SNAKES & HUMANKIND: Snakes in culture and religion

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There are few human cultures, through history or across the world, where humans have not, or do not, live alongside snakes. Probably no other animal group has had such an effect on human culture than the snake, which has become the symbol of life and longevity, and of sudden death.

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The Serpent in the Garden of Eden, tempting Adam and Eve with the apple.

SNAKES IN RELIGION

From the headdresses worn by ancient Egyptian pharaohs 3,000 years ago, to twentieth-century Appalachian snake handlers who follow the Gospel of St. Mark’s “They shall take up serpents” literally, snakes have exerted a powerful grip on the human psyche, representing both good and evil.

In Judeo-Christian tradition, the serpent tempted Eve to pick the apple in the Garden of Eden, and for this act God condemned it to crawl on its belly and eat dust for the rest of its days. The snake reappears in the Bible as Aaron’s rod, which swallows the rods of the Egyptian pharaoh’s wise men, and as the staff of Moses, which parts the Red Sea during the Exodus. Aaron’s “rod” was most likely an Egyptian Cobra (Naja haje), since cobras have an appetite for other snakes.

Cleopatra reputedly committed suicide by allowing herself to be bitten by an “asp,” although the serpent was probably the Egyptian Cobra again. A queen such as she would have wished for a swift and painless death, and to remain looking beautiful after her passing, and the cobra is more likely to deliver on those wishes than what we now call an asp, a viper, or a side-stabbing snake (Atractaspis).

A cobra is said to have spread its hood to shelter Buddha from the rain, and as a sign of his thanks Buddha placed a mark on the hood. For Sri Lankans, he placed two fingers and left the spectacle mark on the Indian Cobra (Naja naja), whereas for Thais he used his thumb, leaving the monoculate mark of the Thai Cobra (N. kaouthia).

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The cobra sheltered Buddha from the rain by spreading its hood over his head. A grateful Buddha laid his two fingers (Naja naja) or his thumb (N. kaouthia) on the cobra’s hood and left his mark.

SNAKES IN CULTURE

Snake symbolism is everywhere. The Hopi Indians of Arizona perform a rain dance with snakes gripped in their teeth, the serpents being seen as the guardians of water. Young Venda girls in South Africa perform the domba dance during their initiation into womanhood, when they mimic the movements of a large python. In Abruzzo, Italy, an annual snake festival sees the statue of St. Domenico being paraded through Cocullo draped with dozens of harmless Aesculapian snakes (Zamenis longissimus), while visitors to the Snake Temple on the Malaysian island of Penang marvel at hundreds of venomous Wagler’s Temple Pitvipers (Tropidolaemus wagleri) lying languidly across the icons.

Snakes appear in the art of many ancient cultures, from the Rainbow Serpent cave paintings and petroglyphs of Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime, to the Feathered Serpent, or Quetzalcoatl, of pre-Columbian Mayan and Aztec societies. At the ancient temple at Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka, there is a huge viper carved into the rocks. Also at the site is an 800-year-old stone Ayurvedic “medicine boat,” in which a dying snakebite victim would be placed, to be anointed with oils and herbs in the hope that he or she would survive.

Snakes feature in modern medicine, too. The Rod of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, comprising a single Aesculapian snake curled around a staff, is used widely as the symbol for medicine. In the United States, it is sometimes exchanged for a caduceus, the symbol of the messenger god Hermes, which features two snakes coiled about a winged staff.

Today, even in our hectic commercial world, the representations of snakes are still all around us, as team mascots or in names of products as diverse as beer, candies, cement, condoms, and cars.

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The Egyptian Cobra (Naja haje) is represented on the headdress of the Egyptian pharaohs.

 

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