Snakes on the Brain

"Snakes on a Plane" was the film box-office leader last weekend, much to the chagrin of herpetologists such as London Zoo curator Richard Gibson. He pointed out that "if you had a box of snakes on a real plane and, for some reason, the door fell off the box, they would almost certainly slither away into smaller places, curl up and hide. (By nature snakes are) passive and secretive."

Gibson is irritated by the anti-serpent bias of the American media, and he has reason to be — because snakes at other times and in other cultures have had good press. The Greek historian Plutarch two millennia ago wrote that "the men of old associated the serpent most of all beasts with heroes." Thousand of miles away, an ancient Chinese legend told of a wonderful garden with a tree, guarded by a good dragon or winged serpent, that bore fruit of immortality and wisdom.

I’m not sure what to make of all the cultures that have turned snakes into heroes, but every once in a while it’s time to write a column full of weird stuff. So is there something significant about the ancient Canaanites worshipping a goddess associated with a serpent? Or vases from ancient Babylon displaying an enormous snake encompassing the universe? (Other vases show a snake below a plant or above the belly of a pregnant woman.) Or the Persian portrayal of the great sky serpent Azhi Dahaka as the creator of all the planets in the sky?

Author Robert Bowie Johnson, Jr., finds significance in the ancient Greek understanding of serpents. He describes in "The Parthenon Code" (2004) vases depicting a first couple standing by a serpent-entwined tree in an ancient paradise, and claims that the Parthenon presented part of the Genesis saga — but from the serpent’s point of view. Did the Greeks celebrate the taking of the forbidden fruit as one small reach for a person, and one large leap toward wisdom for mankind? (Wise Athena, commonly portrayed with a snake, derived her name from a-thanatos, without death.)

Answering questions like that is beyond my pay grade, but it’s interesting that the Fon people of Dahomey worshipped a great serpent god that encircled the whole world and brought unity and wholeness. Other Africans claimed that the serpent created the God of creation; some said the first man and woman were blind and the python gave them eyesight.

And what about Toltec, Mayan and Aztec worship of a feathered serpent? Why did residents of the Solomon Islands offer the first coconut from each tree to a great serpent god? What to make of the belief in Fiji that a serpent god nurtured two tiny human beings who emerged from a hawk’s egg, and taught them how to grow bananas?

On visits to India and Cambodia I’ve seen many temple depictions of snakes with crowns, or of men and gods riding or reclining on serpents. The most frequent illustration is of a central Hindu myth which has Vishnu grabbing a divine serpent and winding him around a holy mountain: Good guys and demons then pull on both ends of the snake for a thousand years, turning it into a churn that brings forth from the milky ocean the butter of immortality.

Other Hindu sculptures depict Vishnu as reclining on the coils of his pet serpent. One Hindu semi-scripture, the Linga Purana, has snakes originating from Brahma’s tears that flowed when he realized he could not create the universe alone. Some Buddhist legends say that Muchalinda, king of the serpents, gave the Buddha his deepest understanding. Other stories merely state that Muchalinda protected the Buddha from an otherwise-deadly storm as the Buddha sat under the serpent king’s tree and meditated.

The deeper meaning of a lot of this, if there is any, beats me, but British myth-tracer Arthur Lillie in 1909 thought the worship of serpents in virtually every country of the ancient world was significant. Was he on to something?