The Divine Serpent in Myth and Legend
By Robert T. Mason, Ph.D., D.D.
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.
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 not only to tell about but to create a chain from the metaphysical world to the physical one.
Later in historical time myth became connected to and often identified with another Greek concept, that of legend, which stems from the Greek legion or logos, which meant word or language. Myth then became a written form. Mythos/Logos is the activity of human consciousness that translates or transfers the underlying forms and powers from the unconscious to the conscious, from the dream world to the world of activity.
In our “modern” world we have so discounted the power and reality of myths, 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,” the non-useful and unnecessary data that 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 reality!
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 that, 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 pre-scientific 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 that 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, Carl 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 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 that 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 that 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 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 is 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.
To summarize what we expect to find about the divine serpent at the onset rather than at the conclusion of this work, the Serpent is emblematical:
1. Of wisdom… (Biblical: “be ye therefore wise as serpents” Matt 10:16)
2. Of subtlety…(Biblical: “Now the serpent was more subtle than an beast of the field” Gen. 3:1)
The Serpent is symbolical:
1. Of deity: Plutarch et al
2. Of eternity: forming a circle with tail in mouth
3. Of renovation and resurrection: the old becomes young (skin shedding)
4. 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 that 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 as 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 stories 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 that 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 that we will see later in the Bible and the caduceus. Also, in Sumer, we have a cylindrical seal that 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 that 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. 2350 BCE) showing the serpent in human form enthroned with the caduceus emblem behind him and guarding him.
According to one theory, all primordial serpents of myth are derived from a Sumerian arch-serpent in subterranean waters, whose name was Zu. This old Sumerian serpent-god, whose other name is Ningizzida, is the ultimate archetype of the lord of the watery abyss from which mortal life arises and to which it returns. We might note that among the Celts the underworld serpent, Sucellos, represented the same dark power. 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 focused on destroying the world. I find that a common theme in early cosmogonies is that to bring Cosmos out of Chaos, some organizing agent, usually light and speaking, are necessary.
Marduk, to save the 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 Phoeni-cians had a serpent god that was called the Basilisk. This has been considered an early phallic god, common in ancient religions. An interesting note is that the word basilisk is where we got the later word basilica, a temple of the phallic god, and eventually a type of church. 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 twelve inches long. It routs all snakes with its hiss, and moves its body forward in manifold coils like other snakes.”
In the Middle Ages, the basilisk became identified with the cockatrice, a serpent mentioned occasionally in Isaiah and other Hebrew scriptures. When we enter the modern period, and Medusa becomes an 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 rattlesnakes 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 that 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, that 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 as 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 (1500-1400 BC) 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 we examine, the Blue crown, the informal crown or the great double red and white crown, 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 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 are 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. It is not an accident of history that the legendary Cleopatra chose to be joined to the Egyptian cobra, the asp, by being bitten by the serpent. She is identifying the goddess Isis, whom she represented, to the sacred Uraeus who was her protector and who would lead her into eternal life in the western land.
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 legendry, 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 African nations which were influenced by Egypt, the crocodile is a serpent, no matter in what form it is depicted.
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) that 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. (emphasis mine)
Later in a debate that can be found in The Book of the Dead (chapter 175) between Osiris and Atum (described here as the “High God”) we find Atum’s description of the end of all:
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 snake-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 towline, enter this serpent at the tail, and drawing the god in his boat through the body of the serpent, bring him out at his mouth. 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 twelve 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 areas. 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 serpent 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. The serpent Typhon is the youngest son of Gaea and Tartarus in Greek legend. He was taller than any mountain, and had great wings, eyes of fire, hands made of dragons, and a lower body composed of vipers. He and Echidna gave birth to Hydra, Cerberis, Chimera and the Nemean lion. The Egyptian Typhon was a more simple serpent lord.
Again, it is important to note here that the dragons we have included in this study are only those dragons that 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. 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 cobra/asp).
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: 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 Quetzalcoatl.
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 19th dynasty (1290 BCE)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?
When one carefully examines Biblical passages regarding serpents, it should be noted that from the beginning you will never find any place where serpents are specifically called evil creatures. Rather, the snake is used as a symbol for everything from the Devil to the highest order of angels; from lying to wisdom. This symbolism is common to the Bible and should not be taken as a literal judgment about the snake. The Bible uses the dove, for example, as a symbol of the Holy Spirit and this does not mean that doves are holy birds.
