A BIG opportunity
Religion | Do evil snake stories in many cultures suggest a garbled Garden of Eden history?
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 3/03/18, 11:11 am
This week’s edition of our Saturday Series begins the Book Idea Giveaway (BIG) that we’ll have periodically. I have a list of books I’d like to write but will never get to, so I’ll throw suggestions into the public domain from time to time, in the hope someone will run with them.
I may occasionally throw in encouraging comments people made about these ideas, not to toot my own horn—although I’m a sinner and not above that—but to show that someone (and maybe lots of people) care about what might seem esoteric. So, here’s a letter Chuck Colson sent me on Sept. 1, 2006:
In the August 19th  issue of WORLD, you wrote an article entitled “Snakes on the brain” which, from my perspective at least, is worth the entire amount I paid for my annual subscription. It is a stunning article. I was unaware of the fact that a lot of ancient cultures had a myth somewhat like the account in the Garden of Eden. I also am convinced that the right way to interpret Genesis is literally … with the original humans given a free will and disobeying. It’s the only way you can justify the evil and suffering in the world. It is brought on by humans who rebelled against God. So we can’t take them as figurative or as a creation myth.
I’ve never seen any discussion of this or any research on it, but it’s an absolutely fascinating point. There are only two ways you can understand this. Moses was aware of all these myths and we just embraced them and made it our own. I’d like to think that the case is much stronger that these stories had circulated because they were based on actually what happened in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, and that they had been handed down by oral tradition. And that Moses, when he wrote it under divine inspiration, got it right. …
This would be worth having someone do some serious research on, although I suspect it has already been done. Do you know anybody who had written anything on this which I could get my hands on? If not, this is a wonderful project for somebody to take on.
Chuck, who died in 2012, knows for sure now which way to understand the Garden of Eden story, but I think 12 years ago he surmised correctly: The evil snake stories exist in culture after culture because they are jagged memories of what occurred 10,000 or so years ago. Whether you’re an Old Earth or a Young Earth person, those stories suggest a young humanity. Materialistic and theistic evolutionists who say the Bible’s history of Adam and Eve is wrong should read faithfully the Bible and cultural history, asking: Why would all these different cultures have similar myths if they were not based in a reality that happened several hundred (not several million) generations ago?
Given that we have a God who has communicated with humanity, it’s completely reasonable He would make sure the communication was accurate—and that’s where Moses, perhaps with some later editors, comes in. It would be great for a Christian in the 21st century to do detailed research into serpentology around the world and develop further the idea that snake worship and hatred comes out of real history. In the 19th and 20th century, several books reported fear of and reverence toward snakes in a variety of cultures, but none that I saw tied that reality to Biblical accounts.
Here’s the article I wrote for the Aug. 19, 2006, issue of WORLD Magazine, which I hope will get some juices flowing. Enjoy.
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?