Animals are a common theme across the spectrum of folklore and fables, with many animals presented as embodiments of certain virtues:
Foxes are clever
Owls are wise
Lions are proud
There are positive and negative characteristics for most of the creatures…except for the Snake. In most western storytelling, our friend Snake is associated with qualities that are largely held to be irredemable, like dishonesty, subterfuge, and temptation. These things are perhaps reflected most clearly in the GEnesis and the story of Adam and Eve: The serpent is a liar and betrayer, an emissary of the devil who tempted Eve with their honeyed words to eat fruit from the tree of knowledge.
While this isn’t the only tale of a Serpent’s betrayal, they are now forever typecast in a villanous role, over which good must always triumph. Their cousin Dragon fell victim to the same fate for many years (until they hired some really good PR). Even in more modern storytelling, like Harry Potter, the Serpent is the mascot of House Slytherin, known by all to be driven by a culture of arrogance, greed, lies, and a source of “dark” wizards (…and yet it’s still sanctioned by the school? A bit odd, but that’s a conversation for another time).
From poisonous adders to evil snake women, poor friend Snake has quite the unfortunate reputation. Luckily there plenty of stories out there that offer different interpretations…if we move away from typical western and Christian myths, we see a different picture: the Serpent as a being of wisdom and knowledge. A symbol of life, death, and eternity. A guide through the vast unknown, who can impart precious insight to those who seek it.
Here are are few of those stories that may change the way you view our scaly friend:
Eglė, Queen of Serpents
One of the most famous Lithuanian folk tales tells of Eglė, the Queen of Serpents. There are hundreds of versions of this tale, but the core summary goes like this:
The youngest daughter of a farmer fell in love with the Serpent King and agreed to become his Queen. Her family, trying to prevent her from being taken from them, tried everything they could to trick the esrpents who came to collect her, but to no avail. Eglė then left to live with the King in his underwater palace, where they lived happily with their daughter and three sons. When she eventually wanted to go back to visit her family with their children, the King knew it would bring nothing but trouble. He gave her a series of “impossible” tasks to complete before leaving, which she did. Unfortunately, when she returned to her family, the uncles had devised a plot to trick her and kill the “evil” Serpent King. As the sea foam turned red and her despair grew, Eglė turned her children, and herself into trees.
That is a very truncated version of the tale…and I much prefer a version where Eglė seeks snake-y revenge upon her murderous uncles before turning into a tree, but you can decide for yourself!
Melampus and the Snakes
Many myths paint Serpents as very wise beings, who will sometimes grant special knowledge to those who have shown them a kindness. One such story is that of Melampus, of Greek mythology:
According to the myth, Melampus was one of the very first humans to have been gifted prophetic powers, and who practiced the art of medecine. He gained his abilities after saving a nest of young serpents, whose parents had been killed. He took care of them and raised them until they grew strong and healthy. As thanks for his kindness, they licked his ears clean while he slept, and when he awoke the next morning he realized he could understand the speech of the animals in the forest around him. . Later on this knowledge of wild-speech would serve him well as an advisor and as a means of keeping himself an others safe from danger, all leading to his new reputation as a renowned soothsayer.
The Ouroboros symbol originated in Egyptian mythology, but today is present in many diverse belief systems as a representation of the eternal renewal of life. Some schools of thought believe this is inspired by the Serpent’s natural ability to shed its skin and rejeuvenate itself with each new cycle. In Norse mythology, the ouroboros is reflected in Jormungandr, the World Serpent. In Indian stories, it’s the Kundalini and cycle of Samsara (the universe). In each tale, the images depicted are a great Serpent in a continuous loop, consuming its own tail.
In keeping with the Ouroboros theme, the Serpent features as a creator god in Australian Aboriginal mythology:
Perhaps one of the most well-known creation deities, the Ranbow Snake is a being from the Dreamtime commonly found in Aboriginal artwork. Sometimes this being is a giver of life, other times it becomes enraged and leaves destruction in its wake. The Rainbow Snake shaped the earth in the beginning and still resides deep within the core, overseeing the planet’s precious water. Stories, rituals, and songs honoring this deity are passed down from generation to generation, some depicting the Serpent as the cause of rainfall and storms, others as a fertility god, but all roles are crucial to life and creation.
The Horned Serpent
Another myth that associates the Serpent with the weather is found in several Native American stories of the Horned Serpent:
The Horned Serpent is an underwater being covered with crystalline scales and a large gem in the center of its head, between two horns that are rumoured to have medicinal properties. It is associated with rain, lightning, and thunder, and is very dangerous. According to Arapaho legends, it will not harm anyone who treats it with proper respect, and may reward you with good luck in hunting or war. In other tales it may gift powerful medicines to those brave souls who either help them or defeat them, often through it’s horns or the gem on its head. Some scholars believe that this being is based off real serpents that were native to the North American climate, and found across the continent’s rivers and lakes.
Last but not least, we come to a representation of the Serpent as a deity of fertility and warriors alike, in Cihuacoatl:
Aztec myth describes a powerful and influential goddess of motherhood and fertility, known as Cihuacoatl (or Snake Woman). She is appears in two forms, as a young woman or new mother, and as an older woman carrying a warrior’s shield and spear (for mothers and childbirth were often equated to warriors and warfare). She is a protector and nurturer who, according to some tales, helped Quetzalcoatl (a feathered serpent god of creation) bring the human race to life by grinding bones and mixing it with his blood. Together, the two deities represent the balanced energies of the universe, but it was Cihuacoatl who became the patron (matron?) deity for the Aztec race itself.
There are many more tales of the Serpent around the world, but you’ll find that the same themes will be carried throughout. Do you have some more tales to share? What is your favourite representation of our long-misunderstood friend?