A chapter from a book in progress, Creatures in the Mist: Little People, Wild Men and Spirit Beings Around the World by Gary R. Varner.
“The snake is a main image of the vitality and continuity of life,” wrote anthropologist Marija Gimbutas, “the guarantor of life energy in the home, and the symbol of family and animal life.” (1)
The snake means something different and yet the same in many cultures and locations. The serpent is a feared goddess of the river, a messenger and spirit being of Native America, a water spirit and god of Africa. These are similar characteristics for a universally important symbol. There is an opposite view, however. The snake is also portrayed as Satan himself in Biblical lore. As historian Jean Markale wrote, “Western religious thought has been almost unanimous in making the serpent of Genesis into a concrete representation of the tempter, that is to say, of Satan himself, relying for support upon the Apocalypse where this ‘great serpent’…is the image of absolute evil.” (2) The serpent had been respected as a symbol of wisdom and life renewed for thousands of years—until the Hebrews and then the Christians waged successful campaigns to destroy it. “When the Hebrews introduced a male god into Canaan,” says Mark O’Connell and Raje Airey, “the female deity and the snake were relegated and associated with evil.” (3) Later, the Christian campaign was able to, as Page Bryant wrote, “distort a positive and ancient pagan symbol to suit the purposes of Christianity.” (4)
On the base of one of the ancient menhirs in Carnac an image of five snakes standing on their tails was carved. “When the site was excavated,” writes archaeologist Johannes Maringer, “in 1922, five axes were found under the engravings. The blades faced upward; obviously the axes had been deliberately placed in that position. It is most likely that even in Neolithic times the serpent was a symbol of life.” (5) Maringer believes that the serpent was closely associated with deceased ancestors and the five serpents engraved on the menhir probably indicated that five people were buried there along with the axes.
The duality of meanings most likely originated in the contrasting views of the serpent in Old European and Indo-European mythology. In Old European lore (prior to 4500 BCE) the serpent was benevolent, a symbol of life and fertility in both plants and animals (including humans), protective of the family and of domestic livestock. “Snakes are guardians of the springs of life and immortality,” wrote Spanish scholar J.E. Cirlot, “and also of those superior riches of the spirit that are symbolized by hidden treasure.” (6) The poisonous snake in Old European lore was, according to Gimbutas, “an epiphany of the Goddess of Death”. (7) Indo-European mythology (evolving between 4000 and 2500 BCE) contrasted this view, regarding the snake as a symbol of evil, an epiphany of the God of Death, and an adversary of the Thunder God. This was the point in time that the Goddess religion began to give way to that of the male dominated religion of the Sky God.
Gimbutas goes on to say, “it is not the body of the snake that was sacred, but the energy exuded by this spiraling or coiling creature which transcends its boundaries and influences the surrounding world.” (8)
In the Classic world the serpent was the creator of the universe, it laid the Cosmic Egg and split it asunder to form the heavens and the earth. As Hans Leisgang wrote, “This serpent, which coiled round the heavens, biting its tail, was the cause of solar and lunar eclipses. In the Hellenistic cosmology, this serpent is assigned to the ninth, starless spheres of the planets and the zodiac. This sphere goes round the heavens and the earth and also under the earth, and governs the winds.” (9) “In Christian theology,” Leisegang continues, “this serpent became the prince of the world, the adversary of the transcendental God, the dragon of the outer darkness, who has barred off this world from above, so that it can be redeemed only by being annihilated.” (10)
This creator-serpent, the Great Serpent, was symbolic of the sun, not evil but “the good spirit of light” as Leisegang so aptly describes it. It is this Great Serpent that is cause and ruler of the four seasons, the four winds and the four quarters of the cosmos.
