“For ages beyond time, the gods conspired to contain this black power…It was circumscribed, propitiated, and hidden in the pantheon, but its essential nature could not be denied. It alone – she alone – grew in strength as other deities faded from mortal memory, for she alone embodied the dark underside of an essentially benign universe – a universe whose reality had been forged through the millennia by the consciousness of gods and men alike.
But she was not the product of consciousness. She was the focus and residue of all the atavistic thoughts and actions which ten thousand years of conscious striving had hoped to put behind.
In this century the Song of Kali had become a chorus. The smoke of sacrifice arose to the clouded dwelling place of Kali, and the goddess awoke to hear her song.”—Dan Simmons, The Song of Kali (1985)
Snake worship—ophiolatry—has been traced to prehistoric Dravidian times, before the Aryan invasion of the sub-continent in about 1600 B.C.” Other authors set the dates even earlier, some tracing ophiolatry back to the phallic cults which existed in India as early as 5000 B.C. But while the connection between snakes and the phallus is obvious and nearly universal to all early religions, it may only serve to diminish the actual importance of serpents on the sub-continent; in a land alternately swept by ravaging monsoons and severe droughts, the snakes were seen as being responsible for both extremes of nature. When monsoons came the snakes sought higher ground to escape the flooding which ensued, higher ground which was already occupied by the people of that land. And with the increased contact during those seasons, there was a wildly increased mortality rate among those inhabitants. So while the appearance of the serpents was a harbinger of a period of flooding to be followed by a renewal of the fertility of the land, they also brought with them death. Conversely, prolonged dry periods meant infrequent contact with snakes and came to be seen as times when the snakes disassociated themselves from humans. Given these physical conditions of monsoon and drought then, it was not unusual that snakes came to be associated by these ancient peoples with the forces of Nature, an association which gave rise to their belief in serpent deities, known as Nagas, to whom sacrifices were offered and temples of worship built. Among the legends of the Nagas (still believed by remnant snake-worshipping cults in some areas of Southern and Western India), were stories of Nagas haunting lakes and ponds and sources of rivers, and, while they were beneficial givers of rain, if roused to anger they sent down hail storms to ravage the crops. They were also thought to guard volcanoes and manifest themselves as lightning; they could blow their breath across the land and cause droughts or send plagues of malaria—known in India still as ‘snake-wind disease.’ Hinduism—which like the ancient cults nearly always depicts the Nagas as the cobra—absorbed and expanded many of the serpent-worshippers’ Naga legends. Shiva, the first and oldest of the Indian trinity, is sometimes called Mahadev, king of the serpents, and is described as having a girdle of cobras and wearing cobra earrings. Vishnu rests on the coils of the Naga Shesha, the thousand-headed cobra whom Brahma appointed Lord over all poisonous and fanged creatures. In one Hindu legend, Shesha longs to abnegate evil and begs Brahma for a task which would provide him with enlightenment, and Brahma gave Shesha the world to guard, which Shesha did by wrapping his body around the earth to protect it from evil influences. In another Shesha is even given a primary role in the Hindu creation story when, during one of the periodic dissolutions of the universe Shesha’s avatar Vasuki is used as a rope and looped around a sacred mountain, then pulled back and forth by gods and demons, churning a new universe from the cosmic sea.
Even Buddhist legend includes stories of the great Nagas; once, it’s said, while Buddha meditated in the desert, the Naga Muchilinda spread his great hood to protect the master from the sun. When Buddha awoke he lay his hand upon Muchilinda’s hood in gratitude, leaving behind the familiar spectacle mark common to a great many cobras. And on another occasion, when Buddha first arrived at the Ganges river, a welcoming committee of Nagas formed a bridge with their hoods for him to cross. But there were so many Nagas that they formed four bridges. Buddha, not wanting to slight any of them, courteously became four Buddhas who crossed the bridges simultaneously.
