The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Snakes are so central to witchcraft, spirituality and magic that a thousand-page book could be devoted to that topic alone. Of necessity, this has been compressed. What follows is only a brief synopsis, the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
Snakes play a profound role in witchcraft as familiars, companions, teachers and transmitters of magic, guardians of knowledge, and as witches themselves, transformed or otherwise. A Ukrainian word for “witch” is synonymous with “snake.” This may be understood as the stealthy dangerous snake in the grass or as a mysterious, powerful, holy being, however you choose.
Snakes are symbolic of birth, life, immortality, rebirth, fertility, sexuality, health, and wisdom—especially women’s wisdom. Snake venom potentially kills or cures, as do shamans, healers, and witches.
Hibernating snakes burrow within Earth; emerging in the spring, they’re believed to carry Earth’s secrets as well as her sacred generative powers with them. No animal is as identified with the powers of Earth or Great Mother Goddesses as the snake.
Snakes are emblematic of sex, generative power, and childbirth. Snakes unite the male and female generative principles as surely as does the pestle in the mortar. Snakes are understood as animals that resemble both female and male genitalia. Male resemblance is obvious—how many blues singers boast of being “crawling king snakes” or similar serpentine forces? No need to make the comparison any clearer; that’s a metaphor anyone can figure out. The resemblance to female genitalia is more subtle. The snake possesses an unhinged jaw that enables it to open up so wide that it can swallow prey bigger than its head. This was understood to symbolize the vagina, which magically opens to disgorge a baby.
Although snakes are associated with healing in general, they are particularly associated with women’s reproductive health. In Rome, it was believed that contact with snakes improved a woman’s health. It’s believed in many places that snakes actually taught women the techniques of childbirth, undulating their bodies in demonstration. Snakes are literally brought into the birthing chamber in areas as far apart as China and Arabia, sometimes for the express purpose of entrancing the laboring woman for an easier, speedier, safer birth. If snakes aren’t available or convenient, belly dancers substitute, especially snake or sword dancers, shimmying with sinuous movements to help lead the birthing mother in the childbirth dance.
Neolithic pottery from near Kiev shows snakes surrounding a pregnant womb, protecting the treasure within. Horned snakes were emblems of fertility, regeneration, and healing in Celtic Europe.
It has been suggested that the identification of women with snakes reveals women’s attachment to Earth, to Earthly (material) things and powers—an attachment that prevents them from attaining salvation and spiritual freedom. And of course, the snake most people are familiar with is the one that tempted Eve. Based on this story, snakes eventually became identified with Satan, known as that old serpent. (Other versions prefer a female snake; identifying it with a diabolized Lilith, the former childbirth spirit who shed her skin to become the Queen of Demons.)
Because the Bible is often used to rationalize violence toward witches and witchcraft as well as hostility toward snakes, it’s worth taking a brief second look. The Bible has famously been interpreted and reinterpreted to suit many purposes. The word that characterizes attitudes towards snakes in the Old Testament isn’t horror or disgust but ambivalence. The snake’s appearance in the Garden of Eden isn’t its only appearance: snakes are a common motif in the Jewish Bible.
Various versions of the Adam and Eve tale posit a different understanding. Ancient Gnostics, who understood material Earth to be created by a deceptive usurping demi-god, not the true Creator, perceived that the snake was trying to warn and save Eve. In some versions, the snake may even be the Creator deity. A modern Hasidic take on the story suggests the snake ultimately did us a favor; no potential for human growth exists in Paradise. It’s like the womb; no matter how comfortable you are, ultimately you have to get out and start living if you want to survive.
The most famous serpentine appearances include the following:
The Garden of Eden (Genesis 3: 1-24): However else you may interpret the story, one thing is true: the snake never lies to Eve. The snake speaks directly to Eve; this was once understood to mean she was more vulnerable to sin and temptation. It may also reflect women’s ancient spiritual association with snakes. Eve is punished with painful childbirth—the once cordial relationship between people and snakes is broken. This may be understood as observation of the results of snake-spirituality suppression, rather than as something inevitable or even desirable. If the relationship is sundered and if snakes symbolize women’s primal wisdom, the end result will be that women lack the information required for easier, less painful labor.
