Serpents of Egypt
This project examines Snakes and their role in ancient Egyptian cultural practices by reaching into the morphology and taxonomy of Egyptian snakes, through both ancient and modern representations, documentations and identifications: from ancient hieroglyphs to modern day archaeological discoveries. This project also examines a snake’s role in human religion; the gods they are associated with and their function in daily Egyptian life. It will look at available archaeological evidence such as mummified remains, bones, paintings and carvings. This project focuses predominantly on the Egyptian Cobra as a species, and its role in Egyptian religion, particularly its association with the goddess Isis.
As the ancient Egyptians personified the powers of nature to be their gods, they would anthropomorphise nature to conceive of themselves; but when they personified reacting powers they would endow them with forms of pernicious and pestilent animals and reptiles, such as snakes.
EBD 7 (trans.) Budge (1895:7)
The snake has played a prominent role in Egyptian life, moving between being admired and honoured to being feared. There are about three dozen snake species living in Egypt. Most of them are harmless, but a
few are highly poisonous. The Egyptian cobra, Naja haje, is quite venomous and was considered to be one of the guardians to the ancient Egyptian kingship (Dollinger, 2009).
The behaviour and ecology of Egyptian snakes recognises that each snake is the same, and yet adaptations to different ecological environments lead to characteristics that can differentiate one snake from another. The ‘Spitting Cobra’ defends itself through the spray of its poison into the eyes of any creature it feels threatened by (Project, 1978-2015). The main point about snakes is that they are either poisonous or not, and that their structural morphology basically behaves in much the same manner as another in differing regions of the world, as is discussed below. A snake has ethics and is only dangerous to humans after it has warned, through noise or action, that it is about to be stepped on, or a human is coming close to its position. A snake will always choose to depart rather than take on a larger animal and only strikes when there is no other option. It is very rare for a snake to actively pursue an animal much larger than itself ((Jura), 2012).
Snake Taxonomy (A classification of organisms based on similarities) and Morphology (Biology)
The 1987 paper: ‘Scales Microstructure of Snakes from the Egyptian Area by Ahmed Allam and Rasha Abo-Eleneen (Abo-Eleneen, 1987) examines snake taxonomy and scale morphology based on Egyptian serpents, examining ancient specimens against their modern similitudes. Â Allam and Abo-Eleneen examine any correlation between morphology and environment to discover any morphological patterns in an attempt to distinguish adaptive divergence’s that may have occurred, that could differentiate the close similarities of the Egyptian species (Abo-Eleneen, 1987). They were able to hypothesise that ecomorphologic relationships between extant dorsal scale microstructures, and snake microhabitat were likely due to environmental pressures having a significant influence on, not only a snakes macrostructures, but also on their microstructure (Abo-Eleneen, 1987). Ecomorphology is the study of the relationship between an ecological role and morphological adaptations between the species (Miles, 1987).
A microstructure is the fine structure of tissue that can be revealed by a microscope (Lewis, 2015). A macrostructure is tissue visible to the unaided eye or at very low levels of magnification (Lewis, 2015). Adaptive divergences in the snake morphological makeup are imperceptible to the naked eye. The scales of the snake protect the body, aid in its movement and allow moisture to be retained. Scales also alter their surface characteristics such as their appearance, and aid in camouflage assisting in its ability to capture prey (Abo-Eleneen, 1987). Snakes also shed their skin, a factor prominent in their role with, or as, the gods.
There have been many archaeological finds in Egypt demonstrating that the Serpent played a prominent role in ancient Egyptian life: from the annoyance of grain eating serpents, to the deadly effects of its bite, right up to the prominence of godhood (Dollinger, 2009).
Made from the dribble of Ra as he aged upon the throne of the two horizons, and moulded by Isis as the dribble settled upon the earth, was the sacred serpent in the form of a spear.
BD 5 (trans.) Budge (1895:5)
This mummified snake (Figure 5), found at Thebes is thought to date to around 1000 B.C.E. and was purchased by a collector, T.S. Henry in 1897 on a voyage between England and Perth, Western Australia. It now resides in the Western Australian Museums Ancient Egyptian Collection (Museum, 2014).
Figure 6 is an 18th Dynasty, new kingdom Cobra (Uraeus) from a royal crown dating from around 1575 B.C.E. Â â€“ 1304 B.C.E. made of bronze and is a similar build as an item mentioned by Tiradritti (1998:194-243) found amongst the treasure within Tutankhamun’s tomb, and is fashioned in the same cloisonn work as the jewelers of the end of 18th Dynasty created (Tiradritti, 1998). Cloisonn work is enamelware, where its coloured areas are separated by thin metal strips (Tiradritti, 1998).