Snake worship refers to the high status of snakes or (nagas) in Hindu mythology. Nāga is the Sanskrit and Pāli word for a deity or class of entity or being, taking the form of a very large snake, found in Hinduism and Buddhism. The use of the term nāga is often ambiguous, as the word may also refer, in similar contexts, to one of several human tribes known as or nicknamed “Nāgas”; to elephants; and to ordinary snakes, particularly the King Cobra and the Indian Cobra, the latter of which is still called nāg in Hindi and other languages of India. A female nāga is a nāgī. The Snake primarily represents rebirth, death and mortality, due to its casting of its skin and being symbolically “reborn”. Over a large part of India there are carved representations of cobras or nagas or stones as substitutes. To these human food and flowers are offered and lights are burned before the shrines. Among some South Indian, a cobra which is accidentally killed is burned like a human being; no one would kill one intentionally. The serpent-god’s image is carried in an annual procession by a celibate priestess.
At one time there were many prevalent different renditions of the serpent cult located in India. In Northern India, a masculine version of the serpent named Nagaraja and known as the “king of the serpents” was worshipped. Instead of the “king of the serpents,” actual live snakes were worshipped in South India. The Manasa-cult in Bengal, India, however, was dedicated to the anthropomorphic serpent goddess, Manasa.
Nāgas form an important part of Hindu mythology. They play prominent roles in various legends:
Shesha (Adisesha, Sheshnaga, or the 1,000 headed snake) upholds the world on his many heads and is said to be used by Lord Vishnu to rest. Shesha also sheltered Lord Krishna from a thunderstorm during his birth.
Nag panchami is an important Hindu festival associated with snake worship which takes place of the fifth day of Shravana. Snake idols are offered gifts of milk and incense to help the worshipper to gain knowledge, wealth, and fame.
Different districts of Bengal celebrated the serpent in various ways. However, in the Bengal districts of East Mymensing, West Syhlet, and North Tippera, serpent-worship rituals were very similar. On the very last day of the Bengali month Sravana (July–August), all of these districts celebrated serpent-worship each year. Regardless of their class and station, every family during this time created a clay model of the serpent-deity – usually the serpent-goddess with two snakes spreading their hoods on her shoulders. The people worshipped this model at their homes and sacrificed a goat or a pigeon for the deity’s honor. Before the clay goddess was submerged in water at the end of the festival, the clay snakes were taken from her shoulders. The people believed that the earth these snakes were made from cured illnesses, especially children’s diseases.
These districts also worshipped an object know as a Karandi. Resembling a small house made of cork, the Karandi is decorated with images of snakes, the snake goddess, and snake legends on its walls and roof. The blood of the sacrificed animals was sprinkled on the Karandi and it also was submerged in the river at the end of the festival.
Serpents, or nāgas, play a particularly important role in Cambodian mythology. A well-known story explains the emergence of the Khmer people from the union of Indian and indigenous elements, the latter being represented as nāgas. According to the story, an Indian brahmana named Kaundinya came to Cambodia, which at the time was under the dominion of the naga king. The naga princess Soma sallied forth to fight against the invader but was defeated. Presented with the option of marrying the victorious Kaundinya, Soma readily agreed to do so, and together they ruled the land. The Khmer people are their descendants.
Ancient Near East
Ancient Mesopotamians and Semites believed that snakes were immortal because they could infinitely shed their skin and appear forever youthful, appearing in a fresh guise every time.  Before the arrival of the Israelites, snake cults were well established in Canaan in the Bronze Age, for archaeologists have uncovered serpent cult objects in Bronze Age strata at several pre-Israelite cities in Canaan: two at Megiddo, one at Gezer, one in the sanctum sanctorum of the Area H temple at Hazor, and two at Shechem.
in the surrounding region, serpent cult objects figured in other cultures. A late Bronze Age Hittite shrine in northern Syria contained a bronze statue of a god holding a serpent in one hand and a staff in the other. In sixth-century Babylon a pair of bronzer serpents flanked each of the four doorways of the temple of Esagila. At the Babylonian New Year’s festival, the priest was to commission from a woodworker, a metalworker and a goldsmith two images one of which “shall hold in its left hand a snake of cedar, raising its right [hand] to the god Nabu”. At the tell of Tepe Gawra, at least seventeen Early Bronze Age Assyrian bronze serpents were recovered.
