The Eagle is the universal emblem of the gods of the sky. The eagle is the patron animal of the ancient Greek god Zeus. It was the standard of the Caesars and the national symbol or Rome, a standard inherited from the Persian empires. The cosmic eagle is a symbol of the highest aspirations of the spirit, and its triumph over the carnal nature. This is why the eagle is so often depicted in combat with serpents or bulls, creatures who sometimes can symbolize earthly desire (bull) or evil (serpents).
It is most often a solar symbol, but sometimes it is thunder or lightning. The divine eagle is often a hybrid or transformed man, often a king or hero of great virtue. The eagle is a universal symbol representing the sun, power, authority, victory, the sky gods and the royal head of a nation. Eagle and lion (or some other animal) may have the same symbolism.
Although the vultures carry the most weight in ancient Egyptian mythology, they are also important in other cultures. They appear in Greek mythology, where Zeus transformed two enemies – Aegypius and Neophron – into vultures: the former became a Bearded Vulture, and the latter an Egyptian Vulture. This became the source of the Egyptian Vulture’s Latin name, Neophron percnopterus. Since these birds are summer visitors to Europe, they are considered a symbol of spring in Greece and in the Balkans.
Aquila is a constellation in the northern sky. It lies astride the celestial equator. The alpha star, Altair, is a vertex of the Summer Triangle asterism. The constellation is best seen in the summer as it is located along the Milky Way. Because of this location along the line of our galaxy, many clusters and nebulae are found within its borders, but they are dim and there are few galaxies.
The name Altair has been used since medieval times. It is an abbreviation of the Arabic phrase an-nasr aṭ-ṭā’ir (“English: the flying eagle”). The term Al Nesr Al Tair appeared in Al Achsasi al Mouakket’s catalogue, which was translated into Latin as Vultur Volans.
This name was applied by the Arabs to the asterism of α, β, and γ Aquilae and probably goes back to the ancient Babylonians and Sumerians, who called α Aquilae the eagle star. The spelling Atair has also been used. Medieval astrolabes of England and Western Europe depicted Altair and Vega as birds.
Vega (α Lyr, α Lyrae, Alpha Lyrae) is the brightest star in the constellation Lyra, the fifth brightest star in the night sky and the second brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere, after Arcturus. It is a relatively close star at only 25 light-years from Earth, and, together with Arcturus and Sirius, one of the most luminous stars in the Sun’s neighborhood.
Lyra is a small constellation often represented on star maps as a vulture or an eagle carrying a lyre, and hence sometimes referred to as Aquila Cadens or Vultur Cadens. The lucida or brightest star—and one of the brightest stars in the sky—is the whitence star Vega, a corner of the Summer Triangle.
The Summer Triangle is an astronomical asterism involving an imaginary triangle drawn on the northern hemisphere’s celestial sphere, with its defining vertices at Altair, Deneb, and Vega, the brightest stars in the three constellations of Aquila, Cygnus, and Lyra, respectively.
Deneb (α Cyg, α Cygni, Alpha Cygni) is the brightest star in the constellation Cygnus, it is one of the vertices of the Summer Triangle and forms the ‘head’ of the Northern Cross. The name Deneb is derived from dhaneb, the Arabic for “tail”, from the phrase Dhanab ad-Dajājah, or “tail of the hen”. Similar names were given to at least seven different stars.
Cygnus is a northern constellation lying on the plane of the Milky Way, deriving its name from the Latinized Greek word for swan. The swan is one of the most recognizable constellations of the northern summer and autumn, it features a prominent asterism known as the Northern Cross (in contrast to the Southern Cross).
Aquila is the Latin word for “eagle”, and it represents the eagle Aetos Dios (who was once the King Periphas) who carried Zeus/Jupiter’s thunderbolts and carried his messages in Greco-Roman mythology.
Aquila also represents the eagle that was sent by Zeus to kidnap and carry Ganymede, a son of one of the kings of Troy (associated with Aquarius), whom he desired, to Mount Olympus to serve as cup-bearer to the gods; the constellation of Aquarius is sometimes identified with Ganymede. There are numerous artistic depictions of the eagle Zeus bearing Ganymede aloft, from Classical times up to the present.
The constellation Aquila was also known as Vultur volans (the flying vulture) to the Romans, not to be confused with Vultur cadens which was their name for Lyra (Latin for lyre, from Greek λύρα).
Ptolemy catalogued nineteen stars jointly in this constellation and in the now obsolete constellation of Antinous, which was named in the reign of the emperor Hadrian (AD 117–138), but sometimes erroneously attributed to Tycho Brahe, who catalogued twelve stars in Aquila and seven in Antinous. Hevelius determined twenty-three stars in the first and nineteen in the second.
The Greek Aquila is probably based on the Babylonian constellation of the Eagle (MUL.A.MUSHEN), which is located in the same area as the Greek constellation. According to Gavin White, the Babylonian Eagle carried the constellation called the Dead Man (LU.USH) in its talons. The author also draws a comparison to the Classical stories of Antinous and Ganymede.
In the Chinese love story of Qi Xi, Niu Lang (Altair) and his two children (β and γ Aquilae) are separated forever from their wife and mother Zhi Nu (Vega) who is on the far side of the river, the Milky Way. In Hinduism, the constellation Aquila is identified with the half-eagle half-human deity Garuda.
The “Aetos Dios” is translated from Greek into “Eagle of Zeus”. There are two schools of thought regarding the origin of this eagle, coming from different Greek legends.
According to Antoninus Liberalis, Periphas was a legendary king of Attica who was a just king, and a dutiful priest of Apollo. Zeus however became indignant because Periphas was revered and honoured as if he were Zeus himself, so Zeus wanted to destroy Periphas and his entire household. But Apollo interceded and instead Zeus transformed Periphas into an eagle, making him the king of all birds and guard of his sacred sceptre.
In other accounts the eagle was in fact an ancient creation of the goddess Gaia. He appeared before Zeus at the start of the Titanomachy (Battle of the Titans). Zeus took this to mean a good omen of victory, leading to him using the emblem of a golden eagle on his war standard.
In Greek mythology, Periphas was a legendary king of Attica who Zeus turned into an eagle. Aside from a passing reference in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the only known source for this story is the second century AD or later Metamorphoses of Antoninus Liberalis.
The story as told by Antoninus Liberalis is as follows. In a time, before Cecrops, who was traditionally recorded to be the first king of Athens, the earth born (autochthon) Periphas ruled over Attica.
He was a pious priest of Apollo, to whom Periphas made many sacrifices, and he was a just king, whose “fair judgments” were numerous. Periphas was above reproach and his rule was accepted willingly by all. But Periphas was so loved by his people that they paid him the honors which belonged to Zeus alone, building temples to Periphas and calling him Zeus Soter (“Saviour”), and Epopsios (“Overlooker of All”) and Meilichios (“Gracious”).
Being indignant Zeus was determined to strike Periphas with a thunderbolt and consume Periphas and his entire household by fire, but because Periphas had been so faithful, Apollo asked Zeus to spare Periphas, and Zeus agreed. So instead Zeus came down into the house of Periphas, found Periphas in the arms of his wife Phene, and turned Periphas into an eagle.
