A part of the story of the snake or serpent can be described as its Judeo-Christian demonic decline: from being a highly sacred creature to the Goddess Hecate, a snake goddess, to a symbol of evil, Satan himself. Like Hecate, the serpent represents birth and rebirth whereas Satan represents death.
“The snake is the main image of vitality and continuity of life,” wrote anthropologist Marija Gimbutas, “the guarantor of life energy in the home, and the symbol of family and animal life.” Within each and various culture the snake symbolizes the same and yet different things. It is a feared goddess of the river, a messenger and spirit being of Native America, a water spirit and a god of Africa. These similar characteristics compose a powerful symbol universally.
As snakes shed their skin through sloughing, casting off dead tissue, they symbolize rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. The ouroboros symbolizes eternity and the continued renewal of life.
But, opposite symbolism of the snake lies in Biblical lore: the Serpent of Genesis, Satan himself. Representing Satan the snake becomes the great tempter, as noted by historian Jean Markale, helped by the Apocalypse where the “great serpent…is the image of absolute evil.” The snake represented life renewed for thousands of years until the Hebrews and Christians waged successful campaigns fighting such symbolism.
With the emergence of the all-male Canaanite God, Yahweh/Jehovah, the feminine deity and snake were relegated and associated with evil. The Hebrews fiercely believed the snake was possessed by Satan or was Satan himself. Originally in Jewish folklore, according to Page Bryant, the serpent walked upright the same as man and ate the same food. Once he saw Adam and Eve engaged in sexual intercourse and became jealous which caused him to tempt Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit. Legend goes onto say as a punishment from God the serpent’s hands and feet were to be cut off so he would crawl on its belly, all the food it ate would taste of dust, and it became the eternal enemy of man. However before his punishment was inflicted he had the opportunity to have sexual intercourse with Eve. Because of this the Israelites were not purified until they stood at Mt. Sinai and received the torah. “‘Gentiles however,'” according to Alan Utermann, “‘were never cleansed of the serpentine impurity'”
Contrast to this anti-serpentine attitude in Armenian folklore, according to Anthony S. Mercatante, “Christ himself is identified with Shahapet, a beneficent serpent who inhabited olive trees and vine stocks in ancient mythology.” Other scholars found similar serpentine attitude in European and Indo-European mythology. Prior to 4500 BCE in Old Europe the serpent was considered benevolent, a symbol of life and fertility in plants, animals, and humans as well. Snakes were thought to be guardians of life and immortality, and of those superior riches of the spirit symbolized by hidden treasure. However, the poisonous snake in Old Europe lore signaled the epiphany of the Goddess of Death. Coinciding in Indo-European lore (4000-2500 BCE) began describing the snake as evil to promote the God of Death, an anniversary of the Thunder God eventually leading to the decline of Goddess worship and the establishment of the male-dominated religion of the Sky God.
Bodily the snake is not sacred, noted Gimbutas (op. cit.); it is the energy exuded by this coiling creature which transcends its boundaries and influences the surrounding world. But in Christian theology, Hans Leisegang notes, the serpent becomes the prince of the world, the adversary of the transcendental God, the dragon of the outer darkness, who has barred off this world from above, so that it can by redeemed only by being annihilated. A.G.H.
Armenian mythology, “Shahapet,” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armenian_mythology>
Serpent (symbolism), Fertility and rebirth. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serpent_%28symbolism%29#Fertility_and_rebirth>
Varner, Gary R. Hecate the Witches’ Goddess, 2011 ebook.