About a life devoted to the love for Folklore, Mythology, Legends and.....Art

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Snake Amulet; a brief history on folk-belief and legend

(click picture for bigger view)

At last, I found some time to write a piece about my latest handmade amulet. To write about serpent-lore and the snake in talismanic-magic is quite a task as the information on this subject is endless. But at the other hand, it is also very vague and there are many different theories concerning the subject. This all makes it almost impossible to write a good blogpost about this subject as my space is limited. Nevertheless I will give it a try.

I cherish a great fascination for the snake in folklore and legend. Its is such a prominent image in art, folklore and religion all over the world. Though its appearance is common it is never the same. The snake, because of its killing nature and poisonous bites became a symbol of death. But as the snake renews its skin periodically it is also a symbol of resurrection and life at the same time. Though the snake as a symbol of death is a very interesting topic (worth an entire book), this post will be about its positive side, namely; its association with life and resurrection. As it is this part which plays an important role in how the snake made itself so popular as an amulet.


The snake, as a symbol of life, also became a symbol of health. There are hundreds of folk-remedies which contain snake parts. Especially snake fat was supposed to be a great remedy for all sorts of ailments. For example: the famous Chinese snake-oil, which has been very popular in America for quite some time, is supposed to be a great remedy for painful joints. Though its popularity in the west has decreased snake-oil is still sold in many traditional Chinese pharmacy-stores.
In ancient Egypt people believed that snake fat allowed bald men to grow hair and today in Israel you can get snake massages. The crawling motion of the creatures on your body is supposed to be very healthy and relaxing. But, probably the most fascinating remedy of all must be the pulverized, dried, snake skin as a cure for snake bites. Like said before the snake skin was a symbol of resurection and life, hence the reason people considered it a great remedy against the deadly poison. This shows us once more how death and life came together in the appearance of the snake.

And of course there is the Greek myth about Asclepius, the son of Apollo and Koronis. From a distance Asclepius observes a snake which carries some herbs. With these herbs he cures another snake which was fatally wounded. Asclepius from then on had the knowledge how to "cure" death. He used this knowledge several times and brought back people from the death. The gods, of course, were furious at him. Because his actions would make him a man equal to the gods. Zeus therefor had to kill him to prevent the entire human race from becoming immortal.
In honor of Asclepius, snakes were often used in healing rituals. Non-poisonous snakes were left to crawl on the floor in dormitories where the sick and injured slept. Nowadays the serpent-entwined staff ,the symbol of Asclepius, is still seen in many medical emblems in the west.

Not only in the West snakes were associated with health, it is said that Buddha once changed himself into a Naga (mythical creature, half human, half snake) to heal people.

Though I am certain that among some people snakes are still killed for their supposed healing powers, in general (especially in the west), the killing of animals became taboo. As with many old remedies which once contained animal- (or human-) parts, medicines made of snake slowly disappeared. However the snake as a symbol of life and health remained and thus wearing a snake amulet was supposed to give you a good health. In some cultures it is believed to protect you against snake bites.

Love, Fertility and sexuality

Closely related to life is birth. So it will not be a surprise the snake also accompanies goddesses associated with birth and fertility. One of these goddesses was Eileithyia, the Cretan goddess of child-birth. In a cave, where she was supposedly born, named; The cave of Eileithyia she was worshipped for a very long time. The Greeks worshipped her as well. According to Pausanias, a Greek traveller and geographer, there was a shrine at Olympia sacred to Eileithyia. A virgin-priestess guarded the place and took care of a serpent that she offered honey cakes and water.
Interesting is that in Ugarit, an old Syrian city, there was an tradition by which the groom offered his bride a snake (or some sort of pastry in the shape of a snake) after the wedding. It would not surprise me if this tradition is related to some sort of fertility goddess, to ensure pregnancy.
Cookies in the shape of snakes, named Koerabithes, can still be found in Greece where it is said to be a favorite delicacy among young lovers. I have also seen antique wedding-rings in the shape of snakes.

Other gods and goddesses of fertility depicted as snakes or accompanied by snakes are; the Assyrio-Babylonic Lakhmu and lakhamu, a male and female serpent who gave birth to heaven and earth, the Celtic god of fertility Cernunnos, who was depicted as a horned serpent and the Aztec Earth-Mother, Coatlicue who wore a skirt made of serpents.

In some cultures the snake is also associated with sexuality. We all know those sailors tattoos of women who are scantly dressed and instead have a lot of snakes wrapped around their bodys. These tattoo' were supposed to give a reflection of the wild and untamable nature of women. That a snake was part of these tattoos was no coincidence. Like I said in the beginning the snake also has a "bad" reputation as a seducer, impostor and killer.
In Christian tradition it was the snake who seduced Eve to eat from the forbidden fruit (interesting note is that the forbidden fruit is often depicted in many artworks as an apple, which is also a symbol of love and sexuality). Eve exposed her "true nature" by following the snake's advice and images of women with snakes often refer to this story.

