A brief look at the intertwined history of snakes and people

The serpent is one of the most prolific and ambiguous symbols of humankind, with its vast history in art, mythology and religious iconography, it has found its way into every culture. Some feared the snake, worshipped it and even handled it in religious ceremonies as a test of faith. Fascination with the snake has been around since the dawn of time and continues to mystify, captivate and intrigue. Regardless of whether or not snakes featured prominently in the daily lives of some societies, it’s symbolic relevance prevailed.  The Hebrew word ‘nahash’ is used to identify the serpent that appears in Genesis 3:1, in the Garden of Eden. In Genesis, the serpent is portrayed as a deceptive creature that promotes that which is forbidden. 

In Greek mythology, the iconic Gorgon Medusa, was depicted as a female with living venomous snakes in place of hair, those who met her gaze would be turned to stone. 

This article provides a brief introduction to some of the most notable examples of the serpent image and symbolic meaning throughout history. 

In Aboriginal mythology, the Rainbow Serpent is an immortal being that is popularly represented in Australian Aboriginal art. The correlation of the snake and rainbow is said to represent the seasons and importance of water, when a rainbow appears in the sky, it is said to be the rainbow snake travelling from one source of water to another. It is best known in Arnhem Land, featuring heavily in philosophy as a protector of land and people, both a giver of life and peace with regenerative powers, and a destructive force when not respected. It is affiliated with ceremonies relating to fertility due to its life-giving powers and control of rainfall. 

It is portrayed as a creature with different animal aspects and it is now thought that the prototype or model for these paintings would have been inspired by the Ribboned Pipefish and not from kangaroos or crocodiles as first thought.

Fig1. Aboriginal Rainbow Serpent cave painting, Australia.
Fig 1. Aboriginal Rainbow Serpent cave painting, Australia.

The Mexican Aztec serpent is associated with several different Gods and appears throughout the religious iconography of Mesoamerica, symbolising transformation, renewal and healing. As many species of snake are able to move from earth, water and forest canopy, it is said to represent their symbolic role between the underworld, earth and sky. Kukulkan, the Feathered Serpent was one of the most important gods in Mesoamerica, the Aztecs called him Quetzalcoatl and the ancient Maya referred to him as Kukulkan. He was regarded as the god of winds and rain and as the creator of the world and mankind. 

Fig2. Feathered Serpent Image at the Temple of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan
Fig 2. Feathered Serpent Image at the Temple of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan

‘Snake Goddess’ is a strikingly evocative figurine that was discovered in a Minoan archaeological site in Crete, depicting a woman holding a snake in each hand. Representing her role as a bridge between worlds, spiritual wisdom and transformation powers. The Minoans had a deep love and respect for nature and were a highly creative, peace loving society.  The serpent is often symbolically associated with the renewal of life and immortality as it sheds its skin periodically. A similar belief can be found in the ancient Mesopotamians and Semites, and Hindi mythology. Typically found in Hinduism and Buddhism, Naga is the Sanskrit/Pali word meaning deity, which takes the form of a large snake. Esoterically representing death, mortality and rebirth.     

In Norse mythology, Jormungandr, meaning ‘huge monster’ also known as the Midgard serpent, is an enormous sea serpent that lives in the ocean surrounding Midgard. He is one of the three sons of Loki and the giantess Angrboda. The legend tells of two battles that took place between Thor and Jormungandr. Continental Germans are said to have attributed earthquakes to his powerful ferocious movements. Viking longships often featured the head of a snake designed dually to provoke fear and simultaneously provide protection. 

Fig3. Thor battering the Midgard Serpent (1790) by Henry Fuseli 
Fig 3. Thor battering the Midgard Serpent (1790) by Henry Fuseli

One of the most prominent tales in Chinese folklore, the legend of the white snake, which focuses on a local pharmacist who is said to have fallen in love with a young snake spirit disguised as a young woman. The spirit had been living for thousands of years on a mountain along with her sister friend, a green snake of lesser power. Through mediation and her quest for enlightenment, she harnessed the power to transform herself into human form. She comes down from the mountain to spend a day on earth and meets Xu Xian, the pharmacist, on her visit to the West Lake. They have a swift romance and marry. However, this displeases a Buddhist monk, Fahai, said to be a reincarnated vengeful tortoise, who disapproves strongly of anyone who marries a member of a different species. Eventually the couple separate. The snake spirit ends up trapped under a pagoda near the West Lake as a punishment. Some versions of the tale state that she is later released by her son, whose father is her human husband, and the family is reunited at last. Variations of this tale have influenced everything from sculpture, porcelain, woodcarvings and paintings. It has also become a popular Chinese television series and inspired several operas. 

Fig 4 Tale of the White Snake by Ye Qianyu, 1977. 
Fig 4 Tale of the White Snake by Ye Qianyu, 1977.

