Serpents and snakes play a role in many of the world's myths and legends. Sometimes these mythic beasts appear as ordinary snakes. At other times, they take on magical or monstrous forms. Serpents and snakes have long been associated with good as well as with evil, representing both life and death, creation and destruction.
Serpents and Snakes as Symbols. In religion, mythology, and literature, serpents and snakes often stand for fertility or a creative life force—partly because the creatures can be seen as symbols of the male sex organ. They have also been associated with water and earth because many kinds of snakes live in the water or in holes in the ground. The ancient Chinese connected serpents with life-giving rain. Traditional beliefs in Australia, India, North America, and Africa have linked snakes with rainbows, which in turn are often related to rain and fertility.
As snakes grow, many of them shed their skin at various times, revealing a shiny new skin underneath. For this reason snakes have become symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. The ancient Greeks considered snakes sacred to Asclepius, the god of medicine. He carried a caduceus, a staff with one or two serpents wrapped around it, which has become the symbol of modern physicians.
For both the Greeks and the Egyptians, the snake represented eternity. Ouroboros, the Greek symbol of eternity, consisted of a snake curled into a circle or hoop, biting its own tail. The Ouroboros grew out of the belief that serpents eat themselves and are reborn from themselves in an endless cycle of destruction and creation.
immortality ability to live forever
underworld land of the dead
Living on and in the ground, serpents came to be seen in some religions and mythologies as guardians of the underworld. In this role they could represent hidden wisdom or sacred mysteries, but they also had other, more sinister meanings. The use of serpents
The Nagas of Hindu and Buddhist mythology show how serpents can symbolize both good and evil, hopes and fears. Although these snake gods could take any shape, including a fully human one, they often appeared as human heads on serpent bodies. The Nagas lived in underwater or underground kingdoms. They controlled rainfall and interacted with deities and humans in a variety of ways. Some were good, such as Muchalinda, the snake king who shielded Buddha from a storm. Others could be cruel and vengeful.
Serpents and Snakes in Myths. Many mythical creatures, such as dragons, combine snakelike qualities with features of humans or animals. In Greek mythology, Echidna was a half-woman, half-serpent monster whose offspring included several dragons. Cecrops had a man's head and chest on a snake's body and was a culture hero to the Athenians. In Toltec and Aztec mythology, Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, held an important place. In medieval Europe, people told tales of the basilisk, a serpent with a dragon's body that could kill merely by looking at or breathing on its victims. Melusina, another figure in European folklore, was part woman, part fish and snake and had to spend one day each week in water.
deity god or goddess
culture hero mythical figure who gives people the tools of civilization, such as language and fire
medieval relating to the Middle Ages in Europe, a period from about A.D. 500 to 1500
Myths that emphasized the frightening or evil aspects of serpents and snakes often portrayed them as the enemies of deities and humans. The Greek hero Perseus rescued Andromeda, who was chained to a rock, by slaying a sea monster that threatened to eat her. In Norse* mythology, a monster called the Midgard serpent—also known as Jormungand—was wrapped around the earth, biting its tail. Thor* battled the serpent, which lived in the sea, where its movements caused storms around the world. Another Norse monster, the Nidhogg or dread biter, was an evil serpent coiled around one of the roots of Yggdrasill, the World Tree. It was forever trying to destroy the tree by biting or squeezing it.
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
In the mythology of ancient Egypt, Apopis was a demon of chaos who appeared in the form of a serpent. Each night he attacked Ra*, the sun god. But Mehen, another huge serpent, coiled himself around Ra's sun boat to protect the god from Apopis—a perfect illustration of how snakes can be symbols of both good and evil in mythology.
Mythological snakes that act as forces of good have various roles, such as creating the world, protecting it, or helping humans. Stories of the Fon people of West Africa tell of Da, a serpent whose 3,500 coils support the cosmic ocean in which the earth floats. Another 3,500 of its coils support the sky. Humans occasionally catch a glimpse of many-colored Da in a rainbow or in light reflected on the surface of water.
The Aboriginal people of northern Australia tell how the Great Rainbow Snake Julunggul shaped the world. When human blood dropped into a waterhole, Julunggul grew angry. He sent a wave of water washing across the earth, and he swallowed people, plants, and animals. Julunggul reared up toward heaven, but an ant spirit bit him and made him vomit up what he had swallowed. This happened again and again until Julunggul departed from the earth, leaving people, plants, and animals in all parts of it.
According to a story of the Diegueño Indians of California, humans obtained many of the secrets of civilization from a huge serpent named Umai-hulhlya-wit. This serpent lived in the ocean until people performed a ceremony and called him onto the land. They built an enclosure for him, but it was too small to hold him. After Umai-hulhlya-wit had squeezed as much of himself as possible into the enclosure, the people set him on fire. Soon the serpent's body exploded, showering the earth with the knowledge, secrets, songs, and other cultural treasures he had contained.
Mysterious serpents occur not just in ancient myths but in more modern legends as well. For centuries, people have reported seeing huge snakes or snakelike monsters at sea or in lakes. Although many marine scientists admit that creatures yet unknown may inhabit the depths, no one has produced reliable evidence of an entirely new kind of sea serpent. Most likely the mysterious creatures seen swimming on the water's surface are masses of seaweed, floating logs, rows of porpoises leaping into the air, giant squid, or just common sharks or sea lions.
chaos great disorder or confusion
cosmic large or universal in scale; having to do with the universe
Hindu myths contain many tales of serpents. Kaliya was a five-headed serpent king who poisoned water and land until the god Krishna defeated him in battle. Kaliya then worshiped Krishna, who spared his life. Kadru was a snake goddess who bore 1,000 children. Legend says that they still live today as snakes in human form. One of Kadru's children was the world snake Shesha that the gods used to turn a mountain and stir up the ocean, just as people churn milk into butter by using a rope coiled around a stick or paddle. As the gods churned the ocean with the snake, many precious things arose from it, including the moon, a magical tree, and the Amrita, or water of life.