There has always been something magical and mysterious about reptiles. They occur throughout cultures in ancient stories and tales about creationism. The dueling images of good and evil always have some sort of connection to reptiles, especially when it comes to scary or evil depictions. However, in the lore of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, reptiles are symbols of prosperity, wealth and power. Some are even considered good luck and even seen as gods of the elements. Through research of mythology, history and folklore I was able to compile anecdotes that reveal how various reptiles enlightened different cultures throughout the world. Their presence in legends inspires ceremony and indulges the engrained perspective in many of these cultures; and you can see why.
Egypt: Apep the Serpent-DevilSir Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge’s 1969 book surrounding gods and mythological theories in Egypt ca. 3000BC describes accounts of the spiritual role of reptiles: “The spirits which were always hostile or unfriendly towards man and were regarded by the Egyptians as evil spirits were identified with certain animals and reptiles…” He goes on to describe a great serpent-devil who was the arch nemesis of the sun god RA, whose name was Apep. This record of the enormous serpent was preserved and recently found to be more than just a theory. Found in Fayyum, the remains of such a serpent were discovered: “The vertebrae are said to indicate that the creature to which they belonged was longer than the largest python known." In the footnote, the longest known at the time the book was written was 30 feet.
It seems that the serpents and reptiles of evil only held positions of evil power. Apep was said to be the conjurer of darkness, storm, and mist of the night, leading to the fear of all reptiles (but especially snakes) in early and modern day Egypt (Budge, 1969). There is also reference to “serpents of the underworld,” where heroes’ souls were ripped out by angels and carried down to hell on the backs of black horses. After this, the souls were thrown into 200 foot pits of snakes – “in this place were several other terrible serpents, and to one of these, which had teeth like iron stakes, the poor soul was given to be devoured; this monster crushed the soul for five days of each week, but on Saturday and Sunday it had respite." This to many historians hinted that the evil respected the Sabbath of the Jews and the Christian Sunday. These allusions to the great serpent of the Egyptian underworld are seen many times throughout historical documentation of the time, and are known by many names; always being the terror of those worshippers of the sun-god. And, being the well-known demons of hell and associated with evil spirits and bad omens, snakes were feared, killed, even repelled from the dead by Egyptians then and today.
Native American Lore and the Origins of Reptiles and Amphibians
The Egyptians may have seen reptiles as a source of fear and evil, but in Native American culture legends of the origins of reptiles gave a sense of inquiry and fascination about them. In 1852 a Christian chief named David Cusick of the North American tribe Tuscarora recorded a legend; he called it the legend of his people (Tylor, 1871). In this legend, there were two worlds – the lower world that was shroud in darkness and occupied by monsters and the upper world that resembled Earth and was occupied by mankind. The legend begins with a woman, later called the celestial mother, descending from the upper world to the lower world on the back of a tortoise who took with him some earth on his back.
Once in the lower world, the tortoise becomes an island on which the woman gives birth to twin boys before dying. The boys were called Enigorio meaning “Good Mind,” and Enigonhahetgea meaning “Bad Mind,” and are the depiction of good and evil among Tuscarora religion. As the boys grew along with the tortoise island, Enigorio also grew wary of being in darkness and used his mother’s head to create the sun, her body to create the moon, and with her also created small balls of light, which became the stars. Enigonhahetgea, wishing to keep the dark world as it were, saw that the monsters of the dark disliked the light and hid in crevices so that the mankind of the upper world would not find them. Being spiteful of his brother’s creation of light, and later his creation of “real people” and mammal like creatures, Enigonhahetgea created obstacles for the beings of high mountains and waterfalls. Then Enigonhahetgae also created reptiles, which were injurious to mankind. Of course these legends were before the time it was actually written down, and were in fact the belief of the Tuscarora before the coming of Christian Europeans in the colonial era of North America.
