The power of snakes

The power of snakes
Circa 530 BCE. Medea between two serpents. Athenian black-figured lecithus © ‘British Museum’, London

The power of snakes

III. Animals associated with magic

Snakes are sacred animals in many cultures, because of their sinuous movements, their hypnotic gaze, their venom, and their capacity for regeneration. They can be considered the embodiment of evil, like the serpent that tempts Eve in the Bible, or protective entities, especially of fertility, and therefore related to the feminine: in German rural areas it is believed that snakes are born by burying the hair of a menstruating woman; the Tchokwé of Angola believe that a wooden snake in the marriage bed ensures the fertility of their wives; for the same purpose, the Tupi-Guarani of Brazil strike the buttocks of their wives with a snake skin.

They were a symbol of immortality because to the cyclical renewal of their skin. They were also considered intermediate entities between the chthonic and celestial beings: the serpent is the Chinese celestial dragon that demonstrates the divine origin of the emperor, and it is the god Atum that goes to hell according to the Egyptian Book of the Dead. This situation gave them a superior knowledge that only a chosen few could use, especially women. The serpent that slithered over the newborn Cassandra, Trojan princess, gave her the gift of divination. And the protagonist of the story The White Snake by the Brothers Grimm, understands the language of animals after eating a piece of the snake. 

They were instruments of illness and of healing because of their poisons and their molted skin, which throughout Spain was collected by the peasants to be kept in small bags and used in remedies and magical practices. 

For all these reasons they are companions of witches and sorceresses, to whom they bring knowledge of good and evil and health. In the image they appear next to Medea (see the entry «Medea, sorceress»), one of the most important sorceresses in Greek mythology.


Begoña Ortega Villaro