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Memory of the Serpent

An article in the August 19, 2006, edition of "World" magazine tells how the worship of serpents is "present in virtually every country of the ancient world." According to the Bible, there was a time when all people knew the true God, but they purposely turned away from Him and went after images and false gods (Romans 1:21-23). Certainly, Noah's family knew the story of the Fall of man in the Garden of Eden and passed along to their families. Here is just a sampling of the traditions of the snake in cultures around the world. Some of the stories consider the snake to be evil; others take him as the source of wisdom.

The Chinese "told of a wonderful garden with a tree, guarded by a dragon or winged serpent, that bears fruit of immortality and wisdom. the winged serpent here is a force for good, protecting also a mother-goddess." The Bassari people of west Africa speak "of a great god, Unumbotte, who made Man and made Snake; when Snake proposed the eating of fruit, 'Man and his wife took some of the fruit and ate it. Unumbotte came down from the sky and asked, "Who ate the fruit?" The first couple admitted eating the fruit and said Snake had told them to do so.'

The ancient Sumerians depicted the symbolism of the serpent, tree, and garden of immortality in its earliest cuneiform texts. According to Robert Bowie Johnson Jr., the ancient Greeks "depicted on vases a first couple standing by a serpent-entwined tree in an ancient paradise." In Buddhism, some "legends say that Muchalinda, king of the serpents, gave the Buddha his deepest understanding. Even Joseph Campbell, the myth analyst, noted the contrast between Buddhism and Christianity: "In one of these two legends of the tree the service of the serpent is rejected and the animal itself cursed, in the other it is accepted." Though the memory is often perverted, the memory of the serpent and his pivital role in our world remains in the stories told in many cultures.