The Bible uses many Hebrew words to describe the snake: akshub means a coiled serpent; epheh is a hissing, probably venomous snake; livyathin (Leviathan) is the sea serpent; nachash, a hissing serpent; pethen, a twisting snake, probably the asp; seraph, the burning serpent; shephiyphon, a snapping serpent, the adder; tsepha or tsiphoniy is the tongue-thrusting snake. We might compare the Greek words for snake: aspis, drakon, echnida, from whence we get the classical name for the study of serpents, herpetology, and ophis which gave a name to an early Christian sect.
But, to continue with the Biblical picture, 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. This would bring Jewish legends into more equivalence to other Near East traditions.
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 thou go…” 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 snake. 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), claiming 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.
“Yahweh sent fiery serpents (seraphim) among the people; their bite brought death to many in Israel. The people came and said to Moses we have sinned by speaking against Yahweh and against you. Intercede for us with Yahweh to save us from these serpents. Moses spoke for the people, and Yahweh replied, ‘Make a fiery serpent and use it as a standard. Anyone who is bitten and looks at it will survive.’ Moses then made a serpent out of bronze and raised it as a standard” (Numbers 21: 6-9).
We are informed, in II Kings 18:4, that this serpent symbol was so popular that the people continued to revere the bronze serpent until the time of King Hezekiah (719-691 BCE), who, according to the record “broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had burned incense to it.”
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, the Seraphim. We find in Isaiah 14:29 a description of the highest of all of God’s angelic creatures, the Seraphim. The word seraph (of which Seraphim is the plural) can be translated “fiery serpent.” Therefore there must be significance that the word used for serpent in descriptions of a serpent in Isaiah 14:29, Isaiah 30:6 and in Numbers 21:8, 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 that underlies the order of creation, or like a dragon that threatens order and creation. Perhaps we should point out that Leviathan is a female and her male counterpart is Behemoth. We find a lengthy poem about Leviathan in Chapters 40 and 41 of the Book of Job, and a wonderful hymn about Leviathan 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 Society).
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 artwork showing a crucified serpent with the thorn-crowned face of Christ.
Christians were taught to see the brazen serpent of Moses as a divinely authenticated type of crucifixion, and an image of saving faith. There is some indication that there existed early Gnostic Christian sects, especially Ophitic sects (from ofis, serpent) which utilized both nakedness and serpent-worship as part of the ‘love feast’ (agape) worship service.
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 of animals.”
In early Gnostic Christianity there were several systems of thought which found room for serpent worship. The basic idea of these systems was that the origin of evil coincided with the idea of creation itself. The god of the Old Testament, called the Demiurge (demiurgos), created the world not from nothing (ex nihilo), but by engulfing a quantity of light of the infinite true Father. This light, the Spirit, he lured, conjured or ravished downward into Matter, where it is now trapped. This was the first descent of the serpent.
The second descent of the serpent was a voluntary down coming, to release the spiritual forces; and the Bible story of the serpent in the garden is an account of this appearance. The serpent in this account caused the male and female, Adam and Eve, to violate the commandment of the Demiurge, and so commence the work of redemption. Yahweh struck back by delivering to Moses an impossible set of moral laws, to which the serpent then replied by coming down as the redeemer and taking up residence in a mortal Jesus.
German coinage of the 16th century, especially the German golden Thaler, demonstrates a theme that is common among iconography. Jesus on the cross is depicted on the obverse, compared to a serpent on the reverse, both depicted on a cross or on a tree, both lifted up. Thus, the serpent’s role as healer is expanded to include 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 that 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. Certainly the symbols appear to be so similar as to bring up a doubt as to coincidence as the answer.
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.
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.
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After a successful career in radio broadcasting, Dr. Robert Mason, Ph.D., D.D., entered a Midwestern Episcopalian seminary at age thirty. He went on to earn degrees from Princeton University, Drew University and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from the Minnesota Graduate School of Theology. He attended Oxford University as a “scholar” while doing doctoral research, and was awarded an honorary D.D. from St. Matthias Seminary in Jacksonville, Florida. His career as a college professor and Episcopal priest spanned thirty-six years. He was an Assistant Professor at Community College of Morris and an Adjunct Professor at Sussex County Community College, where he taught courses in, among other subjects, Comparative Religions and Religion in the Age of Science. He spent the last 29 years of his ministry as Vicar, then Rector of Saint Dunstan’s Church in Succasunna, New Jersey.
Dr. Mason’s complete paper, which focuses on snake myths from around the world, can be viewed at www.geocities.com/Athens/Delphi/5789/serpent.htm.