The serpent, or snake, is one of the oldest and most widespread mythological symbols.

The word is derived from Latin serpens, a crawling animal or snake. Snakes have been associated with some of the oldest rituals known to humankind and represent dual expression of good and evil.

In some cultures, snakes were fertility symbols. For example, the Hopi people of North America performed an annual snake dance to celebrate the union of Snake Youth (a Sky spirit) and Snake Girl (an Underworld spirit) and to renew the fertility of Nature.

During the dance, live snakes were handled and at the end of the dance, the snakes were released into the fields to guarantee good crops.

“The snake dance is a prayer to the spirits of the clouds, the thunder and the lightning, that the rain may fall on the growing crops.”

In other cultures, snakes symbolized the umbilical cord, joining all humans to Mother Earth. The Great Goddess often had snakes as her familiars—sometimes twining around her sacred staff, as in ancient Crete—and they were worshiped as guardians of her mysteries of birth and regeneration.

Fertility and rebirth

Historically, serpents and snakes represent fertility or a creative life force. As snakes shed their skin through sloughing, they are symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. The Ouroboros is a symbol of eternity and continual renewal of life.

In some Abrahamic traditions, the serpent represents sexual desire. According to some interpretations of the Midrash, the serpent represents sexual passion. In Hinduism, Kundalini is a coiled serpent.

Guardianship

Serpents are represented as potent guardians of temples and other sacred spaces. This connection may be grounded in the observation that when threatened, some snakes (such as rattlesnakes or cobras) frequently hold and defend their ground, first resorting to threatening display and then fighting, rather than retreat.

Thus, they are natural guardians of treasures or sacred sites which cannot easily be moved out of harm’s way.

At Angkor in Cambodia, numerous stone sculptures present hooded multi-headed nāgas as guardians of temples or other premises.

A favorite motif of Angkorean sculptors from approximately the 12th century CE onward was that of the Buddha, sitting in the position of meditation, his weight supported by the coils of a multi-headed naga that also uses its flared hood to shield him from above.

This motif recalls the story of the Buddha and the serpent king Mucalinda: as the Buddha sat beneath a tree engrossed in meditation, Mucalinda came up from the roots of the tree to shield the Buddha from a tempest that was just beginning to arise.

Poison and medicine

Serpents are connected with poison and medicine. The snake’s venom is associated with the chemicals of plants and fungi that have the power to either heal, poison or provide expanded consciousness (and even the elixir of life and immortality) through divine intoxication.

Because of its herbal knowledge and entheogenic association the snake was often considered one of the wisest animals, being (close to the) divine.

Its divine aspect combined with its habitat in the earth between the roots of plants made it an animal with chthonic properties connected to the afterlife and immortality.

The deified Greek physician Asclepius, as the God of medicine and healing, carried a staff with one serpent wrapped around it, which has become the symbol of modern medicine.

Moses also had a replica of a serpent on a pole, the Nehushtan, mentioned in Numbers 21:8.

African mythology

In Africa the chief center of serpent worship was Dahomey, but the cult of the python seems to have been of exotic origin, dating back to the first quarter of the 17th century.

By the conquest of Whydah, the Dahomeyans were brought in contact with a people of serpent worshipers and ended by adopting from them the beliefs which they at first despised. At Whydah, the chief center, there is a serpent temple, tenanted by some fifty snakes.

Every python of the Danh-gbi kind must be treated with respect, and death is the penalty for killing one, even by accident. Danh-gbi has numerous wives, who until 1857 took part in a public procession from which the profane crowd was excluded; a python was carried round the town in a hammock, perhaps as a ceremony for the expulsion of evils.

The rainbow-god of the Ashanti was also conceived to have the form of a snake. His messenger was said to be a small variety of boa, but only certain individuals, not the whole species, were sacred. In many parts of Africa, the serpent is looked upon as the incarnation of deceased relatives.

Among the Amazulu, as among the Betsileo of Madagascar, certain species are assigned as the abode of certain classes. The Maasai, on the other hand, regard each species as the habitat of a particular family of the tribe.

Ancient Near East

In ancient Mesopotamia, Nirah, the messenger god of Ištaran, was represented as a serpent on kudurrus, or boundary stones.

Representations of two intertwined serpents are common in Sumerian art and Neo-Sumerian artwork and still appear sporadically on cylinder seals and amulets until as late as the thirteenth century BCE.

