The Myths of the
Milky Way have long be forgotten, which is remarkable as having the most
important connection to the basically Story of Creation. The
picture above shows the most of the white
circled band around the Earth, The Serpent, the Midgårds-Snake, the
Norse Mythology Heimdal Rainbow Bridge, Ouroboros etc.
THE SERPENT AS DIVINITY
by Robert T. Mason, Ph.D., D.D.
[AS OF MARCH 1998]
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.
We will be dealing with language that is found in myth and legend
any discussion of a divine serpent, so we should take time to
explain the use of the myth in religious and legendary arenas before
we begin. When we examine the history of truth or knowledge in the
history of mankind we are faced with the fact that the origin of
myth lies in the Greek concept of muthos [ muthos] , which as the
definition of truth or knowledge predates the use of the Greek word
Logos [lpgos], from which we derive our word logic.
Myth for the early human usually referred to those realities which
were known by experience, be it archetypal, unconscious, or based
upon the cultural and ritual beliefs of human civilization. An
esteemed 'egg-head' mathematical scientist, Albert Einstein once
said; "Knowledge is experience; anything else is just information".
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 to not only to tell about but to create
a chain from the metaphysical world to the physical one.
Later in historical time myth becomes connected to and often
identified with another Greek concept, that of legend, which stems
from the Greek Legion or Logos [logos] which meant word or language.
Myth then became a written form.
And Mythos/Logos is the activity of human consciousness which
translates or transfers the underlying forms and powers from the
unconscious to the conscious, from the dream world to the world of
In our 'modern' world we have so discounted the power and reality of
the myth, 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', non-useful and
unnecessary data which 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'
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 which, 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 prescientific 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 which 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
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
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's 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 which 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 which 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 forth 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
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 id 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
If we summarize what we expect to find about the divine serpent at
the onset rather than an the conclusion of this work it would look
The Serpent is emblematical;
Of wisdom… [Biblical: "be ye therefore wise as serpents "Matt 10:16]
Of subtlety…[Biblical: " Now the serpent was more subtle than an
beast of the field" Gen. 3:1]
The Serpent is symbolical;
Of deity: Plutarch et al
Of eternity: forming a circle with tail in mouth
Of renovation and resurrection: the old becomes young [skin
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 which 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 a 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 story 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 which 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
which we will see later in the Bible and the caduceus. Also, in
Sumer, we have a cylindrical seal which 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 which 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. 2350BCE] 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. 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 focussed on destroying the world. I find
that a common theme in early comogonies is that to bring Cosmos out
of Chaos, some organizing agent, usually light and speaking are
Marduk, to save 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 Phoenicians had a serpent god which was
called the Basilisk. This has been considered an early phallic god,
common in ancient religions. An interesting note is that the work
basilisk is where we got the later word a temple of the phallic god,
and eventually a type of church, the basilica. 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 12
inches long. It routs all snakes with its hiss, and does not move
its body forward in manifold coils like other snakes".
In the Middle Ages, the basilisk became identifies with the
cockatrice, a serpent mentioned occasionally in Isaiah and other
Hebrew scriptures. When we enter the modern period, and Medusa
becomes a 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 rattle snakes 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 which 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 which 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 a 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 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
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, the Blue crown, the informal crown or the great double
red and white crown we examine 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 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
is 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.
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 legendary, 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 Africa nations which were influenced
by Egypt, the crocodile is a serpent, no matter in what form it is
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] which contains Atum's description of
" 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, which can be found in "The Book of the Dead,
[chapter 175] which takes place between Osiris and Atum, [ described
here as the "High God", we find Atum's description of the end of
all, when " 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 sake-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 tow line, 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 12 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 serpents 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
Again, it is important to note here that the dragons we have
included in this study are only those dragons which 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.
[ I will speak more of dragons when I write of the Asian serpents]
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
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
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. They found 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
Central and Southern Africa
Traveling further south in the African continent we find the great
serpent "Anyiewo' who comes out to graze on rain and whose refection
is the rainbow. This is found in the Ewe tribe.
The strange, stone-age Dogan people of central Africa have a divine
being named Lebe. Lebe is the first member of those creatures called
the living dead, and he lives as a serpent.
In Dahomey, the Fon people have a great serpent god who is seen as a
rainbow named Danh, the son of Mtawu-Lisa.. This serpent encircles
the whole world with his tail in his mouth, representing unity and
wholeness. This god, also called Da orders the whole cosmos. Da has
a dual nature rather than a female-male identity. When he appears in
the rainbow, the male is the red part of the rainbow, the female the
blue. Above the earth Da has 3500 coils, called asa-xasa, and the
sme number of coils beneath the earth; together the support the
world. Da is the name given to this god in action, Mawu-Lisa is the
name given the god in thought. This god was exported to Haiti and
The Fon legend says that the world was created by Nana-Buluku, the
one god, who is neither male nor female. This god gave birth to
twins, Mawu and Lisa and it is they who shaped the world, and
control it still. Mawu, the female, is the moon and Lisa, the male,
is the In the beginning, before Mawu had any children, the rainbow
serpent, Aido-Hwedo, already existed, and this great serpent
assisted in the creation. For example, all the mountains were formed
from the serpent's dung. Later, because Aido-Hwedo cannot stand
heat, the oceans were created for him to live in. And there
Aido-Hwedo has remained since the beginning of time, with his tail
in his mouth [ this tail-in-mouth representation is common].
Nana-Buluku charged the red monkeys that live beneath the sea to
keep Aido-Wwedo fed, and they spend theor time forging the iron bars
that are the serpent's diet. When the monkey's supply of iron
eventually runs out the serpent will be so hungry that he will start
to chew his own tail. Then his writhings will be so terrible that
the whole earth will tilt, and then slip into the sea, and that will
be that !
In what is now Zimbabwe, there is the legend of the creation of
humanity. The first man, Mwuetsi [ moon] was created by Mwari, the
high god. He was given a wife, Massassi, who gave birth to all the
plants of the world. Then he we given Morongo, who bore goats,
cattle, sheep, humans. On the fourth night Moromgo warned Mwuetsi
not to sleep with her, but he did so anyway. She then gave birth to
snakes, scorpions, lions, and all other creatures which harm man.
After this the Great Serpent became ruler and husband of Morongo and
fathered a great tribe.
In the land between the present Union of South Africa and Zimbabwe
there lives a people called the vhaVenda, who have a god who is a
white crocodile. This crocodile is viewed as a serpent divinity of
great strength and great wisdom who watches over the peoples. This
divine serpent creature is identified with the vhaVenda chiefs, who
may be his sons.
Perhaps the most impressive architecture in ancient Africa,
excepting Egypt, would be the royal city of Benin in Nigeria. The
most prominent feature of this architecture is the form of the
serpent. Early artifacts found in this area also display the serpent
There is a famous legend told among the tribes of central Africa.