Role in daily life
Serpents feature in almost all ancient Egyptian artefacts and this reveals their prominence in Egyptian everyday life. A snake’s role in daily Egyptian life had many applications. As figures 7 & 11 indicate, the snake was used in Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphs are an Egyptian form of writing using pictures or symbols to tell a story, or in the case of modern day archaeologists, they relate history.
Snakes were also considered protectors. Snakes would keep the vermin at bay and were celebrated for that aspect of their role in society, however too many snake bites, some resulting in deaths, saw to an examination of the snakes in Egypt with the Papyrus Insinger (Thompson, 1904) quoting a number of observations concerning their behaviours:
- He who is bitten of the bite of a snake is afraid of a coil of rope
- The hissing of the snake is more effective than the braying of the donkey.
- A snake that is eating has no venom.
- Death comes to the snake because of its love of biting.
- The small snake has poison.
- The snake on which one steps ejects a strong poison.
- Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol 3, p.170ff
Figure 8 reveals a view into which the snake was exploited in Ancient Egypt. This grain barrel bares the undeniable image of a snake on its outer panels and its image was likely placed there to call upon the goddess Isis to protect the grain, or harvest. In the depiction below (Figure 9), the goddess Isis is a radiating protector, watcher. She has the body of a woman and the tail of a snake (Frankfurter, 2010).
The direct gaze of her eyes was a powerful iconographic strategy once reserved almost exclusively for the protective deities such as Hathor and Bes (Frankfurter, 2010).â€ At some point, the goddess Isis took on the role as protector. Some terracotta depictions portray Isis baring an entire body of a snake with only a bust, or crown of Isis appearing on top (Frankfurter, 2010).
The Osiris Ani, whose word is truth, saith:- I am the serpent Sata whose years are infinite. I lie down dead. I am born daily. I am the serpent Sa-en-ta, the dweller in the uttermost parts of the earth. I lie down in death. I am born, I become new, I renew my youth every day.
BA 87 (trans.) Budge (1895:87)
Snakes and Serpents were viewed as underworld gods due to the shedding of their skin. This action ensured that they became symbols for rebirth after death (Dollinger, 2009), and are associated with the goddesses of the underworld. From the tomb of djeddjehutefankh d18 deir el bahari ashmolean-jb this New Kingdom wooden panel (Figure 10) (Fadl, New Kingdom: Pharaoh Akhenaten’s Daughters) has been discovered. Serpents were puzzling to the Egyptians; more so than other inhabitants of the underworld and this could explain why there are so many snake and serpent images in everyday items used by the Egyptians. The other possibility is that death and dying were common place in the ancient world and rather than whisper, or attempt to conceal this part of life, the Egyptians recognised death and the goddesses of the underworld as a component of their everyday life, by celebrating it.
Representations in art
Snakes and serpents are represented in much of ancient Egyptian art and hieroglyphs. From the Horned Vipers (Figure 11), Cerastes cornutus, use as the
letter ‘F’ in Egyptian hieroglyphs, to a sacred position in Zeus’ court, to which they are buried in Zeus’ temple upon their deaths (Dollinger, 2002), as archaeological evidence has exhumed.
This ‘Proto-Elamte motif’ (Figure 12) is seen in the visual arts during the state formation period of ancient Egypt. It includes the serpo-feline, the rosette framed by intertwined serpents, and the high-prowed boats (Ata, 2015: 424). Serpo-Felines are one of the earliest conceptual creatures to appear in Egyptian art. The creature is situated on the obverse of the Gebel al-Arak Knife (Nagada III period)Â (Ata, 2015). The Serpo-feline depictions were distinct in the Mesopotamian period and were represented as serpo-felines. A Serpo-feline is comprised of a lion-griffin characterisation baring a “priest-king” human figure with its posture, demanding as master of animals. The snakes twist, encircling the rosette, reveals the constructed beings distinctive body morphology (Ata, 2015).
The Gebel al-Arak Knife (Figure 13), with its perfect engraving and representation of life through pictograms, came about around the same period as writing on pottery and small tags that were attached to ceremonial goods in Tomb U-j at Abydos. Also, writing was found on commemorative monuments consisting of identifying labels as proto-cuneiform writing, but is still thought to be ‘roughly contemporaneous (Ata, 2015: 425).’