Because Phene begged Zeus to make her a bird also, as a companion for Periphas, Zeus turned her into a vulture. And Zeus made Periphas the king of all birds, placed him as guard over his sacred sceptre, and to Phene, the vulture, he granted that she become a good omen for men in all endeavors.
According to Arthur Bernard Cook, the story of Periphas is part of a tradition whereby an early king posing as Zeus is punished by Zeus, often by being changed into a bird.
In Hinduism, Garuda is a lesser divinity, usually the mount (vahanam) of Vishnu. Garuda is depicted as having the golden body of a strong man with a white face, red wings, and an eagle’s beak and with a crown on his head. This ancient deity was said to be massive, large enough to block out the sun.
In Asian stories, the giant, birdlike Garuda constantly attacks snakelike Nagas. But this is no simple tale of good versus evil. The duo are identified with many pairs of opposites, including light and dark, the Sun and Moon, upper and lower, air and water, and Buddhism and other religions.
The image of Garuda is often used as the charm or amulet to protect the bearer from snake attack and its poison, since the king of birds is an implacable enemy and “devourer of serpent”. Garudi Vidya is the mantra against snake poison to remove all kinds of evil.
The double-headed eagle
The double-headed eagle is a common symbol in heraldry and vexillology. It is most commonly associated with the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire established by the Merovingian kings, the Serbian Empire, the Russian Empire and their successor states.
In Byzantine heraldry, the heads represent the dual sovereignty of the Emperor over both secular and religious matters and/or dominance of the Byzantine Emperors over both the East and west. Byzantine emperors were regarded as Christ’s viceregent on Earth.
In the Holy Roman Empire’s heraldry, it represented the church and the state. Several Eastern European nations adopted it from the Byzantines and continue to use it as their national symbol.
Constantinople was the successor of Rome, and the Byzantine Greeks continued the use of the old imperial “single-headed” eagle motif. Although the roots of the transformation to double-headed are almost certainly connected with old depictions in Asia Minor, the details of its adoption are uncertain.
It appears in Byzantine artwork as early as the 10th century, but it’s confirmed in use by the Empire as such only much later, in the Palaiologos dynasty period, when it was used as a symbol of the Emperor and high-ranking members of the Imperial family.
The Ancients used no flags in the modern sense. The Romans used various signa, such as the bronze aquilas (adopted as the legions’ symbol by Marius) and vexilloids, and, if the emperor was present, pikes or banners with the emperor’s portrait.
With the adoption of Christianity as state religion during the later Empire, the Chi-Rho and the cross became more and more used in military standards, such as the labarum. The Roman single-headed eagle however continued to be used as a symbol of imperial authority.
According to a popular story (which however lacks any direct support), the single-headed eagle was modified to double-headed by Emperor Isaac I Komnenos (1057–1059) being influenced from local traditions about such a (mythical) beast (the haga) in his native Paphlagonia in Asia Minor.
Local legends talked about this giant eagle with two heads that could easily hold a bull in its claws; the haga was seen as a representation of power, and people would often “call” it for protection. Isaac Komnenos, deeply influenced by these beliefs, had already used it as a family emblem.
Double-headed eagles have been present in imagery for millennia. The two-headed eagle can be found in the archaeological remains of the Hittite civilization, dating from a period that ranges from the 20th century BC to the 7th century BC. Cylindric seals discovered in Boğazkale, an old Hittite capital in modern-day Turkey, represent clearly a two-headed eagle with spread wings.
It can also be seen in the same region in three monumental settings: Circa 1900 BC, during the Hittite surge from north-central Anatolia down into Babylonia; in Alacahöyük around 1400 BC; and in Yazilikaya before 1250 BC.
Here the context looks slightly different and totally religious: The eagle returns to its ancient origins as a symbol of divine power. The two-headed eagle is seen less and less during the last Hittite period (from the 9th to the 7th century BC) and totally disappears after the end of the empire
The aesthetics of this symmetrical position explains in part the birth of this religious figure: It originally dates from c. 3800 BC, and was the Sumerian symbol for the god of Lagash, Ninurta, a Sumerian and the Akkadian god of hunting and war, and the son of Enlil.
Ninurta was a Sumerian and the Akkadian god of hunting and war. He was worshipped in Babylonia and Assyria and in Lagash he was identified with the city god Ningirsu. In older transliteration the name is rendered Ninib and Ninip, and in early commentary he was sometimes portrayed as a solar deity.
In Nippur, Ninurta was worshiped as part of a triad of deities including his father, Enlil and his mother, Ninlil. In variant mythology, his mother is said to be the harvest goddess Ninhursag, who according to legend changed her name from Ninmah to Ninhursag by her son Ninurta in order to commemorate his creation of the mountains.
The Gandaberunda (also known as the Berunda) is another example of a mythological two-headed mythological bird, which is in common use in India. It was used in the kingdom of Mysore in Karnataka and is used as the official emblem by the Karnataka government because of its immense strength, capable of dealing with ultimate forces of destruction, and it is seen as an intricately sculptured motif in a Hindu temple. It is thought to possess magical strength. The emblem of Ayuthya kingdom of Thailand carries this sort of Emblem.
Eagle and snake
In mythology, eagle and snake represent the conflict of opposites. In psychological terms the opposities may be the conscious/unconscious; thought/instinct; spiritual/animal; masculine/feminine. The dream may be pointing out an area of inner conflict that needs your conscious intention.
A lasting resolution of conflict is never achieved by denying the right of one of the conflicting parties. Some balance of forces is called for, so that every component gets its proper share of attention and expression without threatening the rights of other components.
Some mythic creatures fly solo. Others come in pairs. Sometimes, two characters are constantly at war with each other. These battling duos can help storytellers express abstract ideas. For instance, a saint slaying a dragon might symbolize the struggle between good and evil. But interpreting a story is rarely that simple. The same story may have many meanings and be told many different ways.
Pliny the Elder (c.100 AD), in his work Natural History, refers to a certain large serpent that fights with eagles. It tries to steal the eagle’s eggs. In the struggle, the snake wraps itself around the eagle so tightly that the two look like one animal with two heads. This is a very early reference to the eagle and snake involved in a match of equal, opposite powers. It’s also a reference to what seems to be the combined animal – the winged serpent.
At this point, when the eagle and serpent are perfectly paired opposites, they represent not victory or defeat but dynamic cosmic completion, the union of spirit and matter, as shown in the Japanese emblem (illustration).
A potent and very old symbol, the snake seems to strike a deep and very basic chord in humanity. Interpretations cover everything from personifying an evil tempter to representing wisdom, healing and rejuvenation. The snake trying to swallow it’s tail is a classic symbol for eternity.
Popular slang terms cultural interpretation layer: “One-eyed snake” (male genitalia), “Snake eyes” (rolling a one on each of two dice), “Speaking with a forked tongue” (lying), “Holding a snake to your breast” (to hold a back stabbing sort of fiend too close) and more.
Symbolic traditions tend to stress the negative role of the snake (e.g., the danger of its venomous bite); thus the creatures thought of as killing snakes (eagle, stork, falcon) have come to have positive associations. Older systems of myth, however, include mysterious positive aspects of the snake, often because of its associations with the earth and the underworld.
