Cobra Goddesses

By Lesley Jackson

Stele representing the cobra-goddess (upper tier) and snakes (lower tier). Department of Egyptian antiquities, LouvreBeing a contrary child I always liked snakes and was later delighted to discover that they had a very close relationship to the Goddess. I could never understand why snakes were considered evil when other deadly creatures were viewed as merely dangerous. This link to the Goddess subsequently explained it. The ability of the snake to shed its skin symbolises rebirth and cyclical time and links it to the ever-changing phases of the moon and so to women through their menstrual cycle. The snake is also a symbol of infinity, portrayed by the tail-eating Ouroborus. The symbolism of snakes is, appropriately enough, endless and far too vast a topic to dwell upon in one article so I will confine myself to three Egyptian Snake Goddesses.

Snakes were widespread and common in Egypt and there are numerous spells to prevent and cure snakebite. Despite this the Egyptians never viewed the snake as intrinsically evil just because it was potentially deadly. This is in contrast to most other cultures who saw a logical progression from dangerous to evil and as evil meant ‘anti-men’ the snake could then be vilified along with the Goddess it portrayed. Symbolism aside snakes did perform one very useful role for an agricultural people. They preyed on vermin, such as sparrows and rodents, which ransacked the food stores and spread disease. There were many snake deities in Egypt and the Snake Gods range from benevolent, though dangerous, to the ultimate evil. Not so the Snake Goddesses, they were all good though not necessarily safe. The Snake Goddesses are all portrayed as cobras; indeed the determinative (a symbol used to clarify the meaning of a word but which is not pronounced) for ‘Goddess’ is a rearing cobra. Why the cobra is considered feminine is not clear. Certainly the rearing cobra with an erect hood is very impressive. Maybe the hood gives the cobra curves that are more suggestive of a woman compared to the straighter, more phallic form of other snakes. Continue reading "Cobra Goddesses"