Thursday, November 29, 2007

Serpent Symbolism

Alice C. Linsley

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?"

The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.' "

"You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman. "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Gen. 3:1-5)

Serpents are known for their swiftness, their ability to hide, and for their ability to raise themselves to eye level with humans. Some are slender with narrow heads and lateral eyes. Others are thick, with hooded heads and eyes facing forward. Serpent symbolism is found in all religious traditions. Among archaic peoples the serpent was regarded as having powers to communicate, to deceive, to heal, to hide, to reveal and to protect. The oldest serpent veneration is associated with the 70,000 year old python stone carved in a mountainside in Botswana.

Serpent images are found across the world. The wide dispersion of serpent images on artifacts and in mythologies tells us that this is a very ancient symbol. Serpents on artifacts range from coiled snakes to fire-breathing winged dragons. On some works, the serpent is somewhat hidden and on others it is the focal point of the piece. Many illuminated Medieval Bibles show Adam and Eve with a winged serpent coiled around a tree. The serpent is often shown with the head of a woman (Lillith) and sometimes that head is topped with a fiery plume. The morphing of the snake suggests that peoples around the world have pondered the serpent and found it a dynamic metaphor for the great mysteries of life. To understand the deeper meaning of the serpent in Genesis, we must explore serpent symbolism in the larger context.

The Serpent in Hinduism and Buddhism

Nāga is the Sanskrit word for a deity that has the form of a large snake. The term may also refer to human tribes known as "Nāgas" and can apply to ordinary snakes. The largest of the cobra in India is the King Cobra (shown above). It is intelligent, alert and deadly. It can inject enough venon at one strike to kill an elephant. The Indian Cobra holds a special place in the religious symbolism of Hinduism and Buddhism. The Buddha is said to have been sheltered from rain by a giant cobra. In Buddhist texts, the cloud gods, Nanda and Upananda, who showered Gautama at his birth are identified as nāgas, serpents.

The Serpent Among the Afro-Asiatic Peoples

The serpent is both admired and feared among Afro-Asiatic peoples. Abarea, a headman of the Galla, in the north-east of Kenya Colony reports in Swahili, "Nyoka ni adui- the snake is the enemy."

The plumed or crested serpent is venerated in Swaziland and Natal, where native peoples provide daily offerings of meal, tobacco and water at shrines. This variety has a flame colored body. The crested flame colored serpent is among the most dreaded snake in southern Africa. The feathered serpent of the Olmecs (Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador) is portrayed in the same way as the crested serpent of southern Africa, suggesting that the Olmec rulers may have come to the Americas from Africa.

There are about forty varieties of snakes in southern Africa. The most dreaded are the deadly Black Mamba and the flame colored crested serpents that elevate and lunge at their victims. Naja haemachates, a snake in the cobra family, has a large hood and spits or ejects its poison. The largest of the serpents in southern Africa is the Natal python. It lives in jungles, among rocks along streams and in the coastal districts. It can reach a length of 20 feet and has been known to strangle humans and large animals.

The fat of the python is used in rituals throughout Africa. The Mofu holy man (Cameroon) mixes python fat with the blood of a sacrificed animal when offering prayers for rain. Rounded rain stones are placed in a stone basin. Then dry grasses are added, followed by a handfull of brilliant green python fat and then the red blood. The holy man mixes all together with his hands while he prays for rain. When the holy man has finished praying, he instructs his assistant to wash the stones carefully before they are returned to their hiding place. (For more on python rituals in Africa go here.)

The Serpent in Judaism

The proto-root for vein, river, tongue, sinew, lightening and serpent was NS. The S originally would have been a pictograph representing a serpent or anything serpentine. It also indicates "great" and can mean "Man" (Egyptian - sa), and throne (Proto-Saharan es or is). NS suggests connection between heaven and earth, and between deity and man. The serpent was a sacred symbol to the Kushites, especially to the metalworking clans such as the Hittites of Anatolia who called themselves NS (Nes).

