The Wise, Healing Serpent

From the beginning of time, on every continent on Earth, the serpent has been worshipped as well as reverently feared, and serpent mythology is arguably the most widespread known to humankind. Myths and legends from steaming Africa and Asia to the icy waters of northern Europe to outback Australia include tales of great serpents, dragons, and monster reptiles. Traditionally, these were regarded as the keepers of esoteric knowledge, revered as the guardians of temples and treasures and closely linked to the earth’s waters.

In Indian, Egyptian, Cambodian, Sri Lankan, Central and South American, as well as African myth and legend, the serpent is symbolic of deity, eternity, and wisdom. As an emblem of eternity, the so-called Ouroboros serpent is depicted forming a circle with its body, holding its tail in its mouth. 

The serpent’s connection with wisdom is found not only in ancient myths and legends worldwide, but also in the New Testament: ‘Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves’.213 Similarly, the biblical account of Genesis states that ‘...the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts’.214

As a symbol of deity, the serpent is universally connected to the gods and goddesses of various cultures. The serpent is an attribute to the Sumerian goddess Ishtar, and the Cretan goddess Ariadne is depicted as wreathed in snakes or holding a serpent in each hand. On the altars of ancient Greeks and Romans, the snake was frequently represented as a protective entity. Hence, in the temple of Athena on the Parthenon in Athens, caged serpents were kept as divine presences, revered as the guardian spirits of the temple. Athena herself bears a serpent on her shield and is often identified with this creature of the gods. 

The association of the serpent with the Earth’s waters – underground water sources, springs, rivers, and lakes – is universal. Dwelling in the Earth, frequenting springs, marshes, and other water streams, the serpent was seen as gliding with a motion of waves. The Egyptian and the Mayan hieroglyph for water was a zigzag or wavy line representing the ripple of a wave. This universal, prehistoric sign has ever since represented ‘water’ or ‘spirit’. Among the Mayans, the wavy hieroglyph for water terminated with the head of a snake, relating to the similarity of undulating water and a moving serpent. For this reason, they named the sea Canah, meaning ‘Great and Powerful Serpent’. Another example is the anaconda, the giant serpent of South America. This word is made up of anak, meaning ‘giant’ and onda, meaning ‘waves’, thereby again connecting the serpent to the Earth’s waters. 

In Africa, ‘early representations of serpent or dragon energies were symbolised by a spiral – the coiled serpent of the primordial waters known as kundalini – or by a zigzag line which represented a serpent in motion, the earth currents, the ripple of flowing water, life itself’.215 In this context, it is interesting to note that the reptilian lizard or serpent men of Australian Aboriginal myth are called kondili. Symbolically, serpents were also used to invoke the powerful magnetic energies of the Earth, which is why they are found engraved and painted on sacred objects and rocks worldwide.

In Hindu mythology, the serpent represents the creative force. Early imagery of the god Vishnu shows him reclining on the Cosmic Serpent, which is in turn resting on the Cosmic Waters. In Celtic tradition, the serpent is connected with healing waters. In Nordic mythology, the Midgard serpent circles the world, representing the all-embracing ocean. In Central and South American myth, the creator god and the god of resurrection is the feathered serpent of the Aztecs’ Quetztalcoatl or Kulkulcan, as the Maya call him. Chinese myth hardly distinguishes the serpent from the dragon. Both are symbolic of water’s fertilising power. In Africa, the serpent is similarly linked with water, where snakes herald the wet season and the resulting rebirth of nature. Rainmaking ceremonies amongst African tribes, North American Indians, Melanesian tribes, and Australian Aborigines include traditional snake dances, whereas the myths and legends of these peoples depict the serpent as a rainbow or sky-hero. 

