Aboriginal races, so called, have from remote antiquity honoured the serpent. All over Africa, the vast regions of Tartary and China, the hills and plains of India, the whole extent of America, the Isles of the Pacific, alike in sweltering tropics and ice-bound coasts, is the same tale told.
The Maruts, Rudras, and Pitris are esteemed "Fiery dragons of wisdom," as magicians and Druids were of old. Abulfazl states that there are seven hundred localities where carved figures of snakes are objects of adoration. There are tribes in the Punjaub that will not kill a snake. Vishnu is associated with the reptile in various ways. Sesha, the serpent king, with one hundred heads, holds up the earth. The Nagas are given up to this peculiar worship. The Buddhist poem Nagananda relates the contest between Garuda, king of the birds, and the prince of the Naga or snake deities.
India beyond the Ganges has, as in Cambodia, magnificent temples in its honour. The soul of a tree in Siam may appear as a serpent. "In every ancient language," writes Madame Blavatski, "the word Dragon signified what it now does in Chinese, i.e. the being who excels in intelligence." The brazen serpent is in the East the Divine Healer. Æsculapius cannot do without his serpent. In the Hell of the Persians, says Hyde, "The snake ascends in vast rolls from this dark gulf, and the inside is full of scorpions and serpents." In the poem Voluspa of the Edda we read--"I know there is in Nastzande (Hell) an abode remote from the sun, the gates of which look towards the
Rome carried forth the serpent in war, since one of its standards was the serpent on a pole. Long after, in the church processions on Palm Sunday, the serpent figured, mounted on a pole. Scandinavia had its Midgard, encircling the globe with its body. The Norse serpent Jormungandr had a giantess for mother, and the evil Loki for father. Muscovites and Lithuanians had serpent gods, while Livonia bowed to the dragon. Olaus Magnus records serpents being kept in sacred buildings of the North, and fed on milk. Thor was able to kill a serpentine embodiment of evil, by striking it with his tau, or hammer. In pagan Russia the serpent was the protector of brides. St. Hilarion, of Ragusa, got rid of the dangerous snake Boas by lighting a great fire, and commanding the reptile to go on the top to be burnt. One of the symbols of both Hercules and the Celtic Hu was a serpent. The German white serpent gave wisdom to the eater of it.
In Gaul it was reverenced. Nathair was a serpent god. Priests, Druidical or otherwise, had a caduceus of two serpents embracing one another. A Gaulish goddess had, in like manner, two snakes about its legs and body. Druids kept live serpents for pious purposes. A French writer notices one twisted round a lingam, as can be seen now, also, in Pompeii. Gaulish coins represent a serpent under or over a horse, the sun emblem.
France was not without its snake destroyers. In Brittany St. Suliac, watching the emergence of a great serpent from its cave, put his stole round its neck and cast it into the sea. Up to 1793, a procession of the clergy of St. Suliac annually took place, when a Silver cross was lowered into the serpent cavern of La Guivre.
All readers of Welsh Druidism are aware of the pail played therein by this creeping creature It was the Celtic dragon Draig. It was the gliding god. Ceridwen is associated with a car and serpent. Abury, gives us the serpent of the sun. The Glain neidr, or serpent's egg, was a great mystery of the Druids.
Serpent worship has been taken up to the heavens where constellations have been named after the creeping silent creature. There is the Hydra killed by Hercules but not till it had poisoned him by its venom. There an the voluminous folds of Draco. There is that one held by Ophiuchus, which sought to devour the child of Virgo There is the seven-headed Draco, each head forming a star in the Little Bear. Thus we may exclaim with Herschel "The heavens are scribbled over with innumerable snakes.'
What is the meaning of it all?
Betham mentions the fact that the Celtic word for a serpent is expressive of its wisdom. The same meaning is in other languages, and the legends are of various nations. A knowing man, one versed in the mysteries, was called a serpent. Was it the silence which distinguished it in the animal creation that brought this reputation, and made it a fitting emblem of the esoteric system?
It was the symbol of productive energy, and was ever associated with the egg, symbol of the progressive elements of nature. The male was the Great Father; the female, the Great Mother.
O'Brien, and others, see a close connection between Solar, Phallic, and Serpent worship, the author of The Round Towers of Ireland, saying, "If all these be identical, where is the occasion of a surprise at our meeting the sun, phallus, and serpent, the constituent symbols of each, occurring in combination, embossed upon the same table, and grouped under the same architrave?"
The connection of the serpent with the starry host has been observed. Its scales resemble revolving stars. Like them, it moves swiftly, but noiselessly. The zodiacal girdle appeared like a serpent devouring its own tail, and it was always deemed of a fiery nature.
Some have supposed the stories of monstrous reptiles--the object of dread and conflict--to have originated from traditional records of gigantic and fearful-looking Saurians or serpents that once lived on earth, and some lingering specimens,, of which might have been seen by early tribes of mankind. The Atlanto-Saurusimmanis was a hundred feet long, with a femur two yards in diameter.
The serpent was certainly the token or symbol of an ancient race celebrated for wisdom, giving rise to the naming of the learned after dragons or serpents. The Druid of the Welsh Triads exclaims, "I am a serpent."