The tale concerns two unmarried men, one too mild and one too
bad-tempered to find wives.
One day they met the great rock python. Moma. After a gesture of
extreme kindness towards her she rewarded him with a wife, the most
wonderful wife in the whole village. The bad-tempered man was given
the same opportunity, reacted insultingly toward the serpent goddess
and was rewarded with an ugly, nagging, abusive wife.
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 XIX
dynasty 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?
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.
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
snakes. 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
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] claming 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. 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.
We find in Isaiah 14:29 a description of the highest of all of God's
angeliccreatures, the Seraphim. The word 'seraph' [of which Seraphim
is the plural] can be translated " fiery serpent". There are other
Hebrew words for serpents : "zacha" can be translated as dragon; "pethen"
is the asp; "epheh" is the viper and " nachash" is the generic word
for serpent. Therefore there must be significance that the word used
for serpent inIsaiah 14:29, Isaiah 30:6 and in the Numbers 21:8
description of a serpent, 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 which underlies the
order of creation or like a dragon which threatens order and
creation. Perhaps we should point out that Leviathan is a female and
her male counterpart is Behemoth. We find a lengthily poem about
Leviathan in Chapters 40 and 41 of the Book of Job, and a wonderful
hymn about Leviathon 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
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 art work showing a crucified serpent with the
thorn-crowned face of Christ.
Christians were taught to see the brazen serpent of Moses as
divinely authenticated type of the crucifixion, and an image of
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".
German coinage of the 16th century is common among iconography which
shows Jesus on the cross compared to a serpent on a cross or in a
tree, lifted up. Thus, the serpent's role as healer is expanded to
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 which 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?
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.
When he considers the place of the serpent. Carl Jung appears like
the Gnostics of Christianity who identified the serpent with the
human medulla and spinal cord. Jung regards the serpent as the
psychic representative of the human functions which are governed by
these parts of the body.
The serpent would correspond to what is unconscious and incapable of
becoming conscious, but which, as the collective unconscious seems
to possess a wisdom of its own and a knowledge that is often felt to
In that area of civilization which flourished between Asia Minor and
Europe we see the serpent goddess prominent in the Minoan culture of
Crete. In a repository in the second Palace of Knossos ( @ 1600 BCE)
we find many statues of the goddess Ariadne, a large busted woman,
wreathed in snakes, and a similar goddess in many other burial and
temple sites on Crete. There is a connection between Ariadne and
Dionysus as that goes back to 5250 BCE, and ancient serpent
This goddess was supposedly the daughter of Minos, the founder of
the Minoan civilization and brother to the Minotaur.
She depicts the benevolence and sacred power of the life force.
Ariadne is definitely a very important goddess of fertility. And in
that she may be a local aspect of Ishtar or Astarte who has become
identified with serpents.
In Greece, Zeus, the father of the Greek pantheon of gods is one of
the few Greek gods who never appears attended by a snake. But, the
Olympian Zeus known as Zeus Meilichios assumes the form of a serpent
to attend the spring rites of the mother-goddess Earth. Zeus, as a
serpent coiled with Rhea, who had also taken the form of a snake.
The snake from then on becomes the symbol of earth and water.
Ophion, one of the Greek Titans means literally "serpent". It is
claimed that Zeus took the form of a serpent to escape from the
murderous aggression of his father, Chronos.
In Greece, Cecrops, [Kekrops], the founder of Athens and of all
Greek civilization, supposedly sprang half-man, half- serpent from
the Greek soil. In Athens, the temple of the city guardian, Athena,
contains serpents as divine presences.
In Greece, as we have briefly mentioned earlier, a great snake,
named Python which lived at the center of the world, and held it
together, guarded and controlled the shrine of the oracle Gaia at
Delphos [Delphi] in the period of time before Apollo became the
patron of that oracle. Python was the child of Gaia, and had been
of the slime and mud that was left on the earth by the great flood
of Deucalion. No one dared approach this divine beast and the people
asked Apollo for help. He came down from Mount Olympus and killed
Python, using his silver bow and golden arrows. After this, he was
known as the Pythian Apollo.
The term 'Delphos means womb, and Delphos was considered the womb of
the world. Also, the oracle was situated in a cave, and the Greek
word for cave is also the word for vagina. This great snake, then,
somehow is connected with the very birth and source of life of the
There was a serpent shrine at Epirus, dedicated to Apollo, but in
effect a pre-Hellenic Aegean shrine. The snakes at this shrine were
said to be the descendants of the great Python of Delphi.
Also, in Greece, we find the Medusa Gorgon, the Goddess of Righteous
Wrath. In some traditions she was a serpent of the Libyan Amazons
and represented female wisdom. In other traditions she was an
Anatolian Sun Goddess. This Medusa is very similar to the destroyer
aspect of the dark Egyptian goddess Nieth. She was also one member
of the triple personae of the North African goddess An-Ath. She was
imported by the Greeks as patroness of Athens, and her fierce visage
was embossed on Athena's shield. We find the best statues of Medusa
In Greece we also discover the cult of Dionysos, the god of wine and
the vine. Dionysos was born to Persephone, daughter of Ceres, and
Zeus , and was born in the form of a serpent.
This serpent-god is, therefore, half brother to Apollo. After being
slain and swallowed by two Titans sent by Hera, Dionysos is reborn
in human form.
The Greek Daemons [daemonae] were the invisible divine beings which
were assigned by Zeus to every god and every important human being
as sort of a guardian angel creature to give good advice and lead
them properly. The Daemons ( from which, of course we get our word
demon) could appear as a handsome young youth or as a wise serpent.
It is Greek mythology which gives us the most memorable heavenly
divine serpent. By heavenly, I mean literally, since I am speaking
of the constellation Draco or the Dragon. One only has to look at
this constellation to realize that this "dragon" is a serpent in
every aspect. Draco is the pet of Zeus. Cadmus was trying to find
his sister, Europa. who had been kidnapped by Zeus. After Cadmus
slew Draco, he was told by Athena ( who understood serpents and
their powers) to plant the dragon teeth into the soil. An army arose,
who fought a great war until only five men were left. With these
five men Cadmus founded the famous Greek city of Thebes. Then Cadmus
married Harmonia and assumed the Illyrian throne. Zeus transformed
them both into serpents and demanded serpents as offerings. Zeus
immortalized Draco by placing him in the sky. I could also be
pointed out that the largest of all the stellar constellations is
also a serpent, the Hydra.
Finally, in Greek mythology, we find the serpent guardian figure
from Sumerian or Akkadian times. A great and wise serpent, called
Ladon, guards the tree of the golden apples of the Hesperides. This
mythic tree is guarded by an immense horned serpent which coils up
around the tree , rising from a cave in the earth.
Coiled snakes are found on much of the best ancient Greek jewelry.
