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Serpents and Snakes

Serpents and Snakes

Theme Overview

Serpents and snakes play a role in many of the world's myths and legends. Sometimes these mythic beasts appear as ordinary snakes. At other times, they take on magical or monstrous forms. Serpents and snakes have long been associated with good as well as evil, representing both life and death, creation and destruction.

Major Myths

Many mythical creatures, such as dragons , combine snake-like qualities with features of humans or animals. In Greek mythology , Echidna (pronounced i-KID-nuh) was a half-woman, half-serpent monster whose offspring included several dragons. Cecrops (pronounced SEE-krahps) had a man's head and chest on a snake's body and was a hero to the Athenians. In Toltec and Aztec mythology, Quetzalcoatl (pronounced keht-sahl-koh-AHT-1), the Feathered Serpent, held an important place. In medieval Europe, people told tales of the basilisk (pronounced BAS-uh-lisk), a serpent with a dragon's body that could kill merely by looking at or breathing on its victims. Melusina (pronounced meh-loo-SEE-nuh), another figure in European folklore, was part woman, part fish and snake, and had to spend one day each week in water.

Sea Serpents

Mysterious serpents occur not only in ancient myths but also in modern legends. For centuries, people have reported seeing huge snakes or snakelike monsters at sea or in lakes. Although many marine scientists admit that creatures yet unknown may inhabit the depths, no one has produced reliable evidence of an entirely new kind of sea serpent. Most likely the mysterious creatures seen swimming on the water's surface are masses of seaweed, floating logs, rows of porpoises leaping into the air, giant squid, or just common sharks or sea lions.

Myths that emphasized the frightening or evil aspects of serpents and snakes often portrayed them as the enemies of deities and humans. The Greek hero Perseus (pronounced PUR-see-uhs) rescued Andromeda (pronounced an-DROM-i-duh), who was chained to a rock, by slaying a sea monster that threatened to eat her. In Norse mythology , a monster called the Midgard serpent—also known as Jormungand (pronounced YAWR-moon-gahnd)—was wrapped around the earth, biting its tail. Thor battled the serpent, which lived in the sea, where its movements caused storms around the world. Another Norse monster, the Nidhogg (pronounced NEED-hawg), was an evil serpent coiled around one of the roots of Yggdrasill (pronounced IG-druh-sil), the World Tree. It was forever trying to destroy the tree by biting or squeezing it.

In the mythology of ancient Egypt, Apophis (pronounced uh-POH-fis) was a demon who appeared in the form of a serpent. Each night he attacked Ra, the sun god. But Mehen, another huge serpent, coiled himself around Ra's sun boat to protect the god from Apophis—a perfect illustration of how snakes can be symbols of both good and evil.

Mythological snakes that act as forces of good have various roles, such as creating the world, protecting it, or helping humans. Stories of the Fon people of West Africa tell of Da, a serpent whose thirty-five hundred coils support the cosmic ocean in which the earth floats. Another thirty-five hundred of its coils support the sky. Humans occasionally catch a glimpse of many-colored Da in a rainbow, or in light reflected on the surface of water.

The Aboriginal people of northern Australia tell how the Great Rainbow Snake Julunggul shaped the world. When human blood dropped into a waterhole, Julunggul grew angry. He sent a wave of water washing across the earth, and he swallowed people, plants, and animals. Julunggul reared up toward heaven , but an ant spirit bit him and made him vomit up what he had swallowed. This happened again and again until Julunggul departed from the earth, leaving people, plants, and animals in all parts of it.

According to a story of the Diegueno (pronounced dee-uh-GWAY-nyoh) Indians of California, humans obtained many of the secrets of civilization from a huge serpent named Umai-hulhlya-wit. This serpent lived in the ocean until people performed a ceremony and called him onto the land. They built an enclosure for him, but it was too small to hold him. After Umai-hulhlya-wit had squeezed as much of himself as possible into the enclosure, the people set him on fire. Soon the serpent's body exploded, showering the earth with the knowledge, secrets, songs, and other cultural treasures he had contained.

