A recent discussion I’d read in an online forum on nakedness in the Garden of Eden, and the tempting by the snake has got me thinking of how the snake is viewed in various other religions and myths.
The Snake in the Garden of Eden
I thought I’d include this Christian story, since that is what prompted this article in the first place. Adam and Eve had been forbidden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, lest they learn about Good and Evil. The snake spoke to Eve and convinced her that God was denying them something important and that she should eat the fruit. She did and shared with Adam. Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden, and the snake was punished by being made to crawl on its belly from then on.
The Midgard Serpent
The Midgard serpent of Norse mythology (aka Jormangund) was one of the monstrous children of the God Loki and the giantess Angraboda. This giant snake encircles the world of Midgard, holding its tail in its mouth. According to Norse myth, the great battle of Ragnorok will bring about the end of the world. During this apocalypse, Jormangund will leave the ocean and joins the fighting. Thor does eventually kill the serpent, but Jormangund’s venom is potent and Thor dies as well.
In Greek myth, the Hydra was a snake-like monster with 9 heads. It was born from Typhon and Echidna (other mythology creatures who were also half-snakes themselves). The destruction of the Hydra was one of the Labours of Hercules. It was a difficult battle since the cutting off of one head resulted in 2 more growing back in its place. He managed to burn each stump to prevent new heads from growing back, and defeated the Hydra. Of course, we can’t forget the other great example of snakes in Greek myth: the snake-haired Medusa who could turn men to stone with a glance.
The symbol of a circled snake devouring its own tail is not unique to any one religion or culture. The term ‘ourorboros’ comes from the Greek for ‘tail eater’, but this image is seen in various other myths as well. The Midgard Serpent was pictured this way as well. The symbol may not represent a specific mythos, but does symbolize the endless circle of time, regeneration and harmony.
The giant serpent Apepi is part of Egyptian myth, and lives in the waters of Nun (the primordial ocean from where all life was created). Sometimes its considered to live the celestial Nile and is also sometimes called Apophis. Apepi chased the sun God Ra as He travelled across the sky every day. Bad weather and cloudy days were blamed on Apepi, and solar eclipses occurred when the snake swallowed Ra’s boat completely. Apepi was never able to devour Ra for good, because of the host of prayers and rituals performed by priests to ensure Ra’s success. There was actually an entire book of these ceremonies, called “The Books for Overthrowing Apepi”.
Though I have obviously not covered every myth from every culture, it looks like the snake was frequently not viewed in a positive sense.