University of Massachusetts Amherst

Snake of Massachusetts

Myths & Misinformation

Snake with branchCows, monkeys and dogs are revered by some cultures yet consumed as food by others. So, too, snakes are respected in some parts of the world and despised in others. The way that people feel about snakes is heavily influenced by cultural beliefs and mythology.

Some cultures held snakes in high esteem as powerful religious symbols. Quetzalcoatl, the mythical "plumed serpent," was worshipped as the "Master of Life" by ancient Aztecs of Central America. Some African cultures worshipped rock pythons and considered the killing of one to be a serious crime. In Australia, the Aborigines associated a giant rainbow serpent with the creation of life.

Other cultures have associated snakes with medicinal powers or rebirth. In India, cobras were regarded as reincarnations of important people called Nagas. Our modern medical symbol of two snakes wrapped around a staff, or 'caduceus,' comes from ancient Greek mythology. According to the Greeks, the mythical figure Aesculapius discovered medicine by watching as one snake used herbs to bring another snake back to life.

Snake in Tree

Judeo-Christian culture has been less kind to snakes. Tales of the Garden of Eden and the serpent's role in "man's fall from grace" have contributed to a negative image of snakes in western culture. In Appalachia, some Christians handle venomous snakes as part of ritual ceremonies, relying on faith to protect them from bites. Among Catholics, Saint Patrick is credited with ridding Ireland of snakes, a feat celebrated by many as a good thing.

Deep rooted cultural biases may be responsible, in part, for widespread fear and disdain for snakes. However, modern myths, from folk tales to plain old misinformation, also contribute to their negative image.

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