Rods before Pharaoh (Exodus 7: 8-13): Rods are magically turned into snakes, a trick quickly reproduced by the Egyptian magicians, because, as every anthropology book points out, this common trick is still played by Indian snake charmers. Of course, the real magic comes when Aaron’s rod-turned snake eats the others. This snake is a dangerous, mysterious but sacred sign from God, who may be understood in this context to be affiliated with snakes not opposed to them.
Fiery serpent of the desert (Numbers 21: 5-9): In a bit of prophylactic magic, when the children of Israel are plagued by snakes in the desert, the Lord instructs Moses to create a brazen serpent, indicating the presence of magical metal workers. Again, the snake is not identified with any evil being or impulse but with safety, protection and with God himself.
Any identification of the snake in the Garden of Eden with Satan was not explicit until the first century after Christ. That connection was initially established in a number of first-century texts, either entirely Christian in origin or influenced by Christianity.
Hezekiah breaks fiery serpent Nehushtan (2 Kings 18: 1-4): The brazen serpent was preserved and named (Nehushtan, a name with linguistic roots similar to words for “magic”) and eventually moved into the Jerusalem Temple, where it remained for 500 years as an official cult object before it was pulverized in a fit of religious reformation.
That snakes would be associated with the biblical Creator shouldn’t be surprising; snakes play the role of Creators themselves in sacred stories from around the world.
In China, the goddess Nu Kua, half-snake, half-woman molds humans from clay and puts the universe into order.
The Pelasgians were early inhabitants of Greece. According to their creation myth, in the beginning Eurynome, the All-Goddess, rose from Chaos. Dividing the sky from the waters, she began to dance on the waves. Out of the wind, Eurynome created a huge serpent and named him Ophion. They danced together, then Ophion coiled about her and she conceived. Eurynome transformed into a dove and brooded over the waters. She laid the universal egg and bade Ophion coil around it until it was time to hatch. Out of that egg emerged all of Creation, Earth’s planets and all living creatures, all children of a goddess and a primordial snake.
Wunekau, solar deity from New Guinea, is the Creator of the universe. Still actively involved with creation, Wunekau directs winds to make women conceive. Among manifestations of his divine presence is a giant snake.
Snakes are guardians of Earth’s hidden treasures and secret knowledge. Snakes protect all that is most valuable and control its distribution—wisdom, material wealth and treasure, health, and children.
Snakes are associated with the water element throughout much of the world. They are perceived as rain bringers and famously appear to people all over Earth in the form of the rainbow. There are some 50 species of sea snakes, almost all of which are venomous. Sea snakes aren’t restricted to the ocean. Some live in rivers, others in swamps or lakes.
According to Carl Jung, snakes represent the underworld, primordial matter, the dark, the unknown, the primal, the Earthy, the watery, the elemental.
Snakes have a long association with worship of the Great Mother, especially in Mediterranean region. The Egyptian hieroglyph for what would be understood today as “goddess” is expressed by the image of a cobra. Unke, the German snake guardian, is depicted as either a crowned half-fairy/half-snake or as an entire snake wearing a crown and carrying keys. She presides over a family of snake spirits, the Unken (plural), who watch over babies in their cradle. It was considered unlucky to kill or injure a snake as this might result in loss of prosperity or the death of a child.
Once holy, snake spirits would eventually become demonized just like real snakes: the Libyan snake goddess Lamia was transformed into a strix, a witch-like fiend thirsting for children’s blood in classical Greek mythology. Semitic snake spirit Lilith later emerges as a baby-killing vampire spirit, the Queen of Demons.
These are just a few deities associated with snakes. There are many more:
Asklepios and his daughter Hygeia (Greek) Athena (Libyan, Greek)
Damballah and Ayida Wedo (Damballah, the white snake, is the most ancient member of the Vodou pantheon; his wife Ayida Wedo is the rainbow serpent)
Ezili Freda Dahomey (Vodou)
Ix Tub Tun (Mayan snake goddess; spits rain and precious stones)
Kadesh (Semitic spirit of sexuality, beloved in ancient Egypt)
Kebechet (Egyptian: Anubis’ daughter manifest in snake form; she is the purifying libation of water that revitalizes the dead)
Mami Waters (West and Central African)
Medusa (Libyan, Greek )
The Nagas (Indian)
Ogun (West African)
Persephone (Greek )
Quetzalcoatl (Aztec “plumed serpent”)
Serapis (Hellenic Egypt)
Simbi (Congolese guardian of fountains, marshes, and fresh water)
Snakes are emblems of death. Etruscan Hades grasps a snake while his wife, Persephone, has serpents entwined in her hair—as does that other death deity, Hecate. Shiva and Kali, India’s deities of sex, birth, magic, and death are also both ornamented with snakes.
