Snakes: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The fear of snakes, Ophidiophobia, is surprisingly common among humans, though considering their prevalence that isn’t all that surprising.  Found on every continent except Antarctica and in most places other than a few islands such as Ireland and Hawaii, snakes slither through all different types of biomes.  But snakes don’t just slither through the grass and trees, they slither through our mythology as well.  From the Christian Garden of Eden to the nagas in Hindu mythology, snakes rear their scaly heads throughout the world.

Deadly or Safe?

There are two major groups of snakes, venomous and nonvenomous, with subtle differences that help people distinguish between them.  For one, the majority of nonvenomous snakes have eyes similar to humans with a rounded pupil, while venomous snakes have a slit pupil, like a cat.  Now, for obvious reasons, you probably don’t want to get close enough to a snake to see its eyes.  There’s a couple other ways to tell venomous snakes from nonvenomous.  First, look at the shape of the head.  If they’re venomous, it’s generally going to come into a point like a V, whereas non venomous snakes’ heads are shaped like a U.  Furthermore, the venom sacks that venomous snakes have in the cheeks cause their heads to form an arrow shape that then draws back into their body, making it look like they have a neck.

The Good

While most Western cultures see snakes as evil or bad omens, this is not true around the world.  In Ancient Egypt, the cobra was worshiped as a symbol of Ra and Wadjet, the patron goddess of Upper Egypt.  When the two kingdoms combined, the cobra’s likeness, complete with the spread hood, was added to the pharaoh’s crown.  

In Ancient Mesopotamia snakes were believed to be immortal since they shed their skin.   The Sumerian hero Gilgamesh was descended from the snake god Ningishzida and snake cults were abundant in Canaan before the Israelites arrived.  In many African and Australian myths, the Rainbow Serpent appears. Some say that he created the land, where as other talk about how he stretches up to the sky when thirsty, spilling the rain god’s water and causing it to rain down to earth.

Naga are creatures from Hindu, Cambodian, and Buddhist mythology that have both human and snake characteristics.  Generally taking the form of a king cobra, they have been depicted as everything from snakes who can speak to humans with snake tails.  In many Buddhist countries, the naga legends have combined with the Asian legends of dragons and represent knowledge and wisdom.  In Buddhist myths, the naga is sometimes said to have a hundred heads and there are multiple legends of nagas becoming human in order to become monks or achieve enlightenment.

In America, the Mayans worshiped Kukulkan and the Aztecs worshiped Quetzalcoatl, both feathered serpents.  Little is known about Kukulkan, though the snake god appears in many temples and carvings.  Quetzalcoatl is the god of wind and learning and represented the planet Venus in the Aztec lore.  

The Bad

Probably one of the most famous examples of snakes in mythology is the serpent in the Garden of Eden in Christian lore.  The creature who tempted Eve into committing the first sin, the snake was cursed by God to forever have to crawl on its belly.  Yet Christians aren’t the only religion to see snakes as evil.  While the Ancient Egyptians saw the cobra a good, the two gods Set and Apep were also represented by snakes.  Set was the god of the desert, representing the hardship associated with the heat and sand.  Apep was the chaos serpent, the evil beast that sought to swallow the sun each night.

Surprisingly enough, I had a hard time find other evil snake gods or deities.  The majority of snake or serpent like creatures are either monsters (the The Ugly category below) or dragons, which deserve their own post.  So I guess snakes aren’t as bad everyone thinks.

The Ugly

Snakes also show up in mythology as monsters and demons, creatures that the hero has to overcome in his/her journey.  In Ancient Greece, the famous hero Heracles strangled two snakes in his crib when he was an infant, though these are far from the only snakes to appear in Greek mythology.  Typhon, a monster Gaia created to get revenge on the Olympians after the defeat of the Titans, was described either having hundreds of snake heads or two snake tails.  He is often considered the deadliest of the monsters the Olympians had to fight and is the father of many other monsters, including the sphinx and hydra.

Another famous snake from Greek mythology is Python, the serpent who guarded the Oracle of Delphi.  The first time the snake appears in Greek mythology is when Leto, the mother of Artemis and Apollo, is traveling through Greece trying to find a safe place to give birth.  Python had heard from the Oracle that Leto’s son would kill him, and thus attempted to kill and eat Leto before she could give birth.  Despite his best attempts, Leto still escaped and gave birth to Artemis and Apollo.  When he was an adult, Apollo would return to the Oracle of Delphi, kill Python, and claim her as his own.

Greek mythology also has the gorgons, Medusa and her siblings, who had snakes for hair.  Snakes also appear in the myth of the Trojan war, when the priest Laocoön attempted to warn the Trojans about the horse that the Greeks had left behind.  Some myths say that Athena sent two snakes out of the water, whereas other myths say Poseidon.  Whichever god it was, the giant serpents swam out of the sea and strangled Laocoön and his sons.

Moving away from Greek mythology, the Norse also have a monstrous snake that slithers through their mythology.  The world serpent, or Jörmungandr, curls around the middle of the world, chewing at the roots of the world tree.  The son of Loki and a giantess, he was tossed into the sea when young and grew, and grew, and grew.  At one point, Thor attempted to fish him out of the water, but the line was cut by his cowardly assistant.  In Norse legend, Jörmungandr heralds the end of the world.  The serpent is so large that it bites its own tail, and the legend goes that when the snake releases its tail, Ragnarock will happen.  During this time, Jörmungandr will rise from the sea and do battle with its arch nemesis, Thor.  While Thor will end up killing the snake, it’s Jörmungandr that gets the last laugh, for Thor will only walk nine paces before falling down dead from the snake’s poison.

~Elyce

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