October 4th, 2008

wart

Snakes Alive!

One kind of animal that's constantly showing up in mythology is the snake. And most of the time, these snakes aren't very nice. Here are just a few examples:

  • The serpent who tricked Adam and Eve into eating forbidden fruit, which led to their getting some brains, but also being kicked out of the Garden of Eden.
  • The snake who stole the plant that was Gilgamesh's one shot at immortality.
  • The Midgard Serpent Jörmungandr, a poisonous snake who wraps around the whole world and bites his own tail. The giants once tricked Thor into believing that Jörmungandr was a cat, which makes me wonder what he actually looks like. Oh, and his siblings are a wolf and the Queen of the Underworld, which must make for an interesting time at family reunions.
  • All of the Greek monsters with snake-like features, including the many-headed Hydra slain by Herakles, his serpent-bodied mother Echidna (no idea why that name has since been given to spiny anteaters), and her snake-legged-and-fingered consort Typhon. Then there's Medusa, the hideous woman with snakes for hair. (I wonder if she had to feed them all individually, or if they had a symbiotic relationship with her.) I actually first heard of Medusa because of a pinball machine at the local pizza parlor. I was there with my dad, and he explained who Medusa was.


It seems like snakes have gotten a bad rap throughout the world. I've heard that fear of snakes is supposed to be an inborn trait for humans, but I don't know that I believe it. I can't recall ever being particularly scared of snakes in general. Maybe it's different when they sneak up on you in the middle of the desert or jungle, though. Not all snakes in mythology are bad, however. The part-human nagas of India can apparently go either way, and some other cultures have given us positive portrayals of snakes in their religion and folklore. They're sometimes regarded as fertility symbols, probably because of their resemblance to a certain male sexual organ. Some people suggest that this might actually fit into the Adam and Eve story as well, since it's often accepted that they discovered sexuality upon eating the forbidden fruit. According to the Bible, though, they were told to be fruitful and multiply before that incident. (Hey, maybe they ate the fruit because they misinterpreted the command to "be fruitful"! Thank you! I'll be here all week! Please tip your waiter!) They can also represent wisdom, and I have to say that some of the snakes I've already mentioned were regarded as smart; it's just that they used their intelligence for evil purposes. But there are some good snakes in the world of mythology, including:

  • Quetzalcoatl, the winged serpent worshipped by the Aztecs.
  • Mucalinda, the snake king who protected the Buddha during his meditation under the Bodhi Tree.
  • The Rainbow Serpent, a famous gay nightclub. No, seriously, he or she (the gender varies from one culture to another) was a creature instrumental in several Australian Aboriginal creation myths. It created life, and distributes water throughout the land. I hadn't heard of this animal until today, and the brief amount I've read indicates that it isn't always seen as good, but I think its role in creation makes it fair game for this list.


Tomorrow, I'll tell you about some of the snakes that have appeared in my own writings.