After the goddess Demeter initiates Triptolemus into the mysteries
of Agriculture, he spreads the wisdom on his chariot drawn by
serpent servants. Hecate, the Greek goddess of witchcraft, is
dressed in serpents. The Hydra, a mythic monster, is essentially a
In Roman ruins we discover the remnants of Etruscan culture in a
strange figure, the Chimera. This creature has the body of a lion,
the head of a goat sticking up from its back, and a snake for a tail.
Appearing in both Greek and Roman mythology is The god of healing,
Aescepulus or Askepulus. This god appeared to the Romans in the form
of a snake.
This might be a good place to include a snake symbol which was
Greek, Roman and is in constant use today, the caduceus, or to give
it its original Greek name, the Kerykeion [Kurkhion]. The caduceus,
which is recognized internationally as the symbol of medicine, began
as the token of Hermes, the Greek messenger of the Greek gods, and
god of healing.
This winged tipped, snake entwined rod is reminiscent of the very
early Sumerian and Akkadian tree of life and knowledge guardian
images. Jewish mythology linked the snake and the rod in the Aaron
This symbolic rod was then carried by the Roman Hermes , Mercury. It
was also carried by Roman soldiers during a flag of truce. The
serpents may come from the tradition that Sesculapius, the god of
medicine appeared during a plague in the form of a serpent. Romans,
like most ancients, not only believed that snakes held the secret of
eternal life, since they shed their skins and appeared new each year,
but they also believed that snakes as being able to search out
health-giving medicinal herbs. Thus, this combination of rod, wings
and snakes represented speed, authority and peace. The caduceus is
still the common symbol of the medical profession.
In Roman mythology the familiar spirit of protection for a place is
often depicted as a caduceus, reminiscent of the guardian spirit of
the Sumerian/ Akkadian guardians of the world tree.
There is not much of a legendary divine serpent presence in southern
Europe. We do find a legend of a dreadful god-like snake Erensuge
which lived between the Pen de Orduna and the caves of Balzow and
Montecristo. This dreadful monster attracts humans with his breath
and then devours him. It would seem that this legend refers to a
snake not a dragon. He carries the Basque name Herren-surge, and he
has seven horrible heads.
In the mountainous country of Georgia there exists the myth of
Mindia, the snake-eater, a member of the mountain tribe of the
Khevsurs. When Mindia was taken prisoner as a youth he noticed that
his captors ate snake meat from which they derived supernatural
powers. One day, he is so hungry he eats a piece of the snake meat
and acquires great physical and intellectual powers. When he finally
escapes, he takes the practice back to his tribe. These people
recognize that snakes are stronger and wiser than humans.
As we travel further North in Europe the snake god is not so
powerful, perhaps because snakes were less common. Welsh had a giant
red serpent spirit called Dewi. The Balts revered a serpent called
Zaltys who was the lover of the sun-goddess, Saule. The Norse did
have a snake demi-god called the World Serpent, and other serpent
gods, which we will discuss separately.
In Celtic legends there is probably none better known than the tale
of Saint Patrick ridding Ireland of its snakes. This tale is often
told, and too often taken as literal truth. In fact of matter,
Ireland never had any significant serpent population, and one tiny
snake still makes it home among the shamrocks. The tale must be
taken as allegorical, and refers to the conflict between good and
evil, between Christian sanctity, represented by Saint Patrick, and
pagan non-Christian gods, who would, in early Christian eyes
represent evil. The serpent is also seen as a frequent symbol of the
attributes of the Celtic version of the War God.
Long before even the Celts arrived on Irish shores, probably around
3000 years ago, Ireland was pantheistic. God was to be found in
everything and nature was the Church. The Irish paganism was
probably female in character. Goddess worship and consecrated
priestesses would have been the norm of worship. When it was decided
to unify Ireland under the Christian rule, this strong bastion of
paganism had to be defeated. The first thing was to draw the lines;
Paganism must be evil if Christianity was to be the good. Therefore,
we must identify paganism with the evil forces of the universe. What
better than Satan, that wily old serpent ? Also, the Irish people
had a tradition of bawdiness, and the focus on female goddesses and
priestesses ran contrary to current Christian tendencies.
There are few good sources for the serpents that Patrick "drove' out
of Ireland. The bloody cult of Crom Cruaich in County Caven demanded
human sacrifice to a serpent deity and the dismantling of that cult
may now be remembered as " snakes being driven out of Ireland".
Sex, often associated with snakes was part of the picture. Patrick,
the epitome celibate monastic priest-bishop is given the task of 'driving
out' the snake of acknowledged feminine spiritual power, and
introduce the concept of Original Sin, and the power of the Church.
One serpent was allowed to remain. A giant water serpent, now called
the Lough Derg Monster was tricked by Patrick to stay at the bottom
of Lough Derg until La Luain, which the snake understood as Monday,
but, in Irish language can mean the Apocalyptic Last Day. So the
snake is confined for ever and a day, and the lake is a pilgrimage
Pre-Christian, pagan gods were very popular in early Ireland, and
continued to be popular in any place where Celtic influence was
felt. They were often called the 'old ones'. Usually they were
The early, nature, gods could not be directly attacked without
creating a terrible back lash, so the Christians chose that ancient
foe, Satan in the form of the snake as the enemy. So, we have set
the stage for the drama of the conflict between "good" and "evil" ,
between Saint and Satan, between Patrick and snakes. Celtic
mythology informs us of the expected result. Patrick's mission in
Ireland, then, was to put a male name on Celtic worship. One version
of the legend would see Celtic paganism as female centered. Goddess
worship, consecrated by priestesses had been the order in
pre-Christian Ireland. There was the cult of Anu has deep roots in
Celtic memory by the time of Patrick. Brigid took her place, and the
serpent, the acknowledged feminine spiritual power was driven out,
and original sin was introduced.
When we journey further north in Europe and examine Norse mythology,
we find that Odin was the first of the three gods ( or the son of
the first god ] exposed from the ice licked by the cosmic cow. His
universe was upheld by the "World Ash, Yggdrasil" whose shaft was
the pivot of the revolving heavens.
On top of this great tree sat an eagle, and the great cosmic serpent
gnawed at its roots while guarding it. Odin, himself , often took
the form of a snake in order to enter the home of the giant Suttung.
We seem to have here similarities with ancient Babylon !
The serpent, or worm, that eats its own tail was seen by Viking
culture as a symbol for the natural forces of land , sea and sky.
Ouroboros was and is the name given the Great World Serpent,
encircling the earth. The word encompasses many cultures, beside the
Norse legends. For example, there is the serpent or dragon gnawing
at its own tail. From this we see the symbolic connection to the
returning cyclical nature of the seasons; the oscillations of the
night sky; disintegration and re-integration; the Androgyne; life
and death. Born from this symbolic concept, there are many different
cultures which share this serpent symbol. The serpent Jormungand
from the myth of Yggdrasil, is just one. I might be helpful to
remember that the Ouroboros is what Carl Jung would refer to as an
The most famous divine serpent in Viking or Norse mythology was
Jormungand, the son of Loki. Loki was the closest thing the Teutons
have to a Satan. The Vikings imagined the world completely
surrounded and supported by the Great Divine World Serpent,
Jormungand . There is another serpent, Nidhogg, one of the serpents
at the base of the world-tree, who will devour the bones of the
whole fallen humanity.
