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THE SERPENT IN EGYPT AND IN THE BIBLE: EVIL, POWER, AND HEALING

By Marcia Montenegro (page 2 of 5)

The Serpent's Many Roles

The role of the serpent was prominent in Egyptian culture. The serpent symbolized the beginning and end of time, and symbolized fertility. In ancient Egypt, as in many cultures, the ouroborus, a snake swallowing its tail, was a symbol of rejuvenation and eternity, an endless cycle of beginnings and endings.23 The serpent represented both good and bad: life energy, resurrection, wisdom, power, cunning, death, darkness, evil, and corruption.24

Perhaps the most potent symbol in Egypt was the uraeus, worn by the Pharaoh as a golden emblem on the forehead as a sort of crown; it was the symbol of supreme rulers, and a symbol of Pharaoh's power.25 Depicted on the uraeus was a cobra, a fiery snake that spit fire at Pharaoh's enemies.26 Serpents at the side of the uraeus represent the goddesses who drove out the enemies of Ra, the sun god.27 The uraeus was also thought to possess magical powers since Egyptians believed it to be the magical eye of the god Horus.28 Also shown wearing the uraeus was the powerful goddess Isis, consort of the god Osiris.29

Most demons in Egyptian lore were "fanciful creations," but the greatest demon was the serpent Apophis, enemy of Osiris, Isis, and Horus, whose attacks on the sun god Ra were repelled by serpent spells and weapons cast by the four sons of Horus.30 Water snakes were associated with chaos: the four members of the primeval gods were sometimes shown as serpents.31 Serpents play a role in The Egyptian Book of the Dead: as the Sun journeys through the sky, it becomes a serpent in order to battle other serpents along the way.32

From early life to after death, the gods pervaded Egyptian life. Egyptians feared and revered snakes, seeing some as protectors and others as enemies;33 therefore, some gods were given serpent attributes to show their power and to give protection against enemies. The serpent's shedding of its skin caused it to be associated with gods of time, such as Nehebkaw.34 Nehebkaw, also known as Nehebu-Kau, was a minor snake god from about 1500 B.C., the son of Geb, god of the earth. He ate seven cobras, and so offers protection against snakebites. Nehebu-Kau is also one of the guardians of the Egyptian kings in the afterlife.35

Perhaps the most important and feared god was the sun god Ra (or Re),36 who was portrayed as a man with the head of a hawk or falcon, crowned with a solar disk surrounded by the sacred asp, the serpentine form of cobra goddess Wadjet.37 Ra, the creator god and sun god, was worshiped circa 3000 B.C. until 400 A.D., but in an earlier form was known as Amun, a god revered at Thebes as a snake deity, representing immortality and "endless renewal."38 Ra was sometimes depicted as an underworld god, "Ra in Osiris," riding his boat in human form with a ram's head, and accompanied by snake goddess Wadjet.39 Wadjet, also known as Edjo or Ejo, was the goddess of Lower Egypt, and was usually depicted as an asp, a name for the Egyptian cobra (Naja haje).40 Wadjet created the papyrus swamps of the delta and was the wet nurse of the god Horus. Her serpent symbol coiling around Ra's sun disc symbolized Ra's power of destruction and ability to deliver quick vengeance against enemies.41 Wadjet was often depicted as a snake that spewed out flaming poison.42

Several gods of the underworld were associated with snakes. Kebechet, a chthonic snake goddess, was involved in the cult of the dead and depicted as a serpent.43 Neheb-Ka, a goddess usually represented with the head of a serpent, was identified with by the dead person.44 Renenutet, who guarded the pharaoh in the form of a cobra, was connected to both life and death. She was a snake goddess with fertility aspects, depicted as a human or in the form of a hooded cobra, causing her to resemble Wadjet. Her gaze had the power to conquer enemies. Her connection to death was that she was considered a magical power in the linen bandages swathing pharaoh in death.45

Some gods were not given attributes of serpents, but were portrayed with serpents to show their power, or presented as having the powers to repel snakes and other threatening creatures. Uatchit, a form of the goddess of love, Hathor, and identified with the northern sky at sunrise, was sometimes shown with a serpent around her scepter.46 A more important god, Horus, the sky god worshiped throughout Egypt from about 3000 B.C. until 400 A.D, was the son of Osiris and Isis. He was revered in two forms, as Horus the Child (Harpokrates) and Horus the elder. As a child, commonly depicted suckling on Isis' knee, he appeared on amulets giving protection against crocodiles, snakes, scorpions, lions and other dangerous animals.47 Some steles and plaques show Horus standing on or next to serpents he has overcome.48

Magic and Serpents

The role of magic was significant in Egypt, and cannot be overlooked in connection to their beliefs, to serpents, and particularly to the Exodus passage of Aaron's rod and the magician's serpents. Many texts refer to the books of secret knowledge of Thoth, and numerous magical spells and references to magical spells are common in Egyptian literature.49 Some spells were used to ward off snakes, scorpions and crocodiles.50 In fact, literature with magical purposes is the most common genre in the body of ancient Egyptian writings; incantations and spells are interwoven with prayers and hymns.51 There are spells throughout The Egyptian Book of the Dead, which was often buried with the deceased as a magical aid.52 There was also the widespread use of amulets, used for protection; and omens and dream interpretation were important, though it is difficult to know exactly how these magical rites and rituals were enacted, or what was involved.53

There is archeological evidence that snake charming was practiced by Egyptian magicians; this was done by putting the serpent, usually a cobra, into a paralyzed, rigid state, then awakening it in some way so that it returned to its natural state.54 Thus, there are depictions of men or gods holding stiff serpents, and a text refers to a king using a serpent-staff.55 The Westcar Payprus, documents whose composition is from 1991-1783 B.C., and dates to the Hyksos period before 1550 B.C.,56 relates stories of magicians in Egypt changing wax crocodiles into real ones and then back to wax again after seizing their tails.57 Egyptian scarabs, representations of beetles, show snake charmers holding stiff serpents before various deities, and amulets show cobras being held by the neck.58

The Serpents in the Pentateuch

The Hebrew words used for snake, serpent, and sea serpent or monster (nahash, tannin, seraph) appear as a significant part of several passages in the Pentateuch: Genesis 3:1; Genesis 49:17; Exodus 4:3, Exodus 7:9, 10, 12, 15; and Numbers 21:6, 7, 9. Hebrews probably regarded most or all snakes as poisonous.59 In Egypt, they were also surrounded by people who worshiped snakes as the attributes or personifications of various gods.60 Yet, does this mean all serpents in the Pentateuch are symbols of evil?

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