Re-visioning Adam and Eve

Re-visioning Adam and Eve

Serpent Symbolism in Ancient Goddess Cultures

by Amy Peck

From the moment I first saw an image of an ancient female statue holding a pair of snakes, I was fascinated with the significance of this symbol and its association with Goddess worship. Such an image depicting a powerful relationship of snakes with a priestess-like woman was in marked contrast to the influence of my predominantly W.A.S.P., patriarchal culture. I was curious to discover the attributes of the serpent and it’s cultural ethos that could elevate this reptile to a position of sacredness.

Female diety with sacred adders. Palace of Knossos, Crete, 16th Century B.C.E.

Although we may not have been brought up in a religious household, most of us have been effected by the Judeo-Christian bias at the basis of Western culture. An important foundation of this world view is the story of Adam and Eve. We may not have given conscious validity to the myth, but on a somewhat vague, subconscious, and collective level, this myth I have realized is the source of our culture’s villainous connotations toward women and snakes.

Contemporary archaeological research and new interpretations of the Paleolithic and Neolithic matrifocal cultures has led to an appreciation of prehistory from an entirely new perspective, without the bias of patriarchal and Christian attitudes. In this article I will draw from this research in an exploration of the symbolic attributes of the snake and its venerated position in the cultures of the Goddess, as well as consider its demise and denigration in the Biblical account of Genesis.

The Cultural Context

The social order of the Goddess societies of the Neolithic era was primarily matrifocal: “The Goddess-centered art with its striking absence of images of warfare and male domination, reflects a social order in which women as heads of clans or queen-priestesses played a central part.” (Gimbutas, Language of the Goddess, p. xx.) But although it was matrifocal it was also a system of relative equality between the sexes — as Riane Eisler calls a “gylany,” a social structure where neither sex dominated the other.

In these early societies, the primary lifestyle was peaceful, sedentary, agrarian and completely connected to the life-giving aspects of the earth. The seasonal cycles of the earth and its ability to sustain life were intimately correlated to the fertility cycles, birth-giving and nurturing aspects of the female: “The Old European belief system focused on the agricultural cycle of birth, death, and regeneration, embodied in the feminine principle, a Mother Creatrix.” (Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade, p. 48, quoting Marija Gimbutas) As described by Marija Gimbutas, the Goddess of the Neolithic was the birth-giver, the fertility-giver, the nourishment-giver and protectress, and the death-wielder. (Gimbutas, Ibid, p. xix) The concept of the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth is of special significance to the symbol of the snake.

The snake as a symbol of immortality, regeneration, and fertility

Through the seasons of the year, the early peoples witnessed the birth of new growth, the harvest, the winter death of plants and the spring renewal. They also observed a similar cycle in animal behavior — the most significant example was that of the snake, which doubly expressed the cycle of rebirth. In one aspect the snake was a seasonal creature, hibernating through the winter and reawakening in the spring. In another aspect, the snake exemplified rebirth and immortality by its ability to shed its skin and create a new skin. As Marija Gimbutas attests, “[b]ecause the snake is immortal it is a link between the dead and the living; snakes embody the energy of the ancestors.” (Gim-butas, Ibid., p. 317)

The snake has also been regarded as a symbol of fertility. An obvious interpretation is that of the snake representing the penis, (as Sigmund Freud so influentially and “rigidly” attested). But I believe even of greater significance is the associative characteristics the snake shares with the human umbilical cord. Both the serpent and the umbilical cord are pulsating, spiraling, sinuous forms emerging from a dark womb place. Furthermore, perhaps an even stronger correlation of snake and fertility may be that the swallowing rhythms of the snake were associated with the woman’s labor contractions of birth giving. (Buffie Johnson, “Lady of the Beasts” p. 124.). Still another aspect of fertility that connects women and snakes is the symbolism of regeneration—in the woman, the cyclical renewal of menstrual blood and with the serpent, the cyclical renewal of skin.

The Serpent of Wisdom and Prophecy

Wisdom became an attribute of the snake because it’s eyes, with no lids, were thought to be all-seeing. The snake was also connected to sacred ritual concerning prophecy and oracular revelation. According to Merlin Stone, the act of prophecy was carried out by priestesses whose wisdom and counsel were sought primarily for important political, governmental and military matters. Evidence of oracular prophecy is discernible throughout the Near and Middle East. “There is hardly an area in the Near and Middle East where we do not find accounts of the serpent and/or the shrines of divine wisdom as separate elements; yet both of these occur together often enough to suggest that the relationship between these two separate elements be recognized.” (Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman, p. 210)