In the Journal of American Folklore, Speck (1923) wrote an article entitled "Reptile Lore of the Northern Indians" where he speaks often of the Wabanaki and Penobscot Indian tribes and their herpetological myths. Speck describes numerous legends involving the origin of rattlesnakes, frogs, toads and turtles. The legends are short, but filled with lessons and characteristics akin to our reptilian counterparts. In one such Penobscot legend, a transformer by the name of Gluskabe came across a village full of Indians who danced so vigorously and so often that he turned them all to snakes. In a similar Wabanaki legend, the leader of such dance carried a rattle, which he used to accompany the songs of the dance. Because of the rattles’ presence, the dancers were transformed to rattlesnakes and thus were the origin of the species.
Another transformative legend of the Penobscot and Gluskabe is the “conquest of the monster frog,” in which Gluskabe becomes a hero and replenishes the world of its water supply after defeating a giant monster frog who held the water of all the world in its stomach (Speck, 1923). After returning the water to the thirsty human inhabitants of earth, some humans were so eager to get the water that they plunged in and turned to fish. Modern day frogs are said to be descendants of this monster frog and thus are treated with respect by the North American natives, and are also said to cause floods and drought when upset with their human servants.
Gluskabe returns in the legend of the origin of toads (Speck, 1923). Two beautiful girls apparently ridiculed Gluskabe while dancing at a ritual; this turned out to be a big mistake! The transformer turned the two girls to the most repulsive creates he could imagine, and thus emerged the toad. It seems as though we owe Gluskabe a lot when it comes to all of our herp species in North America, but man does the guy have issues!
Speck describes his last and final folk tail in reference to the origin of turtles and tortoises, when Penobscot legend tells of a handsome suitor of the Auk (meaning bird) Chief’s daughter. The handsome suitor who lacked speed and sense of humor tried to win the daughter's hand by jumping over and clearing the top of the chief’s wigwam pole. The suitor fell short and impaled himself on the wigwam, where beneath was a roaring fire. The chief allowed the suitor to be scorched until he was encysted and cracked because of the heat – which is how the tortoise got his shell. Because the suitor was slow and lacked a humorous demeanor, the tortoise who is said to have the same characteristics according to the Penobscot tribe, originated from that suitor specifically.
The Ambivalent Bible
Of course, there is the classic evil represented by the serpents in the Bible; however, surprising as it seems, not all serpents in the Bible represent evil. In the Book of Numbers, Moses is inculcated by God to erect a statue in the shape of a snake and put it on a pole (Murison, 1905; Stanley, 2008). According to the book, anyone who was bitten by a venomous snake and then traveled to look upon the pole would be saved. It was realized by and the comparison made by Jesus himself, that this was an allusion and an instance of foreshadowing - representing how Jesus was crucified on a pole for the sake of saving people (Murison, 1905; Stanley, 2008; Tenney, 1997). Several other references to the snake can be found in the Bible, with the snake representing wisdom, evil, and an agent of the vengeance for God (Stanley, 2008; Murison, 1905; Jeffrey, 1955).
But the most well known is that of the serpent who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden to eat of the forbidden fruit she was told by God never to consume. The serpent, who represented the devil and was under his influence, convinced Eve to eat the fruit, and she and Adam gained the knowledge of God. He then punished them by bestowing the pain of childbirth to Eve and the burden of working the land for resources no longer handed to him, to Adam. Although the serpent in most lore around the world is a representation of evil and death, it is refreshing to see also the representation of snakes as good omens as in the Book of Numbers.
