Snakes in Mythology, Religion and Folklore

Snakes are among the most misunderstood creatures on earth, and their stories are intertwined with humans in countless ways. They are very powerful symbols in mythology, religion, and folklore, and some of these symbols and metaphors continue to influence peoples’ perceptions of snakes (for good or bad) to this day. Let’s look at a few examples from history.

imageimageRod of Asclepius

Greek mythology holds several serpent-based symbols and characters. The Greek god Asclepius, closely associated with healing and medicine, carried a staff that featured a snake wrapped around it (pictured right). It has been surmised that the snake species represented in the symbol is the Aesculapian snake  (Elaphe longissima) pictured left, a nonvenomous species native to Europe. This symbol is used around the world by many different organizations to promote medicine and health care.  Some groups that utilize the symbol are the American Medical Association, the British Medical Association, the Medical Council of India, and the World Health Organization.

Caduceus

The Greek gods were definitely into snakes, as shown by Hermes, the god of transitions and boundaries.  He carried the caduceus, which was a staff that contained two intertwined snakes, typically adorned with a set of wings at the top. The caduceus also appeared in Roman mythology and was often carried by Mercury, usually in his left hand. Like the rod of Asclepius, this symbol is used frequently in the health care profession, although the caduceus is not utilized by as many groups and most professional medical groups denounce its use. It was used by the U.S. Army Medical Corps in 1902, and it has created nothing but confusion with the Rod of Asclepius ever since.  

One Greek myth explaining the origin of the caduceus says that Hermes observed two snakes locked in combat. He brought peace between them by separating them with his staff. This resulted in the caduceus becoming a symbol of peace in many parts of the world.

Medusa 

Sticking with the Greek mythology theme, we move on to one of the most popular snake stories around. Medusa was a Gorgon, a female monster that possessed a head full of venomous snakes in place of hair. She also had the ability to turn a mortal man into stone simply by gazing into his eyes. She’s certainly not someone you’d want to meet up with in a dark alley… unless you were carrying an adamantine sword given to you by Zeus!

Perseus, a hero of Greek mythology, set out to slay Medusa after promising to bring her head to Polydectes as a gift for a banquet he was holding. After securing Medusa’s whereabouts, Perseus set out to fulfill his promise. He was able to approach Medusa safely by viewing her reflection in a polished shield that was given to him by Athena. After removing her head, Perseus placed it in a special kibisis (knapsack) and presented it to Polydectes, just as he had promised.

The Ouroboros 

The Ouroboros is a symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail that has featured in many ancient cultures. The first known appearance of the ouroboros motif is in the Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld, an ancient Egyptian funerary text dating from the 14th century BC, discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun. The text concerns the actions of the god Ra and his union with Osiris in the underworld. In an illustration from this text, two serpents, holding their tails in their mouths, coil around the head and feet of an enormous god and is believed to represent the beginning and the end of time.

The Ouroboros often represents cyclicality, things beginning anew as soon as they end. It has been important in religious and mythological symbolism, but has also been frequently used in alchemical illustrations, where it symbolizes the circular nature of the alchemist’s opus, as shown in an alchemical tract dating from 1476 (below right).

Below left: The symbol of Caduceus. Center: Medusa, the monster with a head full of living serpents.

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Religion

Snakes appear in a number of different religions, taking on the roles of good and evil depending on the circumstance. In Judeo-Christian writings, the serpent has a famous role in the Garden of Eden. It is used as an instrument of Satan, sent to tempt Eve and encourage her to disobey God. The serpent re-appears in the Bible in the Book of Numbers, this time on a more positive note.  God has Moses create a statue of a snake and erect it atop a pole. Those bitten by a venomous snake would be healed upon looking at the statue.

In Hinduism, the god Shiva is thought to be the most powerful of all the gods. He has many different attributes, all of which have special meaning, but the most impressive is the snake around his neck. It is known as nāga, which is the Sanskrit word for cobra. He is depicted in many different ways, but most often the nāga has three coils, which represent the past, present, and future. Some say the nāga displays Shiva’s power of destruction and recreation, while others think it denotes wisdom and eternity. 

In the Native American Hopi tribe, there is a well known rain ceremony that is held each summer and involves snakes. This ceremony itself lasts for sixteen days and the snake dance occurs on the final day. Four days prior to the final ceremony, snake priests leave their villages and gather snakes from surrounding areas. All the snakes that are collected are then washed, bagged, and placed in a kisi, or snake shrine. During the Snake Dance Ceremony, the snake priests reach into the kisi and remove a snake, holding it in their hands and their mouth. The species vary from harmless whipsnakes and gopher snakes to venomous rattlesnakes. Once a priest has finished the dance, he drops the snake and a gatherer quickly picks it up before it can slither into the crowd.  The various priests continue to take snakes from the kisi and dance with them until all the snakes have been removed. Once there are no more snakes, the gatherers drop them all into a pile and the women and girls sprinkle meal upon them.  The priests then grab up all the snakes, rush out of the plaza, and release them so they can carry the prayers for rain to the rain gods. 

Below, an illustration of the God Shiva, showing the nāga or cobra coiled around his neck, and an early photograph of Native American Hopi priests performing the Snake dance ceremony.

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These are just a few of the stories from around the world, but the real story these days lies in education and the dispelling of snake myths, which Neil Dazet covered in Sunday’s blog.  Thanks to biologists, naturalists, educators, hobbyists, and just plain regular folks, the amazing story of snakes is being told daily.  Keep up the great work and thank you for participating in Project Noah’s Snake Week!

Aaron Goodwin