Most notable of the associations of the snake, prophecy and the Goddess was the Oracle of Delphi in Greece. “[I]n the earliest times, the Goddess at Delphi was held sacred as the one who supplied the divine revelations spoken by the priestesses who served Her. The woman who brought forth the oracles of divine wisdom was called the Pythia. Coiled about the tripod stool upon which she sat was a snake known as Python.” (Stone, Ibid., p. 203)

Other prolific examples of snake/Goddess/prophecy can be found on the island of Crete where the art, statues of women holding snakes, and artifacts such as snake feeding tubes, testify to the importance of the snake in religious rites. Furthermore, in Greek mythology, Athena, Goddess of Wisdom as well as Hera, the Goddess who was the guardian of seamen and ruler over the pasture land, were frequently depicted with snakes. There is evidence in Egypt as well that a prophetic sanctuary was based in the Egyptian city of Buto which was devoted to the Cobra Goddess, Ua Zit.

Thus the snake, the Goddess, and prophecy were correlated — but what specifically was the role of the snake in the act of revelation? According to Merlin Stone, the manner of connection between the snake and prophecy has not been exactly determined, but she does offer some interesting theories. She mentions several ancient myths or tales which relate the story of a snake licking the ear of a person enabling them to hear the divine words, or tales of persons eating a snake’s heart, liver or broth. But the most intriguing theory she presented was an account of a modern day snake handler’s experience of a poisonous snake bite. The handler had been immunized but the potent venom still caused him to have hallucinogenic visions! Perhaps in the ancient rituals, a way was found to extract venom and induce altered states of consciousness without death. Thus, the snake itself may have been more than simply just a symbolic presence to the prophetess.

The poisonous snake as a symbol of the Goddess as Death-Wielder

The deadly snake was also a representation of the death aspect of the Goddess. The Goddess was regarded as the Life-Giver as well as the Life-Taker. But this death aspect had no evil, threatening or negative connotations — it was simply viewed as the cyclical process of nature being enacted. Death was viewed as the inevitable return to the womb of the Mother Goddess Regeneratrix.

The coiled snake, the uraeus and the ouroboros

The energy contained in life was also represented by the coiled snake, the ouroboros (snake biting its tail), and the uraeus (rearing snake). As a coiled or spiral depiction, the snake shared the fundamental energy essence with other forms of nature, i.e. the shell, fern tendrils, snails, vines, rams horns, etc. It represented potential energy in a state of readiness, unfolding and growth. When depicted as coiling or winding up a shaft, myths associate this image with the snake as protector of the sacred tree of the Goddess. For example, the serpent Ladon guarded Hera’s life-giving apple tree in the Garden of the Hesperides. (Barbara Walker, The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects, p. 388) Furthermore, “a vertically winding snake symbolized ascending life force, viewed as a column of life rising from caves and tombs, and was an interchangeable symbol with the tree of life and spinal cord.” (Gimbutas, Ibid., p. 121) This last aspect, associating the snake with the energy of the spinal cord, equates to the Kundalini principle in Indian myth. Even to this day, the Kundalini represents the sacred feminine energy that when awakened, moves up the spinal column and brings enlightenment.

The ouroboros depicts a snake in a circle “chasing” its tail. This represents the regenerative and cyclical nature of life, similar to the Chinese Yin/Yang. It also represents the great world serpent embracing the world egg. According to Barbara Walker, this representation of the serpent may also have been known as the Goddess Nehushta, (possibly a parallel of a Hindu name for the world-creating serpent Nahusha) which was later converted to Nehushtan, the serpent god whose worship was established by Moses. (Walker, Ibid., p. 201)

The uraeus, or rearing snake, was the hieroglyphic sign for “Goddess” and was the symbol frequently portrayed on the foreheads and diadems of Egyptian royalty. The uraeus in Egyptian usage was that of a cobra. The cobra was known as the Eye, “uzait”, a symbol of mystic insight and wisdom. (Stone, Ibid., p. 201) In lower Egypt in predynastic times, the female deity was Ua Zit, the Cobra Goddess. Among the deities of Egypt the venerable goddess Neith appears as a great golden cobra. (Buffie Johnson, Lady of the Beasts, p. 132)

In summary, the serpent was a profound, and ubiquitous symbol in the prehistoric Goddess cultures. The story of its sacred place has been told by numerous statues, figurines, pottery art, frescoes, reliefs, tombs, grave equipment, votive offerings, seals, shrines, temples and myths. For millennia the snake with its Goddess exemplified the power of prophecy, the reverence for nature, and the entire life cycle experience.

