Snake worship refers to the high status of snakes or (nagas) in Hindu mythology. Nāga (Sanskrit:नाग) is the Sanskrit and 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 use of the term nāga is often ambiguous, as the word may also refer, in similar contexts, to one of several human tribes known as or nicknamed "Nāgas"; to elephants; and to ordinary snakes, particularly the King Cobra and the Indian Cobra, the latter of which is still called nāg in Hindi and other languages of India. A female nāga is a nāgī. The Snake primarily represents rebirth, death and mortality, due to its casting of its skin and being symbolically "reborn". Over a large part of India there are carved representations of cobras or nagas or stones as substitutes. To these human food and flowers are offered and lights are burned before the shrines. Among some South Indian, a cobra which is accidentally killed is burned like a human being; no one would kill one intentionally. The serpent-god's image is carried in an annual procession by a celibate priestess.
At one time there were many prevalent different renditions of the serpent cult located in India. In Northern India, a masculine version of the serpent named Nagaraja and known as the “king of the serpents” was worshipped. Instead of the “king of the serpents,” actual live snakes were worshipped in South India (Bhattacharyya 1965, p. 1). The Manasa-cult in Bengal, India, however, was dedicated to the anthropomorphic serpent goddess, Manasa (Bhattacharyya 1965, p. 1).
- Shesha (Adisesha, Sheshnaga, or the 1,000 headed snake) upholds the world on his many heads and is said to be used by Lord Vishnu to rest. Shesha also sheltered Lord Krishna from a thunderstorm during his birth.
- Vasuki allowed himself to be coiled around Mount Mandara by the Devas and Asuras to churn the milky ocean creating the ambrosia of immortality.
- Kaliya poisoned the Yamuna / Jamuna river where he lived. Krishna (Balakrishna / infant Krishna) subdued Kaliya by dancing on him and compelled him to leave the river.
- Manasa is the queen of the snakes. She is also referred to as Manasha or "Ma Manasha". "Ma" being the universal mother.
- Ananta Shesha is the endless snake who circles the world.
- Padmanabha (or Padmaka) is the guardian snake of the south.
- Astika is half Brahmin and half naga.
Nag panchami is an important Hindu festival associated with snake worship which takes place of the fifth day of Shravana. Snake idols are offered gifts of milk and incense to help the worshipper to gain knowledge, wealth, and fame.
Different districts of Bengal celebrated the serpent in various ways. In the Bengal districts of East Mymensing, West Syhlet, and North Tippera, serpent-worship rituals were very similar, however (Bhattacharyya 1965, p. 5). On the very last day of the Bengali month Sravana (July–August), all of these districts celebrated serpent-worship each year (Bhattacharyya 1965, p. 5). Regardless of their class and station, every family during this time created a clay model of the serpent-deity – usually the serpent-goddess with two snakes spreading their hoods on her shoulders. The people worshipped this model at their homes and sacrificed a goat or a pigeon for the deity’s honor (Bhattacharyya 1965, p. 5). Before the clay goddess was submerged in water at the end of the festival, the clay snakes were taken from her shoulders. The people believed that the earth these snakes were made from cured illnesses, especially children’s diseases (Bhattacharyya 1965, p. 6).
These districts also worshipped an object known as a Karandi (Bhattacharyya 1965, p. 6).Resembling a small house made of cork, the Karandi is decorated with images of snakes, the snake goddess, and snake legends on its walls and roof (Bhattacharyya 1965, p. 6). The blood of the sacrificed animals was sprinkled on the Karandi and it also was submerged in the river at the end of the festival (Bhattacharyya 1965, p. 6).There are several more interesting examples of serpent-worship in India, see "The Serpent as the Folk-Deity in Bengal" for more information.
Serpents, or nāgas, play a particularly important role in Cambodian mythology. A well-known story explains the emergence of the Khmer people from the union of Indian and indigenous elements, the latter being represented as nāgas. According to the story, an Indian brahmana named Kaundinya came to Cambodia, which at the time was under the dominion of the naga king. The naga princess Soma sallied forth to fight against the invader but was defeated. Presented with the option of marrying the victorious Kaundinya, Soma readily agreed to do so, and together they ruled the land. The Khmer people are their descendants.
Ancient Mesopotamians and Semites believed that snakes were immortal because they could infinitely shed their skin and appear forever youthful, appearing in a fresh guise every time. Before the arrival of the Israelites, snake cults were well established in Canaan 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 sixth-century Babylon a pair of bronzer serpents flanked each of the four doorways of the temple of Esagila. 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.
