Symbols, Part 8: Serpents
“If you see a snake, just kill it – don’t appoint a committee on snakes.” ~ Ross Perot.
That sentiment may be practical advice, but it serves to illustrate how serpents get a pretty bad rep, both in ancient and modern society.
A number of stories depict snakes as villainous, conniving, and evil. Medusa and Grendel’s Mother are classic examples. Indiana Jones can face down Nazis Occultists but is afraid of snakes. Interpretations of passages from Genesis and Revelation equated the serpent with Satan. We refer to liars as “snakes” and to fake remedies as “snake oil.” And a cursory glance on Google will reveal a number of quotes about snakes (like the one above) in which the general advice is to kill them right away.
It would seem that most people throughout the ages don’t like snakes, nor do they take the time to educate themselves about snakes.
There is practical reason to be cautious of snakes, since a number of species are, in fact, poisonous. But by and large, they are not something to fear. Most of the top ten deadliest snakes are located in Australia, and then others such as the boa constrictor or the anaconda do not appear commonly in most people’s lives. Snakes, like most animals, operate based on survival instinct. They eat when they are hungry and attack when they feel threatened. If you leave them be, even the deadly ones, you’ve nothing to worry about. Snakes are deserving of our adoration and respect, like every other creature.
“I’m fascinated by the concept of snake-handling. When you read about the Pentecostal snake-handlers, what strikes you most is their commitment.” ~ Lucinda Williams
The Pentecostal tradition of snake-handling comes from an interpretation of the ending of Mark 16. The idea of snake-handling, in a Christian perspective, is most likely because of the association of snakes with Satan, and that to wield power over snakes is to overcome the power of the devil.
An interesting idea, except that it is believed by a number of scholars that the end of Mark 16 is, in fact, a later addition to the Gospel to make it more like The Gospel of Luke.
Still, the Pentecostals are not the first group to practice snake-handling. Many people keep snakes as pets and we are all familiar with the late Steve Irwin and his famous handling of snakes and other deadly creatures. Such traditions of snake handling go back many thousands of years, in fact.
“Then the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die.’ ” ~ Genesis 3:4
Genesis 3:1 is the first appearance of the serpent in the Bible. Here, it is depicted as “more cunning than any beast of the field that the Lord God had made.” The word “cunning,” typically has a derogatory connotation associated with deceit. However, it can also mean clever, skillful, sharp, or shrewd. So the serpent was the most intelligent creature God had made up until that point. Depending on which interpretation you choose to follow, this may or may not include man and angels. Lucifer was allegedly the most intelligent being in existence next to God, but he was not a “beast of the field.” Man also was not a “beast of the field,” but the serpent may have been smarter than man, since it convinced Eve to eat of the Tree of Knowledge.
Either way, the serpent is very intelligent, but is it malicious? Some people blame the serpent for costing us paradise. Certainly the God of the Old Testament does, since he punishes the serpent by removing its limbs and making it subservient to man.
Others see the serpent as a savior, bestowing on mankind the gifts of knowledge and reason. If anything, the Tree of Knowledge helped to enable our free will by making us more aware of our reality. And although Adam and Eve did ultimately get cast out of Eden, it could be said that the serpent never really lied. God said Adam and Eve would surely die if they ate the fruit. But the fruit isn’t what killed them, and God still had a chance to change his mind if he wanted to. So one could say it was God’s decision to cut them off from the Tree of Life that ultimately killed them.
Some people believe that the human race is either descended from, or is the creation of, serpent-like alien beings, equated with the Annunaki of Mesopotamian mythology. Many of the Biblical stories derive from earlier Sumerian and Babylonian myths, of which the Annunaki are a part. Certainly the “sons of god” from Genesis and the numerous references to “we” and “us” suggests a pantheon of beings, not just one alone, and the behavior of God in the Old Testament suggests he came to earth quite frequently. Either way, if there is any truth to the serpent alien story, are they benevolent or malevolent? Who’s to say?
In Jewish mythology, Lilith – the first wife of Adam – was created at the same time as Adam. She is often depicted carrying a serpent or sometimes equated with the serpent of Genesis. Lilith is viewed as different things by different people.
The two most prevalent interpretations are that she is either a woman who got a bad deal for being the first feminist, or a demonic seductress. Quite an extreme, wouldn’t you say?
Lilith also appears in Babylonian mythology and is often equated with the owl, another creature related to wisdom. The owl can see in the dark, meaning it has secret knowledge of things that the sun does not reveal. The owl is also a nocturnal predator. So again, are we to trust the creature or not?
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues.” ~ Matthew 10:16-17.
Martin Luther King was a minister before he became a civil rights leader. In one of his sermons, he talks extensively about what Jesus meant by the above passage. In his view, to be “wise as serpents” is a good thing and means to be tough of mind. To think things through, to be logical, and self-determinant and to not just accept what so-called authorities tell us, but to instead think for ourselves and be our own judges, our own authorities. Then, to be “harmless as doves,” is to be soft-hearted, compassionate, and kind. To see our brothers as ourselves and to bring freedom to all.
The serpent ties these ideas together in another religious leader, Moses.
In the book of Exodus, God tells Moses to throw his staff on the ground. It turns into a snake and Moses is very afraid. But after working with God, he later uses this same power against the Egyptian priests to liberate his people from the tyrannical pharaoh.
Moses is not the only religious figure to be linked to a staff and snake, however. In Greek mythology, Asclepius was the god of medicine and healing, and the son of Apollo (the sun god). Asclepius is also associated with the 13th sign of the Zodiac: Ophiuchus, the symbol for which is a snake coiled around a rod. This is the proper symbol for healing, as can be seen on the Emergency Medical Service’s Star of Life, the EMS being an organization that saves many lives. Interestingly, the symbol chosen by medical institutions is the caduceus, which is a symbol of Hermes, guide of the dead and protector of merchants, gamblers, thieves, and liars. That should tell you a lot, right there.
Also, I mentioned before that alternative remedies are often referred to as “snake oil.” I wonder what would happen if it were one day discovered that snake oil actually cures cancer. Think about that for a while.
All in all, snakes are complex creatures. Perhaps the real truth is that snakes have two sides to them, like all of us: a dark side and a light side. One side cold and calculating, the other bright and helpful. One side seductive and deadly, the other side sensual and enlightening.