Genesis: the re-mything of the sacred serpent

The knowledge of the prior significance and venerated position which the serpent symbol held in Goddess cultures presents a new perspective on the role of the serpent in the myth of Adam and Eve. Serpent symbology underwent a profound transformation with the growing dominance of patriarchal cultures. In the story of Adam and Eve, the snake is portrayed as the subtle tempter, and Eve as a foolish, sinful, and gullible woman who heeded the snake’s advice. However, it comes as no surprise that Eve would seek counsel with the snake — for thousands of years priestesses had been so doing! The influence of this story was to reverse and denigrate this action of counsel, to oppress the Goddess worshipping peoples, especially the women and priestesses, and to aid in the establishment of a social system based on male dominance. As the new male God of this Biblical tale proclaims to the snake, “Thou art cursed above all cattle and above every beast of the field…I will put enmity between thee and the woman and between thy seed and her seed.” (Genesis, 3:14, 15)

In this way the oracular priestesses, the prophetesses whose advice and counsel had been identified with the symbolism and use of the serpent for several millennia, were now to be regarded as the downfall of the whole human species. Woman, as sagacious advisor or wise counselor, human interpreter of the divine will of the Goddess, was no longer to be respected, but to be hated, feared or at best doubted or ignored. (Stone, Ibid., p. 221)

This re-mything of religious thought appears to be a deliberate intention to portray the serpent as a source of evil in order to assure that the peoples and especially women would be too terrified to seek counsel of the prophetess of the Goddess. “..[T]he transformation of the ancient symbol of oracular wisdom into a symbol of satanic evil and the blaming of woman for all the misfortunes of humanity were political expedients. They were deliberate reversals of reality as it had formerly been perceived.” ( Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade, p. 89) Since the serpent was a symbol which was too sacred and powerful, it would have to be either appropriated into the new system or denigrated and discredited. Thus, the venerated snake was intentionally transformed into a sinful slithering creature forever cursed to eat dust for all the days of its life.

The defamation of the snake symbol in the Adam and Eve myth had a profound effect on the development of society over the following centuries — not only did it falsely yet successfully justify the denigration of women and the Goddess, but it also portended the loss of reverence for nature and life itself. As Joseph Campbell has said:

Wherever nature is revered as self-moving, and so inherently divine, the serpent is revered as symbolic of its divine life. And accordingly, in the Book of Genesis, where the serpent is cursed, all nature is devaluated and its power of life regarded as nothing in itself: nature is here self-moving indeed, self-willed, but only by virtue of the life given it by a superior being, its creator. (Richard Roberts, From Eden to Eros, p. 14, quoting Joseph Campbell)

Conclusion

The repressive influence of the Adam and Eve myth has had a powerful impact on our personal and cultural paradigms. Insight into the intentional denigration of the snake in the Adam and Eve myth, and a rediscovery of the archetypal roots of the snake symbol as it was originally portrayed in ancient Goddess cultures, can produce profound individual changes. Since beginning my research, the transformative symbolic aspects of the serpent have revealed themselves to me in most intriguing ways. I have had dreams of snakes, their images have appeared in my painting, and I have even had the most unlikely opportunity of holding a snake! Most significantly, unveiling the symbolism of the snake has been a spiraling journey of reclaiming the history of the sacred feminine which has rewarded me with new wisdom and greatly empowered me as a woman. My personal discovery of the sacred snake has been for me, as it must have been for the early worshipers of the Goddess, symbolic of a reawakening of hidden truths and ancient memories.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. New York: Vail-Balou Press, Inc., 1962.

Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols. London, Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1978.

Eisler, Riane. The Chalice & The Blade. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1987.

Buffie Johnson, Lady of the Beasts, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981, pp. 122-191.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, Myths and Cult Images. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989.

Roberts, Richard. From Eden to Eros, Origins of the Put Down of Women. San Anselmo, CA: Vernal Equinox Press, 1985.

Stone, Merlin. When God Was a Woman. San Diego: Harvest/HBJ, 1976.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1988.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths & Secrets. San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1983.

The Holy Bible, Authorized King James Version. London: Oxford University Press.

A dancer, painter and writer, Amy Peck uses these creative avenues to express her interest in sacred symbolism. Discovering belly dance in 1992 unveiled for Amy a passion for the divine feminine. Her interest in the symbolism of the dance developed concurrently with her studies in the Art and Consciousness Masters program at John F. Kennedy University, in Orinda, California. Her writing career began from her past occupation in print production and advertising as a freelance contributor to various trade publications such as “Publishing & Technology.” Now her writing has expanded to include the art of poetry and the desire to reclaim our feminine metaphors. She is looking forward to releasing her latest book in 1995, When She Danced, a poetic illustrated story book of a Goddess creation myth. www.goddess-studio.com/

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