Snakes are emblems of immortality too. Snakes’ characteristic shedding of skin is emblematic of regeneration, rebirth, immortality, and restoration to health. They ensure that cycles of life continue, that generative powers can be renewed, revived and remain undiminished. Snakes are regarded as stimulators and guardians of life energy.
Snakes are emblems of prophecy: from the earliest times snakes have been connected to oracular power and divination. The women who served as the mouthpiece for the Oracle of Delphi (in truth, they were the oracle) are typically called “priestesses” in English. The actual term for them, however, was “pythia” or “pythoness”; they were understood as snake women. Originally Delphi was a snake shrine dedicated to the Earth Mother. When Apollo violently installed himself as the oracular spirit in charge, the snakes were killed. However, even afterwards, it was reputed that the vapors that stimulated prophesy emanated from the snake corpses left to rot under Apollo’s shrine so, dead or alive, the snakes remained responsible for the oracle.
According to ancient European tradition, if a snake bit someone, they would inherit the ability to prophesize. Vestiges of this belief survive in the snake-handlers of the Holiness tradition of the Appalachian Mountains.
Snakes are also emblems of healing, an identification that remains today. The symbol of the medical profession is the caduceus, Hermes’ double-snake entwined staff. (The emblem is often identified with Asklepios, the Sacred Physician, however his staff only has one snake.) Snakes are the original healing animals. They lived in the very first official hospitals, the temples of Asklepios, and were believed integral to the healing process. The appearance of a snake to an ill person, whether in person or in dreams or visions, was understood as an omen of healing and renewal, not death.
The sangoma are traditional Southern African healers, frequently female. Their medical career is often initiated when they are called by an ancestral spirit, usually during puberty. This calling manifests in various ways; frequently the ancestor visits in a dream during an illness. The person must then seek out an experienced sangoma for training. Resisting the call leads to illness and breakdown. Dreams vary in content; however, according to those individuals who’ve chosen to share their experiences, they virtually always somehow involve a snake.
The practice of handling poisonous snakes in spiritual ritual is found independently throughout Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America. Snake-charming, which now most frequently relies on illusion, is a derivative of this magicalspiritual art. Genuine snake handling survives in pockets around the world, most famously among the Hopi Snake Dancers of Arizona, and perhaps most surprisingly in the Christian Holiness tradition of the Appalachian Mountains.
Snakes serve as personal guardian spirits and the equivalent of household familiars. Zaltys, the Baltic grass snake, was revered and kept as a living guardian in shrines. Maintaining Zaltys in one’s home, in the form of a grass snake, was believed to bring blessings and good fortune. The snake was kept under the marital bed or near the home stove. In Baltic regions snakes were understood to radiate life energy and so were never killed.
Polish bishop Jan Lasicki, writing in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, reported that once a year, domestic snakes were charmed out of their hiding places by pagan priests and offered the finest food to eat, in an attempt to guarantee a prosperous new year.
Dragons, also identified with witchcraft, are a subcategory of snakes.
Hecate drives a chariot drawn by dragons.
When the Norse hero Sigurd tastes dragon’s blood in The Volsung Saga, he immediately understands the speech of birds—luckily for him, as this ability will save his life.
Dragons symbolize paganism. When Saint George and other knights slay dragons, they are emphasizing Christian victory over other traditions.
Dragons symbolize menstruation. When Saint George and other knights slay dragons, well…
In Japan snake familiars are considered similar to fox spirits. However, while fox spirits run in packs, typically there’s only one snake spirit per household. The snake lives in a pot in the kitchen and is fed on the family’s food plus offerings of saké. The snake is believed sent out to cause harm to others. The chief symptom of snake-spirit attack is sudden, severe pain in the joints.