A house snake, for example, can represent the blessings of departed ancestors. Crowned, milk-fed snakes appear in many popular legends. The snake is also associated with healing and reincarnation (e.g., the sacred snakes of Asclepius. For the ancient Egyptians, the snake Uraeus (the bellicose cobra) stood for the crown, spitting venom at the Pharaoh’s enemies; it was also represented as coiled around the solar disk associated with various sun gods.
The serpent, or snake, is one of the oldest and most widespread mythological symbols. The word is derived from Latin serpens, a crawling animal or snake. Snakes have been associated with some of the oldest rituals known to humankind and represent dual expression of good and evil.
In some cultures snakes were fertility symbols, for example the Hopi people of North America performed an annual snake dance to celebrate the union of Snake Youth (a Sky spirit) and Snake Girl (an Underworld spirit) and to renew fertility of Nature.
During the dance, live snakes were handled and at the end of the dance the snakes were released into the fields to guarantee good crops. “The snake dance is a prayer to the spirits of the clouds, the thunder and the lightning, that the rain may fall on the growing crops.”
In other cultures snakes symbolized the umbilical cord, joining all humans to Mother Earth. The Great Goddess often had snakes as her familiars – sometimes twining around her sacred staff, as in ancient Crete – and they were worshiped as guardians of her mysteries of birth and regeneration.
Historically, serpents and snakes represent fertility or a creative life force. As snakes shed their skin through sloughing, they are symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. The ouroboros is a symbol of eternity and continual renewal of life.
In some Abrahamic traditions, the serpent represents sexual desire. According to some interpretations of the Midrash, the serpent represents sexual passion. In Hinduism, Kundalini is a coiled serpent, the residual power of pure desire.
Snake cults were well established in Canaanite religion in the Bronze Age, for archaeologists have uncovered serpent cult objects in Bronze Age strata at several pre-Israelite cities in Canaan: two at Megiddo, one at Gezer, one in the sanctum sanctorum of the Area H temple at Hazor, and two at Shechem.
In the surrounding region, serpent cult objects figured in other cultures. A late Bronze Age Hittite shrine in northern Syria contained a bronze statue of a god holding a serpent in one hand and a staff in the other.
In many myths the chthonic serpent (sometimes a pair) lives in or is coiled around a Tree of Life situated in a divine garden. In the Genesis story of the Torah and Biblical Old Testament, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is situated in the Garden of Eden together with the tree of life and the Serpent.
Under yet another Tree (the Bodhi tree of Enlightenment), the Buddha sat in ecstatic meditation. When a storm arose, the mighty serpent king Mucalinda 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 Vision Serpent was also a symbol of rebirth in Mayan mythology with origins going back to earlier Maya conceptions, lying at the center of the world as the Mayans conceived it. “It is in the center axis atop the World Tree.
Essentially the World Tree and the Vision Serpent, representing the king, created the center axis which communicates between the spiritual and the earthly worlds or planes. It is through ritual that the king could bring the center axis into existence in the temples and create a doorway to the spiritual world, and with it power”.
Sometimes the Tree of Life is represented (in a combination with similar concepts such as the World Tree and Axis mundi or “World Axis”) by a staff such as those used by shamans. Examples of such staffs featuring coiled snakes in mythology are the caduceus of Hermes, the Rod of Asclepius, the staff of Moses, and the papyrus reeds and deity poles entwined by a single serpent Wadjet, dating to earlier than 3000 BCE.
The serpent, when forming a ring with its tail in its mouth, is a clear and widespread symbol of the “All-in-All”, the totality of existence, infinity and the cyclic nature of the cosmos. It is believed to have been inspired by the Milky Way, as some ancient texts refer to a serpent of light residing in the heavens.
The demigod Aidophedo of the West African Ashanti is also a serpent biting its own tail. In Dahomey mythology of Benin in West Africa, the serpent that supports everything on its many coils was named Dan. In the Vodou of Benin and Haiti Ayida-Weddo (a.k.a. Aida-Wedo, Aido Quedo, “Rainbow-Serpent”) is a spirit of fertility, rainbows and snakes, and a companion or wife to Dan, the father of all spirits.
As Vodou was exported to Haiti through the slave trade Dan became Danballah, Damballah or Damballah-Wedo. Because of his association with snakes, he is sometimes disguised as Moses, who carried a snake on his staff. He is also thought by many to be the same entity of Saint Patrick, known as a snake banisher.
The chthonic serpent was 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 the Elder and others thought, from the egg of a cock.
Serpents are represented as potent guardians of temples and other sacred spaces. This connection may be grounded in the observation that when threatened, some snakes (such as rattlesnakes or cobras) frequently hold and defend their ground, first resorting to threatening display and then fighting, rather than retreat. Thus, they are natural guardians of treasures or sacred sites which cannot easily be moved out of harm’s way.
The Gadsden flag of the American Revolution depicts a rattlesnake coiled up and poised to strike. Below the image of the snake is the legend, “Don’t tread on me.” The snake symbolized the dangerousness of colonists willing to fight for their rights and homeland. The motif is repeated in the First Navy Jack of the US Navy.
Poison and medicine
Serpents are connected with poison and medicine. The snake’s venom is associated with the chemicals of plants and fungi that have the power to either heal, poison or provide expanded consciousness (and even the elixir of life and immortality) through divine intoxication.
Because of its herbal knowledge and entheogenic association the snake was often considered one of the wisest animals, being (close to the) divine. Its divine aspect combined with its habitat in the earth between the roots of plants made it an animal with chthonic properties connected to the afterlife and immortality.
Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing, carried a staff with one serpent wrapped around it, which has become the symbol of modern medicine. Moses also had a replica of a serpent on a pole, the Nehushtan, mentioned in Numbers 21:8.
Vengefulness and vindictiveness
Serpents are connected with vengefulness and vindictiveness. This connection depends in part on the experience that venomous snakes often deliver deadly defensive bites without giving prior notice or warning to their unwitting victims.
Although a snake is defending itself from the encroachment of its victim into the snake’s immediate vicinity, the unannounced and deadly strike may seem unduly vengeful when measured against the unwitting victim’s perceived lack of blameworthiness.
The oldest known representation of two snakes entwined around an axial rod is that of the Sumerian fertility god Ningizzida, dating from before 2000 BCE. Ningizzida was sometimes depicted as a serpent with a human head, eventually becoming a god of healing and magic. It is the companion of Dumuzi (Tammuz) with whom it stood at the gate of heaven.
In the Louvre, there is a famous green steatite vase carved for King Gudea of Lagash (dated variously 2200–2025 BCE) with an inscription dedicated to Ningizzida. Ningizzida was the ancestor of Gilgamesh, who according to the epic dived to the bottom of the waters to retrieve the plant of life. But while he rested from his labor, a serpent came and ate the plant. The snake became immortal, and Gilgamesh was destined to die.
Ningizzida has been popularized in the 20th century by Raku Kei Reiki (a.k.a. “The Way of the Fire Dragon”) where “Nin Giz Zida” is believed to be a fire serpent of Tibetan rather than Sumerian origin.
Nin Giz Zida is another name for the ancient Hindu concept of Kundalini, a Sanskrit word meaning either “coiled up” or “coiling like a snake”. Kundalini refers to the mothering intelligence behind yogic awakening and spiritual maturation leading to altered states of consciousness.
