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SNAKES . Because of their shape and their relation to the environment, snakes play an important role in the beliefs of various peoples. Their swiftness and peculiar locomotion, along with the periodical sloughing of their skin, their glistening beauty, and the venom of some species have given them a place apart in the animal world. Their supposedly sinister character and dangerousness cause fear; their enigmatic and ambivalent nature has led human beings to contradictory assessments of them: On the one hand, they are thought of as evil and as a cause of death; on the other, they are believed to embody beneficial and even divine powers. As a result, in some religions they may be both accursed and worshiped. The serpent Apophis was regarded by the ancient Egyptians as the worst enemy of Re, the sun god; yet Re is also protected by the serpent Mehen on his journey through the underworld. In the Bible the scaly reptile can be a symbol both of death (the fall of humanity, Gn. 3) and of life (the brazen serpent, Nm. 21:68). In Indian mythology Kāliya, the prince of serpents, is the embodiment of evil and is overcome by Ka; yet the serpent Śea is companion and couch for Viu.

The Serpent and Origins

In the mythology of many peoples a serpent is linked to the origin of the world and to creation; it is the primordial material or the primordial being. According to an ancient tradition of the druids (priests among the Celtic peoples) the world originated from an egg that came from the mouth of a serpent. Various of the oldest Egyptian gods were thought of as serpents: as, for example, Atum before he ascended from the primeval ocean, and Amun of Thebes, who was also called Kematef ("he who has fulfilled his time"). In the philosophical speculations of the ancient Near East on creation, serpents and dragons symbolized that which had not yet been made manifest: the still undivided unity that held sway before the creation of the world. Only after the Babylonian god Marduk had overcome the dragonlike monster Tiamat could he form heaven and earth from the latter's body. In the Old Testament one frequently finds the motif of God's struggle against the serpentlike or dragonlike monster of chaos that lives in the water; it is with the victory over Rahab that the mighty waters of the primeval deep are dried up (Is. 51:910). Indra's victory over the monster Vtra, who has neither feet nor hands, is a cosmogonic act by which water and light are liberated from the embrace of the forces of chaos. Also among the Indian sagas of creation is the story of Vāsuki, the world serpent, who is pulled this way and that by the gods and demons (asura s) so that Mandara, the world mountain that stands in the ocean of milk, is set in motion like a creative whisk. According to a myth of the Nahuatl (ancient Mexico), in primordial times there existed a formless mass of water in which a great female monster lived; the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca transformed themselves into serpents, tore the monster into two parts, and from these formed heaven and earth. Ceremonies carried out by American Indian tribes of the Northwest Coast (Kwakiutl, Haida) in the winter, when there is little sunlight, commemorate the primordial time when the sun was imprisoned by the powers of darkness and water, which are symbolized by the serpent Sisiul. The inhabitants of Rossel Island (Louisiade archipelago, Melanesia) used to believe that Wonajö, who had the form of a serpent, created their island and the stars. Among the Ungarinyin (Aborigines of northwestern Australia), the primeval serpent Ungud is linked to the origin of the earth; from its eggs emerged the Wandjina, the ancestors of humans.

The Serpent, Ancestors, and Souls

It is likely that representations of serpents on monoliths from the Neolithic age in France were connected with the veneration of ancestors. A belief in the Mediterranean world is that a snake that lives in the house embodies the soul of the family's first ancestor; among the Romans, the serpent embodied the paterfamilias. Thus the Roman poet Vergil (Aeneid 5.83ff.) tells how Aeneas visits the tomb of his father, Anchises, and how the sacrificial foods offered to Anchises are accepted by a speckled serpent. Many murals at Pompeii show vipers protectively surrounding an altar as symbols of the genius loci, or tutelary deity of the place. In Greece, ancestors such as Kekrops and Erechtheus, who had been transformed into heroes, were venerated in the form of serpents. A serpent and a vessel on ancient Greek tombstones depicts a libation to the dead. The ancient Scythians who lived north of the Black Sea regarded themselves as descendants of Targitaus, a son of the god of heaven and of the half-human, half-snakelike daughter of Dnieper, the river god. In some gnostic writings of the Hellenistic period there is the notion that the first human beings crawled on the ground like snakes. In New Guinea and the Admiralty Islands there is a legend that the first human beings were born of a serpent. Among the Australian Aborigines the moon is regarded as ancestor of the tribe; his totem is a serpent. Many chieftains among the Paiwan (east coast of Taiwan) claim descent from the "hundred-step serpent." The Zulu (South Africa) look upon certain snakes as divinized ancestors who have the power to return to earth in this form. In Southwest Asia a serpent-princess is supposed to have been the founder of particular dynasties.