During the time of the Roman Empire, Glycon was a snake god that gained a large cult following. It is associated with the Greek prophet Alexander of Abonutichus, who is said to have brought the god to his town Abonutichus in Paphlagonia and built a temple. He protected his followers with a magical spell to repel the plague of the late 160’s. The snake is depicted with a human head and several artefacts relating to it, such as coins, statuettes and inscriptions have been discovered.

Fig 5 Statue of Glycon from the National History and Archaeology Museum, Romania (late 2nd Century) 
Fig 5 Statue of Glycon from the National History and Archaeology Museum, Romania (late 2nd Century)

During Ancient Egyptian times, the snake was used in mythology as a symbol of royalty, sovereignty and divine authority and often depicted in art as an upright cobra named Uraeus (from the Greek meaning ‘on its tail’.) This was an early symbol for the goddess Wadjet. Pharaohs adorned head dresses with Uraeus to convey the legitimacy of their rule. The Caduceus was a traditional symbol of one of the Olympian Gods, Hermes. This featured two snakes entwined around a staff representing the Rod of Asclepius.  This symbol was adopted by the US medical corps leading to the serpent being adopted as a medical symbol seen in modern day pharmaceutical iconography. 

Fig 6 Caduceus Staff illustrated by JaymeC
Fig 6 Caduceus Staff illustrated by JaymeC

Ouroboras was also an Egyptian symbol, the iconic snake eating its own tail, representing infinity and wholeness, it is strongly associated with alchemy and remains a popular inspiration for jewellery design and body art symbolising the universe and self-sufficiency. 

Fig7 A 1478 drawing by Theodorus Pelecanos
Fig 7 A 1478 drawing by Theodorus Pelecanos

The Celtic people’s symbolisms and traditions gave them a connection with their ancestors, nature and spiritualism. Snakes also symbolise the notion of rebirth and wisdom and are popularly displayed as part of Celtic knots. The snake is one of many nature themed symbols which were displayed by pagan religions. The Celtic knot can be seen as a never-ending serpent, representing eternity. There were many stories thought to be lost, relating to Corra, the serpent goddess of Ireland and Scotland. However, St Patrick is popularly believed to have killed her and driven the snakes from Ireland. Its mythology symbolises the triumph over old religion and the druids by Christianity. 

Fig 8 The Endless-Knot, A carving at Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh
Fig 8 The Endless-Knot, A carving at Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh

There are countless beautiful renowned paintings and sculptures representing the snake throughout history, such as the examples shown below, which are some of my personal favourites. 

Fig 9 the painting of the Jewish mythological figure, Lilith, 1887 John Collier
Fig 9 the painting of the Jewish mythological figure, Lilith, 1887 John Collier
Fig 10 Cleopatra, by Andrea Solari
Fig 10 Cleopatra, by Andrea Solari
Fig 11 Medusa is a c.1618 painting by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, showing the severed head of Medusa.
Fig 11 Medusa is a c.1618 painting by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, showing the severed head of Medusa.
Fig 12 The artist and activist Ai Weiwei created a 55 foot long snake using 360 backpacks that he found at the Sichuan earthquake site in 2008. They belonged to the children who perished as a result of poor building.
Fig 12 The artist and activist Ai Weiwei created a 55 foot long snake using 360 backpacks that he found at the Sichuan earthquake site in 2008. They belonged to the children who perished as a result of poor building.
Fig 13 My own art creation, featuring my Cornsnake, Rainbow, named after the Aboriginal Rainbow serpent, in the style of Van Gough.
Fig 13 My own art creation, featuring my Cornsnake, Rainbow, named after the Aboriginal Rainbow serpent, in the style of Van Gough.

At various times throughout history, the complex and profound serpent symbol has represented immortality and death, male and female, god and demon, killer and healer. It remains the most frequently used animal portrayed in art, this highly symbolic creature,with its captivating movement, venom and unyielding grip, continues to  attract fear, disgust, and wonder. 

 

References 

The Book of Snakes, Mark O’Shea, The Ivy Press

Ancient Mexico in the British Museum, London, The British Museum Press, 1994

Tradition Today: Indigenous Art in Australia, The Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2014 

Egyptian Art, Bill Manley, Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2017

Symbolism and Allegories in Art, Matilde Battistini, Getty Publications, 2006

Greek and Roman Myths: A Guide to the Classical Stories, Philip Matyszak, Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2010 

Chinese Mythology, Matt Clayton, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018 

  1. S. Kos, Draco and the survival of the snake cult in the Central Balkans, 1991. 

Images obtained online and credited to each artist. 

Victoria Protheroe
About Victoria Protheroe 4 Articles
With a lifelong love of nature and wildlife and a Master’s degree in research, Victoria Protheroe enjoys spending her free time combining these interests to explore new areas of wildlife research and conservation. Her current area of interest is with reptile care, specifically snake husbandry.

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