A white snake, like the salmon, was a source for wisdom and magical power and was associated with the goddess/Saint Brigit, also known in England and Scotland as Bride. On February 1st, Bride’s Day the serpent woke for its winter hibernation to bring in the change in seasons from winter to spring. Mackinzie relates an old Gaelic charm:
“To-day is the day of Bride,
The serpent shall come from his hole;
I will not molest the serpent
And the serpent will not molest me.” (11)
The many serpent-like symbols found in ancient rock art the world over testify to the importance of this animal in the human mind. The zigzag and meandering lines symbolic of water, the mysterious spirals found the world over which mimic the coiled serpent all speak of the underlying mystery that humans have felt towards the snake and the snakes place in the mythos of the Otherworld and death. However, not only death, for many the snake represented life and the renewal of life. The snake was the feared guardian of life and the forces of life as well as the messenger to and from the world of the dead. Snakes were believed to be symbolic of the departed soul to the ancient Greeks. It was also valued as a guardian of temples, treasuries and oracles, its eyesight believed to be especially keen to allow it to effectively guard against intrusion. Joseph Campbell noted that “in India…the ‘serpent kings’ guard both the waters of immortality and the treasures of the earth.” (12)
While many male anthropologist and archaeologist argue that the serpent is symbolic of fertility (as a phallic symbol), art historian Merlin Stone offers another view:
“[The serpent] appears to have been primarily revered as a female in the Near and Middle East and generally linked to wisdom and prophetic counsel rather than fertility and growth as is so often suggested.” (13)
This statement is not entirely true . The god Ningišzida (“Lord of the Good Tree”) was an important male deity in Mesopotamia. As an underworld god, he was guardian over demons and at least one Sumerian ruler regarded Ningišzida as his personal protector. While primarily a god of the underworld there is one myth (“Adapa at the gate of heaven”) that has Ningišzida as one of the guardians at the gates of heaven. (14) “The symbol and beast of Ningišzida,” according to Black and Green, “was the horned snake…” (15)
The snake and the serpent have been depicted as goddesses and gods, as holy beings to be worshipped, as dragons, as devils and as symbols of lust, greed and sin—and of death. In mythic lore, Zeus appears in snake form to mate with Persephone who thereafter gives birth to Dionysos, “the god who in Crete, it so happens, was synonymous with Zeus.” (16) The serpent is “the emblem of all self-creative divinities and represents the generative power of the earth. It is solar, chthonic, sexual, funerary and the manifestation of force at any level, a source of all potentialities both material and spiritual,” writes J.C. Cooper, “and closely associated with the concepts of both life and death.” (17)
The Giants of classic Greek and Roman mythology reportedly had snake-like legs as did the founder of Athens, Cecrops. Cecrops, a semi-serpent, was considered an innovator of his day, abolishing blood sacrifice, introducing basic laws of marriage, politics and property and encouraging the worship of Zeus and Athena. (18) Again, a duality exists between these two creatures with snake-like characteristics. The Giants were enemies of Zeus and were defeated by Hercules on behalf of the gods of Olympus and Cecrops was a champion for the causes of Zeus.
An interesting image similar to the serpent-legged Titans is that carved upon the strange “Abrasax gems”, magical amulets introduced in the second century that mingled early Christian and Pagan themes. Originating in Alexandria, the images most certainly were inspired by the mystic powers of the man-serpent as represented by the Titans.
It is interesting to note that Athens has even more connections to serpent-men in the form of Erichthonius—the first king of Athens. According to legend, this serpent being was created from the semen of the smith-god Hephaistos. Hephaistos had attempted to rape Athena but she miraculously disappeared just in time. His semen, as it fell to the earth, grew into the serpent Erichthonius. Ely offers an alternative view: “In the days of Pausanias, Hephaistos and Gaia were said to be the parents of Erichthonius.” (19) This version evidently arose from the more conservative elements of Greek society that could not abide with the original creation of the serpent-being from an act of rape.
In Mesoamerican traditions, the Plumed Serpent, Quetzalcoatl, called “the wise instructor,” brings culture and knowledge to the people and “takes charge or interferes in creative activities” of the world. (20) It is Quetzalcoatl who discovers corn and provides it for humankind’s nourishment. While historical lore indicates that Quetzalcoatl was a man (in fact, a tall, white man with a beard), he is symbolically represented as a serpent on many temple complexes, the most notable being at Chichen-Itza in Yucatan. During certain times of the year the steps the lead up the pyramid temple cast an undulating shadow that connects with the carved stone serpent heads—bringing to life the Plumed Serpent.
The serpent also represents chaos, corruption and darkness along with knowledge and spirit. It is this knowledge that the Bible uses to evict Adam and Eve from paradise and what brings the snake so much hatred. It is the symbolism of the snake, that is so closely associated with the Earth and the Earth’s creative powers that the followers of the Sky God wished to destroy. According to Andrews, the snake “threatened the world order established by the sky gods and continually tried to return the world to its original state of chaos.” (21)
The serpent, in fact, threatened the order and control of the Judeo-Christian religion. As Markale suggests, Eve disobeyed the patriarchal priests and listens to the serpent, the serpent being representative of the Mother Goddess. “This is a case, pure and simple, of a return to the mother-goddess cult, a true ‘apostasy’ as it were, and thus a very grave sin against the patriarchal type of religion that Yahweh represents.” (22) Markale and others, most notably the French Catholic priest André de Smet, believe that the original sin was the first battle in the long struggle between the patriarchal religion of Yahew and the matriarchal religion of the Mother Goddess. The “curse against the serpent,” Markale writes, “…is against the mother goddess herself.” (23)
The Gnostic writers viewed the serpent in a different manner. The Kabbalist Joseph Gikatila wrote in his book Mystery of the Serpent:
“Know and believe that the Serpent, at the beginning of creation, was indispensable to the order of the world, so long as he kept his place; and he was a great servent…and he was needed for the ordering of all the chariots, each in its place…It is he who moves the spheres and turns them from East to the West and from North to the South. Without him there would have been neither seed nor germination, nor will to produce any created thing.” (24)
The Ophites, a successor group of the original Gnostics, venerated the snake. To the Ophites the serpent was made by God to be “the cause of Gnosis for mankind…It was the serpent…who taught man and woman the complete knowledge of the mysteries on high” which resulted in the serpent being “cast down from the heavens.” (25) To this group the snake was the “living symbol of the celestial image that they worshipped.” (26) According to Doresse, the Ophites kept and fed serpents in special baskets and met near the serpent’s burrows. They would arrange loaves of bread on a table and then lure the snakes to the “offering”. The Ophite followers would not partake of the bread however until “each on kissing the muzzle of the reptile they had charmed. This, they claimed, was the perfect sacrifice, the true Eucharist.” (27)
To the Gnostic Christians, serpent worship was associated with the “restoration of Paradise, and release thereby from the bondages of time.” (28)
A similar ritual has taken place each August 15th on the Greek island of Kefalonia. On this day, also known as the feast of the Falling Asleep of the Virgin, in the small village of Markopoulo, small snakes with a small cross-like mark on their heads slither through a churchyard, emerging near the bell tower and make their way toward the church. According to witnesses, the snakes enter the church building through bell rope holes in the wall; crawl over the furniture and even over the worshippers as they sit in the pews. The snakes continue onward to the bishop’s throne and, as a group, to the icon of the Virgin.
