Archive file# r020600a
donated by L. Savage
THE SERPENT AS DIVINITY
by Robert T. Mason, Ph.D., D.D.
[AS OF MARCH 1998]
The Mythic Beginnings
Since the very beginnings of time, on every continent of this
earth where humanity has worshipped divinity the serpent has been
recognized and accepted as a god. From Africa's steaming jungle
to the icy wastes of northern Europe; from the fertile crescent
to the deserted outback of Australia the serpent has been worshipped,
feared and adored. Serpent mythology is arguably the most widespread
mythology known to mankind.
We will be dealing with language that is found in myth and
legend any discussion of a divine serpent, so we should take time
to explain the use of the myth in religious and legendary arenas
before we begin. When we examine the history of truth or knowledge
in the history of mankind we are faced with the fact that the
origin of myth lies in the Greek concept of muthos
[ muthos] , which as the definition of truth or knowledge
predates the use of the Greek word Logos [lpgos],
from which we derive our word logic. Myth for the early human
usually referred to those realities which were known by experience,
be it archetypal , unconscious, or based upon the cultural and
ritual beliefs of human civilization. An esteemed 'egg-head' mathematical
scientist , Albert Einstein once said; " Knowledge is experience;
anything else is just information".
In this article the word "myth" will be defined as
a story of forgotten or vague origin, basically religious since
we are dealing with the concept of divinity, which seeks to explain
or rationalize an important aspect of the world or a society.
Furthermore, in the context of this article, all myths used are,
or have been at some stage, actually believed to be true by the
peoples of the societies that used or originated the myth. This
definition is thus clearly distinguished from the use of the word
myth in everyday speech which basically refers to an unreal or
imaginary story. Myth, as used herein, is also distinctly different
from an allegory or parable which is a story deliberately made
up to illustrate some moral point but which has never been assumed
to be true.
Originally myths were not expressed in verbal or written form
because language was deemed inadequate to convey the truth expressed
in the story. The myths were enacted, chanted, painted, costumed,
danced, sung and imagined, sometimes in hypnotic or hallucinatory
states. In this manner the creative energies and relationships
behind and beneath the natural world were brought into the conscious
realm The myth was believed to not only to tell about but to create
a chain from the metaphysical world to the physical one.
Later in historical time myth becomes connected to and often
identified with another Greek concept, that of legend, which
stems from the Greek Legion or Logos [logos]
which meant word or language. Myth then became a written form.
And Mythos/Logos is the activity of human consciousness which
translates or transfers the underlying forms and powers from the
unconscious to the conscious, from the dream world to the world
In our 'modern' world we have so discounted the power and reality
of the myth, denigrating them to the level of 'fairy tales' that
we have lost contact with our ground. We don't know who we are,
and so we don't know how to act. We have thrown out the 'baby',
our orienting myths of origin with the 'bath water', non-useful
and unnecessary data which often accompanied these myths.
Joseph Campbell is quoted as saying: " Throughout the
inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the
myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration
for whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the
human body and mind. It would not be too much to say that myth
is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies
of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation."I believe that there could be nothing more absurd than to think
that our modern scientific methodology could ever eliminate the
poetic and mythic, for science is closed against certain dimensions
of the real which only myth and the poetic can attain. It is the
height of absurdity to imagine that scientific 'knowledge' exhausts
I would like to use a collective definition composed of many
theories which meet my criteria for mythology framed into a single
paraphrase: Myths are stories, usually, about gods and other supernatural
beings. They are often stories of origins, how the world and everything
in it came to be in illo tempore [Eliade]. They are usually
strongly structured and their meaning is only discerned by linguistic
analysis [Levi-Strauss]. Sometimes they are public dreams which,
like private dreams, emerge from the unconscious mind; they more
often reveal archetypes of the collective unconscious [Jung].
Myths are symbolic and metaphorical, and they orient people to
the metaphysical dimension, explain the origins and nature of
the cosmos, and on a psychological plane, address themselves to
the innermost depths of the human psyche. Some of them are explanatory,
being prescientific attempts to interpret the natural world (
such as the shedding of snake skin). As such, they are usually
functional and are the science of primitive peoples. Religious
myths are sacred histories and are distinguished from the profane.
But, all tell of the truth told by human experience which cannot
be explained by normal use of language. It was that great scientist,
Albert Einstein, who said " Science without religion is lame;
Religion without science is blind."
The myth in any primitive society, that is in the original
living form of the myth is not a fairy tale but a reality lived.
Myths are human experience, and when myths are narrated it is
not usually the speaker who speaks but the wisdom of the forefathers
speaking through him. The principal role of the shaman was the
myth holder and narrator.
In the theories of the eminent Swiss psychologist, Karl Jung,
the fantasies of the collective unconscious stem from the actual
experiences of ancient ancestors, and the development of prehistory
as a serious field of study is of considerable importance to the
creators of myth. Certain facts exist in human history, and these
are most often found hidden in myths. I have even been led to
muse on the fact that the usual depiction of the double helix
representing DNA is remarkably similar to the ancient depiction
of the serpents guarding the world tree, a figure still found
in the caduceus.
In Jung's view, the snake, as a chthonic and at the same time
spiritual being, symbolizes the unconscious. In particular, according
to Jung, the symbolism of the snake's has sudden and unexpected
manifestations and painful or dangerous intervention in human
affairs often has frightening effects. Crucial to the understanding
of the serpent as a libido symbol is a consideration of the biological
characteristics of the actual creature. Jung stresses the fact
that the snake is a cold- blooded vertebrate and with that fact
alone the true psychic rapport that can be established with practically
all warm-blooded animals comes to an end. Like the Gnostics of
early Christianity who identified the serpent with the human medulla
and spinal cord, Jung regards the serpent as the psychic representation
of the profoundly unconscious functions which are governed by
these organs. I think that perhaps this is why the serpent is
so often seen as a divine creature, a sort of god which lies behind
all human functioning.
The mysterious dynamism of the snake, its extraordinary vitality
and its seeming immortality through the periodic rejuvenation
of shedding the old and appearing new each year must have instilled
a sense of awe and invoked a powerful response in our earliest
ancestors, the Neolithic agriculturist. The snake was consequently
mythologized, attributed often with powers that could control
the entire cosmos. Everywhere we find the snake, or its representation,
the spiral, on primitive pottery. Vases show forth gigantic snakes
winding over the whole universe, or over the sun, moon and stars;
elsewhere the snake appears below a growing plant or coils above
the belly of a pregnant woman. The snake was the symbol of energy,
spontaneous, creative energy, and of immortality.
Respect and worship of the serpent by humans has been obvious
from the time that both humans and serpents co-habitated the earth.
One must consider, for example, not only the serpent's seeming
immortality but also its ability to periodically desquamate the
integument covering its entire body without bleeding, illness
or infection and immediately replete a new body covering. In accomplishing
this 'miraculous' function the serpent liberates itself from scars,
dermatoses and ticks. Such ability is beyond the scope of human
efforts. This early connection between the serpent and healing
becomes a permanent facet of serpent worship.
The wonderful ability of the serpent to shed its skin and so
renew its youth makes it the master of the secret of death and
rebirth. The moon, waxing and waning is the celestial body capable
of this same ability. The moon, long associated with the life-creating
rhythm of the female, and therefore of time itself becomes the
lord of the mystery of birth and death and the serpent id the
earthly counterpart . In early rites of initiation where the candidate
was seen to die and be reborn, the moon was the goddess mother
and the serpent the divine father.
If we summarize what we expect to find about the divine serpent
at the onset rather than an the conclusion of this work it would
look like this:
The Serpent is emblematical;
- Of wisdom
[Biblical: "be ye therefore wise
as serpents "Matt 10:16]
- Of subtlety
[Biblical: " Now the serpent was more
subtle than an beast of the field" Gen. 3:1]
The Serpent is symbolical;
- Of deity: Plutarch et al
- Of eternity: forming a circle with tail in mouth
- Of renovation and resurrection: the old becomes young [skin
- Of guardian spirits: Greek and Roman temple altars
The Early Years
Even before the Sumerian legends we can find vases with a gigantic
snake winding over the whole universe, or over the sun, moon and
stars. The snake can also be found below a growing plant or above
the belly of a pregnant woman. The snake is thus seen as a symbol
of energy and life.
In some of the very earliest of figurine artifacts which have
been found we have the fecund goddess with large belly and pendulous
breasts, all of which are indicating fertility connotations. Almost
always accompanying these figurines, either on the figurine itself
or on associated material, we find the spiral. The spiral is one
of the most widespread of the symbols of the goddess. It appears
in American Indian, Asian, African, Australian and European art,
most often as a coiled serpent. In some early Middle Eastern coins
and plaques we see spiral designs around the heads of gods. This
is usually regarded the symbol of superhuman life.
In Babylonia as in Egypt the maze is also seen a representing
the mystery surrounding the serpent. Also early ritual dances
are thought to have imitated the tracks of the serpent in motion,
chthonic gods in serpentine form. Also snakes were often seen
coming out of holes in the ground, thus perhaps from the Underworld.
When we come to Sumer we meet the most famous of the mythic epic
story of olden times, the Gilgamesh Epic. Among other pieces to
be found in this tale of a search for the meaning of life is the
tale of the plant of eternal life. According to the story, Gilgamesh
was told that the plant lay at the bottom of a certain lake. With
much effort, he dove to the bottom, retrieved the plant and brought
it to the surface and the shore. While Gilgamesh was resting,
before eating the plant and becoming an immortal, a snake came
along and ate the plant. The end result was that the snake became
immortal, and Gilgamesh went home to die.
Early Sumerian and Akkadian artifacts show pictures of a tree
or pole which is called the "axis mundi ", or
the world axis. It is intended to be the center and support of
the world. Guarding this tree or pole is a snake or pair of intertwined
snakes. We can see here the beginnings of the association between
the snake and the rod which we will see later in the Bible and
the caduceus. Also, in Sumer, we have a cylindrical seal which
has on it the mythical date palm with its two fruits, life and
enlightenment. This tree is copied again in the book Genesis in
the Jewish scripture. This tree is guarded by a serpent. Again,
this is duplicated in the Bible.
