When did we learn to fear snakes?
The Hebrew name for Eve, Hawwah (or Havvah or Chavah) has been translated to “mother of all living,” or simply “life” or “breath.” But scholars have also traced the etymology to words for serpent, possibly from the Phoenician snake goddess Havat, or the term for beast of the field, chevya.
As Mary Condren writes in The Serpent and the Goddess, snakes mediate the relationship between the divine feminine and human culture. I think of the Minoan snake-goddess figurines found at archaeological sites in Crete or the Egyptian Wadjet, a serpent-moon Goddess, or Lilith, the scapegoat for all feminine wickedness (/ bad-assery.) Some histories credit snakes with helping the Sun rise. A winged serpent was carved onto the tomb of Rameses VI with the words: “She who causes to rise before Re. It is She who leads the Great God in the gate of the Eastern horizon.”
Snakes are inherently regenerative, and for this reason, they represent cycles of death and rebirth. Regrowth. Serpents slough their old skin as women shed their uterine lining once a month. Perhaps for this reason too, snakes represent a particular, inner wisdom—what Jung called gnosis: a “thinking from the intestines… a knowledge that comes from the blood.”
Maybe because her head is inseparable from her heart or her tail, the Serpent bridges paradox. The biblical snake leads us from innocence to experience; the Serpent in the Egyptian Book of the Dead wavers between “loving and hating the gods.” This wavering is internalized in the Hebrew letter connected to Serpent: Teth (ט). One Hebrew learning site describes Teth as a paradoxical letter, for its inverted form “reveals both good and evil.” Interestingly, this letter has been assigned to one of the Tarot’s more feminine major arcana: Strength (Lust in the Thoth deck), which invariably features a woman taming or riding a lion. This is the card that represents the zodiacal sign of Leo, whose sigil resembles a serpent too: ♌︎.
After Eve eats from the Tree of Knowledge, God curses the snake: “You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.” Nor does He stop here. Like a jealous boyfriend, God announces he will make Snake and Woman hate each other: “her offspring and yours will always be enemies. Her offspring will crush your head, and you will bite her offspring’s heel.”
To Woman, he says: “I will increase your trouble in pregnancy and your pain in giving birth. In spite of this, you will still have desire for your husband, yet you will be subject to him.”
And to Man: “You listened to your wife and ate the fruit which I told you not to eat. Because of what you have done, the ground will be under a curse. You will have to work hard all your life to make it produce enough food for you.”
Is it just me, or is the condemnation of the snake yoked to the roots of modern patriarchy?
And yet, we inscribe her form onto our ambulances by way of Asclepius’ healing rod or Hermes’ caduceus. Snakes were considered sacred in Ancient Greece. Their tendency to regenerate offered hope for those seeking a cure, and on a practical level, their venom had healing properties.
Last year, a bull snake visited Jasmine and me in Colorado. We shrieked and laughed. I climbed onto my chair. Yet even as I captured a ridiculous video for Instagram, the snake’s presence felt like a message, or messenger. We were working with Lilith at that time, a Goddess (quite literally) demonized for her subverting her slice of the patriarchy.
In this thorough post about Lilith, one commenter encapsulates her (and Snake more generally) with a lyric by Norwegian black metal band Satyricon. It feels fitting to conclude here, in the imagined words of Lilith: Damn you all for being so small.
The Archetypal Symbolism of Animals by Hannah Barbara
Goddess and the Serpent by Mary Condren
“Hebrew Word Study” by Skip Moen