NOTICE: The following post is adapted from a lecture I give to my World Religions classes. The content is my own work, while the images were obtained from Google Images. All slides in this post come from my lecture notes and were created by me.
Was the serpent in the Garden of Eden real?
One of the most perplexing questions throughout the history of our world involves whether or not the serpent in the Garden of Eden was real. Many people are quick to dismiss the events in this biblical story, found in Genesis chapter 3, on the basis that it sounds too ridiculous to be true.
But is it? Is there any proof outside of the Bible that there existed an evil, talking serpent that promises a god-like wisdom to humans? Are there any other accounts of such a "unique" ancient serpent from around the world?
Indeed, ancient myths involving such a serpent are found all over the world. They can be found in North America, Central America, South America, Asia, India, Africa, Australia, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Europe.
These primitive myths are told in many different languages and have varying characteristics.
Are the Serpent Narratives Related?
However, there are some parts of these stories, that when compared to one another, reveal something interesting.
Did these ancient peoples know something so important, that they told stories to pass along a very real story?
Could these serpent myths tell us something about the world that we live in?
To answer these questions fairly, we must examine the evidence they left behind . . .
According to a common Australian Aboriginal story, the rainbow serpent was a greedy creature which held all the waters and vegetation of the world because the humans did not need it. Although many people tried to slay the serpent to gain access to the water and vegetation, they could not do it. A shaman decided to transform himself into a beautiful creature and flew around the rainbow serpent to distract it. Then, the rainbow serpent was slain and the waters and vegetation of the world were released.
“Rainbow snakes are symbolic of the end or re-beginning of life because of their creative-destructive power, skin shedding, and swallowing-regurgitation capabilities, behaviors observed in real snakes.” -Paul S.C. Tacon, Dept. of Anthropology, Trent University, Ontario, Canada “From the ‘Dreamtime’ to the Present: The Changing Role of Aboriginal Rock Paintings in Western Arnhem Land, Australia,” The Canadian Journal of Native Studies IX, 2 (1989)
“To the Gagudju people [Australian Aboriginals], the Rainbow Serpent was called Almudj and was a major creator being. It forced passages through rocks and created more waterholes. Today, Almudj is still a great creator, bringing the wet season each year, which causes all forms of life to multiply, and appearing in the sky as a rainbow. But Almudj is also to be feared as he can punish anyone who has broken a law by drowning them in floods. Almudj still lives in a pool under a waterfall in Kakadu.” -The Dreaming http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/dreaming
In Fiji, there is a tale of a serpent-god, Ratumaibulu, who rules the underworld and makes fruit trees to bloom:
Ratumaibulu is also the god of agriculture. Such agriculture/vegetative gods were commonly depicted with a green color, and appear in many different cultures.
Here, at least, we find that the serpent who rules the underworld is also associated with fruit-tree agriculture- which to the imagination is not a far step from the Garden of Eden story. But notice where Fiji is compared to where the Genesis story originated (in the Fertile Crescent, just to the northeast of Northeast Africa.) How did such similar characteristics in the stories appear so far away during ancient times?
Africa, Haiti, Benin Vodou
According to a myth from Congo, Africa, there was a serpent who dwelled in rivers and lakes and whose reflection can be seen in waterfalls.
Vodou (Voodoo) originated in Africa and was transported to the Caribbean during the slave trade.
In Vodou legends, Ayida-Wedo is a loa (spirit being) associated with fertility, rainbows, snakes, water, and fire.
Ayida-Wedo is known as the “Rainbow Serpent.”
Her cohort/husband is Damballa-Wedo, the Sky God and Father of the world.
Both Ayida-Wedo and Damballa-Wedo are associated with the Creation of the world. They are considered the oldest and wisest of the loas. Damballa-Wedo is believed to be the protector of the handicapped, deformed, cripples, and albinos. He is also strongly associated with water and rain.
To the Aztecs, the ancient serpent was known as Quetzalcoatl. Emerald green in color, Quetzalcoatl was a combination of a serpent and a bird- a plumed (feathered) serpent. Later, he took on human characteristics and was a king.
The Aztecs believed the world endured cycles of destruction and regeneration, which they called “suns.” The Fourth Sun had been destroyed by a flood, and Quetzalcoatl was believed to be a creator god who, along with his twin brother, initiated the Fifth Sun.
Other attributes ascribed to Quetzalcoatl include: giver of life, dispenser of knowledge and wisdom, giver of maize (corn), and the Wind God.
Quetzalcoatl is also called the “Lord of the East,” and the Morning Star. Later, he also became associated with both the morning and evening stars, thus signifying his significance as the symbol of death and resurrection.
This “Rattlesnake Disk” was uncovered near Moundville Archaeological Park near Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The design features two rattlesnakes that are tied together in a knot and that have with teeth and horns. The heads are strikingly similar to the heads of the Quetzalcoatl serpents of South America.
The meaning of this image remains a mystery. Could the depiction of the snakes tied together represent unity, or even Quetzalcoatl and his twin brother?
