I know many people are scared of snakes, but I’ve always been one of those people who love them. My grandfather really, really didn’t like them, and in deference to those who are off put by them I deliberately have no snake pictures associated with this post. 🙂
But to me, they’re fascinating; so different from the other animals you normally encounter, and because of that most likely, they have a long and rich symbolism and mythology in both women’s mysteries and throughout the different religions of the world.
Growing up, the first spiritually-themed story I remember hearing involving a snake is the one many people in the West hear early on; the story of the snake in the Garden of Eden, tempting Eve to eat from the tree of forbidden knowledge. I remember even as a child in Sunday School not really understanding why the snake was the bad guy. I mean, knowledge is power, right? Learning, as so many posters in school libraries assured me growing up, is a good thing. So why was the God of the Bible trying to keep Eve and Adam from learning the really important stuff? I was told it was to keep them innocent – but no good parent tries to keep their children in innocence forever, or those kids end up completely unable to cope with the outside world. And as we learned when Cain was later cursed by God, there were other people, other places out there – Cain wandered amongst them. Keeping them locked in the Garden of Eden at the start also seemed vaguely terrifying to me as a kid; I mean no matter how pretty it was, you couldn’t ever LEAVE. A pretty jail cell is still a jail cell. I was only maybe six, and, though in not as clear of terms as I’m presenting here, I was thinking these thoughts with confusion and fear. The snake, and somehow, Eve, were the bad guys. It seemed unfathomable.
None of this is meant as an indictment of Christianity – besides, they were only copying much older myths. One original early myth, from Sumero-Babylonian sources, had mankind created by the Mother Goddess to harvest fruits and game for the gods in their beautiful paradise, because the gods were too lazy to deal with such things themselves. The serpent, in these original stories, served as the Goddess’ messenger/totemic form, who took pity on us due to the cruel withholding of immortality from us by the gods (or God…”behold, the man has become one of us, to know good and evil…” Says Yahweh, before deciding it’s time to kick out Adam and Eve fearing that they’d “…take also from the tree of life, and live forever.” [Genesis 3:22]). So, in this early myth, the Mother sent down the snake to comfort us, letting us know that immortality was still attainable to us in the afterlife.
Snakes have long been associated with knowledge, rebirth, and, importantly, the Divine Feminine. Many ancient cultures didn’t think snakes died of natural causes at all, but instead, when they shed their skin, were completely reborn. As such, many ancient Goddess aspects from cultures throughout the world had a distinctive snake theme.
Ananta the Infinite, the serpent mother who embraces the Hindu gods during their sleeping periods; Kundalini, the powerful feminine energy based at the bottom of the spine was always depicted as a serpent also. Mat – Chinoi, (literally, “mother of the Chinese”) was a magnificent serpent Goddess; as was Kadi of the Babylonians who created all Nagas (water spirits and guardians of knowledge and treasure), and appeared as a snake/woman hybrid. Egypt’s original force of creation was too depicted as female, and a snake, going by the names Mehen, Per-Uatchet, Buto, and others. She was believed to embrace the mighty Ra each night. Egyptian queens, among many titles, were addressed as “Serpent of the Nile”, in reference to this. Both Isis and Nephthys, two very popular Egyptian goddesses, had serpent aspects.
Ninhursag (“She who gives life to the dead”) was a Akkadian snake goddess, as was Lamia, a dark Babylonian goddess who devoured the serpent penis of her consort, the ancient God Pazuzu. In fact, throughout the ancient world, there seems to have been a belief that snakes reproduced by the female eating the male. Many male gods were depicted as serpent as well; some literally as living phalluses, created to pleasure the Goddess. Others as Her full consort.
A interesting example of this is Levite, an old Palestinian god who was worshipped by early Jewish People as well. Priests of this cult were referred to as being “of Leviathan”, a term that originally meant “the wriggly one”.
Several other hints to snake worship remain in the bible; those who are fond of angels may be interested to know that a “seraph” is NOT an angel, at least as you think of them today. The term originally meant a “earth-fertilizing lightning snake”; which makes sense when you consider that as recently as the 1st century BC Jehovah was portrayed as a snake god on Jewish currency. Early Judaism recognized many gods and goddesses; it was only later, when Yahweh rose to prevalence, that worship of others became taboo, a belief that Christians would later imitate (“…for I am a jealous God”).
Likewise, not all Christians even could bring themselves to demonize the snake, or women (As so many, especially in the early days, disliked both); early Gnostic Christians praised the snake for bringing knowledge to Eve in the Garden of Eden, against the will of Yahweh, who was viewed as cruel and a tyrant. Eve too was viewed as a embodiment of Sophia, of Divine Feminine wisdom; oppressed, abused, and forgotten by Her son-lover (God) and his followers (their orthodox Christian contemporaries).
It’s no wonder those same contemporaries were so eager to paint snakes, and Eve, in a negative light. And it’s a shame that snakes are still so vilified in many ways today. They are truly a symbol of something we need to remember, and hold close; ancient knowledge, the power of femininity, sexual pleasure, rebirth, and so much more. They are a living link to a past that has been covered up, lied about, trampled on, and in some cases, simply forgotten. Some of that history we will never get back; some is even probably best left buried. I am not a recreationist; I see no point in trying to live out religious ritual and beliefs formed in the different world of a couple thousand years ago.
But we CAN learn from these things. It is so tempting sometimes to feel like we should accept what is very old (to us), simply because “that’s the way it’s always been”, or “that’s the way I was taught”. But just because you were raised with a certain belief, and that’s what you’re most comfortable with, doesn’t make it right. If I had just accepted when my mom told me in Sunday School “the snake was working with the Devil”, all those years ago, I may very well have grown into one of those people who disliked them, maybe even feared them. But just because we are told something by authority doesn’t make it correct either.
Even here, with what I’ve written, research, think, decide for yourself. Even if you’re still scared of physical snakes, make your own, informed decision of what they represent to you.
Are they monsters?
Are they evil?
Are they beautiful?
Are they Divine messengers?
UPDATE: For those interested, you can read an alternate Gnostic Christian version of Genesis, called the Hypostasis of the Archons (from circa 200 A.D.) here. It is a interesting, if lengthy, read, which I referenced in part above.