Snakes have slithered sinuously through sacred ceremonies and stories for many millennia. Sometimes they have been vilified as opponents, but they have also been praised for admirable attributes.
In one of the most ancient surviving texts, the 4,000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh, a snake swallows the 'plant of eternal youth', sloughs its old skin, and leaves the scene. The hero, Gilgamesh (king of a city in what is now Iraq), has been given another lesson in human mortality. He resolves to gain the only kind of immortality available to humans. While snakes will go on continuously rejuvenating themselves, even kings will be forgotten if they do not perform great deeds. Gilgamesh makes his city glorious and we are encouraged to create good impressions that will be our only memorials.
A rather different lesson is taught by the first snake mentioned in the Bible. This serpent is now commonly associated with demonic temptation and evil seduction. But the snake is introduced as a wise creature not a bad one. This is not an isolated theme but appears in later west Asian texts. For example, in the Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus encourages his followers to be 'as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves'. While the Garden of Eden is like a children’s playground with cute and friendly animals, to gain wisdom people have to learn by making choices, sometimes getting it wrong, sometimes suffering, sometimes challenging authority, but always gaining in experience. The wisdom of snakes invites people to grow into maturity by doing bold things.
Turning to the snakes of ancient art and architecture, the earliest known carved representation of snakes is on the pillars of a temple built nearly 12,000 years ago at Göbekli Tepe in south-eastern Turkey. Other creatures carved on the remarkable T-shaped pillars include lions, boars, foxes, scorpions and cranes. Perhaps they were like heraldic symbols for clans, or companions in religious ceremonies. It is hard to know, especially as the excavation is far from finished, but the fact that busy people carved snakes and other animals must indicate their importance. More recently, the steps of some central American pyramid-like temples have been adorned with elaborate serpents which seem to undulate downwards at the equinoxes as the sun casts shadows. Perhaps these snakes bring cosmic power to revitalise the earth’s vitality.
From Minoan Crete, we have a number of female statues holding snakes. One of the most well known figures is of a bare breasted woman holding up snakes in both hands. She could be a Goddess or a priestess. Frequently, she is said to have something to do with fertility but this is not at all a subtle interpretation. Just as bare breasted women holding snakes in our culture are not usually interested in fecundity but in the serious business of pleasure, it is equally likely that Minoan Cretans were honouring vitality and sensuousness. On the other hand, the snake handling figures seem less energetic and mobile than those of people leaping over bulls. Perhaps the snakes were considered dangerous and the women, priestesses or Goddesses were demonstrating bravery or faith. There are, after all, contemporary snake-handling religions, for example among Pentecostalist Christians in the USA, in which people pick up venomous snakes to show that they are pious and that they trust their God to protect them. Snakes themselves have been honoured as protectors, for example of the Buddha, the Hindu deities Vishnu and Shiva, and ancient Egyptian pharaohs. In Kenya, the Luo venerate snakes as the guardians of springs and wells and request their help in times of drought.
Although about a fifth of the world’s 2,500 species of snakes are venomous, they have often been associated with healing. A Greek deity of healing, Asclepius, is recognised by the snake curled up his staff. Perhaps this is similar to the bronze serpent God instructed Moses to raise up on pole so that those bitten by snakes could look at it and be healed. John’s Gospel insists that this prefigures the lifting up of Jesus on his cross — which makes it hard to think of snakes only as the embodiment of evil. Then there is the Caduceus of the messenger God Hermes with its two serpents twinned together, somewhat like the double helix of DNA.
Snakes, then, have been associated in different religions with wisdom, wickedness, protection, healing, sensuous vitality, cosmic power and much more.