In these early Sumerian/Akkadian myths we meet Etana, the chosen
king, later a demi-god, who must find the tree which stands at
the center of the earth. This tree is the home of an eagle, who
has devoured the young of the serpent who guards the tree. The
serpent appeals to the Father god, Shamash, for justice, and Shamash
shows the tree how to help the serpent capture the eagle. There
exists an early Akkadian seal [ca. 2350BCE] showing the serpent
in human form enthroned with the caduceus emblem behind him and
According to one theory, all primordial serpents of myth are
derived from a Sumerian arch-serpent in subterranean waters, whose
name was Zu. Later, we meet the great serpent by the name of Tiamat,
also named Papohis [ later to be found as the Biblical Leviathan].
In the beginning there were only the mingled waters of Abzu, the
abyss of sweet water and Tiamat, the serpent of salt water oceans.Abzu
and Tiamat were the parents of the first Babylonian gods, Lahmu
and Lahamu, who were the grandparents of the great gods Anu and
Ea. Tiamat was Chaos and was focussed on destroying the world.
I find that a common theme in early comogonies is that to bring
Cosmos out of Chaos, some organizing agent, usually light and
speaking are necessary.
Marduk, to save Babylonian army, and the country, must slay
Tiamat and cut him in half. When he does this, he creates the
sky from her [Tiamat is female] top half, and earth from her bottom
half. This story is echoed in the Norse tale of Odin.
It is in Persia that we first meet the great sky serpent Azhi
Dahaka, the creator of all the planets in the sky. Early Mid-eastern
myths not only see the serpent as lord of the sky and earth, he
is also a lord of waters. Dwelling in the earth, frequenting springs,
marshes and other water streams, the serpent glides with a motion
of waves. The phallic suggestion is immediate, as it was in the
initiation rites. Likewise a dual association of fire and water
attaches to the lightning of the serpent strike, the forked appearance
of the tongue and the lethal burning of the poison.
The early, pre-Canaanite Phoenicians had a serpent god which
was called the Basilisk. This has been considered an early
phallic god, common in ancient religions. An interesting note
is that the work basilisk is where we got the later word a temple
of the phallic god, and eventually a type of church, the basilica.
St. Peter's Basilica in Rome carries a remembrance in the form
of a phallic ball on top of the structure.
The basilisk, though usually considered a serpent, does not
always have clearly defined anatomical features. To look directly
at a basilisk is to die, so it is impossible to picture them accurately.
It is almost always an icon of fear. This ability to kill with
a glance is shared by the gorgons of Greek mythology, who may
be the ancestors of the basilisk. The only way to kill a basilisk
was the way Perseus slew Medusa, by use of a mirror-like object
in which the reflection could be viewed. The Roman historian,
Pliny the Elder, writes of the basilisk; " The basilisk serpent
has the same power, to kill with its gaze. It is a native of Cyrenaica,
not more than 12 inches long. It routs all snakes with its hiss,
and does not move its body forward in manifold coils like other
In the Middle Ages, the basilisk became identifies with the
cockatrice, a serpent mentioned occasionally in Isaiah and other
Hebrew scriptures. When we enter the modern period, and Medusa
becomes a innocuous decorative motif, the basilisk immigrates
to the United States and becomes identified with different American
snakes, most especially the rattlesnake. One of the first rattle
snakes seen by European explorers, a tropical variety known as
the "Mexican West Coast rattlesnake" was given the scientific
name "crotalus basiliscus", or basilisk snake. There
exists a lovely Elamite painted bowl which shows the guardian
serpent of the World tree coiled up the trunk. There are clear
similarities to the divine Sumerian or Akkadian serpent.
In other early legends, all primordial serpents are derived
from the Sumerian Arch-Serpent which dwelt in the subterranean
waters, or chaos. In Greek legend, Apollo took over the Delphic
oracle by killing a serpent already there, at the earth's navel.
It is not unusual for us to find that in later ages, especially
among Semitic and Indo-European peoples, the dragon [ Greek drakon
= serpent] or cosmic serpent is seen as a symbol of chaos.
It is this chaos, or serpent which must be overcome to create
order and maintain life in any meaningful way. We will see this
in our discussion of Biblical texts.
In that land we now call Turkey, Iraq and Syria we find peoples
sometimes referred to a Hurrians . These people set up a short-lived
but powerful kingdom called the kingdom of the Mitanni. It is
known that Egyptian pharaohs of the eighteenth dynasty married
Mitanni princesses. These people were Aryan peoples, and they
brought many of the Indian gods and goddesses to the area. One
main god was the serpent god Indra, who became very popular. The
Hurrians were related to and supplanted by, the Hittites, who
adopted the Hurrian gods.
We find, for example, Illuyankas, the serpent god and
Hedammu, the serpent who loved Ishtar and was her divine
servant. These were powerful and popular Hittite gods. We cannot
help but wonder what influence these people had on the Egyptian
and Israelite peoples with whom they came in contact, and what
influence the serpent gods of India, transferred and transformed
here would have later.
When we come to the snake as a divinity in Egypt we need look
no further than the great crowns worn by the divine Pharaoh. No
matter which crown, the Blue crown, the informal crown or the
great double red and white crown we examine we will find the snake
god of Lower Egypt present. Even when the vulture god of Upper
Egypt is missing, the asp, or Egyptian cobra, is there. The serpent,
in Egypt, has a varied career, the Uraeus, or cobra, and other
mythical snakes are all considered quite differently. The spinal
cord was symbolized by the snake and the and the Uraeus serpent
coiled upon the foreheads of the Pharaoh represented the divine
fire which had crawled serpent-like up the tree of life.
The Uraeus, or asp, is a benevolent guardian god, a tutelary
god of the delta region of Egypt. This is probably where this
snake was most often found. Even today the swamp-like areas of
the Nile delta is home to the Egyptian cobra. This snake was also
connected to the god Horus, and therefore with the living Horus,
who is seen incarnate in the Pharaoh. The Uraeus rules by day,
and therefore is also connected to the sun god Ra, who is also
a god of Pharaoh.
When we come to night and darkness, the crocodile becomes supreme.
Ra , the sun god of Heliopolis is diminished. The solar ship has
entered the realm of night and encountered darkness. The crocodile,
in Egyptian legendary, is seen as an aspect of the serpent rather
than a separate creature. There are places in the world where
the great saurians are not seen as serpents, but as a completely
separate genus of creature. The Americas would serve as an example
of this, but in Egypt and other Africa nations which were influenced
by Egypt, the crocodile is a serpent, no matter in what form it
In the original Egyptian creation story we find a serpent and
the primordial egg, which contained the " Bird of Light"
. In Chapter 175 of the Book of the Dead we find the prophecy
that when the world returns to its original chaos, the hidden
aspect of the supreme god, Atum, will become the new serpent.
There is a text I found in the "Coffin Texts" [ I.161
ff] which contains Atum's description of himself:
" I am Atum, the creator of the Eldest Gods,
I am he who gave birth to Shu,
I am that great he-she.
I am he who did what seemed good to him,
I took my space in the place of my will.
Mine is the space of those who move along
like those two serpentine circles" [
Later in a debate, which can be found in "The Book of
the Dead, [chapter 175] which takes place between Osiris and Atum,
[ described here as the "High God", we find Atum's description
of the end of all, when " Then I will be what will remain,
just I and Osiris, when I will have changed myself back into the
Old Serpent who knew - no man and saw no god."
Also, in the Book of the Dead, in the Eleventh section of the
Tuat, we find the story of how the boat of Afu Ra [the sun god]
passes the territory of the town of Sais. "The region to
the left of the god is one of fire, and close to the boat stands
Horus who is working magic with the sake-headed boomerang which
he holds in his hand, Before him stands the serpent god, called
'Seth-heh', i.e. the 'eternal Seth'. Before the boat is the great
serpent Ankh-neteru, and twelve amikhiu gods, taking hold of the
tow line, enter this serpent at the tail, and drawing the god
in his boat through the body of the serpent, bring him out at
During his passage through the serpent Afu Ra is transformed
into Khepera [ the ancient god associated with the creation of
the world] and is now towed into the sky by 12 goddesses."
The Egyptians also adopted the ancient Persian god Azhi Dahaka,
the sky serpent who formed all of the observable heavenly planets.
So, in one sense powerful gods of both light and darkness are
seen as serpents. This may have some connection to the linking
of the snake to the moon in the mythological and psychological
This identification is intensified because of the waxing and
waning of the moon, demonstrating the death of the old and the
rebirth of the new and forever young.
One of the chief powers of this darkness is the serpent god
Apep, who tries to swallow the sun ship. Apep [or Apepi or Apophis]
is the great primordial serpent who lived in the waters of the
celestial Nile [ the Milky Way] and is considered the serpent
of chaos and destruction. A mighty struggle took place and when
the sun appeared in the east the next day prayers of thankfulness
were offered that Ra was triumphant and the sun would continue
to shine. Just imagine what chaos a solar eclipse would cause
The serpent Apep is seen in two other forms, or traditions.
The first was most likely the crocodile and was called Typhon,
or dragon. Two other serpents divinities mentioned in Egyptian
mythology are Nehebkau, a serpent with human arms and legs.
This fearful god, once he was tamed by Ra, became his faithful
servant. The other serpent god is Am-Mut, the 'eater of
souls'. The other, and more extensive is as Set, or Seth, or Sethos.
This is a half-crocodile, half -human creature who becomes important
in the Egyptian pantheon.
Again, it is important to note here that the dragons we have
included in this study are only those dragons which are seen as
serpentine. The classic European dragon which looks more like
a mammal with wings, like the Griffin, are excluded. The Egyptian
and Chinese dragon concepts depict them as serpents, as does the
Greek. [ I will speak more of dragons when I write of the Asian
Perhaps the most fearsome aspect of Set can be seen in the
famous weighing of the soul picture in the Book of the Dead. Sitting
beside the scales, waiting to devour the sinful soul of a condemned
person is a half crocodile, half jackal or hyena creature who
is identified as Set. It was Set, as the brother of Osiris, of
course, who slew Osiris.