In Africa, Asia, and Oceania the snake is often associated with the soul. According to the beliefs of the Maasai (East Africa) the souls of chieftains and medicine men turn into snakes after death and live on in this form. The Melanesians identify their ancestors with this reptile, and it is frequently found as a totem, in New Britain and New Ireland, for example. In Chinese fairy tales the dead may reappear as serpents. In Europe, too, one finds the idea that the soul can leave the body in the form of a serpent, not only after death but even in dreams (cf. the saga of Guntram, the Frankish king). Various Slavic peoples believe that the souls of deceased ancestors dwell in snakes, which guard the homes of their human descendants.

Protector of the House and Bestower of Happiness

According to widespread popular belief, snakes should not be killed, because they protect the house and bring good fortune; if they are supplied with milk, they bring health and prosperity. In fairy tales the toad may replace the serpent in this role; both animals are accounted to be of chthonic origin and are numbered among the life-giving powers that contribute to the welfare of those who maintain contact with the earth and its forces. In the Alpine regions, for example, there is a familiar tale of a serpent with a golden crown; as long as the serpent is treated well, it brings happiness to the house and its inhabitants. Finns regard the ring snake as a sacred domestic animal and give it food; they believe that if it should be killed, the death of the family's best cow or even of the stockbreeder himself will follow. In Sweden a white snake is treated as a beneficent protector of the home and cared for with reverent awe. Among the ancient Prussians (a Baltic people), at a certain season of the year, food was set out for serpents living in the house; it was a bad omen if they did not take the food. In India even poisonous snakes were fed as protective spirits; there are areas even in modern times where every house has had a protective serpent (vāstusarpa ). Among the Suk and Bari of East Africa, who live as nomadic shepherds, the serpent is called "child of God," fed with milk, and looked upon as a bringer of good fortune. Serpents, dragons, and toads are widely considered to be protectors and bearers of treasures and riches. In central Europe there are still place-names (e.g., Drachenfels, "dragon-rock") that allude to local sagas built around the idea of a Lindwurm (from the Old Norse linn-ormr, "serpent-dragon") who protects a treasure; Fáfnir, who guarded the treasure of the Nibelungs, was such a dragon. In the cultural orbit of India the nāga s are the guardians and givers of the vital forces stored up in springs and wells and of the coral and pearls deposited in the sea. The Buddhist Jātaka tales tell of a Nāga prince who possesses a pearl that grants his every wish. The charitable Chinese dragon that brings good fortune is said to have the head of a horse or a camel and the body of a serpent, while his beard often contains a pearl. In the cults and customs of the Ivory Coast (West Africa) the snake is regarded as a bringer of wealth and fame; in Benin the python in particular is a symbol of happiness and prosperity. In Melanesia the snake plays the part of culture hero; in many sagas he gives human beings the edible plants, fire, and frequently simple tools like the shell knife and stone ax as well.

