October 1, 2011 § Leave a comment
The snake, or serpent, is symbolic of energy itself, of pure force. It is also commonly associated with the tree and its form resembles that of roots and branches. Snakes appear everywhere, some inhabit the woods, they can be found in deserts, as well as in water.
The snake, because of its ability to strangle and because of its aggressiveness, signifies strength. Because it sheds its skin it has been associated with symbolism of resurrection and rebirth. The combination of the ability to rejuvenate and the power to kill, it has power over both life and death. Snakes are also mediators. They mediate between life and death, this world and the underworld, between cosmos and divine space. The ambivalence of the snake (of the positive/negative, constructive/destructive) is expressed in the Gnostic symbol of the heavenly snake Ouroboros. In the Ouroboros symbol the snake is connected to the symbolism of the Wheel, representing cyclic eternity. The symmetrical placing of two snakes like in the caduceus of Mercury, indicates an equilibrium of forces, representing good balanced by evil. The snake then, is cause of both the illness as well as the cure. This is mentioned by Pliny who says that it is a well known fact that all injuries inflicted by serpents, even those of an otherwise incurable nature, can be cured by applying the entrails of the serpent itself to the wound. He also says that someone who has eaten a viper’s liver (boiled), will never be attacked by serpents again (Book 29, Ch 22). The fat of some snakes will also repel venomous creatures.
J.E. Cirlot mentions that the snake was an important symbol for the Gnostics, especially for the Naasenes sect where the snake was said to live in all objects and all beings. He also makes a connection between this idea and to the Kundalini concept (of Yoga) where the snake is an image of inner strength, where Kundalini is represented symbolically as a snake coiled up in the base of the spine.
Ingvil Saelid Gilhus writes that of all animals in the Graeco-Roman culture, the snake played a special role, in relation to gods and goddesses, and it was associated with a number of cults. Snakes were seen as guardians of sacred places as well as private houses, they were used as symbols of the souls of the dead, they symbolized transformation, and had healing powers, as well as prophetic powers (one example is the cult of Glycon).
Pliny mentions that there are numerous remedies that can be derived from serpents, which also is why it has been consecrated to the god of medicine, Æsculapius. There are also other beneficient effects that can be made from preparations of snakes, for instance, Democritus claims there is one preparation that makes one understand the language of birds. (Book 29 Ch 22). Pliny mentions the “dragon”, a serpent destitute of venom, and probably talks of the boa. The head of this serpent is placed beneath the threshold of a door, which will ensure good fortune to the house. The eyes of this snake can be prepared (by being dried up and beaten with honey) and made into a liniment which will protect against terrors of spirits and spectres by night. Other parts of this snake can ensure success in lawsuits, give access to persons high in office, and can render masters indulgent and rulers gracious. The most powerful potion to be made from this serpent though, says Pliny, is the one that magicians claim can make a person invincible. The tail and head of the snake, together with the hairs of a lion’s forehead and lion’s marrow, the foam of a winning race-horse and the claws of a dog, are tied together in a deer’s skin. (Book 29, Ch 20).
There are many remedies for the eyes which are prepared from snakes, for instance, against cataract and films upon the eyes. A burnt viper mixed with salt, applied to the tongue will improve eye-sight; slough that was cast off in spring will also improve the sight. The fat of snakes heals ruptures of the cuticle of the eyes. (Book 29, Ch 28). Tooth-ache and other ailments of the teeth can also be cured with the help of snake remedies. When tooth-ache affects upper jaw, two upper teeth of the male white serpent are attached , and two lower ones for tooth ache in the lower jaw. Another efficient cure is to eat a snake’s heart, or to wear it attached to the body. The ashes of a serpent, burnt with salt and injected with oil and roses, injected in the ear are goof for the gums. Injected into hollow teeth, makes the tooth come out without pain. A snake’s tooth worn as an amulet allays tooth-ache. (Book 30, Ch 8).
Some remedies against snake bites include swallow-wort (greater celandine) given in wine and betony as external application to the wound. If a circle of betony is traced around a serpent, the powers of the plant are so strong that the snake will lash itself to death with its tail (Book 25, Ch 55). Another plant harmful to snakes is the ash tree. Pliny states that no serpent will ever lie in the shadow thrown by an ash tree, but keep as far away from it as possible – it will rather throw itself into a lighted fire than encounter the leaves of the tree. There is no better cure against snake bites, according to Pliny, than drinking the juice extracted from these leaves and to apply them to wounds. (Book 16, Ch 24)
Snakes in art
Landscape with a Man killed by a Snake (Poussin)