There are a number of other translations of the term usually emphasizing a more serpentine nature to the word—e.g. ‘serpent power’. It has been suggested by Joseph Campbell that the symbol of snakes coiled around a staff is an ancient representation of Kundalini physiology.
The staff represents the spinal column with the snake(s) being energy channels. In the case of two coiled snakes they usually cross each other seven times, a possible reference to the seven energy centers called chakras.
In 6th-century Babylon, a pair of bronze serpents flanked each of the four doorways of the temple of Esagila (lit: “house of the raised head”), a temple dedicated to Marduk, the protector god of Babylon. It lay south of the ziggurat Etemenanki, (Sumerian É.TEMEN.AN.KI; lit: “temple of the foundation of heaven and earth”) was the name of a ziggurat dedicated to Marduk in the city of Babylon of the 6th century BCE Neo-Babylonian dynasty.
Marduk was depicted as a human, often with his symbol the snake-dragon which he had taken over from the god Tishpak, an Akkadian god, the tutelary deity of the city of Esnumma (Eshnunna), likely, identical with the Hurrian god “Teshup”.
In Babylonian mythology, Sarpanit (alternately Sarpanitu, Zarpanit, Zarpandit, Zerpanitum, Zerbanitu, or Zirbanit) is a mother goddess and the consort of the chief god, Marduk. Her name means “the shining one”, and she is sometimes associated with the planet Venus. By a play on words her name was interpreted as zēr-bānītu, or “creatress of seed”, and is thereby associated with the goddess Aruru, who, according to Babylonian myth, created mankind.
Her marriage with Marduk was celebrated annually at New Year in Babylon. She was worshipped via the rising moon, and was often depicted as being pregnant. She is also known as Erua. She may be the same as Gamsu, Ishtar, and/or Beltis.
At the Babylonian New Year’s festival, the priest was to commission from a woodworker, a metalworker and a goldsmith two images one of which “shall hold in its left hand a snake of cedar, raising its right [hand] to the god Nabu”. At the tell of Tepe Gawra, at least seventeen Early Bronze Age Assyrian bronze serpents were recovered.
“Asp” is the modern Anglicisation of the word “aspis,” which in antiquity referred to any one of several venomous snake species found in the Nile region. It is believed that the aspis referred to in Egyptian mythology is the modern Egyptian cobra.
Throughout dynastic and Roman Egypt, the asp was a symbol of royalty. Moreover, in both Egypt and Greece, its potent venom made it useful as a means of execution for criminals who were thought deserving of a more dignified death than that of typical executions.
In some stories of Perseus, after killing Medusa, the hero used winged boots to transport her head to Mount Olympus. As he was flying over Egypt some of her blood fell to the ground, which transformed into asps and amphisbaenae.
The Egyptian cobra (Naja haje) is a species of cobra found in Africa. It is one of the largest cobra species native to Africa, second to the forest cobra (Naja melanoleuca). It was first described by Swedish zoologist Carolus Linnaeus in 1758. The generic name naja is a Latinisation of the Sanskrit word nāgá meaning “cobra”. The specific epithet haje is derived from the Arabic word hayya which literally means “snake”.
A stylised Egyptian Cobra — in the form of the uraeus representing the goddess Wadjet — was the symbol of sovereignty for the Pharaohs who incorporated it into their diadem. This iconography was continued through the Ptolemaic Kingdom (305 BC–30 BC).
The Egyptian cobra was represented in Egyptian mythology by the cobra-headed goddess Meretseger (also spelt Mertseger), meaning “she who loves silence”. Merseger exerted great authority during the New Kingdom era over the Theban Necropolis and was considered to be both a dangerous and merciful goddess. As a cobra-goddess she is sometimes associated with Hathor.
As a cobra, she spat poison at anyone who tried to vandalise or rob the royal tombs. In art she was portrayed as either a coiled cobra, or as a woman-headed cobra, or rarely as a triple headed cobra, where one head was that of a cobra, one of a woman, and one of a vulture.
Her close association with the Valley of the Kings prevented her becoming anything more than a local deity, and when the valley ceased being in use, so she also ceased being worshipped.
In Ancient Egypt, where the earliest written cultural records exist, the serpent appears from the beginning to the end of their mythology. Ra and Atum (“he who completes or perfects”) became the same god, Atum, the “counter-Ra,” who was associated with earth animals, including the serpent.
In the Book of the Dead, which was still current in the Graeco-Roman period, the sun god Atum is said to have ascended from chaos-waters with the appearance of a snake, the animal renewing itself every morning.
Nehebkau (also spelt Nehebu-Kau, and Neheb Ka, “he who harnesses the souls”) was the two headed serpent deity who guarded the entrance to the underworld. He is often seen as the son of the snake goddess Renenutet, a goddess of nourishment and the harvest in ancient Egyptian religion.
Nehebkau was originally the explanation of the cause of binding of Ka, the Egyptian concept of vital essence, that which distinguishes the difference between a living and a dead person, with death occurring when the ka left the body, and Ba, everything that makes an individual unique, similar to the notion of personality, after death.
Thus his name, which means (one who) brings together Ka. Since these aspects of the soul were said to bind after death, Nehebkau was said to have guarded the entrance to Duat, the underworld.
His glph was one of the more important glyphs in his name, and although it was technically a variation on the glyph for two arms raised in prayer, it also resembles a two-headed snake, and so Nehebkau became depicted in art as a snake with two heads (occasionally with only one).
As a two-headed snake, he was viewed as fierce, being able to attack from two directions, and not having to fear as much confrontations. Consequently sometimes it was said that Atum, the chief god in these areas, had to keep his finger on him to prevent Nehebkau from getting out of control. Alternatively, in areas where Ra was the chief god, it was said that Nehebkau was one of the warriors who protected Ra whilst he was in the underworld, during Ra’s nightly travel, as a sun god, under the earth.
When he was seen as a snake, he was also thought to have some power over snake-bites, and by extension, other poisonous bites, such as those of scorpions, thus sometimes being identified as the son of Serket, the scorpion-goddess of protection against these things.
Alternatively, as a snake, since he was connected to an aspect of the soul, he was sometimes seen as the son of Renenutet, a snake-goddess, who distributed the Ren, another aspect of the soul, and of the earth (Geb), on which snakes crawl.
The importance of the harvest caused people to make many offerings to Renenutet during harvest time. Initially, her cult was centered in Terenuthis. Renenutet was envisioned, particularly in art, as a cobra, or as a woman with the head of a cobra.
Sometimes, as the goddess of nourishment, Renenutet was seen as having a husband, Sobek. He was represented as the Nile River, the annual flooding of which deposited the fertile silt that enabled abundant harvests. More usually, Renenutet was seen as the mother of Nehebkau, who occasionally was represented as a snake also. When considered the mother of Nehebkau, Renenutet was seen as having a husband, Geb, who represented the Earth.
Later, as a snake-goddess worshiped over the whole of Lower Egypt, Renenutet was increasingly confused with (and later was absorbed by) their primal snake goddess Wadjet, Lower Egypt’s powerful protector and another snake goddess represented as an Egyptian cobra, who from the earliest of records was the patron and protector of the country, all other deities, and the pharaohs. Eventually Renenutet was identified as an alternate form of Wadjet, whose gaze was said to slaughter enemies. Wadjet is the cobra on the crown of the pharaohs.