Ancient Egyptians worshiped snakes, especially the cobra. The cobra was not only associated with Ra, but also many other deities such as Wadjet, Renenutet, and Meretseger. Serpents could also be evil and harmful such as the case of Aapep. They were also referenced in the Book of the Dead, in which spell number 39 was made to help repel an evil snake in the underworld. "Get back! Crawl away! Get away from me, you snake! Go, be drowned in the Lake of the Abyss, at the place where your father commanded that the slaying of you should be carried out." Wadjet was the patron goddess of Upper Egypt, and was represented as a cobra with spread hood, or a cobra-headed woman. She later became one of the protective emblems on the pharaoh's crown once Upper and Lower Egypt were united. She was said to 'spit fire' at the pharaoh's enemies, and the enemies of Ra. Sometimes referred to as one of the eyes of Ra, she was often associated with the lioness goddess Sekhmet, who also bore that role.
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.
The Minoan Snake Goddess 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. It is not by accident that later the infant Heracles, a liminal hero on the threshold between the old ways and the new Olympian world, also brandished the two serpents that "threatened" him in his cradle. Classical Greeks did not perceive that the threat was merely the threat of wisdom. But the gesture is the same as that of the Cretan goddess.
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. Amongst 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.
Amphisbaena a Greek word, from amphis, meaning "both ways", and bainein, meaning "to go", also called the "Mother of Ants", is a mythological, ant-eating serpent with a head at each end. According to Greek mythology, the mythological amphisbaena was spawned from the blood that dripped from Medusa the Gorgon's head as Perseus flew over the Libyan Desert with her head in his hand.
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 highest point and central of the relief on the Parthenon.
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) 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 author of the Bibliotheca claimed that Athena gave Asclepius a vial of blood from the Gorgons. 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 receiving the vial from Athena. In this version the blood of Medusa had the healing power while the lethal poison originated from Medusa's serpents.
Laocoön was allegedly a priest of Poseidon (or of Apollo, by some accounts) at Troy; he was famous for warning the Trojans in vain against accepting the Trojan Horse from the Greeks, and for his subsequent divine execution. Poseidon (some say Athena), who was supporting the Greeks, subsequently sent sea-serpents to strangle Laocoön and his two sons, Antiphantes and Thymbraeus. Another tradition states that Apollo sent the serpents for an unrelated offense, and only unlucky timing caused the Trojans to misinterpret them as punishment for striking the Horse.
Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great and a princess of the primitive land 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; tame snakes were still to be found at Macedonian Pella in the 2nd century AD (Lucian, Alexander the false prophet) and at Ostia a bas-relief shows paired coiled serpents flanking a dressed altar, symbols or embodiments of the Lares of the household, worthy of veneration (Veyne 1987 illus p 211).
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.
Serpent worship was well known in ancient Europe. There does not appear to be much ground for supposing that the roman god Aesculapius was a serpent-god in spite of his connection with serpents. On the other hand, we learn from Herodotus of the great serpent which defended the citadel of Athens. The Roman genius loci took the form of a serpent. A snake was kept and fed with milk during rites dedicated to Potrimpus, a Prussian god. On the Iberian Peninsula there is evidence that before the introduction of Christianity, and perhaps more strongly before invasions of the Romans, Serpent worship was part of local religion. To this day there are numerous traces in popular belief, especially in Germany, of respect for the snake, which seems to be a survival of ancestor worship, such as still exists among the Zulus and other tribes; the "house snake" cares for the cows and the children, and its appearance is an omen of death; and the lives of a pair of house snakes are often held to be bound with that of the master and the mistress. Tradition states that one of the Gnostic sects known as the Ophites caused a tame serpent to coil around the sacramental bread, and worshipped it as the representative of the Savior.
Jörmungandr, alternately the Midgard Serpent or World Serpent, of the Norse mythology, is the middle child of Loki and the giantess Angrboða. However, there is nothing to indicate that the Norsemen ever worshipped this or other snake-like beings such as Fafnir.
According to the Prose Edda, Odin took Loki's three children, Fenrisúlfr, Hel and Jörmungandr. He tossed Jörmungandr into the great ocean that encircles Midgard. The serpent grew so big that he was able to surround the Earth and grasp his own tail, and as a result he earned the alternate name of the Midgard Serpent or World Serpent. Jörmungandr's arch enemy is the god Thor.