Hindu myths contain many tales of serpents. Kaliya (pronounced KAH-lee-yuh) was a five-headed serpent king who poisoned water and land until the god Krishna (pronounced KRISH-nuh) defeated him in battle. Kaliya then worshipped Krishna, who spared his life. Kadru was a snake goddess who bore one thousand children. Legend says that they still live today as snakes in human form. One of Kadru's children was the world snake Shesha that the gods used to turn a mountain and stir up the ocean, just as people churn milk into butter by using a rope coiled around a stick or paddle. As the gods churned the ocean with the snake, many precious things arose from it, including the moon, a magical tree, and the Amrita (pronounced uhm-REE-tuh), or water of life.

Serpents and Snakes in Context

In religion, mythology, and literature, serpents and snakes often stand for fertility or a creative life force—partly because the creatures can be seen as symbols of the male sex organ. They have also been associated with water and earth because many kinds of snakes live in the water or in holes in the ground. The ancient Chinese connected serpents with life-giving rain. Traditional beliefs in Australia, India, North America, and Africa have linked snakes with rainbows, which in turn are often related to rain and fertility.

As snakes grow, many of them shed their skin at various times, revealing a shiny new skin underneath. For this reason snakes have become symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality (the ability to live forever), and healing. The ancient Greeks considered snakes sacred to Asclepius (pronounced uh-SKLEE-pee-uhs), the god of medicine. He carried a caduceus, a staff with one or two serpents wrapped around it, which has become the symbol of modern physicians.

For both the Greeks and the Egyptians, the snake represented eternity. Ouroboros (pronounced or-ROB-or-uhs), the Greek symbol of eternity, consisted of a snake curled into a circle or hoop, biting its own tail. The Ouroboros grew out of the belief that serpents eat themselves and are reborn from themselves in an endless cycle of destruction and creation.

Living on and in the ground, serpents came to be seen in some religions and mythologies as guardians of the underworld , or land of the dead. In this role they could represent hidden wisdom or sacred mysteries, but they also had other, more sinister meanings. The use of serpents as symbols of death, evil, or treachery may be related to the fact that some of them are poisonous and dangerous. Satan and other devils have frequently been portrayed as snakes, as in the biblical story of Eden where a sly serpent tempts Eve and Adam into disobeying God. Some Christian saints are said to have driven away snakes as a sign of miraculous powers given to them by God. According to legend, St. Patrick cleared Ireland of snakes.

The Nagas (pronounced NAH-gahz) of Hindu and Buddhist mythology show how serpents can symbolize both good and evil, hopes and fears. Although these snake gods could take any shape, including a fully human one, they often appeared as human heads on serpent bodies. The Nagas lived in underwater or underground kingdoms. They controlled rainfall and interacted with gods and humans in a variety of ways. Some were good, such as Mucalinda, the snake king who shielded Buddha from a storm. Others could be cruel and vengeful.

Serpents and Snakes in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Even after many centuries, serpents and snakes have not lost their power to evoke a reaction in modern audiences. Though most depictions of snakes and serpents in modern art and literature do not qualify as mythical, there have been some notable examples of larger-than-life serpents, especially in films. The talking snake Kaa from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (1894), as well as the 1967 Disney animated adaptation, has the ability to hypnotize his prey—though he is a helpful mentor to the main character in the book, and a villain in the film. The 1998 novel Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J. K. Rowling, features an enormous basilisk, as does the 2002 film of the same name. The Harry Potter books also feature a giant snake named Nagini that is the close companion of the evil wizard Lord Voldemort. The 1997 horror film Anaconda, starring Jennifer Lopez and Jon Voight, also contains a mythically large and deadly snake as its main antagonist.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Serpents and snakes in Western cultures have long been associated with evil. However, in some Asian cultures, serpents are accepted in a much more neutral or even positive light. Why do you think there is such a dramatic difference between how different cultures view snakes and serpents?

SEE ALSO Adam and Eve; Animals in Mythology; Basilisk; Dragons; Medusa; Nagas; Patrick, St.; Quetzalcoatl; Satan

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