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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Bright Wolf

Duality of the Serpent

The Serpent has always been misunderstood.

In the stories of the Garden of Eden she represented loss of innocence, being cast out of the Garden, lies, temptation, associated with evil inclination, destruction and even the Devil.

But in other cultures the serpent symbolizes healing, rebirth, awakening, Kundalini rising and immortality.

The Serpent seems to hold these two separate identities and have a dual function across many different faiths; In some she is seen as a creature with a destructive nature, while in others she is seen as a healer and a protector of life.

But there's a third something here that could possibly bring the duality into a unity, and it's the Ouroboros. The eternal circle that continuously devours itself and gives birth to itself. The world that we live in contains these two dualities that are all present in the Ouroboros.

The Serpent in Judaism

In the Hebrew culture it is said that when the Israelites were walking in the desert for 40 years they spoke against God by complaining about the food they had received from him during a famine.

God replied by sending an onslaught of fiery snakes to them called 'Saraph'. The Israelites pleaded to Moses to help them; and Moses prayed to God who told Moses to mount a metal snake on top of a staff called 'Nehushtan', and that anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.

This symbol held cultural power that is around even today and generally recognized as a symbol for medicine. (However, the Jewish people believed after a while that it was a form of idol worshipping and removed it from their cultural belief).

But in the older Biblical Hebrew language; the wording 'Nachash' meaning 'Snake', or 'Nehushtan' meaning 'snake wrapped around a staff' shared a double meaning. These words when interpreted in the older language translate to ‘supernatural forces’, ‘magic’ or ‘witchcraft’ as well as ‘Snake’.

In other words; the Snake was seen not only as a symbol for healing and/or destruction, but also a symbol to describe magic or supernatural forces used for healing. So could it be that back in the day... they regarded healing as something magical?

When Moses had healed the snake bites of the Israelites; it was not from a special herb or medicine, it was done with by a Higher power by asking the Israelites to look upon the 'Nehushtan'; the snake staff to heal their bites.

The Serpent in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece had a beloved figure and a hated figure when it came to the Serpent.

Cecrops, the first King of Athens was a beloved half man, half snake who brought reading and writing as well as marriage and ceremonial burial to the ancient Greeks.

Then there was Hades, the dark lord of the underworld, depicted as a snake when he kidnaps Perspehone.

The Serpent in Ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt the snake was seen as a chaotic force that were in constant warfare with the Sun-God Ra.

However the Uraeus which was a cobra worn on the Pharaoh’s forehead was a symbol of divine authority and when worn by a Pharaoh; it declared him as having legitimacy and a rule over the land.

Uraeus was based on the Serpent Cobra Goddess Wadjet. She was the protector of the Nile and of all of Lower Egypt.

The Serpent in Norse Mythology

In Viking/ Norse mythology, there was a story of Jormungand the Serpent; one of Loki’s three children, who was thrown into the Sea by Odin. The Serpent grew, and grew and grew until his body was as big as the Earth itself and he was able to put tail in his mouth, another example of Ouroboros.

Jormungand rolled out of the sea and onto the land destroying everything in his path. When Thor came to attack the Serpent with his hammer; he fell dead poisoned by its deadly venom.

The Serpent in Inca Mythology

In Shamanic Incan mythology, the Snake represents the primal and divine feminine energy. She is belly to belly with the Earth and can hear through vibrations in the ground and is in-tune with the Earth. She is a grounded creature.

She is represented in the South, which is the first direction of the Medicine Wheel.

The South direction is where the Serpent sheds her skin and it is in this direction that we learn to shed ours. This means letting go of anything that is heavy, that is not for our best interest that does not represent our highest path going forward. This can range from something physical, a relationship, a job, or a role that we play or even a belief. Often it is something that is already dead or dying, or ready to shed and we are still holding onto.

The Serpent in Aztec Mythology

The Snake is represented again in the Aztec Mesoamerican culture as Quezalcoatl; a middle world protector who appears as a feathered serpent.

In the creation story of the Aztecs they believe that Quezalcoatl and another God; Tez-Calipoca transformed themselves into snakes and tore a giant sea monster named Cipactli in two. One half became the Earth, the other half became the sky.

