Spring is the season of new life, and as the ground warms, one of the first denizens of the animal kingdom we begin to notice emerging is the serpent. While a lot of people are afraid of snakes, it's important to remember that in many cultures, serpent mythology is strongly tied to the cycle of life, death and rebirth.
In Scotland, Highlanders had a tradition of pounding the ground with a stick until the serpent emerged. The snake's behavior gave them a good idea of how much frost was left in the season. Folklorist Alexander Carmichael points out in the Carmina Gadelica that there's actually a poem in honor of the serpent emerging from its burrow to predict spring-like weather on "the brown day of Bride".
The serpent will come from the hole
on the brown day of Bride (Brighid)
though there may be three feet of snow
on the surface of the ground.
In some forms of American folk magic and hoodoo, the snake can be used as an instrument of harm. In Hoodoo and Voodoo, Jim Haskins relays the custom of using the serpent's blood to introduce snakes into the human body. According to this hoodoo traditions, one must "extract the blood from a snake by puncturing an arteryâ€¦ feed the liquid blood to the victim in food or drink, and snakes will grow inside him."
A South Carolina rootworker who asked to be identified only as Jasper says his father and grandfather, both rootworkers, kept snakes on hand to use in magic. He says, "If you wanted someone to get sick and die, you used a snake that you tied a piece of their hair around. Then you kill the snake, and bury it in the person's yard, and the person gets sicker and sicker each day. Because of the hair, the person is tied to the snake."
Ohio is the home of the best-known serpent effigy mound in North America. Although no one is certain why the Serpent Mound was created, it's possible that it was in homage to the great serpent of legend. The Serpent Mound is about 1300 feet in length, and at the serpent's head, it appears to be swallowing an egg. The serpent's head aligns to the sunset on the day of the summer solstice. The coils and the tail may also point to sunrise on the days of the winter solstice and the equinoxes.
In the Ozarks, there is a story about a connection between snakes and babies, according to author Vance Randolph. In his book Ozark Magic and Folklore, he describes a tale in which a small child goes outside to play and takes along with him a piece of bread and his cup of milk. In the story, the mother hears the child chattering and assumes he's talking to himself, but when she goes outside finds him feeding his milk and bread to a poisonous snake -- typically either a rattlesnake or a copperhead. The old timers of the area warn that killing the snake would be a mistake -- that somehow the child's life is magically connected to that of the snake, and that "if the reptile is killed the baby will pine away and die a few weeks later."
The serpent is instrumental in the Egyptian myth cycle. After Ra created all things, Isis, the goddess of magic, tricked him by creating a serpent which ambushed Ra on his daily journey across the heavens. The serpent bit Ra, who was powerless to undo the poison. Isis announced that she could heal Ra from the poison and destroy the serpent, but would only do so if Ra revealed his True Name as payment. By learning his True Name, Isis was able to gain power over Ra. For Cleopatra, a serpent was an instrument of death.
In Ireland, St. Patrick is famous because he drove the snakes out of the country, and was even credited with a miracle for this. What many people don't realize is that the serpent was actually a metaphor for the early Pagan faiths of Ireland. St. Patrick brought Christianity to the Emerald Isle, and did such a good job of it that he practically eliminated Paganism from the country.
When it comes to symbolism in general, the snake has a lot of different meanings. Watch a snake shed his skin, and you'll think of transformation. Because snakes are silent and move stealthily before attacking, some people associate them with cunning and treachery. Still others see them as representative of fertility, masculine power, or protection.