The serpent in the Garden of Eden is one of the most intriguing figures in world mythology. Serpent symbolism in general is probably the most complex, seemingly inconsistent, and fascinating mythological symbolism around. The reasons have to do with the various characteristics of serpents together with the elements of our psyche that produce this symbolism. In this post I summarize how this symbolism played out in the Eden story.
The serpent has many symbolic meanings in myths, but most fundamentally and essentially it symbolizes the underlying divine energy or force of the universe, like The Force in Star Wars. This was important in the ancient polytheistic world because nature was viewed as being infused with divinity, which had to be symbolized somehow. It was this force which generated the creation from primordial chaos. Thus, in the earliest Egyptian and Mesopotamian myths, the cosmos emerged through a serpent deity. The serpent force lay latent in primordial watery chaos, but then became activated to produce the orderly cosmos. Only in later mythologies did creator gods appear as the manipulators of this force to produce the creation.
Since the serpent power existed within the watery primordial chaos, it also came to represent that chaos, and was associated with the emergence from chaos. Psychologically speaking, watery chaos symbolizes our unconscious, while creation is ego consciousness at work, so the serpent itself (and the primordial waters) represents chaos and emerges from our unconscious as an archetypal symbol thereof. As a result, in ancient Near Eastern myths, creation came to be represented as a battle between a sea serpent or dragon (usually female) and a male creator god, who defeats this chaos monster in order to create the ordered cosmos; this is known as the “dragon fight” motif. Thus, when the serpent appears in the Garden of Eden, the story’s audience understands that chaos has appeared. Further, Eve’s dialogue with this serpent really represents the chaos going on in her own mind, before humans gain the knowledge of good and evil, an orderly quality symbolic of ego consciousness. At the story’s end, Yahweh’s victory over and punishment of the serpent and the restoration of order (perfection) in the Garden is a toned-down version of the dragon fight motif.
Because serpents quintessentially embodied the divine force of the universe, they were deemed to embody the life force. Therefore, they were connected with fertility and marriage, conception and birth, the regeneration and germination of plants in the spring, and with bringing ill people back to health (illness being chaos at work). As a result, serpents were venerated as having special powers. Thus, even in the Bible we see Moses and Aaron wielding staffs that turn into serpents (Exod. 4:1-5; 7:8-12), and the bronze serpent of Moses that healed the Israelites in the wilderness (Num. 21:4-9), which stood for generations before Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem before King Hezekiah removed it because it had become like an idol (2 Kings 18:4). The author of the Eden story needed to establish Yahweh as the sole legitimate deity and object of worship, so he designed the Eden story in part to combat serpent veneration. Thus, at the end of the story, the serpent was punished by being flattened, and made to live in dirt and eat dust.
This raises the question of what was the serpent’s posture before such punishment, when it was speaking with Eve. In the ancient Near East serpents were rarely portrayed as having legs, and never in Syria-Palestine. Rather, they were portrayed either horizontally in their most natural position, or as partially or wholly erect (raised cobra like the Egyptian uraeus, or standing on their tails, as in the image above). In ancient Egypt, generally the serpent was a positive symbol when erect but a negative symbol when horizontal (e.g., Apep, the chaos serpent of the night). Being erect means that the divine force is flowing through the serpent, for which it was being venerated. Thus, in the Eden story, the serpent at first was somehow erect in the way it was traditionally venerated, while at the end Yahweh by flattening the serpent he removed any pretense to divinity from the serpent and imposed animosity between serpents and humans, thereby showing the audience that the serpent is not a worthy object of veneration.
Bible scholars overwhelmingly agree that the serpent in the Eden story was not Satan or the Devil, whose figure appeared much later in Judaism and Christianity. The chaos that this serpent represented (and which in humans produces evil and sin) existed even before the creation and before Yahweh created the serpent (which creation also conveys Yahweh’s superiority over it). The audience of the Eden story knew that some degree of chaos (evil) is naturally present in the fabric of the cosmos (and so too in humans), so no additional outside agency was needed to bring evil into being. Thus, the serpent was only a symbol of already existing evil, not its source.
There is much more to the serpent in the Eden story which I can’t cover here, but which I tell about in my book, The Mythology of Eden.
© Arthur George 2014