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Snakes Through the Ages - Part 2

By Mary A. Hylton

Snakes’ bodies are designed to lie close to the ground. They also routinely shed their skins. The combination of these two attributes have thus characterized them as symbols of both the Underworld—the dwelling place of the dead (because they spend so much time in pits and below the earth, or hiding under rocks) and of Rebirth, Rejuvenation, Immortality, and to that end, Wisdom.

Of Biblical Proportions!

Perhaps the most well-known—and notorious—serpent appears in the very familiar Biblical account of The Garden of Eden. Although the serpent that appears in the story is most often associated with Satan (translate—Evil), it’s not really all of the story. (What! What’s that you say?!?!?!)


Anyone familiar with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden considers the serpent, who speaks to Eve and tempts her to eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, of Good and Evil, to be Satan in disguise. Actually, the Bible never directly makes this connection but rather refers to the snake as only ‘the serpent’.


There’s also a strong suggestion that it may have had legs, like a lizard; at least, initially. So, then, how/why is it that we automatically conclude that the serpent is a snake? Because, owing to its role in leading Adam and Eve astray, God punishes it, according to Genesis 3:14, by declaring: “Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life”.


This implies that the serpent, prior to this, did not crawl about on its belly as a rule but apparently had limbs. You may also recall a similar description of the serpent repeated in the January newsletter article titled, “Snake in a Church Program”, by Ed Ferrer. In this light, the fate of the serpent acts as a kind of “Just-So Story” explaining how the snake came to be without arms and legs.


(FYI: Just-So Stories by Rudyard Kipling, is a collection of stories about animals, insects, and other subjects that include tales about the “origins” of animals and such—i.e., How the Camel Got His Hump, The Butterfly That Stamped, and How the Alphabet Was Made, among others).


Serpents also play symbolic roles in other ancient stories beyond the Bible. One is the Epic of Gilgamesh, a 4,000-year-old story which also features a Flood narrative, where Gilgamesh attempts to seize a plant that is thought to confer immortality, only for a snake to turn up and steal that plant away. (Curses! There goes that maddening snake again!) The symbolism in this story is similar to that found in Genesis whereas the serpent, while elsewhere representing immortality (Ouroboros etc.), acts as the agent causing man to realize that, alas, he is not meant to live forever.


However, this doesn’t tell the full story.


Positive Serpent Symbolism

Even in the Bible, snakes are far more ambiguous symbols than the Genesis story suggests. The brass serpent which Moses erected upon a pole (Numbers 21:8-9--“And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”) is often interpreted by Christians as a prototype of Christ’s crucifixion (John 3:14-15--“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.“)


As Hans Biedermann notes in The Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them (Wordsworth Reference), alongside these moments there is also Aaron’s rod which turned into a serpent capable of devouring the snakes conjured by Pharaoh’s sorcerers (Exodus 7:9-12-“When Pharaoh says to you, “Perform a wonder”, then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh, and it will become a snake’.”)


It's Greek to Me! The Rod of Asclepius and Caduceus

Elsewhere in classical culture, snakes were often associated with more positive symbolism, chiefly healing properties and medicine. The staff of Asclepius represents pharmacy, but originally symbolized the Greek god of healing of that name. The staff has a serpent wrapped around it, symbolizing healing. Again, this symbolism is grounded in the snake’s ability to shed its own skin, representing renewal and rejuvenation.


Also in classical Greek myth, there was the Caduceus: a staff with two intertwined serpents. This staff was carried by Hermes (or his Roman counterpart, Mercury): the messenger of the gods. The two staffs are often confused, but the herald’s staff borne by Hermes/Mercury had two serpents, rather than one, with their heads facing each other. The caduceus came to symbolize trade and transportation because Hermes was often flying around from one god to another to deliver messages. That point clarified, might it not still be possible for such messages, regardless of their origins, to contain an element of healing within? Regardless of their origins? Just a thought.


So why a snake or snakes used for these staffs? As argued in the book, The Meaning of Myth (Neel Burton), snake venom is both a deadly poison and an antidote, and also has many other medicinal properties—having been used, for example, to control pain or stem hemorrhage. According to the Book of Numbers, (Numbers 21:8-9--“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live’ “) Moses erected a bronze serpent onto a pole to protect the Israelites from the bites of the “fiery serpents” sent by God in punishment.


That same archetype recurs in the two symbols discussed above pertaining to healing. The rod or staff represents control over the dual nature of the snake, or the Moses-like harnessing of the powers of the snake.


Leviathan from the Book of Job

There’s also debate over whether the passages in Job about Leviathan and another giant Biblical creature, Behemoth, describe mythological beasts—or actual animals that existed at the time but later may have gone extinct. It’s been suggested that Behemoth could have been a hippopotamus, an elephant, or even a dinosaur, while Leviathan may be been an ancient species of crocodile.


Either way, the Book of Job employed both Leviathan and Behemoth to demonstrate to Job God’s power of creation and the futility of questioning Him. Later, the “leviathan” would be applied more generally to mean a giant whale (most memorably the great white whale in Moby Dick) or other massive sea creature.


Our Takeaway

We may conclude from the discussion above that snakes/serpents are highly complex creatures that are imbued with a great deal of symbolism—totally unbeknownst to them. Regardless of one’s personal feelings towards them, they continue to hold humans spellbound by their very nature—whether that spell be one of terror or of endless fascination. I’ll bet if they could talk, they would share that all they really want to do is to be left alone in peace, to find a sunny spot on a road, in the grass, or on a rock to catch some rays and get warm. Maybe, if the timing is right and their luck is good, even snag a mouse (or something bigger) for a snack or a meal. Snakes, indeed, are creatures of paradox --- complexity and simplicity—woven powerfully together into one magnificent creature.


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