After the service, the serpents disappear and not seen again until the same evening a year later. The people of Markopoulo look forward to the appearance of these creatures as a sign of good luck and bountiful harvests. Only two years in recent memory did not see the return of the snakes. One was in 1940. The next year Greece was invaded by the Axis Forces. The year following their non-appearance in 1953 saw the area devastated by a catastrophic earthquake.
Normally avoiding human contact during their visits to the church the snakes appear quite tame and allow the residents to handle them at will. According to local lore, the annual serpent appearance dates to 1705 when Barbarossa pirates attacked the village. The nuns who resided in the village convent prayed to the Virgin to transform them into snakes to avoid being captured by the pirates, or worse. When the pirates finally gained access to the convent, they were shocked to see the floors, walls and icons writhing with snakes. The snakes have returned each year except for the two previously mentioned.
The serpent, as a representative of the mother goddess, is known from the serpent priestesses of Crete and various other mother goddess locations from the Neolithic. The shrine at Gournia, Crete yielded three figures of the mother goddess. One that shows the mother goddess with a serpent curled around her waist and over one shoulder. (29) The Greek mother goddess Ge or Gaia is often associated with the “earth snake.”
Twenty-one figurines of serpent goddesses have been found at Poduri, Romania dating to 4800-4600 BCE indicating that this goddess was not only an ancient one but commonly worshiped throughout Europe and the Middle East. Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas wrote “Their lack of arms, their snake-shaped heads, and the snakes coiling over their abdomens suggest that they represent the Snake Goddess and her attendants, only one of them has an arm raised to her face, a gesture of power.” (30)
“Undulating serpents or dragons signify cosmic rhythm, or the power of the waters.” (31) The serpent has been associated with water since time began. They appear in Native American rock art throughout the continent symbolic of messengers of the otherworld that traverse through streams, rivers and time through the cracks in stone. It is by no accident that the Plumed Serpent of Mesoamerica is closely associated with the Cosmic Waters or that the Serpent Mound in the Ohio Valley is located near a flowing river. It is also not an accident that accounts of sea serpents are rampant in the world’s maritime lore. In the Southwest, snakes were pecked or painted onto rock surfaces designating good or bad water sources. The snake was believed by Native Americans, as well as to the people of Old Europe and the ancient Near East, to bring rain when it is needed. Both the Hopi and Shasta Indians carried live snakes in their mouths for ritual dances used in rainmaking ceremonies (32) and the Cheyenne also danced with poisonous snakes in their “crazy dances”. “Crazy dances” were performed to aid in the cure of a sick child, to ensure victory in war or to obtain other blessings for the tribe. (33)
Snakes have also contributed to weather folklore around the world associated with rain. Nineteenth century folklorist Richard Inwards noted, “the chief characteristic of the serpents throughout the East in all ages seems to have been their power over the wind and rain, which they gave or withheld, according to their good or ill will towards man.” (34) It was also possible to induce rain, according to Inwards, by hanging a dead snake on a tree. (35)
Mesoamerican traditions “have been recorded,” writes anthropologist Robert Rands, “which directly connect the serpent with surface water, rain, and lightning. …a few stray facts regarding the relationship of snakes to the anthropomorphic rain deities of the Maya and Mexicans may be noted. In the Maya codices, the serpent…and water are frequently shown together…As giant celestial snakes or as partly anthropomorphized serpents, the Chicchans are rain and thunder deities of the present-day Chorti. …In modern Zoque belief, snakes serve as the whips of the thunderbolts.” (36)
The snake with its fluid motions is a natural symbol of flowing water. Native Americans and others saw this symbolism in the meandering streams and rivers that flow through their lands. They also saw the annual shedding of its skin as a renewal of life and of fertility, a renewal of the fertility that water also provides.
