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Snakes on the brain

A much-discussed film opening this weekend, Snakes on a Plane, uses the cold-blooded legless reptiles as objects of fear.

Some cultures venerate cows. Others have made idols of bulls, horses, and even cats. But man has given only one creature across space and time nearly as much attention as the Creator, and made that creature the center of many stories involving trees, women, and coming-to-knowledge. British myth-tracer Arthur Lillie in 1909 called worship of serpents inexplicable but present in virtually every country of the ancient world.

For example, early Sumerian artifacts show pictures of a tree at the center of the world guarded by a snake or a pair of intertwined snakes. A Chaldean poem that is perhaps 4,500 years old tells of how Gilgamesh recovered from the bottom of the ocean a plant that would give eternal life, but while he rested briefly a snake ate it: The serpent became immortal, and Gilgamesh went home to die.

Greek historian Plutarch 2,000 years ago wrote that "the men of old associated the serpent most of all beasts with heroes." So did people thousands of miles away: Chinese lore at that time told of a wonderful garden with a tree, guarded by a dragon or winged serpent, that bears fruit of immortality and wisdom. The winged serpent here is a force for good, protecting also a mother-goddess.

In other ancient tales the serpent is evil. In Norse mythology, Odin created a gigantic ash-tree, but a terrible serpent or dragon gnawed at it. Persians taught that a tree in a garden gave birth to the first man, whose body then divided into two beings, male and female. Good initially, they were seduced by the devilish Ahriman taking the form of a serpent.

Some of the stories seem close to biblical history, others removed from it. Hindu scripture tells of good and evil celestial beings fighting until Vishnu grabbed a divine serpent, wound him around the holy mountain, and had the celestial beings pull on both ends for 1,000 years so that the great snake served as a stick that churned the milky ocean into the butter of immortality.

Bill Moyers in 1987 interviewed myth analyst Joseph Campbell and asked, "What does it say about what all of us have in common that so many of these stories contain similar elements-the forbidden fruit, the woman?. . . After years and years of reading these things, I am still overwhelmed at the similarities in cultures that are far, far apart. . . . How do you explain these similarities?"

Campbell agreed on the overwhelming incidence: "We find the symbolism of the serpent, tree, and garden of immortality already in the earliest cuneiform texts, depicted on Old Sumerian cylinder seals, and represented even in the arts and rites of primitive village folk throughout the world." But he applied to those facts the theories of psychoanalyst Karl Jung, who saw the serpent as an archetypal symbol, a psychic representation of unconscious functions.

Campbell told Moyers, "The snake sheds its skin to be born again. . . . The serpent represents immortal energy and consciousness engaged in the field of time, constantly throwing off death and being born again." It's all metaphor: None of those stories starring snakes, trees, and women signifies that anything involving those aspects of creation ever happened a long time ago.

But what if they did? What if through God's inspiration one writer, Moses, got the story right-and what if these other stories are dim and distorted echoes of a shared prehistory?

What should we make of the Bassari people of west Africa speaking of a great god, Unumbotte, who made Man and made Snake; when Snake proposed the eating of fruit, "Man and his wife took some of the fruit and ate it. Unumbotte came down from the sky and asked, 'Who ate the fruit?' The first couple admitted eating the fruit and said Snake had told them to do so."

What should we make of all the cultures that make the serpent the hero? The Fon people of Dahomey have a great serpent god that encircles the whole world and brings unity and wholeness. Other Africans speak of the serpent having created the God of creation; some say the first man and woman were blind and the python gave them eyesight. Others say that a great serpent created four pillars to hold the heaven, which other serpents now hold up.

The Canaanites worshipped a goddess associated with a serpent. Vases from ancient Babylon display an enormous snake encompassing the universe; other vases show a snake below a plant or above the belly of a pregnant woman. The Persians saw the great sky serpent Azhi Dahaka as the creator of all the planets in the sky. Other early West Asian myths proclaimed the serpent to be lord of sky, earth, and waters.

The ancient Greeks, according to Robert Bowie Johnson Jr.'s The Parthenon Code (2004), depicted on vases a first couple standing by a serpent-entwined tree in an ancient paradise, and told on the Parthenon parts of the Genesis saga-but from the serpent's point of view. The Greeks celebrated 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-taking as gospel the serpent's proclamation in Chapter 3 of Genesis that Eve would not die but would be as the gods, knowing good and evil.

Much of India carried the story from Satan's perspective one step further: God desperately needed the 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. Hindu sculpture often depicted Vishnu as reclining on the coils of a great serpent. My notes from visiting two dozen millennium-old Cambodian temples show the pattern: sculptures of snakes with crowns, men and gods riding or reclining on serpents, and so forth (see "Snake eyes," June 12, 2004).

Buddhism has many links to serpent worship. Some legends say that Muchalinda, king of the serpents, gave the Buddha his deepest understanding; others merely state that Muchalinda protected the Buddha from an otherwise-deadly storm as the Buddha sat under the serpent king's tree and meditated. Campbell emphasized the battle between Christianity and Buddhism: "In one of these two legends of the tree the service of the serpent is rejected and the animal itself cursed, in the other it is accepted."

Peoples far removed from these ancient civilizations also venerated snakes. The Toltecs, Mayans, and Aztecs worshipped a "feathered serpent," and residents of the Solomon Islands offered the first coconut from each tree to a great serpent god. Inhabitants of Fiji spoke of a serpent god that nurtured two tiny human beings who emerged from a hawk's egg, and taught them how to cultivate bananas and root crops.

The serpent's popularity has ebbed and flowed over the centuries. The Lombards of Italy worshipped a golden viper and a tree, but Bishop Barbatus of Benevento in a.d. 663 convinced them to cut down the tree and melt down the viper. Lately, the trend has gone the other way, as Joseph Campbell rejoiced while telling Bill Moyers about a Burmese movie he had seen that praised "the cobra, the giver of life, the giver of rain, as a divine positive figure, not a negative one."

Campbell twists the Genesis 3 account in an extraordinary way by claiming that "the serpent, who dies and is resurrected, shedding its skin and renewing its life, is the lord of the central tree, where time and eternity come together. He is the primary god, actually, in the Garden of Eden. Yahweh, the one who walks there in the cool of the evening, is just a visitor. The Garden is the serpent's place."

But perhaps the last laugh is on Campbell: He speaks abstractly of archetypes, but what if the stories all over the world, whether similar to the biblical account or turned upside down into praise of the serpent, suggest that stories about the real Garden of Eden, passed down through the generations and distorted in the process, lingered for millennia?

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is Reforming Journalism. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.