Egypt as the Home of Serpent Worship---Thoth said to be the founder of Ophiolatreia---Cneph, the Architect of the Universe---Mysteries of Isis---The Isaic Table---Frequency of the Serpent Symbol---Scrapis---In the Temples of Luxore, etc.---Discovery at Malta---The Egyptian Basilisk---Mummies---Bracelets---The Caduceus---Temple of Cneph at Elaphantina---Thebes---Story of a Priest---Painting in a Tomb at Biban at Malook---Pococke at Raigny.
Egypt, of all ancient nations the most noted for its idolatry, was in its earliest days the home of the peculiar worship we are contemplating. A learned writer on the subject says "the serpent entered into the Egyptian religion under all his characters---of an Emblem of Divinity, a Charm or Oracle, and a God." Cneph, Thoth and Isis were conspicuous and chief among the gods and goddesses thus symbolized, though he is said to have entered more or less into the symbolical worship of all the gods.
Sanchoniathon describes Thoth as the founder of Serpent Worship in Egypt, and he is generally regarded as the planter of the earliest colonies in Phnicia and Egypt after the Deluge. He has been called the Reformer of the Religions of Egypt, and Deane says: "He taught the Egyptians (or rather that part of his colony which was settled in Egypt) a religion, which, partaking of Zabaism and Ophiolatreia, had some mixture also of primeval truth. The Divine Spirit he denominated Cneph, and described him as the Original, Eternal Spirit, pervading all creation, whose symbol was a serpent."
Cneph was called by the priests the architect of the universe, and has been represented as a serpent with an egg in his mouth; the serpent being his hieroglyphical emblem, and the egg setting forth the mundane elements as proceeding from him.
After his death Thoth was, in return for services rendered to the people, made a god of---the god of health, or of healing, and so became the prototype of Æsculapius. His learning appears to have been great, and he instructed the people in astronomy, morals, hieroglyphics and letters. He is generally represented leaning upon a knotted stick which has around it a serpent.
The mysteries of the worship of Isis abounded in allusions to the serpent, and Montfaucon says that the Isaic table, a plate of brass overlaid with brass enamel; intermixed with plates of silver, which described the mysteries, was charged with serpents in every part as emblems of the goddess. The particular serpent thus employed was that small one well known as the instrument used in her suicide by the celebrated Cleopatra, the asp. This creature is pictured and carved on the priestly robes, the tiaras of the kings, the image of the goddess. The British Museum possesses a head of this divinity wearing a coronet of them. Not only so, the living reptiles were kept in her temple and were supposed to sanctify the offerings by crawling about amongst them.
As we have said the serpent entered largely into the symbolical worship of all the Egyptian deities, and Cneph, Thoth and Isis can only be regarded as three of the chief.
Deane says there is scarcely an Egyptian deity which is not occasionally symbolized by it. Several of these deities are represented with their proper heads terminating in serpents' bodies. In Montfaucon, vol. 2, plate 207, there is an engraving of Serapis with a human head and serpentine tail. Two other minor gods are also represented, the one by a serpent with a bull's head, the other by a serpent with the radiated head of the lion. The second of these, which Montfaucon supposes to be an image of Apis, is bored through the middle: probably with a design to hang about the neck, as they did many other small figures of gods, by way of ornament or charms.
The figure of Serapis encircled by serpents is found on tombs. The appearance of serpents on tombs was very general. On an urn of Egnatius, Nicephoras, and of Herbasia Clymene, engraved in Montfaucon, vol. 5, a young man entwined by a serpent is described as falling headlong to the ground. In the urn of Herbasia Clymene the corners are ornamented with figures of serpents. It is a singular coincidence that the creature by whom it is believed came death into the world should be consecrated by the earliest heathen idolaters to the receptacles of the dead. It is remarkable also that Serapis was supposed by the Egyptians to have dominion over evil demons, or in other words was the same as Plato or Satan."
On some of the Egyptian temples the serpent has been conspicuously figured as an emblem consecrated to the Divine service. Thus it is found at Luxore, Komombu, Dendara, Apollinopolis and Esnay. The Pamphylian obelisk also bears it many times---fifty-two it is said---and according to Pococke each of the pillars of the temple of Gava has it twice sculptured.