Wisdom and Power

The serpent knows all mysteries; if a person eats its flesh (or the heart of a dragon, as the Germanic hero Siegfried did), many things are revealed to him; in particular, he can understand the speech of the birds. In Greek myths if a serpent licks the ears of a human being, the human will understand the languages of animals (cf., e.g., the story of Melampus and the sons of Laocoön). The children of Hecuba, queen of Troy, were licked by a serpent and received the gift of prophecy. Snakes were associated with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and in the Middle Ages with Prudentia, the personification of prudence or practical wisdom. Then there is the well-known saying of Jesus: "Be wise as serpents" (Mt. 10:16). The serpent represented on the croziers of Coptic and Byzantine bishops symbolizes the prudence with which the faithful are to be guided. The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl ("feathered serpent") was the founder of the body of priestly wisdom; high priests bore the title "Prince of Serpents." Animals that were superior to human beings in certain abilities became symbols of power: Thus the prophet Isaiah (Is. 27:1) describes the great powers threatening the people of God as a leviathan (Babylon?) and a dragon (Egypt?). The representation of an asp known as the uraeus that the pharaohs wore on their foreheads was a symbol of their sovereignty; the uraeus was also worn by Horus, the royal god; the serpent on the brow of Re, the sun god, was said to annihilate all enemies. The horned serpent on the seals of scrolls from ancient Mesopotamia is probably a sign of divine power; it is sacred to the god Ningishzida, the guardian at the door of heaven. Among more primitive peoples, too, the serpent can be a symbol of power and sovereignty; thus it is part of the decoration on the festive garb of the Paiwan chieftains of Taiwan. Iconographically related to the serpent is the dragonit was the emperor's sign in China, and the Anglo-Saxons painted it on royal banners. The power inherent in the serpent was also thought to be apotropaic; thus the serpent protected temples (Egypt), tombs (classical antiquity), and the thresholds of homes (Sweden).

Representatives of Cosmic Powers

In classical antiquity the serpent Uroboros, which swallows its own tail, is able to embrace the entire universe. Various Indian paintings and sculptures show the dancing god Siva inside a cosmic ring that is clearly recognizable as the body of a serpent with a head at each end. In Germanic mythology the Miðgarðsormr ("world serpent"), with which Þórr (Thor) does battle, is wound like a belt around the world. In some mythologies, the struggle between the storm god and a serpent symbolizes the antagonism between the uranian powers above and the chthonic powers below; this is true, for instance, of the battle between the Hittite storm god and Illuyanka. In the conflict between the two principles of being (between good and evil at the ethical level) the place of the divinity may be taken by an eagle. The enmity between the divine bird and the snake is a theme in the mythology and art of many peoples: It is found on seals from ancient Mesopotamia; in Homer's Iliad; in India, where the bird Garuda is known as "the serpent-slayer" (nāgāntaka ); and in Christian contexts, where the eagle is a symbol of Christ and the serpent, dragon, and basilisk are demonic animals.

The serpent belongs not only to the water and the earth; it can also be associated with the heavens. In Melanesian, Finnic, and Aztec mythologies, snakes represent the lightning; among the Babylonians, in India, and in ancient Mexico the Milky Way was associated with a serpent. The motif of the rainbow as a snake is found in Oceania and tropical Africa; the Dogon of West Africa, for example, think of the rainbow as the serpent of the water god Nommo. Australian tribes regard the rainbow snake, under the name of Yulunggul, as a creative divinity and bestower of culture. Above all, however, the serpent has a lunar significance; Mircea Eliade speaks of it as "an epiphany of the moon" (Patterns in Comparative Religion, New York, 1958, p. 165). Like the moon that is gradually diminished and then gradually renews itself, so the serpent sheds and renews its skin and becomes a symbol of death and resurrection. The Ngala tribe (central Kongo) believes that the moon at one time lived on earth as a python. Also to be interpreted in lunar terms is the horned serpent of the pre-Columbian Nazca culture (Peru); the horn is a widespread symbol of power. The double serpentone with a head at each endcan simultaneously symbolize both moon and sun, as among the Kwakiutl tribe of Indians. In addition to Quetzalcoatl, the serpent of the nocturnal sky, the Aztec believed in a turquoise serpent of the diurnal sky, which was associated with the solar god Huitzilopochtli. The Egyptian uraeus, like the serpent that is equated with Helios in Greek magical papyri, was certainly solar in character.

