The serpent is one of the oldest and most widespread mythological symbols. Considerable overlap exists in the symbolic values that serpents represent in various cultures. Some such overlap is due to the common historical ancestry of contemporary symbols. Much of the overlap, however, is traceable to the common biological characteristics of snakes.
In some instances, serpents serve as positive symbols with whom it is possible to identify or to sympathize; in other instances, serpents serve as negative symbols, representing opponents or antagonists of figures or principles with which it is possible to identify. Serpents also appear as ambivalent figures, neither wholly positive nor wholly negative in valence. An example of a serpent used as a positive symbol is Mucalinda, the king of snakes who shielded the Buddha from the elements as the Buddha sat in meditation. An example of a serpent used as a negative symbol is the snake who tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, as described in the Book of Genesis.
In the Abrahamic religions, serpents are connected with deceit, and are used to symbolize deceitfulness. An example is the serpent in the Garden of Eden, who tricks the Adam and Eve into partaking of the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
The symbolic connection between serpents and deceit may depend in part on the observation that snakes have forked tongues. A forked tongue is a tongue which has not one end, but two, pointing in different directions. In humans, the tongue is an essential tool in speech, and the presence of only one tip signifies the unity of truthful speech, and corresponds to the unity of the truth itself. There is only one truth, but there are many lies. The forked tongue represents the disunity of deceitful speechv.
This Cambodian statue, dated between 1150 and 1175 A.D., depicts the meditating Buddha being shielded by the naga Mucalinda.Serpents are represented as potent guardians of temples and other sacred spaces. This connection may be grounded in the observation that when threatened, some snakes (such as rattlesnakes or cobras) frequently hold and defend their ground, first resorting to threatening display and then fighting, rather than retreat. Thus, they are natural guardians of treasures or sacred sites which cannot easily be moved out of harm's way.
At Angkor in Cambodia, numerous stone sculptures present hooded multi-headed nagas as guardians of temples or other premises. A favorite motif of Angkorean sculptors from approximately the 12th century A.D. onward was that of the Buddha, sitting in the position of meditation, his weight supported by the coils of a multi-headed naga that also uses its flared hood to shield him from above. This motif recalls the story of the Buddha and the serpent king Mucalinda: as the Buddha sat beneath a tree engrossed in meditation, Mucalinda came up from the roots of the tree to shield the Buddha from a tempest that was just beginning to arise.
The Gadsden flag of the American Revolution depicts a rattlesnake coiled up and poised to strike. Below the image of the snake is the legend, "Don't tread on me." The snake symbolized the willingness of the colonists to fight for their rights and homeland.
Poison and medicine
Serpents are connected with poison and medicine. The snake's venom is associated with the chemicals of plants and fungi that have the power to either heal, poison or provide expanded consciousness (and even the elixir of life and immortality) through divine intoxication. Because of its herbal knowledge and entheogenic association the snake was often considered one of the wisest animals, being (close to the) divine. Its divine aspect combined with its habitat in the earth between the roots of plants made it an animal with chthonic properties connected to the afterlife and immortality.
Renewal, rebirth, regeneration
Serpents are connected with renewal or regeneration. This trait is connected with the practice of snakes of shedding their old skin and growing a new one.
Vengefulness and vindictiveness
Serpents are connected with vengefulness and vindictiveness. This connection depends in part on the experience that poisonous snakes often deliver deadly defensive bites without giving prior notice or warning to their unwitting victims. Although a snake is defending itself from the encroachment of its victim into the snake's immediate vicinity, the unannounced and deadly strike may seem unduly vengeful when measured against the unwitting victim's lack of blameworthiness.
Edgar Allan Poe's famous short story "The Cask of Amontillado" invokes the image of the serpent as a symbol for petty vengefulness. The story is told from the point of view of the vindictive Montressor, who hatches a secret plot to murder his rival Fortunato in order to avenge real or imagined insults. Before carrying out his scheme, Montresor reveals his family's coat-of-arms to the intended victim: "A huge human foot d'or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel." Fortunato, not suspecting that he has offended Montressor, fails to understand the symbolic import of the coat-of-arms, and blunders onward into Montresor's trap.
Sun and Light
Because snakes bask in the Sun, and because their slithering, limbless movements resemble light waves, they are often symbolic of sunlight.
In Egyptian Mythology, the goddess Wadjet is depicted as a cobra, and is the goddess of fire and the Sun, the blazing eye of Ra that destroys the darkness. In Greek Mythology, the snake is associated with Apollo and Helios, whose rays are described as fiery serpents and whose chariots are often pulled by draconic beings. In traditional judaic theology, the type of angels known as Seraphim are described as draconic or serpent-like with six wings, and are the great angels of fire and light.
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