The snake is one of the oldest and most pervasive mythological symbols in the world. There are as many creation myths about snakes as there are religions and cultures, and as many interpretations to the meaning of the serpent as there are stars in the sky.
Certainly a powerful symbol, the snake is often seen as a creator or destroyer of worlds. Many times over snakes have birthed planets and gods while personifying immortality. They are guardians of the underworld, and of the sacred mysteries. They have imparted the wisdom of the ages and have damned the unwary or innocent with their sly ways.
We take a look at a few of the strange ways that snakes are illustrated in myth.
The Immortal Serpent, The Ouroboros
A commonly recognized image is one of the serpent biting or eating its own tail. This is an ancient depiction of infinity, immortality, the duality of Yin-Yang, and repeating cycles. It is not only a religious symbol of eternal-return, but is also seen in alchemical illustrations, and is even interpreted as a psychological or therapeutic image, related to the caduceus (the well-known medical symbol of a winged staff entwined by two serpents).
The Bearded Serpent
The snake beard is an odd but repeated image which is found throughout cultures and ages. Snakes have no body hair or fur, and certainly can’t grow a beard, yet the images of bearded snakes endure. Depictions of bearded serpents were common in ancient Greece and Rome. The images decorated households as protective spirits.
The Flying Serpent
Depending on who you ask, the idea of flying serpents raining down from the sky is either dubious or terrifying, but stories of flying serpents are found spanning from ancient to modern times. Flying serpents are mentioned in The Book of Isaiah, The Book of Mormon, and the History of Herodotus. In ancient Mesoamerica winged and feathered serpent deities were common, and the god Quetzalcoatl was related to wind, learning and knowledge. Jerome Clark writes in ForteanTimes that reports of flying snakes were recorded in the United States as late as the 1890’s. He relates a quote from surprised lumberjacks in California in 1882, “We were startled by the sound of many wings flapping in the air. Looking up, we perceived passing over our head, not more than 40ft [12m] above the tree tops, a creature that looked something like a crocodile.”
Flying serpents do exist, of a sort, in the form of the chrysopelea snake. Living in South-East Asian rainforests, the chrysopelea snake glides through the air from treetop to treetop by sucking in its abdomen and flaring out its body. The snake slithers and winds through the air as it would on land. Could this be the reality behind the myth?
The Sea Serpent
Any sailor’s repertoire of sea-tales is chock full of stories of dangerous and mysterious sea serpents. Reports of these snakelike maritime monsters date back hundreds of years, and include anecdotes of giant serpents that doom sailors and ships alike. In Norse mythology Jörmungandr was a sea serpent so large it encircled the entire planet (to bite its own tail). A more modern version of the sea serpent is found in the reports of the famous Loch Ness Monster of Scotland. In Japan, the Oarfish is known as the “Messenger from the Sea God’s Palace”. These silvery fish grow to more than 50 feet in length, and are a very rare sight, usually living 3000 feet deep down in the ocean. According to traditional lore these messengers rise to the surface to warn of impending earthquakes.
Whatever the truth of these stories, the snake will always seem to inspire both wonder and fear in people, and continue to be a part of myths and legends.