Ever since Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden, snakes in Christian tradition have been associated with lies, evil and temptation. But in other cultures, as far-flung as ancient Greece and Egypt and indigenous North America, snakes symbolize fertility, rebirth, renewal and even immortality. The ouroboros, the ancient symbol of eternity that was famously depicted on King Tut’s tomb in the 14th century B.C., is a serpent devouring its own tail.
From the Aztec god of wind, rain and creation to the semi-divine human-snake creatures that guarded the Buddha, here are nine snakes or serpents that have emerged, through history or myth, to play important roles in the cultures they represent.
Snake in the Garden of Eden
A man. A woman. A snake. And a fateful apple. In the Old Testament Book of Genesis, a serpent memorably appears in the Garden of Eden, the earthly paradise God created for the first man and woman, Adam and Eve. The cunning snake convinced Eve to eat the forbidden fruit of the “tree of knowledge,” telling her that “when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When God learned of Adam and Eve’s transgression, he banished both of them from Eden and cursed the snake for its role, saying “You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.” Debate has long raged over whether the serpent in Genesis was a literal reptile, an allegory for sexual desire or temptation or even Satan himself.
Snakes that St. Patrick drove out of Ireland
Irish culture is brimming with myths and legends, perhaps none so prevalent as that of St. Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, banishing every last snake from the Emerald Isle. As the story goes, St. Patrick, a fifth-century Christian missionary, was fasting for 40 days atop a hill when he was attacked by snakes. He waved his staff, driving all Ireland’s snakes into the sea. Though Ireland—like New Zealand, Hawaii, Greenland, Iceland and Antarctica—is in fact devoid of snakes, that has less to do with St. Patrick than with the fact that since the post-glacial age it’s been surrounded by water, and before that its climate was too cold for any snakes to survive. The story makes more sense as an allegory: Snakes were a symbol of paganism, and Patrick was given credit for driving the pagans out and bringing Christianity to the Emerald Isle.
READ MORE: Who Was St. Patrick?
Jormungand, the Viking sea serpent
In Norse mythology, few stories are as dramatic as that of Jormungand, the powerful sea serpent. Jormungand, one of three children of the shape-shifting god Loki and the giantess Angrboda, was thrown into the sea by Odin, father of the powerful thunder god Thor. The serpent grew until his body encircled all of Midgard (or Earth), and he was able to grasp his own tail in his mouth. At the start of Ragnarok, the final battle that would end in the earth’s destruction, Jormungand left the sea and rolled across the land wreaking havoc. In their climactic confrontation, Thor slew the serpent with his mighty hammer, Mjolnir, but only made it nine paces before falling dead himself, poisoned by the serpent’s deadly venom.
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Leviathan from the Book of Job
There’s debate over whether the passages in Job about Leviathan and another giant Biblical creature, Behemoth, describe mythological beasts—or actual animals that existed at the time but later may have gone extinct. It’s been suggested that Behemoth could have been a hippopotamus, an elephant or even a dinosaur, while Leviathan may have been an ancient species of crocodile. Either way, the Book of Job employed both Leviathan and Behemoth to demonstrate to Job God’s power of creation, and the futility of questioning Him. Later, the word “leviathan” would be applied more generally to mean a giant whale (most memorably the great white whale in Moby Dick) or other massive sea creature.
Medusa and the Gorgons
In Greek mythology, the Gorgons were snake-women whose gazes would turn people to stone; they had serpents for hair, long claws, sharp teeth and scales covering their bodies. According to some myths, Medusa, the most famous of the Gorgons, was originally a beautiful woman. Her tryst with the god Poseidon in one of Athena’s temples infuriated the virgin goddess, who turned Medusa into a Gorgon as punishment. Athena later helped the hero Perseus slay Medusa, giving him a shiny bronze shield that he used to watch the Gorgon’s reflection rather than looking directly at her. After cutting off Medusa’s fearsome head (from which her two children with Poseidon, Chrysaor and Pegasus, emerged) Perseus mounted it on his shield, and used it to paralyze his enemies in battle.
Among the most prominent deities in Mesoamerican cultures, Quetzalcoatl, or “Feathered Serpent,” was a mix of bird and rattlesnake (coatl is the Nahuatl word for serpent). The Aztec god of wind and rain, as well as learning, agriculture and science, Quetzalcoatl was said to have played a key role in the world’s creation. In one version of the creation story, he and another god, Tezcatlipoca, transformed themselves into snakes and ripped a giant sea monster named Cipactli in half; one part of her became the earth, the other the sky. Though the earliest depictions of Quetzalcoatl show him clearly as a snake with a plume of feathers, later cultures represented him in human form.
In the eastern religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, a mythological semi-divine race known as the naga (Sanskrit for “serpent”) took half-human, half-cobra form—although they could shift shapes to fully take on one or the other. The Hindhu god Brahma was said to have banished the naga to their underground kingdom when they became too populous on Earth. In Buddhism, naga were often depicted as protectors of Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha, and the dharma (Buddhist teachings), but they were also seen as powerful, and potentially dangerous when angered. Of the many naga mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures, one particularly famous one was Mucalinda, a naga king who spread his great cobra hood to shelter the Buddha from a storm that arrived while the prophet was deep in meditation.
Hopi Snake Dance
For thousands of years, members of the Hopi Native American tribe of northern Arizona have performed the ritual known as the Snake Dance. During the multi-day ritual, which is aimed at encouraging rainfall and fertility for the land, male dancers from the Snake Clan put live snakes—ranging from small garter snakes to rattlesnakes—in their mouths and around their necks. The snakes are painstakingly gathered and washed before the ceremony, which also involves members of the Antelope Clan. Though outsiders (notably Theodore Roosevelt) have been able to witness some aspects of the Snake Dance, much of the lengthy ceremony takes place in underground chambers called kivas, allowing its most sacred aspects to remain mysterious.
The Legend of the White Snake
This ancient Chinese myth tells the story of a powerful female white snake demon who lives underwater but takes human form as Madame White, or Bai Suzhen. After Bai falls in love with and marries a mortal man, Xu Xian, a Buddhist monk, Fahai, reveals her true identity to her husband. Fahai later kidnaps Xu, and traps Bai under his lakeside pagoda—but not before she gives birth to her son with Xu, who will eventually free his mother. There are various versions of the Legend of the White Snake, which has evolved over the centuries from a horror story, in which Fahai heroically battles the evil snake demon, to a romance, focusing on the thwarted but genuine love between Xu and Bai.