Wadjet (“green one”), known to the Greek world as Uto or Buto among other names, was originally the ancient local goddess of the city of Dep (Buto), which became part of the city that the Egyptians named Per-Wadjet, House of Wadjet, and the Greeks called Buto (Desouk now), a city that was an important site in the Predynastic era of Ancient Egypt and the cultural developments of the Paleolithic.
Wadjet is the first known oracle. She had a famous oracle in the city Per-Wadjet (Greek name Buto). According to Herodotus this may have been the source of the oracular tradition which spread to Greece from Egypt.
The serpents were considered the protectors of the temples and the chthonic masters of the ancient earth goddess. In Greece the old oracles were devoted to the mother goddess. According to a Greek legend Apollo came to Delphi carrying Cretan priests, and there he possessed the oracle after slaying the serpent Python, the daughter of Gaia.
Wadjet was depicted as the crown of Egypt, entwined around the staff of papyrus and the pole that indicated the status of all other deities, as well as having the all-seeing eye of wisdom and vengeance. She never lost her position in the Egyptian pantheon.
She was said to be the patron and protector of Lower Egypt and upon unification with Upper Egypt, the joint protector and patron of all of Egypt with the “goddess” of Upper Egypt. The image of Wadjet with the sun disk is called the uraeus, and it was the emblem on the crown of the rulers of Lower Egypt. She was also the protector of kings and of women in childbirth.
As the patron goddess, she was associated with the land and depicted as a snake-headed woman or a snake – usually an Egyptian cobra, a venomous snake common to the region; sometimes she was depicted as a woman with two snake heads and, at other times, a snake with a woman’s head.
Her oracle was in the renowned temple in Per-Wadjet that was dedicated to her worship and gave the city its name. This oracle may have been the source for the oracular tradition that spread to Greece from Egypt.
The Going Forth of Wadjet was celebrated on December 25 with chants and songs. An annual festival held in the city celebrated Wadjet on April 21. Other important dates for special worship of her were June 21, the Summer Solstice, and March 14. She also was assigned the fifth hour of the fifth day of the moon.
Wadjet was closely associated in the Egyptian pantheon with the Eye of Ra, a powerful protective deity. The hieroglyph for her eye is shown below; sometimes two are shown in the sky of religious images. Per-Wadjet also contained a sanctuary of Horus, the child of the sun deity who would be interpreted to represent the pharaoh. Much later, Wadjet became associated with Isis as well as with many other deities.
In the relief shown to the right, which is on the wall of the Hatshepsut Temple at Luxor, there are two images of Wadjet: one of her as the uraeus sun disk with her head through an ankh and another where she precedes a Horus hawk wearing the double crown of united Egypt, representing the pharaoh whom she protects.
Nekhbet, also spelt Nekhebit, was an early predynastic local goddess in Egyptian mythology who was the patron of the city of Nekheb, her name meaning of Nekheb. Ultimately, she became the patron of Upper Egypt and one of the two patron deities for all of Ancient Egypt when it was unified.
Egypt’s oldest oracle was the shrine of Nekhbet at Nekheb, the original necropolis or city of the dead. It was the companion city to Nekhen, the religious and political capital of Upper Egypt at the end of the Predynastic period (c. 3200–3100 BC) and probably, also during the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3100–2686 BC).
The original settlement on the Nekhen site dates from Naqada I or the late Badarian cultures. At its height, from about 3400 BC, Nekhen had at least 5,000 and possibly as many as 10,000 inhabitants. The priestesses of Nekhbet were called muu (mothers) and wore robes of Egyptian vulture feathers.
Nekhbet was the tutelary deity of Upper Egypt. Nekhbet and her Lower Egyptian counterpart Wadjet often appeared together as the “Two Ladies”. One of the titles of each ruler was the Nebty name, which began with the hieroglyphs for [s/he] of the Two Ladies….
In art, Nekhbet was depicted as a vulture. Alan Gardiner identified the species that was used in divine iconography as a griffon vulture, a large Old World vulture in the bird of prey family Accipitridae, also known as the Eurasian griffon. The Griffin Vulture was a royal emblem on the standards of Assyrian and Persian armies.
Arielle P. Kozloff, however, argues that the vultures in New Kingdom art, with their blue-tipped beaks and loose skin, better resemble the lappet-faced vulture or Nubian vulture (Torgos tracheliotos), also an Old World vulture.
In New Kingdom times, the vulture appeared alongside the uraeus on the headdresses with which kings were buried. The uraeus and vulture are traditionally interpreted as Wadjet and Nekhbet, but Edna R. Russmann has suggested that in this context they represent Isis and Nephthys, two major funerary goddesses, instead.
Nekhbet usually was depicted hovering, with her wings spread above the royal image, clutching a shen symbol (representing eternal encircling protection), frequently in her claws. As patron of the pharaoh, she was sometimes seen to be the mother of the divine aspect of the pharaoh, and it was in this capacity that she was Mother of Mothers, and the Great White Cow of Nekheb. In Egypt, Neret is the male counterpart of the vulture goddess Nekhbet.
In some late texts of the Book of the Dead, Nekhbet is referred to as Father of Fathers, Mother of Mothers, who hath existed from the Beginning, and is Creatrix of this World.
After she assimilated many of the roles of Hathor, Isis’s headdress was replaced with that of Hathor: the horns of a cow on her head, with the solar disk between them, and often with her original throne symbol atop the solar disk. Sometimes she also is represented as a cow, or with a cow’s head. She is often depicted with her young child, Horus (the pharaoh), with a crown, and a vulture. Occasionally she is represented as a kite flying above the body of Osiris or with the dead Osiris she works her magic to bring him back to life.
In Ancient Egyptian texts, the “Two Ladies” was a religious euphemism for Wadjet and Nekhbet, the deities who were the patrons of the Ancient Egyptians and worshiped by all after the unification of its two parts, Lower Egypt, and Upper Egypt.
When the two parts of Egypt were joined together, there was no merger of these deities as often occurred with similar deities from various regions and cities. Both goddesses were retained because of the importance of their roles and they became known as the two ladies, who were the protectors of unified Egypt.
After the unification, the image of Nekhbet joined Wadjet on the uraeus, thereafter, they were shown together as part of the crowns of Egypt. An example of one is shown in the photograph to the right. The two ladies were responsible for establishing the laws, protecting the rulers and the Egyptian country, and promoting peace.
The holiest of deities in the Egyptian pantheon usually were referred to by such euphemisms or other euphemistic titles—sometimes in great chains of titles—in order to keep their names secret from enemies and disbelievers and, to show respect for their powers.
The Uraeus (plural Uraei or Uraeuses; from the Greek οὐραῖος, ouraīos, “on its tail”; from Egyptian jʿr.t (iaret), “rearing cobra”) is the stylized, upright form of an Egyptian cobra (asp, serpent, or snake), used as a symbol of sovereignty, royalty, deity, and divine authority in ancient Egypt.
