The Female Nature of the Snake

The cult of the snake as token of rebirth was widespread in all pre-Indo-European Europe*. For an agricultural society that believed in a close relationship between the earth and the female womb as places of birth and rebirth, it was natural to lay the eyes on an animal used to hide itself beneath the earth during the winter and to wake up in spring after having renewed its skin. Hence, the snake was reckoned not only as a rebirthing animal, but also as a chthonian one, (i.e. “belonging to the earth”, from Greek chthón = “earth”); furthermore, thanks to such a connection between earth and female womb, the snake was also linked to the female element.

Because of she-snake’s ability to defend her eggs, in matriarchal Europe the rôle of this animal was also that of beneficent guardian of inhabited spaces, as houses or towns. Minoan Crete —the better known civilization of pre-Indo-European Europe— worshipped a special aspect of her Goddess of Nature, the so called Snake-Goddess.
The great Swedish scholar M.P. Nilsson showed that Athena, the protectress of the Athenian citadel, derived from the ancient Mycenean Potnia (= “Mistress”, “Mighty Lady” in Greek), a deity who was a heritage of the Minoan Goddess of Fertility. Well, Nilsson suggested that the presence of the snake Erichthonius in the fondation myth of Athens’ citadel by Athena was a direct heritage of the Minoan Snake-Goddess, due to the snake’s rôle of protector of the community.
However, the most noteworthy feature of the snake-earth-female connection was its development after the Indo-Europeization of Greece. The new conquerors, the Mycenean Greeks, submitted the Goddesses to their male-deities, trying always to sink them in a bad light. Thus, the snake-earth-female connection became the incarnation of all the fears of patriarchal society towards women and the Divine Female Power: the most frightening monsters of Greek Mythology were often imagined to be snake or dragon-shaped, chthonian, and —fear of fears— female. Let’s introduce a few of them, as Echidna, the Lernaean Hydra, the Chimaera, and the Delphic Dragoness.
Echidna was an Earth-Goddess whose upper half was of a pretty maiden, while her lower one was of a snake, as portrayed in Hesiod’s Theogony, lines 295-300:
She bore in a hollow cave another monster, intractable, not all similar to mortal beings or to immortal gods: divine, strong-hearted Echidna, half a quick-eyed beautiful-cheeked nymph, but half a monstrous snake, terrible and great, shimmering, eating raw flesh, under the hidden places of the holy earth.
(transl. by H.G. Evelyn-White)

The Hydra of Lerna, daughter of Echidna, was a multi-snake-head monster nurtured by Hera and slain by Heracles.

The fire-breathing Chimaera, another daughter of Echidna, had a triple nature: lion, she-goat, and snake.
In Hesiod (Theogony 319-322) she had three heads, one of each animal, while in Homer (Iliad 6.181) she was in front a lion, behind a dragon, in the middle a she-goat. The Delphic Dragoness is protagonist of the most important myth about the replacement of matriarchal order by patriarchal. She was a huge snake who dwelt under the earth in Delphi; in Greek, the root delph- means female womb. Hence, the snake-earth-female connection is especially clear. After having already slain the Python snake —sent him by Hera—, Apollo decided to conquer the Delphic Oracle. For such a purpose he had to slay its current owner, the Dragoness, of course portrayed as an evil monster (Homeric Hymn to Apollo 300-304):
But near by was a sweet flowing spring, and there with his strong bow the lord, the son of Zeus, killed the bloated, great she-dragon, a fierce monster wont to do great mischief to men upon earth, to men themselves and to their thin-shanked sheep; for she was a very bloody plague.
(transl. by Gl.W. Most)

The slaying of the
Delphic Dragoness by Apollo also witnesses the ancient, matriarchal connection between female and oracular prophecy, the divine wisdom assured by the direct touch of women with divinity. It’s noteworthy that the greatest seers of Greek Myth, Melampus and Tiresias, received the prophecy by snakes. Melampus nourished baby snakes, and, one night, when they grew up, they licked his ears, inspiring him the divine prophecy.
Tiresias saw a couple of snakes mating, killed the female, and became a woman. Seven years later, after seen another couple of snakes mating, he killed the male and returned man. Thus, when Zeus and Hera discussed whether women or men feel more pleasure while mating, asked Tiresias for an opinion, because of his experience both as man and as woman. The seer answered that women reach nine tenths of pleasure, while men only one. Hera, angered, blinded him, while Zeus offered him the gift of prophecy. However, the true meaning of the myth is that Tiresias got the gift of prophecy because, after his initiation by a she-snake, he became a woman. Scholars suggest that his return to male gender is very likely to be an artificial addition to the original myth.
The ancient rôle of the snake as guardian was replaced by that of evil obstacle for male-heroes in the accomplishment of their deeds.To get the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, Heracles had to slay its guardian snake, as Cadmos did with the dragon which defended the holy spring of Thebes, and Jason with the one defending the Golden Fleece.
Such a tradition survived in Middle Age, where, to save the princess, the good hero had often to slay a dragon (see also the myth of St. George).
It is worth of note that in other cultures, as in the Far Eastern, dragon is usually a beneficent symbol of fertility, associated with water and the heavens: hence, it’s important to keep in mind that all the evil nature of dragon in Western culture arose from the original, close relationship of the snake with the female element.
Dragons were often thought to be fire-breathing: flames were a token of hell, imagined to be under the earth, i.e. the female womb. Among the secondary meanings of the word “dragon”, in the Oxford American Dictionary of English Language you can read: “a fierce and intimidating person, especially a woman”.
The rescue of the princess by a hero after slaying a dragon is a patriarchal, pedagogic myth that deserves now to be read in its right meaning: the dragon is a symbol of Female Power and Wisdom, while the rescue of the princess and her marriage to the hero means the submission of the maiden to patriarchal authority; to do it, the male needs to defeat the Divine Female Power.*pre-Indo-European Europe means Old Europe before the Indo-European conquest, which took place since 2000 to 1000 B.C.E.. The Indo-Europeans replaced the peaceful, agricultural, and matriarchal civilization of Old Europe with a warrior, herder, and patriarchal society, from which Western culture derives. See Chapter IV.