They also believed that snakes were associated with rebirth, death, spiritual power and divinity.

The Serpent in Eastern Mythology

In Eastern mythology the Serpent represents feminine sexuality and Kundalini awakening and arising through all the chakras to achieve higher states of consciousness. They also associated snakes with Dragons having mystical powers and universal knowledge.

In Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism snakes appeared as the protectors of the Buddha and the Buddhist teachings called The Naga. The appeared as half-human, half cobra forms and were seen as powerful and potentially dangerous when angered.

The Serpent in Hinduism

In Hinduism the Ouroboros represents the foundation upon which the Earth rests, on top of him sits a turtle, elephants and the Earth as a dome shape.

In Hinduism religion a version the Kerykeion is called Nagakals, seem to be a worshipping symbol representing one or two serpents. The serpents are mostly cobras and they are mostly worshipped in South East India.

The Serpent in Egypt

The Ouroboros travelled from Egypt to Greece and was used as a symbol of alchemy and creating gold. They believed in the oldest allegorical symbol in alchemy, that ‘One is all and if one is not all then it is nothing’.

Also in ancient Egypt, the Ouroboros was found in King Tut’s tomb in the 13th Century BC. The Ouroboros was a symbol of a snake eating its own tail, marking the beginning and end, a symbol for eternity.

The Serpent in Gnosticism

The Gnostics believes that the opposing ends of the Ouroboros represented the divine and the human component of man, that despite being at odds with one another that they are still in unison of one another.

The Serpent in Chinese Mythology

China's first emperor was said to be half human, half draconian, who's mother was impregnated by the Alpha Draconis Star.

Also, in Ancient Chinese myths tell the story of two sisters, a white snake and a green snake. The white snake falls in love with a human and chaos follows after a monk called Fahai got involved and told the man that his wife was a devil snake. The man didn’t believe the monk, so the monk gave the man a drink to see if the wife was a snake.

The husband tricked the wife into drinking the wine and suddenly she turned into a giant white snake. The poor man collapsed and died of shock. The sad white snake decided to steal a magic herb from the heavenly mountain in order to save the husband. But Deer boy and White Crane boy fought her to prevent her from stealing the herbal magic, but the old man of the South Pole gave the lady the magic herbs out of sympathy.

The husband lived but the monk took him to a temple and kept him from seeing her. The white snake got angry and declared war with the monk. She called on the Dragon King of the east sea in order to fight against the monk and the Dragon King sent his army of sea goblins.

The white snake and the green snake used their powers to flood the temple. However, Fahai asked for help from the heavenly gods and defeated the white snake. The two sisters started to escape on a lotus leaf. The white snake was pregnant and her husband escaped from the temple and declared his love for her. However the couple’s life was interrupted again by the monk and captured the white snake with a heavenly warrior with a golden bowl.

After she gave birth to her son she was imprisoned for centuries.

In Japanese mythology, snakes represent rebirth, transformation and continual renewal of life.

In Celtic mythology, they believe that the Snake symbolizes healing and rebirth because of its ability to shed its skin and then become completely renewed again.

The Celts also believe that the Snake represents wisdom and secrets because they come from beneath the Earth. And in some Celtic myths, the snakes and dragons are warnings of widespread infertility and strife.

When Christianity took over the world, the Celtics view of the Serpent being a symbol for healing and wisdom was squashed and replaced with a symbol that represented paganism and therefore rejected.

One of Ireland’s Saints named St. Patrick banished snakes from the Emerald Isle, where in fact they never existed.

However he told a story of how he was fasting for 40 days on a hill and was attacked by snakes, he waved his staff and drove all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea. The snakes representing the pagans.

The Serpent in Native American Mythology

The Hopi have a snake dance that include men and women and is one of their most important dances to pray for rain. The dancers perform this with live snakes in their mouths or hands.

The Serpent in Aboriginal Mythology

The Aboriginals believe that the Rainbow Serpent is both a destructive force and a bringer of life through it's association with water. It is said that it travels from one waterhole to another, blessing people when it is happy and causing destruction when it is angered.

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