Snakes and cats appear to be an Egyptian theme with each representing renewal and fertility. The cat in the figure 14 painting bares the resemblance to several animals. It appears to have the face of a cat, the ears of a rabbit, the mane of a male lion, the body of what appears to be a female lion with its thick neck, muscular body, and a tongue with what also looks to be like that of a snake. The tail of the creature also resembles a snake with its body pattern and colouration of a female lion (Figure 15). The cat creature holds the knife as would a human, and not only does the cat slice into the snake; it also holds its head down with its right paw. This entire image looks much like a docile animal being slaughtered by a dominant predator. This painting of the Ished-Tree might actually be identifying a cats role as natural predator of the serpent.
References in texts
- Herodotus notes that: “In Arabia, opposite Buto I went to try to get information about flying snakes. On my arrival I saw skeletons and spines in incalculable numbers; they were piled in heaps, some were big and others smaller… “The place where the bones lie is a narrow mountain pass leading to a broad plain which joins the plain of Egypt(Mayor, 2011).” (Herodotus (ca. 430 C.).
- Many myths speak of gods and creatures baring the head, limbs and body parts from various animals, human and non-human. One such tale revolves around the Egyptian Phoenix, a bird reborn once every 500 years. In Rome, A.D. 47, there were tales of a creature baring a ‘cleverly faked human headed serpent.’ It appears to have been a tame snake of uncommon size, fitted with a lifelike human head fashioned from stiffened and painted linen, with horsehair strings used to make the mouth open and close and to also control the darting forked tongue (Mayor, 2011).
- A series of chapters in the ‘Book of the Dead(Budge, 1895)’ reveal that the soul is now protected against the poisonous serpents, including ‘the great python who devours the ass (Budge, 1895)’ which it will meet with in its passage through the limbo of the other world. The large place occupied by these serpents among the dangers which await the soul on its first exit from the body, make it plain that in the days when the Book of the Dead was first being compiled, venomous snakes were far more plentiful than they ever have been in the Egypt of historical times (Sayce, 1900).
A Snakes Role in religion
It has been documented that the dread of the snake as the emblem of not only physical but also moral evil existed amongst the Egyptians for all generations, and that the belief in a limbo filled with snakes influences their thoughts long after they have converted to Christianity. EBD 7 (trans.) Budge (1895:7) (Budge, 1895). Many ancient Egyptians would turn to a priest for healing long before they would go to a physician. This occurred more often than not, even once rational medicines had become available to treat the sick (Longrigg, 2003).
Few gods in Egypt were viewed as savage creatures in religion except for, ‘Horus who was the hawk, Nekheb the vulture and Uazit of Buto the deadly urus snake (Sayce, 1900-1903).’ The Uraeus is a symbol for the goddess Wadjet, one of the earliest of Egyptian deities as shown in figure 16 below. ‘Wadjet of Buto became guardian of the king and symbols of his authority over Upper and Lower Egypt respectively (Wilkinson, 2010).’ There are a variety of snake figurines and bowl etching or paintings, likely used in dedication to the various snake goddesses. Some used in divination others presented as votive offerings along with spells, holding the power to prevent evil or bad luck. Some shrines were also decorated with snake or serpent themed frieze above them and were likely associated with any goddess who could be presented in serpent form such as: Meretseger, Renenutet, Wadjet, Neith, or Weret-HekauÂ (Szpakowska, 2010).
Figure 16: Uraeus is a stylized, upright form of an Egyptian spitting cobra used as a symbol of sovereignty, royalty, deity, and divine authority in ancient Egypt
Snakes did and still do play important roles in Egyptian life. The Egyptians recognised early on, both the benefits and the pitfalls of allowing snakes to roam around in areas where humans dwelt. Much work went into examining the actions of the snake such as rock carvings, hieroglyphs, as an assortment of other textual documentations have related. Noting that snakes are adept at adaptation to their environment both morphologically and taxonomically, reveals the extent of their ability to survive in almost all regions. Egyptian snakes would rely upon maintaining their water, and the scales of the snake not only protect the body, aid in its movement but it also allows for moisture to be retained, likely held by the macrostructure of tissue hidden beneath their scale morphology. The study into the ‘Scales Microstructure’ of the Snake validated the theory that snakes are mostly the same; they behave in the same manner as other snakes around the world, and due to their ability of adaptive divergences, are able to alter their body morphology to suit new and different environments.
