Features

Snakes on the brain

"Snakes on the brain" Continued...

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

The ancient Greeks, according to Robert Bowie Johnson Jr.'s The Parthenon Code (2004), depicted on vases a first couple standing by a serpent-entwined tree in an ancient paradise, and told on the Parthenon parts of the Genesis saga-but from the serpent's point of view. The Greeks celebrated the taking of the forbidden fruit as one small reach for a person, and one large leap toward wisdom for mankind. Wise Athena, commonly portrayed with a snake, derived her name from a-thanatos, without death-taking as gospel the serpent's proclamation in Chapter 3 of Genesis that Eve would not die but would be as the gods, knowing good and evil.

Much of India carried the story from Satan's perspective one step further: God desperately needed the serpent. One Hindu semi-scripture, the Linga Purana, has snakes originating from Brahma's tears that flowed when he realized he could not create the universe alone. Hindu sculpture often depicted Vishnu as reclining on the coils of a great serpent. My notes from visiting two dozen millennium-old Cambodian temples show the pattern: sculptures of snakes with crowns, men and gods riding or reclining on serpents, and so forth (see "Snake eyes," June 12, 2004).

Buddhism has many links to serpent worship. Some legends say that Muchalinda, king of the serpents, gave the Buddha his deepest understanding; others merely state that Muchalinda protected the Buddha from an otherwise-deadly storm as the Buddha sat under the serpent king's tree and meditated. Campbell emphasized the battle between Christianity and Buddhism: "In one of these two legends of the tree the service of the serpent is rejected and the animal itself cursed, in the other it is accepted."

Peoples far removed from these ancient civilizations also venerated snakes. The Toltecs, Mayans, and Aztecs worshipped a "feathered serpent," and residents of the Solomon Islands offered the first coconut from each tree to a great serpent god. Inhabitants of Fiji spoke of a serpent god that nurtured two tiny human beings who emerged from a hawk's egg, and taught them how to cultivate bananas and root crops.

The serpent's popularity has ebbed and flowed over the centuries. The Lombards of Italy worshipped a golden viper and a tree, but Bishop Barbatus of Benevento in a.d. 663 convinced them to cut down the tree and melt down the viper. Lately, the trend has gone the other way, as Joseph Campbell rejoiced while telling Bill Moyers about a Burmese movie he had seen that praised "the cobra, the giver of life, the giver of rain, as a divine positive figure, not a negative one."

Campbell twists the Genesis 3 account in an extraordinary way by claiming that "the serpent, who dies and is resurrected, shedding its skin and renewing its life, is the lord of the central tree, where time and eternity come together. He is the primary god, actually, in the Garden of Eden. Yahweh, the one who walks there in the cool of the evening, is just a visitor. The Garden is the serpent's place."

But perhaps the last laugh is on Campbell: He speaks abstractly of archetypes, but what if the stories all over the world, whether similar to the biblical account or turned upside down into praise of the serpent, suggest that stories about the real Garden of Eden, passed down through the generations and distorted in the process, lingered for millennia?

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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