In the Old Testament, the serpent (nahash) symbolizes deception, the promise of forbidden knowledge and self-elevation. This is seen in the serpent’s deception and manipulation of the first woman (Gen. 3:4-5 and 3:22). The serpent in this story isn’t a deity, but it does have powers not usually associated with snakes. It is said to be "more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made" (Genesis 3:1). Nevertheless, it is very much a creature. The prophets and rabbis identify the serpent of Genesis 3 as HaSatan, the one who decieves and accuses 364 days of the year. On one day only is HaSatan not able to accuse: on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Though God curses the serpent for leading the woman astray, the snake continued to be venerated among the people of Abraham. Moses transformed a rod into a snake and back again, as a sign of Yahweh’s power before Pharaoh. "And the Lord said unto him, ‘What is that in thine hand?’ And he said, ‘A rod.’ And He said, ‘Cast it on the ground.’ And he cast it on the ground and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it. And the Lord said unto Moses, ‘Put forth thine hand, and take it by the tail.’ And he put forth his hand and caught it and it became a rod in his hand" (Exodus 4:2-4).

Later, while leading the people through the wilderness, Moses lifted up the bronze snake to cure the snake-bitten Israelites. "And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.’ And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said unto Moses, ‘Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.’ And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived" (Numbers 21:6-9).

The ancient veneration of the serpent encountered opposition from the King Hezekiah who sought to purify Israelite religion of occult elements. According to Second Kings 18:4, King Hezekiah "removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it; and he called it Nehushtan."

The Serpent in Christianity

Christianity, building on Judaism, also connects the Serpent and Satan. Genesis 3:14 is seen in this light: "And the Lord God said unto the serpent, 'Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.'" Some believe that this indicates that the serpent originally had legs. But if the serpent is Satan himself (who is sometimes called THE serpent or dragon), rather than an ordinary snake possessed by Satan, the reference to crawling in the dust symbolizes the Devil’s ultimate humiliation and defeat.

John the Baptist calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a "brood of vipers" (Matthew 3:7). Jesus also uses this imagery in his condemnation of their hypocrisy: "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of Gehenna?" (Matthew 23:33).

Jesus recognized that the serpent symbolizes both deception and wisdom, because He sent forth his twelve Apostles with this exhortation: "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16). He also applied the serpent image to Himself as the "wisdom of God" (to which Paul refers often) when He compared being lifted up on the Cross to Moses’ rod with the bronze serpent being lifted in the desert. All the Israelites who looked upon it were saved. So all who look to the Cross of Jesus for salvation will be saved. Jesus said, "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:14-15).

All Christians recognize and honor the Blood of Christ as the means of our salvation. Not all recognize, as did the Church Fathers, that the blood of Jesus is the blood of his mother, Mary. She is "the woman" spoken of in Genesis 3, where God addresses the serpent. Then Yahweh God said to the snake, ‘Because you have done this, accursed be you of all animals wild and tame! On your belly you will go and on dust you will feed as long as you live. I shall put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he [following the Greek] will bruise your head and you will strike his heel." (Gen. 3:14-15)

This proclaims that Satan’s "children" will be at enmity with the offspring of "the woman". The "woman" to whom this refers can’t be Eve as Eve is not named until Genesis 3:20. The "offspring" can’t refer to the human race since, according to Christian understanding humanity is Satan's captive. Therefore the woman's "offspring" refers to those, who redeemed by the Blood of Jesus, share in His ultimate victory. (So it is that Mary is regarded as the Mother of the Church.)

Satan bruised His heel at Calvary, but the sacrifice, resurrection and ascension of the Incarnate Son of God crushes the serpent's head, makes void the curse, sets Eve free, and renews Adam. May God be praised!


Agnikan said...

I can't help but notice the similarities linguistic: Sanskrit "naaga", Hebrew "nahash", and the genus of the southern African serpent "Naja".

The serpent-dragon RahuKetu, in Hindu symbology, tried deceptively to imbibe the nectar of immortality churned by the devas. The Solar and Lunar deities saw RahuKetu and told Vishnu about it. Vishnu threw his discus, splitting the dragon into the Rahu (the head) and Ketu (below the head), but the dragon had already consumed the nectar, becoming immortal.

There seems to be a connection between serpents and immortality. Is there any sign within the Church Fathers that the Genesis serpent (like RahuKetu) was trying to eat the fruit from the tree of life, but fell short; or maybe did eat it (and thus achieved some level of immortality signified by the shedding of the snake), but was corrupted by it and tried (successively) to spread that corruption to Adam and Eve?

Alice C. Linsley said...

I agree that the words are cognates. Therefore they pertain to the older Afro-Asiatic Dominion. This story of the serpent drinking the nectar mixed by the gods appears to be a later Indo-European element. It isn’t found in the Afro-Asiatic Tradition, but it is found among the ancient Greeks, Romans and Etruscans.