There is an old Norse tale which tells of Thor combating this great
serpent, called the Midgard Serpent. Thor went out of Asgard and
enlisted the help of the giant Hymir. The two went fishing, and when
Hymir would not share his bait with Thor. Thor killed Hymir's
largest ox and cut off its head. Thor took the ox head as bait, made
a very strong line and a large hook. The Midgard serpent took the
bait and Thor drew it to the boat. The serpent glared at Thor and
belched poison. Hymir, frightened cut Thor's line and let the
serpent loose. As the serpent sank back into the sea, Thor threw his
hammer after it. Some versions of the legend say that the hammer
struck and killed the serpent, other versions say that the Midgard
serpent is still alive and lying in the depths.
There is also an old German myth which tells of a snake called the "great
worm" who carried the name of Fafnir. Fafnir had great magical and
There are other dragon stories to be found in Europe, and some of
them would indicate a dragon of divine powers, but these dragons are
not serpentine dragons so we will omit them in this study. The
European dragon usually is portrayed with a thick, long body, scaly
skin, four legs, two bat-like wings, wedge shaped heads and long
necks. Included in this category are usually found the Wyverns, the
'Faerie Dragons', and sometimes the Hydras. These may. Or may not be
considered serpents, depending on how wide one is willing to spread
the definition of serpent.
When we reach the Americas we find that the gods are anthropomorphic.
Therefore, we will find no snake god among the North American Native
Americans. We will find many stories about snakes, their wisdom,
cunning and danger. In Central America the god reappears.
When Moses was busy coming down the mountain with an explanation of
values for the Israelites, Native Americans were sculpturing
beautiful and mysterious figures on hilltops and dotting the
countryside with tall mounds to connect their dead to heaven. Easily
one of the strangest and most unearthly Native American sites in
North America is the incredible Serpent Mound in the Amish country
of southern Ohio. Possibly constructed by the Adena culture around
700 BCE, Serpent Mound is a narrow band of earth which uncoils over
a quarter mile expanse atop a wooded hill. This mound appears, from
above, to be a snake ready to swallow a frog. A snake skeleton
enshrined leaves little doubt that the mound is meant to be the
replica of a snake- the creature of mythic proportions to these
early mound builders, as well as indigenous people across the
Americas. This is one of the "effigy" mounds in Ohio. It lieson a
plateau overlooking the Valley of Brush Creek, Ohio.
There is a serpent legend among the Northern Cree, in and around
Bulkley Lake in British Columbia. This legend tells of a boy named
Fast Bird, who was the messenger for his village. On one perilous
trip he met an evil serpent. An old woman gave him three special
arrow points and he was able to kill the serpent, and go on to
There are other such stories. A Chippewa story tells of a hero,
Nanabozho, who lived on the shore of Lake Superior. At the bottom of
the lake lived the Great Serpent, along with a number of evil
spirits, who were his servants. Nanabozho decided to kill the Great
Serpent after the Great Serpent killed his cousin. He caused the
water of Lake Superior to boil, forcing the snake out into the
forest, where he fell prey to the arrows of Nanabozho. Before the
Great Serpent died he caused a great flood to come upon the whole
earth to kill everything. Nanabozho built a raft and saved mankind
and the animals, just like Noah had done with the ark.
The Brule Lakota [ Teton Sioux tribe] Sioux never kill rattlesnakes,
because there is an old legend about how three brothers who
disobeyed the Great Spirit by taking a buffalo hide instead of
giving it back to the spirit world. The Great Spirit turned them
As they took up a life as snakes they told their youngest brother to
tell the people that they would remain faithful Sioux. So, the Brule
Lakota revere their brothers the rattlesnake.
The most divine-like snake story is that which tells of the creation
of the natural wonder called the 'Wisconsin Dells'. A great snake
wriggled down from his home near the 'big lake' and formed the
Wisconsin River as he crawled. When he came to the sandstone ridge
where the Dells begin he merely pushed his head into a crevice in
the rocks and pushed them aside to form the narrow, winding passage
we call the Dells.
The amazing thing is, that in spite of the myriad of snakes in
south-western US, I have found no sound references to the divine
serpent in that area. We do find the reference to rattlesnake being
the faithful hound of Coyote, the divine trickster and voice of the
Before we discuss the serpent legends of Central America, we should
point out that we do find mentions of divine serpents among Voudon
[Voodoo] religionist of the islands of the Caribbean. Simbu is the
very powerful snake god of darkness. Even more powerful perhaps,
certainly more widespread, is Dambala, another serpent god. These
gods are morally neutral, and will work for good or evil depending
upon for whom they are working. In fact, in Haiti, Dambala is given
the title Le Bon Dieu , the good god. An aspect of this serpent
spirit in Haiti is the god of the farmers called Dan Petro. Dambala'
wife, Avida, is also an object of worship.
In the islands we also find a creature called El Cuchilu, from cuchu
= pig and vilu = snake, who appears from the sea. This is an evil
god who invades and destroys fishing weirs. It eats the fish inside
the weir and kills human fishermen.
If we travel only a short distance further south, into Central
America, the references are many-fold are rich. As barren as
Northern North America is for finding the divine snake, Central
America, or Mesoamerica is equally rich. Not only do we have the
primitive Mayan god Labna, but we also find, at differing ages and
places Kulkulcan and Queztalcoatl, and his two similars Tezcatlipoca
and Huitzilopotchili . Each of these later manifestations of the
feathered serpent are much like Quetzalcoatl, with minor changes or
additions. For example, Huitziilpotchili is often called the "trickster"
because he loves to play pranks which would normally be considered
Also among the Qiche Maya we find the serpent god who brought
civilization and agriculture to the Maya who is called Gucumatz.
The god Kulkulcan was one of the major gods of the Maya, and was
inherited by the Toltec as equally significant. Not only was he a
god of the four elements, he was also the creator god and the god of
resurrection and reincarnation. He may have originated from Toltec
myth, where he was a divine hero who taught the Toltec laws, fishing,
healing, the calendar and agriculture. His name means "the feathered
serpent" and the Aztecs merged him with Quetzalcoatl.
The main pyramid in the Mayan/Toltec ruins of Chichen Itza is "El
Castle", the pyramid of Kulkulcan. This pyramid is often mistakenly
called the pyramid of the sun because of its astronomical
orientation, but it is clearly dedicated to Kulkulcan, the feathered
serpent. It was original built by Mayans about 600 CE, and improved
by Toltecs around 1000 CE. The astronomical detail is interesting,
showing the connection of the Great Serpent and the cosmos: There
are 365 steps [ the number of days in the solar year]; 52 panels [one
for each year in the Mayan cyclical century; 18 terraces, one for
each month in the Mayan religious year].