“The serpent is the foundation of the universe,” writes Indian artist Jyoti Sahi. “Coiled around the naval of the cosmos, it appears to be the dynamic centre of time and space. The serpent seems always to be moving and yet always still, like the oceans whose waves seem in perpetual turmoil and unrest, but whose boundaries remain fixed, and whose depths are eternal.” (37)
In ancient Indian mythology, the serpent becomes the victim of mankind. “…in order to overcome the wilderness…and make it orderly and cultivated…[man] had to injure the serpent…” (38) Sahi says that this injury to the serpent is a “sin” and that the story really “represents the overthrowing of pre-Aryan serpent worship.” (39)
In the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur, the snake god Irhan was worshipped. To these people Irhan was representative of the Euphrates River. The mildly poisonous horned vipers of the Middle East gradually assumed the dragon form that we still recognize today.
A snake-dragon called mušhuššu, or “furious snake” was worshipped in Babylon at least during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BCE). This creature with the body and neck of a serpent, lion’s forelegs and a bird’s hindlegs, was originally an attendant of the city god Ninazu of Ešnunna. The snake-dragon was transferred as an attendant of Ninazu to several other national gods through the years, surviving as a protective pendant through the Hellenistic Period. (40)
The serpent was present in the liturgy and symbolism of the Mithraic religion as well. Mithraism almost dominated Christianity during the 2nd and 3rd centuries and many Christian symbols are derived from this ancient religion. The snake appears often in paintings and carvings of Mithras hunting, the serpent is present as a companion to the god. Some depict the serpent seeking the flowing sacrificial blood of the bull that was slain in Mithraic baptisms. This, according to writer D. Jason Cooper, “seems to indicate the snake is seeking salvation.” (41)
Snakes are also associated with healing. The caduceus, the staff with two intertwined serpents, is found not only in the healing temples of Greece, but also in Native American, Mesoamerican and Hindu symbolism. The snake with its annual shedding of its skin was a logical symbol for life, renewal and protection. In Celtic lands as well the snake was, like the sacred well, associated with healing. To the Sumerians the caduceus was the symbol of life. It was also an important symbol to some Gnostic Christians who, according to Barbara Walker, “worshipped the serpent hung on a cross…or Tree of Life, calling it Christ the Savior, also a title of Hermes the Wise Serpent represented by his own holy caduceus…” (42) According to Wallis Budge, “the symbol of [the Bablyonian god of healing, Ningishzida] was a staff round which a double-sexed, two-headed serpent called Sachan was coiled, and a form of this is the recognized mark of the craft of the physician at the present day.” (43) The Greek god of healing, Aesculapius was also depicted in a statue at Epidaurus “holding a staff in one hand, while his other hand rested on the head of a snake…” (44)
In Africa the spirits of the waters are, simply said, snakes. As they are symbolic of healing, they are also believed to “call” to healers to whom they give wisdom and knowledge. (45) According to anthropologist Penny Bernard, “the water spirits have been attributed a pivotal role in the calling, initiation and final induction of certain diviners in the Eastern Cape. Hence the implication that they are the key to certain forms of ‘sacred’ knowledge.” (46)
Tornadoes and waterspouts were believed to be the physical appearance of the African serpent god Inkanyamba. Inkanyamba was believed to be an enormous serpent that twisted and writhed to and fro as it reached from the earth to the sky. Tamra Andrews noted that the Zulu “believed that he grew larger and larger as he rose out of his pool and then grew smaller and smaller when he retreated back into it.” (47)
In other African cultures, the snake is considered the spirit of a departed human. Referred to as the ‘living-dead’ the snake is prohibited from being killed, as it is representative of the soul of a relative or friend that is visiting the land of the living. (48)
According to Sumatran and Norse mythology, the vast Cosmic Snake that encircles the world in the cosmic river will eventually destroy it. However from the destruction comes a new world, a renewal of life. The old gods die with the Cosmic Serpent but “Earth will rise again from the waves, fertile, green, and fair as never before, cleansed of all its sufferings and evil.” (49)
Perhaps in no other culture than Egypt was the serpent-god so prevalent. The serpent represented both male and female deities, both benign and malevolent. The snake-god Apophis was believed to have existed before time in the primeval chaos of pre-creation. Apophis was the enemy of the sun god and attacked the heavenly ship of Ra as it sojourned across the heavens. The daily battle involved other gods, including Seth the enemy of Osiris, in a back and forth struggle of power between light and dark and balance and chaos. Each day Apophis was defeated, cut into pieces that would revive and rejoin the struggle the next day. In his own way Apophis was a symbol of renewal—renewal brought about by the eternal conflict of the powers of the universe. Apophis was associated with natural disaster, storms, earthquakes and unnatural darkness that foretold the return of chaos. As archaeologist Richard Wilkinson wrote, “Although the god was neither worshipped in a formal cult nor incorporated into popular veneration, Apophis entered both spheres of religion as a god or demon to be protected against.” (50)
The Egyptians worshiped ten other snake gods. These include Mehen who helped protect Ra from the daily attacks of Apophis, Denwen who was very much like a dragon and had the ability to cause a fiery conflagration, Kebehwet who was a “celestial serpent,” Meretseger called the “goddess of the pyramidal peak” and who presided over the necropolis at Thebes. Meretseger became an important deity of the workmen who constructed the burial temples and chambers and many representations of this serpent goddess have been found in workmen’s homes and shops in the area.
