Snakes In Egypt: Stories And Legends
Ever asked yourself, why are the snakes almost everywhere in Egyptian papyrus, temples and pyramids? were serpents ever worshiped during the ruling of pharaohs? Who were the ancient serpentine gods in afroasiatic region? And Why did the kings and the sun god wear snakes on their crowns? Generally, what was the role of snakes in ancient Egypt mythology?
I am author Hannah Bennet, a researcher and interpreter of cultural symbolism related to snakes, as well as a narrative contributor of the Snake Store® Team. During several years of academic research, my investigations have brought me to the doors of ancient Egypt, as the archaic home to the sacred reptiles. Allow me to describe the complete accounts of serpentine deities and myths of ancient Egypt- gathered from the temple walls, papyrus writings and interoperation of egyptian scholarly studies.
According to mythology, snakes were revered as gods and goddesses. Often considered as celestial beings, they were kind to fierce deities, linked to deceased kings, fertility, triumph and transformation. Notably Uraeus was a divine cobra and represented widely as the creator in ancient literature.
This article covers the following subtexts;
- The roots of serpentine myths, and knowledge of snake species and venom treatment
- Sacred snake deities, and related festivals and religious rituals
- Egyptian snake jewelry and its significance
- Uraeus the sacred Egyptian cobra that crowned the kings
- Snake themed ancient games
- An overview on the antiquated winged serpents
- Snakes in literature and religious hymns
- Let’s track the journey of serpents in ancient Egypt;
1- Egypt and its snakes
These reptiles were everywhere in ancient Egypt; in the desert sands, old ruins, fields, near the Nile and its swamps, in houses, enclosures, and cattle pastures. Humans thought they were to be avoided and dangerous, so the relationship we have with them is special. Consequently, the Egyptians had a love/hate relationship with snakes. On a positive note, they were co-resident as protectors of the King, but also of Hell.
a) Egyptian Wisdom about Snakes
A New York City museum has a papyrus that was once a doctor's manual for treating snake bites. It reveals the Egyptians were snake experts. The start of the papyrus is missing, but it would have listed 37 snake species. At least 36 species exist in modern Egypt, but the ancient typology differs from that used today.
b) Snake Venom in Egypt
The Papyrus provides detailed descriptions of the snakes and their habitats, types of venom, bite remedies, and symptoms of venom injection. Some remedies target specific symptoms, while others specify the type of snake. The remedies comprise surgical equipment and therapies that still use emetics, compresses, anointing, massages, wound incisions, and fumigations. These treatments were widely used and often involved magic incantations. Remedy ingredients include liquids and extracts of mineral, animal, and plant origin. The onion is the winning ingredient, and it still features in Egyptian snakebite tales today.
c) The Famous Egyptian Cobra
Two species of the cobra exist in this part of Africa. One is the rare Philippine Cobra, characterized by its black neck and unusual method of administering the venom administration. The rare Cobra Innes is the second, which is usually found in the country's northeast, and any that exist there are very lucky, or even unlucky. An overall look at these snakes indicates many highly venomous vipers.
d) Oviparous snake: A fascinating species
Many Egyptian snakes are harmless. They eat eggs and exist all over Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula. In Egypt, snakes are confined to the southern part of the Nile valley. Another well-known species, the boa is very dangerous for rodents who happen to be nearby. In ancient Egypt, the horned viper was the most feared (Cerastes cornutus and Cerastes cerastes, also known as the sand viper). This viper was used as a hieroglyph for writing sound, and the Egyptian word for viper is fy.
2- Snake-related deities
Religious scripts and texts on the pyramids repeatedly allude to the threat of snakes throughout ancient Egyptian history. Apophis, the serpent god, was considered the enemy of the order, or Maât.
During the reign of Ramses II, magic books say Apophis took part in many rituals. When processions and lunar religious festivals occurred, Apophis was drawn in papyrus and wax and subjected to various punishments. This represented Ra and Ma'at's triumph over the chaos symbolized by the so-called serpent, Apophis.
b) Goddess Rénénoutet
Snakes have not always been undesirable or bad. Deities that were associated with poisonous snakes were sometimes considered beneficial. A hooded cobra represented the goddess Rénénoutet and her name originates from an Egyptian word meaning "to feed". This connects her to the fertility of the fields and she is considered the goddess of granary. She is also the protector of grape plantations.
Fruits were offered and hymns were sung to a statue of Rénénoutet when people stored the wine in their homes. The name was first seen in the Old Empire at the pyramids, and then the New Empire. It was revered throughout Egypt and extensively worshipped in the Fayum.
c) Goddess Meretseger
Meretseger, the serpent goddess, personified the pyramid-shaped summit that rises above the Valley of Kings. It formed part of tomb builders' beliefs, living around the Valley of the Kings in Dayr al-Madina, as seen in the many statues of the goddess Meretseger. Some were covered in soot, suggesting they were cooked by local people.
d) Other Serpentine Deities
Other existing divinities include:
- Nehebu-Kau is first mentioned in the pyramid texts, is considered a positive and welcoming deity, and supports the deceased king.