Death and the Underworld

Serpents frequently play an important role in religious conceptions about the origins of sin. A striking parallel to the story in the Book of Genesis of the fall of Adam and Eve is to be found in a myth of the Basari (northern Togo); here the serpent misleads the first human beings into eating certain fruits that until then only God (Unumbotte) had eaten. According to a story of the Dusun (northern Borneo), Kenharingen, the creator, said that those who shed their skins would not die; human beings paid no heed and are therefore snatched away by death, but snakes remain alive forever because they listened to God and shed their skins. After the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh at last found the plant of immortality, he was robbed of it by a serpent while he was bathing, thus forfeiting eternal life to the snake. Persian tradition tells of a plant called haoma that bestowed immortality; but Ahura Mazdā's adversary, Ahriman, created a serpent to harm the miraculous plant.

The figure of the serpent also stands for the threatening forces that bring death. In the Finnic concept of the next world, the traveler into the realm of the dead is threatened by an ever-vigilant serpent. The Norse Edda tells of a hall in the kingdom of the dead that has walls made of the bodies of serpents; poison drips from its roof. Etruscan iconography displays various demons of the underworld accompanied by serpents. Bronze Age statuettes found in Crete show a female figure with a serpent in each elevated hand and two serpents rearing up at her breasts; these statuettes are probably connected with the chthonic cult of the goddess of the earth and of the dead. The Erinyes (Furies) of Greek mythology are subterranean goddesses of vengeance; heads covered with writhing snakes, they pursue all evildoers. The Hindu goddess Kālī, the great "devourer" who destroys life, has as her attributes skulls and serpents. In Aztec lore the earth goddess Coatlicue, the "Lady with the Skirt of Serpents," is also the goddess of death; in Mictlen (the realm of the dead) poisonous snakes serve as food. The Egyptians believed the underworld to be inhabited by, among other things, fire-breathing serpents armed with knives; some sayings in the Book of Going Forth by Day are meant as protection against them (7.3335). In Christianity the serpent is often associated with sin, death, and the Prince of Darkness who rules over the damned.

Life and Immortality

The serpent has possession of the plant of immortal life (Epic of Gilgamesh ); in various fairy tales and in some Greek sagas (Glaucus, Tylon) snakes restore the dead to life by means of a plant known only to them. In Melanesian and South American traditions the snake gives human beings the knowledge of edible plants; in ancient Egypt, Renenutet, "mistress of the fertile land" (the goddess of agriculture), was worshiped in the form of a serpent. The serpent is closely associated with the fruit of life and the water of life; in Southwest Asia and in China it is considered to be the giver of rain. Among the Hopi Indians (Arizona) a feast of serpents is celebrated in August in order to obtain rain; during the dancing at this celebration the participants carry live rattlesnakes between their teeth. The (East) Indian nāga s are givers of fertility; sacrifices associated with the nāgakal (a cobra idol of stone) erected in Indian villages are supplications for the birth of children. Snakes have phallic significance in the most varied of cultures: classical antiquity, the ancient Near East, India, and Melanesia; some American Indian cultures employ the double symbol of the serpent (phallus) and the rhombus (vulva); according to an association made in ancient Mexico (Codex Borgia) the penis is controlled by a serpent-demon. The snake thrown into a cave in the worship of the Greek goddess Demeter also had a phallic significance: The snake was expected to promote the powers of growth present in the earth. Many peoples have believed that the snake obtained long life and even immortality by shedding its skin; as a result the serpent became an attribute of Shadrapa (ancient Syria) and Asklepios (Greece), who were gods of healing; the latter was taken over by the Romans as Aesculapius, and the staff of Aesculapius with snakes wound around it is still the symbol of the medical profession (the caduceus). In the Egyptian Book of Going Forth by Day transformation into a serpent will give new life to the dead person (chap. 87). The snake that in the mysteries of the Thracian-Phrygian god Sabazios was drawn across the bosom of the initiate, gave hope for the attainment of immortality. The bronze serpent that Moses displayed on a standard became a prefiguration of the Savior's death on the cross and of redemption (Jn. 3:14f.).