Set becomes a powerful god in the Egyptian ' two kingdoms'.
The cult of Amun, later Amun-Ra lasted about twenty dynasties,
the cult of Osiris was very short-lived, although Osiris was venerated
for a long time.
The Isis cult lasted into the Christian era as an active mystery
cult. But, the original priesthood of the serpent god, Set, in
ancient Egypt survived for twenty-five recorded dynasties (ca.
3200-700BCE) It became one of the two central priesthoods of predynastic
times, the other being that of HarWer (Horus the Elder).
Unification under both philosophical systems, one in Upper,
and one in Lower Egypt, resulted in the name of the empire being
called the 'Two Kingdoms' and its Pharaohs wearing the famous
'double crown' of Horus and Set. The vulture ( early hawk and
Set was originally a stellar deity, perhaps the cyclical counterpart
of the solar Horus. But, later, the cults of Osiris and Isis recast
Set as an evil principle. Set did return, for a short time during
the XIX and XX dynasties, as the patron of Pharaoh, but by the
XXV dynasty a new wave of persecution by priests of Osiris led
to the final destruction of the Set priesthood.
When the Egyptians abandoned the mines in the Timma Valley
( about nineteen miles north of the Gulf of Aqaba) during the
Egyptian decline of the twelfth century BCE, the Midianites converted
the local temple into a Midianite shrine. In the makeshift Holy
of Holies of the shrine, modern excavators have found only one
religious object. They found a molded copper serpent with a gilded
head, the ancient symbol of life and fertility of the Middle East.
This would indicate that the Midianites had a serpent god or goddess
in their pantheon. Again. We see echoes of Biblical stories here.
Before we leave Egypt we must briefly mention two other aspects
of the divine serpent; Nehebu-Kau is the great snake under the
world and upon which the world rests, and there is a winged serpent
found in hieroglyphs which may be the ancestor of our Mesoamerican
Central and Southern Africa
Traveling further south in the African continent we find the
great serpent "Anyiewo' who comes out to graze on rain and
whose refection is the rainbow. This is found in the Ewe tribe.
The strange, stone-age Dogan people of central Africa have
a divine being named Lebe. Lebe is the first member of
those creatures called the living dead, and he lives as a serpent.
In Dahomey, the Fon people have a great serpent god who is
seen as a rainbow named Danh, the son of Mtawu-Lisa.. This serpent
encircles the whole world with his tail in his mouth, representing
unity and wholeness. This god, also called Da orders the whole
cosmos. Da has a dual nature rather than a female-male identity.
When he appears in the rainbow, the male is the red part of the
rainbow, the female the blue. Above the earth Da has 3500 coils,
called asa-xasa, and the sme number of coils beneath the earth;
together the support the world. Da is the name given to this god
in action, Mawu-Lisa is the name given the god in thought.
This god was exported to Haiti and Surinam.
The Fon legend says that the world was created by Nana-Buluku,
the one god, who is neither male nor female. This god gave birth
to twins, Mawu and Lisa and it is they who shaped the world, and
control it still. Mawu, the female, is the moon and Lisa, the
male, is the In the beginning, before Mawu had any children, the
rainbow serpent, Aido-Hwedo, already existed, and this great serpent
assisted in the creation. For example, all the mountains were
formed from the serpent's dung. Later, because Aido-Hwedo cannot
stand heat, the oceans were created for him to live in. And there
Aido-Hwedo has remained since the beginning of time, with his
tail in his mouth [ this tail-in-mouth representation is common].
Nana-Buluku charged the red monkeys that live beneath the sea
to keep Aido-Wwedo fed, and they spend theor time forging the
iron bars that are the serpent's diet. When the monkey's supply
of iron eventually runs out the serpent will be so hungry that
he will start to chew his own tail. Then his writhings will be
so terrible that the whole earth will tilt, and then slip into
the sea, and that will be that !
In what is now Zimbabwe, there is the legend of the creation
of humanity. The first man, Mwuetsi [ moon] was created by Mwari,
the high god. He was given a wife, Massassi, who gave birth to
all the plants of the world. Then he we given Morongo, who bore
goats, cattle, sheep, humans. On the fourth night Moromgo warned
Mwuetsi not to sleep with her, but he did so anyway. She then
gave birth to snakes, scorpions, lions, and all other creatures
which harm man. After this the Great Serpent became ruler and
husband of Morongo and fathered a great tribe.
In the land between the present Union of South Africa and Zimbabwe
there lives a people called the vhaVenda, who have a god who is
a white crocodile. This crocodile is viewed as a serpent divinity
of great strength and great wisdom who watches over the peoples.
This divine serpent creature is identified with the vhaVenda chiefs,
who may be his sons.
Perhaps the most impressive architecture in ancient Africa,
excepting Egypt, would be the royal city of Benin in Nigeria.
The most prominent feature of this architecture is the form of
the serpent. Early artifacts found in this area also display the
There is a famous legend told among the tribes of central Africa.
The tale concerns two unmarried men, one too mild and one too
bad-tempered to find wives.
One day they met the great rock python. Moma. After a gesture
of extreme kindness towards her she rewarded him with a wife,
the most wonderful wife in the whole village. The bad-tempered
man was given the same opportunity, reacted insultingly toward
the serpent goddess and was rewarded with an ugly, nagging, abusive
The Middle East
Before leaving Africa we journey back to the Middle East to
spend some time examining the Hebrew attitude toward the divine
serpent. To do so we will use the best source available, the Jewish
Holy Scripture. When the Hebrews emigrated from Egypt during the
XIX dynasty they took with them a caricature of Set and gave him
the title Satan from the hieroglyphic Set-hen which was
one of this god's formal titles.
We first meet the serpent in the Jewish Scripture in the Book
Genesis. In Genesis 3:1 we find that " the serpent was the
shrewdest of all the wild beasts" 
We might remember, that in all of scripture only
two animals had the gift of speech; Balaam's ass, [ Numbers 22:30]
and the serpent.[Genesis 3] This was a God-given gift. We might
certainly ask why these two beasts, among all the rest, are singled
out for such a distinction. In the case of Balaam's ass the message
is clearly God's, what about in the case of the serpent?
The ass was given speech to deliver the 'word of God'. Can
we assume that the snake had the gift for any other reason? We
find here the serpent guarding the tree of life and knowledge
just like he did in Sumer. There are too many similarities in
the tree and the serpent to be accidental.
It is evident to me that the account of the "fall of man"
from Eden was adapted by biblical writers from pre-Judaic polytheistic
traditions in which a divine and omniscient serpent, representing
the female creative nature , was pitted against the created order
of a male oriented divinity. It is for this reason that the serpent
is stressed as demonic, in spite of the fact that the Genesis
authors are compelled to harmonize their account with those of
the surrounding peoples, and therefore must write that the serpent
is a creature of God, and "more 'subtil' (sic) [ Genesis
3:1] than any beast of the field which the Lord God has made."
Here we might suggest that the serpent saves humanity by putting
it in touch with nature; death is recognized as a function of
all nature, including humanity, and this knowledge is necessary
for new life to begin.
In Genesis the serpent is not only sentient of God's prohibition
against partaking from the Tree of Knowledge; it knows why God
will enforce that command; it knows the gift of the Tree of Knowledge,
as if it possessed that gift.
The deific aspect of the serpent is further underscored by
the punishment imposed upon it by God: "upon thy belly shalt
..". Does this mean that before punishment
the serpent had legs or even wings?
We next meet the serpent in Exodus 4:3,4 and Exodus 7: 10-12.
In these passages the snake, presumably the Egyptian asp, is connected
to a rod. Aaron's rod. When Moses doubts that he is really hearing
the voice of Yahweh, he is asked what he is holding in his hand
and when he replies that he is holding a rod, he is commanded
to throw the rod down on the ground. When he does this, the rod
becomes a serpent [ Exodus 7:1-16]. When he picks it up it becomes
a rod again. This association between serpent and rod is a very
ancient one. Later when Aaron throws his rod down before Pharaoh,
it becomes a snakes. Pharaoh recognizes this magical association,
as do the Egyptian priests, who also change their rods into serpents.
However, to demonstrate the superiority of the Jewish god, Aaron's
snake ate the Egyptian snakes.
Again, when Moses sets the plagues upon Egypt, he does so by
stretching forth this serpent/rod. When Moses parts the sea for
the passage of his people, he again does so with the assistance
of this powerful rod/serpent. In the wilderness Moses strikes
the rock with this same rod to create water. This object becomes
so "sacred" that it is one of the objects for which
room is made in the Ark of the Covenant.
Before we examine some more ominous aspects of the serpent
in Jewish scripture we will have to look at Numbers 21:9. Moses,
who had thrown a fit when Aaron made a golden image of the Egyptian
goddess of mercy and miners, Hathor [ Exodus 32: 19-20] claming
that God condemned such terrible action, himself makes and puts
on a pole a copper, or brass serpent, claiming that God had ordered
him to make and display this image to cure the people from snake
bites. Here we see not only the divine power of the serpent, but
also the connection with healing which pervades this part of the
world. This action by Moses might show his Midianite heritage
or the universal recognition of the divinity of the serpent, but
it certainly shows a different Moses. One might ask how can a
'jealous God' condemn the golden calf and approve the 'brazen
serpent '? What is it about the snake that commands such loyalty?
Perhaps we can find a hint as to the position of power in Judaism
when we discover that one of the most powerful of the heavenly
creatures may have serpentine connections.
We find in Isaiah 14:29 a description of the highest of all
of God's angeliccreatures, the Seraphim. The word 'seraph' [of
which Seraphim is the plural] can be translated " fiery serpent".
There are other Hebrew words for serpents : "zacha"
can be translated as dragon; "pethen" is the asp; "epheh"
is the viper and " nachash" is the generic word for
serpent. Therefore there must be significance that the word used
for serpent inIsaiah 14:29, Isaiah 30:6 and in the Numbers 21:8
description of a serpent, is the word "seraph" Could
it be that these "fiery serpents" stood highest in the
hierarchy of angelic beings? There is no doubt that the Hebrew
'shrpm' refers to serpents.
