In Defense of Snakes, Serpents,
and Other Lizard Types

 by Lana Rings

Fort Worth and Arlington, Texas

Snakes figure prominently in the Night Sky. Draco the dragon is today almost at the hub of the zenith, and was actually there 5000 years ago. The Serpent Holder is a huge constellation, a human being holding a long snake in each hand and representing healing. The Hydra is a long water snake--one of the longest constellations, upon whose back a cauldron and a raven rest. In addition, many Greek myths informing the Greek constellation stories deal with snakes and serpents and sea monsters as positive and negative images.

Before Olympian Greeks put their mythology up into the existing constellations of the night sky, thus erasing older tales of the same constellations, snakes were perceived differently. They disgust us in the United States and Europe. Today we hate them. Other peoples didn't and don't.

Other animals have also been maligned in later times, as will be shown when we wend our way through their constellations. Still others were not maligned. Yet the snake is the most significant animal, because it was an important animal in the pre-Greek, pre-Judeochristian lives and religions of the Near East--and because it is perhaps the most misunderstood. As we look into the constellations that seem to form the sky of the goddess, the snake will return several times. Other animals will be addressed just as well, though, for they, too, have their goddess stories. It will be against this background that we will then be able to look up into the night sky and view the constellations. But in defense of the poor snake, we need at least several pages.


Snakes in the Western World Today

The Lord God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, cursed are you above all cattle, and above all wild animals; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed...." Genesis 3:14-15.

Scholars annotating this 1973 version of the Oxford Bible comment: "The curse contains an old explanation of why the serpent crawls rather than walks and why men are instintively hostile to it" (my italics) [p.5].

One might think that the loathing and disgust with which many people react to snakes is an emotional reaction, even a natural reaction to predators so different-looking from ourselves. Even sophisticated scholars think we are "instinctively hostile" to the snake, based on the quote above. Yet, it is our contention that the origin of our loathing comes from religious sources--even for those of us who do not consider ourselves religious anymore. The bad rap that snakes have gotten is not due to any innate disgust we have for snakes, for such a disgust has not existed at all times among people, as we shall see, nor is it even universal across cultures today, as we shall also see. It is a cultural phenomenon, tightly linked to our traditional ideas of good and evil, light and dark, and body and spirit.

Before we had such dualistic, opposing concepts, snakes were perceived differently. Snakes were considered part of the holiest of the holy. It is for that very reason that the proponents of the later religions that came into the lands of the snake-revering peoples had to make the snake so evil. If they hadn't suppressed the reverence for the snake with a loathing of it--and with force over centuries, their religions could not have taken hold and ultimately wiped out much of what was those older religions.

In the United States if you merely mention snakes to people, they often react with disgust and cringing. Even in rattlesnake roundups in the mid- to southwest, snakes are treated with contempt and unnecessary kicking. In Oklahoma they are hunted and caught, then left without food or water for a month or more, left weakened and confused in an alien world. Our loathing of snakes is not restricted to religion, although that is where it may have begun. We have no respect for snakes, nor do we understand anything about them or want to learn about them.

Recently, attitudes have begun changing. Experts in zoos, especially wanting to help people re-establish ties with nature that have been broken through our lives in the cities and our hierarchical attitude towards it ("we are better than animals and nature") in an effort to regain a respect for our environment and ecological systems, have begun showing snakes to children and adults and instituting educational programs about them, among other animals. They are teaching that snakes are not loathsome, disgusting, or evil, and allow children and adults to pet and handle them as well. Even public television has been involved in educating people about snakes. Yet, by and large, many people still cringe at the thought of snakes.

The Public Broadcasting System released a special on "The Serpent," debunking some attitudes held towards snakes and informing the public of their lives, maintaining that we fear snakes, and that that fear is due to ignorance and misunderstanding about them. Snakes live the world over, from "jungles to desert," "from trees to the sea." Most of them are "shy and unaggressive." Most are non-poisonous. True, they are predators, but so are human beings! They are powerful predators, and can kill their prey with a single bite. Some of the pythons have a powerful grip and indeed cause the human imagination to run wild. But snakes are also in danger from all kinds of predators themselves.

Their smell is on their forked tongue; thus, they stick it out to detect smells. Pythons can detect body heat on mammals and birds and thus tell where they are because they can "see" infrared, i.e., they have a sense that detects infrared. Their heads and jaws are expandable so that they can take in a fairly large meal and perform "feats of swallowing." In their bones snakes can detect vibration. But they have no ears.

They cannot see details well, so the movement of several young animals adjacent to each other might be perceived by a snake as the movement of one large animal, causing concern and fear in the snake. And snakes usually do not want to attack humans. They do not have endless supplies of venom and need to use it on their prey for food, so they will use it in self-defense against humans or other animals as a last resort, after they have tried their innate methods of warning, consisting of either hissing, rattling, showing their hood, or rubbing their scales together.

No snakes hunt humans, and they warn before they bite. In fact, no snakes show malice towards us. There is only one snake that is venomous and extremely aggressive.


