Serpent is a word of Latin origin (serpens, serpentis) that is normally substituted for "snake" in a specifically mythic context, in order to distinguish such creatures from the field of biology.
For other meanings of the word serpent, see Serpent (disambiguation).
The serpent is an Ancient Near Eastern and Aegean god of wisdom, who is always, quite naturally, an earth symbol. In Egypt, Ra and Atum ("he who completes or perfects") were the same god, Atum, the "counter-Ra," was associated with earth animals, including the serpent: Nehebkau ("he who harnesses the souls") was the serpent god who guarded the entrance to the underworld. As far away as Fiji, Ratu-mai-mbula is a serpent god who rules the underworld (and makes the sap run).
In the Louvre, there is a famous green steatite vase carved for king Gudea of Lagash (dated variously 2200–2025 BCE), dedicated by its inscription to Ningizzida, "Lord of the Tree of Truth" which bears a relief of serpents twined round a staff, exactly like the caduceus of Hermes.
At the far western end of the world of Antiquity, in the Garden of the Hesperides, another serpent tree-guardian, Ladon, protects the golden fruit.
Under yet another Tree of Enlightenment, the Buddha sat in ecstatic mediation. When a storm arose, the mighty serpent king rose up from his place beneath the earth and enveloped the Buddha in seven coils for seven days, not to break his ecstatic state.
The Minoan Great Goddess may brandish a serpent in either hand, perhaps evoking her role as source of wisdom, rather than her role as Mistress of the Animals (Potnia theron), with a leopard under each arm. It is not by accident that later the infant Heracles, a liminal hero on the threshold between the old ways and the new Olympian world, also brandishes the two serpents that "threatened" him in his cradle. Classical Greeks did not perceive that the threat was merely the threat of wisdom. But the gesture is the same as that of the Cretan goddess. The rod that Moses bears is a serpent. When he throws it to the ground, at Yahweh's command, it takes its serpent form. If the identity might not yet be clear enough, when Moses picks up the serpent, it is transformed to a rod once more.
Serpents figure prominently in archaic Greek myths too: the myth-element of Laocoon, the ancient Hydra that was battled by Heracles, the serpent of the oldest Delphic oracle.
The image of the serpent as the embodiment of the wisdom transmitted by Sophia is an emblem used by gnosticism, especially those sects that the more orthodox characterized as "Ophites", ("Serpent People"). The chthonic serpent is one of the earth-animals associated with the cult of Mithras. The Basilisk, the venomous "king of serpents" with the glance that kills, was hatched by a serpent, Pliny and others thought, from the egg of a cock. Such fantasies filled the medieval bestiary.
In Norse mythology, Jormungand, the Midgard serpent, encircles the world in the ocean's abyss. In Dahomey mythology of West Africa, the serpent that supports everything on its many coils is named Dan. Vishnu is said to sleep in Yoga Nidra, floating on the cosmic waters on the serpent Shesha.
Because a snake sheds its skin and comes forth from the lifeless husk glistening and fresh, it is a universal symbol of renewal, and the regeneration that may lead to immortality. In the Epic of Gilgamesh (of Sumerian origin), Gilgamesh dove to the bottom of the waters to retrieve the plant of life. But while he rested from his labor, the Serpent came and ate the plant. The snake became immortal, and Gilgamesh was destined to die
Outside Europe, in Yoruba mythology, Oshunmare is such a mythic regenerating serpent. The Vision Serpent is also a symbol of rebirth in Mayan mythology, fuelling some cross-Atlantic cultural contexts favored in pseudoarchaeology. Mayan Gukumatz, the Feathered Serpent is most familiar under his Aztec name, Quetzalcoatl.
Sea Serpents are giant cryptozoology creatures once believed to live in water, whether sea monsters such as the Leviathan or lake monsters such as the Loch Ness Monster. If they are referred to as "Sea snakes", they are understood to be the actual snakes that live in Indo-Pacific waters (Family Hydrophiidae).
The speaking Serpent (nachash) in the Garden of Eden brought forbidden knowledge, but is not identified with Satan in the Book of Genesis. Nor is there any indication there in Genesis that the Serpent was a deity in his own right, aside from the fact that the Pentateuch is not otherwise rife with talking animals. And every word the Serpent spoke was in fact true. His information may be illicit, but it is not inaccurate. "Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God has made," Genesis 3:1 reminded its hearers, and Matthew exhorted his listeners "be ye therefore wise as serpents." (Matthew 10:16).
Though he was cursed for his role in the Garden, this was not the end of the Serpent, who continued to be venerated in the folk religion of Judah and was tolerated by official religion until the in time of king Hezekiah. The 7th century BCE editors of the Book of Numbers apparently provided an origin for an archaic bronze serpent idol that justified it by associating it with Moses, with the following narrative:
- "21.6. And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. 7. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. 8. And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. 9. 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."
When the young reforming king Hezekiah came to the throne of Judah in the late 8th cntury:
- "He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan." (2 Kings 18.4).
The dual -an ending specifies that the idol was of two snakes upon the pole, the familiar entwined snakes on the staff that survived in Hermes' caduceus and the staff of Aesclepias. The idea of a serpent idol was shocking to the editors of Easton's Bible Dictionary, 1897: cf. the entry "Nehushtan."
A connection of the Serpent with Satan is strongly made in the New Testament. In Matthew, 23:33, Jesus observes, "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of Gehenna?" ("Hell" is the usual translation of Jesus' word Gehenna.) The snake is henceforth demonized as a symbol of evil in Christianity.
Aside from its universal use as a symbol of regeneration and Immortality, the serpent, when forming a ring with its tail in its mouth, is also a clear and widespread symbol of the All-in-All, the totality of existence. See Amphisbaena, Ouroboros.
Snakes entwine the staffs both of Hermes (the cadeuceus, illustration, left) and of Asclepius, where a single snake entwines the rough staff. On Hermes' caduceus, the snakes are not merely duplicated for symmetry, they are paired opposites. The wings at the head of the staff identify it as belonging to the winged messenger, Hermes, the Roman Mercury, who was the master of diplomacy and rhetoric, of inventions and discoveries, the protector both of merchants and that allied occupation, to the mythographers' view, of thieves. In Late Antiquity, as the arcane study of alchemy developed, Mercury was understood to be the protector of those arts too and of arcane or occult "Hermetic' information in general. Chemistry and medicines thus linked the rod of Hermes with the staff of the healer Asclepius, which was wound with a serpent; it was conflated with Mercury's rod, and the modern medical symbol— which should simply be the rod of Asclepius— has often become Mercury's wand of commerce. Art historian Walter J. Friedlander, in The Golden Wand of Medicine: A History of the Caduceus Symbol in Medicine (1992) collected hundreds of examples of the caduceus and the rod of Asclepius and found that professional associations were just somewhat more likely to use the staff of Asclepius, while commercial organizations in the medical field were more likely to use the caduceus.
A similar conversion of a rod to a snake and back was experienced by Moses and later my his brother Aaron:
- And the Lord said unto him, What is that in thine hand? And he said, A rod. And he said, Cast it on the ground. And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it. And the Lord said unto Moses, Put forth thine hand, and take it by the tail. And he put forth his hand and caught it and it became a rod in his hand. (Exodus 4:2-4)
- Joseph Campbell, Occidental Mythology: the masks of god,, 1964: Ch. 1, "The Serpent's Bride"
- Joseph Lewis Henderson and Maud Oakes, The Wisdom of the Serpent. The tribal initiation of the shaman, the archetype of the serpent, exemplifies the death of the self and a transcendent rebirth. Analytical psychology offers insights on the meaning of death symbolism and the serpent symbol.