In the ancient world, snakes represented fertility, creativity, rebirth, wisdom and, even, death. They were often closely connected to female goddesses, priestesses and powerful human females who were the embodiment of such powers. For example, there is the Minoan goddess/priestess holding the two snakes in her outstretched arms. She is closely linked with fertility and domesticity. Similar figurines, with similar associations and dating to approximately 1200 BCE, have also been founded in the land of what once was Canaan, where Israelites also lived. Medusa, in whose hair lived venomous snakes, turned men who looked at her to stone. Ovid’s account of the creation of Medusa credits the Greek goddess Athena with Medusa’s lively hair. Another Greek legend says Perseus, after killing Medusa, gave her head to Athena who incorporated it into her shield. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, is portrayed often with snakes wrapped around her as a belt and/or on the floor next to her.
As I have mentioned before (in other posts), the authors of the Torah did as much as possible to distance themselves from paganism. For example, tattoos were forbidden because they were commonly associated with pagan gods and goddesses. Likewise, homosexual sexual acts were ancient pagan cult practices which is why sexual relations between two men were considered problematic (Leviticus 18:22). In the same vein, the Torah distanced Israelites from snakes because of their association with powerful, sacred forces, such as fertility, creativity, wisdom, and death.
It is very clear in the Torah’s depiction of the deity just how much distance there is between snakes, females and the holy. The Israelite deity is the wise, yet warrior, king with ‘his’ own powers of creation and destruction, life and death, prosperity and famine and so on. In fact, ‘he’ is the epitome of a creator having created the world and all that is in it. Anyone or any being that also has or represents such creativity, fertility, wisdom, and power over life and death has been scrupulously separated from what is considered pure and holy (see various places in Leviticus, such as chapter 12, 15:19, 20:18).
This happens time and again to female Israelites for what are common bodily processes: menstruation, childbirth, etc. When these processes occur, females are deemed ritually impure and must make atonement to once again be pure. It’s as if one has to apologize for one’s very existence.
Likewise, in the Torah, snakes get a bad rap. It is the snake in Genesis 3:1 that convinces Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. That same snake takes the blame for human disobeyal and suffers on account of it by being deprived of legs and forced to crawl on its stomach. A snake also appears in light of Moses’ self-doubt in Exodus 4:3. There, Moses throws his staff to the ground and it turns into a snake, scaring the wits out of poor Moses. In Numbers 21:6, the deity uses snakes and their deadly bites to kill many Israelites for questioning why they were brought into the wilderness (Numbers 21:5). Likewise, snakes are prohibited as food as they swarm as well as crawl on their bellies. In other words, they are unclean (various places in Leviticus, see 11:41-46 and 20:25-27).
Yet, there is perhaps one exception to this rule. The Torah acknowledges a positive pagan association when describing the snake of Genesis 3:1. Even though it is described as devious, the snake is also shown to be knowledgeable (or wise). After all, what the snake says becomes reality for Adam and Eve.
Before a few months ago, I would not have challenged the Torah’s vilification of snakes
even though it is closely connected to patriarchal conceptions of the deity and common bodily functions for most women. Then, I ran across Brian Barczyk’s vlogs on youtube.com one day. Brian and Lori, his wife who often appears in the vlogs too, own BHB Reptiles in Michigan. He has made it his personal mission to educate people about (mostly non-venomous) snakes and to share his passion for all types of reptiles. Barczyk’s philosophy behind snake-keeping and breeding, his approach to snakes, and his interactions with them have illustrated to me a different type of attitude towards snakes (and reptiles in general). I would categorize his outlook as one of fascination, awe, respect and love.
I never knew that there were so many varieties of snakes and in so many colors. He has lavender ones and ones that look like candy corn! They are beautiful. He also has huge snakes whose power should never be underestimated. He even has a snake he has named “loves to bite,” and another named Helen, a snake born with no eyes. Each snake has its own personality which one can get to know through interactions with them.
Through this education and exposure, he has challenged my perspective causing me to conclude that the Torah’s understanding of snakes is unfair and unjust. Now, I think snakes are fascinating and inquisitive beings! Snakes deserve our respect, not our fear and certainly not our demonization.
