It could be argued that serpent mythology is the most widespread mythology known to humankind. Our interest is in understanding what the serpent represents and the relationship between angels and serpents. This culminates in the stories that relate to the winged or feathered serpent.
Some of the oldest known serpent myths were developed by the Sumerians. But even before the Sumerian legends there are artefacts with a gigantic snake winding over the whole universe. The serpent can also be found below a growing plant or above the belly of a pregnant woman. The serpent is seen as a symbol of energy and life.
Early Sumerian artefacts show a tree or pole called the “axis mundi “. It represents the centre and support of the world. Guarding the axis mundi is a serpent or pair of intertwined serpents. Here are the early associations between the serpent and the rod which later appear in the Bible and as the caduceus.
Kulkulcan was one of the major gods of the Maya. He was also present in Toltec mythology. Kulkulcan was a god of the four elements, and also the creator god, the god of resurrection and reincarnation. He may have originated from Toltec myth, where he was a divine hero who taught the Toltec laws, fishing, healing, the calendar and agriculture. His name means “the feathered serpent” and the Aztecs merged him with Quetzalcoatl.
Quetzalcoatl had the ability to transform himself into the shape of a man. He is often depicted in both guises. His enemy was Tezcatlipoca, the god of darkness. Quetzalcoatl is associated with the sun, as had Kulkulcan before him. In mythology after a battle Quetzalcoatl fled to the eastern shore with the enemies behind him. He sailed away, making a boat from the bodies of intertwined serpents, promising to return in triumph.
The early Phoenicians worshipped a serpent god called the Basilisk. This has been considered an early phallic god, common in ancient religions.
The Basilisk, though usually considered a serpent, does not always have clearly defined anatomical features. To look directly at a basilisk is to die, so it is impossible to picture them accurately. It is almost always an icon of fear. This ability to kill with a glance is shared by the gorgons of Greek mythology, who may be the ancestors of the basilisk. The only way to kill a basilisk was the way Perseus slew Medusa, by use of a mirror-like object in which the reflection could be viewed.
It is Greek mythology which provides the constellation Draco or the Dragon. [Draco is the pet of Zeus]. This “dragon” is clearly a serpent.
Also, in Greek mythology, there is the serpent guardian figure from Sumerian or Akkadian times. A great and wise serpent, called Ladon. Ladon guards the tree of the golden apples of the Hesperides. This mythic tree is guarded by an immense horned serpent which coils up around the tree. Herodotos documents winged snakes as divinely appointed guardians of the spice-bearing trees of Arabia.
Aescepulus or Askepulus, the god of healing. This god appeared to the Romans in the form of a snake. It is written that Aescepulus learned the art of healing by watching snakes.
A snake symbol which was Greek and is still in us today is the caduceus. The caduceus, which is recognized internationally as the symbol of medicine, began as the token of Hermes, the Greek messenger of the Greek gods, and god of healing. This winged tipped, snake entwined rod is reminiscent of the very early Sumerian and Akkadian tree of life and knowledge guardian images.
Serpents and Theology
In Biblical passages regarding serpents, they are not specifically called evil creatures. Rather, the snake is used as a symbol for everything from the Devil to the highest order of angels; from lying to wisdom. The serpent’s identification with evil is the one which caught the Christian imagination, and it was the dragon image which caught on. In the story of the war in heaven, [Revelations] Michael, and his angels, fight the dragon. This dragon is identified as ‘that serpent of old that led the whole world astray, whose name is Satan or the Devil’.
This symbolism is common to the Bible and should not be taken as a literal judgment about the snake. It is also told that Yahweh sent fiery serpents [seraphim] among the people In Isaiah a description of the highest of all of God’s angelic creatures, the Seraphim. The word ‘seraph’ [of which Seraphim is the plural] can be translated “fiery serpent”. .And in Judaism one of the most powerful of the heavenly creatures may have serpentine connections, the Seraphim.
The word Ouroboros encompasses many cultures, including the Norse legends. Today Ouroboros is strongly associated with alchemical processes. It is the serpent or dragon biting its tail. From this we see the symbolic connection to the returning cyclical nature of the life. Carl Jung would refer to the Ouroboros as an archetype.
The serpent is a symbol of humankind’s extended knowledge of itself, and still today holds a magical and mystical place in our psyche. In science the link between serpents, the dna double helix and the cosmic spirals that are produced throughout our galaxy and universe are still to be understood. This link between the micro and the macro forms the basis of the search for the truth about our existence in the universe, where we came from and where we might be going to.