Serpents and superstitions

This is not an exhaustive list by any means - merely an analysis of some of the main concepts behind the vilification of the serpent.

It is unsurprising that the snake is the subject of terrible myths, whispered in temples and around firesides since ancient times. Mythology has historically been governed by the need to evoke imagery which would strike fear into the speaker’s intended audiences and the serpent embodies everything which one might associate with danger: its blood is cold, its countenance alternately dispassionate and ferocious. It possesses envenomed fangs and a sinuous, scaled form which can move with deceptive speed. It is a silent and efficient predator. Moreover, as serpents utilise very different sensory organs to humans, they appear to respond to bewildering stimuli. When these traits are combined with other bestial features, particularly those of large feline species (claws, manes and leonine facial features) and/or raptors (wings and flight), the amount of predatory traits (and so, the cause for fear) is overwhelming. It is little-surprising, then, that some of the most dastardly creatures in ancient didactics were serpentine. The following examples demonstrate the origin of the Judeo-Christian fear of the snake.

Lying in wait in the Egyptian underworld (Duat) in order to ambush the sun god, Ra, Apep represented an eternal and ultimately malign force. Ra was obliged to travel through the underworld every night in order to rise again, meaning that night (the absence of his protection) was a dangerous time, particularly in Egypt and the near east where toxic asps and adders abound. During solar eclipses, also, Apep was believed to have swallowed the boat which conveyed Ra through the sky whole. The symbolism was complete when Ra arose in the morning, apparently triumphant over the chaos and confusion which Apep engendered.

This now-symbolic journey was a very real thing to the ancient Egyptian mind-state, more than likely finding inspiration both from the sun’s apparent dipping and in observance of the high-flying falcon (a bird affiliated with the sun, and the incarnation of Ra) attacking and devouring serpents, which often hunt nocturnally. It is unsurprising that Ra (later merged with Amun, to become the New Kingdom’s patron deity) was the dominant deity of the pantheon as snakes are often dormant or more easily detectable during the day. Apep himself was believed to have the progeny of Neith (the goddess of war and the hunt) and Nun. He became identified with the traitor Seth, and is often referred to as Apophis (his Greek name).

Tiamat represented the primordial ocean and was portrayed as a gigantic aquatic serpent. Tiamat birthed the gods when she combined with Apsu, the primordial fresh water. Apsu grew bored and began to plot the gods’ destruction. Tiamat initially took no part in the struggle, but was forced into action when Ea, the water god, captured Apsu and Mummu. She created an army of monsters (“sharp of tooth and merciless of fang”) in order to march against the gods, and part of the Babylonian creation myth involves Marduk’s battle with Tiamat, who was regarded as something powerful and fierce which had to be tamed in order for the universe to come into existence. When Marduk defeated her, he split her into the earth and sky, causing her eyes to become the sources of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates and the blood of her son, Kingu (also slain by Marduk), was mixed with earth to form humankind.

Although the symbolism is less immediately apparent in this instance, the portrayal of a serpent as an antagonistic force (and one which chose to exist as the antithesis of the gods, the benefactors of humankind) is highly suggestive of the ‘evil’ qualities of the snake. One might even construe the suggestion contained in the myth to be the need for humankind to subdue and civilise nature by force. Marduk is analogous to Ra both in his physical battle with a chaotic force and in his benefaction to humankind.

An ancient monster of Phoenecian mythology, his name means ‘Coiled’ (the pre-striking position of a venomous snake). His figure was derived from that of the Canaanite Lotan, a seven-headed beast killed by Anat, as well as that of Tiamat. In the Old Testament, Leviathan is the chaotic dragon-beast who was defeated by Yahweh and was said to have existed since the fifth day of creation. He is described in various biblical writings with such condemnatory phrases as “his heart is as firm as stone” and “upon the earth there is not his like, who is made without fear.” The Book of Enoch claims that he inhabits “the abyss over the fountains of the waters,” evoking images of pulverizing waterfalls. Later Hebrew traditions dictate that the Archangel Gabriel will defeat the monster and the banquet celebrating the Messiah’s arrival will take place in a tent made from the monster’s skin. On occasion, Leviathan’s jaws have been analogised to the gates of Hell or even to a physical manifestation of Satan himself.

Again, we see the patron of humankind defending mortal man and woman from the personification of evil, represented as a serpent. Just as with Tiamat, the subject is aquatic (conjuring images of storm-tossed seas and wrecked fishing vessels…) and, in the manner of both Apep and Tiamat, is regarded as a primordial entity. Perhaps it is unfair to count this as an example of snake-fear: most of the Bible is derived from more ancient traditions, although this overwhelming attempt to cast the serpent in the most wicked role of all demonstrates the enduring fear in the Judeo-Christian mindset. This use of the serpent as a malign force paved the way for the tempting snake in the Garden of Eden, for whom the loss of legs and hissing voice were considered a curse, perhaps for their alien nature.

Freud was mistaken when he described this fear as a “universal human characteristic.” Quite to the contrary, indeed, other cultures hold snakes in high regard, giving the lie to ideas that humankind is naturally geared to revile its slithering counterpart. Quetzalcoatl (Gukumatz, Nine Wind, Kukulcan and others), the plumed serpent regarded as the “master of life” by several Mesoamerican cultures, was the chief deity of the pantheon and was considered responsible for sustenance, rebirth and penitence - quite different from the virulent functions of Mesopotamian snake-gods. Hindu reincarnationists believe cobras to be Nagas, semi-divine serpentine entities who guard the treasures of the earth, very similar to the Buddhist belief that Nagas guard sacred Buddhist texts. Other cultures have associated snakes with medicinal powers or rebirth; the Caduceus (twin snakes wrapped around a staff), symbol of medicine, is derived from the myth of Aesculapius’ discovery of medicine by watching one snake feed herbs to another. Minoan Crete’s mother goddess was also known as the “Lady of the Snakes.” Many cultures, particular Persian and east Asian, use serpentine dragons as astrological representations and ascribe great wisdom and majesty to them. Indeed, only the Judeo-Christian traditions (and those from which it is derived) have such a pathological hatred for them.

Why is this so? Superficially, it may appear that a possible explanation is the attempt by monotheists to distinguish between sentient man and the beast, although Persian Zoroastrians are also monotheistic and not constrained by this phobia (which demands clarity - the act of shying away from a coiling snake is not a phobia). This ascription of wicked traits may be entirely coincidental and a mere matter of convenience, but the consistency with which the traditions were passed between successive ideologies is remarkable. The information presented here is not significantly coloured by opinion, as it must be said that religious generalisations ultimately provide an inaccurate picture of what is, to be perfectly fair, an intimate psychological trait which varies wildly between individuals. I just think it’s interesting.

The Encyclopaedia of Eastern Mythology, Rachel Storm
Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt, Mary Barnett