These days snake blood is believed to be a great afrodisiacum in Asian countries and is sold at many places.
Though we don't offer snakes honey cakes anymore or worship the fertility goddesses, amulets of snakes are still believed sometimes to give fertility and attract love.


As the snake personifies all facets of life, he was considered wise as well. After all he knew all the secrets of life and death. Living among the gods, or in some cases being a god, made him a divine animal.
Athene, the Greek goddess was sometimes depicted with a snake as an emblem of her wisdom.
Though the snake was considered wise he was feared more then loved, as he often had the habit to use his wisdom against humanity. Was it not the snake of Eden who used his knowledge to make Eve commit a sin? But not only in Christianity the snake has a bad reputation. In the epic Mahabharata, the Nagas (deities depicted as half human, half snake) are often described as the most evil of all while they play a important role in heroic quests. Maybe it is therefor the snake was considered wise, as he knew ALL, not just the good, but the evil as well.

Because of this reputation many people thought carrying an image of the snake would reveal them secrets of life and would help them to make decisions in difficult times.

Magic and the Supernatural

Another interesting thing is the role of the snake in magic. As the snake was both good and evil, death and life, it was used in white magic as well as in black magic.
An example of white magic can be found among the people of Tuscany, where it was said; "that if one has something in the eye or throught, spit three times upon the ground and say":

"O grande Serpent
lo ti baccio il volto!"

("O great Serpent
I kiss thy Face!")

Amongst the same people it was a longtime custom to paint snakes with the head pointed down upon the wall. This was believed to ward of evil, including the evil eye. And indeed we can find many amulets depicting snakes which are believed to give protection against the evil eye.

Someone once told me that in South Africa people wear little amulets of snakes to protect themselves against water-snakes. The snakes who live in the water are sometimes believed to be many a reincarnation of Death. These deities can be malevolent and when people fall in the water it is likely they will drown you. Thus wearing an amulet should protect against these evil spirits.

There is among the Xhosa (an African tribe) a curious belief. This belief concerns the "Icanti" (love Snake), this snake is supposed to make woman irresistible to men, hence the reason why many would like to have one. To get such snake one most swallow a special medicine, from which the ingredient are only known to those of the tribe. This you must do every day, for a month. You will then start vomiting and in the vomit you will find a little snake. Next you have to take the little creature to the river, where it will grow. Once it is fully grown the woman puts it in a pot and keeps it at her home.
It is said that the Icanti is especially loved by prostitutes who make good money because of them!

Another example of the snake's magical powers: it was believed in Europe, for quite some time, the blood and fat of a snake enabled you to understand the language of animals. Some practicers of Hoodoo still believe eating the brains of a snake will give you conjuring skills. Moreover the snake is actually the center of many hoodoo practices and serpent-worship plays a very important role in the Hoodoo culture. Alas I do not have the space to write more about this interesting subject, maybe in a later post....

Though I have only given a few examples of white "snake-magic" it is clear how health, love and wisdom are recurring topics in these forms of magic all over the world.

The amulet

To get back to our starting point; an amulet depicting a snake is thus believed among many people to preserve magical powers and it would pass on all these characteristics upon its wearer.
Nevertheless, many people , especially in the west, have lost faith in the "old religion" and the snake as an amulet is now not much more then a decorative piece.

I however, can not look upon a snake amulet as just a fancy jewel. I am no snake-worshipper but I have great respect for its long tradition and I look with admiration upon this creature. There is something mystic about this creature, something which, despite my knowledge about folklore and magic, I can not define.

Making this amulet was thus very special for me, I guess you can say it was a sort of "tribute" to the snake.

O, incase you were wondering about the other features of this necklace, the red felted tie is not just mere coincidence. In the magic of the Southern Europe, (and among many other people as well) red is a very powerful color which symbolizes life and gives protection. Especially red wool is supposed to be very powerful and is a lucky charm on itself. The hand as well is a common image on amulets which function is mostly to ward of evil, depending on its position. But that is a whole other story, something for another time......

For those interested, this one of a kind snake amulet is now (or tomorrow...) available at my
Etsy Shop!

1 comment:

  1. This is a lovely amulet Isabella, I love it! I was always fascinated by snake, and as a bellydancer I wish I had an opportunity to dance with one... Hasn't happened yet, but I'm hopeful! ;)

    Your new brooches are lovely too, congrats!


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