Posted by: smstrouse | August 16, 2015

Snakes Alive Redux

Well, a good time was had by all at the Serpentine Celebration Circle for Women at Terra’s Temple last night. It was a celebration of the Divine feminine symbolized by the snake, organized by my friend Sridevi Ramanathan. August 19 is Nag Panchami is the festival of snakes on the Hindu calendar, so this was a fine way to celebrate.

My part of the evening was to explain how the serpent came to be equated with evil. So of course I started with Genesis 2-3. You know the story: Eve s tempted by the devil. Oh, wait; it doesn’t say that, does it? No devil or Satan figure in Genesis – which was written, by the way around 500 BCE during the Hebrew exile in Babylon.

This is where they would have become familiar with the ancient Gilgamesh Epic, written around 2100 BCE. In this creation myth, a man is created from the soil by a god, lives in a natural setting among the animals, and is introduced to a woman who tempts him. Hmm, sound familiar? Parallels between stories of Enkidu/Shamhat and Adam/Eve have long recognized by scholars. But to top it all off, a snake steals a plant of immortality from the hero.

Creation stories from the Nag Hammadi library tell interesting variations on the tale. In The Hypostasis of the Archons, the “female spiritual principle” comes into the snake as an instructor, then goes away, leaving the snake behind as “merely a thing of the earth.”And in The Testimony of Truth, the author casts the serpent as the hero and comments about God: “Surely, he has shown himself to be a malicious grudger!”

Genesis is not the only source of serpentine wisdom. In Numbers, Moses lifts up a bronze serpent on a pole in order to heal the people who have been bitten by poisonous snakes. John’s gospel takes up the theme again, casting Jesus as the healing presence being lifted up. Hmm, Jesus the serpent? And of course in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Not an evil way of being at all.

The thing is: the symbol of the serpent is multivalent. You can find places where the snake represents wisdom, healing and eternal life. You find places where it’s about temptation and death. And you can find places where it’s both. Like the cross (and the snake on the pole): a symbol of death that also brings life.

So, celebrate snakes this week and let’s wish a Happy Nag Panchami to all our Hindu friends!

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