The Uraeus is a symbol for the goddess Wadjet, who was one of the earliest Egyptian deities and who often was depicted as a cobra. The center of her cult was in Per-Wadjet, later called Buto by the Greeks. She became the patroness of the Nile Delta and the protector of all of Lower Egypt.
The pharaohs wore the Uraeus as a head ornament: either with the body of Wadjet atop the head, or as a crown encircling the head; this indicated Wadjet’s protection and reinforced the pharaoh’s claim over the land.
In whatever manner that the Uraeus was displayed upon the pharaoh’s head, it was, in effect, part of the pharaoh’s crown. The pharaoh was recognized only by wearing the Uraeus, which conveyed legitimacy to the ruler.
There is evidence for this tradition even in the Old Kingdom during the third millennium BCE. Several goddesses associated with or being considered aspects of Wadjet are depicted wearing the Uraeus also.
At the time of the unification of Egypt, the image of Nekhbet, who was represented as a white vulture and held the same position as the patron of Upper Egypt, joined the image of Wadjet on the Uraeus that would encircle the crown of the pharaohs who ruled the unified Egypt.
The importance of their separate cults kept them from becoming merged as with so many Egyptian deities. Together, they were known as The Two Ladies, who became the joint protectors and patrons of the unified Egypt.
Later, the pharaohs were seen as a manifestation of the sun god Ra, and so it also was believed that the Uraeus protected them by spitting fire on their enemies from the fiery eye of the goddess. In some mythological works, the eyes of Ra are said to be uraei.
Wadjets existed long before the rise of this cult when they originated as the eye of Wadjet as cobra and are the name of the symbols also called the Eye of the Moon, Eye of Hathor, the Eye of Horus, and the Eye of Ra—depending upon the dates of the references to the symbols.
As the Uraeus was seen as a royal symbol, Horus and Set were also depicted wearing the symbol on their crowns. In early mythology, Horus would have been the name given to any king as part of the many titles taken, being identified as the son of the goddess.
According to the later mythology of Re, the first Uraeus was said to have been created by the goddess Isis, who formed it from the dust of the earth and the spittle of the then-current sun deity. In this version of the mythology, the Uraeus was the instrument with which Isis gained the throne of Egypt for Osiris. Isis is associated with and may be considered an aspect of Wadjet.
Minoan Snake Goddess
The Minoan Snake Goddess, figurines of a woman holding a snake in each hand found during excavation of Minoan archaeological sites in Crete dating from approximately 1600 BCE, brandished 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.
These figurines were found only in house sanctuaries, where the figurine appears as “the goddess of the household”, and they are probably related with the Paleolithic tradition regarding women and domesticity.
The snake goddess’s Minoan name may be related with A-sa-sa-ra, a possible interpretation of inscriptions found in Linear A texts. Although Linear A is not yet deciphered, Palmer relates tentatively the inscription a-sa-sa-ra-me which seems to have accompanied goddesses, with the Hittite išhaššara, which means “mistress”.
Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great and a princess of Epirus, had the reputation of a snake-handler, and it was in serpent form that Zeus was said to have fathered Alexander upon her.
Aeetes, the king of Colchis and father of the sorceress Medea, possessed the Golden Fleece. He guarded it with a massive serpent that never slept. Medea, who had fallen in love with Jason of the Argonauts, enchanted it to sleep so Jason could seize the Fleece. (See Lamia (mythology)).
When not driven by horses, the chariot of the Greek sun god is described as being pulled by fiery draconic beings. The most notable instance of this is observed in the episode in which Medea is given her grandfather’s chariot, which is pulled by serpents through the sky.
The most well known version of this is the Aegypto-Greek Ourobouros (from the Greek tail-devouring snake), an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. The ouroboros often symbolizes self-reflexivity or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself, the eternal return, and other things such as the phoenix which operate in cycles that begin anew as soon as they end.
It can also represent the idea of primordial unity related to something existing in or persisting from the beginning with such force or qualities it cannot be extinguished. While first emerging in Ancient Egypt and India, the ouroboros has been important in religious and mythological symbolism, but has also been frequently used in alchemical illustrations, where it symbolizes the circular nature of the alchemist’s opus. It is also often associated with Gnosticism, Hermeticism and Hinduism.
Carl Jung interpreted the ouroboros as having an archetypal significance to the human psyche. The Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann writes of it as a representation of the pre-ego “dawn state”, depicting the undifferentiated infancy experience of both mankind and the individual child. The Ancient Egyptians associated it with Wadjet, one of their oldest deities as well as another aspect, Hathor.
The serpent Hydra is a star constellation representing either the serpent thrown angrily into the sky by Apollo or the Lernaean Hydra as defeated by Heracles for one of his Twelve Labors. The constellation Serpens represents a snake being tamed by Ophiuchus the snake-handler, another constellation. The most probable interpretation is that Ophiuchus represents the healer Asclepius.
Occasionally, serpents and dragons are used interchangeably, having similar symbolic functions. The venom of the serpent is thought to have a fiery quality similar to a fire spitting dragon. The Greek Ladon and the Norse Níðhöggr (Nidhogg Nagar) are sometimes described as serpents and sometimes as dragons. In Germanic mythology, serpent (Old English: wyrm, Old High German: wurm, Old Norse: ormr) is used interchangeably with the Greek borrowing dragon (OE: draca, OHG: trahho, ON: dreki).
In Greek mythology Ladon, the name of a serpent-like dragon monster in Greek mythology, coiled around the tree in the garden of the Hesperides protecting the entheogenic golden apples. He was overcome by Heracles. The following day, Jason and the Argonauts passed by on their chthonic return journey from Colchis and heard the lament of “shining” Aegle, one of the four Hesperides, and viewed the still-twitching Ladon.
Ladon was given several parentages, each of which placed him at an archaic level in Greek myth: the offspring of “Ceto, joined in heated passion with Phorcys” or of Typhon, who was himself serpent-like from the waist down, and Echidna or of Gaia herself, or Hera: “The Dragon which guarded the golden apples was the brother of the Nemean lion” asserted Ptolemy Hephaestion. In one version, Heracles did not kill Ladon.
The image of the dragon (Ladon) coiled round the tree, originally adopted by the Hellenes from Near Eastern and Minoan sources, is familiar from surviving Greek vase-painting. In the 2nd century CE, Pausanias saw among the treasuries at Olympia an archaic cult image in cedar-wood of Heracles and the apple-tree of the Hesperides with the dragon coiled around it.
Ladon is the constellation Draco, according to Hyginus’ Astronomy. Ladon is the Greek version of the West Semitic serpent Lotan, or the Hurrian serpent Illuyanka. He might be given multiple heads, a hundred in Aristophanes’ The Frogs (a passing remark in line 475), which might speak with different voices.
Serpents figured prominently in archaic Greek myths. According to some sources, Ophion (“serpent”, a.k.a. Ophioneus), ruled the world with Eurynome before the two of them were cast down by Cronus and Rhea. The oracles of the Ancient Greeks were said to have been the continuation of the tradition begun with the worship of the Egyptian cobra goddess, Wadjet.
Typhon the enemy of the Olympian gods is described as a vast grisly monster with a hundred heads and a hundred serpents issuing from his thighs, who was conquered and cast into Tartarus by Zeus, or confined beneath volcanic regions, where he is the cause of eruptions. Typhon is thus the chthonic figuration of volcanic forces.
