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The Symbolism of Snakes

How did the medical profession come to be represented by snakes?

Key points

  • In myth, snakes are often connected to seers and oracles.
  • Snake venom is both a deadly poison and an antidote, and the rod represents control over this duality.
  • Snakes are close to the ground and shed their skin, making them symbols of life and death.
Source: Mike_68/Pixabay

In myth, snakes, or serpents, are often connected to seers and oracles.

Teiresias is the most notorious seer in Greek myth. As a young man, he came upon a pair of coupling serpents on Mount Cithaeron, and, in disgust, struck them with his staff. This offended the goddess Hera, who turned him into a woman. Teiresias spent the next seven years as a priestess of Hera, and even married and had children in that time. After seven years as a woman, Teiresias once again chanced upon a pair of coupling serpents, but, this time, gave them a wide berth. As a result, Hera released him from his sentence.

Later, Zeus and Hera dragged Teiresias into an argument about who has the more pleasure in sex: woman, as Zeus claimed; or man, as Hera claimed. Teiresias averred that, “Of ten parts, a man enjoys only one.” For this, Hera struck him blind, but Zeus compensated him with the gift of foresight and a lifespan of seven generations.

Ancient Oracles

The ancients took divination very seriously. Leaders would consult an oracle or seer before any major undertaking. Aristotle, that great logical and scientific mind, also wrote a lesser known treatise entitled On Divination in Sleep. Oracles were considered superior to seers because the literal word of a god. They were, however, difficult to consult, each with their own seasons and conditions, such that most of the demand for divination was met by seers like Teiresias.

The oracular tradition may have originated with the oracle of the Egyptian goddess Wadjet at Per-Wadjet (modern-day Desouk, near Alexandria). Wadjet was depicted as a snake, usually an Egyptian cobra. Or she was depicted as a snake with the head of a woman, or a woman with the head of a snake, or two snake heads. She nursed the infant Horus, and protected Ra by coiling herself upon his head. The snake goddess figurines excavated in the Minoan palace at Knossos may have been connected to Wadjet, as is the uraeus, the stylized upright cobra used as a symbol of sovereignty and divine authority, and mounted, among others, onto the crowns and masks of the pharaohs—including, famously, Tutankhamun.

Ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes

Most people think of snakes as terrifying. Indeed, ophidiophobia [Greek, "the fear of snakes"] is one of the most common specific phobias. Whereas other anxiety disorders tend to take hold in adulthood, specific phobias such as ophidiophobia and arachnophobia [Greek, "the fear of spiders"] often go back to early childhood, because they are for the sorts of dangers that commonly threatened our ancestors. Today, man-made hazards such as motor cars and electric cables are much more likely to strike us down, yet most phobias remain for natural dangers, presumably because technological hazards are much too recent to have imprinted themselves onto our genome.

The Rod of Asclepius and Caduceus

So why a snake or snakes? As I argue in The Meaning of Myth, snake venom is both a deadly poison and an antidote, and also has many other medicinal properties—having been used, for example, to control pain or stem haemorrhage. According to the Book of Numbers, Moses erected a bronze serpent onto a pole to protect the Israelites from the bites of the "fiery serpents" sent by God in punishment. The same archetype recurs in the two symbols of the medical profession: the more traditional Rod of Asclepius, god of healing, with one snake; and the more commercial Rod of Hermes, or Caduceus, with two snakes. The rod or staff represents control over the dual nature of the snake, or the Moses-like harnessing of the powers of the snake.

The Ouroboros

In addition, snakes are close to the ground and shed their skins, making them symbols of the nourishing earth, the underworld, rebirth, immortality and creativity—and, by extension, of culture and wisdom. The ouroboros [Greek, “tail eater”], an icon of a serpent or dragon eating its own tail, originated in Egypt and later transferred into the Greek mystery cults, Gnosticism, and Hermeticism. The ouroboros symbolizes the circle of life, and maybe also sexual intercourse, with the tail representing the male organ and the mouth the female one.

The Snake of Eden

The most notorious of snakes is perhaps the one in Eden, at the foot of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. According to the Book of Genesis, the serpent is the most subtle of all the beasts in God’s creation, and, like Adam and Eve, has the ability to speak and reason. The only other animal that speaks in the Pentateuch is Balaam’s ass, and then only because God opened its mouth. Seduced by the snake, Eve, and then Adam, ate of the tree, and “the eyes of them both were opened.”

More from Neel Burton M.A., M.D.
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