Judeo-Christian tradition, however, comes down very hard on
this serpent concept, perhaps as a part of the conflict between
the ancient maternal gods which underlie and support early matriarchal
tribal traditions and the later paternalistic nomadic traditions.
Where early traditions depict the serpent as one of the favorite
theriomorphic forms of gods and goddesses, it becomes with the
"fall" of Adam and Eve the infernal enemy of the so-called
"one true God."
The most fearful creature in the Bible is that creation called
Leviathan. We have many mentions of Leviathan in the Jewish scripture.
Basically, he appears like a chaos which underlies the order of
creation or like a dragon which threatens order and creation.
Perhaps we should point out that Leviathan is a female and her
male counterpart is Behemoth. We find a lengthily poem about Leviathan
in Chapters 40 and 41 of the Book of Job, and a wonderful hymn
about Leviathon in Psalm 74. Where we hear the words:
it was you [God] who crushed the head of Leviathan
who left him as food for the seafaring men". 
[ Translation from the Tanakh: Jewish Publication
Perhaps the best citation would be Isaiah 27. In this passage
Leviathan is described as the 'elusive serpent' and 'Dragon of
the sea'. This latter description can be translated [ and we find
it so in the Tanakh] "The monster which the Lord vanquished
of old; the embodiment of chaos, or perhaps the forces of evil
in the present world.
The Leviathan appears in more than one religion. In Canaanite
mythology and literature, it is a monster called Lotan, the 'fleeing
serpent', the coiling serpent, the powerful with seven heads'.
It was eventually killed by Baal. The Leviathan is also the Ugaritic
god of evil.
In Christianity, St. John did draw a comparison between Jesus
on the cross and Moses' snake on the pole, saying that both were
lifted up upon a pole for the salvation of mankind, and I have
in my possession copies of art work showing a crucified serpent
with the thorn-crowned face of Christ.
Christians were taught to see the brazen serpent of Moses as
divinely authenticated type of the crucifixion, and an image of
In Christian tradition Philo of Alexandria, for example, is
so impressed with the serpent's ability to rejuvenate itself,
as well as its ability to kill and cure ( an ability he saw as
indicative of the positive and negative cosmic powers that rule
the world) that he saw the serpent as "the most spiritual
German coinage of the 16th century is common among
iconography which shows Jesus on the cross compared to a serpent
on a cross or in a tree, lifted up. Thus, the serpent's role as
healer is expanded to included resurrection.
In Book X of Paradise Lost, John Milton demonstrates
a vivid example of Christianity's tendency to concentrate all
other gods into a generic, serpentine form.
I am led also to wonder whether the hood of the snake which
is commonly seen as a protective shield over saviors in other
religions [ cf. The Buddha] might not be similar to the halos
found over the heads of Christian holy people?
This image was often found in the Middle Ages and is seeing
a reemergence in the twentieth century. But, basically the serpent's
identification with evil is the one which caught the Christian
imagination, and it was the dragon image which caught on. In Revelation
12 we find the story of the war in heaven. In this war, Michael,
and his angels, fight the dragon. This dragon is identified as
'that serpent of old that led the whole world astray, whose name
is Satan or the Devil'.
This identification was also picked up in Islam. There is an
Islamic myth about the garden of Eden and the serpent. It seems
that Paradise, or Eden, was guarded by a peacock who was very
wise and kept Satan out. Satan, in this myth called Iblis, wanted
to get into paradise to get revenge on Adam, because it was Adam's
being placed first which resulted in Satan being expelled in the
first place. The peacock was too wise. So Satan (Iblis) had the
serpent carry him back into paradise hidden in his mouth.
But, with the exception of Wadd, a pre-Islamic moon
god of the Minaean tribe and state of Southern Arabia, in Islam
there was little room for myth. Some of the old Arabian legends
were retained, but the basic philosophy was anthropomorphic monotheism.
When he considers the place of the serpent. Carl Jung appears
like the Gnostics of Christianity who identified the serpent with
the human medulla and spinal cord. Jung regards the serpent as
the psychic representative of the human functions which are governed
by these parts of the body.
The serpent would correspond to what is unconscious and incapable
of becoming conscious, but which, as the collective unconscious
seems to possess a wisdom of its own and a knowledge that is often
felt to be supernatural.
In that area of civilization which flourished between Asia
Minor and Europe we see the serpent goddess prominent in the Minoan
culture of Crete. In a repository in the second Palace of Knossos
( @ 1600 BCE) we find many statues of the goddess Ariadne, a large
busted woman, wreathed in snakes, and a similar goddess in many
other burial and temple sites on Crete. There is
a connection between Ariadne and Dionysus as that goes back to
5250 BCE, and ancient serpent connection indeed.
This goddess was supposedly the daughter of Minos,
the founder of the Minoan civilization and brother to the Minotaur.
She depicts the benevolence and sacred power of the life force.
Ariadne is definitely a very important goddess of fertility. And
in that she may be a local aspect of Ishtar or Astarte who has
become identified with serpents.
In Greece, Zeus, the father of the Greek pantheon of gods is
one of the few Greek gods who never appears attended by a snake.
But, the Olympian Zeus known as Zeus Meilichios assumes
the form of a serpent to attend the spring rites of the mother-goddess
Earth. Zeus, as a serpent coiled with Rhea, who had also taken
the form of a snake. The snake from then on becomes the symbol
of earth and water.
Ophion, one of the Greek Titans means literally
"serpent". It is claimed that Zeus took the form of
a serpent to escape from the murderous aggression of his father,
In Greece, Cecrops, [Kekrops], the founder of Athens and of
all Greek civilization, supposedly sprang half-man, half- serpent
from the Greek soil. In Athens, the temple of the city guardian,
Athena, contains serpents as divine presences.
In Greece, as we have briefly mentioned earlier, a great snake,
named Python which lived at the center of the world, and
held it together, guarded and controlled the shrine of the oracle
Gaia at Delphos [Delphi] in the period of time before Apollo became
the patron of that oracle. Python was the child of Gaia, and had
of the slime and mud that was left on the earth by the great
flood of Deucalion. No one dared approach this divine beast and
the people asked Apollo for help. He came down from Mount Olympus
and killed Python, using his silver bow and golden arrows. After
this, he was known as the Pythian Apollo.
The term 'Delphos means womb, and Delphos was considered the
womb of the world. Also, the oracle was situated in a cave, and
the Greek word for cave is also the word for vagina. This great
snake, then, somehow is connected with the very birth and source
of life of the world.
There was a serpent shrine at Epirus, dedicated to Apollo,
but in effect a pre-Hellenic Aegean shrine. The snakes at this
shrine were said to be the descendants of the great Python of
Also, in Greece, we find the Medusa Gorgon, the Goddess of
Righteous Wrath. In some traditions she was a serpent of the Libyan
Amazons and represented female wisdom. In other traditions she
was an Anatolian Sun Goddess. This Medusa is very similar to the
destroyer aspect of the dark Egyptian goddess Nieth. She was also
one member of the triple personae of the North African goddess
An-Ath. She was imported by the Greeks as patroness of Athens,
and her fierce visage was embossed on Athena's shield. We find
the best statues of Medusa at Corfu.
In Greece we also discover the cult of Dionysos, the god of
wine and the vine. Dionysos was born to Persephone, daughter of
Ceres, and Zeus , and was born in the form of a serpent.
This serpent-god is, therefore, half brother to Apollo. After
being slain and swallowed by two Titans sent by Hera, Dionysos
is reborn in human form.
The Greek Daemons [daemonae] were
the invisible divine beings which were assigned by Zeus to every
god and every important human being as sort of a guardian angel
creature to give good advice and lead them properly. The Daemons
( from which, of course we get our word demon) could appear as
a handsome young youth or as a wise serpent.
It is Greek mythology which gives us the most memorable heavenly
divine serpent. By heavenly, I mean literally, since I am speaking
of the constellation Draco or the Dragon. One only has to look
at this constellation to realize that this "dragon"
is a serpent in every aspect. Draco is the pet of Zeus. Cadmus
was trying to find his sister, Europa. who had been kidnapped
by Zeus. After Cadmus slew Draco, he was told by Athena ( who
understood serpents and their powers) to plant the dragon teeth
into the soil. An army arose, who fought a great war until only
five men were left. With these five men Cadmus founded the famous
Greek city of Thebes. Then Cadmus married Harmonia and assumed
the Illyrian throne. Zeus transformed them both into serpents
and demanded serpents as offerings. Zeus immortalized Draco by
placing him in the sky. I could also be pointed out that the largest
of all the stellar constellations is also a serpent, the Hydra.
Finally, in Greek mythology, we find the serpent guardian figure
from Sumerian or Akkadian times. A great and wise serpent, called
Ladon, guards the tree of the golden apples of the Hesperides.
This mythic tree is guarded by an immense horned serpent which
coils up around the tree , rising from a cave in the earth.
Coiled snakes are found on much of the best ancient Greek jewelry.
After the goddess Demeter initiates Triptolemus into the mysteries
of Agriculture, he spreads the wisdom on his chariot drawn by
serpent servants. Hecate, the Greek goddess of witchcraft, is
dressed in serpents. The Hydra, a mythic monster, is essentially
In Roman ruins we discover the remnants of Etruscan culture
in a strange figure, the Chimera. This creature has the body of
a lion, the head of a goat sticking up from its back, and a snake
for a tail.
Appearing in both Greek and Roman mythology is The god of healing,
Aescepulus or Askepulus. This god appeared to the Romans in the
form of a snake.
This might be a good place to include a snake symbol which
was Greek, Roman and is in constant use today, the caduceus,
or to give it its original Greek name, the Kerykeion [Kurkhion].
The caduceus, which is recognized internationally as the symbol
of medicine, began as the token of Hermes, the Greek messenger
of the Greek gods, and god of healing.
This winged tipped, snake entwined rod is reminiscent of the
very early Sumerian and Akkadian tree of life and knowledge guardian
images. Jewish mythology linked the snake and the rod in the Aaron
This symbolic rod was then carried by the Roman Hermes , Mercury.