All writers on the subject have noticed the variations of form under which the serpent has appeared on Egyptian monuments, and have laid stress upon it as indicating the great consideration in which he was held. There is little to be wondered at in this when we remember that he was regarded as symbolical of divine wisdom, power, and creative energy; of immortality and regeneration, from the shedding of his own skin; and of eternity, when represented in the act of biting his own tail.
One writer says the world was represented by a circle, intersected by two diameters perpendicular to each other, which diameters, according to Eusebius, were serpents. Jablonski says the circumference only, was a serpent.
Kircher says that the elements (or rather what were so considered in ancient times) were represented by serpents. Earth was symbolized by a prostrate two-horned snake; water, by a serpent moving in an undulated manner; air, by an erect serpent in the act of hissing; fire, by an asp standing on its tail and bearing upon his head a globe. "From these hieroglyphics," remarks Deane, "It is clear that the serpent was the most expressive symbol of divinity with the Egyptians."
An engraving in Montfaucon, vol. 2, p. 237, calls for notice here, as illustrating the great extent to which the veneration of the serpent once prevailed in Egypt. In the year 1694, in an old wall of Malta, was discovered a plate of gold, supposed to have been concealed there by its possessors at a time when everything idolatrous was destroyed as abominable. Montfaucon says: "This plate was rolled up in a golden casket; it consists of two long rows which contain a very great number of Egyptian deities, most of which have the head of some beast or bird. Many serpents are also seen intermixed, the arms and legs of the gods terminating in serpents' tails. The first figure has upon its back a long shell with a serpent upon it; in each row there is a serpent extended upon an altar. Among the figures of the sacred row there is seen an Isis of tolerably good form. This same plate, no doubt, contains the most profound mysteries of the Egyptian superstition."
It hardly matters where we look in Egypt, this same serpent symbol is found entering into the composition of everything, whether ornamental, useful, or ecclesiastical. The basilisk, the most venomous of all snakes, and so regarded as the king of the species and named after the oracular god of Canaan OB or OUB, was represented on coins with rays upon his head like a crown; around the coin was inscribed "Agathodæmon." The emperor Nero in the "madness of his vanity," it is said, caused a number of such coins to be struck with the inscription "The New Agathodæmon," meaning himself.
The Egyptians held basilisks in such veneration that they made images of them in gold and consecrated and placed them in the temples of their gods. Bryant thinks that they were the same as the Thermuthis, or deadly asp. These creatures the Egyptians priests are said to have preserved by digging holes for them in the corners of their temples, and it was a part of their superstition to believe that whosoever was accidentally bitten by them was divinely favoured. 1
Deane further mentions that the serpent is sometimes found sculptured, and attached to the breasts of mummies; but whether with a view to talismanic security, or as indicative of the priesthood of Isis, is doubtful. A female mummy, opened by M. Passalacqua at Paris some years ago, was adorned with a necklace of serpents carved in stone.
Bracelets, in the form of serpents, were worn by the Grecian women in the time of Clemens Alexdrinus, who thus reproves the fashion:---"The women are not ashamed to place about them the most manifold symbols of the evil one; for as the serpent deceived Eve, so the golden trinket in the fashion of a serpent misleads the women." The children also wore chaplets of the same kind.
We must not omit to notice the Caduceus, which forms, it is said, one of the most striking examples of the talismanic serpent. According to Montfaucon, Kirchen and others, the notion that this belonged exclusively to Hermes or Mercury is erroneous, as it can be seen in the hand of Cybele, Minerva Amebis, Hercules Ogmius and the personified constellation Virgo, said by Lucian to have had her symbol in the Pythian priestess.
Variously represented in the main, the Caduceus always preserved the original design of a winged wand entwined by two serpents. It is found sometimes without the wings, but never without the serpents; the varieties consisting chiefly in the number of folds made by the serpents' bodies round the wand, and the relative positions of the wings and serpents' heads. It was regarded as powerful in paralyzing the mind and raising the dead.
Kirchen says that Caduceus was originally expressed by the simple figure of a cross by which its inventor, Thoth, is said to have symbolized the four elements proceeding from a common centre.