Serpents figured prominently in archaic Greek myths. According to some sources, Ophion (“serpent”, a.k.a. Ophioneus), ruled the world with Eurynome before the two of them were cast down by Cronus and Rhea. The oracles of the Ancient Greeks were said to have been the continuation of the tradition begun with the worship of the Egyptian cobra goddess, Wadjet.
The MinoanSnake Goddess brandished a serpent in either hand, perhaps evoking her role as source of wisdom, rather than her role as Mistress of the Animals (Potnia theron), with a leopard under each arm. She is a Minoan version of the Canaanite fertility goddess AsherahIt is not by accident that later the infant Heracles, a liminal hero on the threshold between the old ways and the new Olympian world, also brandished the two serpents that “threatened” him in his cradle. Classical Greeks did not perceive that the threat was merely the threat of wisdom. But the gesture is the same as that of the Cretan goddess.
Amphisbaena a Greek word, from amphis, meaning “both ways”, and bainein, meaning “to go”, also called the “Mother of Ants”, is a mythological, ant-eating serpent with a head at each end. According to Greek mythology, the mythological amphisbaena was spawned from the blood that dripped from Medusa the Gorgon's head as Perseus flew over the Libyan Desert with her head in his hand.
Medusa and the other Gorgons were vicious female “monsters” with sharp fangs and hair of living, venomous snakes whose origins predate the written myths of Greece and who were the protectors of the most ancient ritual secrets. The Gorgons wore a belt of two intertwined serpents in the same configuration of the caduceus. The Gorgon was placed at the highest point and central of the relief on the Parthenon.
In Africa the chief centre of serpent worship was Dahomey, but the cult of the python seems to have been of exotic origin, dating back to the first quarter of the 17th century. By the conquest of Whydah the Dahomeyans were brought in contact with a people of serpent worshippers, and ended by adopting from them the beliefs which they at first despised. At Whydah, the chief centre, there is a serpent temple, tenanted by some fifty snakes. Every python of the danh-gbi kind must be treated with respect, and death is the penalty for killing one, even by accident. Danh-gbi has numerous wives, who until 1857 took part in a public procession from which the profane crowd was excluded; a python was carried round the town in a hammock, perhaps as a ceremony for the expulsion of evils. The rainbow-god of the Ashanti was also conceived to have the form of a snake. His messenger was said to be a small variety of boa, but only certain individuals, not the whole species, were sacred. In many parts of Africa the serpent is looked upon as the incarnation of deceased relatives. Among the Amazulu, as among the Betsileo of Madagascar, certain species are assigned as the abode of certain classes. The Maasai, on the other hand, regard each species as the habitat of a particular family of the tribe.
The Ancient Egyptians worshiped a number of snake gods, including Apophis and Set, and the Sumerians had a serpent god Ningizzida.
Australian Aborigine mythology
In Australia, the Aboriginal people worship a huge python, known by a variety of names but universally referred to as the Rainbow Serpent, that was said to have created the landscape, embodied the spirit of fresh water and punished lawbreakers. The Aborigines in southwest Australia called the serpent the Waugyl, while the Warramunga of the east coast worshipped the mythical Wollunqua.
Native American mythology
In America some of the Native American tribes give reverence to the rattlesnake as grandfather and king of snakes who is able to give fair winds or cause tempest. Among the Hopi of Arizona the serpent figures largely in one of the dances. The rattlesnake was worshipped in the Natchez temple of the sun and the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl was a feathered serpent-god. In many Meso-American cultures, the serpent was regarded as a portal between two worlds. The tribes of Peru are said to have adored great snakes in the pre-Inca days and in Chile the Mapuche made a serpent figure in their deluge beliefs. The Mound Builders associated great mystical value to the serpent, as the Serpent Mound demonstrates, though we are unable to unravel the particular associations.
