From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Snakes are elongate, legless, carnivorous reptiles of the suborder Serpentes that can be distinguished from legless lizards by their lack of eyelids and external ears. Like all squamates, snakes are ectothermic, amniote vertebrates covered in overlapping scales. Many species of snakes have skulls with many more joints than their lizard ancestors, enabling them to swallow prey much larger than their heads with their highly mobile jaws. To accommodate their narrow bodies, snakes' paired organs (such as kidneys) appear one in front of the other instead of side by side, and most have only one functional lung. Some species retain a pelvic girdle with a pair of vestigial claws on either side of the cloaca.
Most species are nonvenomous and those that have venom use it primarily to kill and subdue prey rather than for self-defense. Some possess venom potent enough to cause painful injury or death to humans. Nonvenomous snakes either swallow prey alive or kill by constriction.
The English word snake comes from Old English snaca, itself from Proto-Germanic *snak-an- (cf. Germanic Schnake "ring snake", Swedish snok "grass snake"), from Proto-Indo-European root *(s)nēg-o- "to crawl", "to creep", which also gave sneak as well as Sanskrit nāgá "snake". The word ousted adder, as adder went on to narrow in meaning, though in Old English næddre was the general word for snake. The other term, serpent, is from French, ultimately from Indo-European *serp- (to creep), which also gave Greek érpo (ερπω) "I crawl".
- Serpent (symbolism)In Egyptian history, the snake occupies a primary role with the Nile cobra adorning the crown of the pharaoh in ancient times. It was worshipped as one of the gods and was also used for sinister purposes: murder of an adversary and ritual suicide (Cleopatra).
In Greek mythology snakes are often associated with deadly and dangerous antagonists, but this is not to say that snakes are symbolic of evil; in fact, snakes are a chthonic symbol, roughly translated as 'earthbound'. The nine-headed Lernaean Hydra that Hercules defeated and the three Gorgon sisters are children of Gaia, the earth. Medusa was one of the three Gorgon sisters who Perseus defeated. Medusa is described as a hideous mortal, with snakes instead of hair and the power to turn men to stone with her gaze. After killing her, Perseus gave her head to Athena who fixed it to her shield called the Aegis. The Titans are also depicted in art with snakes instead of legs and feet for the same reason—they are children of Gaia and Ouranos (Uranus), so they are bound to the earth.
The legendary account of the foundation of Thebes mentioned a monster snake guarding the spring from which the new settlement was to draw its water. In fighting and killing the snake, the companions of the founder Cadmus all perished - leading to the term "Cadmean victory" (i.e. a victory involving one's own ruin).
India is often called the land of snakes and is steeped in tradition regarding snakes. Snakes are worshipped as gods even today with many women pouring milk on snake pits (despite snakes' aversion for milk). The cobra is seen on the neck of Shiva and Vishnu is depicted often as sleeping on a seven-headed snake or within the coils of a serpent. There are also several temples in India solely for cobras sometimes called Nagraj (King of Snakes) and it is believed that snakes are symbols of fertility. There is a Hindu festival called Nag Panchami each year on which day snakes are venerated and prayed to. See also Nāga.
In India there is another mythology about snakes. Commonly known in Hindi as "Ichchhadhari" snakes. Such snakes can take the form of any living creature, but prefer human form. These mythical snakes possess a valuable gem called "Mani", which is more brilliant than diamond. There are many stories in India about greedy people trying to possess this gem and ending up getting killed.
The Ouroboros is a symbol associated with many different religions and customs, and is claimed to be related to Alchemy. The Ouroboros or Oroboros is a snake eating its own tail in a clock-wise direction (from the head to the tail) in the shape of a circle, representing the cycle of life, death and rebirth, leading to immortality.
Many ancient Peruvian cultures worshipped nature. They emphasized animals and often depicted snakes in their art.
- Legend of the White Snake
- Limbless vertebrates
- List of Serpentes families
- List of snakes
- Snake skeleton
- The New Encyclopedia of Snakes
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- Venomous snake