It was also carried by Roman soldiers during a flag of truce.
The serpents may come from the tradition that Sesculapius, the
god of medicine appeared during a plague in the form of a serpent.
Romans, like most ancients, not only believed that snakes held
the secret of eternal life, since they shed their skins and appeared
new each year, but they also believed that snakes as being
able to search out health-giving medicinal herbs. Thus, this combination
of rod, wings and snakes represented speed, authority and peace.
The caduceus is still the common symbol of the medical profession.
In Roman mythology the familiar spirit of protection for a
place is often depicted as a caduceus, reminiscent of the guardian
spirit of the Sumerian/ Akkadian guardians of the world tree.
There is not much of a legendary divine serpent presence in
southern Europe. We do find a legend of a dreadful god-like snake
Erensuge which lived between the Pen de Orduna and the
caves of Balzow and Montecristo. This dreadful monster attracts
humans with his breath and then devours him. It would seem that
this legend refers to a snake not a dragon. He carries the Basque
name Herren-surge, and he has seven horrible heads.
In the mountainous country of Georgia there exists the myth
of Mindia, the snake-eater, a member of the mountain tribe of
the Khevsurs. When Mindia was taken prisoner as a youth he noticed
that his captors ate snake meat from which they derived supernatural
powers. One day, he is so hungry he eats a piece of the snake
meat and acquires great physical and intellectual powers. When
he finally escapes, he takes the practice back to his tribe. These
people recognize that snakes are stronger and wiser than humans.
As we travel further North in Europe the snake god is not so
powerful, perhaps because snakes were less common. Welsh had a
giant red serpent spirit called Dewi. The Balts revered
a serpent called Zaltys who was the lover of the sun-goddess,
Saule. The Norse did have a snake demi-god called the World Serpent,
and other serpent gods, which we will discuss separately.
In Celtic legends there is probably none better known than
the tale of Saint Patrick ridding Ireland of its snakes. This
tale is often told, and too often taken as literal truth. In fact
of matter, Ireland never had any significant serpent population,
and one tiny snake still makes it home among the shamrocks. The
tale must be taken as allegorical, and refers to the conflict
between good and evil, between Christian sanctity, represented
by Saint Patrick, and pagan non-Christian gods, who would, in
early Christian eyes represent evil. The serpent is also seen
as a frequent symbol of the attributes of the Celtic version of
the War God.
Long before even the Celts arrived on Irish shores, probably
around 3000 years ago, Ireland was pantheistic. God was to be
found in everything and nature was the Church. The Irish paganism
was probably female in character. Goddess worship and consecrated
priestesses would have been the norm of worship. When it was decided
to unify Ireland under the Christian rule, this strong bastion
of paganism had to be defeated. The first thing was to draw the
lines; Paganism must be evil if Christianity was to be the good.
Therefore, we must identify paganism with the evil forces of the
universe. What better than Satan, that wily old serpent ? Also,
the Irish people had a tradition of bawdiness, and the focus on
female goddesses and priestesses ran contrary to current Christian
There are few good sources for the serpents that Patrick "drove'
out of Ireland. The bloody cult of Crom Cruaich in County Caven
demanded human sacrifice to a serpent deity and the dismantling
of that cult may now be remembered as " snakes being driven
out of Ireland".
Sex, often associated with snakes was part of the picture.
Patrick, the epitome celibate monastic priest-bishop is given
the task of 'driving out' the snake of acknowledged feminine
spiritual power, and introduce the concept of Original Sin, and
the power of the Church.
One serpent was allowed to remain. A giant water
serpent, now called the Lough Derg Monster was tricked by Patrick
to stay at the bottom of Lough Derg until La Luain, which the
snake understood as Monday, but, in Irish language can mean the
Apocalyptic Last Day. So the snake is confined for ever and a
day, and the lake is a pilgrimage site
Pre-Christian, pagan gods were very popular in
early Ireland, and continued to be popular in any place where
Celtic influence was felt. They were often called the 'old ones'.
Usually they were nature gods.
The early, nature, gods could not be directly attacked without
creating a terrible back lash, so the Christians chose that ancient
foe, Satan in the form of the snake as the enemy. So, we have
set the stage for the drama of the conflict between "good"
and "evil" , between Saint and Satan, between Patrick
and snakes. Celtic mythology informs us of the expected result.
Patrick's mission in Ireland, then, was to put a male name on
Celtic worship. One version of the legend would see Celtic paganism
as female centered. Goddess worship, consecrated by priestesses
had been the order in pre-Christian Ireland. There was the cult
of Anu has deep roots in Celtic memory by the time of Patrick.
Brigid took her place, and the serpent, the acknowledged feminine
spiritual power was driven out, and original sin was introduced.
When we journey further north in Europe and examine Norse mythology,
we find that Odin was the first of the three gods ( or the son
of the first god ] exposed from the ice licked by the cosmic cow.
His universe was upheld by the "World Ash, Yggdrasil"
whose shaft was the pivot of the revolving heavens.
On top of this great tree sat an eagle, and the
great cosmic serpent gnawed at its roots while guarding it. Odin,
himself , often took the form of a snake in order to enter the
home of the giant Suttung. We seem to have here similarities with
ancient Babylon !
The serpent, or worm, that eats its own tail was seen by Viking
culture as a symbol for the natural forces of land , sea and sky.
Ouroboros was and is the name given the Great World Serpent, encircling
the earth. The word encompasses many cultures, beside the Norse
legends. For example, there is the serpent or dragon gnawing at
its own tail. From this we see the symbolic connection to the
returning cyclical nature of the seasons; the oscillations of
the night sky; disintegration and re-integration; the Androgyne;
life and death. Born from this symbolic concept, there are many
different cultures which share this serpent symbol. The serpent
Jormungand from the myth of Yggdrasil, is just one. I might be
helpful to remember that the Ouroboros is what Carl Jung would
refer to as an archetype.
The most famous divine serpent in Viking or Norse mythology
was Jormungand, the son of Loki. Loki was the closest thing
the Teutons have to a Satan. The Vikings imagined the world completely
surrounded and supported by the Great Divine World Serpent, Jormungand
. There is another serpent, Nidhogg, one of the serpents
at the base of the world-tree, who will devour the bones of the
whole fallen humanity.
There is an old Norse tale which tells of Thor combating this
great serpent, called the Midgard Serpent. Thor went out of Asgard
and enlisted the help of the giant Hymir. The two went fishing,
and when Hymir would not share his bait with Thor. Thor killed
Hymir's largest ox and cut off its head. Thor took the ox head
as bait, made a very strong line and a large hook. The Midgard
serpent took the bait and Thor drew it to the boat. The serpent
glared at Thor and belched poison. Hymir, frightened cut Thor's
line and let the serpent loose. As the serpent sank back into
the sea, Thor threw his hammer after it. Some versions of the
legend say that the hammer struck and killed the serpent, other
versions say that the Midgard serpent is still alive and lying
in the depths.
There is also an old German myth which tells of a snake called
the "great worm" who carried the name of Fafnir.
Fafnir had great magical and mystical powers.
There are other dragon stories to be found in Europe, and some
of them would indicate a dragon of divine powers, but these dragons
are not serpentine dragons so we will omit them in this study.
The European dragon usually is portrayed with a thick, long body,
scaly skin, four legs, two bat-like wings, wedge shaped heads
and long necks. Included in this category are usually found the
Wyverns, the 'Faerie Dragons', and sometimes the Hydras. These
may. Or may not be considered serpents, depending on how wide
one is willing to spread the definition of serpent.
When we reach the Americas we find that the gods are anthropomorphic.
Therefore, we will find no snake god among the North American
Native Americans. We will find many stories about snakes, their
wisdom, cunning and danger. In Central America the god reappears.
When Moses was busy coming down the mountain with an explanation
of values for the Israelites, Native Americans were sculpturing
beautiful and mysterious figures on hilltops and dotting the countryside
with tall mounds to connect their dead to heaven. Easily one of
the strangest and most unearthly Native American sites in North
America is the incredible Serpent Mound in the Amish country of
southern Ohio. Possibly constructed by the Adena culture around
700 BCE, Serpent Mound is a narrow band of earth which uncoils
over a quarter mile expanse atop a wooded hill. This mound appears,
from above, to be a snake ready to swallow a frog. A snake skeleton
enshrined leaves little doubt that the mound is meant to be the
replica of a snake- the creature of mythic proportions to these
early mound builders, as well as indigenous people across the
Americas. This is one of the "effigy" mounds in Ohio.
It lieson a plateau overlooking the Valley of Brush Creek, Ohio.
There is a serpent legend among the Northern Cree, in and around
Bulkley Lake in British Columbia. This legend tells of a boy named
Fast Bird, who was the messenger for his village. On one perilous
trip he met an evil serpent. An old woman gave him three special
arrow points and he was able to kill the serpent, and go on to
There are other such stories. A Chippewa story tells of a hero,
Nanabozho, who lived on the shore of Lake Superior. At the bottom
of the lake lived the Great Serpent, along with a number of evil
spirits, who were his servants. Nanabozho decided to kill the
Great Serpent after the Great Serpent killed his cousin. He caused
the water of Lake Superior to boil, forcing the snake out into
the forest, where he fell prey to the arrows of Nanabozho. Before
the Great Serpent died he caused a great flood to come upon the
whole earth to kill everything. Nanabozho built a raft and saved
mankind and the animals, just like Noah had done with the ark.
The Brule Lakota [ Teton Sioux tribe] Sioux never kill rattlesnakes,
because there is an old legend about how three brothers who disobeyed
the Great Spirit by taking a buffalo hide instead of giving it
back to the spirit world. The Great Spirit turned them into rattlesnakes.
As they took up a life as snakes they told their youngest brother
to tell the people that they would remain faithful Sioux. So,
the Brule Lakota revere their brothers the rattlesnake.
The most divine-like snake story is that which tells of the
creation of the natural wonder called the 'Wisconsin Dells'. A
great snake wriggled down from his home near the 'big lake' and
formed the Wisconsin River as he crawled. When he came to the
sandstone ridge where the Dells begin he merely pushed his head
into a crevice in the rocks and pushed them aside to form the
narrow, winding passage we call the Dells.
