The Story of the Midgard Serpent: A Mythological Tailspin
In Teutonic mythology the Middle Earth was wrapped round by the Midgard Serpent. Above this the gods built their mansions in the sky. Yet, curiously, in the lower world there lived all those people who had ceased to live.
This lower residence was alive with the undead. But it was not viewed as a place of punishment, as was later consigned by the Christian conversion of Hell.
The Germanic word was, in fact, Hel. It was the name of a goddess, a sovereign of the underworld. Fittingly, her face was half white, half black (yin/yang). In ancient Scandinavia, the goddess Hel was the daughter of Loki, the great trickster. Later on, in Christian mythology, Loki morphed into Satan or Lucifer. Hel, the Teutonic goddess, was thus a blood relation of the Devil.
Loki's brood; daughter Hel, Fenrir the Wolf and Jörmungandr the Serpent. ( Public domain )
All this gets very complicated —perhaps even funny when you consider that our term, earthbound is a reference to the belief that Midgard Serpent binds the Earth and holds it together. We are "bound to believe" then that an uncommonly common snake holds the whole ball of wax called earth in an embrace that lasts forever.
Midgard Serpent wooden carving. (Patrick Johanneson/ Flickr)
The coils of Midgard Serpent were believed to be just like the serpentine tail of the black cat. All in all, these intertwined myths are a potpourri of old belief systems going far back in time. They are greatly and sinuously entangled. And they represent the collective unconscious of the human race. In truth, these tales stretch so far back that we've lost track of where they begin and end.
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Ouroboros eats its own tail. ( Public Domain )
Spawning Modern Myths
Here is proof that the older the tale, the more deeply rooted the belief. We heard an unusual story the other day that illustrates this truism. A two-year-old girl was admiring a bird of paradise bush in front of her house in Florida. The girl stepped so close to the palm tree that she was almost within the fold of its fronds. Meanwhile her mother went inside the house to answer the phone. When she came back to her daughter moments later, a ghastly sight confronted her.
The child was encircled in the coils of a huge black indigo snake. The hysterical mother screamed for help and some neighbors came running. One of the men had a machete. After the snake was pried off the girl and killed, the man measured it. Head to tail, the dead snake was eight feet in length and about four inches thick. Although the little girl was unhurt, her family was deep in shock. More so than the child.
Indigo Snake ( Public Domain )
Husband and wife dug up the bird of paradise bush, pulled it out by the roots and burned it. This was a biblical purge of deviltry, they believed. However, well below the root system of the bush, the husband found a hundred or more baby indigo snakes.
We have to wonder -- is this story remotely true? Or is it a fable of the human imagination?
Whatever parts are true, much of the tale comes from the ancient logbook of biblical mythology.
Actually, the whole thing is a modern medieval allegory. But there is little to make of it as herpetology. There aren't any actual cases that we know of where an indigo snake ever twined around a child. Or watched over a nest like a domestic fowl.
Like most cold blooded reptiles, indigo snakes have a "lay and leave" policy. Moreover they do not victimize prey they cannot swallow. Finally, their meal is mostly rats. This explains what the snake was doing there in the first place -- looking for something small and furry to eat.
As a folklorist I find such tales not only amazing but true-to-life, if only because the participants believe them -- and shape them -- to their will. Our greatest myths only seem to be true. Whereas our truest lies only seem to be false. It is a very mixed bag, the human mind, full of dark superstition and wary contradiction.
Some favored beliefs of humanity never really go away. There is always a bit of Adam and Eve in the human conversation and not too far off, an apple-mouthed serpent with a tail that goes round the earth. In any case, I personally salute Midgard -- still round and around, so to say, after so many thousands of years.
Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent ( Public Domain )
In Jamaica where I was co-founder of an outward bound youth school, I experienced many all night drum sessions. Some were Rastafarian, some were Haitian and others were Cuban-influenced. However, all of these sessions were ancient African in origin.
