by Linda Foubister
Goddess in the Grass explores the relationship between the Goddess and her sacred symbol, the serpent, by focusing on myths and fairy tales from cultures around the world and from the dawn of humans to the present day.
The serpent is associated with renewal, fertility and prosperity but like many images of the Goddess, it has come to symbolize evil. Goddess in the Grass examines the symbolic meanings of the Serpent Goddess, revealing her origins as the life-giving, death-dealing Great Goddess. This excerpt looks at the renewal aspects of the Serpent Goddess.
The Renewing Serpent Goddess
In prehistoric times, images of the serpent indicated seasonal renewal, the coming of spring and summer. In Europe, the emergence of the snake in spring from its winter hibernation took on a prophetic quality, with certain signs predicting either a prosperous or a difficult new year. The ability of the snake to shed its skin led to the old belief that snakes were immortal. The Serpent Goddess was worshipped for her ability to renew life, healing illness in the process.
Carvings by the Magdalenian people, the last of the hunter-gatherers in Europe, reveal images of serpents, snake coils, and spirals. The context for such images can be seen on a pierced baton found in the Montgaudier cave in southwestern France, carved with images of two seals, two snakes, a salmon, and a flower. Archaeologist Alexander Marshack suggested that these images represented the coming of spring. He noted that common European snakes
…emerge from hibernation in the early spring to mate and form breeding pairs. These serpents are amphibious and can be seen snaking across streams in the same season as the first salmon and the occasional seal…. Every image on the baton was seasonal and representative of early spring, perhaps mid-April to May in Ice Age Europe.1
In another example of Magdalenian bone engravings, a bone from the Grotte de Lorthet, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, shows a fork-tongued serpent surrounded by two rows of schematized young birds, two plants forms, and other signs. Marshack noted that the chicks, the plants and the serpent are all signs of spring, representing elements of air and earth. He believed that the images were featured in seasonal stories, but what the stories were, or what the use of the bone was, is not known.
The bird and snake appear on late Upper Paleolithic carvings as adversaries. For example, an engraved bone from Paglicci cave in the Apulia region of southeastern Italy shows a duck superimposed on a nest full of eggs, with a snake arced over the nest as if to steal the eggs. Marshack believed that this, too, was a seasonal image, with the duck engraved first then the nest, and finally the snake. A bird of a different species, located to the side of the snake, could have symbolized summer. In addition to being shown with birds and plants, the snake was also seen with fish, deer and horses. These images were believed to relate to seasonal myths, and to be associated with ritual use.
In the later myths of the Celts, the role of the snake as the sign of spring is explicit. The snake is a form of the goddess, Brigit (also known as Bride), who is celebrated on February 1, or Imbolc. On this day, the Goddess, represented by the snake, comes out of the mound in which she hibernated over winter. Her behavior is thought to determine the length of the remaining period of frost, a forerunner of Groundhog Day in America. There are several sayings relating to this event, such as:
This is the day of Bride
The queen shall come from the mound,
I will not touch the queen,
Nor will the queen touch me.2
Despite all the assertions of not hurting the serpent, a Scottish custom of killing the serpent in effigy, by pounding a chunk of peat in a stocking while chanting the above verse, was recorded by Alexander Carmichael in the late 19th century. It would seem that a separate custom, perhaps related to the demonization of the Serpent Goddess, became confused with the earlier serpent worship traditions.
In Scotland, St. Bride was dubbed “the serpent queen.” At Inverness, she was associated with a barrow at Glenelg, which was said to have connections with serpent worship, and from which she was supposed to have arisen on February 1, St. Bride’s Day.
In a similar Scottish tradition, the winter goddess, the Cailleach, is said to gather wood for the rest of the winter on February 1. If the winter is going to last longer, she ensures that the day is sunny so she can gather a lot of wood. If the weather is foul, the Cailleach will soon run out of wood and spring will come early.
This connection is also seen in Lithuanian myths. The Lithuanians worshipped Saule, the sun goddess, whose sacred animal was the grass snake or zaltys. People showed her respect by taking care of her snake. Even after Lithuanians became Christians in the 15th century, they continued to revere green snakes, celebrating the “Day of Serpents” on January 25. According to Marija Gimbutas, the “awakening of the snakes meant the awakening of all nature, the beginning of the life of the new year.”3 On that day, people prepared various dishes for the snakes and invited them into their homes. If the snakes tasted the food, the year would be prosperous. If not, the family would experience great misfortune. Furthermore, encountering a snake predicted a marriage or birth.
Similarly, in rural Java, a snake coming into the house predicts a good harvest and accordingly, the people make offerings to the snake.
The Celtic and Lithuanian myths suggest that the emergence of the serpent at the time of spring renewal had some prophetic significance. Greek myths clearly illustrate the prophetic function of the Serpent Goddess at the Oracle of Delphi. According to some traditions, Gaea, the Greek Mother Earth, founded the Oracle and assigned the task of guarding it to her serpent daughter, called either Python or Delphyne. Dating from 1200 BCE, the Oracle was located on the slopes of Mount Parnassus near the Castalian Spring. The Serpent Goddess is often found near springs and pools.