The amazing thing is, that in spite of the myriad of snakes
in south-western US, I have found no sound references to the divine
serpent in that area. We do find the reference to rattlesnake
being the faithful hound of Coyote, the divine trickster and voice
of the Great Sprit.
Before we discuss the serpent legends of Central America, we
should point out that we do find mentions of divine serpents among
Voudon [Voodoo] religionist of the islands of the Caribbean. Simbu
is the very powerful snake god of darkness. Even more powerful
perhaps, certainly more widespread, is Dambala, another
serpent god. These gods are morally neutral, and will work for
good or evil depending upon for whom they are working. In fact,
in Haiti, Dambala is given the title Le Bon Dieu , the good god.
An aspect of this serpent spirit in Haiti is the god of the farmers
called Dan Petro. Dambala' wife, Avida, is also an object
In the islands we also find a creature called El Cuchilu,
from cuchu = pig and vilu = snake, who appears from the sea.
This is an evil god who invades and destroys fishing weirs. It
eats the fish inside the weir and kills human fishermen.
If we travel only a short distance further south, into Central
America, the references are many-fold are rich. As barren as Northern
North America is for finding the divine snake, Central America,
or Mesoamerica is equally rich. Not only do we have the primitive
Mayan god Labna, but we also find, at differing ages and
places Kulkulcan and Queztalcoatl, and his two similars
Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopotchili . Each of these
later manifestations of the feathered serpent are much like Quetzalcoatl,
with minor changes or additions. For example, Huitziilpotchili
is often called the "trickster" because he loves to
play pranks which would normally be considered quite un-godlike.
Also among the Qiche Maya we find the serpent god who brought
civilization and agriculture to the Maya who is called Gucumatz.
The god Kulkulcan was one of the major gods of the Maya, and
was inherited by the Toltec as equally significant. Not only was
he a god of the four elements, he was also the creator god and
the god of resurrection and reincarnation. He may have originated
from Toltec myth, where he was a divine hero who taught the Toltec
laws, fishing, healing, the calendar and agriculture. His name
means "the feathered serpent" and the Aztecs merged
him with Quetzalcoatl.
The main pyramid in the Mayan/Toltec ruins of Chichen Itza
is "El Castle", the pyramid of Kulkulcan. This pyramid
is often mistakenly called the pyramid of the sun because of its
astronomical orientation, but it is clearly dedicated to Kulkulcan,
the feathered serpent. It was original built by Mayans
about 600 CE, and improved by Toltecs around 1000 CE. The astronomical
detail is interesting, showing the connection of the Great Serpent
and the cosmos: There are 365 steps [ the number of days in the
solar year]; 52 panels [one for each year in the Mayan cyclical
century; 18 terraces, one for each month in the Mayan religious
In the ruins of the early Mayan city of Teotihuacan, we find
another significant pyramid dedicated to the feathered serpent.
Although significantly smaller in size than both the Sun Pyramid
and Moon Pyramid, it was one of the most elaborate monuments of
the city. Each of these pyramids, unlike the Egyptian pyramids
which were tombs, were solidly filled with rubble, and were, in
fact, artificial mountains, on top of which stood a temple to
the feathered serpent.
All four sides of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid had been covered
by an elaborate facade of stone carvings which included a series
of large sculptural heads. Three of the four sides have deteriorated,
but the fourth, and principal face, the western, was covered by
a platform and the facade is in good shape. The main motif of
the pyramid is undulating feathered serpents, depicted in profile
and having rattles on the ends of their tails. The heads of serpents
are various deities: Tlaloc, the Storm god, Youalcoat;,
a form of Quetzalcoatl, Cipactli, a crocodilian figure,
and Xiuhcoatl, or the Fire Serpent.
The supreme god and creator of the Maya was Hunab Ku .
He is the head of the Mayan pantheon and called 'god of the gods'.
Hunab Ku rebuilt the world after three deluges, which poured from
a great sky god, who is depicted in the form of a serpent. Even
the Mayan war god was seen as a snake charmer.
When the Aztec replaced the Maya and Toltec as lords of Mesoamerica,
the feathered serpent stayed s an important god figure. The Aztec
feathered serpent carried the name Quetzalcoatl. He symbolized
the blending of heaven and earth. He is associated with the planet
Venus, the wind and breath of life [ cf. Biblical concept of wind,
breath of life, spirit connection], the discovery of maize [corn],
the invention of writing , birth and renewal.
The two highest-ranking priests of the Aztecs ministered, respectively,to
the war god and the god of rain. Both bore the title quetzalcoatl,
or "feathered serpent", to elevate their status by association
with the great god Quetzalcoatl and the Toltec god-king of that
name. One was called "quetzalcoatl priest of our lord"
and the other "quetzalcoatl priest of Tlaloc". Neither
demanded human sacrifice.
It is very surprising how Quetzlalcoatl, who is often called
Kulkulcan, Gucumatz, in Guatamala, Viracocha to the Incas, is
so wide-spread among all of the cultures of precolumbian Mexico.
And all describe it the same, with only small variations. This
god, that tormented Cortez with guilt and remorse, is considered
the Christ figure of the precolumbian civilization, since he proclaimed
the existence of only one god, and the refusal of sacrifices,
which were typical of Mayan and Aztec religions.
Interestingly, this indian deity is described as having "
white skin, with hair on the face and beautiful emerald eyes".
In other words, Quetzalcoatl may have been Caucasian; Viking perhaps
[ from ancient memories]? Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl, whose mythical
achievements are interwoven with the Great Feathered Serpent,
is credited as having infinite knowledge. He taught his people
how to plant the maize and all plant life. Cotton and cacao trees
are also attributed to him.
Quetzalcoatl legends seem to have spring from Tula, and traveled
to the holy city of Cholula, and then in 987 CE they sailed across
the Gulf of Mexico to the land of the Maya. Legends said that
since the Great God came from the East, when he left he sailed
East, amd it was from the East he would return.
The tale runs something like this. There lived once in Tula
a king called Quetzalcoatl. He had the name and qualities of the
ancient feathered serpent, so he was called "Quetzalcoatl
Topiltzin, "our prince". After many adventures, including
getting drunk on cactus wine which cause him to disgrace himself
and bring calamities to the Toltec, he knew he must leave his
people and go into exile. When he came to the eastern coast, he
wove snakes together to make a raft. Then he sailed eastward and
disappeared across the sea. Some say he ascended into heaven and
became Venus, the morning star. It was said that Quetzalcoatl
would return in the same year he disappeared, the year One Reed.
Cortez landed in year One Reed.
Quetzalcoatl could transform himself into the shape of a man,
and many pictures show him in both guises. His arch enemy was
Tezcatlipoca, the god of darkness, which would lead
us to connect Quetzalcoatl to the sun, as had Kulkulcan before
him. After one especially difficult battle Quetzalcoatl fled to
the eastern shore with the enemies right behind him. He sailed
away, making a boat from the bodies of intertwined serpents, promising
to return in triumph. When strange ships were seen coming from
the east, with pale, shining men, it seemed that the prophecy
had come true. It was not Quetzalcoatl, it was Cortes. End of
Aztec civilization !
The Aztec also saw serpents as controlling the weather, especially
the clouds and storms. The Cloud Serpent for the Aztec was Mixcoatl.
This god created weather by conspiring with [having sex with
?] the Earth Serpent Goddess Coatlicue. Coatlique is the
mother of the Aztec creation story. She was first impregnated
by an obsidian knife and gave birth to Coyolxanuhqui, the goddess
of the moon [ again showing the association between the serpent
and the moon]. She later gave birth to the fiery god of war who
was aided in his efforts by a fire serpent
[ a seraph?] The Aztecs believed that Coatlique was the earth
itself. She provided for all their needs, and at death takes them
back into her body.
In Mexico, under the Aztec rule of Moctezuma, the second most
important person in the ruling hierarchy was Cihyuacoatl, the
snake woman who was seen as the incarnation of the earth and mother
goddess who assisted Quetzalcoatl in creation.
In Columbia There is a creator deity of the Chibcha culture
named Chiminigagua, who lives as a serpent in a lake of
serpents. In Brazil there is the goddess serpent Iara ,
who is also know as ' mae d'agua ( mother of the waters) . According
to myth, Iara was not a siren, but a water snake, also called
mboicu = mboi = serpent, and acu = big, in the Tupi language.
Even further south the Inca had Chalchiuhtlicue, the
serpent mother goddess. She is a goddess of fertility. She is
most often depicted with beautiful and magnificent robes, made
of shell mosaics and serpent skin edged with small white feathers.
The Peruvian Incas had a god called the 'Weeping god'. This god
holds two snakes as part of his cosmic image.
In Paraguay, the Guarani peoples have a divine serpent called
Mboi-Tu'I, the snake-parrot. This is an enormous, divine
serpent with the bill, or complete head of a parrot. This god
is the protector of aquatic animals, amphibians, dew and the flowers,
and is seen as a friendly god.
On the way from the Americas to Asia we can stop off in Oceana.
In the Solomon Islands. Here we find a great serpent got Aguna,
who is the paramount god of the area. So important is Aguna
that all other gods are considered to be only aspects of her.
She is the supreme force and divine influence. The first coconut
from each tree is sacred to Aguna.
Also in The Solomons we find the great serpent god Kahasusibware,.
We are not sure of the relationship between the male Kahasusibware
and the female Aguna. This divine serpent can also be found in
the Admiralty islands.
On the island of Fiji we hear about a god named Degei. sometimes
called Ndengel, a serpent god who lives in the Kauvadra hills
and who appears to be the supreme god of the island group. The
story is told of how in the beginning, the snake god lived alone,
without friends or companions, and the only living creature he
knew was Turukawa the hawk. Although the hawk could not speak
he was the constant companion of the god. When the hawk , who
was feminine, she eventually laid eggs . which when hatched produced
two tiny human beings. Degei nurtured these creatures and taught
them how to cultivate bananas and root crops. From there on the
story sounds like the story of Adam and Eve.