Some 550 miles north of the Moundville site lies the "Serpent Mound" in Bratton Township, Ohio. Serpent Mound is very long, winding earthen mound that appears to be dedicated to a serpent spirit. A similar serpent mound is found in Ontario, Canada. The image below is from the Ohio site:
The Chippawa Indians of North America have a story about a great spirit-like serpent that dwelt in a house at the bottom of a lake among other evil spirits. The legend describes the serpent as having a head red as blood, eyes that glowed like fire, and a body entirely covered with hard and glistening scales of every color and shade.
Within Judaism, the serpent is depicted as an evil figure, a deceiver, and responsible for the original sin of mankind. Like many of the myths you’ve encountered, the serpent of Genesis is associated with “wisdom.” This serpent can also talk, and is closely associated with the original parents of mankind in the Garden of Eden.
“Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made . . . Then the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day that you eat of it, your eyes will be opened (enlightenment) and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable for making one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened . . . ” -Genesis 3:1-7
Notice the association between the talking serpent and wisdom. However, according to the Judaic story, this type of wisdom is not an honorable wisdom, as Adam and Eve immediately hid from God in their shame.
The Judaic tradition continues with a curse against the serpent for what it did to mankind and against God:
“So the Lord God said to the Serpent: ‘Because you have done this, you are cursed more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you shall go, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between your seed and her Seed, He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.’” -Genesis 3:14-15
Does this mean that prior to this curse, the serpent had legs or even wings? If so, what would it look like? A dragon, perhaps?
Concerning the color of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, we have to turn to the book written by the prophet Ezekiel c.593-571 BC:
“You were the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty, you were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering:
The sardius, topaz, and diamond, beryl, onyx, and jasper, sapphire, turquoise, and emerald with gold . . .
You were the anointed cherub who covers; I established you; you were on the holy mountain of God . . .” -Ezekiel 28:12-14
Within Judaism, the book of Isaiah addresses some interesting characteristics of the serpent figure we encounter in this presentation. However, Isaiah equates these characteristics with Lucifer, or Satan:
“How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning (NIV version, “morning star, son of the dawn”)! How you are cut down to the ground, you who weakened the nations! For you have said in your heart: ‘I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation on the farthest sides of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.’ Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, to the lowest depths of the Pit. Those who see you will gaze at you, and consider you, saying: ‘Is this the man who made the earth tremble, who shook kingdoms . . .’” -Isaiah 14:12-16
Primitive Persian (Iran)
A story of a great and evil serpent also appears among the primitive Persians in modern Iran:
"That dragon cleared the sky of flying fowl and earth of beast of prey. It scorched the vulture's feathers with its blast, set earth a-blazing where its venom fell, dragged from the water gruesome crocodiles, and swiftly flying eagles from the air. Men and four-footed beasts ceased from the land; The whole world gave it room. I came. The dragon seemed a lofty mountain and trailed upon the ground its hairs like lassos. Its tongue was like a tree-trunk charred, its jaws were open and were lying in my path. Its eyes were like two cisterns full of blood. It bellowed when it saw me and came on." -Shahnamah, tr. A. G. and E. Warner, i. 291, 296-97
In Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) is said to have received enlightenment as he sat under the multi-headed hood of a naga (serpent), who shielded him from a storm.
Nagas were spirit beings that took on a variety of forms in Asia. Among Buddhists, they were cobras, but they are also found leading to Buddhist temples in the form of dragons. Sometimes they even have legs.
The serpents (nagas) of Buddhism are very similar to the serpents of Hinduism. Hinduism is older than Buddhism, so we need to examine these nagas of the Hindu tradition.
One such naga is known as Naga Kanya.
Naga Kanya has the body of a snake and the torso of a woman. This is quite similar to Ayida-Wedo in Vodou.
The Book of Revelation, written c. 98 AD, has an interesting take on the much older serpent myths of the world:
“Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and he cast him in the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished. But after these things he must be released for a little while.” - Revelation 20:1-3
Christianity also mentions a beast covered with blasphemous names in Revelation 17.
“So he carried me away in the Spirit into the wilderness. And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.”
This invites the question, “What are the names on the beast, and why are they blasphemous?”
The word for blasphemy used here is the Greek word, blasphemia, and it implies speech which defames the Divine Majesty of God. In other words, these blasphemous names in some way take away from the nature of God.
The beast in Revelation is scarlet in color, and is not explicitly described as a snake, but it is a beast that “will descend out of the bottomless pit and go to perdition. And those who dwell on the earth will marvel . . . when they see the beast that was, and is not, and yet is . . . they will give their authority and power to the beast.”
When one considers the charge of blasphemous names, and that the serpents described in this presentation share characteristics with the Christ, then it is quite reasonable to question whether or not some of the names of these serpents are indeed the blasphemous names of the beast alluded to in Revelation 17.
For example, Quetzalcoatl was identified as the Morning Star, was associated with the beginning of the Fifth Sun, following the end of the Fourth Sun.
In Revelation 22:13, 16, Jesus is given those same attributes: “I am the Alpha and the Omega (these are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet), the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last . . . I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things in the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star.”
This post is original material adapted from my lecture notes for a World Religions course I teach. All images are taken from Google Images. The slides were created by me using Powerpoint and Google Images.
Was the serpent in the Garden of Eden real? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the topic in the comments below: