Friday, February 10, 2017

The Serpent - Symbolism And Myth (part 1)

One of my carvings of a evocative Pictish design featuring entwined serpents

If you’ve ever stumbled across a snake in the wilds you’ll know just how hypnotic the sight can be. The encounter instills an immeadiate sensory barrage of fear and awe. The sudden racing of your pulse, the surge of adreneline, the dryness in the mouth, amazement, excitment, fear. In my travels I’ve stumbled across serpents many a time, including a memorable encounter with a quick darting viper that I nearly trod on in Turkey (we danced I tell you! we danced!). I believe that they are awe-inspiring creatures.

Snakes inhabit almost every corner of the globe. Therefore it is unsurprising to discover that their veneration is global. Serpents featured predominantly in Egyptian myths; gods and goddesses alike wore the Uraeus, the serpent crown of golden cobras meant to protect the bearer and hint at their latent power. Then there was Apep, the intestinal underworld serpent and the Sun god Ra’s enemy. It was Apep that threatened the sun god’s daily journey. It was a destroyer and consumer of souls. 

The serpent was many things. It bestowed power, it protected and it was also a chthonic force (subterranean), often viewed with disdain. In so many core myths of ancient cultures there exist stories of great battles between shining, godlike heroes who battle a serpent monster of gargantuan proportions. These monsters dwell in the deepest oceans or darkest rivers. They appear to represent the primal forces of chaos and disorder. 

Examples of such battles include: Thor versus Jormungandr (Norse), Zeus versus Typhon (Grecian), Apollo against Python (Grecian), Indra versus Vrtra (Hindu), Marduk versus Tiamat (Mesopotamia), Ra against Apep (Egypt), Tuna versus Maui (Polynesia). These are just a few examples, but they hint at an encompassing concept that possess uncanny parallels. 

Another serpent pair. This time a piece of driftwood from the Greek Island of Santorini.

It is interesting to note here that another common theme marries these myths. The serpent monster is often female, and if not has been birthed by a feminine earth goddess. The hero is invariably a male warrior god. This gives us pause for thought. Are these Jungian archetypes? Or are they folk memories of distant events, i.e. the overthrow of feminine earth based religions by warrior Indo-Europeans? Are they reflecting a vital point in our history - the religious and political overthrow of an indigenous population?** Or are they just stories? Is their similarity purely coincidence?

The latter hardly seems likely. The second theory is interesting, but then what of the similarities of this motif that exist between different cultures who never met until much later? I ‘m thinking here specifically of serpent myths of the Maya, a people who never encountered the Europeans until the 1500’s, or so we are told. 

There is something compelling about the Serpent myth. The more I delve into it the more I unearth. The subject is vast and I believe leads to the deepest core, the seed of mythology itself. These myths are some of the oldest, most primal and tie in to the stories of the cosmic serpent - the life giving force that was later symbolised as a giant serpent by many cultures. 

In the past the serpents were the subject of many a cult. In Greece we have the story of Apollo defeating Python, who guarded the oracle of Delphi. Python was the offspring of Gaia. Serpents were often associated with healing goddesses, both in the Grecian and Celtic world. The goddess Hygieia and the celtic deity Sarona and Damona  are amongst the few examples of such. They were often worshiped at wells and the idea of the serpent as a beneficial element of healing is even used today in the form of the Caduceus. The classical image of the serpent coiling around Hygieia's arm and sipping from the chalice reveals the use of a serpent as a symbol of potency. Modern anti-venoms and self-inoculators use the venom to build resistance and to cure bites.  

This natural phenomenon brings me to another element of serpent symbolism. In many myths the serpent is seen as an immortal being, and this notion may well stem from the serpent’s ability to shed its skin. Again yielding associations of rejuvenation and regenerative powers - many myths are full of such tales. 

The serpent in legend is an interesting topic and I'll return to it at a future date for sure as I attempt to unravel the coils of the serpent myth. 

Not the best pic, but gives you the idea. One of my Pendants with a serpent spiral. 

*I know the Adder is poisonous but it is rare and even if you are unlucky enough to get bitten its bite is rarely fatal as treatment can be easily found. 
 **As suggested by Marija Gimbutas' 'Kurgan Hypothesis'.


Symbol and Image In Celtic Religious Art - Miranda Green
Who’s Who In Classical Mythology - Michael Grant & John Hazel
A Dictionary of Symbols - J.E Cirlot
The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe - Marija Gimbutas


  1. Interesting and informative.

    1. Thanks, if there'd been more time I'd have liked to add more. Hopefully when i return to the serpent topic I will.