent of darkness, the great dragon, and the primordial sea.  She was slain by Marduk, and he made the earth from her remains.  The goddess Ishtar was said to be covered with scales like a snakeJoseph Campbell suggests that the Sumerians knew of the mysteries represented by the kundalini and the caduceus.  The libation vase of King Gudea of Lagash (circa 2000 bce) had as its ornamentation a high relief of two cherubim or lion-birds guarding the door of a shrine to the Mesopotamian serpent god Ningishzida manifesting as a pair of copulating vipers entwined around a rod.  Ningishzida was the lord of the Tree of Life.   The whole picture resembles both the caduceus of Greek mythology and the seven chakras on the sushumna.  The serpent was the main emblem of Sabazios, and his priestesses dropped golden serpents through their robes to symbolise the god within their bosom.  The goddess Nidaba had snakes rising from her shoulders.  She was the goddess of writing, education, science and account keeping, as well as a corn goddess.  Writing first occurred in the form of pictographs in the temple of Inanna in Uruk; women were scribes, poets, scholars, and the authors of religious texts.  In Assyro-Babylonian myth, Ea is sometimes divided into Lakhmu and Lakhamu, male and female serpents giving birth to Anshar (the masculine principle or heaven) and Kishar (the feminine principle or earth).  Lakhmu and Lakhamu were the offspring of Tiamat, and helped her in her battle against Marduk.  Lakhmu was the personification of the primeval sediment, and was invoked on the completion of a building.   Tiamat was the goddess of the salt sea, whilst Apsu, her consort, was the fresh waters of the land.  Starhawk, in "Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery" shows how Mesopotamia was originally matrifocal, then gradually became more and more patriarchal with the emergence of warring city states competing for ever smaller areas of fertile land.  During this process, the serpent goddesses of matrifocal antiquity became feared as manifestations of female power and mystery.  An obvious example is the serpent of the Garden of Eden, but there is also the serpent of the forest called Khumbaba, slain by Gilgamesh.  Ishtar is often depicted with a snake, and was viciously insulted by Gilgamesh in the "Epic of Gilgamesh".  At the end of the epic, however, Gilgamesh has finally found the herb which bestows immortality, when it is stolen from him whilst he bathes by a serpent, who thereby gains the power to renew itself by shedding its skin.   

    "Gilgamesh must die.  The snake, however, has always been the symbol of the Goddess...  In the end, all kings must die, but the great energies of life have the power to renew themselves and rise again."

                  (Starhawk, op.cit., p.60) 

The goddess Astarte (originally a Canaanite goddess) is depicted in an Egyptian relief standing on a lion, offering a lotus to the Egyptian god Min and serpents to the Canaanite god Reshef.  Astarte was known to the Egyptians as Qodshu.  Another snake goddess was Kadi, an Assyro-Babylonian deity worshipped at Der; she was portrayed as a snake with human breasts.   The Dying God cults also depicted the god with serpents rising from his shoulders.  In the Ophitic tradition, the Moon Goddess Cybele (whose consort was the dying god Attis) is engraved on their jewels offering a cup to a snake.  In Canaan and Palestine, the serpent entwined upon a pole was worshipped as a god of healing, and also as a representation of the Earth Goddess.  The symbolism of the Ophitic cults (from Greek ophis, a serpent) found its way into Christian tradition.   

    "the persistent ophitic tradition... of Christ in the image of a serpent: not only in illustration of the Savior's words to Nicodemus the Pharisee, likening himself to the serpent of bronze elevated by Moses in the wilderness (Numbers 21, 5-9), but also in the Gnostic sense of an association of the messenger of salvation with the idea of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, who according to this way of inverting the orthodox interpretation, had been the first to attempt to release mankind from bondage to an unknowing god who had identified himself with the Absolute and thus blocked the way to the tree of eternal life." 

      from "The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion" by Joseph Campbell 