- Kebehwet (Kabechet), a celestial snake also features in the pyramid texts and was thought to be the daughter of Anubis and perhaps a king.
- Denwen, a serpent god with a drastic capacity to transform.
- Wepset, a snake goddess who seems to be related to Uraeus, a guardian of gods and kings who first appears in the texts of the Coffin.
- Weret-Hekau applies to several goddesses. The pyramid illustrates this name’s association with the divine Areeus and the crown of Lower Egypt.
3- Snake Jewelry in Egypt
Ancient Egypt experienced very high temperatures, meaning the traditional clothing was a light tunic and sandals. It was your jewels that set you apart from the crowd. Everyone wore jewelry, except the slaves. Jewelry was proportionate to a person's luck. Rich people wore gold jewelry. Copper jewelry adorned the lower classes. The stones in your jewelry also represented your standing in the social hierarchy. Lapis lazuli was a royal stone in bright dark blue.
The snake features extensively in the Egyptian jewelry tradition and represents rebirth and the eternal cycle (ouroboros). The snake has renewed beauty after shedding its skin. A snake that swallows its tail symbolizes eternity; Ouroboros is the circle of life. Snakes represent good and evil; they were favored when they cleaned the city by eating rats and mice, which often ruined the food supply. They were disliked when they bit people.
Designers have often been obsessed with snake creations over history. It is a creature that lends itself well to the art of jewelry. The snake's girth looks exquisite in necklaces, bracelets, and rings, and is probably the main reason it has existed since ancient civilization.
4- The most famous divinity, Uraeus
The Uraeus was the Egyptian cobra (Naja haje) positioned at the front of the King'' headdress. The snake represents the serpent goddess, Wadjet, who was associated with the Buto sanctuary in Lower Egypt. The vulture goddess, Nekhbet of Hierakonpolis, in Upper Egypt was her counterpart. Wadjet acted as the King'' mythical mother and midwife. At Tunah el-Gebel, the great animal catacombs include mummified cobras among millions of other creatures.
A myth of creation explains the birth of the Uræus. The god Atum created the god Shu and the goddess Tefnut, who represented air and humidity, and they explored the world. Atum sent his eye to fetch them, which he did. But when he saw the sun had replaced it, he became furious and transformed into a cobra and Atum appeased by placing it on his forehead. From then on, the Uraeus was regarded as a protector of royalty. Snakes with low toxicity would have been beneficial in making improving life's comforts as they eat rodents.
Mehen is an ancient Egyptian game, found to have existed in the pre-dynastic period. The game comprises a board shaped like a coiled snake with a snake's head at the center of the disc. The name Mehen refers to the spiral shape, the coiled snake of the game, and represents the Egyptian snake god, Mehen. Besides Egypt, Mehen has also been played in Cyprus and Jordan, near the Dead Sea region, as evidence has been unearthed at some historical sites.
A unique Egyptian game, Mehen is a multiplayer game for up to six players. The original games are unknown, but here is a Mehen rules sheet if you want to play a game. Numbered cells on the game board range from 40 to 400 and the cell amount does not affect the game.
According to archaeological records, Mehen appears to have withdrawn over time, but he never completely vanished.
6- Snakes with wings
In the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, drawings of winged snakes have been discovered. A snake ailé sometimes symbolized Wadjet, while Herodotus (an ancient Greek author) claimed he saw skeletons of flying snakes during his visit to Egypt. Many theories have emerged about these creatures, but their exact origin is unknown.
7- Egyptian Literature and Snakes
Cobras are possibly the most feared reptiles in modern Egypt. Shakespeare fed this legend by attributing Cleopatra's death to the aspic, a snake that doesn't even exist in this area. The real culprit is more likely to have been the Cobra Egyptian, a feared species. Egyptian Cobras can extend to almost two meters and are usually a uniform brown color, although subspecies exist in different shades. The snake has various representations in this North African culture. It is feared as dangerous because of its venom, but other civilizations valued this creature at the divine level.
8- Modern Interpretation of Royal Symbolism and Jewelries
You are now cognizant of the extensive presence of serpents in ancient Egypt, whether in their natural habitat, role in medication, or through temples. By learning about the serpentine deities as a considerable part of egyptian religion, literature and even in children’s play, you have acquired a fragment of the esoteric knowledge of a sophisticated ancient society- a wisdom that may add to your personal values and offer you something of interest to share with your friends and family.
Once worn by the gods and royals, snake jewelry is yet a tangible part of personal ornaments with symbolic implications. Inspired by the reptilian allure, check out the Steel Cobra Bracelet- presenting a modern imitation of ancient Uraeus.