When a person dies, his soul faces a long journey from the
sunny land of the living to the cold, misty land of the dead.
Upon the soul's arrival, Degei will interrogate it. Idle men,
recognized by their long nails, will be punished. Industrious
souls will be rewarded. When the soul is judged, it is thrown
into a deep lake. It will sink for a long time until it reaches
Murimuria, a sort of Purgatory. There some will be rewarded and
others will receive punishment. Only a few are chosen by the god
to go to Burotu, the land of eternal life and joy.
Also on Fiji we find Ratu-Mai-Mbula, the snake god who
is ruler of the dead. Elsewhere in Polynesia, we find a legend
about a monster snake [ or perhaps here an eel] among the Tuamotua
The same sort of god found in the Gilbert Islands is called
Riiti . Hina, who can still be seen in the moon was the
wife of the monster snake Te Tuna [ the 'phallus'] She
ran away from him and became the wife of Maui, who then killed
Te Tuna, and on the advice of her mother, planted his head, from
which grew the first coconut tree.
The Daribi people, who live in the highlands of New Guinea
have legends which present snakes as superior to humans. The snake
shed its skin and so they rejuvenate themselves, whereas human
skin ages and shows the mark of mortality. These same people and
these legends are also found in New Britain.
The Philippine Islands are rife with serpent beings. The distinguishing
traits are basically that of a snake or crocodile with scales,
and the head of a fierce animal or bird. We find the birdlike
serpents: baua and minokwa; the fishlike: baconauaua; the saurian
= the buwaya and the pure snakelike = mameleu, marcupo. Macupo
and sawa. This does not count the many dragons.
In the islands of Melanesia we find Koevasi, a snake
goddess, and Walutahanga, a fire snake god. The people
of New Guinea have a snake god among their pantheon, called Wunekau,
and we also find a Kiribati sea snake god named Ruki. In
the New Hebrides Islands we have a group of serpent spirits called
the Mae These are serpents who can appear in other disguises,
and are seen as guiding spirits of all who encounter them. If
a young man returns home after a day of fishing, at sunset he
might see a young girl sitting on a rock , her head covered with
flowers . She will beckon him to climb the steep cliff and when
he approaches her he will notice that she has the face of a girl
from his own village. Afraid that she is a Mae he will look closer
and see that her elbows and knees are on backwards; this betrays
her true nature and the young man will run away. Should he, however,
hit her with the leaf of the dracaena she will assume her true
form and slip away as a snake.
In Asia we have one rich source and more leaner sources. China,
for example, with its concentration on social ethics and personal
behavior [ Confucianism and Taoism] has little room for gods or
goddesses. We do find reference to the AO or four Dragon kings;
Ao Chi'in, Ao Kuang, Ao Jun and Ao Shun. [ These four main kinds
of Lung had alternate names: Tien-Lung, the Celestial Dragon,
who protects the places of the gods, Shen-Lung, the Spiritual
Dragon, who controls the wind and the rain, Ti-Lung, the Earth
Dragon, who controls the rivers, and Fut's-Lung, the Underworld
Dragon who guards precious metals and gems] The commander of all
the River Dragons is Cien-Tang, who is blood red, has a fiery
mane and is 900 feet long. These great serpent/dragon kings were
the faithful servants and guards of Y-Huang-Shang-Ti, the "Father
Heaven, the supreme Emperor of Jade who ruled all.
One time, according to legend. When the land was enduring famine
because of drought, the dragons appealed to the Jade Emperor for
rain. The emperor stalled and the dragon, upset, carried water
to the people in their mouths. The emperor was furious at the
disobedience of the dragons and had them imprisoned under four
mountains. Determined to do good for the people forever, they
turned themselves into for rivers, which flowed past high mountains
and deep valleys, crossing the land from west to east until finally
emptying into the sea.
And so China's four great rivers were formed: the Heilongijan
[Black Dragon] in the far north; the Huanghe [Yellow River] in
central China; the Yangtze [ Long River] farther south and the
Zhujiang [Pearl] in the very far south.
Also, related to to Ao, we find Lung, a benevolent serpent
bringer of rain, who is held in high regard. Fuxi, a creature
with human top and serpent bottom is seen as the father of mankind.
He is the first of the "Three Sovereigns" and the inventor
of the trigrams used in Chinese divination.
The Chinese dragons were shape-shifters, who could make themselves
as large as the whole universe or as small as a silkworm. They
could also change color and disappear in a flash. The classic
work, I-Ching, uses the symbol of the serpent to illuminate the
truths of inner growth of the person, the society and the universe.
These Eastern dragons are usually portrayed as good, kind and
intelligent. Oriental dragons have the most recorded history in
the world, stretching back thousands of years. It has been said
that the worst flooding in Asian history were caused when a mortal
has upset a dragon. We can differentiate the Eastern dragons easily.
The Chinese dragon, or Lung, always has 5 claws, curling from
its feet. It has 117 scales, 81 infused with yang [seen as the
good], and 36 infused with yin [here seen as evil]. The Korean
dragon has 4 toes and the Japanese has 3. The Chinese dragon is
an emblem of the emperor and the yellow dragon can only be worn
We might take a small interlude here to describe other dragons.
In China we find the "Musical Serpent" which is very
serpentine, with even a snake's head, but has four wings. This
dragon makes a noise like the musical stone. We also find the
Chih Dragon, the dragon of the North, and the wingless pure serpent-like
the Kua Shih. The Kung Kung is a serpent/snake with nine heads,
and full of wisdom.
The Vietnamese dragon , called the Long, is a fabulous beast
with the head of a camel, horns of a deer, eyes of a fish, ears
of a buffalo, scales of a carp, claws of an eagle and feet of
a tiger. Most important, however, is that it has the body and
neck of a snake. A long barb hangs down on each side of its mouth,
and a jewel adorns it tongue. Long has a crest of 81 scales running
down the length of its backbone. It can live in the sky, the water
or underground and is immortal. The "Giao Long", which
are half lizard and half snake automatically become dragons after
1000 years. The dragon is a symbol of power and nobility to the
Vietnamese, and is the special symbol of the emperor, who was
considered to be the son of heaven. Vietnamese dragons can have
either five toes [reserved for the emperor] or four toes [ for
lesser dignitaries]. The symbol was always worn on official court
Comparing these serpentine "good" dragons with others
around the world we find similarities and differences. The Mexican
winged dragon, known as an Amphitere, has the tail of the serpeny
but the wings of the quetzal bird. The Polynesian dragon is a
trickster, whose name means " great sea creature' and who
steal and move oysters to different lands. There is of course
the famous Scottish serpent known as "Nessie", the Loch
Ness Monster. On the other hand, the Welch dragon has two wings
and two, or four legs. This beast is usually considered a Wyvren,
and has little serpentine qualities. The dragon of Greek mythology
had three heads, a lion's head, a goat's head on its back and
a serpent's head at the end of its tail. This is not the Hydra
which had all of its heads sprouting from necks.
The earliest European dragons were all giant serpents and are
best described by using the German name for these creatures, the
Lindworms. The most familiar dragon symbol, however is not a serpent.
This combination of a lion and an eagle, with the face of a man
sometimes, is well known in Western mythological art. It may have
the tail of a scorpion at times.
In Japan we encounter one minor, but reasonably beneficent
serpent god and one major, evil god. The minor god is Sarawati
[ borrowed from the Hindu Bneten] who is a river goddess.
She is married to a serpent King. The Japanese people believed
that the seas around the Japanese Islands were full of serpent
people who had great powers.
The kami concept of Japanese religious thought also makes the
snake a sacred person, but I am not considering this, only those
who qualify as genuine divinities in and of themselves.
Japan has one important serpent divinity, and this one is evil.
The Japanese serpent god Susa-No-Wo is one of the two main
players in the chief drama of Japanese mythology.
It seems that one day Susa-No-Wo insulted the great sun goddess
Amataratsu omi kami and made her very angry.
She hid herself in a cave and refused to shine, whereupon the
crops failed and famine set in. The other divine being, with the
exception of Susa-No-Wo, lured Amatarats0u out of her cave and
tied her to a tree with straw ropes. Especially helpful was a
very bawdy dance performed by the god Ama-No-Uzume.
The importance of this story can be seen in that the Kanji
[character] for Amataratsu Omi Kami added to the Kanji of the
tree together are the Kanji for Japan, and Japan is called the
'Land of the Rising Sun'. The serpent king god is banished to
the 'out islands' and becomes a non-persona in Shinto.
One additional story in Japanese Bushido legends tells of Yamato
, the noble warrior. He was confronted, during his wanderings,
by the ghost of the Great
Serpent. The serpent demanded the return of the
magic sword, Cloud Cluster. Yamoto, protected by the sword, refused.
Later, after leaving the sword with his lady love, Iwato-hime,
he met the Great Serpent again. This time the serpent as able
to kill Yamato, but as he died he turned into a white bird and
India and S. East Asia
In Indian philosophy the paradigmatic character of the union
of opposites [ or, as I sometimes like to say- the wholeness of
the result of the dialectic process] constituted one of the most
significant characteristics of Indian religious thought long before
it ever became an object of systematic theology.
For example; The Aitareya Brahmana states
that the serpent Ahi Budhnya is invisibly what Agni, [the
'furious serpent'] is visibly. In other words, the serpent is
a virtuality of fire, whereas darkness is nonmanifested light.
Again, when the sun rises at dawn, he 'frees himself from night
just as Ahi frees himself from his skin'.
It is in India where we again meet the significant divine serpent
in many aspects. In India the cobra has long been considered sacred,
and even those cobras used by 'snake charmers' are not injured
in any way, not defanged, and when they are used for while they
are safely returned to the wild. The "Naga" which is
the divine aspect of the cobra is found in both Hindu and Buddhist
traditions. In some passages, King Varuna is regarded as being
among the most preeminent of the Nagas, and he is included
in the discussion of these mythical divine serpents. [Mahabarata
1.26.1. and 25.4] The 'naga' is a divine serpent who is a son
of Kadru, the daughter of Daksha.
The word naga is a Sanscrit word which means "serpent".