Hinduism: In Celebration of Snakes
In Hindu culture, snakes are revered and celebrated as being divine, representing gods, and are central symbols of Hindu holidays and ceremonies. In B.A. Gupte’s (1994) book Hindu Holidays and Ceremonials: With Dissertations on Origin, Folklore and Symbols, he explains the origin of the holidays and ceremonies through legends and anecdotes. From what I could gather, Nagas are cobra rattlesnakes, and in the Hindu religion they represent 9 powerful gods, one of which is the chief the Nagas (hooded cobras) named Ananat. Another is the deity of Bengal and presides over all the Nagas. There are several stories that Gupte describes surrounding how Nagas came to be celebrated and worshiped. The first tells the story of a daughter in law ordered to cook veal for her father in law - in order to make sure it was cooked and palatable, she asked a servant to taste it. The servant, being lowly, ate all of the veil; the girl then asked for the servant to replace it, who replaced it with flesh of a dead calf. The girl, unable to cook the flesh in time for dinner, asked to the servant to pour water on the floor, making the girl slip and drop the curry so that it could not be served. This fiasco caused the snake brooding under the house to give birth, and the reptilian litter emerged and undulated all about the house. Being frightened, the girl who had been holding a brass lamp dropped it and caused several of the baby snakes to lose their tales. Time passed until there came the month of Shravan, which is July-August. On the 5th of the month the girl drew snakes in a stool and began worshipping them, having felt bad for harming the snakes of the house. She prayed to the god of Nagas to protect her reptilian brothers, as she called them. On the same day, the young snakes asked their mother how they came to be deformed; their mother explained to them that the girl of the house had accidently dropped a lamp on them, causing them to lose their tales. Angry, the infant snakes found the girl and went inside of a body (I assume this means they embodied the form of a single snake collectively) in order to avenge their shame through biting her. Coming upon the girl, the snakes realized that she was praying to a stool of serpents and asking for protection over them. Now feeling guilty, the snakes waited until she had left before returning to their individual snake forms, and eating of the parched grain and milk set under the stool as offering. After receiving the offering, they left a jeweled necklace as a token of thanks and made the girl prosperous and happy.
A second Hindu story specifically surrounding the deity Manasa from Gupte’s book on Hindu holidays and ceremonies explains another reason why snakes are revered. In this story, a rich man or Bania had seven married sons whose wives all brought gifts to his wife- all except the youngest of the daughters-in-law; the young girl was therefore disliked by the mother-in-law. One night while collecting water, the girl thought she saw fish in the pond and stowed some away in her pot. In the morning she was surprised to find her pot full of snakes that had escaped into her pot as a safe retreat from a forest fire the night before. The girl fed the snakes plantain meal and milk, after which the cobras felt much indebted to her. They asked the Goddess Manasa if the girl could be transcended to Manasa’s celestial palace and treated like a princess who would care for them. Manasa agreed and, after taking the form of a mortal and acting as the girls' maternal aunt, delivered the girl to the celestial palace where she was adorned in jewels and riches as long as she boiled milk for the cobras each morning and as long as she never looked South. Tempted one day, the mortal girl looked to the south and witnessed Manasa dancing, an uncommon practice for women of the time. Entranced by the movements, the girl forgot about the milk on the stove. When it was given to the hungry snakes for breakfast, they were scalded. Angry, the snakes threatened to swallow the girl whole until Manasa appeased them, promising to deliver her back to Earth since she always knew having a mortal in the celestial palace would be cause for error. However, since the Naga were known to be a vindictive species, she told the girl to praise the Naga to her people in order to appease them from harming mankind. The girl, still doused in the gifts of the Naga and their deity, was retuned to the Bania and told her mother-in-law of the generosity of the Naga. The Naga, who had secretly followed her, heard her praise them - the cobras adorned the mother-in-law and fellow daughters-in-laws with riches and jewels and they were happy. Manasa then told the family that rice, soaked overnight and made into Khichadi (which happened to be the youngest daughter-in-law’s favorite dish) would protect them from snakebites. After the goddess had gone, and the daughter relayed her stories of the Naga further, she became a favorite of the household. The neighbors adopted this worship of the Naga, and there is still a ceremony celebrated today in India with hopes of gaining good luck and avoiding harm from the Naga.