Other serpent gods of the Egyptians include Nehebu-Kau, “he who harnesses the spirits.” (51) Nehebu-Kau was regarded as a helpful deity and was the son of the scorpion goddess Serket. He was referred to in hieroglyph as the “great serpent, multitudinous of coils” and was sometimes depicted as a man with a serpents head. Other beneficent serpent gods include Renenutet, a guardian of the king and goddess of the harvest and fertility. She was also known as a divine nurse. The cobra goddess Wadjet (“the green one”) was a goddess of the Nile Delta and was associated with the world of the living rather than the world of the dead. Wadjet was another protector of the king and had the ability to spit flames as a defensive measure. The serpent on the pharaoh’s crown was that of Wadjet. Like Renenutet, Wadjet was also a nurse to the god Hathor while he was yet a divine infant. Another fiery serpent is Wepset. Wepset, meaning “she who burns,” guarded the king, other gods and the Eye of Ra. It was written in ancient texts that the Egyptian island of Biga was her cult center.
The last two Egyptian serpent deities are Weret-Hekau and Yam. “Great of magic” was the name for Weret-Hekau and she may be a composite of other serpent goddesses in that she was also a nursing serpent of the kings and her symbol is associated with the other uraeus goddesses. Yam was actually a Semitic god, a “tyrannical, monstrous deity of the sea”, according to Wilkinson. (52) Sometimes depicted as a seven-headed sea monster, Yam was a minor Egyptian god that may have been feared mostly by sailors and fishermen than by regular people of the cities. Yam was defeated in various myths by the goddess Astarte, and the Canaanite god Baal and the Egyptian god Seth.
Serapis, a deity of both the Greeks and Egyptians, associated with Osiris, Hermes, and Hades, was introduced in the 3rd century BCE as a state god for both Greeks and Egyptians. Believed by the Egyptians to be a human manifestation of Apis, a sacred bull that symbolized Osiris, he was represented as a god of fertility and medicine and the ruler of the dead to the Greeks. Serapis was also depicted as a Sun god and occasionally with a serpent wrapped around his body—most likely in connection with fertility.
That serpents were, and still are an extremely important aspect of religious traditions around the world cannot be doubted when even Ireland, a land totally devoid of snakes, is so obsessed with the image of the serpent. “Is it not a singular circumstance,” said 19th century scholar Marcus Keane, “that in Ireland where no living serpent exists, such numerous legends of serpents should abound, and that figures of serpents should be so profusely used to ornament Irish sculptures?” (53) Celtic scholar James Bonwick himself noted when he visited Cashel, Ireland in the 1880’s that he saw “a remarkable stone, bearing a nearly defaced sculpture of a female—head and bust—but whose legs were snakes.” (54) It was Bonwick’s belief that this ancient stone carving depicted an “object of former worship.” The “popularity” of the serpent image in Ireland caused Bonwick to write, “That one of the ancient military symbols of Ireland should be a serpent, need not occasion surprise in us. The Druidical serpent or Ireland is perceived in the Tara brooch, popularize to the present day. Irish crosses, so to speak, were alive with serpents.” (55)
Serpents were valued in Slavic countries up through the 19th century as good-luck symbols. Snakes were also valued as protective charms in Sweden where they were buried under the foundations of houses and other structures. Russian peasants kept them as pets and, as in Poland, snakes were given food and drink in exchange for their protective charms.
