The Serpent Holder:
A Constellation of Immense Significance?
by Lana Rings
Fort Worth and Arlington, Texas
Serpens Cauda (Tail of Serpent)
Serpens Caput (Head of Serpent)
Was this constellation at one time the night sky representation of the Minoan Snake Goddess? And if so, who was She, and why was She so important?
The Serpent Holder is actually two constellations: 1) the Serpent Holder itself surrounded on both sides by 2) the Serpent (whose head is to the left of the Serpent Holder and is called Serpens Caput, and whose tail is to the right of the Serpent Holder, Serpens Cauda). Originally, however, the two constellations were conceived of as a single unit. Allen says,
The stars and the rendering of the Serpent Holder below are taken from Rey (87). Only the right arm of the Serpent Holder has been modified to correspond to the lore indicating which stars in the serpent were held onto by the Serpent Holder (Allen, 374).
Traditional Perception of the Serpent Holder
and Scorpio, the Scorpion
This constellation is one of the largest, if not the most vast one, in the night sky. Perhaps it was one of the most important. If one finds it in the sky, it looks overwhelming. A further key to its importance may be its position in the night sky, for it looks as though it could be part of the zodiac. As stated elsewhere, the zodiac has been considered important, because the sun and planets (seem to) travel through the constellations of the zodiac, and knowledge of when certain constellations would appear on the horizon at specific times of the year provided a "calendar" by which agricultural peoples could determine planting, harvesting, etc. In addition, and related to this fact, watching the sky was, in an earlier form, an important religion among certain peoples in (pre-)history, concerned with the zodiacal constellations, as well as the sun, planets, and moon which (from earth seem to) travel through them. Present-day astrology is a remnant of just such religions. As Rey says, "An odd thing about the Serpent Holder is that it reaches into the zodiac, yet is not by tradition counted among the zodiacal figures, possibly because there would then be 13 constellations instead of 12" (52).
This information is extremely interesting, especially because if one looks at the ecliptic, the imaginary line through which the zodiac figures go, one finds that Aries the Ram (which is part of the zodiac) does not have even one star reaching across that line, whereas the Serpent Holder's leg very definitely does. Might the Serpent Holder not have been a "member" of the zodiac at one time? And why would 13 constellations have been so bad? (Twelve constellations, or twelve zodiac signs, represent the twelve-month calendar, but the twelve-month calendar is not set in stone.)
There are other things to consider as well about this whole problem. At one time Libra, the Scales, and Scorpio, the Scorpion, were part of one constellation, so if the Serpent Holder was in the zodiac at that time, there could still have been twelve constellations comprising the zodiac.
The number 13 is also a possible clue. It is often an unlucky number in Christian cultures, because it had been a lucky number in pre-Christian cultures. Thus, if the Serpent Holder had been a thirteenth constellation, it may not have been a perceptual problem for the people. The number 13 probably goes far back into pre-history as a lucky number, for the moon was perceived to cycle thirteen times in a lunar year, and the lunar calendar was probably the very first calendar perceived by human beings, the solar calendar being perceived later. (For example, it took less time to see the cycles of the moon than to see the cycles of the sun, for the moon waxes, grows full, wanes, and disappears once every 28 days, approximately, and the sun makes its rounds of four seasons once a year [although those seasons do not exist at the equator or north and south poles].) The possible meanings of all this information and the implications of it will be discussed in the final section of this chapter.
The constellation, just like all the other ancient constellations, has had a long and varied heritage. The Chinese had names for various groupings of its stars, as did the Arabs, the Greeks, and the Euphrateans (the latter's habitation corresponding geographically to present-day Iraq). Among many of the names that have been assigned to this constellation, or to groups of stars within and around it, the following are included (all information taken from Allen, 297-303, 374-376):
The Classical Greek Asklepios Stories
The Asklepios story is told in many books relating either Greek myths or constellation stories. There are two basic stories about how the great healer Asklepios came into this world. In both stories his mother was Coronis, daughter of King Phlegyas, and his father was the God Apollo.
Asklepios Version 1
In one version Apollo became Coronis' lover, and she conceived Asklepios. However, Coronis was a passionate woman and very much attracted to the Arcadian Ischys as well, and so she lay with him when Apollo was away on business in Delphi. Unfortunately, Apollo, being a God, could not be deceived, and he found out about what she had done. In a fit of jealous rage, he acted like a jerk and killed her, or had his sister Diana kill her. Then either he or Zeus killed Ischys her lover.
Immediately, however, Apollo was filled with remorse at Coronis' death, but although he was a God, he could not bring her back to life. Yet while the fires began burning on her funeral pyre, he realized she still had the child in her now-dead pregnant body, so he had Hermes cut the child out of her lifeless body. Thus, he saved his own son, and he named him Asklepios (Asclepius). The name comes from ascalaphos, which means 'lizard,' significant since much of the healing lore about Asklepios revolves around the serpent motif (Stoneman, 35). Apollo then gave Asklepios to the Centaur Cheiron to raise, "where he learned the arts of medicine and the chase" (Graves I, 174).
