The snake is both revered and reviled in almost all cultures. There is a dualistic view of this sacred beast; on one hand it is seen as poisoner, deceiver, dark spirit or agent of death, on the other it is seen as healer, creator, mystic and helper toward enlightenment.
Cernunnos & the Horned Serpent
We can't write an article about snakes without including the Celtic deity we now know as Cernunnos. Although he is mostly associated with stags and bulls, he is also shown holding or in the company of a horned serpent. Sadly we know next to nothing about this snake, though many people assume it to represent fertility. It could also be a reference to Cernunnos as a deity who is able to master more chaotic, animal instincts (similar to Ra and Apep, Thor and Jormungandr or Apollo and Python), or perhaps a reference to Asclepius and the use of serpents in healing. We may never know, but as with all things associated with Cernunnos, the mystery is half the fun.
Hinduism & Buddhism
Snakes appear throughout Hindu and Buddhist mythology most notably as the mysterious snake people known as the Naga.
The Naga are snake people who feature very strongly in Hindu mythology. While many of them are said to inhabit Naga loka; the lowest of the seven lower planes of existence, many of these beings come to the aid of great heros and the Devas themselves.
Vasuki is the king of the Nagas and is so large that he allowed the Devas to wrap him around mount Mandara and use it to churn the oceans in search of Amrita; the elixir of life. Vasuki is also the snake who lays wrapped around the neck of Lord Shiva.
Adisesha (Shesha) is the snake upon which Lord Visnhu sleeps while dreaming the universe into existence according to Vaishnavism.
In the Mahabarata, Bhima of the Pandavas is poisoned by Duryodhana of the rival Kuravas, tied up and thrown into a deep river. Bhima sinks all the way to Naga Loka where he is revivied from the posion by being bitten by posionous snakes. He is then taken to King Vaskui himself and gifted with the strength to help his brothers defeat the Kuravas.
The Yoga Sutras (the principle scripture for the practice of Yoga) were spoken by Patanjali. He is considered by many to be an incarnation of the great Naga Adisesha.
The Naga are also mentioned in many Buddhist sermons.
Gautama Buddha is said to have been protected from rain and storms by the Naga Mucilanda.
Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman Mythology
Apep and Ra / Python and Apollo
Originally a God of the Sun, Apep (translated into Greek as Apophis) was replaced by Ra in later Egyptian Mythology. For a time the mythology held that Ra and Set were equals and together fought back Apep who had been relegated to being the God of Chaos and destruction, eventually the mythology changed again and Set (Setan) was removed from this position and vilified as the evil God he is known as today... but that is a story for another post... Set was said to the the only God who could resist the hypnotic stare of Apep and was thus the only one capable of defeating him.
As I mentioned, Apep was changed from the chief solar deity to that of chaos and destruction. This is most likely due to a change in priesthood, religious fashion of politics. This change is also reflected in the role of Python in Greek mythology. Originally the guardian of the Oracle at Delphi, the younger god of light, Apollo arrived to chase Python down into the Omphalos (navel) of the earth and place himself as the chief deity of the oracle.
The Book of Apophis is a collection of spells from the New Kingdom which details rituals designed to stop Apep from destroying the world. One of the rituals gives instructions to take an image of the serpent God into a temple, imbue it with all the evil and wrongdoings and burn it. This reflects the Jewish practice of the Scapegoat
The Demi-God son of Apollo and Koronis of Thessaly who upon death was deified for his skill in medicine. According to mythology Asclepius was abandoned by his mortal mother and taken in by the centaur Chiron. Asclepius was then taught the healing arts by Chiron and became so skilled that he was even able to raise the dead using the venom of Medusa which had been gifted to him by Athena. Zeus saw his grandson as a threat to the division between mankind and the Gods that he killed Asclepius with a thunderbolt. After his death he was raised in status to the God of Medicine.
The rod of Asclepius is still used as an international symbol for the medical profession. While some organisations have replaced the rod of Asclepius with the Caduceus (a symbol with two snakes intertwined around a staff who's top has two spread wings), this is likely only due to the similarly in visual style. The Caduceus is the symbol for the God Hermes (the Greek version of Egyptian Thoth / Tahuti) The rod of Asclepius became the symbol of the Asclepian cult.