The horned viper (Cerastes cerastes) appears in Kassite and Neo-Assyrian kudurrus and is invoked in Assyrian texts as a magical protective entity.

A dragon-like creature with horns, the body, and neck of a snake, the forelegs of a lion, and the hind-legs of a bird appears in Mesopotamian art from the Akkadian Period until the Hellenistic Period (323 BCE–31 BCE).

This creature, known in Akkadian as the mušḫuššu, meaning “furious serpent“, was used as a symbol for particular deities and also as a general protective emblem.

It seems to have originally been the attendant of the Underworld god Ninazu, but later became the attendant to the Hurrian storm-god Tishpak, as well as, later, Ninazu’s son Ningishzida, the Babylonian national god Marduk, the scribal god Nabu, and the Assyrian national god Ashur.

Snake cults were well established in Canaanite religion in the Bronze Age, for archaeologists have uncovered serpent cult objects in Bronze Age strata at several pre-Israelite cities in Canaan: two at Megiddo, one at Gezer, one in the sanctum sanctorum of the Area H temple at Hazor, and two at Shechem.

In the surrounding region, serpent cult objects figured in other cultures. A late Bronze Age Hittite shrine in northern Syria contained a bronze statue of a god holding a serpent in one hand and a staff in the other.

In 6th-century Babylon, a pair of bronze serpents flanked each of the four doorways of the temple of Esagila. At the Babylonian New Year’s festival, the priest was to commission from a woodworker, a metalworker and a goldsmith two images one of which “shall hold in its left hand a snake of cedar, raising its right [hand] to the god Nabu“.

At the tell of Tepe Gawra, at least seventeen Early Bronze Age Assyrian bronze serpents were recovered.

Ancient Iran

Snakes are sacred and powerful in the thoughts of prehistoric cultures of Iran. It seems that they have worshiped along with the fertility goddesses, from fourth to first millennium BC.

We can detect their presence as mighty patrons and source of life and immortality in the art of Tall-i Bakun, Chogha Mish, Tepe Sialk, Jiroft culture, Shahr-e Sukhteh, Shahdad, Elamite art, Luristan art, etc.

Serpents have pictured as patrons of fertility, water and wealth in the ancient objects of Iran. However, it seems that the symbolic concept of the serpent has reversed in the cultures of Iranian plateau over time.

In Abrahamic traditions, the serpent represents sexual desire, as he lured Eve with the promise of forbidden knowledge in the Garden of Eden.

Aryan religions call the serpents diabolic too; Azhi Dahake in Avesta is a scary serpent and Zahhak in the Shahnameh is an infernal creature with two snakes on his shoulders.

This replacement might be due to communicating between the inhabitants of Iran and believers in Abrahamic religions and beyond that the conversion of matriarchy into patriarchy, in the social structure of Iranian plateau cultures.

Greek mythology

The Minoan Snake Goddess brandished a serpent in either hand, perhaps evoking her role as a source of wisdom, rather than her role as Mistress of the Animals (Potnia theron), with a leopard under each arm.

Serpents figured prominently in archaic Greek myths. According to some sources, Ophion (“serpent”, a.k.a. Ophioneus), ruled the world with Eurynome before the two of them were cast down by Cronus and Rhea.

The oracles of the Ancient Greeks were said to have been the continuation of the tradition begun with the worship of the Egyptian cobra goddess, Wadjet.

Typhon the enemy of the Olympian gods is described as a vast grisly monster with a hundred heads and a hundred serpents issuing from his thighs, who was conquered and cast into Tartarus by Zeus or confined beneath volcanic regions, where he is the cause of eruptions.

Typhon is thus the chthonic figuration of volcanic forces. Serpent elements figure among his offspring; among his children by Echidna are: Cerberus (a monstrous three-headed dog with a snake for a tail and a serpentine mane); the serpent-tailed Chimaera; the serpent-like chthonic water beast Lernaean Hydra; and the hundred-headed serpentine dragon Ladon. Both the Lernaean Hydra and Ladon were slain by Heracles.

Python was the earth-dragon of Delphi, she always was represented in the vase-paintings and by sculptors as a serpent. Pytho was the chthonic enemy of Apollo, who slew her and remade her former home his own oracle, the most famous in Classical Greece.

Medusa and the other Gorgons were vicious female monsters with sharp fangs and hair of living, venomous snakes whose origins predate the written myths of Greece and who were the protectors of the most ancient ritual secrets.