Archaeological evidence found throughout many digs in Egypt reveal a prominence of the snake for ancient Egyptians. From mummified snakes, hieroglyphic symbolisms, bronze statuettes, wooden art and potteries amongst other everyday Egyptian artefacts being unearthed, all scream honour of snakes, rather than fear of them. The Papyrus Insinger highlights just how prominent in Egyptian life the snake really was. Time was taken to observe snakes behaviour, to understand which snake was poisonous, when a snake was not venomous, how the once bitten twice shy effect takes hold of a snake bite survivor, and of course when the snake is most venomous. We have to consider of course, were clinical trials held to obtain these observations, and if so, how many slaves died to ensure ‘the people’ knew what was dangerous and what wasn’t? There is an error in the list: ‘Death comes to the snake because of its love of biting,’ this infers that snakes actually attack unprovoked, but as Jura notes in ‘Venom: Offense or Defense,â€™ a snake very rarely attacks unless provoked or stepped on. The Two Horned Viper is the letter ‘f’ in Egyptian Hieroglyphs, and grain barrels and potteries bare the image of a snake upon their interiors and exteriors. All this goes to show the importance of the snake in Egyptian life and is possibly one of the reasons the snake became linked with the underworld gods. They had their use, but if bitten, if mistreated, they had the ability to pass the soul to the underworld.
Associated with the goddess Isis as protector and watcher, reveals a snakeâ€™s core nature. They are watches; some will even feign death whilst they wait for their prey, and are protectors of the harvest. The snake eats the rats and mice protecting the grain, so it is no wonder that the snake became enmeshed with goddess iconographies. With the ability to shed its skin, the snake became a symbol of death and rebirth and they are represented in all manner of Egyptian art: from rock carvings to the dinner plate, and they are never really depicted as attacker, rather they are often used as ornate garlands and rosettes. As the Ished-tree painting depicts, the cat was viewed as the hunter rather than the serpent and in the cycle of life that we recognise in modern times, this imagery as truth: a cat will hunt a snake; usually however a common domesticated cat will also die from the attack if the snake has not eaten moments before, as it takes some time for a snake to build its venom back up after a kill.
The snake or serpent is mentioned in many ancient texts and by many and varied authors. Egyptian snakes are also mentioned by Greek authors: from Herodotus, to the Egyptian Book of the Dead. One such tales reveals the extent of which someone would go to ensure a wage by creating the ‘faked human headed serpent’ to which saw its creator earn money for several years. It appears however, that across time and across cultures the poor snake has been demonised as being a physical and moral evil, to the anti-Christ him/herself. The snake has been misunderstood and people have become ever more fearful as the earth has aged. Access to anti-venom has not stemmed the apprehension many people still feel due to ancient stories, and the rare human death in modern times from snake bite. The snake is a beautiful creature who kills for food and only attacks when provoked, one might say, a snake is a pacifist, that one would be me.
Ancient Text Bibliography
Ancient Egyptian Literature. (trans) M. Lichtheim (Vol 3:170ff)
Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Gods of the Book of the Dead: â€˜Legend of Ra and Isis.â€™Â Chapter 5 (trans.) Budge (1895:5)
Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Gods of the Book of the Dead: â€˜The powers of darkness or evil.â€™Â Chapter 7 (trans.) Budge (1895:7)
Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Gods of the Book of the Dead: â€˜The Gods Of The Book Of The Dead.â€™Â Chapter 7 (trans.) Budge (1895:7)
The Book Ani: Changing into the serpent Sa-ta (trans) Budge (1895: LXXXVII)
Table of Figures
Figure 11: Thebes sacred serpents. Not at all harmful to men, are small in size, have two horns growing from the top of its head and they are buried in the temple of Zeus, for to this god they say that they are sacred (Dollinger, 2002). 7
Figure 14: A cat killing a snake under the shadow of the Ished-tree, tomb of Inher-khau (TT 359), New Kingdom, Dynasty 20, Deir el-Medina. Photograph: MAIL (Italian Archaeological Mission to Luxor); Â© Ass. Cult. Per lo Studio dellâ€™E. 8
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Abo-Eleneen, A.A.A.a.R.E. (1987) ‘Scales Microstructure of Snakes from the Egyptian Area’, Zoological Science, vol. 29, no. 11, November, pp. 770-775, Available: http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.2108/zsj.29.770.
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