In Gnosticism, the snake is the manifestation of Sophia, goddess of wisdom, and the giver of gnosis.  An excellent novel on this subject is 'The Wild Girl' by Michèle Roberts.  Sophia is both the dove of the Holy Spirit and the serpent of wisdom.  Phanes, the winged serpent, represents the light of the world, knowledge and illumination.  He is depicted with golden wings and the heads of a ram, bull, snake, and lion (the tetramorphs).  In the Orphic Tradition, Phanes was the first the first being to be born from the Cosmic Egg; his name means "he who appears"and is connected with the word phenomenon.  The snake was also a symbol of Christ in Manichaeism.  In Ireland, the serpent in the garden of Eden was regarded as feminine, and was known as the Nathair Parrthuis (the serpent of paradise).  There may have been links between the Celtic Church in Ireland and Gnostic beliefs, via the Coptic Church. 

In Zoroastrianism, the serpent Azidahaka was the demon who cut the first mortal in two.  The first mortal was called Yima.  (This legend bears an odd resemblance to the legend of the dismemberment of Ymir, the first being, by Oðinn, Vili, and Vé.) 

The Great Goddess is frequently depicted with serpents, especially in Crete where she holds a serpent in each hand, both as a protection of the household and as a phallic symbol.  There seems to be some evidence that there was a serpent cult in Crete; certainly snake symbolism is widespread there.  The Great Goddess is depicted on ancient coins seated under a tree and caressing the head of a snake.  The snake also appears in the cult of Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth.  Serpents are associated with pregnancy in many mythologies, the serpent being regarded as the husband of all women.  When associated with the Great Mother, the serpent takes on the connotations of secrecy, intuition, and mystery. 

In Iranian mythology, the serpent is an aspect of Ahriman or Angra Mainyu, the Serpent of Darkness, the Liar.  The snake Azi-dahak is the throttler, the enemy of the sun god.  In Islam, the serpent is closely associated with life.  It is called el-hayyah, and the word for life is el-hyat, whilst one of the names of God is El-Hay, which signifies the life-giving principle. 

The serpent also twines around the cosmic tree in many mythologies.  It is both the guardian of the tree, as in the legend of the Golden Fleece, and the initiator into its mysteries, as in the Kundalini serpent and the serpent of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Ultimately it symbolises energy rising from one level to another and transforming the individual in the process.  It is also the cycles of dissolution and reintegration.  On Yggdrasil, the World Tree, there are two serpents.  Niðhögg lives in the underworld, the realm of the unmanifest, and represents the shadow self.  Jörmungand lives in Midgard, and holds the ocean within his coils, maintaining order.  In Hindu mythology, the churning of the primordial ocean occurred because the gods and demons had a tug of war with the serpent Vasuki, which was coiled around the world mountain (Mount Mandara).  The churning of the ocean produced the liquid of immortality.  The coiled serpent represents the cycles of manifestation.  It sometimes appears (particularly in Orphic and Druidic mysteries) coiled round an egg, incubating the vital spirit.  As the Ouroboros, it represents the waters encircling the earth.  Two serpents twining round each other or biting each other's tails represent the ultimate unity of dualistic forces.  Two snakes entwined represent Time and Fate.  The serpent goddess Sarparajni is 'the mother of all that moves'.   

Symbolism 

Entwined snakes symbolise the dual creative forces within the world of forms.  When twined round a staff, they form the caduceus, the staff of Hermes/Mercury.  They are also a symbol of Asklepios, god of healing, because it was said that when old the serpent has the power of regenerating itself by casting its slough, which it was thought to do by squeezing itself between two rocks.  It was also thought to have the ability to discover healing herbs.  The two serpents on the staff represent illness and health, and the homeopathic properties of healing and poison.  As snakes live underground, they are associated with the dead and the underworld, and are often depicted in funerary art, and associated with initiation.  The snake can also represent the rays of the sun, its course across the heavens, and bolts of lightning.  Most river deities are associated with snakes. 