I recall how one drummer told me that "It all goes back to Damballah, the snake god."
Damballah La Flambeau, by the Haitian artist Hector Hyppolite. ( Public Domain )
In Haiti there are Vaudou temples and one of these is open-air. Root doctors and leaf carriers come from miles around to share their healing unguents and medicines and teas. The temple is called Valle des Serpents. It is impossible to explain the complexity of snake-beliefs from Africa because they are entwined, as it were, with the rationale that snakes themselves are healers.
“Serpent Priestess” Mami Wata, who plays a major role in various African and African-American religions. ( Public Domain )
Once in Rochester, New York I met a white man with a huge goiter on his neck. When I asked him if he was seeing a doctor or healer for this he explained that his personal practitioner was a "snake man." By which he meant not a snake oil salesman but a roots doctor who cured goiters with a rattlesnake. "How does he do that?" I asked. The man answered, "He allows a five foot snake to coil itself around my neck for a few minutes at a time, then he uncoils him and does the same thing again." I mentioned that it sounded dangerous, and asked if the snake was "milked" or de-venomized. "No," he said, "the snakes are always potent." He gave me a penetrating stare. "The snakes themselves are the healers," he explained, "and this goiter you see here about the size of a baseball will shrink to the size of a pimple after treatment with a live rattler."
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Back in Jamaica and Haiti, the roots doctor and the snake work in tandem. The roots doctor explains, "Damballah is the Serpent father, the healer who cannot die." As a folklorist I understand this old mythology. Damballah may also be Quetzalcoatl or even Saint Patrick who mythically ridded Ireland of snakes long ago.
The supernatural healer may also go by a variety of Amerindian and African names, translated thus: Rainbow, Smoke, and also "The umbilical Cord of All-Life." The male entity god may be known as Tail Swallower, Connecter of Earth and Sky. There are a great many names here and all of them are complicated and yet also quite simple: the snake is a deity, not a devilish creature fashioned out of Christian myth.
When Rattlesnake Takes You
My oldest friend on the Navajo reservation once told me while I was doing snake research, "When you die you always return to Mother Earth. The chant that goes with some ceremonies is translated like this:
Rattlesnake, the Earth
Lightning, the Universe
When Rattlesnake takes you, it is the Earth
When Lightning takes you, it is the Universe
Ancient North American serpent imagery often features rattlesnakes. ( Public Domain )
In either case, my friend explained that a Blessing Way needed to be performed by a medicine man to restore the snake-bitten or lightning-struck man. I understood from what he was saying that old Rattler was, in fact, a healer in the same way that the African root doctors believed.
Horned rattlesnake. At Mesquite Springs Campground, Death Valley National Park, California. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
So, to explain this further — lightning in its quirky zigs and zags resembles a moving snake, quick and fast, and sometimes striking. When struck, the lightning-bitten man must be restored by ceremony. So, too, with the one who is snake-bitten as well. But in either case there is a holiness about the bite.
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I was thinking the other day that the staff of Moses was said to be a snake. This reminded me again that all of our old beliefs come from a similar source. The ancient enmity of snake and man may be seen in a new and old light if one seeks such wisdom in the ancient ways of native people.
The poor serpent's ultimate indiscretion in Christian doctrine was offering Eve the apple. Yet, according to Dominican scholar, Matthew Fox, this paradigm is not original sin but rather original blessing. So perhaps the ancient enmity may be seen as an older harmony.
Serpents are sometimes represented as potent guardians of temples and other sacred spaces. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Let the misunderstood snake discard its skin and be seen shiny and new, a guardian not a gorgon. Let the tree of paradise be watched over by an indigo god who inhabits the healing worlds of Earth and Sky.
Top Image: Deriv; A Snakestone - a Dactylioceras commune ammonite with carved snake head, England ( CC BY-SA 2.0 ) in a galaxy (CC BY-SA 3.0)