Snakes were associated with an ancient god of thunder in Slavic countries. The thunder god was “responsible for creating mountains and for hurling down bolts of lightning also launched storms of life-giving rain into the earth beneath him.” (56) Kerrigan writes “Awesome as his strength was, pagan belief did not characterize it as being wielded destructively: only with the coming of Christianity did his powers become identified with those of evil.” (57)
In some Native American lore, the snake was usually considered an animal to be avoided—one of the “bad animals” that was prohibited from journeying to the spirit world after death. (58) To the Lakota the spirit of the snake “presided over the ability to do things slyly, to go about unknown and unseen, and of lying.” (59)
Cherokee shamans prohibited the killing of snakes and the Apache forbid the killing of any snake by their own people but would not hesitate to ask strangers to kill them. (60) The Cherokee generic name for the snake is inădû’ and they are believed to be supernatural, having close associations with rain and the thunder gods, as well as having a certain influence over other plants and animals. “The feeling toward snakes,” wrote James Mooney, “is one of mingled fear and reverence, and every precaution is taken to avoid killing or offending one…” (61) Certain shamans were able to kill rattlesnakes for use in rituals or for medicinal uses. The head was always cut off and buried an arms length deep in the earth. If this was not done, the snake would cause the rain to fall until the streams and rivers overflowed their banks. (62)
Specific snake lore of the Cherokee indicates that some serpents were not only associated with rain, thunder and the supernatural but also were very unlucky. Mooney reported that a large serpent was once said to reside on the north bank of the Little Tennessee and the main Tennessee rivers in Loudon county, Tennessee and it was considered an evil omen simply to see it. “On one occasion,” he wrote, “a man crossing the river…saw the snake in the water and soon afterward lost one of his children.” (63)
Illnesses were often thought to be caused by snakes, and even the act of accidentally touching the discarded skin of a snake was believed to cause sickness, especially skin ailments and perhaps even death. (64)
The Apache avoided even mentioning the snake but would sometimes use it as an invective. However, by doing even this one courted disaster. According to Opler, “If a man says in anger, ‘I hope a snake bites you,’ he will get sick from snakes. ..Before this the snakes have not bothered him, but…it’s bound to make him sick.” (65)
When a snake is accidentally encountered on a trail, it is, according to Opler, “accorded the greatest respect and is referred to by a relationship term: …”My mother’s father, don’t bother me! I’m a poor man. Go where I can’t see you. Keep out of my path.” (66)
Cherokee lore tells of strange snake-like creatures that were obviously more than myth as no tale of heroes or supernatural interventions are part of the tales. They are simply told as observations and accounts of frightful encounters between men and monster. One such beast is called the Ustû’tlĭ, or “foot snake” which lived on the Cohutta Mountain. Ethnologist James Mooney recorded stories at the beginning of the 20th century about this monster and gives us the following description:
“…it did not glide like other snakes, but had feet at each end of its body, and moved by strides or jerks, like a great measuring worm. These feet were three-cornered and flat and could hold on to the ground like suckers. It had no legs, but would raise itself up on its hind feet, with its snaky head waving high in the air until it found a good place to take a fresh hold…It could cross rivers and deep ravines by throwing its head across and getting a grip with its front feet and then swinging it body over.”(67)
A similar creature called the “bouncer” (Uw’tsûñ’ta) lived on the Nantahala River in North Carolina. It too moved by “jerks like a measuring worm.” According to lore this snake like animal was so immense that it would darken the valleys between rifts as it moved across them. According to Mooney the Indians that lived in this area, fearing the snake eventually deserted the land, “even while still Indian country.” (68)
Another monstrous snake, called the Uktena, was said to be as large as a tree trunk with horns on its head. To be able to kill the Uktena enabled the Uktena slayer to obtain a transparent scale from the snake, said to be similar to a crystal that was located on its forehead. To have one was to be blessed with excellent hunting, success in love, rainmaking and life prophecy.
Some Native American people viewed the snake in another way entirely. It was symbolic of the war-god who also had powers over crops and vegetation. “As the emblem of the fertilizing summer showers the lightning serpent was the god of fruitfulness,” wrote Lewis Spence, “but as the forerunner of floods and disastrous rains it was feared and dreaded.” (69)
That pre-historic Indians believed that the serpent form contained supernatural powers can be surmised by the various serpent mounds constructed in the American heartland. Three such mounds are those found in Adams County, Ohio, St. Peter’s River, Iowa and another serpentine mound which extends in sections over two miles in length, also in Iowa. The Great Serpent Mound located in Adams County, Ohio is believed to be the largest serpent effigy in the world at over one-quarter of a mile in length and depicts a serpent in the act of uncoiling. (70) This unusual earthwork shows the serpent with an egg, perhaps the Cosmic Egg, in its mouth. The culture that created the Great Serpent Mound is unknown since no manmade artifact has been found in connection with the site, although Adena artifacts consisting of copper breastplates, stone points and axes, and grooved sandstone have been found within 400 feet of the mound.
American folklore has a number of superstitions surrounding the snake. Among these is the notion that a snake cannot cross a horsehair rope but that horsehair placed in a bucket of water will turn into a snake. “A spotted serpent called the milk snake,” reports folklorist Vance Randolph, “is said to live by milking cows in the pasture. I know several persons who swear they have seen these snakes sucking milk cows, and they say that a cow which has been milked by a snake is always reluctant to allow a human being to touch her thereafter.” (71)
While the snake was often feared, American “hill folk” also respected it. According to Randolph, rather than say the word “snake,” like the Apache, “they say ‘look out for our friends down that way,’ or ‘there’s a lot of them old things between here and the river.’” (72)
British folklore says, “if you wear a snake skin round your head, you will never have a headache” and “snakes never die until the sun goes down, however much they may be cut in pieces.” (73) However, “if you kill one its mate will come looking for you.” (74) Another advises that to stay young—eat snake!
