Fairy tales for the Yuletide season!

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Serpent: Symbol of Knowledge and Sexuality

Fairy Tale Factum

Snake images appear in the mythology of ancient cultures across pre-Christian Europe. Serpent symbols have been found carved on Pictish stones in Scotland and in ancient Rome, girls took gifts of barley cake to the sacred serpent to assure their own reproductive powers and the fertility of the earth. In some ancient cultures snakes were worshipped (See 2. Kings 18.4 King Hezekiah breaking the bronze serpent of Moses). In others, myths speak of a snake maiden having the power to confer sovereignty on the king (early Arthurian Romance). Since early myths were first oral traditions and written down much later, often by persons critiquing rather explaining the cult, a precise understanding of the snake’s significance is difficult to fully reconstruct. Recurrent themes seem to suggest that the serpent represented both esoteric knowledge and a divine sexual power. To counter these pagan beliefs, the Bible makes it perfectly clear that it was a snake that led to the downfall of man, linking the serpent forever with Satan and evil. Clement of Alexandria (2nd – 3rd century A.D.) described the snake that tempted Eve as having a female head. Thus, it was a temptress that brought sin and misery into the world and the snake has had a bad reputation ever since.
The Snake Maiden told below has the pagan element of a kindly attitude toward the serpent; snake veneration may even be at its core. But the Christian notion of the need to redeem sinful and pagan practices of the past is evident in this story. The maiden must be freed from the curse of her hideous condition, resulting in physical transformation and spiritual redemption. But perhaps respect for the snake and old traditions had its merits. Fear and loathing of snakes is not necessarily a good thing.