Because of legends like these, snakes are both feared and loved in India; “…thousands die every year of a snake bite, and there are millions in India who have sometime or other just escaped from being bitten. [But] A chat about snakes is as absorbing and as interesting and thrillgiving, as a tale about spirits, ghosts and thieves" (Lall, 2004). Many farmers avoid plowing their fields to keep from harming snakes, and during festivals people pay professional snake catchers, who have (allegedly) become immune to the venom, to catch cobras for rituals and worship. The festival of the Nagas called Nag Panchami is celebrated on the fifth day of July each summer, at the time of Shravan. At these festivals, cobras are offered milk and crystalized sugar in worship and hope not to get bitten in the year to come, as the legends convey (Sanford, 1988). Many stories surround these festivals, and the mystique of snakes collected for the ceremonies is embellished.
An eighty-year-old Hindu man told Lall (2004), the author of Among Hindus – A Study of Hindi Festivals, that the older snakes who remain undisturbed in the thick jungles of India have a manka, which is a precious stone stored in their heads. Late at night, the snake will eject the stone from the head via its mouth onto a clear patch of ground. The snake will dance around the stone, adoring its beauty in the night as it glows in the dark. Lall then goes on to describe how, after the snake is satisfied, it will pull the stone back into its head through its mouth where it is then encrusted like a jewel. The Hindu people often conjure up stories on how to capture these jewels.
Here There Be Dragons
Of course, no compilation of reptile lore can go without mention of dragons. Dragons have been the objects of fantasy and center of curiosity for many people throughout history and culture. According to Ingersol (1999), the avid writer of Dragons and Dragon Lore, dragon myth is mainly concentrated in China and probably originated there. Many who were interviewed by Ingersol believe that old bones and teeth of reptilian descent hold strong medicinal powers, as if they came from dragons. Much of the dragon lore surrounding Asian culture and other cultures embody a sense of evil and malice: large, flying reptiles breathing fire and terrorizing villages, stealing virgins and fighting brave knights with swords.
However, one of the more prominent images and famous dragons in Chinese culture is a shen or god, and in this instance a rain-god. The Chinese people pray and worship an image of a long, serpent like dragon that covers himself with the water of five different colors (rainbow) and sprinkles the earth with water and fertility. According to an interviewed philosopher Kwang Chung who quotes the classic Kwan Tse, the five colors the dragon covers himself with means he is embellished with “cardinal virtues,” meaning that the dragon has the ability to shift his shape to go anywhere below, within, and above Earth (Ingersoll, 1999).
The dragon then, is not limited by the space of time, and therefore can only be a shen (meaning god) by every definition of the Chinese word. The same dragon, in other ancient descriptions, is considered of the highest rank and therefore “imperial.” Being the embodiment of fertilization and controller of the waters of the earth, the dragon has the power to invoke and revoke the rain. Because of his powers, the Chinese in ancient times and today worship the reptilian rain-god, hoping for fertile land and no drought. Other depictions of dragons can be seen as controlling different forces of nature and the elements in Chinese art, conveying them to be different deities of those elements.
Budge, E. A. W. 1969. The Gods of the Egyptians: Studies in Egyptian Mythology. Vol. 1. Courier Dover Publications.
Gupte, B. A. 1994. Hindu Holidays and Ceremonials: With Dissertations on Origin, Folklore
and Symbols. Asian Educational Services.
Ingersoll, E. 1999. Dragons and Dragon Lore. Book Tree.
Lall, R. 2004. Among the Hindus: A Study of Hindu Festivals. Asian Educational Services.
Sanford, A. W. 1988. Hinduism and Development. In: Handbook of Research on Development and Religion. Edward Elgar Publishing.
Murison, R. G. 1905. The serpent in the Old Testament. The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 21:115-130.
Speck, F. G. 1923. Reptile lore of the Northern Indians. The Journal Of American Folklore 36: 273-80.
Stanley, J. W. 2008. Snakes: Objects of Religion, Fear, and Myth. Self-published here
Tenney, M. C. 1997. John: the Gospel of Belief: an Analytic Study of the Text. Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing.
Tylor, E. B. 1871. Anamism. In: Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom. Vol. 2. John Murray.