In 19th century Gaelic folklore the serpent is more evil than good. Campbell wrote, “A serpent, whenever encountered, ought to be killed. Otherwise, the encounter will prove an evil omen.
“The head should be completely smashed…and removed to a distance from the rest of the body. Unless this is done the serpent will again come alive. The tail, unless deprived of animation, will join the body, and the head becomes a beithir, the largest and most deadly kind of serpent.” (75)
In other cultures, like many Native American ones, there is a prohibition against killing snakes. Frazer wrote “In Madras it is considered a great sin to kill a cobra. When this has happened, the people generally burn the body of the serpent, just as they burn the bodies of human beings. The murderer deems himself polluted for three days.” (76) In other areas of the world, snakes were annually sacrificed in large numbers by burning. This occurred at Luchon in the Pyrenees on Midsummer Eve at least into the early 20th century. Considered a Pagan survival, the ritual was led by the local clergy. Frazer describes the event:
“At an appointed hour—about 8 PM—a grand procession, composed of the clergy, followed by young men and maidens in holiday attire, pour forth from the town chanting hymns, and take up their position [around a wicker-work column raised 60 feet in height]. …bonfires are lit, with beautiful effect, in the surrounding hills. As many living serpents as could be collected are now thrown into the column, which is set on fire at the base by means of torches, armed with which about fifty boys and men dance around with frantic gestures. The serpents…wriggle their way to the top…until finally obliged to drop, their struggles for life giving rise to enthusiastic delight among the surrounding spectators.” (77)
Serpents have been mercilessly hunted and killed by many cultures the world over but it is possible, according to Jyoti Sahi, that “all religions which have evolved the concept of a really personal god…have emerged out of a tradition in which serpents have been extremely important symbols of the supernatural.” (78)
The Horned Snake
Snakes with horns? They are common in Celtic artistic mythology and represent protection against all forms of catastrophe—sickness, war and all of the horrors of death. According to Miranda Green, approximately fifteen examples of horned serpents can be found in Gaul while only a handful more are seen throughout the British Isles. (79)
The ram horned serpent almost always appears as a companion to Celtic deities such as Cernunnos, who himself is stag-horned. This monstrous snake appears on the Gundestrup Cauldron on one panel with Cernunnos and on another at the head of a military march. Miranda Green noted that the ram horned snake appears on a carving at Haute Marne accompanying a goddess who feeds the snake from a basket on her knee and at Loire on a wooden sculpture with a possible Cernunnos figure. The serpent slides down the god’s arm with its head in a basket. “The repeated prosperity-symbolism,” Green writes “shown in reliefs is significant: a bronze from…Seine et Loire combines several Celtic images in curious intensity; a three-headed god sits cross-legged…[with] a ram-horned snake entwined round his body.” (80)
The horned snake was also an important religious image in other areas of the world. As noted previously, the Mesopotamian god Ningišzida was depicted as a horned snake, appearing on such items as ritual cups and city seals. Images of horned snakes were commonly used in the Mesopotamian world as magically protective charms.
1. Gimbutas, Marija. The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco 1991, 236.
2. Markale, Jean. The Great Goddess: Reverence of the Devine Feminine From the Paleolithic to the Present. Rochester: Inner Traditions 1999, 6.
3. O’Connell, Mark and Raje Airey. The Complete Encyclopedia of Signs & Symbols. London: Hermes House 2005, 186.
4. Bryant, Page. Awakening Arthur! London: The Aquarian Press 1991, 64
5. Maringer, Johannes. The Gods of Prehistoric Man: History of Religion. London: Phoenix Press 2002, 170-171.
6. Cirlot. J. E. A Dictionary of Symbols, 2nd Edition. New York: Barnes & Noble Books 1995, 286.
7. Gimbutas, op cit, 400.
8. Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco 1991, 121.
9. Leisegang, Hans. “The Mystery of the Serpent” in Pagan and Christian Mysteries: Papers from the Eranos Yearbook, edited by Joseph Campbell. New York: The Bollingen Foundation/Harper & Row Publishers 1955, 26-27.
10. Ibid, 27.
11. Mackenzie, Donald A. Ancient Man in Britain. London: Senate 1996, 188-189. A reprint of the 1922 edition published by Blackie & Son Limited, London.
12. Campbell, Joseph. Creative Mythology: The Masks of God Volume IV. London: Secker & Warburg 1968, 120.
13. Stone, Merlin. When God Was A Woman. New York: Barnes & Noble Books 1993, 199.
14. Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. Austin: University of Texas Press 2000, 139.
15. Ibid 140.
16. Baring, Anne and Jules Cashford. The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image. London: Arkana/Penguin Books 1991, 317.
17. Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols. London : Thames and Hudson 1978, 147.