It is easy to see how people came to think of the serpent as immortal. It is suggested by the serpent’s shedding of its skin and by the image of a circular serpent swallowing its tail. In some Medieval manuscripts the Devil is shown as a serpent or dragon whose in an eternal lake of fire.

According to Jewish and Christian Tradition Satan is an angelic or bodiless creature. He is painfully aware that he is not God's equal. In his Commentary on Isaiah, St. Basil the Great wrote, “When he saw that man was made in the image and likeness of God, the devil realized that it was useless for him to fight against God, so instead he entangled God’s image in evil.”

St. John of Damascus gives us insight in his treatise On the Divine Images. He explains: “We know that it is impossible to look upon God, or a spirit, or a demon, as they are by nature. We would be able to see them however, if they appeared in a form alien to their nature. Therefore God in His providence has clothed in forms and shapes things which are bodiless and without form, in order to lead us to more particular knowledge, lest we should be totally ignorant of God and of bodiless creatures… God wills that we should not be totally ignorant of bodiless creatures, and so He clothed them with forms and shapes, and used images comprehensible to our nature, material forms which could be seen by the spiritual vision of the mind.” (The Third Apology, #25).

TLF+ said...

Didn't a/the serpent steal the tree of life from Gilgamesh in the Mesopotamian epic?

Stung by the death of his friend, Enkidu, Gilgamesh attempts to recover the tree (or was it flower?) of eternal life, which is at the bottom of the sea.

He gets it into his boat, but while he's musing about something or other, the/a serpent snatches it back.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Yes, Father. That's at the end of Tablet 11 - "The Return to Uruk". Gilgamesh had the Plant of Rejuvenation which he retrieved from the bottom of the sea after the Flood. One evening as he was bathing in a pool a serpent appeared, ate the Plant that Gilgamesh had left on the shore. The serpent then sloughed its skin and disappeared.

Daniel Lunsford said...

This is quite interesting information about the serpent from a wide angled view. The mention of God commanding Abraham to throw the rod down so that it turned into the serpent is intriguing. I had never thought about how that gesture was odd.


Alice C. Linsley said...

Hi, Daniel. Welcome to Just Genesis!

The serpent mystery is picked up in the Harry Potter novels also.

Michael Molloy tells of an interesting experience he had while traveling through Southeast Asia. It is recounted in his Experiencing the World's Religions (Fourth Edition), pages 178-180. He was going with an English speaking guide to visit an old Buddhist temple. They passed where a crowd had gathered and there seemed to be a great deal of activity. Michael asked the driver to stop. He and his guide went to see what was going on and this is what they saw: A dark-haired Asian woman was on the ground. She was in a trace and speaking for a powerful serpent who was being held by for men. She said, "Do not harm me. I only need for you to dig a pond for me here at the temple. I will live in the pond and protect you." The monks started taking up a collect to make a pond for the serpent.

Alice C. Linsley said...

This primal and widespread symbolism, coupled with practices such as that described by Molloy involving serpents and women, suggests that SOMETHING did happen in the beginning.

Rick Lobs said...

Alice, another sensational article by you. Thanks. I plan to feature it on my site

It deserves a wide reading. Rick+

Alice C. Linsley said...

That's great news, Fr. Rick! Thanks.
The next article will be on Mountain Symbolism.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Reference to the flying serpent "nahash bariah" is found in Isa. 27:1 and Job 26:13. We see a good amount of morphing of the simple snake into the dragon of Revelation or the dragon slain by St. George.

Alice C. Linsley said...

According to Dogon (W. Africa)belief, the god Lebe visits during the night in the form of a serpent and licks their skins to purify them and infuse them with life force.

Farmer Fred said...

I know this thread is old, but as a recent discoverer of your blog I'm systematically working my way through it. Anyway, I can't help thinking about some of the "snake-handling" branches of Christianity (mostly found in the US southeast states??). I don't know if that was only a phenomenon of 20th century or if it has survived into the 21st, but I wonder if there is/was something more going on there than just picking a verse or two from the new testament and developing another splinter group around an obscure idea. Hmmmmm...

Alice C. Linsley said...

These snake handlers make the test of their faith whether that are able to take up serpents and not be harmed. The reference is found Mark 16:18.

Alice C. Linsley said...

The Melugeons handle snakes in their services. They also practice cousin marriage. These are vestiges of their Semitic heritage. The Melugeons are Sephardic Jews or Moors who came to the colonies and intermarried with Indian populations and with African slaves. The majority live in Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee.

Some famous Melugeons include Daniel Boone, John Sevier, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and Andrew Jackson.