Serpent elements figure among his offspring; among his children by Echidna are: Cerberus (a monstrous three-headed dog with a snake for a tail and a serpentine mane); the serpent-tailed Chimaera; the serpent-like chthonic water beast Lernaean Hydra; and the hundred-headed serpentine dragon Ladon. Both the Lernaean Hydra and Ladon were slain by Heracles.
Python was the earth-dragon of Delphi, she always was represented in the vase-paintings and by sculptors as a serpent. Pytho was the chthonic enemy of Apollo, who slew her and remade her former home his own oracle, the most famous in Classical Greece.
Medusa and the other Gorgons were vicious female monsters with sharp fangs and hair of living, venomous snakes whose origins predate the written myths of Greece and who were the protectors of the most ancient ritual secrets. The Gorgons wore a belt of two intertwined serpents in the same configuration of the caduceus. The Gorgon was placed at the center, highest point of one of the pediments on the Temple of Artemis at Corfu.
Gorgon blood had magical properties: if taken from the left side of the Gorgon, it was a fatal poison; from the right side, the blood was capable of bringing the dead back to life. However, Euripides wrote in his tragedy Ion that the Athenian queen Creusa had inherited this vial from her ancestor Erichthonios, who was a snake himself and had received the vial from Athena. In this version the blood of Medusa had the healing power while the lethal poison originated from Medusa’s serpents.
Asclepius, the son of Apollo and Koronis, learned the secrets of keeping death at bay after observing one serpent bringing another (which Asclepius himself had fatally wounded) back to life with healing herbs. To prevent the entire human race from becoming immortal under Asclepius’s care, Zeus killed him with a bolt of lightning. Asclepius’ death at the hands of Zeus illustrates man’s inability to challenge the natural order that separates mortal men from the gods.
In honor of Asclepius, snakes were often used in healing rituals. Non-poisonous snakes were left to crawl on the floor in dormitories where the sick and injured slept. The Bibliotheca claimed that Athena gave Asclepius a vial of blood from the Gorgons.
The image of the serpent as the embodiment of the wisdom transmitted by Sophia (Greek for “wisdom”) was an emblem used by gnosticists, especially those sects that the more orthodox characterized as “Ophites” (“Serpent People”).
Sophia is a central idea in Hellenistic philosophy and religion, Platonism, Gnosticism, Orthodox Christianity, Esoteric Christianity, as well as Christian mysticism. Sophiology is a philosophical concept regarding wisdom, as well as a theological concept regarding the wisdom of the biblical God.
Sophia is honored as a goddess of wisdom by Gnostics, as well as by some Neopagan, New Age, and Goddess spirituality groups. In Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christianity, Sophia, or rather Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), is an expression of understanding for the second person of the Holy Trinity, (as in the dedication of the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople) as well as in the Old Testament, as seen in the Book of Proverbs 9:1, but not an angel or goddess.
In Hindu mythology Lord Vishnu is said to sleep while floating on the cosmic waters on the serpent Shesha, the nagaraja or king of all nāgas and one of the primal beings of creation. In the Puranas Shesha holds all the planets of the universe on his hoods and constantly sings the glories of Vishnu from all his mouths.
He is sometimes referred to as “Ananta-Shesha,” which means “Endless Shesha”. In the Samudra manthan chapter of the Puranas, Shesha loosens Mount Mandara for it to be used as a churning rod by the Asuras and Devas to churn the ocean of milk in the heavens in order to make Soma (or Amrita), the divine elixir of immortality. As a churning rope another giant serpent called Vasuki is used.
In the Puranas, Shesha is said to hold all the planets of the universe on his hoods and to constantly sing the glories of the god Vishnu from all his mouths. He is sometimes referred to as Ananta Shesha, which translates as endless-Shesha or Adishesha “first Shesha”.
It is said that when Adishesa uncoils, time moves forward and creation takes place and when he coils back, the universe ceases to exist. “Shesha” in Sanskrit texts, especially those relating to mathematical calculation, also implies the “remainder” – that which remains when all else ceases to exist.
Vishnu is often depicted as resting on Shesha. Shesha is also considered a servant as well as a manifestation of Vishnu. He is said to have descended to Earth in two human forms or avatars: Lakshmana, brother of Rama; Balarama, brother of Krishna.
Naga is the Sanskrit/Pāli word for a deity or class of entity or being, taking the form of a very large snake, found in Hinduism and Buddhism. The naga primarily represents rebirth, death and mortality, due to its casting of its skin and being symbolically “reborn”.
Brahmins associated naga with Shiva and with Vishnu, who rested on a 100 headed naga coiled around Shiva’s neck. The snake represented freedom in Hindu mythology because they cannot be tamed.
Serpents, or nāgas, play a particularly important role in Cambodian, Isan and Laotian mythology. An origin myth explains the emergence of the name “Cambodia” as resulting from conquest of a naga princess by a Kambuja lord named Kaundinya the descendants of their union are the Khmer people.
George Coedès suggests the Cambodian myth is a basis for the legend of “Phra Daeng Nang Ai”, in which a woman who has lived many previous lives in the region is reincarnated as a daughter of Phraya Khom (Thai for Cambodian,) and causes the death of her companion in former lives who has been reincarnated as a prince of the Nagas.
This leads to war between the “spirits of the air” and the Nagas: Nagas amok are rivers in spate, and the entire region is flooded. The Myth of the Toad King tells how introduction of Buddhist teachings led to war with the sky deity Phaya Thaen, and ended in a truce with nagas posted as guardians of entrances to temples.
At Angkor in Cambodia, numerous stone sculptures present hooded multi-headed nāgas as guardians of temples or other premises. A favorite motif of Angkorean sculptors from approximately the 12th century CE onward was that of the Buddha, sitting in the position of meditation, his weight supported by the coils of a multi-headed naga that also uses its flared hood to shield him from above.
This motif recalls the story of the Buddha and the serpent king Mucalinda: as the Buddha sat beneath a tree engrossed in meditation, Mucalinda came up from the roots of the tree to shield the Buddha from a tempest that was just beginning to arise.
Similarly Níðhöggr (Nidhogg Nagar; Malice Striker, often anglicized Nidhogg) n Norse mythology is a dragon who gnaws at a root of the world tree, Yggdrasil, the World Tree. In historical Viking society, níð was a term for a social stigma implying the loss of honor and the status of a villain.
Thus, its name might refer to its role as a horrific monster or in its action of chewing the corpses of the inhabitants of Náströnd: those guilty of murder, adultery, and oath-breaking, which Norse society considered among the worst possible crimes.
In Norse mythology the World Serpent or Midgard serpent known as Jörmungandr (Old Norse: Jǫrmungandr, meaning “huge monster”), a sea serpent, the middle child of the giantess Angrboða and Loki, encircled the world in the ocean’s abyss biting its own tail.
According to the Prose Edda, Odin took Loki’s three children by Angrboða, the wolf Fenrir, Hel, and Jörmungandr, and tossed Jörmungandr into the great ocean that encircles Midgard. The serpent grew so large that he was able to surround the earth and grasp his own tail. As a result, he received the name of the Midgard Serpent or World Serpent. When he lets go, the world will end. Jörmungandr’s arch-enemy is the thunder and storm god Thor.