18. Cotterell, Arthur. The Encyclopedia of Mythology: Classical, Celtic, Greek. London: Hermes House 2005, 84.
19. Ely, Talfourd. The Gods of Greece and Rome. Mineola: Dover Publications Inc. 2003, 161. A reprint of the 1891 edition published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York.
20. Bierhorst, John. The Mythology of Mexico and Central America. New York: William Morrow and Company 1990, 145.
21. Andrews, Tamra. A Dictionary of Nature Myths. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1998, 176.
22. Markale, op cit, 6.
23. Ibid, 7.
24. As quoted by Jean Doresse, The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics. New York: MJF Books 1986, 292-293.
25. Ibid, 44.
26. Ibid, 45.
27. Ibid, 44.
28. Campbell, op cit. 151.
29. Mackenzie, Donald A. Myths and Legends Crete & Pre-Hellenic. London: Senate 1995, 261. A reprint of the 1917 edition published as Crete & Pre-Hellenic Europe by The Gresham Publishing Company, London.
30. Gimbutas, op cit, 343.
31. Cooper, op cit, 148.
32. Kasner, Leone Letson. Spirit Symbols in Native American Art. Philomath: Ayers Mountain Press 1992, 113.
33. Mooney, James. The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 1965, 273.
34. Inwards, Richard. Weather Lore. London: Senate 1994, 144. A reprint of the 1893 edition published by Elliot Stock, London.
36. Rands, Robert L. “Some Manifestations of Water in Mesoamerican Art,” Anthropological Papers, No. 48, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 157. Washington: Smithsonian Institution 1955, 361, pgs 265-393.
37. Sahi, Jyoti. The Child and the Serpent: Reflections on Popular Indian Symbols. London: Arkana/Penguin Books 1980, 161.
38. Ibid, 165.
39. Ibid, 166.
40. Jeremy and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. Austin: University of Texas Press 2000, 166.
41. Cooper, D. Jason. Mithras: Mysteries and Initiation Rediscovered. York Beach: Samuel Weiser, Inc. 1996, 74.
42. Walker, Barbara G. The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. Edison: Castle Books 1996, 131.
43. Budge, E.A. Wallis. Babylonian Life and History. New York: Barnes & Noble Books 2005, 167.
45. Bernard, Penny. “Mermaids, Snakes and the Spirits of the Water in Southern Africa: Implications for River Health”, op cit., 3.
46. Ibid., 4.
47. Andrews, op cit, 96.
48. Mbiti, John S. African Religions and Philosophy. Garden City: Anchor Books 1970, 216.
49. Davidson, H. R. Ellis. Gods and Myths of the Viking Age. New York: Bell Publishing Company 1981, 38.
50. Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson 2003, 223.
51. Ibid, 224.
52. Ibid, 228.
53. As quoted by James Bonwick in Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions. New York: Barnes & Noble Books 1986, 173. A reprint of the 1894 edition.
54. Ibid 174.
55. Ibid 168.
56. Kerrigan, Michael. “A Fierce Menagerie” in Forests of the Vampire: Slavic Myth. New York: Barnes & Noble 2003, 124.
58. Walker, James R. Lakota Belief and Ritual. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 1991, 71.
59. Ibid, 122.
60. Bourke, John G. Apache Medicine-Men. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1993, 20. A reprint of the1892 edition of The Medicine-Men of the Apache published in the Ninth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution 1887-88, Washington, pgs 443-603.
61. Mooney, James. Myths of the Cherokee. New York: Dover Publications 1995, 294.
62. Ibid, 296.
63. Mooney, op cit 414.
64. Opler, Morris Edward. An Apache Life-Way: The Economic, Social, and Religious Institutions of the Chiricahua Indians. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 1941, 228.
66. Ibid, 227.
67. Mooney, op cit 1995, 302.
68. Ibid, 304.
69. Spence, Lewis. North American Indians Myths & Legends. London: Senate 1994, 112. A reprint of North American Indians published 1914 by George G. Harrap & Company Ltd.
70. Silverberg, Robert. Mound Builders of Ancient America: The Archaeology of a Myth. Greenwich: New York Graphic Society Ltd. 1968, 249.
71. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic and Folklore. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1964, 257. A reprint of the 1947 edition of Ozark Superstitions published by Columbia University Press.
72. Ibid, 258.
73. Radford, Edwin and Mona A. Encyclopaedia of Superstitions. New York: Philosophical Library 1949, 221.
74. Simpson, Jacqueline and Steve Roud. Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000, 2.
75. Campbell, John Gregorson. The Gaelic Otherworld, edited by Ronald Black. Edinburgh: Birlinn Limited 2005, 121.
76. Frazer, Sir James. The Golden Bough: A study in magic and religion. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions 1993, 222.
77. Ibid 655-656.
78. Sahi, op cit 166.
79. Green, Miranda. The Gods of the Celts. Gloucester: Alan Sutton 1986, 192.