In the ruins of the early Mayan city of Teotihuacan, we find another
significant pyramid dedicated to the feathered serpent. Although
significantly smaller in size than both the Sun Pyramid and Moon
Pyramid, it was one of the most elaborate monuments of the city.
Each of these pyramids, unlike the Egyptian pyramids which were
tombs, were solidly filled with rubble, and were, in fact,
artificial mountains, on top of which stood a temple to the
All four sides of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid had been covered by
an elaborate facade of stone carvings which included a series of
large sculptural heads. Three of the four sides have deteriorated,
but the fourth, and principal face, the western, was covered by a
platform and the facade is in good shape. The main motif of the
pyramid is undulating feathered serpents, depicted in profile and
having rattles on the ends of their tails. The heads of serpents are
various deities: Tlaloc, the Storm god, Youalcoat;, a form of
Quetzalcoatl, Cipactli, a crocodilian figure, and Xiuhcoatl, or the
The supreme god and creator of the Maya was Hunab Ku . He is the
head of the Mayan pantheon and called 'god of the gods'. Hunab Ku
rebuilt the world after three deluges, which poured from a great sky
god, who is depicted in the form of a serpent. Even the Mayan war
god was seen as a snake charmer.
When the Aztec replaced the Maya and Toltec as lords of Mesoamerica,
the feathered serpent stayed s an important god figure. The Aztec
feathered serpent carried the name Quetzalcoatl. He symbolized the
blending of heaven and earth. He is associated with the planet
Venus, the wind and breath of life [ cf. Biblical concept of wind,
breath of life, spirit connection], the discovery of maize [corn],
the invention of writing , birth and renewal.
The two highest-ranking priests of the Aztecs ministered,
respectively,to the war god and the god of rain. Both bore the title
quetzalcoatl, or "feathered serpent", to elevate their status by
association with the great god Quetzalcoatl and the Toltec god-king
of that name. One was called "quetzalcoatl priest of our lord" and
the other "quetzalcoatl priest of Tlaloc". Neither demanded human
It is very surprising how Quetzlalcoatl, who is often called
Kulkulcan, Gucumatz, in Guatamala, Viracocha to the Incas, is so
wide-spread among all of the cultures of precolumbian Mexico. And
all describe it the same, with only small variations. This god, that
tormented Cortez with guilt and remorse, is considered the Christ
figure of the precolumbian civilization, since he proclaimed the
existence of only one god, and the refusal of sacrifices, which were
typical of Mayan and Aztec religions.
Interestingly, this indian deity is described as having " white
skin, with hair on the face and beautiful emerald eyes". In other
words, Quetzalcoatl may have been Caucasian; Viking perhaps [ from
ancient memories]? Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl, whose mythical
achievements are interwoven with the Great Feathered Serpent, is
credited as having infinite knowledge. He taught his people how to
plant the maize and all plant life. Cotton and cacao trees are also
attributed to him.
Quetzalcoatl legends seem to have spring from Tula, and traveled to
the holy city of Cholula, and then in 987 CE they sailed across the
Gulf of Mexico to the land of the Maya. Legends said that since the
Great God came from the East, when he left he sailed East, amd it
was from the East he would return.
The tale runs something like this. There lived once in Tula a king
called Quetzalcoatl. He had the name and qualities of the ancient
feathered serpent, so he was called "Quetzalcoatl Topiltzin, "our
prince". After many adventures, including getting drunk on cactus
wine which cause him to disgrace himself and bring calamities to the
Toltec, he knew he must leave his people and go into exile. When he
came to the eastern coast, he wove snakes together to make a raft.
Then he sailed eastward and disappeared across the sea. Some say he
ascended into heaven and became Venus, the morning star. It was said
that Quetzalcoatl would return in the same year he disappeared, the
year One Reed. Cortez landed in year One Reed.
Quetzalcoatl could transform himself into the shape of a man, and
many pictures show him in both guises. His arch enemy was
Tezcatlipoca, the god of darkness, which would lead us to connect
Quetzalcoatl to the sun, as had Kulkulcan before him. After one
especially difficult battle Quetzalcoatl fled to the eastern shore
with the enemies right behind him. He sailed away, making a boat
from the bodies of intertwined serpents, promising to return in
triumph. When strange ships were seen coming from the east, with
pale, shining men, it seemed that the prophecy had come true. It was
not Quetzalcoatl, it was Cortes. End of Aztec civilization !
The Aztec also saw serpents as controlling the weather, especially
the clouds and storms. The Cloud Serpent for the Aztec was Mixcoatl.
This god created weather by conspiring with [having sex with ?] the
Earth Serpent Goddess Coatlicue. Coatlique is the mother of the
Aztec creation story. She was first impregnated by an obsidian knife
and gave birth to Coyolxanuhqui, the goddess of the moon [ again
showing the association between the serpent and the moon]. She later
gave birth to the fiery god of war who was aided in his efforts by a
[ a seraph?] The Aztecs believed that Coatlique was the earth itself.
She provided for all their needs, and at death takes them back into
In Mexico, under the Aztec rule of Moctezuma, the second most
important person in the ruling hierarchy was Cihyuacoatl, the snake
woman who was seen as the incarnation of the earth and mother
goddess who assisted Quetzalcoatl in creation.
In Columbia There is a creator deity of the Chibcha culture named
Chiminigagua, who lives as a serpent in a lake of serpents. In
Brazil there is the goddess serpent Iara , who is also know as ' mae
d'agua ( mother of the waters) . According to myth, Iara was not a
siren, but a water snake, also called mboicu = mboi = serpent, and
acu = big, in the Tupi language.
Even further south the Inca had Chalchiuhtlicue, the serpent mother
goddess. She is a goddess of fertility. She is most often depicted
with beautiful and magnificent robes, made of shell mosaics and
serpent skin edged with small white feathers. The Peruvian Incas had
a god called the 'Weeping god'. This god holds two snakes as part of
his cosmic image.
In Paraguay, the Guarani peoples have a divine serpent called
Mboi-Tu'I, the snake-parrot. This is an enormous, divine serpent
with the bill, or complete head of a parrot. This god is the
protector of aquatic animals, amphibians, dew and the flowers, and
is seen as a friendly god.
On the way from the Americas to Asia we can stop off in Oceana. In
the Solomon Islands. Here we find a great serpent got Aguna, who is
the paramount god of the area. So important is Aguna that all other
gods are considered to be only aspects of her. She is the supreme
force and divine influence. The first coconut from each tree is
sacred to Aguna.
Also in The Solomons we find the great serpent god Kahasusibware,.
