Mythologies of the Snake

The Chinese New year officially starts February 10th this year. According to a Chinese legend, the Jade Emperor held a race across a river to determine which animals the 12 years of the zodiac would be named for.  It looked like the horse was slated to come in sixth place, but at the last second the snake slithered out from between the horse’s hooves and stole sixth place.  By some accounts the snake was just being sneaky in her slithering ways, and by some accounts the snake beat the horse by scaring him and causing him to hesitate.  Either way, the Year of the Snake is now the sixth sign in the Chinese zodiac.

In China and Southeast Asia, the snake is considered a symbol of luck.  Snakes balance the ecosystem by eating mice, and hence, protecting crops.  The skin, venom, and gallbladder of snakes are valued as medicine.  In these cultures having a snake in the house is a good omen – it means that your family will never starve.  This can be taken literally or figuratively, as a person born the Year of the Snake is known to be a good provider for his or her family.

Perceived as being both exotic and familiar, snakes are central to the mythologies of cultures around the world.  Their unblinking, lidless eyes were taken as a sign of wisdom and intelligence, and yet their thought process is as alien to humans as their method of movement, consisting of continual contracting and relaxing.  In Hopi culture snakes are regarded as a symbol of fertility and an annual dance is performed where live snakes are released in to the fields to guarantee healthy crops.  In ancient Crete the great goddess had snakes as her familiars, often twining around her.  They were regarded as protectors of her mysteries.  In the African Dohomey culture the snake god, Danh, circled the world like a belt, preventing it from flying apart.  According to Egyptian mythology, the state of the world before creation was symbolized as Amduat, a many coiled  serpent from which Ra (the sun), and all creation arose.  The Rod of Asclepius, a rod entwined by a snake, is a symbol from Greek mythology.  Asclepius is a deity devoted to health and healing, and his symbol in still used today in medical professions.    As indicated by the Ouroboros, a classical symbol depicting a snake eating its own tale, the snake is a universal symbol of immortality.  The snake is also repeatedly a symbol of the umbilical chord, connecting all humans to mother earth.  An example of this is the Indian myth of The Great Flood.   In this story the god Vishnu asks a man, Manu, to build an ark to house the creatures that are chosen to survive the great flood. (Sound familiar?)   Vishnu then takes the form of a giant fish and sends a giant serpent to connect the ark to him, so that he can steer the ship through the turbulent waters.

References to snakes (serpents) appear countless times in the Bible in both the old and new testaments.    Perhaps the most powerful image of the snake in Western culture is the biblical tale of the Garden of Eden, where the serpent appears and ultimately tempts Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, causing Adam and Eve to be banished from Eden.  In Catholic elementary school, we were taught that the snake was a form of Satan, tempting the weak mortals to disobey the one true God.  It has been a long time since Catholic school and I now regard this serpent as the force that removed the veil of childlike innocence from Adam and Eve – a rite of passage for everyone on his or her spiritual journey.  These are only a few examples of the snake making a slithering appearance in to the mythologies of cultures throughout the world.


So, according to the Chinese legend what did the snake win for coming in sixth place?  Snake won exactly what all the other animals won.  Since each animal used his or her unique talents to complete the race, all the children born in his or her year would be gifted with that animal’s attributes, and the negative qualities that are the flip side of those attributes.

Snakes are known for being secretive and mysterious, which as an artist can be an advantage or disadvantage.  This is a year for all Snake artists, and all snakes in general, to embrace our unique qualities to make the projects we are working on come to fruition.  Are you up for the challenge, snakies?