Every cobra is said to possess a part of the Naga spirit and so many of the Naga legends persist throughout India today, not only as traditional Hindu lore but in common belief and superstition. When houses are built, regardless of whether the building is grand or a simple mud-hut, a metal stake is driven into the ground to prevent the Naga living there from turning and upsetting the dwelling. The Nagas, it’s also said, could assume human form, an act both male and female Nagas often performed when particularly taken with princesses or princes; many descendants of the royal families of India still trace their family histories back to one Naga or another. Too, Nagas are thought to have jewels or pearls in their hoods, which, according to Spence Hardy in his Eastern Monochism, “are thought to be formed in the throat of the Naga. They emit a light more brilliant than the purest diamond, and when the serpent wishes to discover anything in the dark it disgorges the substance, swallowing it again when the work is done.” A person who obtains one of these jewels is said to have power over Nagas and is assured good fortune and protection against venomous snake bite. For a human to obtain one of these jewels from the great Nagas like Shesha—whose thousand jewels upon his thousand heads light the serpent nether world—is unthinkable, but obtaining the jewel from a common cobra by stealing it while the stone, or mun, is disgorged is permissible, though should the cobra be killed during the theft great misfortune will befall the thief. In fact, the killing of any cobra, even by accident, is thought to bring such bad luck that the death is frequently followed by prayer and offerings to appease the Naga spirit. Those capable of assuring that the offering is acceptable are known in some parts of India as chelas, in others as jobis, sapiras or samp wallahs. They are the snake charmers.
Traditionally, snake charmers claim to be descendants of the ancient snake priests, whose living is earned performing public displays while they travel from village to village in the rural areas of Indian. Once a charmer’s credentials are validated—his work with dangerous serpents in his public performances is proof of his connection with the Naga spirit—he may be called on to execute any number of tasks the villagers need done. Unwanted snakes are removed from homes, prayers and offerings made to appease the Nagas for real or imagined slights, snake-bite remedies are provided and often charms for luck, or stones said to be muns themselves are offered for sale.
The snake charmer’s equipment includes his bheen—the snake flute—snake baskets and the snakes themselves. Cobras are the overwhelming favorite of charmers, both for their religious significance and their visual effect. “Cobras are large enough to be impressive, unquestionably dangerous and unmistakable because of their spectacular rearing stance with spread hood,” say the Mintons. “The bheen,” they continue, “consists of two wooden flutes fitted with bamboo reeds and cemented with beeswax into the bottle section of a gourd. Melodies are in minor keys and the tone is resonant and piercing, with the strong beat common to most Indian ragas.” The bheen is the samp wallah’s trademark, often personalized with bits of mirror or stone or coins, and despite the fact that snakes can’t hear the melodies it plays, its use is important. The knocking on the basket prior to opening the lid puts the cobra on the alert and the appearance of the flute, seen by the snake as a potential enemy, causes the serpent to rear into its defensive stance. Once standing, the cobra’s entire forebody sways in imitation of the motion of the bheen, giving the appearance of dancing. Should the charmer sense a waning of his audience’s interest, he need only move the bheen quickly and the cobra will strike at it, hissing loudly as it does.
Rarely will a snake charmer use a ‘hot’ cobra, one whose fangs and poison glands are intact. The snake is simply too dangerous. To ‘cool’ the snake, its fangs are most frequently broken off near the root, leaving the cobra fully venomous but limiting its ability to strike. Some charmers cut out the entire venom system—which involves removing not only the venom glands but reservoirs, ducts and fangs on both sides of the mouth—but the damage sustained by the cobra in such an extensive operation by generally inexpert hands frequently results in death from blood loss or resultant infection. Some charmers find it expedient to leave the entire mouth intact and simply sew it shut.
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