We are not sure of the relationship between the male Kahasusibware
and the female Aguna. This divine serpent can also be found in the
On the island of Fiji we hear about a god named Degei. sometimes
called Ndengel, a serpent god who lives in the Kauvadra hills and
who appears to be the supreme god of the island group. The story is
told of how in the beginning, the snake god lived alone, without
friends or companions, and the only living creature he knew was
Turukawa the hawk. Although the hawk could not speak he was the
constant companion of the god. When the hawk , who was feminine, she
eventually laid eggs . which when hatched produced two tiny human
beings. Degei nurtured these creatures and taught them how to
cultivate bananas and root crops. From there on the story sounds
like the story of Adam and Eve.
When a person dies, his soul faces a long journey from the sunny
land of the living to the cold, misty land of the dead. Upon the
soul's arrival, Degei will interrogate it. Idle men, recognized by
their long nails, will be punished. Industrious souls will be
rewarded. When the soul is judged, it is thrown into a deep lake. It
will sink for a long time until it reaches Murimuria, a sort of
Purgatory. There some will be rewarded and others will receive
punishment. Only a few are chosen by the god to go to Burotu, the
land of eternal life and joy.
Also on Fiji we find Ratu-Mai-Mbula, the snake god who is ruler of
the dead. Elsewhere in Polynesia, we find a legend about a monster
snake [ or perhaps here an eel] among the Tuamotua peoples.
The same sort of god found in the Gilbert Islands is called Riiti .
Hina, who can still be seen in the moon was the wife of the monster
snake Te Tuna [ the 'phallus'] She ran away from him and became the
wife of Maui, who then killed Te Tuna, and on the advice of her
mother, planted his head, from which grew the first coconut tree.
The Daribi people, who live in the highlands of New Guinea have
legends which present snakes as superior to humans. The snake shed
its skin and so they rejuvenate themselves, whereas human skin ages
and shows the mark of mortality. These same people and these legends
are also found in New Britain.
The Philippine Islands are rife with serpent beings. The
distinguishing traits are basically that of a snake or crocodile
with scales, and the head of a fierce animal or bird. We find the
birdlike serpents: baua and minokwa; the fishlike: baconauaua; the
saurian = the buwaya and the pure snakelike = mameleu, marcupo.
Macupo and sawa. This does not count the many dragons.
In the islands of Melanesia we find Koevasi, a snake goddess, and
Walutahanga, a fire snake god. The people of New Guinea have a snake
god among their pantheon, called Wunekau, and we also find a
Kiribati sea snake god named Ruki. In the New Hebrides Islands we
have a group of serpent spirits called the Mae These are serpents
who can appear in other disguises, and are seen as guiding spirits
of all who encounter them. If a young man returns home after a day
of fishing, at sunset he might see a young girl sitting on a rock ,
her head covered with flowers . She will beckon him to climb the
steep cliff and when he approaches her he will notice that she has
the face of a girl from his own village. Afraid that she is a Mae he
will look closer and see that her elbows and knees are on backwards;
this betrays her true nature and the young man will run away. Should
he, however, hit her with the leaf of the dracaena she will assume
her true form and slip away as a snake.
In Asia we have one rich source and more leaner sources. China, for
example, with its concentration on social ethics and personal
behavior [ Confucianism and Taoism] has little room for gods or
goddesses. We do find reference to the AO or four Dragon kings; Ao
Chi'in, Ao Kuang, Ao Jun and Ao Shun. [ These four main kinds of
Lung had alternate names: Tien-Lung, the Celestial Dragon, who
protects the places of the gods, Shen-Lung, the Spiritual Dragon,
who controls the wind and the rain, Ti-Lung, the Earth Dragon, who
controls the rivers, and Fut's-Lung, the Underworld Dragon who
guards precious metals and gems] The commander of all the River
Dragons is Cien-Tang, who is blood red, has a fiery mane and is 900
feet long. These great serpent/dragon kings were the faithful
servants and guards of Y-Huang-Shang-Ti, the "Father Heaven, the
supreme Emperor of Jade who ruled all. One time, according to legend.
When the land was enduring famine because of drought, the dragons
appealed to the Jade Emperor for rain. The emperor stalled and the
dragon, upset, carried water to the people in their mouths. The
emperor was furious at the disobedience of the dragons and had them
imprisoned under four mountains. Determined to do good for the
people forever, they turned themselves into for rivers, which flowed
past high mountains and deep valleys, crossing the land from west to
east until finally emptying into the sea.
And so China's four great rivers were formed: the Heilongijan [Black
Dragon] in the far north; the Huanghe [Yellow River] in central
China; the Yangtze [ Long River] farther south and the Zhujiang [Pearl]
in the very far south.
Also, related to to Ao, we find Lung, a benevolent serpent bringer
of rain, who is held in high regard. Fuxi, a creature with human top
and serpent bottom is seen as the father of mankind. He is the first
of the "Three Sovereigns" and the inventor of the trigrams used in
The Chinese dragons were shape-shifters, who could make themselves
as large as the whole universe or as small as a silkworm. They could
also change color and disappear in a flash. The classic work,
I-Ching, uses the symbol of the serpent to illuminate the truths of
inner growth of the person, the society and the universe.
These Eastern dragons are usually portrayed as good, kind and
intelligent. Oriental dragons have the most recorded history in the
world, stretching back thousands of years. It has been said that the
worst flooding in Asian history were caused when a mortal has upset
a dragon. We can differentiate the Eastern dragons easily. The
Chinese dragon, or Lung, always has 5 claws, curling from its feet.
It has 117 scales, 81 infused with yang [seen as the good], and 36
infused with yin [here seen as evil]. The Korean dragon has 4 toes
and the Japanese has 3. The Chinese dragon is an emblem of the
emperor and the yellow dragon can only be worn by him.
We might take a small interlude here to describe other dragons. In
China we find the "Musical Serpent" which is very serpentine, with
even a snake's head, but has four wings. This dragon makes a noise
like the musical stone. We also find the Chih Dragon, the dragon of
the North, and the wingless pure serpent-like the Kua Shih. The Kung
Kung is a serpent/snake with nine heads, and full of wisdom.
The Vietnamese dragon , called the Long, is a fabulous beast with
the head of a camel, horns of a deer, eyes of a fish, ears of a
buffalo, scales of a carp, claws of an eagle and feet of a tiger.
Most important, however, is that it has the body and neck of a snake.
A long barb hangs down on each side of its mouth, and a jewel adorns
it tongue. Long has a crest of 81 scales running down the length of
its backbone. It can live in the sky, the water or underground and
is immortal. The "Giao Long", which are half lizard and half snake
automatically become dragons after 1000 years. The dragon is a
symbol of power and nobility to the Vietnamese, and is the special
symbol of the emperor, who was considered to be the son of heaven.
Vietnamese dragons can have either five toes [reserved for the
emperor] or four toes [ for lesser dignitaries]. The symbol was
always worn on official court dress.
