“Snake Enchantress” by Sandra Duchiewicz.

SNAKE, Serpent

The most important animal symbol related to Earth/Underworld in the Indo-European mythologies (compare with óphin … eīnai gẽs paīda “snake … is a child of Earth/Underground” [1]; see Albanian töke ”Earth” and tökes “snake”). It is the fullest embodiment of chthonism (darkness, death, wealth, fertility, wisdom). Thus, serpent was the main representative of the forces of chaos and opponent of the ➚ Thunderer, who was the guardian of the cosmic values; compare with their direct contrast according to the opposition ➚ top-bottom:

– Thunderer in heaven, on the top of a mountain or a (cosmic) tree,

– Snake in waters (see MIDGARDSORM; HYDRA, monsters killed by ➚ Beowulf and ➚ Fraoch), at the foot of a mountain (Wawel Dragon, see KRAK), beneath the tree roots (see NIDHÖGG). The idea of the Snake evolved towards teratomorphization (i.e. monsterization; see DRAGON) or anthropomorphization. In the latter case, the primary snake features were present on the level of:


– attributes ( see ASCLEPIUS; compare with iconographic representation of ➚ Hector with snake or snakes on his shield),

– names (see ANCHISES; BELLEROS; compare with Tugarin Zmeyevich – opponent of ➚ Alosha Popovich).

Snake could also be identified with other monsters, e.g. ➚ Nemean (or Cithaeronian) Lion [2].

Snake disturbed the world order by seizing the central cosmic values, life symbols, primarily ➚ water (see VRITRA), later cattle/treasure (see ALCYONEUS-1; FAFNIR; VALA), and finally women (see RAVANA; compare with sea monsters attempting to eat ➚ Andromeda and ➚ Hesione). With this act, Snake provoked the reaction of the Thunderer (or his hypostasis), which lead to the ➚ cosmogonic duel, compare with the following battles:

– Vritra versus ➚ Indra,

– ➚ nagas versus ➚ Garuda,

– Ravana versus ➚ Rama,

– Midgardsorm versus ➚ Thor,

– Fafnir versus ➚ Sigurd,

– ➚ Velnias versus ➚ Perkunas,

– Gigantes versus ➚ Zeus,

– ➚ Python versus ➚ Apollo,

– Lernaean Hydra versus ➚ Heracles,

– Alcyoneus versus Heracles,

– ➚ Chimaera versus ➚ Bellerophontes,

– ➚ Tykhyfyrt Mukara versus ➚ Batraz,

– ➚ Ferdead versus ➚ Cúchulainn,

– Wawel Dragon versus Krak,

– in the collective version e.g. Trojans versus ➚ Achaeans (see TROJAN WAR).

In the oldest versions of the myth on the cosmogonic duel, Snake was killed by the thunder god’s lightning strike, and this battle was the paradigm for all the mythological battles and wars.

Snake was related to fertility (femininity) as it was the attribute of ➚ Medb, ➚ Demeter, ➚ Persephone and ➚ Hecate [3]; compare with serpentine features of ➚ Echidna (I and II) and the myths on the birth of children from relationships of their mothers with snakes (see HALIA): in this way not only ➚ Volkh Vseslavevich was brought to the world, but even Alexander the Great [4] and Octavian Augustus [5].

Snake was also the keeper of wisdom: in Greece it accompanied ➚ Athena and according to [6] “knowledge of the snakes (sarpavidyā) is Veda”. Thus, it was associated with:

– physicians (see ASCLEPIUS),

– priestly caste (compare with Cypriot depictions of priestesses holding serpents and widespread custom of keeping snakes at temples),

– art of clairvoyance (see IAMUS; MELAMPUS; HELENUS; CASSANDRA); compare with location of the city in accordance to the serpentine sign [7]; see also the unique ability obtained by Sigurd after eating a piece of the Fafnir’s heart (origin of the theme is unknown, see [8]).

The ambivalent valorization of the snake resulted in its dual treatment on the ground of the same culture:

– Tajiks considered the snakes as embodiment of hostility and continued to exterminate them. At the same time serpents brought luck and fertility and as such were under the human care,

– Lithuanians  knew the monstrous ➚ Vizunas but used to keep snakes at homes (compare with analogous custom of Macedonians [9]), as they assured the household prosperity, but when offended they brought misfortune (see also FIRE SNAKE).


[1] H d t., I, 78; [2] A e s c h y l., fr 123; [3] A r t e m., Onirocrit., II, 13; [4] L u c., Dial. mort., XIII, 1; [5] S u e t., Aug., 94; [6] Shatapatha Brahmana, XIII, 4, 3, 9; [7] P a u s., VIII, 8, 4; [8] P h i l o s t r., Vit. Apol. Tyan., I, 20; [9] L u c., Alex., 7.

K u s t e r, Die Schlange in der griechischen Kunst und Religion, Giessen 1913; J. P h. V o g e l, Serpent-Worship in ancient and modern India, “Acta Orientalia” 2, 1924; J. P h. V o g e l, Indian Serpent-Lore on the Nāgas in Hindu Legend and Art, London 1926; B. K n o x, The Serpent and the Flame: the Imagery of the Second Book of the Aeneid, “American Journal of Philology” 71, 1950; S. D a v i s, The Snake Cult in Greece and Oracle of Apollo, “Scientia” 47, 1953; M. C h a m i d z h a n o v a, Nekotorije predstavlenya tadzhikov sviazanyje so zmeyey, “Trudy Akademii nauk Tadzh. CCP” 120, 1960; I. L. H e n d e r s o n, M. O a k e s, The Wisdom of the Serpent, (in collective work:) The Myths of Death, Rebirth and Resurrection, New York 1963; V. D. Blavatskiy, O zmeyeborche v russkoj byline, (in collective work:) Drevnaya Rus’ i slavianye. Sbornik statej v chest’ akad. B.A. Rybakova, Moskva 1978; B. C h. S i n h a, Serpent Worship in Ancient India, New Delhi 1979; G. M e r m e r o n, Kult węża w religii minojskiej i greckiej, „Zeszyty naukowe Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego” 775 (studia Religiologica 15), 1986.


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