8 August 2013

Year of the Snake: Myths - are snakes ever the good guys?

Myths and stories are one of the fundamental ways in which people pass on information and current opinion down the generations. Froglife Volunteer - Rebecca Austin investigates how snakes are represented in mythology.

For many people, if asked what the symbolic image of a snake means the response would probably involve something to do with the concept of evil. This should come as no surprise: it is not only the serpent in the Garden of Eden which has caused this extreme viewpoint to become commonplace in society.

Greek mythology tells tales of terrible monsters called ‘Gorgons’; with the body of a woman but hair of live and poisonous snakes. Medusa and her sisters were so frightening that any onlookers were turned into stone! (Medusa was eventually killed by Perseus with the ingenious use of a polished shield to view her reflection.)

In more recent times, snakes have also been portrayed as the “bad guys”, from use of common phrases such as ‘snake in the grass’, to depictions in the media with films like Harry Potter showing serpents as dangerous and evil.
With all the bad press snakes have received over time, it can be hard to think that they could ever be the viewed positively. However, to some cultures they symbolise the dual expression of good and evil, and in others are seen only in a good light.

Snakes for many cultures are seen as a fertility symbol, due to the sloughing of the skin signifying rebirth. The Hopi tribe of North America perform a yearly fertility dance for crops, in which numerous snakes are released into the wild. Snakes are seen also to represent immortality due to their renewal cycle.

Even in the western world, snakes are a symbol of good in places you may not expect. In Greek mythology, Asclepius had a rod entwined with a snake which he used for healing. Today the world over, the symbol of the Rod of Asclepius is found in many medical logos, including the British Medical Association.
Much bad press for snakes may have originated from fear of the fanged and often venomous creatures. But the majority of snakes are harmless to humans, and in fact are vital in their ecosystems. Without snakes birds of prey would suffer, and some insect and rodent species such as rats would escalate hugely in numbers. Combined with their mythological powers in fertility, immortality and healing, this just goes to show that snakes are most definitely the good guys.