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Saturday, September 12, 2015

Mythic Humanoids – Serpent People and Dragon Shape Shifters – Part 2 (Symbolism)

Like fire that later came to be associated with serpent people's spin off dragons, depending on the people group the myths came from, serpent people could be good and helpful or cunning and evil. In some cultures they were both. For example, in ancient Egypt, Apepi, a giant serpent demon attacked Ra, the sun, while Mehen, another giant serpent coiled around the sun at night to protect him. Regardless of whether they are good  or evil, both serpents and dragons are usually associated with underwater or underground worlds, often with the roots of cosmic trees. (Niddhogg - Norse, Mictlan - Aztec, Veles – Slavic)

Serpents are often seen as messengers from the earth, symbolic of human's umbilical cord to the earth. By whispering secrets, they could bring wisdom and prophecy (Oracle of Delphi - Greek, Umai-hulhlya-wit – Diegueno Indians of California, Aesculapius's snakes with their dreams of healing- Greek, Shesha churning the ocean to bring amita - India) or even as some Greeks believed, confer second sight or second hearing by licking your eyes or ears.

Serpents can symbolize many things. Storms (rain and the resultant floods) have already been mentioned, but they are also associated with the resulting good harvests and the wealth it brings. Perhaps the wealth maybe be associated with the presence of serpents eating pests that eat the crops. Serpents being so helpful, is it any wonder serpents are also frequently thought of as lucky?

Another common interpretation of serpent's the long thin bodies, with the ability to wrap around themselves, is to compare them to the abstract shapes of circles and spirals. Whether the connection to this shape or serpents being associated with infinity and eternity came first is hard to know, but the connection is clear. Snakes' skin shedding abilities that replenish their scales to near newness is often associated with immortality.

Between serpent's connection with rain, floods and good harvest and their connection with immortality and infinity serpents are strongly associated with the cycle of life in mythology, capable of creating and destroying, of bring life and death. (Julunggul, the Great Rainbow Serpent – Australian Aborignee; Ophion incubating the primordial egg – Greek; Da, the World Serpent creating the sea of space and sky – the Fon people of Africa.) This life giving and death bringing attribution in mythology is reinforced, perhaps even caused by, the large number of snakes that are poisonous and how quick the hidden snake's poisonous bite can lead to death.

Surprisingly, snakes are also associated with healing. Aesculapius's symbol of healing, is a staff with a  serpent on it, the Rod of Aesculapius. The caduceus, Hermes's staff, a symbol of a messenger, has two wings snakes. Hermes is loosely, perhaps erroneously, associated with healers. caduceus, U.S. Army Medical corps For Hermes the caduceus  was a symbol of trade, eloquence, trickery and negotiation.
Along with healing, serpents are seen as protectors of cosmic trees (Mictlan – Aztec; Veles – Slavic; the dragon guarding the Apples of the Hesperides - Greek) and treasures (Ra, the Sun god, protected by Mehen – Eygyptian; cultural treasures, Umai-hulhlya-wit – Diegueno Indians of California; the Primordial egg, Ophion – Greek; the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece – Greek; Beowulf's dragon – Scandinavian; Sigurd's dragon, Fafnir - Scandinavian.) Using poisonous snakes to guard treasures was common enough (Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.) This connection is easy to accept.

With all these, often conflicting, associations for snakes, serpents, serpent people and dragons, which is the most convincing to you?

Assuming opinions about snakes and dragons has changed over time, what do you think has caused the shifts?

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