snake worship. The snake has been variously adored as a regenerative power, as a god of evil, as a god of good, as Christ (by the Gnostics), as a phallic deity, as a solar deity, and as a god of death. It has also served as the symbol of Satan and many deities, including Apollo and the Egyptian god Ra. Snake worship found expression in both the Toltec and Aztec periods of prehistoric Mexican civilization. In Aztec mythology a half-divine, half-human being descended to earth for a while as the great teacher of mankind; the Aztecs called him the "feathered serpent," the incarnation of the serpent sun. In Egypt, according to one authority, each temple had a reserved area where snakes were kept. In Greek religion the snake was frequently considered divine. Among the Greek Dionysian cults it signified wisdom and was a symbol of fertility. The Greek god most closely associated with snake worship is Apollo; the original name of Apollo's temple at Delphi was Pytho, after the snake Python. In Rome during the period of the empire, a sacred snake was kept within the city and was attended by the vestal virgins; it was believed that if the snake refused to accept food from the hand of one of its attendants, the attendant was no longer a virgin, and she was promptly killed. The ancient Mesopotamians and Semites believed that the snake was immortal because it shed its skin and appeared in a fresh guise. The Indians, Burmese, and Siamese worshiped the snake as a demon who also had good aspects. Primitive Hindu snake cults were incorporated into the worship of Krishna and eventually into the worship of Vishnu. Buddhist legends relate that Buddha was given the true Buddhism by the "king of the serpents" (often seen as the cobra), and Buddhists also revere the regenerative powers the snake exhibits. In China the serpent, in the form of the dragon, figures as a fierce but protective divinity. Snake charming, not to be confused with snake worship, is the art of fascinating, capturing, and controlling serpents.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.