The Rainbow Serpent is one of the most powerful mythological figures for all Aboriginal people throughout Australia. As in mythologies around the world, it is linked with watercourses, waterholes, and rock pools and thought to bring rain. The Aboriginal word Ngaljod or Nagal amongst certain Aboriginal tribes in western Arnhem Land strongly reminds us of Naga, the Indian serpent lord, or Nagual, the name of the Mexican serpent spirit guardian. Interestingly, Nák is the Egyptian serpent god with human arms and legs, and Nidhogg is the Norse serpent at the base of the World Ash. In Chinese myth, Nukua is the serpent goddess who formed the first people. The same root for serpent seems to pervade the African languages. In the Bantu languages of Sotho and Tswana, a serpent is called noga; in Xhosa and Zulu, it is nyoka.

A belief existed in India about a variety of snake known as the shesh nag. When the snake reached the legendary age of a thousand years, a precious stone was thought to form in its head. This stone, when applied to an affected body part, had the power to render the poison from any reptile harmless. This belief possibly permeated to Europe or originated there independently, because the fantastic tales about a legendary stone emanating from a snake took on various forms on that continent. The stone was thought to be a precious stone embedded in the head of a snake, one that the snake spat out, or alternatively, a stone magically fashioned by many snakes. 

Similar tales are also found in Africa, where Xhosa folklore tells of a monster serpent believed to inhabit a gorge in the Drakensberg Mountains. In ages past, young maidens were regularly sacrificed to this monster, which was adorned with an enormous diamond in its forehead, just above the eyes. Furthermore, the African Basotho still believe that malicious snakes with a brilliant light shining from their heads inhabit deep pools and rivers in Lesotho.216 The story of precious stones shed from the heads of serpents and dragons is also found in China, where the dragon’s head is always supposed to contain some or other precious stone. Chinese works of art also often depict dragons with pearls in their mouths. 

From ancient times, the serpent was credited with the power to incarnate the souls of the dead. As such incarnations could include the souls of ancestors, snakes seeking refuge in dwellings were never killed, but treated with reverence and respect. For example, any snake entering an African homestead was traditionally regarded as an ancestor returning with a message or demand. Similarly, the early Hebrews believed that all snakes entering a house were disembodied spirits. Pet snakes kept in Greece, Crete, and Rome were always treated with great veneration. This tradition is also found in northern and western European countries, where snakes were respected in households. In Germany, Norway, and Denmark, it was customary for families to have their own so-called house snake, both as a rat-catcher and as a guardian house spirit – made all the easier, because snakes in these countries were harmless creatures. Many cultures share the tradition that snakes have a guardian or protective influence. Therefore, tattoos often took the form of snakes, and in European countries, a dead snake’s skin hung above the hearth was believed to protect the household and ensure good luck.

Snakes have been linked with the healing arts for thousands of years. The importance and effectiveness of the snake in healing remedies and cures is strengthened by the Old Testament account: ‘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’.217 In ancient Greece and Rome, respectively, the snake was sacred to Asklépios or Aesculapius, the god of medicine and healing. In this context, we are reminded of the Greek snake symbol, the caduceus, still in constant use and recognised internationally as the symbol of medicine. Interestingly, the intertwined snakes of the caduceus mimic the intertwining of snakes during the mating ritual, a common symbol used to depict the DNA helix. 

In western European countries, snakes were considered essential in medical cures and constituted a profitable trade item throughout the Middle Ages until the nineteenth century. Using snakes for healing purposes was so popular that snakes were brought to Paris in their thousands, tied together in bundles of twelve. When the French Academy of Sciences tried to ban the import of poisonous snakes in 1820, physicians requested that an exception be made with vipers, as they were thought vital to effect certain cures.218 Generally, snakes were dried and pulverised or boiled. The fat gleaned from this process was made into a salve or oil. Snake powder ingested or salve used as a cream was believed efficacious in curing countless ailments and diseases ranging from arthritis, eye problems, cancer, epilepsy, stomach, kidney, and intestinal problems to boils, skin lesions, toothache, and nerve complaints. The eating of snake flesh, only affordable to very wealthy ladies, was also even thought to have anti-aging effects – a curious notion indeed! 

Such examples of the varying pseudo-medicinal uses of once widely used snake products serve to explain the popular phrase of ‘selling snake-oil’, derogatory for bogus, fraudulent, and ineffective medication sold as a cure-all. 


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