The image of the snake or serpent (From the Latin serpens, in turn from the Ancient Greek herpo – to crawl or creep) manifests itself in a number of different guises, across many cultures and in a variety of media, for thousands of years. Its symbolism is dual, representing both good and evil, and thus it came to be a creature both feared and revered.
The snake’s habitat in the undergrowth and in caves led to its association with chthonic deities and with immortality and regeneration, a physical expression of which is its regular shedding of the skin. Connected with this is the snake’s role as guardian of places and people. The serpent Ladon, for example, coiled itself around the tree in the garden of the Hesperides, protecting the golden apples. Similarly, coiling and protruding snakes are often seen on helmets, armour and shields as a tutelary talisman for the wearer.
There is also an explicit connection between the snake and medical healing. Its venom was thought to carry healing properties and it is the symbol of the god of healing, Asklepios. A coiling snake wraps itself around the staff of Asklepios, an image which is still used as a symbol of medicine today. At the great healing sanctuaries of antiquity, such as that of Asklepios at Epidauros, the reptiles were released among the patients and there are many inscriptions and votives which attest the remarkable healing that took place.
Miraculous cures attributed to these healing snakes took many forms. In the case of Agameda of Ceos, a period of infertility ended: “She slept in the sanctuary, in order to have children and saw a dream. She thought that a snake lay on her stomach while she slept. After this five children were born to her.”
Serpents are also closely associated with other deities. Excavations of Minoan house sanctuaries on the island of Crete discovered so-called “snake goddesses”, figurines of women holding snakes in both hands, with snakes winding around their bodies. It is thought that the serpent in this case represents fertility and the protective spirit of the household.
Later, in Archaic and Classical Greece, snakes are associated with Hermes and Athena. Hermes carried a staff, known as a kerykeion, formed from two intertwined snakes, with which he could send people to sleep and rouse them from slumber. He was also responsible for conveying the souls of the dead to the underworld. In Hermes, the snake is thus characterized as bringer of death, as healer and as effecter of change. Athena is described as wearing a protective aegis fringed with the heads of snakes, itself embossed with the head of the gorgon, Medusa, with her serpentine locks. This reinforces the idea of the snake as an apotropaic motif. In contrast, and in line with the serpent’s dual character as bringer of both good and evil, we see its deadly capabilities unleashed in Virgil’s graphic description of the death of Laocoon in Aeneid 2: “ lo! from Tenedos, over the peaceful depths – I shudder as I speak – a pair of serpents with endless coils are breasting he sea and side by side making for the shore. Their bosoms rise amid he surge, and their crests, blood-red, overtop the waves; the rest of them skims the main behind and their huge backs curve in many a fold; we hear the noise as the water foams. And now they were gaining the fields and, with blazing eyes suffused with blood and fire, were licking with quivering tongues their hissing mouths. Pale at the sight, we scatter. They in unswerving course make for Laocoön; and first each serpent enfolds in its embrace the small bodies of his two sons and with its fangs feeds upon the hapless limbs. Then himself too, as he comes to their aid, weapons in hand, they seize and bind in mighty folds; and now, twice encircling his waist, twice winding their scaly backs around his throat, they tower above with head and lofty necks. He the while strains his hands to burst the knots, his fillets steeped in gore and black venom; the while he lifts to heaven hideous cries, like the bellowings of a wounded bull that has bled from the altar and shaken from its neck the ill-aimed axe. But, gliding away, the dragon pair escape to the lofty shrines, and seek fierce Tritonia’s citadel, there to nestle under the goddess’s feet and the circle of her shield”.
The snake exemplifies the ancient Greeks’ remarkable ability to recognize that polarities can coexist and conflicting energies be reconciled; this one creature embodies the extremes of aggression and protection, destruction and healing, death and renewal.
Author: Alexandra Hamburger for It’s All Greek, February 2015
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