ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian bestiary: Snakes
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    About three dozen species of snakes live in Egypt, quite a few of them highly poisonous but most harmless to humans. They populate all possible environments, from the sandy desert to the marshy Nile delta. The attitude of the Egyptians towards them has always been ambivalent. On the one hand many snakes were perceived to be beneficial, ridding the country of mice and rats, which caused great damage to stored food, on the other hand many deaths were the consequence of snake bites, and the physicians were unable to do much more than invoke the assistance of the gods, known physical remedies being almost worthless.

Tutankhamen; Source: Jon Bodsworth Tutankhamen's golden mask sporting a single uraeus on his crown
Courtesy Jon Bodsworth

    Some of the snakes dangerous to humans are cobras. among them the Egyptian cobra, Naja haje, which was considered to be a guardian of the ancient Egyptian kingship. Another is the Spitting Cobra which defends itself by spraying poison in the eyes of any animal threatening it.Another family of poisonous snakes is that of the vipers. The horned viper, Cerastes cornutus, the image of which was used as the hieroglyph representing the f-sound, was also much feared, the report of Herodotus about its innocuousness notwithstanding:
In the neighbourhood of Thebes there are some sacred serpents which are perfectly harmless. They are of small size, and have two horns growing out of the top of the head. These snakes, when they die, are buried in the temple of Jupiter, the god to whom they are sacred.
Herodotus, Euterpe, 74.1
    Other vipers are also occur in Egypt: the Egyptian Saw Scaled Viper, Echis pyramidum, which, when threatened, makes a distinctive sizzling sound by rubbing its scales together, the Palestine Saw-scaled Viper (also called Burton's Carpet Viper), Echis coloratus, found in the eastern part of the country, and others,
    Strabo mentions a number of Egyptian animals in his writings and was especially impressed by the snakes:
The animals peculiar to the country (i.e. Egypt) are the ichneumon and the Egyptian asp, having some properties which those in other places do not possess. There are two kinds, one a span in length, whose bite is more suddenly mortal than that of the other; the second is nearly an orguia [six feet] in size, according to Nicander, the author of the Theriaca.
Strabo, Geography
Text scanned and modernized by J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton
    In the Papyrus Lansing the life of the peasant is described unfavourably, as was the wont of scribes, and snakes are accused of destroying grain harvests.
He spends time cultivating, and the snake is after him. It finishes off the seed as it is cast to the ground. He does not see a green blade.
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2, p.170
    Fear and ignorance reigned, and knowledge of snakes and their habits was - and still is in most quarters - slight. The Papyrus Insinger quotes a number of sayings concerning snakes:
He who is bitten of the bite of a snake is afraid of a coil of rope
The hissing of the snake is more effective than the braying of the donkey.
A snake that is eating has no venom.
Death comes to the snake because of its love of biting.
The small snake has poison.
The snake on which one steps ejects a strong poison.
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol 3, p.170ff
    The reactions of people to their appearance were often irrational and exaggerated. In the story of The Doomed Prince a snake drank itself into a stupor:
Then his wife filled a [bowl] with [wine (?)] and another bowl with beer. Thereupon a [snake] came out [of its] hole to bite the youth. But his wife was sitting beside him, not sleeping. [She placed the bowls before (?)] the snake. It drank, it became drunk, it lay down on its back. Then [the woman had] it hacked to pieces with her axe.
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2, p.202

In mythology

Panel from the grave of Djed-djehutefankh at Deir el Bahari; Source: Jon Bodsworth-     Chthonic animals were mysterious to the ancient Egyptians: their origin was unclear as if they had seemingly come into existence without a creator. They were life-creating themselves. Serpents were even more puzzling than other denizens of the underworld. They shed their skin and became therefore symbols of rebirth after death.
The Osiris Ani, whose word is truth, saith:- I am the serpent Sata whose years are infinite. I lie down dead. I am born daily. I am the serpent Sa-en-ta, the dweller in the uttermost parts of the earth. I lie down in death. I am born, I become new, I renew my youth every day.
The Book Ani, translated by Budge
    The endlessness of the sea and the relationship between being and non-being were symbolized by a snake, the ouroboros, coiled around the world and biting its own tail. It also stood for resurrection and the power of renewal. Similarly, the Ahay or metwi serpent expressed for the cyclical nature of time. The ouroboros is first depicted on a shrine found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, a picture of the metwi can be seen in the Book of Gates of Seti I.[1]
    The attitude towards snakes was ambiguous. They were both destroyers and protectors. If the poisonous species, of which there are a few dozens in Egypt such as the cobra and the horned viper, were feared, the non-poisonous snakes were venerated for the role they played in the extermination of rodents.
    Among the positive deities the four female goddesses of the ogdoad of gods sported serpent heads, the males had the form of toads, chthonic animals as well. Amen as primordial creator assumed the form of Kematef, a snake. Thermutis, the harvest goddess, was honoured in the form of a snake during the vintage and corn harvest. Uto, the protectress of Lower Egypt, was a fire-spitting snake, often called the Fiery Eye of Re. It was probably the origin of the uraeus, carried on their crowns by the pharaohs since the Middle Kingdom (see cobra). Nehebka was a double-headed serpent living in the Underworld ...
Let me fly like a hawk, let me cackle like a goose, let me lay always like the serpent-goddess Neheb-ka.
The Book Ani, translated by Budge
...and Re was protected on his journey through the dark by Mehen, depicted as a sinuous snake surrounding the god's cabin on his solar boat.
    Mafdet, in the shape of a mongoose generally known as a destroyer of evil snakes, is a lion-headed serpent in the Pyramid Texts,[2] and abS is the snake-form of Sobek.[4] The aHa.w, the standing one, was an epithet for guardian snakes in th Papyrus of Nu.[3]
    One of the principal destructive beings was the dragonlike Apophis, a poisonous water snake thirty cubits long, waylaying Re and held in check by Seth who was the only being unaffected by the stare of the snake. The realm of the Dead was inhabited by snake demons of many kinds, some winged, others standing up on legs (!). Some were spitting fire, some were armed with a knife.
    In the Hymns to Re the fall of his enemies, among them the ass and various serpents, is celebrated
Thine enemy the Serpent hath been given over to the fire. The Serpent-fiend Sebau hath fallen headlong, his forelegs are bound in chains, and his hind legs hath Ra carried away from him.
Thou in thy shrine hast joy, for the Serpent-fiend Nak hath been judged by the fire, and thy heart shall rejoice for ever.
The Book Ani, translated by Budge
Among the 40 demons before whom the dead had to justify themselves was Amenti:
Hail, serpent Amenti who comes from the house of slaughter, I have not defiled the wife of a man.
The Book of the Dead, chapter 125

[  ] The picture from the grave of Djed-djehutefankh at Deir el Bahri courtesy Jon Bodsworth.
[1] Ian Shaw, Paul Nicholson, The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, British Museum Press 1995, pp.262f.
[2] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Pyramidentexte => Pyramide Pepis I. => Vorkammer => Ostwand => PT 1036
[3] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Totenbuchprojekt, Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften => pLondon BM EA 10477 (pNu) => Tb 035
[4] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Pyramidentexte => Pyramide Pepis I. => Eingang => Westwand => PT 317

© 2002
August 2009
July, February 2004