Could Apollo as representative of a new religion have killed Coronis representing an older, more indigenous religion? And might the baby and later adult forms of Asklepios represent the remnants of that older religion in the form of serpent/serpent holder/healer?
(Note: What is amazing is that, embodied in this story, are the twentieth-century textbook behaviors of an abusive boyfriend or husband. Like Apollo, the abuser can be intensely jealous of his wife or girlfriend. In addition, in a fit of jealous rage, he can beat her up or kill her. In addition, he can kill her lover. Finally, after he has wrecked havoc, he is often very remorseful. Apollo displayed the classic (no pun intended) symptoms of the abuser. We know such behavior is not uncommon in our day; however, it may also have been a not infrequent occurrence in classical Greece. Today such behavior is so common that one not only reads about it in the newspaper or hears about it on television [right now, 1995, a long trial is ensuing, of O.J. Simpson, famous basketball player accused of beating and killing his ex-wife and the man he supposedly thought was her boyfriend], but one also may know people who have been involved in such a situation. An acquaintance of the author had a sister, who was tortured by her husband, then, together with her lover, was killed by him. This behavior in relationships is identical to that of the Greeks. In that sense, as in others, we are even today like the ancient Greeks. Not only our philosophical wisdom, but also some of our bad behavior may stem from them.)
Asklepios Version 2
The people from Epidaurus, one of the major sites of Asklepios worship and where one of the major temples to Asklepios was later erected, had another version of his story. Again, Apollo and Coronis lay together, and she conceived Asklepios, but this time Apollo was not such a bad guy: he was just attracted to Coronis. Yet, for some reason, Coronis did not wish for her father to know she had become pregnant, so while she and her father were in Epidaurus (he to spy out the land for raiding purposes), she gave birth to Asklepios at Apollo's shrine there. In order to keep her secret from her father, she left her son exposed to the weather on Mount Titthion (now famous for its medicinal plants, according to Graves. [Note that Asklepios was a healer.])
Did she have to sacrifice her son because of what her father would have done, had he known she had become pregnant? Was she afraid of her father? Did she feel guilty? Be that as it may, the child was lucky, for a she-dog and a she-goat suckled the infant, and their shepherd found them with the boy. The shepherd was going to pick the baby up, but then saw rays emanating from the head of the child. So he spread the word of this miraculous occurrence, and people came from far and near and were healed by the baby boy, presaging his healing role in life. The remaining part of this story is similar to the first version, although Asklepios learned the art of healing from both Apollo and Cheiron. There is more, however: "he became so skilled in surgery and the use of drugs that he is revered as the founder of medicine" (Graves I, 174).
Asklepios healed the sick and brought the dead to life, for "Athene had given him two phials of the Gorgon Medusa's blood:" ... one to raise the dead, the other to kill with, but some say he only brought people back to life, and killed no one. Athene figures prominently in this part of the story of the hero God. She possessed the blood of the Gorgon Medusa, whose head she carries attached to her Aegis, or goatskin shield. Medusa's blood was both life- and death-generating blood, depending on the side of her body from which it came. Graves states that blood from the veins of Medusa's left side could raise the dead, blood from the right would kill instantly. He says other stories maintain "that Athene and Asclepius divided the blood between them: he used it to save life, but she to destroy life and instigate wars" (175). Whatever the story, Asklepios received his healing powers from the great Athena.
Athena and Asklepios both are related to the Crete Snake Goddess. Could they be split versions of the older Goddess, who was both creator/healer and destroyer? For note that Athena makes war and Asklepios heals in the latter myth.
So Asklepios went around healing the sick and raising the dead, much as the later Jesus and other healers did. But he raised eyebrows among the powerful Gods. Since he was bringing people back to life, Pluto became worried that his underworld would lose population, so when Asklepios was about to bring Orion back to life, Pluto had Zeus intervene and kill the healer with a thunderbolt. That would have been the end to Asklepios, except that Zeus later restored him to life. Then, according to Graves, "Asclepius's image, holding a curative serpent, was set among the stars by Zeus" (175). In addition to "curative," this serpent was considered "the emblem of wisdom, healing, and regeneration" (Motz and Nathanson, 233). Furthermore, "[s]erpents were sacred to Aesculapius, probably because of a superstition that those animals have a faculty of renewing their youth by a change of skin" (Bulfinch, 305). Finally, Hippocrates, from whom the Hippocratic Oath spoken by physicians comes, composed his medical treatises from inscriptions in temples of Aesculapius" (233), and was said to be descended from Asklepios himself, "eighteenth in succession to Asklepios" (Kasas, 24).
