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In western culture, being compared to a snake is bad thing. Snakes are portrayed as lying, sneaky animals who are not to be trusted. You can refer to someone as a "snake in the grass" and snakes are not generally positive references.

Therefore I am confused by the instances in mythology where snakes are positive images. To give an extensive list of examples:

  • Snakes are positive in symbols like the Caduceus, Aesculapius
  • a snake is used to represent one of the tribes of Israel (Dan)
  • Cadmus and family being made into snakes and sent to Elysium

Why are snakes positive symbols in these stories? When or what story could have originated a positive snake imagery?

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    The story of adam and eve had something to do with it: before that story, most myths portrayed snakes as a good thing. Not going to write an answer because I have no time. – user62 Sep 16 '15 at 22:46
  • Are there any specific myths before adam and eve that portray snakes positively? – SophArch Sep 16 '15 at 23:15
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    In Australia the Aboriginals believe that a Rainbow Serpent created the landscape, embodied the spirit of the fresh water and punished lawbreakers. In Cambodian Mythology, they believe the Khmer People to have been born out of union of Indian and Nagas or Serpents. – CandiedMango Sep 17 '15 at 4:15
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    For Hindus it represents Rebith due to the casting off of it's skin and being 'reborn'. Search for Nāgas for more Hindu myths, they feature prominently in several myths. Koreans fear the snake and worship it as a god. In MesoAmerica we have Quetzalcoatl who was a 'feathered serpent' patron of arts, crafts and merchants. – CandiedMango Sep 17 '15 at 4:21
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    Saying that western culture dislike snakes and therefore it's confusing that other people don't share your views, kinda smacks of Eurocentrism. Why should other culture view snakes negatively? – Semaphore Sep 17 '15 at 8:47
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In this case, Western culture is the outlier. As Simon explained in the comments, serpents feature prominently in many non-western mythologies:

In Australia the Aboriginals believe that a Rainbow Serpent created the landscape, embodied the spirit of the fresh water and punished lawbreakers. In Cambodian Mythology, they believe the Khmer People to have been born out of union of Indian and Nagas or Serpents. For Hindus it represents rebirth due to the casting off of it's skin and being 'reborn'. Search for Nāgas for more Hindu myths, they feature prominently in several myths. Koreans fear the snake and worship it as a god. In Mesoamerica we have Quetzalcoatl who was a 'feathered serpent' patron of arts, crafts and merchants.

Why is this? To answer that question, I'm going to take a look at the epic of Gilgamesh, which is from a similar region as the bible. Here's a description of a snake from the epic:

'This plant, Ur-shanabi, is the "Plant of Heartbeat",
with it a man can regain his vigour.
To Uruk-the-Sheepfold 1 will take it,
to an ancient will feed some and put the plant to the test!

'Its name shall be "Old Man Grown Young",
I will eat it myself, and be again as I was in my youth!'
At twenty leagues they broke bread,
at thirty leagues they stopped for the night.

Gilgamesh found a pool whose water was cool,
down he went into it, to bathe in the water.
Of the plant's fragrance a snake caught scent,
came up [in silence], and bore the plant off.

As it turned away it sloughed its skin.
Then Gilgamesh sat down and wept,

(Epic of Gilgamesh)

To summarize: Gilgamesh has a plant that grants him immortality, but the plant is taken from him by a snake. The snake then becomes immortal, as snakes can "shed their skin" and thus be reborn.

I'm not trying to suggest that Gilgamesh is a precursor to the bible, or that Gilgamesh represents every other myth that features serpents, but it is illuminating as an example of how other cultures viewed serpents. It's clear from the epic of Gilgamesh that snakes are strongly associated with rebirth, immortality, and life. I hope that goes some way towards explaining why serpents aren't portrayed as "evil" in other cultures.

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  • This is one of my worst answers on this site: unfortunately, I know nothing about the history of the bible, so I can't explain why the bible is such an outlier with regards to portraying serpents. However, I felt like this question deserved an answer (it's actually a relatively interesting question), and I thought that a mediocre answer would be better than none at all. – user62 Sep 20 '15 at 1:19
  • Isn't the snake negative in the story of Gilgamesh? The snake itself is immortal but it gains that power by stealing it from Gilgamesh which is why he cries. – SophArch Sep 20 '15 at 19:48
  • @SophArch in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the snake is portrayed as "neutral." Yes, it did "steal" immortality from humans, but Gilgamesh's quest for immortality was doomed from the start: one of the themes of the epic is pride, and immortality is "above" humans and something that humans will never achieve. In the epic the snake was an accident, in the bible the snake was a tempter (and thus portrayed as evil). – user62 Sep 20 '15 at 22:50
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Snakes and serpents are still different in mythologies. Snake is a symbol of poison, poison in words and actions, symbol of evil. But serpent is symbol of wisdom. For some reason serpents are "working" with people and loyal to them. Though in slavic mythology there's no such a thing as serpent as it is, serpent is triple headed dragon that protects the world of Dead. But it's not the answer to the question.

Positive symbolism of a snake is probably because snake poison is known for its medical effect, known for ages.

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  • "Positive symbolism of a snake is probably because snake poison is known for its medical effect" -- do you have a source for this? – user62 Sep 20 '15 at 22:51
  • Only information from few russian history books, wouldn't help much – Katherine Svart Sep 21 '15 at 7:47
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    please cite those books anyway, as it's important that we know the source of your information. – user62 Sep 21 '15 at 19:51
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    The idea that there is a meaningful difference between snakes and serpents seems pretty dubious to me. The two words are synonymous. Serpent may favored in translations sometimes for the connotative difference, but the idea that this somehow makes serpents not snakes strikes me as very questionable. – femtoRgon Sep 29 '15 at 15:40
  • As far as I know snake venom is only useful in creating an antidote for that type of snake bite. Are there other uses? Because otherwise it isn't a positive creature if it can be used to cure the ills it caused. – SophArch Sep 30 '15 at 1:31

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