Comparing these serpentine "good" dragons with others around the
world we find similarities and differences. The Mexican winged
dragon, known as an Amphitere, has the tail of the serpeny but the
wings of the quetzal bird. The Polynesian dragon is a trickster,
whose name means " great sea creature' and who steal and move
oysters to different lands. There is of course the famous Scottish
serpent known as "Nessie", the Loch Ness Monster. On the other hand,
the Welch dragon has two wings and two, or four legs. This beast is
usually considered a Wyvren, and has little serpentine qualities.
The dragon of Greek mythology had three heads, a lion's head, a
goat's head on its back and a serpent's head at the end of its tail.
This is not the Hydra which had all of its heads sprouting from
The earliest European dragons were all giant serpents and are best
described by using the German name for these creatures, the
Lindworms. The most familiar dragon symbol, however is not a serpent.
This combination of a lion and an eagle, with the face of a man
sometimes, is well known in Western mythological art. It may have
the tail of a scorpion at times.
In Japan we encounter one minor, but reasonably beneficent serpent
god and one major, evil god. The minor god is Sarawati [ borrowed
from the Hindu Bneten] who is a river goddess. She is married to a
serpent King. The Japanese people believed that the seas around the
Japanese Islands were full of serpent people who had great powers.
The kami concept of Japanese religious thought also makes the snake
a sacred person, but I am not considering this, only those who
qualify as genuine divinities in and of themselves.
Japan has one important serpent divinity, and this one is evil. The
Japanese serpent god Susa-No-Wo is one of the two main players in
the chief drama of Japanese mythology.
It seems that one day Susa-No-Wo insulted the great sun goddess
Amataratsu omi kami and made her very angry. She hid herself in a
cave and refused to shine, whereupon the crops failed and famine set
in. The other divine being, with the exception of Susa-No-Wo, lured
Amatarats0u out of her cave and tied her to a tree with straw ropes.
Especially helpful was a very bawdy dance performed by the god
The importance of this story can be seen in that the Kanji [character]
for Amataratsu Omi Kami added to the Kanji of the tree together are
the Kanji for Japan, and Japan is called the 'Land of the Rising
Sun'. The serpent king god is banished to the 'out islands' and
becomes a non-persona in Shinto.
One additional story in Japanese Bushido legends tells of Yamato ,
the noble warrior. He was confronted, during his wanderings, by the
ghost of the Great
Serpent. The serpent demanded the return of the magic sword, Cloud
Cluster. Yamoto, protected by the sword, refused. Later, after
leaving the sword with his lady love, Iwato-hime, he met the Great
Serpent again. This time the serpent as able to kill Yamato, but as
he died he turned into a white bird and flew away.
India and S. East Asia
In Indian philosophy the paradigmatic character of the union of
opposites [ or, as I sometimes like to say- the wholeness of the
result of the dialectic process] constituted one of the most
significant characteristics of Indian religious thought long before
it ever became an object of systematic theology.
For example; The Aitareya Brahmana states that the serpent Ahi
Budhnya is invisibly what Agni, [the 'furious serpent'] is visibly.
In other words, the serpent is a virtuality of fire, whereas
darkness is nonmanifested light. Again, when the sun rises at dawn,
he 'frees himself from night …just as Ahi frees himself from his
It is in India where we again meet the significant divine serpent in
many aspects. In India the cobra has long been considered sacred,
and even those cobras used by 'snake charmers' are not injured in
any way, not defanged, and when they are used for while they are
safely returned to the wild. The "Naga" which is the divine aspect
of the cobra is found in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. In some
passages, King Varuna is regarded as being among the most preeminent
of the Nagas, and he is included in the discussion of these mythical
divine serpents. [Mahabarata 1.26.1. and 25.4] The 'naga' is a
divine serpent who is a son of Kadru, the daughter of Daksha.
The word naga is a Sanscrit word which means "serpent". Nagas are
believed to live in palaces [Patala] in the underground city
Bhogavati. They are considered the protectors of springs, wells and
rivers. They bring rain [ similar to the Chinese Lung dragons] and
therefore fertility, but can also bring disasters such as floods and
drought. In Malay myths nagas are many-headed dragons of enormous
size. On Java and Thailand, the naga is a serpent-god, a ruler of
the netherworld who possesses much wealth. In Java they are also
called Sesas. In Thailand the naga can have five heads, much like
the Hindu Naga Kanya.
In Mexico we find the word "Nagal" which describes a class of
serpent guardian spirits. The avenue leading to the main temple at
Ankhor Wat is lined with seven-headed nagas. The Chinese claim to be
able to speak Naga-Krita, the language of the serpentine gods. For a
place that has no serpents, Tibet, the naga are still known in a
symbolic sensand are called "Lu' which is the Tibetan translation of
" naga". For example Nagarjuna is called Lu-truh in Tibet.
To begin; the god Vaskul is the naga-god of Mount Kailasha, which is
also deemed to be the home of the god Shiva, on-third of the Trinity
of Brahma aspects. We have pictorial and statuary representations
showing snakes around Shiva's neck. These are naga bushana and they
symbolize death, the power of which Shiva is beyond, and which he
controls. They also represent that energy coiled at the base of the
spine which yoga practitioners say is the base for all
The Naga represents cosmic power; they are a manifestation of the
Vedic god Agni, or fire, and as such becomes the 'fierce spirit' who
is the guardian. The cobra/naga is a mount of Vishnu and as such
represents knowledge, wisdom and eternity. As Vishnu sleeps on the
cosmic ocean, he sleeps on the coiled serpent on the primordial
waters. Two serpents with downward and upward movement represent the
divine sleep and divine awakening. The Naga and Nagni are serpent
kings and queens, which are divine in their own right. They are
depicted as either fully human, fully snake, humans with cobra heads
and hoods, or as humans from the waist upwards and snake below that.
The naga as a god is widespread and significant in all of Southern
Asia. As far away as the Malay peninsula we find Raja Naga, or King
Naga. Who is the king of all of the many sea snakes which populate
the area. In India the chief function of the naga is apparent in
temple architecture; they guard the doors.
The Great Naga Kanya, the most common friend/companion of Vishnu is
this latter form. Naga Kanya can also be seen with nine serpent
heads with expanded hoods. As the great god Vishnu sits his head and
shoulders are protected by these nine serpent heads . Some say that
this multiheaded snake is an animal counterpart of the sleeper
Vishnu, the preserver aspect of the Trinitarian Brahma principle, is
recognized as one of the most important and most revered of the
deities of the Hindu pantheon. He is most often depicted as
reclining on a the coils of the great serpent. The Great Naga,
Ananta [ the 'endless'], also called Sesha. Ananta has 1000 hooded
heads which form a canopy for Vishnu.. Ananta represents the cosmic
The symbol for water, in Hindu mythology, is the serpent [naga]. So
that, not only the gigantic anthropomorphic form and the boundless
elemental sea are Vishnu, nut the naga is also Vishnu. He is man,
ocean and snake. All are one. Springing forth from the navel of
Vishnu is a lotus stem, and on the flower at the end of the stem
sits the god Brahma who creates the world. Ananta spits out venomous
fire at the end of each Kalpa [age] to assist Shiva in destroying
The is another image of a human resting upon a snake. There is the
myth of the boy Naranua, a Hindu god of the spirit, who is depicted
as a handsome youth, recumbent upon a coiled snake couch, lying with
his toe in his mouth.