The Gorgons wore a belt of two intertwined serpents in the same configuration of the caduceus. The Gorgon was placed at the center, highest point of one of the pediments on the Temple of Artemis at Corfu.

Asclepius, the son of Apollo and Koronis, learned the secrets of keeping death at bay after observing one serpent bringing another (which Asclepius himself had fatally wounded) back to life with healing herbs.

To prevent the entire human race from becoming immortal under Asclepius’s care, Zeus killed him with a bolt of lightning. Asclepius’ death at the hands of Zeus illustrates man’s inability to challenge the natural order that separates mortal men from the gods.

In honor of Asclepius, snakes were often used in healing rituals. Non-poisonous snakes were left to crawl on the floor in dormitories where the sick and injured slept.

The Bibliotheca claimed that Athena gave Asclepius a vial of blood from the Gorgons. Gorgon blood had magical properties: if taken from the left side of the Gorgon, it was a fatal poison; from the right side, the blood was capable of bringing the dead back to life.

However, Euripides wrote in his tragedy Ion that the Athenian queen Creusa had inherited this vial from her ancestor Erichthonios, who was a snake himself and had received the vial from Athena. In this version, the blood of Medusa had the healing power while the lethal poison originated from Medusa’s serpents.

Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great and a princess of the primitive land of Epirus, had the reputation of a snake-handler, and it was in serpent form that Zeus was said to have fathered Alexander upon her.

Aeetes, the king of Colchis and father of the sorceress Medea, possessed the Golden Fleece. He guarded it with a massive serpent that never slept. Medea, who had fallen in love with Jason of the Argonauts, enchanted it to sleep so Jason could seize the Fleece.

When not driven by horses, the chariot of the Greek sun god is described as being pulled by fiery draconic beings. The most notable instance of this is observed in the episode in which Medea is given her grandfather’s chariot, which is pulled by serpents through the sky.

Jewish mythology

In the Hebrew Bible the serpent in the Garden of Eden lured Eve with the promise of being like God, tempting her that despite God’s warning, death would not be the result, that God was withholding knowledge from her.

Although the serpent is identified as Satan in the Book of Revelation, in Genesis the serpent is portrayed merely as a deceptive creature or trickster, promoting as good what God had directly forbidden, and particularly cunning in its deception (Gen. 3:4–5 and 3:22).

The staff of Moses transformed into a snake and then back into a staff (Exodus 4:2–4). The Book of Numbers 21:6–9 provides an origin for an archaic copper serpent, Nehushtan by associating it with Moses. This copper snake according to the Biblical text is wrapped around a pole and used for healing.

Book of Numbers 21:9 “And Moses made a snake of copper and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a snake had bitten any man when he beheld the snake of brass, he lived.”

Native American mythology

In America, some of the Native American tribes give reverence to the rattlesnake as grandfather and king of snakes who is able to give fair winds or cause tempest.

Among the Hopi of Arizona the serpent figures largely in one of the dances. The rattlesnake was worshiped in the Natchez temple of the sun and the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl was a feathered serpent-god. In many Meso-American cultures, the serpent was regarded as a portal between two worlds.

The tribes of Peru are said to have adored great snakes in the pre-Inca days and in Chile, the Mapuche made a serpent figure in their deluge beliefs.

In one Native North American story, an evil serpent kills one of the gods’ cousins, so the god kills the serpent in revenge, but the dying serpent unleashes a great flood. People first flee to the mountains and then, when the mountains are covered, they float on a raft until the flood subsides.

The evil spirits that the serpent god controlled then hide out of fear. The Mound Builders associated great mystical value to the serpent, as the Serpent Mound demonstrates, though we are unable to unravel the particular associations.

Nordic mythology

Jörmungandr alternately referred to as the Midgard Serpent or World Serpent, is a sea serpent of the Norse mythology, the middle child of Loki and the giantess Angrboða.

According to the Prose Edda, Odin took Loki’s three children, Fenrisúlfr, Hel and Jörmungandr. He tossed Jörmungandr into the great ocean that encircles Midgard.

The serpent grew so big that he was able to surround the Earth and grasp his own tail, and as a result, he earned the alternate name of the Midgard Serpent or World Serpent. Jörmungandr’s arch enemy is the god Thor.

In the Poetic Edda, Odin tells of 8 serpents gnawing on the roots of Yggdrasil: Nidhöggr, Gravvitnir, Moin, Goin, Grábakr, Grafvölluðr, Svafnir, and Ofnir.

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*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.