No one ever forgets an encounter with a snake—whether a benign and lovely garter skittering through a garden, or a fierce and dangerous rattler sunning itself on a dusty path. The same primal urge that causes some people to freeze or flee at the sight of a slithering serpent has inspired spiritual reverence for the wily creature over much of the course of human existence.
So fascinating and fearful is the serpent in its many mythological guises—from the infinity-esque Ourobourous, to the Biblical beast that tempted Eve to sin, to the half-human, half-cobra Nagas of Eastern religions—that the slinky beast of the earth rears its scaly head in almost every documented culture or religion on record.
“The serpent is the symbol which most generally enters into the mythology of the world. It may in different countries admit among its fellow satellites of Satan the most venomous or the most terrible of the animals in each country, but it preserves its own constancy, as the only invariable object of superstitious terror throughout the habitable world,” writes Hargrave Jennings, author of Ophiolatreia: An Account of the Rites and Mysteries Connected With the Origin, Rise, and Development of Serpent Worship in Various Parts of the World.
Long have religions worshipped the serpent, fearfully or ecstatically, and sometimes both, in a desire to brush up against the mysteries of death and all that an afterlife promises. Researchers have found evidence of the serpent in the oldest known human rituals, some 70,000 years ago, among the San people of Botswana, Africa.
Even today, some Appalachian churches still integrate poisonous snake handling into their religious services to prove that God will protect them from the gravest harm, despite alarmingly high rates of injury and death among the wrangling pastors.
There is a fine line between terror and transcendence, after all, something almost all religions understand. Indeed, near-death survivors, who have perhaps come closer to terror than anyone else, often emerge from their experiences no longer fearing death, but accepting it. However, as much as the serpent may conjure our mortal proximity, it is just as often a harbinger of life. Jennings suggests that in many cultures, such as early India, and for many Native American peoples, snakes were often symbols of sexuality and fertility, creation and renewal.
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In effigies and tombs, carvings and cave paintings, humans have expressed their awe for the mighty beast in a wide variety of forms. Who can forget the Greek Gorgon Medusa’s hissing head of serpents, turning men to stone? Meanwhile residents of southern Ohio spend their lives in close proximity to a geologic manifestation of serpent worship: The Great Serpent Mound—a prehistoric raised, serpent-like mound that winds over 1,330-feet and three feet high and has baffled researchers for years. Historians’ best guess is that it is the handiwork of the Adena people, who lived in Ohio from roughly 800 B.C. to A.D. 100.
For a creature that spends its life on the ground, the serpent spends a remarkable amount of time in the sky within religious myths, representing its connection to the spiritual realms. To the Egyptians, Jennings explains, serpents represented eternal life, the source of meaning behind the snake-eating-its-owntail image known as the Ouroboros. Serpents were often carved into the tombs of Pharaohs, illustrated as carrying the Pharaoh off to the land of the gods.
To the ancient Mexica (Aztecs), Quetzalcoatl was the “plumed serpent” (named Kukulkán to the Maya, Gucumatz to the Quiché of Guatemala, and Ehecatl to the Huastecs of the Gulf Coast) who created the world, humankind, and invented the calendar, among other feats.
And the dragons common to Chinese folklore (though they also appear in other cultures), with serpent-like bodies and animal heads, may have reflected the political union of different tribes, each represented by a different animal totem, according to the early 20th century Chinese scholar, Wen Yiduo.
Whether spiritual or bestial, at its essence, the serpent may actually represent something quintessentially human. Anthropologist Jeremy Narby, author of The Cosmic Serpent, intrigued by the commonality of twin serpents appearing in shamanic traditions (and concurrent hallucinations) and ayahuasca ceremonies, believes the serpent is an embodiment of the double helixes of our very DNA.
Perhaps there is some primal connection between ayahuasca, which comes from the earth, and the slithering serpents, who turn up as much as 17 percent of the time in the visions of those who partake, according to psychologist Benny Shannon, who studied ayahuasca ceremonies.
“They are specific and non-reducible to the psychology of personality dynamics,” Shannon remarked about these visions (which also include large cats, birds, and palaces). This mystery cannot be easily explained, he said, and may simply be a curious fact of existence, a language that ayahuasca speaks directly to the human psyche.
*This article was originally published in DoubleBlind Issue 4.