In Africa the chief centre of serpent worship was Dahomey, but the cult of the python seems to have been of exotic origin, dating back to the first quarter of the 17th century. By the conquest of Whydah the Dahomeyans were brought in contact with a people of serpent worshippers, and ended by adopting from them the beliefs which they at first despised. At Whydah, the chief centre, there is a serpent temple, tenanted by some fifty snakes. Every python of the danh-gbi kind must be treated with respect, and death is the penalty for killing one, even by accident. Danh-gbi has numerous wives, who until 1857 took part in a public procession from which the profane crowd was excluded; a python was carried round the town in a hammock, perhaps as a ceremony for the expulsion of evils. The rainbow-god of the Ashanti was also conceived to have the form of a snake. His messenger was said to be a small variety of boa. but only certain individuals, not the whole species, were sacred. In many parts of Africa the serpent is looked upon as the incarnation of deceased relatives. Among the Amazulu, as among the Betsileo of Madagascar, certain species are assigned as the abode of certain classes. The Maasai, on the other hand, regard each species as the habitat of a particular family of the tribe.
Eva Meyerowitz wrote of an earthenware pot that was stored at the Museum of Achimota College in Gold Coast. The base of the neck of this pot is surrounded by the rainbow snake (Meyerowitz 1940, p. 48). The legend of this creature explains that the rainbow snake only emerged from its home when it was thirsty. Keeping its tail on the ground the snake would raise its head to the sky looking for the rain god. As it drank great quantities of water, the snake would spill some which would fall to the earth as rain (Meyerowitz 1940, p. 48).
There are four other snakes on the sides of this pot: Danh – gbi, the life giving snake, Li, for protection, Liwui, which was associated with Wu, god of the sea, and Fa, the messenger of the gods (Meyerowitz 1940, p. 48). The first three snakes Danh – gbi, Li, Liwui were all worshipped at Whydah, Dahomey where the serpent cult originated (Meyerowitz 1940, p. 48). For the Dahomeans, the spirit of the serpent was one to be feared as he was unforgiving (Nida & Smalley 1959, p. 17). They believed that the serpent spirit could manifest itself in any long, winding objects such as plant roots and animal nerves. They also believed it could manifest itself as the umbilical cord, making it a symbol of fertility and life (Nida & Smalley 1959, p. 17).
Australian Aborigine mythology
In Australia, the Aboriginal people worship a huge python, known by a variety of names but universally referred to as the Rainbow Serpent, that was said to have created the landscape, embodied the spirit of fresh water and punished lawbreakers. The Aborigines in southwest Australia called the serpent the Waugyl, while the Warramunga of the east coast worshipped the mythical Wollunqua.
Native American mythology
In America some of the Native American tribes give reverence to the rattlesnake as grandfather and king of snakes who is able to give fair winds or cause tempest. Among the Hopi of Arizona the serpent figures largely in one of the dances. The rattlesnake was worshipped in the Natchez temple of the sun and the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl was a feathered serpent-god. In many MesoAmerican cultures, the serpent was regarded as a portal between two worlds. The tribes of Peru are said to have adored great snakes in the pre-Inca days and in Chile the Mapuche made a serpent figure in their deluge beliefs. The Mound Builders associated great mystical value to the serpent, as the Serpent Mound demonstrates, though we are unable to unravel the particular associations. Lake Guatavita in Colombia also maintains a Cacique legend of a "Serpent God" living in the waters, which the tribe worshiped by placing gold and silver jewelry into the lake.
In Korean mythology, Eobshin, the wealth goddess, appears as an eared, black snake. In Jeju Island, the goddess Chilseong and her seven daughters are all snakes. These goddesses are deities of orchards, courts, et cetera. According to the Jeju Pungtorok, "The people fear snakes. They worship it as a god...When they see a snake, they call it a great god, and do not kill it or chase it away." The reason for snakes symbolizing worth was because they ate rats and other pests.
Contemporary Christian culture identifies the snake as a symbol of evil. Snake handling is a religious ritual in a small number of Christian churches in the U.S., usually characterized as rural and Pentecostal, particularly the Church of God with Signs Following. Practitioners believe it dates to antiquity and quote the Bible to support the practice, especially:
- "They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." (Mark 16:18)
- "Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you." (Luke 10:19)