I swear by Apollo the physician, and Asclepius, and Hygieia and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses as my witnesses, that, according to my ability and judgement, I will keep this Oath and this contract:
To hold him who taught me this art equally dear to me as my parents, to be a partner in life with him, and to fulfill his needs when required; to look upon his offspring as equals to my own siblings, and to teach them this art, if they shall wish to learn it, without fee or contract; and that by the set rules, lectures, and every other mode of instruction, I will impart a knowledge of the art to my own sons, and those of my teachers, and to students bound by this contract and having sworn this Oath to the law of medicine, but to no others.
I will use those dietary regimens which will benefit my patients according to my greatest ability and judgement, and I will do no harm or injustice to them.
I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.
In purity and according to divine law will I carry out my life and my art.
I will not use the knife, even upon those suffering from stones, but I will leave this to those who are trained in this craft.
Into whatever homes I go, I will enter them for the benefit of the sick, avoiding any voluntary act of impropriety or corruption, including the seduction of women or men, whether they are free men or slaves.
Whatever I see or hear in the lives of my patients, whether in connection with my professional practice or not, which ought not to be spoken of outside, I will keep secret, as considering all such things to be private.
So long as I maintain this Oath faithfully and without corruption, may it be granted to me to partake of life fully and the practice of my art, gaining the respect of all men for all time. However, should I transgress this Oath and violate it, may the opposite be my fate.
~ Translated by Michael North, National Library of Medicine, 2002.
In life Asclepius had children and his descendants carried on the practice of the healing arts among them is Hippocrates. To this day practitioners of medicine must take the Hippocratic Oath, below is a translation of the original version of the Hippocratic Oath into English.
The name Asclepius has been given to a particular kind of non-venomous snake which were allowed to crawl freely about the floor of any Asclepion (healing temple).
Medusa and the Gorgons
No discussion of the snake in Greek mythology would be complete without mentioning Medusa and the Gorgons. According to the Roman author Ovid, Medusa began her life as a beautiful maiden but was seduced by Poseidon in the temple of Athena which caused Athena to become furious and transform Medusa into the snake-monster we know her as now.
Medusa's name however does not point to her being a helpless maiden. Medusa translates to 'protector', 'guardian' and it seems more likely that her abilities and attributes could be exaggerations by a patriarchy seeking to change certain rules in ancient Greece. We are familiar with the Amazons of course, a group of fierce women warriors who held the awe and respect of ancient Greece. Perhaps the Gorgons filled a similar role. Could it be that Medusa led a band of women warriors? That her hair was braided or dreadlocked? And that her stare alone was enough to stop men in their tracks? It seems perfectly logical to think that a change in the culture of Greece where women were meant to no longer be warriors but were meant to be subservient to men, would see these braids turned to snakes, the steely gaze would be said to petrify men. The idea of a woman 'out of her place' would be abhorrent to the idea of a civilisation where men ruled and women served. To turn this proud warrior into a monster was a powerful method for changing public opinion toward the sovereignty of women.
Tiamat and Marduk
Tiamat is the ancient Babylonian sea Goddess and mother of all Gods. Her name translates roughly as a phrase or incantation "Oh Sea!". Tiamat is seen as a gigantic serpent and is considered the enemy of Marduk the patron deity of the city of Babylon who is himself seen as a Dragon.
The Serpent of Eden
First and foremost let me clear up a modern misunderstanding about Abrahamic mythology: The Serpent in the garden of Eden is not Satan. I have discussed Satan in my article Cernunnos. It must be noted however that the Serpent of Eden has called an agent of Samael (see the same article on Cernunnos) and also as the mount upon which Samael would ride.
The Origins of the Serpent of Eden is rooted in the later view of the Egyptian solar deity known as Egyptian Apep (see above). Hardly surprising given that the Jewish people originated in Egypt. Like Jörmungandr / Eormangand in the Germanic mythologies, the Serpent is associated with divine trees. The Serpent of Eden is also associated with the imparting of wisdom, be encouraging Eve to eat the apple, the Serpent risks the boundary between man and God. The theme of divine beings passing so-called forbidden knowledge to mankind and thus being punished (the Serpent lost his legs) is repeated throughout the Bible such as with the Nephilim. In this way the Serpent of Eden fills the role of the Greek Prometheus.