Snakes in Other Worlds Today

Other cultures have a different attitude toward snakes--other cultures of people in countries still with large agricultural populations. In many cultures the snake is sacred and revered for its amazing powers of survival. It represents to many people a symbol of eternal life, because it can shed its skin and is perceived to be "reborn." In Malaysia there are sacred vipers in the temples which are docile, even though poisonous, and the worshipers are not afraid of them. They are a "living talisman of good luck." And many human beings admire them--"their sinuous form, limbless gliding movement;" they are fast and can disappear into very small crevices. They also represent eternal life.

In some areas egg-eating snakes have been perceived as symbolic of lunar eclipses.

In India, for example, many people have a very different relationship to the concept 'snake.' In India a hooded Cobra has been a symbol of fertility.

In India 20,000 visit a small village yearly to pay homage to the cobras which they worship and honor. The cobras are very beneficial to these human beings, controlling rats and mice in rice fields. In one of the ceremonies women offer "camphor and sacred dyes" to the cobras as signs of respect. The cobras are then afterwards taken back to their dens in the fields. The people know the snakes can be deadly. But rather than fear and loathing, they have a cautious admiration of them. Caution and admiration linked together form a much healthier view of this animal, "elegant in design," "often beautiful," and with a "unique place in the natural world." In China the dragon, a snake-like symbol, signifies fertility and wisdom--ancient ideas.

In our time in Southeast Asia many pythons have been killed for their skins, which were used for bags, boots, and belts. As a result the rodent population is exploding, destroying stored grain and spreading disease. In other areas of the world, humans are pushing snakes from their natural habitats as they take over with human habitation, thus causing humans and snakes to come into contact more, thereby increasing the danger to humans.

All this information makes one aware of the bias that we in the Western world have toward snakes in general. It makes us aware that ours is not the only attitude, certainly not an instinctive one. It makes us aware that, since we do have a visceral physical reaction to snakes, we need to re-educate not only our minds, but also our feelings and emotions about snakes. We need to spend time with them to replace fear with caution and admiration, "cautious admiration." And as one looks at the attitudes of people from other times as well as other areas of the present-day world, one becomes even more aware of how widespread attitudes very different from our own have been. It is to these times that we now turn, for they form the background and context against which we may view the snakes of the Night Sky in a new, and therefore, ancient light: the night sky of the goddess.


Ancient Attitudes towards the Snake

It is difficult for those of us who have grown up in a world of opposites, of good and bad, to understand how one can accept a concept embodying both; for in our world good and bad are opposing dualities. Life is good, and death is bad. We strive for life, and would just as soon do away with death. In fact, our religions attempt to do just that by informing us of "life after death." Many cannot conceive of a divinity or deity creating both life and death, embodying both; for the gods we worship, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc. all created life and good, but not death and evil.

In another time there were belief systems that were not composed of opposites, but of cycles of a never-ending spiral of life and death and life. The creator was perceived as being both creator and destroyer, and life was perceived as being made up of birth/growth/maturation/decay/death/rebirth/etc. Thus, the whole life cycle was accepted. And the serpent symbol was part of the whole cycle. For the snake was a symbol of life: shedding its skin, immortality, rebirth; and it was a symbol of death: one bite of a cobra (?) could kill in fifteen minutes. Yet, it was not hated because of the negative aspect. It was revered as a symbol of reality: that which is. We are born, we grow, we reach maturation, we decay, we die. Of course, ancient peoples, just like us, desired immortality, so the idea of rebirth is an ancient one. It can be seen in the vegetative cycle as well: seedling (birth), sprouting and growing (growth), full bloom (maturation), decay (decay), rotting (death); then out of the rotted matter a seed and birth once again as seedling. So the snake was neither "good" nor "evil" in our sense. It was a symbol of the life process.

Many snakes were female. Tiamat of Babylon was a female snake or dragon who "was recorded as the first divine being. ... [She] originally possessed the Tablets of Destiny" (Stone 1976, 200). The Sumerian goddess Nidaba was sometimes depicted as a snake and was "the first patron deity of writing" (Stone 1976, 199). Ninlil had the tail of a snake and was said "to have brought the gift of agriculture and thus civilization to Her people" (199). Inanna was "the Divine Mother who reveals the laws. Nina, another form of the name Inanna, ... was esteemed as an oracular deity and an interpreter of dreams" (199). Ishtar of Babylon, later than the deities described above, was depicted as a female holding a staff "around which coiled two snakes" (200), and Ishtar is called "Lady of Vision of Kisurru" and "She who Directs the Oracles" and "Prophetess of Kua" (200). In Egypt the Cobra Goddess was Ua Zit. "We later see Her as the uraeus cobra worn upon the foreheads of other deities and Egyptian royalty. The cobra was known as the Eye, uzait, a symbol of mystic insight and wisdom, ... always written in the female form" (201). In Crete, one of the largest of the Greek Islands, female goddess statues from 1600 BCE stand holding snakes in their hands. And finally, in later times, e.g. 500 BCE, in Greece, Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom and of Civilization, was always in the form of a female statue accompanied by her snake, which had its own building on the Acropolis near her Parthenon (temple). Women and snakes were compared as divine and eternal, because snakes shed their skin, seeming to be "reborn" and women menstruated every month, shedding their blood.