The original name of Delphi was Pytho. Priestesses called Pythia pronounced oracles at the sacred site. Gaea herself was the first “Pythia.” Her daughter, Themis, the Queen of the Oracles and the Titan Goddess of Law, continued the long line of Pythias, which lasted more than 1000 years. The Pythia would inhale vapors from a crevice in the rock, and, with her python wound around her, would make predictions on all matters, both civil and sacred. Some traditions hold that it was Python who originally uttered the prophecies. This would explain why the oracular priestesses were called Pythias; they were named after the Serpent Goddess in her prophetic role.
When Apollo killed his rival, Python, she was buried under the womb-like omphalos stone at the temple of Delphi. It was said that priestesses gained their prophetic powers by inhaling the fumes from her decaying body. The Pythia would sit on the golden tripod, a symbol of Apollo, inhaling vapors from the fissure below, and allow the voice of Apollo to speak through her. The priest would interpret her words, speaking in verse.
The Oracle at Delphi remained a major religious center for 2000 years and became very wealthy from offerings and tributes. Leaders of the ancient world, including Alexander the Great, consulted the Oracle for pronouncements on the future. The Romans took over Delphi in 191 BCE, and after the official introduction of Christianity, forbade worship at Delphi in 390 CE.
The myth of Tiresias also illustrates the link between snakes and prophecy. Tiresias, a mortal, happens upon two serpents, mating. When he kills the female with his staff, he is changed from a man into a woman. He lives as a woman for seven years. In the eighth year, he sees the mating serpents again. This time he kills the male serpent and once again becomes a man. The mating serpents recall the world-generating force that plays through the pairs of opposites, male and female, birth and death.
Later, when Zeus and Hera are debating which gender enjoys sex more, they ask Tiresias to resolve the debate, as he has experienced life as both a man and a woman. He replies that a man feels one of ten parts of pleasure when making love, and a woman feels the other nine. As a result, Hera loses the debate and, in anger, deprives Tiresias of his sight. Zeus however, rewards him with the gift of prophecy.
In another myth, the jealous Hera sends two serpents to kill the newborn hero, Heracles, son of the promiscuous Zeus and Alcmene, a Theban queen. Rather than being killed by the serpents, Heracles strangles them. Robert Graves postulated that this myth is based on a misinterpretation of an ancient image, which actually depicted Heracles caressing the serpents while they cleansed his ears with their tongues, giving him the gift of prophecy and an understanding of the language of animals.
Kassandra, a princess of Troy, also received the gift of prophecy from Apollo, when she was bitten on the ear by a snake. It is possible that snake venom may have enhanced sensory experiences, contributing to the gift of prophecy. The tradition is carried on in European fairy tales. In the Grimm Brothers tale, "The White Snake", a servant eats a piece of a snake from his King’s plate. Immediately, the servant is able to understand the speech of animals.
The prophetic function of the Serpent Goddess was continued in Roman times. The Roman author, Aelian (d. 222 CE), described a serpent sanctuary at Epirus in northwest Greece, believed to be a shrine to Apollo. Snakes were kept in a circular enclosure. A maiden priestess approached them, naked and carrying food. If the snakes were gentle toward her, it was believed that it would be a plentiful year. If they frightened her and did not take the offered honey cakes, it would be a bad year. The snakes were believed to have descended from Python at Delphi. In another example from Aelian, holy maidens, blindfolded, would venture into a cavern located in a sacred grove near Lavinium, Rome, to offer barley-cakes to the resident serpent. The serpent illustrated her divinatory power by accepting the offerings of the maidens who were virgins, and refusing the offerings of those who were impure.
Certain Greek myths may have had their origins in Egyptian myths, and it is possible that the prophetic role of the Serpent Goddess had its precursors in Egyptian goddesses. For example, one of the earliest oracles was located in the temple dedicated to Wadjet, the cobra goddess of Lower Egypt. Alternatively, another Egyptian cobra goddess, Renenutet gave newborns their secret name, or ren, based on her knowledge of their destiny.
The moon goddess of the Maya, Ix Chel, was also linked to prophecy. According to Spanish records, there was an Oracle of Ix Chel on the island of Cozumel, established about 800 CE, and probably one of many along the Yucatan coast. The life-sized clay statue of an old woman would speak to believers. The Spaniards noted that a small door would allow a priest (or priestess) to enter the statue and speak for the goddess.
As a herald of season renewal, the Serpent Goddess represents the eternal circle, knowing the future and helping the sick renew their health.
Goddess in the Grass: Serpentine Mythology and the Great Goddess is available as an ebook at major online book stores, including Amazon.uk, Apple iTunes, Barnes & Noble Nook Books, Kobo, Diesel and the Sony Ebook Store. ISBN: 978-0-9868859-0-7
- Marshack, Alexander, The Roots of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings of Man’s First Art, Symbol and Notation (New York: Moyer Bell, 1991), p. (return)
- From Carmichael, 1900, as quoted in Gimbutas, Marija, The Language of the Goddess (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1989), p. 135 (return)
- Gimbutas, Language, p. 135 (return)