Around the world, for thousands of years, in one form or another, the reptilian serpent has been an archetype for countless tribes, societies and civilizations. In almost every instance of which we are aware, the serpent stands for immense and powerful cosmic movements. This is true of these archetype serpents deep under the earth, deep under the oceans, on the earth surface and in the sky. In fact, it is the very ability of serpents to move between various worlds and different dimensions, as indicated by their hibernation in winter and their life on and in the earth, which give them the significance to provide purpose and direction to ways of knowing and being, world-wide. Other physical and transformational qualities of serpents such as the shedding of their skins and regeneration add to the significance of complex, mutable characteristics, and the awe with which they are regarded. Due to their cosmological and physical importance in many cultures, they have carried a significant presence in the star stories of peoples from ancient times to today.
The cosmic serpent of which we speak is a trans-cultural icon. It is a global symbol that highlights the interconnected nature of fundamental concepts in earth, space, life and environmental sciences. Our Cosmic Serpent project sought to bridge western and native science worldviews, while providing museum practitioners with an awareness and knowledge to engage native audiences and bring indigenous perspectives to all visitors.
The cosmic serpent can be identified as a reptile, an earthly serpent, a flying dragon, a water serpent, with many supernatural characteristics. At the same time, many of these symbolic characteristics are based on biological observation. To speak of a serpent can imply something more than a natural phenomenon, something that carries symbolic value. Stories abound of giant serpents, such as the Cherokee Uk’tena who was so powerful that any human who even looked at him was immediately killed. Navajo have stories of giant serpents that live in high desert canyons of the southwest. Pueblo tribes honor the great water serpents that protect water holes and bring rain. These reptiles have become archetypes and in most cases are regarded with awe and respect for the power they control.
The concept of interconnection of all things has been explained by people around the world by various analogies and phenomena including stories of cosmic serpents. Much of this understanding has been extended beyond the physical connections into the realm of the non-physical.
Indigenous cultures around the world use cultural lore in the form of story to teach important lessons applicable to life. Many of these stories, often termed “myth” have foundational representations of the natural world, including the human connection and human participation in the place in which they live. “The basic theme of mythology is that the visible world is supported and sustained by an invisible world,” says Joseph Campbell, according to a communication from Native American physicist and educator, Philip Duran. Duran goes on to say that this “is a literally factual statement supported by modern physics: the visible (and classical) world is supported and sustained by an invisible (quantum) world.”
Sometimes the cosmic serpent is viewed as representative of negative energy, sometimes as positive, and sometimes as providing balance and/or ambivalence. The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, of the Bible, portrays the serpent as the deceitful harbinger of consciousness and sin. The connection with deceit may stem from the biological observation that many snakes have a forked-shaped tongue, with two ends which point in different directions. Often people will say in English, “he speaks with a forked-tongue,” a clear reference to the characteristic of deceit.
Cosmic serpents often carry a transformative significance. This includes qualities of renewal, regeneration, and passing along attributes of life-giving processes through generations, or immortality. This knowledge relates to the immense power of nature, something that humans cannot control. Double-headed serpents are seen in some of the rock carvings of Pacific Northwest Coast tribes. These carvings are found in specific places where geologists are now finding that massive earthquakes took place. This is a case of scientists looking for clues from the traditional knowledge of Indigenous people. In Guatemala researchers are finding links between traditional serpent stories and large landslides and earthquakes. In Australia, Aboriginal stories, from knowledge going back more than 40,000 years, tell of Rainbow serpents guarding pure water holes and underground aquifers, in the world’s driest continent. Present day Aboriginal scholars tell of personal experiences with green serpents at specific, place-based locations. Their elders say that huge serpents live under the oceans and their movements cause tsunamis and other ocean borne calamities. Northern Australian Aborigines from Arnhem Land tell of Rainbow Serpents that are personifications of fertility, rain and abundance of plants and animals. Stories that are thousands of years old speak of Yingara, the female Rainbow Serpent who is the mother, the original creator being, and Ngalyod, the male Rainbow Serpent, who is the transformer of the land. Even today there is strong belief in the power of these beings and their influence on all life.
Anthropologists and scientists have long claimed that these larger-than-life beings are figments of myth and imagination. However, recently snake-like tropical vertebrate fossils from Amazon rainforests in Columbia have been found, up to 43 feet in length. The Titanoboa cerrejonensis is said to have been the largest non-marine creature living on earth after the eras of the dinosaurs.
Serpents are often linked to protection and guardianship in many cultures, including stories of Buddha who is often represented as being supported by the seven coils of a naga, with the cobra-like hood of the naga shielding him from harm while he meditates, as a storm is manifesting.
Other stories link the serpent with poison and medicine. The famous symbol of the Caduceus, composed of twin snakes entwined around a staff with the wings of Hermes in the background, is a symbol of modern day medicine. This association goes back to the ancient Greeks. Beyond medical associations the Caduceus relates twin snakes as paired opposites. The single snake of the rod of Asclepius usually is linked to the commerce of medicine. These associations are linked to the Hippocratic Oath that is taken even today by most doctors.
Many stories of the serpent are linked to the Milky Way as a “serpent of light residing in the heavens.” This association goes back centuries to Egyptian and Greek stories and is linked to the Greek symbol “Ourobouros” the serpent that forms a circle with its tail within its mouth. This symbolic association includes the holistic cosmic cycles of the universe which lead to infinity and the interconnectivity of all things.
Cosmic serpent stories are found in other cultures around the world. In Africa, Egypt, the Caribbean, Scandinavia, China, Southeast Asian, India, South America, Meso-America, ancient Sumeria, Tibet, through cultures of the Hindu, North American Mound Builders, and Judeo-Christian tradition. There are countless more.
Today researchers and scientists around the world are studying the significance of the cosmic serpent in traditional cultures. Jeremy Narby, whose book The Cosmic Serpent has introduced many people to the knowledge of the serpent through multiple academic disciplines, has studied the relationship of the serpent to plants, animals, humans, chemistry, physics, and biology through the teachings of Indians of the Ecuadorian RainForest. He is not alone in linking the significance of the serpent to DNA and the origins of life.
The cosmic serpent archetype as it pervades many different cultures seems to speak to the idea that our diverse cultures have some things in common. As Indigenous scholar Phillip Duran says, “the archetype has a specific meaning within each culture, yet as a global symbol it helps to convey the message that all cultures are interconnected by virtue of their humanity and, more specifically, it conveys what the project hopes to accomplish, which is to build bridges between Western and Native worldviews.”
We have chosen the archetype of the cosmic serpent to identify this project, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, to deliver professional development to museum personnel, bringing together knowledge from science centers, community museums, cultural museums and tribal museums. It is our hope that the incredible richness that emanates from this archetype will inspire further study and application to museum programs and exhibits. This is truly one symbol that can speak to the interconnections, relationships and processes of many cultures, and is illustrated through centuries of art, music, song, observation, and science. If an original definition of “science” is “to know” then the knowledge than can come from a study of the cosmic serpent can be called “science” in the most basic and all-encompassing meaning.