The letter S was one of the oldest symbols of serpenthood, both in its
shape and in its sibilant sound; and the serpent was one of the oldest
symbols of female power. Woman and serpent together were considered holy
in preclassic Aegean civilization, since both seemed to embody the power
of life. Serpents were considered immortal because they were believed to
renew themselves indefinately by shedding old skins. It was the mother
of all gods, the Earth Goddess Gaea, who first founded the Delphic
("Womb") oracle and inspired its original Pythonesses or divinatory
serpent-priestesses, according to Homeric hymns. Hesiod referred to her
as Gaea Penelope, the female serpent.
The biblical Nehushtan was a deliberate masculinization of a similar
oracular she-serpent, Nehushtah, Goddess of Kadesh (meaning "Holy"), a
shrine like that of the Pythonesses. Israelites apparantly violated the
sanctuary and raped its priestesses, but "Moses and Yahweh had placate
the angry serpent goddess of Kadesh, now deposed, by erectin her brazen
image.... Mythologically, the serpent is always a female divinity."
In India, the "Mother of All that Moves" and Goddess of the Earth
sometimes bore the title of Sarparajni, "Serpent Queen." As the female
serpent Ananta the Infinite, she enveloped all gods during their
death-sleep between incarnations. As the female serpent Kundalini, she
represented the inner power of the human body, coiled in the pelvis like
woman's organs of life-giving. It was - and still is - the aim of male
Tantric sages to awaken the female Kundalini serpent in their own
bodies, through physical, mystical, and sexual exercises and through
meditation on the female principle.
Among the oldest predynastic Goddess figures in Egypt was the
serpent-mother Iusaset, or Ua Zit, or Per-Uatchet, whom the Greeks
called Buto. Pyramid Texts say she is the Celestial Serpent, giver of
the food of eternal life. Her symbol, the uraeus, meant both "serpent"
and "Goddess." She was also Mehen the Enveloper, the female serpent like
Ananta who enclosed the phallus of Ra the sun god every night. There
are mythical indications that this nightly sexual communion with the
serpent power of Mother Earth was at times considered the real source of
Ra's renewed power to light up the world again each day.
The Middle East used to regard the female serpent as the embodiment of
enlightenment, or wisdom, because she understood the mysteries of life.
In Arabic, the words for "snake", "life," and "teaching" are all related
to the name of Eve - the biblical version of the Goddess with her
serpent form, who gave the food of enlightenment to the first man. Of
course, in the Bible both Eve and her serpent were much diabolized; but
Gnostic sects of the early Christian era retained some of the older
ideas about their collaboration concerning the fruit of knowledge. Some
sects worshipped the snake as a benevolent Female Spiritual Principle,
who taught Adam and Eve what they needed to know about God's duplicity,
saying, "You shall not die; for it was out of jealousy that he said this
to you. Rather, your eyes shall open, and you shall become like gods,
recognizing evil and good." The "arrogant ruler" (God) cursed the woman
and her snake, declaring that they must be enemies to one another
instead of collaborators. But the Gnostics honored Eve and the serpent
for providing the essential knowledge that made human beings human.
Naturally, the serpent was also masculinized and often viewed as Eve's
first consort. Gnostics call this serpent Ophion, or the Aeon of Light,
or Helios, or Agathodemon, which meant the Great Serpent of Good, as
opposed to Kakodemon, the Great Serpent of Evil. His worshipers were
sometimes known as the Brotherhood of the Serpent. Their writings said:
"Thou who risest from the four winds, thou friendly good demon,
glittering Helios, shining over the whole earth, thou art the great
serpent who leadest the gods."
Several other mythologies also had the Tree of Life or Tree of Knowledge
guarded by a serpent sacred to the Goddess, such as Ladon, the mighty
serpent who guarded Mother Hera's life-giving apple tree in the Garden
of the Hesperides. The intimate relationship between the Goddess and
her serpent consort was often believed to be the reason for his
deathlessness. Gnostic mysticism turned the Great Serpent nto Ouroboros,
the great earth dragon living forever in the uterine underworld. A
symbol of his cosmic world-creating seed was the round, spiny sea
urchin, which the Celts called "serpent's egg." Some showed the angel
Raphael as a Wise Serpent.
Christians adopted the Great Serpent as a form of their devil; yet the
life-giving powers of the serpent retained popularity in secret books of
magic and materia medica. As late as the eighteenth century AD, Arnold
de Villanova declared that stags are known to reverse the effects of old
age and restore their youth, simply "by feeding on vipers and serpents."
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