Australia: The Rainbow Serpent
In the mythology of many of the Aboriginal people of Australia, the Rainbow Serpent is known as the largest of the Dreamtime creatures (the Dreamtime is a time before man when all things were being shaped and created). The mythology tells us that the earth was flat and featureless until the Rainbow Serpent began to move across it, as he did so, mountains and ravines began to form. Some of the holes began to fill with water and became seas, rivers and lakes. When he grew tired he went to rest in a waterhole and will only come out during a heavy rainstorm when he will rise up into the sky and then back downwards toward another waterhole elsewhere.1
Quetzalcoatl is a God of wind and rain and is considered one of the most important Gods in Mesoamerica from whom many of the cultures claim descent. His name translates to 'Feathered Serpent'. He is a divine protector and in the dualistic religion of Mesoamerica he is the opposite to Tezcatlipoca.2
Quetzalcoatl is an important God in agriculture and is said to have been the God who introduced Corn to the people to save them from starvation. He is most often depicted as having a serpent's body and bird wings.
He was also known as Kukulkán to the Maya, Gucumatz to the Quiché of Guatemala, and Ehecatl to the Huastecs of the Gulf Coast.3
Germanic and Scandinavian Mythology
Divine serpents in the far North of Europe are rarely considered benevolent. Perhaps the most famous of these beings is the giant son of Loki known as Jörmungandr.
This giant serpent, son of the trickster God Loki is so large that he is said to encircle the entire ocean around Midgard (The realm of Man). This is the mortal enemy of the Thunder God and at Ragnarock (the Norse myth of the end of the world), The two will fight and kill one another. There seem to be similarities here between Apep and Ra, Tiamat and Marduk. Jormungandr is written about often so I feel that to write more about him here will only be covering well worn ground. I do however wonder if there may be an earlier myth, now lost to time, where Jörmungandr might have played a more neutral or even beneficial role in early Scandinavian mythology, just as Apep (see above) held in Egypt. We may never know as all the mythology from Northern Europe has been heavily Christianised due to the Christian scribes being the first to write down all the Pagan myths; I doubt any self respecting Christian monk would have anything positive to say about a 'Good' serpent God given their own associations with the Serpent of Eden.
Níðhöggr holds a similar role in Scandinavian mythology to that of Amenti (Amut) in Egyptian mythology. Just as those who had lived a worthy life according to Norse culture would be placed in one of the halls of the Gods, those who had not lived a worthy life were sent to Helheim in Nifelheim. However there were those who had lived such a bad life that they were not even worthy of a place in Hel's hall and these were sent down to the very roots of the world tree Yggdrassil where the great Wyrm (dragon-like serpent) known as Níðhöggr dwelt. His purpose was to chew at the roots and bring about the downfall of the world tree, when the most vile souls arrived there, after passing through countless layers of roots covered in angry, poisonous snakes who bit at the soul, Níðhöggr would swallow them and they would spend eternity being digested by the great beast, never to escape or reincarnate.
Qualities of the Serpent
Shedding the Skin: Rebirth, Renewal, Reincarnation
Snakes (as with other reptiles) do not shed skin in the way that most other creatures do, rather they shed the whole skin in one go, this is necessary for their growth. Unlike lizards, a snake's skin comes off as a whole piece, leaving behind what looks like a hollowed out snake. This can represent the ability to shed old habits, old or negative energy and thought patterns, to shed control or even to move from one life to another.
Because of the snakes ability to shed its entire skin, it becomes a powerful symbol for Shapeshifting. To be able to shed one skin and replace it with another. This is of course no different from the shedding of old negative habits and thought patterns.
Witches were said to be able to turn themselves into snakes.
Eating One's Own Tail: Ouroboros and Eternal Life
In ancient Egypt and Greece, infinity or eternity were represented by the symbol of the Ouroboros, a snake forming a circle by eating its own tail. This is also seen in the form of the Norse Jormungandr. This eternal aspect also relates to the shedding of the skin.
Venom: To Heal and to Harm
In the form of Asclepius, the serpent represents healing. However many stories around the world have serpents using their venom to wound. This dual nature echoes certain holistic therapies with the axiom that "What can heal can also harm". This is an important principle in Witchcraft making snakes an ideal companion animal or Totem for those practicing the healing arts, just as the Rod of Asclepius is now an international symbol for the medical profession.
Burrowing: Bringing Wisdom from the Earth
As seen with the Serpent of Eden, Quetzalcoatl and Asclepius, the serpent is associated with imparting divine wisdom to humanity. In the way that snakes burrow into the earth, they are said to bring up jewels from beneath the ground, thus representing the imparting of earthly wisdom.
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