"Ophiolatreia," says Deane, "had taken such deep root in Egypt that the serpent was not merely regarded as an emblem of divinity, but even held in estimation as the instrument of an oracle. The priests of the temple of Isis had a silver image of a serpent so constructed as to enable a person in attendance to move its head without being observed by the supplicating votary.
"But Egyptian superstition was not contented with worshipping divinity through its emblem the serpent. The senseless idolator soon bowed before the symbol itself, and worshipped this reptile, the representative of man's energy, as a god."
In addition to the temple of the great serpent-god Cneph at Elephantina, there was a renowned one of Jupiter at Thebes, where the practice of Ophiolatreia was carried to a great length. Herodotus writes: "At Thebes there are two serpents, by no means injurious to men; small in size, having two horns springing up from the top of the head. They bury these when dead in the temple of Jupiter: for they say that they are sacred to that god." Ælian says: "In the time of Ptolemy Euergetes, a very large serpent was kept in the temple of Æsculapius at Alexandria, and in another place a live one of great magnitude was kept and adored with divine honours; the name of this place he called Melité." He gives the following story:---"This serpent had priests and ministers, a table and a bowl. The priests every day carried into the sacred chamber a cake made of flour and honey and then retired. Returning the next day they always found the bowl empty. On one occasion, one of the priests, being extremely anxious to see the sacred serpent, went in alone, and having deposited the cake retired. When the serpent had ascended the table to his feast, the priest came in, throwing open the door with great violence: upon which the serpent departed with great indignation. But the priest was shortly after seized with a mental malady, and, having confessed his crime, became dumb and wasted away until he died."
In Hewart's tables of Egyptian hieroglyphics we see a priest offering adoration to a serpent. The same occurs on the Isiac table.
"In a tomb at Biban, at Malook, is a beautiful painting descriptive of the rites of Ophiolatreia. The officiating priest is represented with a sword in his hand, and three headless victims are kneeling before an immense serpent. Isis is seen sitting under the arch made by the serpent's body, and the sacred asp, with a human face, is behind her seated on the serpent's tail. This picture proves that the serpent was propitiated by human victims."
It is noteworthy that in Egypt as in Phnicia and other places serpent worship was not immediately destroyed by the advance of Christianity. The Gnostics united it with the religion of the cross, and a quotation from Bishop Pococke will, just here, be most appropriate and interesting.
"We came to Raigny, where the religious sheikh of the famous Heredy was at the side of the river to meet us. He went with us to the grotto of the serpent that has been so much talked of under the name of the Sheikh Heredy, of which I shall give you a particular account, in order to show the folly, credulity, and superstition of these people; for the Christians have faith in it as well as the Turks. We went ascending between the rocky mountain for half a mile, and came to a part where the valley opens wider. On the right is a mosque, built with a dome over it, against the side of the rock, like a sheikh's burial-place. In it there is a large cleft in the rock out of which they say the serpent comes. There is a tomb in the mosque, in the Turkish manner, that they say is the tomb of Heredy, which would make one imagine that one of their saints is buried there, and that they suppose his soul may be in the serpent, for I observed that they went and kissed the tomb with much devotion and said their prayers at it. Opposite to this cleft there is another, which they say is the tomb of Ogli Hassan, that is of Hassan, the son of Heredy; there are two other clefts which they say are inhabited by saints or angels. The sheikh told me there were two of these serpents, but the common notion is that there is only one. He said it had been there ever since the time of Mahomet. The shape of it is like that of other serpents of the harmless breed. He comes out only during the four summer months, and it is said that they sacrifice to it. This the sheikh denied, and affirmed they only brought lambs, sheep, and money to buy oil for the lamps---but I saw much blood and entrails of beasts lately killed before the door.
"The stories are so ridiculous that they ought not to be repeated, if it were not to give an instance of their idolatry in those parts in this respect, though the Mahometan religion seems to be very far from it in other things. They say the virtue of this serpent is to cure all diseases of those who go to it.
"They are also full of a story, that when a number of women go there once a year, he passes by and looks on them, and goes and twines about the neck of the most beautiful.
"I was surprised to hear a grave and sensible Christian say that he always cured any distempers, but that worse followed. And some really believe that he works miracles, and say it is the devil mentioned in Tobit, whom the angel Gabriel drove into the utmost parts of Egypt."
1 Gesner, Hist. Anim. p. 54, citing Ælian.