Nagas are believed to live in palaces [Patala] in the underground
city Bhogavati. They are considered the protectors of springs,
wells and rivers. They bring rain [ similar to the Chinese Lung
dragons] and therefore fertility, but can also bring disasters
such as floods and drought. In Malay myths nagas are many-headed
dragons of enormous size. On Java and Thailand, the naga is a
serpent-god, a ruler of the netherworld who possesses much wealth.
In Java they are also called Sesas. In Thailand the naga can have
five heads, much like the Hindu Naga Kanya.
In Mexico we find the word "Nagal" which describes
a class of serpent guardian spirits. The avenue leading to the
main temple at Ankhor Wat is lined with seven-headed nagas. The
Chinese claim to be able to speak Naga-Krita, the language of
the serpentine gods. For a place that has no serpents, Tibet,
the naga are still known in a symbolic sensand are called "Lu'
which is the Tibetan translation of " naga". For example
Nagarjuna is called Lu-truh in Tibet.
To begin; the god Vaskul is the naga-god of Mount Kailasha,
which is also deemed to be the home of the god Shiva, on-third
of the Trinity of Brahma aspects. We have pictorial and statuary
representations showing snakes around Shiva's neck. These are
naga bushana and they symbolize death, the power of which
Shiva is beyond, and which he controls. They also represent that
energy coiled at the base of the spine which yoga practitioners
say is the base for all self-realization.
The Naga represents cosmic power; they are a manifestation
of the Vedic god Agni, or fire, and as such becomes the
'fierce spirit' who is the guardian. The cobra/naga is a mount
of Vishnu and as such represents knowledge, wisdom and eternity.
As Vishnu sleeps on the cosmic ocean, he sleeps on
the coiled serpent on the primordial waters. Two serpents with
downward and upward movement represent the divine sleep and divine
awakening. The Naga and Nagni are serpent kings and queens, which
are divine in their own right. They are depicted as either fully
human, fully snake, humans with cobra heads and hoods, or as humans
from the waist upwards and snake below that.
The naga as a god is widespread and significant in all of Southern
Asia. As far away as the Malay peninsula we find Raja Naga,
or King Naga. Who is the king of all of the many sea snakes
which populate the area. In India the chief function of the naga
is apparent in temple architecture; they guard the doors.
The Great Naga Kanya, the most common friend/companion of Vishnu
is this latter form. Naga Kanya can also be seen with nine serpent
heads with expanded hoods. As the great god Vishnu sits his head
and shoulders are protected by these nine serpent heads . Some
say that this multiheaded snake is an animal counterpart of the
Vishnu, the preserver aspect of the Trinitarian Brahma principle,
is recognized as one of the most important and most revered of
the deities of the Hindu pantheon. He is most often depicted as
reclining on a the coils of the great serpent. The Great Naga,
Ananta [ the 'endless'], also called Sesha. Ananta has 1000 hooded
heads which form a canopy for Vishnu.. Ananta represents the cosmic
The symbol for water, in Hindu mythology, is the serpent [naga].
So that, not only the gigantic anthropomorphic form and the boundless
elemental sea are Vishnu, nut the naga is also Vishnu. He is man,
ocean and snake. All are one. Springing forth from the navel of
Vishnu is a lotus stem, and on the flower at the end of the stem
sits the god Brahma who creates the world. Ananta spits out venomous
fire at the end of each Kalpa [age] to assist Shiva in destroying
The is another image of a human resting upon a snake. There
is the myth of the boy Naranua, a Hindu god of the spirit, who
is depicted as a handsome youth, recumbent upon a
coiled snake couch, lying with his toe in his mouth.
Nagas are recognized as superior to humans. They inhabit subaquatic
paradises, dwelling at the bottoms of rivers, lakes and seas.
A most important function of these divine serpents is their function
as guardians. We find them at the doors of Hindu and Buddhist
shrines. They van not only frighten ordinary human intruders with
their dangerous aspect as cobras, they can as divinities, discern
and repel any divine invader.
As an adolescent Krishna defeated the cosmic serpent by dancing
on its head. This was one of the most important tests of Krishna's
god-like powers. Krishna borrows on a text from the Rig Veda [
II, 12, 1-5, 13] , which says about the god Indra:
" Who having slain the Serpent released the
who drove out the cows by the unclosing of Vala,
Who between rocks has produced fire,
victor in battles: he, O men, is Idra.
Krishna tells Arjuna all about 'divine' serpents. [ Bhagavad-Gita
Finally, in Hinduism, Balaram is Lord Krishna's half-brother
,the avatar of Lord Vishnu's serpent companion whom some call
Vasuki and others call Adhisesha. Lakshman, Prince Rama's brother,
is also an incarnation of the serpent.
There is a festival which is kept annually in India called
the Naga Panchami Festival. In 1997, this festival was observed
on August 8th. His Holiness, Sri Swamiji gave a widely
circulated speech from which I should like to snip some fargments:
" Today is Naga Panchami. Pancha means five
in Sanscrit. Five is auspicious. Naga means snake. Both Lord Vishnu
and Lord Shiva have snakes with them. Vishnu has Adi Shesha as
his bed while Lord Shiva has a snake around his neck.
In India Naga Panchami is celebrated by feeding
milk to snakes
Sri Swamiji continues his speech with many tales of the interaction
between divine serpents and two of the three persons in the Hindu
We find the serpent in Buddhism, including the Buddhist god,
Magoraga, but the further Buddhism moved from its Hindu roots
and the more philosophical it became the less room there was for
any god, much less a serpent god. However, we do have this one
story: After his period of sitting under the Bo tree [ or Bodhi
tree = Tree of Enlightenment] he sat for seven days under a great
banyan tree. Then he left that tree and went to a tree called
'The Tree of the Serpent King, Muchalinda.' Muchalinda is a huge
cobra who dwelt in a hole amongst the tree roots. As the Buddha
meditated, unmindful of his surroundings, a large storm arose.
Muchalinda crept out of his hole wrapped himself seven times around
the Buddha, and with his great hood, kept his head dry. The serpent
represents a reconciliation between antagonistic principles. It
symbolizes the life force that motivates birth and rebirth, and
the concept of savior.
Even in the extremely ascetic off-shoot from Hinduism, the
Jains have a serpent tradition. The founder of Jainism, Nataputta
Vardhamana earned his honorific title Mahavira [or "Great
Man"] by overcoming a great serpent who guarded the ford
which Mahavira saw as " The Way".
One final look in Asia before we leave. In Cambodia [ Kampuchea]
we have the legend that the kingdom was founded by a serpent king
[ or serpent kings]. I have not been able to research this to
any depth as yet. We do have temple statuary and art at Angkor
Wat showing figures with serpents.
Also, when the god Indra installed Duttabaung upon the golden
throne as king of Burma he insisted that he take as one of his
two queens, the Nagini Besandi, one of the Nagas or divine serpent
Our final continent to be examined for the divine serpent is
Australia. Australian aborigines have lived on this continent
for more than 50,000 years according to most anthropologists.
In that time they have had little or no contact with peoples from
the 'outside world'. Yet, here too, we find a divine reptile.
The Rainbow snake, variously named: Julungul, Galeru, Ungur,
Wonungur, Worombi, Yurlungeur, Kalseru, Langal, Ungud, Wullunqua
or Muit. Depending upon which aboriginal tribe one contacted,
was a character in the 'Dreamtime'. He was the creator of many
of the things which are found in the landscape of the Australian
"Dreamtime" or Alchera, is the name given to that
time also called the ' time when', at the beginning of time, before
time really was counted, back when everything was created, when
men and animals could converse, and when the gods walked the earth.
There is a snake important in the rituals surrounding the making
of a medicine man or shaman among the aborigine. Since the key
perquisite to becoming a shaman is to meet death and to return,
able to speak to the god or gods, this ritual is important. The
postulant is mourned as dead by his tribe. He goes to a water
hole where two shamans cover his eyes and throw him into the '
jaws of the serpent' which swallows him. The postulant remains
in the serpent's belly for an indefinite time. Finally the other
shamans bring two kangaroo rats as an offering to the serpent,
whereupon the serpent ejects the postulant. This ceremony represents
death and rebirth and was essential to becoming a shaman. The
serpent was seen as a divine spirit, cooperating with mankind
to make life better.
Mircea Eliade states that :" the ritual swallowing by
the Snake is to be interpreted as a return to the womb- on the
one hand because the Snake is often described as female, on the
other, because entering the belly of the divine also carries a
symbolism of return to embryonic state.
.It represents not
so much a ritual death followed by resurrection as a complete
regeneration of the initiate through his gestation and birth by
the Great Mother" .[ Rites and Synbols of Initiation].
The hermaphrodite serpent aboriginal god of Northwest Australia
is associated with this ceremony, specifically with the erection
of the medicine man.
There is also a great snake worshipped by the Kabi people of
Queensland. This snake called Dhakhan, appears as a rainbow with
an end in each waterhole.
We have other snake gods in Australia. Bobbi-Bobbi
is one of the ancient gods of the Binbinga people of Northern
Australia. Bobbi-Bobbi once sent a number of flying foxes for
men to eat, but these bats escaped. So the snake-god, underground,
watching, threw one of his ribs up, where men caught it as a boomerang.
They could use this serpent-generated weapon to catch game, and
so be fed.
Ulanji is the divine snake ancestor of the Binbinbea
people of the same area. And Yurlunger is the great copper python
of the Murngin people of Northern Australia. Yorlunger's voice
is the thunder, and his honor title is "Great Father".
He is the center of a fertility cult, and the initiation from
boy to man includes being swallowed and disgorged by Yorlunger.
The Maori have a father god, who is also chief of all the reptile
gods who bears the name Tu-Te-Wehiwehi. This god is the most important
god in the Maori pantheon.
We have, obviously, merely scratched the surface
in our quest for the divine serpent. The road ahead may be longer,
and more difficult than the road so far traveled. At any rate
the search might me seen to be at half-time. Time to rest for
a while, as more material is gathered.
COPYRIGHT © 1998 BY ROBERT T. MASON
All rights Reserved
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