In China and especially in Indochina, the Indian serpent nāga was equated with the lóng or Chinese dragon. Chinese dragons are legendary creatures in Chinese mythology and Chinese folklore. The dragons have many animal-like forms such as turtles, fish, and imaginary creatures, but they are most commonly depicted as snake-like with four legs. In yin and yang terminology, a dragon is yang and complements a yin fenghuang (“Chinese phoenix”).
Chinese dragons traditionally symbolize potent and auspicious powers, particularly control over water, rainfall, typhoons, and floods. The dragon is also a symbol of power, strength, and good luck for people who are worthy of it. With this, the Emperor of China usually used the dragon as a symbol of his imperial power and strength.
In Chinese daily language, excellent and outstanding people are compared to a dragon, while incapable people with no achievements are compared with other, disesteemed creatures, such as a worm. A number of Chinese proverbs and idioms feature references to a dragon, for example: “Hoping one’s son will become a dragon” (wàng zǐ chéng lóng i.e. Hoping one’s son to transform into a dragon).
Historically, the dragon was the symbol of the Emperor of China. In the Zhou dynasty, the five-clawed dragon was assigned to the Son of Heaven, the four-clawed dragon to the nobles (zhuhou, seigneur), and the three-clawed dragon to the ministers (dafu).
In the Qin dynasty, the five-clawed foot dragon was assigned to represent the Emperor while the four-clawed and three-clawed dragons were assigned to the commoners. The dragon in the Qing dynasty appeared on national flag.
The dragon is sometimes used in the West as a national emblem of China. However, this usage within both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China on Taiwan as the symbol of nation is not common. Instead, it is generally used as the symbol of culture. In Hong Kong, the dragon is part of the design of Brand Hong Kong, a symbol used to promote Hong Kong as an international brand name.
In European-influenced cultures, the dragon has aggressive, warlike connotations and it is conjectured that the Chinese government wishes to avoid using it as a symbol.
Sometimes Chinese people use the term “Descendants of the Dragon” as a sign of ethnic identity, as part of a trend started in the 1970s when different Asian nationalities were looking for animal symbols for representations. The wolf was used among the Mongols, the monkey among Tibetans.
The origin of the Chinese dragon is not certain. The presence of dragons within Chinese culture dates back several thousands of years with the discovery of a dragon statue dating back to the fifth millennium BC from the Yangshao culture in Henan in 1987, and jade badges of rank in coiled form have been excavated from the Hongshan culture circa 4700-2900 BC.
The coiled dragon or snake form played an important role in early Chinese culture. The character for “dragon” in the earliest Chinese writing has a similar coiled form, as do later jade dragon amulets from the Shang period.
Serpents (Hebrew: nāḥāš) are referred to in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The symbol of a serpent or snake played important roles in religious and cultural life of ancient Egypt, Canaan, Mesopotamia and Greece. The serpent was a symbol of evil power and chaos from the underworld as well as a symbol of fertility, life and healing.
Nachash, Hebrew for “snake”, is also associated with divination, including the verb-form meaning to practice divination or fortune-telling. In the Hebrew Bible, Nachash occurs in the Torah to identify the serpent in Eden.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, it is also used in conjunction with saraph to describe vicious serpents in the wilderness. Tanniyn, a form of dragon-monster, also occurs throughout the Hebrew Bible. In the Book of Exodus, the staffs of Moses and Aaron are turned into serpents, a nachash for Moses, a tanniyn for Aaron. In the New Testament, the Book of Revelation makes use of ancient serpent and the Dragon several times to identify Satan or the devil (Rev 12:9; 20:2).
In the Hebrew Bible the serpent in the Garden of Eden lured Eve with the promise of forbidden knowledge, convincing her that despite God’s warning, death would not be the result. The serpent is identified with wisdom: “Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made” (Genesis 3:1).
There is no indication in Genesis that the Serpent was a deity in its own right, although it is one of only two cases of animals that talk in the Pentateuch, Balaam’s ass being the other. Although the identity of the Serpent as Satan is implied in the Christian Book of Revelation, in Genesis the Serpent is merely portrayed as a deceptive creature or trickster, promoting as good what God had directly forbidden, and particularly cunning in its deception. (Gen. 3:4–5 and 3:22)
The staff of Moses transformed into a snake and then back into a staff (Exodus 4:2–4). The Book of Numbers 21:6–9 provides an origin for an archaic copper serpent, Nehushtan by associating it with Moses. This copper snake according to the Biblical text is wrapped around a pole and used for healing. Book of Numbers 21:9 “And Moses made a snake of copper, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a snake had bitten any man, when he beheld the snake of brass, he lived.”
When the reformer King Hezekiah came to the throne of Judah in the late 8th century BCE, “He removed the high places, broke the sacred pillars, smashed the idols, and broke into pieces the copper snake 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.
In the Gospel of John 3:14–15, Jesus makes direct comparison between the raising up of the Son of Man and the act of Moses in raising up the serpent as a sign, using it as a symbol associated with salvation: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life”.
The Rainbow Serpent
The Rainbow Serpent (also known as the Rainbow Snake) is a major mythological being for Aboriginal people across Australia, although the creation myth associated with it are best known from northern Australia. In Fiji Ratumaibulu was a serpent god who ruled the underworld and made fruit trees bloom.
In the dreamtime of Australian Aboriginal mythology, the Arkaroo is a serpent who drank all the waters of Lake Frome in South Australia, the latter remaining a large salt pan most of the time. Heavily filled and tired, the Arkaroo retracted for a nap into the mountains west, carving by his body the valleys of what is known today as the Gammon Ranges in the northern Flinders Ranges.
He was attacked by other mystic beasts and let water on his rests, each position resulting in a waterhole, such as that of Arkaroola Springs and others. Today as in ancient times, rumblings of the Arkaroo can be heard in the mountains, which are scientifically explained by the seismic activity of the ranges.
Quetzalcoatl is a Mesoamerican deity whose name comes from the Nahuatl language and means “feathered serpent”. The worship of a feathered serpent is first known documented in Teotihuacan in the first century BC or first century AD. That period lies within the Late Preclassic to Early Classic period (400 BC – 600 AD) of Mesoamerican chronology, and veneration of the figure appears to have spread throughout Mesoamerica by the Late Classic (600–900 AD).
In pre-Columbian Central America Quetzalcoatl was sometimes depicted as biting its own tail. The mother of Quetzalcoatl was the Aztec goddess Coatlicue (“the one with the skirt of serpents”), also known as Cihuacoatl (“The Lady of the serpent”). Quetzalcoatl’s father was Mixcoatl (“Cloud Serpent”). He was identified with the Milky Way, the stars and the heavens in several Mesoamerican cultures.
In the Maya area he was approximately equivalent to Kukulcan and Gukumatz, names that also roughly translate as “feathered serpent” in different Mayan languages. The Aztec and Toltec serpent god Quetzalcoatl also has dragon like wings, like its equivalent in K’iche’ Maya mythology Q’uq’umatz (“feathered serpent”), which had previously existed since Classic Maya times as the deity named Kukulkan.
Snakes in mythology
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