So the snake is connected to wisdom and civilization and goddesses as positive. In addition, the snake is connected with divine prophesy. Even in today's dictionaries a pythoness is described as a prophetess or witch.

The reason a snake may be depicted as prophetic was described by Stone. Supposedly snakes licked Cassandra the prophetess' ears when she was a baby. Snakes were kept at the temples of the Goddesses and at the temple at Delphi, supposedly providing the priestesses/prophetesses--women--with prophetic insight and divine counsel, sought after and used by politicians even in Greek times. The reason snakes might be the means to prophetic vision is that the venom of certain poisonous snakes, if one is made immune to it, can provide a person, when bitten, with similar experiences provided by mind-altering drugs like LSD. Thus, it is possible that "mind-expanding powers" were perceived by the priestesses who prophesied. Thus the snake may have been a real link to certain kinds of altered states and experiences.

In other myths the serpent is a living phallus created by the Goddess for her own pleasure. Thus the serpent can be perceived as a symbol of sexual pleasure for women. The snake was also depicted in the myth of Asclepios the healer as a symbol of healing.

Two additional lines of thought regarding snakes are also revealing as to the multifaceted nature of snake-serpent symbolism. In England the ley line philosophy has been described. In English tales and legends, in Chinese beliefs, and supposedly actual experience, it is thought that there are serpentine-like underground lines of some kind of magnetic energy which are found across the earth. These are called ley lines and supposedly were known by ancient peoples as underground currents that converged at holy places, places where, for example, at some point the energy was helpful to women for easier childbirth, where even animals would go for the same thing (see Hitching 1976). There were also human-made mounds in England, "re-shaped, probably for religious reasons, or for some use in that religion, perhaps for storing or controlling some sort of static electrical current, in a similar way that stone circles may have been used. One can feel the current sometimes at sacred sites and churches, variously described as a tingling sensation in the fingers, in the spine or back of the neck. Or it can be a sense of great peace, or just a strange feeling about a place. Whatever this energy really is, it is very strong when concentrated--strong enough, so legend has it, that when the dragon's blood is spilled--or when something goes wrong with the energy--no grass will grow on the site. This is said to have happened at Dragon Hill...." (Hoult 1987, 22). Simarly, according to Walker, The "Ouroboros (snake) was still pictured under the earth in certain European areas, and some people claimed to be able to feel his slow movements through their feet when they stood in the ancient shrines" (909)--very reminiscent of the dragon energy described by Hoult. Some traditions identified the Great Serpent as a male "with the Earth's intestines. ... Serpents understood how to restore life to the dead, according to the myths of Crete..." (907). Furthermore, the Anglo-Saxon word 'drakan,' according to Hoult, "is probably a Greek derivative, either from 'draco' meaning a dragon or large snake, or from the verb 'derkein,' which means to see clearly. Dragons were credited with clear sight, wisdom and the ability to foretell the future, the same characteristics that the Mediterranean and Near Eastern snake deities possessed!

Finally, there is an interesting connection between Eve and the serpent, one not told in the Christian bible. The name Eve means "Mother of All Living." The name YHWH, which supposedly stands for Yahweh, actually when broken down is Y (for "I") and HWH, which when translated into Latin letters, forms E-V-E (Walker, 288-9)! In addition, HWH means both "life" and woman." In the Gnostic Scriptures "life" is Hawwa. According to Walker there is an Aramaic pun in the Gnostic accounts of Eve identifying "Eve, the Teacher, and the Serpent: Hawah, Mother of All Living; hawa, to instruct; and hewya, Serpent. Eve's name in Arabic still combines the idea of "life" (hayyat) with the name of the serpent (Hayyat)" (904). Thus, we come full circle. The serpent, wisdom, and the female were all aspects of deity in Egyptian, Sumerian, Babylonian, and Greek religion (among others). Eve represents the same: female, primordial deity, wise one, and serpent!

In fact, it may be that Eve, the Minoan Snake goddess (or priestess?) holding a snake in each hand, and the Serpent Holder constellation (Asklepios) represent the same deity. It could be, too, that Eve and Hera are related. The chapter which describes the serpent holder details such possible connections.

So in some accounts the serpent and the female deity are the same. In others she is accompanied by the serpent. In still others the serpent is the phallus made for her pleasure. However, the serpent in all the legends has to do with life. In most it also has to do with wisdom, rebirth, woman, and in some legends is symbolizes healing. Thus, while the snake can indeed be a symbol of death because of the poison venom that some snakes possess, in most pre-Christian legends, the snake, or dragon, is perceived as something quite positive, or for some peoples, both positive and negative. "It is notable that in the whole world, it is only in the areas which have been converted by the Christian church that both the serpent and the dragon have jointly come to signify evil. Everywhere else (including the Old Testament) they are either beneficial, or embody in their powers both good and evil, or potentially are capable of either" (Hitching 1976, 253).

The serpent, finally, is symbolized as the spiral, as a circle, as a conjoining of female and male. The snake truly symbolizes many things to many peoples down through the millenia.


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