The serpent symbolised deity because it was believed to feed upon its own body, according to Plutarch, "even so all things spring from God, and will be resolved into deity again" (De Iside et Osiride).  It also symbolised eternity, particularly in the form of the ouroboros, the serpent which forms a circle by holding its tail in its mouth.  Serpents, large fish, and dragons all symbolise the Great Mother in her entwining and devouring aspect. 

As a killer, the snake symbolises death and destruction.  Since it renews its skin, it symbolises resurrection and life.  When coiled, it represents the cycles of manifestation.  It is both solar and lunar, and represents both light and darkness.  The watchful, lidless eyes of the snake and other reptiles signify wisdom and awareness. 

In Christianity the serpent generally represents evil, though it may represent wisdom: "Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10, 16).  It also symbolises subtlety: "Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field" (Genesis 3, 1).  Usually, however, the serpent represents the temptation of Eve and Adam to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  In some stories, the snake is held to represent Paganism, as in the story that St Patrick banished all the snakes from Ireland.  It also represents the devil as the tempter.  Depicted beneath the cross of Christ, it represents Christ's triumph over the power of evil;  crushed beneath the foot of the Virgin Mary, it is contrasted with the serpent of Eve.  The early Christians called Christ 'the Good Serpent' because of his words to Nicodemus "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3, 15).  In the Book of Kells, the page illustrating Matthew 27:38 ("tunc crucifixerant cum eo duos latrones") is illuminated with twining serpents.  A serpent twined around the Tree of life is beneficent; twined around the Tree of Knowledge, it is maleficent (unless in a Gnostic context).  The chalice of St John is depicted with a serpent emerging from it, representing beneficent powers.  At Monasterboice, Louth, Ireland, the Cross of Muiredach has carved upon it two interlocking serpents, one heading downward, the other upward.  They enfold three human heads within their coils, and terminate in a human right hand reaching into a circle at the top, which resembles a halo or a solar disk.  The carving is known as Dextra Dei, the right hand of God.  According to the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus said, "The Pharisees and the Scribes have received the keys of Knowledge, they have hidden them.  They did not enter, and they did not let those enter who wished.  But you, become wise as serpents and innocent as doves." (Logion 39) 

In Judaism, the snake represents evil, temptation, sin, sexual passion, and the souls of the damned in Sheol.  Lightning is referred to as 'the crooked serpent' (Job 26, 13).  The brazen serpent of Moses is regarded as a healing symbol.  In Kabbalah, Adam Kadmon, the primordial man, is depicted holding a serpent by the neck. 

In Egyptian art, sovereigns are depicted with the uraeus, the symbol of sovereignty, royalty, power, light, life and death, the eye of Ra, and the destruction of enemies.  The uraeus, a cobra, represented the divine royal power and wisdom, whilst the coluber represented Set and Apep as the demon of darkness and the malefic aspect of the midday sun.  A representation of the uraeus was worn on the front of the crown of Egypt.  A snake with a lion's head gave protection from evil.  

The thirteenth sign of the Zodiac is Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer.  The constellation lies slightly outside the ecliptic, and it is therefore uncertain whether or not it is part of the Zodiac.  If the Western tradition used a lunar calendar, it might have been included. 

As a cthonic creature, the serpent is traditionally an enemy of the solar birds, such as the eagle, crane, and heron.  Birds are of the heavens and the realms of spirit, whereas snakes are earthy, representing the dynamism, urges, and energies of the element of Earth.  Most lunar and cthonic deities can be represented as a snake, or have a snake as their attribute.   

Poetry 

Wisdom of serpent be thine,

Wisdom of raven be thine,

Wisdom of valiant eagle. 

Voice of swan be thine,

Voice of honey be thine,

Voice of the son of the stars. 

Bounty of sea be thine,

Bounty of land be thine,

Bounty of the Father of Heaven. 

    (Gaelic blessing from the Carmina Gadelica) 

I will voyage in God's name

In likeness of deer, in likeness of horse,

In likeness of serpent, in likeness of king.

More powerful will it be with me than with all others. 

    (Gaelic charm from the Carmina Gadelica) 



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