Education and exposure are such powerful tools when it comes to changing opinions, beliefs and mindsets. Surely, they are part of the tools we need to topple patriarchy. Even though I am not sure he’d characterize his vlog as anti-patriarchal per se, his vlog is an excellent example of just how mindsets can change through education and exposure. Thanks Brian for opening up my mind to the beautiful world of snakes.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D. is feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies and Ecofeminist courses.
8 thoughts on “On Snakes by Ivy Helman”
From my understanding, snakes represented the power of rebirth. This is because the shed their skin, making it look like they are born again in a new skin.
Where I used to live snakes would emerge from a rock ledge sheltering a spring on the first warm days of March and April. I would sit with them. Sometimes they would glide over my feet, their beautiful red forked tongues flickering. Once I found a dead snake near the spring, buried the body under some leaves and lit incense. Dozens of snakes came close, holding up their necks and heads as we sat together in stillness.
Thank you for questioning scriptural teachings and taking time to get to learn about this much vilified species.
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Riane Eisler (THE CHALICE AND THE BLADE) shows clearly this reversal that takes place by the redactors of the Hebrew Bible. What was once venerated and “true,” needed to be discounted. As you mention, the Israelite God took front and center stage so the old or pagan symbols (including snakes) needed to be brought to naught as much as possible. They were hugely successful, but not entirely. The particular passage in Numbers you mention continues with serpents being used as a positive (and healing) symbol. Many Israelites had been bitten by serpents for complaining and many died, but Moses constructs a pole with a bronze serpent atop, lifts it up, and all a bitten Israelite need do when bitten is to look at the image of the serpent on the pole and they would live. “Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord that He take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” So, it seems that the healing powers attributed to the serpent in the old order sneaks through into the newer patriarchal-saturated era. So much so that the Cadeceus is often used as a symbol in the modern era for medicine and healing. (Although the meaning and interpretation of a rod with two snakes wrapped around it has gone through much morphing.)
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I’ve never known a snake personally, but what I’ve observed is that they’re careful beings and that they seldom attack unless provoked. The negative mythology about snakes is nonsense. We are all kin, even reptiles and insects.
I live on the “wet” coast, where slugs grow as big as – well, gigantic! I go around in the Spring, inviting snakes to take up residence in my garden. Snakes eat slugs. I love them. They are also pleasant to my touch, not slimy at all.
I think that Israel’s neighbours appreciated the positive virtues of snakes. So they were included in their worship and goddess and god-images. But Israel, so like us, feared people who were not like them. Such people threaten the status quo and require us to open ourselves to thought and discernment. Once such isolation and narrowness becomes “religion-ized”, it’s most difficult to change. Sort of like trying to change the image of god as an old, bearded, all-powerful, white man.
We are in the generations that move people to open hearts and minds to the sacredness of ALL creation. Continue on sisters, continue on!
Fascinating post, Ivy. My late husband loved snakes. I’m from California, where there are lots of rattlesnakes, and I’ve always been terrified of them. When I told my husband I was almost phobic in my dislike of them he told me that there were no venomous snakes here in Maine and that snakes are more afraid of me than I am of them. When he finished he said, there, don’t you feel better about snakes? I smiled and replied, “What part of ‘phobic’ do you not understand?!” I have since learned to respect them, especially when I learned that they are associated with the Goddess and that the Genesis story of the snake in the Garden of Eden was just a way to discredit Goddess worship.
“A snake also appears in light of Moses’ self-doubt in Exodus 4:3. There, Moses throws his staff to the ground and it turns into a snake, scaring the wits out of poor Moses.”
I am struck by the fact that the snake incarnates in the presence of self doubt. Perhaps the serpent was a manifestation of Wild nature supporting that doubt?
How on earth did I miss this fascinating post earlier? Thank you for this, Ivy. Snakes have always fascinated me. They’ve had a bad rap. Every year on March 17 I wear my snake earrings and this year I’ll also wear the Egyptian cobra ring I recently bought. St. Patrick is reputed to have driven all the snakes out of Ireland–a ridiculous assertion on the face of it, as Ireland is an island and didn’t have snakes in the first place.
Now it is thought that what he really did was drive out all the Pagans. The snake, symbol of fertility and wisdom, emblematic of the Pagan religion, was to be repudiated. Well, I repudiate the repudiation!
Take that, St. Pat.