Although born of God and woman, and therefore born Half-God, Asklepios achieved divinity and a place among the Gods. Cheiron's daughter Euippe, a prophetess, had foretold that he "would become a god, die, and resume godhead..." (Graves I, 175). He was the great healer and surgeon, the father of all medicine. He could put limbs back together, heal, and even return the dead to life. He may have taught the use of medicinal herbs. He could play his harp and heal with his music. Perhaps he could put people into a trance and heal them that way as well.
Who was Asklepios to the Greeks of classical times? He was evidently quite important to them. They went to him to be healed in many ways, it seems, both physically and psychologically: through the waters of the two springs, for example, in Epidaurus (which, by the way, contain the same mineral content as at Evian in France (Kasas, 31) and through a variety of trance, dreaming, herbs, mesmerism, and perhaps drugs (33).
Was there perhaps less of a body/mind dichotomy in some of the popular religious beliefs, even though classical Greek thought had already set in?
According to Bulfinch "[t]here were numerous oracles of Aesculapius," the most celebrated of which was at Epidaurus (305). People came, once again, from all over to be healed at Asklepios' temples. In fact, according to Kasas, Asklepios was "the most worshiped of the gods" (Kasas, 23), and there were more than 300 sanctuaries of Asklepios (Aesculapia) in the Mediterranean region (28-9). According to Davaris, the most famous were at Trikki in Thessaly, where the worship of Asklepios originated, at Epidaurus, and at Kos, where Hippocrates was evidently born and taught (53).
Thessaly was quite important, and will be referred to later, for it was the place of Asklepios' origin, it was the home of the Pelasgians, and it was also the home of very ancient European cultures, whose remains from 7000 years ago have been excavated and studied by archeologists. All these facts have informative bearing on the earlier origins of Asklepios, which will be discussed below.
As stated above, Epidaurus was also an important center for Asklepios worship. According to Struckmann, Asklepios was the "most worshiped of the gods" (23), and "when the thrones of other gods were being shaken, the sanctuaries of Asklepios stood firm, even in ... late antiquity" (32). When visiting the ruins of the theatre at Epidaurus one "can imagine--though with some difficulty--how the mass of believers sitting in the rows were induced into religious ecstasy under the rhythmic beat of the holy chants" (Struckmann, 32)
Kos was also an island of Asklepios' in Greece. According to legend Triops was the leader of the Pelasgians from Thessaly who settled in Kos. His son Merops was the first king of Kos, and his great-granddaughter was Kos, after whom the island was named. Its temple ruins and museum can also be visited today. Like Epidaurus, there are many spring waters at Kos.
In the museum at Kos there is a statue of Aklepios. His head has been lost to the ages, and it seems that his left arm may be missing, although partially covered by the folds from his gown, but the rest of the statue is intact. To his left is a very small statue of what seems to be a male figure, the demon Telesphoros, while his right hand is at his side, about six inches away, holding what looks like an egg. Also at his side is what seems to be a small tree trunk, up which a snake is slithering, its head almost reaching for the egg. There is another statue as well, that of a beautiful woman, Hygeia, his daughter "Health." Also to her left is a tiny cherub, the god Eros. Yet she is holding the snake in her right hand, while her left holds the egg. The snake seems to be reaching for the egg. The statues of Asklepios and Hygeia are very late, from the second half of the second century A.D., in our terms quite modern (Davaris, 22, 24).
Hygeia (without Eros)
Asklepios was also very important to the Romans. They took him over from Greece as well, for the story goes that there was a time of great sickness in Rome, and so the Oracle of Asklepios was consulted and the God asked to help. He accompanied the Roman ship back to Rome in the form of a serpent, slithered off the ship and onto an island, on which a temple was then erected in his honor.
Thus, not only the God himself, but also his snake, "the principal symbol of Asklepios as a healer" (Struckmann, 21), was very important to the believers. As stated above, the snake was perceived in a positive, healing way. It was thought that snakes had much life-affirming and death-wielding power: "They were worshipped for their power over life and death (poisonous snakes)" (Struckmann, 21). Furthermore, a snake's "periodic shedding of its skin was a symbol of rebirth and the preservation of beauty; it [the snake] was also a symbol of eternal youth and immortality..." (21). Finally, "the snake was seen as a healer and a wise creature, while in myth it was a leading expert on therapeutic herbs" (21). Such harmless snakes, according to Struckmann, still exist in modern Europe, having been introduced by the Romans. He also maintains that it is a symbol of the male element, the phallus. These meanings are critical, for they did not begin with the classical Greeks, or even the Minoan Crete inhabitants, the predecessors of many of the Greeks' concepts. Rather, they go back much further into antiquity and pre-history.
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