Nagas are recognized as superior to humans. They inhabit subaquatic
paradises, dwelling at the bottoms of rivers, lakes and seas. A most
important function of these divine serpents is their function as
guardians. We find them at the doors of Hindu and Buddhist shrines.
They van not only frighten ordinary human intruders with their
dangerous aspect as cobras, they can as divinities, discern and
repel any divine invader.
As an adolescent Krishna defeated the cosmic serpent by dancing on
its head. This was one of the most important tests of Krishna's
god-like powers. Krishna borrows on a text from the Rig Veda [ II,
12, 1-5, 13] , which says about the god Indra:
" Who having slain the Serpent released the seven streams,
who drove out the cows by the unclosing of Vala,
Who between rocks has produced fire,
victor in battles: he, O men, is Idra.
Krishna tells Arjuna all about 'divine' serpents. [ Bhagavad-Gita Ch.
Finally, in Hinduism, Balaram is Lord Krishna's half-brother ,the
avatar of Lord Vishnu's serpent companion whom some call Vasuki and
others call Adhisesha. Lakshman, Prince Rama's brother, is also an
incarnation of the serpent.
There is a festival which is kept annually in India called the Naga
Panchami Festival. In 1997, this festival was observed on August
8th. His Holiness, Sri Swamiji gave a widely circulated speech from
which I should like to snip some fargments:
" Today is Naga Panchami. Pancha means five in Sanscrit. Five is
auspicious. Naga means snake. Both Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva have
snakes with them. Vishnu has Adi Shesha as his bed while Lord Shiva
has a snake around his neck.
In India Naga Panchami is celebrated by feeding milk to snakes…………"
Sri Swamiji continues his speech with many tales of the interaction
between divine serpents and two of the three persons in the Hindu
We find the serpent in Buddhism, including the Buddhist god,
Magoraga, but the further Buddhism moved from its Hindu roots and
the more philosophical it became the less room there was for any
god, much less a serpent god. However, we do have this one story:
After his period of sitting under the Bo tree [ or Bodhi tree = Tree
of Enlightenment] he sat for seven days under a great banyan tree.
Then he left that tree and went to a tree called 'The Tree of the
Serpent King, Muchalinda.' Muchalinda is a huge cobra who dwelt in a
hole amongst the tree roots. As the Buddha meditated, unmindful of
his surroundings, a large storm arose. Muchalinda crept out of his
hole wrapped himself seven times around the Buddha, and with his
great hood, kept his head dry. The serpent represents a
reconciliation between antagonistic principles. It symbolizes the
life force that motivates birth and rebirth, and the concept of
Even in the extremely ascetic off-shoot from Hinduism, the Jains
have a serpent tradition. The founder of Jainism, Nataputta
Vardhamana earned his honorific title Mahavira [or "Great Man"] by
overcoming a great serpent who guarded the ford which Mahavira saw
as " The Way".
One final look in Asia before we leave. In Cambodia [ Kampuchea] we
have the legend that the kingdom was founded by a serpent king [ or
serpent kings]. I have not been able to research this to any depth
as yet. We do have temple statuary and art at Angkor Wat showing
figures with serpents.
Also, when the god Indra installed Duttabaung upon the golden throne
as king of Burma he insisted that he take as one of his two queens,
the Nagini Besandi, one of the Nagas or divine serpent spirits.
Our final continent to be examined for the divine serpent is
Australia. Australian aborigines have lived on this continent for
more than 50,000 years according to most anthropologists. In that
time they have had little or no contact with peoples from the 'outside
world'. Yet, here too, we find a divine reptile. The Rainbow snake,
variously named: Julungul, Galeru, Ungur, Wonungur, Worombi,
Yurlungeur, Kalseru, Langal, Ungud, Wullunqua or Muit. Depending
upon which aboriginal tribe one contacted, was a character in the 'Dreamtime'.
He was the creator of many of the things which are found in the
landscape of the Australian outback.
"Dreamtime" or Alchera, is the name given to that time also called
the ' time when', at the beginning of time, before time really was
counted, back when everything was created, when men and animals
could converse, and when the gods walked the earth.
There is a snake important in the rituals surrounding the making of
a medicine man or shaman among the aborigine. Since the key
perquisite to becoming a shaman is to meet death and to return, able
to speak to the god or gods, this ritual is important. The postulant
is mourned as dead by his tribe. He goes to a water hole where two
shamans cover his eyes and throw him into the ' jaws of the serpent'
which swallows him. The postulant remains in the serpent's belly for
an indefinite time. Finally the other shamans bring two kangaroo
rats as an offering to the serpent, whereupon the serpent ejects the
postulant. This ceremony represents death and rebirth and was
essential to becoming a shaman. The serpent was seen as a divine
spirit, cooperating with mankind to make life better.
Mircea Eliade states that :" the ritual swallowing by the Snake is
to be interpreted as a return to the womb- on the one hand because
the Snake is often described as female, on the other, because
entering the belly of the divine also carries a symbolism of return
to embryonic state. ….It represents not so much a ritual death
followed by resurrection as a complete regeneration of the initiate
through his gestation and birth by the Great Mother" .[ Rites and
Synbols of Initiation].
The hermaphrodite serpent aboriginal god of Northwest Australia is
associated with this ceremony, specifically with the erection of the
There is also a great snake worshipped by the Kabi people of
Queensland. This snake called Dhakhan, appears as a rainbow with an
end in each waterhole.
We have other snake gods in Australia. Bobbi-Bobbi is one of the
ancient gods of the Binbinga people of Northern Australia.
Bobbi-Bobbi once sent a number of flying foxes for men to eat, but
these bats escaped. So the snake-god, underground, watching, threw
one of his ribs up, where men caught it as a boomerang. They could
use this serpent-generated weapon to catch game, and so be fed.
Ulanji is the divine snake ancestor of the Binbinbea people of the
same area. And Yurlunger is the great copper python of the Murngin
people of Northern Australia. Yorlunger's voice is the thunder, and
his honor title is "Great Father". He is the center of a fertility
cult, and the initiation from boy to man includes being swallowed
and disgorged by Yorlunger. The Maori have a father god, who is also
chief of all the reptile gods who bears the name Tu-Te-Wehiwehi.
This god is the most important god in the Maori pantheon.
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. At any rate the search might me seen
to be at half-time. Time to rest for a while, as more material is
COPYRIGHT © 1998 BY ROBERT T. MASON
All rights Reserved