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Snakes on the brain

History | A much-discussed film opening this weekend, Snakes on a Plane, uses the cold-blooded legless reptiles as objects of fear. Many cultures, though, have made them objects of worship. Why?

Issue: "Living a legend," Aug. 19, 2006

Some cultures venerate cows. Others have made idols of bulls, horses, and even cats. But man has given only one creature across space and time nearly as much attention as the Creator, and made that creature the center of many stories involving trees, women, and coming-to-knowledge. British myth-tracer Arthur Lillie in 1909 called worship of serpents inexplicable but present in virtually every country of the ancient world.

For example, early Sumerian artifacts show pictures of a tree at the center of the world guarded by a snake or a pair of intertwined snakes. A Chaldean poem that is perhaps 4,500 years old tells of how Gilgamesh recovered from the bottom of the ocean a plant that would give eternal life, but while he rested briefly a snake ate it: The serpent became immortal, and Gilgamesh went home to die.

Greek historian Plutarch 2,000 years ago wrote that "the men of old associated the serpent most of all beasts with heroes." So did people thousands of miles away: Chinese lore at that time told of a wonderful garden with a tree, guarded by a dragon or winged serpent, that bears fruit of immortality and wisdom. The winged serpent here is a force for good, protecting also a mother-goddess.

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In other ancient tales the serpent is evil. In Norse mythology, Odin created a gigantic ash-tree, but a terrible serpent or dragon gnawed at it. Persians taught that a tree in a garden gave birth to the first man, whose body then divided into two beings, male and female. Good initially, they were seduced by the devilish Ahriman taking the form of a serpent.

Some of the stories seem close to biblical history, others removed from it. Hindu scripture tells of good and evil celestial beings fighting until Vishnu grabbed a divine serpent, wound him around the holy mountain, and had the celestial beings pull on both ends for 1,000 years so that the great snake served as a stick that churned the milky ocean into the butter of immortality.

Bill Moyers in 1987 interviewed myth analyst Joseph Campbell and asked, "What does it say about what all of us have in common that so many of these stories contain similar elements-the forbidden fruit, the woman?. . . After years and years of reading these things, I am still overwhelmed at the similarities in cultures that are far, far apart. . . . How do you explain these similarities?"

Campbell agreed on the overwhelming incidence: "We find the symbolism of the serpent, tree, and garden of immortality already in the earliest cuneiform texts, depicted on Old Sumerian cylinder seals, and represented even in the arts and rites of primitive village folk throughout the world." But he applied to those facts the theories of psychoanalyst Karl Jung, who saw the serpent as an archetypal symbol, a psychic representation of unconscious functions.

Campbell told Moyers, "The snake sheds its skin to be born again. . . . The serpent represents immortal energy and consciousness engaged in the field of time, constantly throwing off death and being born again." It's all metaphor: None of those stories starring snakes, trees, and women signifies that anything involving those aspects of creation ever happened a long time ago.

But what if they did? What if through God's inspiration one writer, Moses, got the story right-and what if these other stories are dim and distorted echoes of a shared prehistory?

What should we make of the Bassari people of west Africa speaking of a great god, Unumbotte, who made Man and made Snake; when Snake proposed the eating of fruit, "Man and his wife took some of the fruit and ate it. Unumbotte came down from the sky and asked, 'Who ate the fruit?' The first couple admitted eating the fruit and said Snake had told them to do so."

What should we make of all the cultures that make the serpent the hero? The Fon people of Dahomey have a great serpent god that encircles the whole world and brings unity and wholeness. Other Africans speak of the serpent having created the God of creation; some say the first man and woman were blind and the python gave them eyesight. Others say that a great serpent created four pillars to hold the heaven, which other serpents now hold up.

The Canaanites worshipped a goddess associated with a serpent. Vases from ancient Babylon display an enormous snake encompassing the universe; other vases show a snake below a plant or above the belly of a pregnant woman. The Persians saw the great sky serpent Azhi Dahaka as the creator of all the planets in the sky. Other early West Asian myths proclaimed the serpent to be lord of sky, earth, and waters.

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