The Demonic and the Divine

Because of the ambivalence with which they are regarded, serpents may be associated either with devils or with gods. On cylinder seals from ancient Mesopotamia multiheaded serpents embody the forces hostile to the gods. Even as a small child, Apollo, the Greek god of light, killed the python of Delphi, which was persecuting his mother, Leto. In a similar manner the apocalyptic serpent threatens the celestial virgin (Rv. 12:15). Among the more generally known demonic serpents are Apophis (Egypt), the Miðgarðsormr (Germany), Kulshedra (Albania), and the numerous kaia (Melanesia).

In the belief of the ancient Greeks the Agathos Daimon, frequently thought of as a winged serpent, played the role of a good spirit. As bringer of salvation and giver of life the serpent became a divine animal; it was associated with Anat, the goddess of war venerated at Ugarit (modern-day Shamra, Syria), and, in the form of a dragon, with Marduk, the principal Babylonian god. The figure depicted by worshipers of Mithra as having the head of a wolf and a body entwined by serpents is usually interpreted as representing Aion, the god of time. The cobra was sacred to Uto, the regional goddess of Lower Egypt. The Hindu snake goddess Manasa is invoked even today against snakebite. One of the terrifying divinities of Buddhism is Bhutadamara, who combats demons: His adornment consists of eight serpents. In the Kalderash gypsy tribe (France) there are still traces of a cult of serpents that reaches back to ancient India; thus in the spring the tribe celebrates the day of the snake or divine serpent. An explicit worship of snakes was practiced by the Lombards (sixth to eighth centuries in Italy) and by the Lithuanians; but in this context mention must be made of various sects of gnostics in late antiquity generally grouped together under the name of Ophites: They adored the godhead in the form of a serpent. The cult of snakes indigenous to West Africa (especially Dahomey) came to America with the slaves and acquired a new form in the magical and religious Voodoo of Haiti.

See Also



Important older presentations of the religious significance of serpents were for the most part devoted to particular cultures. See, for example, Erich Küster's Die Schlange in der griechischen Kunst und Religion (Giessen, 1933), Jean Philippe Vogel's Indian Serpent Lore or the Nagas in Hindu Legend and Art (London, 1926), Gottfried Wilhelm Locher's The Serpent in Kwakiutl Religion: A Study in Primitive Culture (Leiden, 1932), and Hans Ritter's Die Schlange in der Religion der Melanesier (Basel, 1945). Two more recent publications treating the African world may be mentioned: John Snook's African Snake Stories (New York, 1973) and Alfred Hauenstein's "Le serpent dans les rites, cultes et coutumes de certaines ethnies de Côte d'Ivoire," Anthropos 73 (1978): 525560. The Rainbow Serpent: A Chromatic Piece, edited by Ira R. Buchler and Kenneth Maddock (The Hague, 1978), treats Australian material before bringing in other mythologies. In Serpent Symbolism in the Old Testament: A Linguistic, Archaeological, and Literary Study (Haddonfield, N.J., 1974), Karen Randolph Joines discusses biblical treatments of the theme and their influence on Christianity. C. F. Oldham supplies good basic material on the astral significance of the serpent in The Sun and the Serpent: A Contribution to the History of Serpent-Worship (London, 1905), but some interpretations need correcting. The importance of the serpent in the Greek mystery cults and their influence on the Christian world is the subject of Hans Leisegang's "Das Mysterium der Schlange," Eranos-Jahrbuch 7 (1939): 151250. Two comprehensive treatments are Balaji Mundkur's The Cult of the Serpent: An Interdisciplinary Survey of Its Manifestations and Origins (Albany, N. Y., 1983) and my Adler und Schlange: Tiersymbolik im Glauben und Weltbild der Völker (Tübingen, 1983).

New Sources

Loibl, Elisabeth. Deuses animais. São Paulo, 1984.

Martinek, Manuela. Wie die Schlange zum Teufel wurde: die Symbolik in der Paradiesgeschichte von der hebräischen Bibel bis zum Koran. Wiesbaden, 1996.

Wilson, Leslie S. The Serpent Symbol in the Ancient Near East: Nahash and Asherah: Death, Life, and Healing. Lanham, Md., 2001.

Manfred Lurker (1987)

Translated from German by Matthew J. O'Connell
Revised Bibliography