According to J. H. Baecker--"The three, five, seven, or nine-headed snake is the totem of a race of rulers, who presided over the Aryan Hindus.--The Snake race was that of the first primæval seafarers.--The faring-wise serpent race became at the earliest stage of tradition rulers and civilizers." And Ovid sang--
"As an old serpent casts his scaly vest,
Wreaths in the sun, in youthful glory dress'd,
So when Alcides' mortal mould resigned,
His better part enlarged, and grew refined."
It must be remembered that even traditions bear testimony to a variety of races in the Island. The Celts were among the later visitors, coming, certainly, after the Iberian, whose type remains in south-west Ireland. One of these early tribes brought the knowledge from afar; or, what may rather be conjectured, some shipmen from the East found a temporary sojourn there.
Dr. Phené justly remarks--"The absence of such reptiles in Ireland is remarkable, but their absence could certainly not have originated a serpent worship through terror; while everything artistic or religious in old Irish designs from the wonderful illuminations in the Book of Kells to the old Celtic gold ornaments, represent the serpent, and' indicate, therefore, some very strong religious idea being always uppermost in connection with it."
A Cyprus amulet gives a goddess, nude and winged, having serpents for legs. A Typhon has been seen, with its extremities two twisted snakes. A Buddha has been indicated with two twisted snakes for appendages. The Greek poet also describes the "divine stubborn-hearted Echidna (mother of Cerberus) half nymph, with dark eyes and fair cheeks, and half a serpent." The mother of an ancient Scythian hero was a serpent maiden. A story was told, in 1520, of a Swiss man being in an enchanted cave, and meeting with a beautiful woman, whose lower part was a serpent, and who tempted him to kiss her.
As recently reported from France, a lady has there a familiar in the form of a serpent, able to answer her questions, and cleverly writing down replies with the point of its tail. There is no saying how this marvellous creature may enter into future theological controversies.
A book published in the reign of Charles I. had this story--"Ireland, since its first inhabitation, was pestered with a triple plague, to wit, with great abundance of venemous beastes, copious store of Diuells visiblely appearing, and infinit multitudes of magitians."
The Saint's share in the trouble is thus described--Patrick, taking the staffe or wand of Jesus with his sacred hand, and eleuating it after a threatning manner, as also by the favourable assistance of Angels, he gathered together in one place all the venemous beastes that were in Ireland, after he draue them up before him to a most high mountaine hung ouer the sea, called then Cruachanailge, and now Cruach Padraig, that is St. Patricks mountaine, and from thence he cast them downe in that steepe precipice to be swallowed up by the sea."
The Druids, or Tuaths, or other troublers, fared nearly as badly as the snakes; as the author affirmed--"Of the magitians, he conuerted and reclaimed very many, and such as persisted incorrigible, he routed them out from the face of the earth."
From the Book of Leinster we gather the intelligence that three serpents were found in the heart of Mechi, son of the great queen. After they had been killed by Diancecht, their bodies were burnt, and the ashes were thrown into the river Barrow, "which so boiled that it dissolved every animal in it."
As tradition avows, St. Kevin, when he killed one a the remaining serpents, threw the creature into the lake at Glendalough, which got the name of Lochnapiast, or serpent loch. Among the sculptures on impost moulding at Glendalough is one of a dog devouring a serpent. Snake-stones have been found, consisting of small ring of glass. The ammonite fossil is known as the snake stone.
Windele, of Kilkenny, shows the persistence of ancient ideas in the wilder parts of Ireland. "Even as late as the eleventh century," says he, "we have evidence of the prevalence of the old religion in the remoter districts, and in many of the islands on our western coasts.--Many of the secondary doctrines of Druidism hold their ground at this very day as articles of faith.--Connected with these practice (belteine, &c.), is the vivid memory still retained of one universal Ophiolatreia, or serpent worship; and the attributing of supernatural powers and virtues to particular animal such as the bull, the white and red cow, the boar, the horse, the dog, &c., the memory of which has been perpetuated in our topographical denominations."
The Irish early Christians long continued the custom entwining their old serpent god around the cross. One has said, "The ancient Irish crosses are alive with serpents Their green god-snake was Gad-el-glas. The word Tirda-glas meant the tower of the green god. The old Milesian standard, of a snake twisted round a rod, may seem to indicate a Phallic connection with the Sabh.
The Book of Lismore asserts the same distinguished power of serpent expulsion on behalf of St. Columba, as others have done for St. Patrick, or any other Saint; saying, "Then he turned his face westward, and said, 'May the Lord bless the Island, with its indwellers.' And he banished toads and snakes out of it."
Thus have we seen that Ireland, above most countries of the earth, retained a vivid conception of ancient serpent worship, though some of the myths were naturally and gratefully associated with the reputed founders of a purer faith.
"Search where we will," says Kennersley Lewis, "the nuptial tree, round which coils the serpent, is connected with time and with life as a necessary condition; and with knowledge--the knowledge of a scientific priesthood, inheriting records and traditions hoary, perhaps, with the snows of a glacial epoch."
Source: “Irish Druids And Old Irish Religions" by James Bonwick - London: Griffith, Farran  - Original redaction by Phillip J. Brown, www.belinus.co.uk - Reformatted, pagination, and proofreading at sacred-texts.com, November 2002. J.B. Hare, redactor.
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