Ancient Egyptians and Their Snake Obsession

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In ancient Egypt, snake symbolism abounds, but what does it represent? 

Somewhere, archived away in The British Museum is a green-tinged, oxygen-mottled cobra, fiercely raising its head in attack mode. Carved into it are ladder-like central vertebrae, and some circles, right around where the snake’s heart and stomach would be, which look like an infinity symbol. The snake has a long tail and is simply described as ‘magician’s equipment’. But what would the 18th dynasty Egyptian magicians have used this strange object for?

There are many of these cobras in The British Museum. Collectively, this cobra shape is known as a uraeus. Uraeus were found everywhere in ancient Egypt, on furniture, amulets, paintings and almost always on the pharaoh’s head.

Uraeus

The uraeus is thought to represent sovereignty. But sovereignty over what? Perhaps over the land, the kingdom, the people and their enemies. Surely if you could command a deadly cobra to act upon your will, you would be considered very powerful. Ancient Egyptians, it seems, thought snakes were incredibly important. 

The real-life Egyptian cobra is a venomous beast. It’s dark, and could easily be mistaken for a shadow on the ground under the hot Egyptian sun. The Egyptian cobra is one of the most poisonous snakes in North Africa. It lives alone and forages for birds and other small animals to eat. This means it frequently visits towns and villages where it will likely find food. Perhaps even more so in ancient times.

But perhaps this majestic reptile had a different meaning to ancient Egyptians. Perhaps it represented self-sovereignty. Perhaps it represented an enlightened being. Somebody that you would unquestionably want to rule the kingdom.

The 26th Century stela of Besenmut sits in another archive at The British Museum. It’s stunning. The sycamore board, rounded at the top, is painted in bright colours and fine-lined hieroglyphs.

It shows Horus, or more accurately Ra Horakhty – a combination of Horus and the sun god Ra. He stands behind an altar which is covered by a lotus blossom representing rebirth. He has a bulging red disc on top of his head, with a snake’s head, or uraeus poking out the front. It’s not the only snake on show here. At the top of the stela, on its rounded part sits another bulging red disc, with huge wings outstretched, and two snakes extending down, one on the right and one on the left, ready to pounce.

Energy Channels

I wouldn’t be the first person to suggest that this symbol looks curiously similar to the Indian tantric tradition’s depiction of an awakened kundalini. In ancient Indian philosophy, two energy channels spin around a central channel. One who can bring the two polarised energies into balance and allow them to travel up to the brain, experience enlightenment, or sushumna. The energies meet at the pineal gland, or third eye chakra, which is represented by a bright red dot on the forehead.

The Indian Vedas began to be written down around 1,000 BC, but the incredible teachings were passed down verbally from teacher to student for a long time before they were officially documented. In ancient Egypt, 1000 BC was around the time of the 21st dynasty. Some 500 or so years before the stela of Besenmut was painted.

Interestingly, the Ida and Pingala are represented by the colours red and white. When upper and lower Egypt unified, this was represented by a red and a white crown joined together.

Wadjet

Nearly all the pharaohs had a uraeus on their ceremonial and military headdresses. The raised snake was thought to be a representation of the goddess Wadjet, protector of lower Egypt. She was accompanied by Nekhbet, the vulture goddess in charge of protecting upper Egypt.

Wadjet, whom the ancient Egyptians commonly pictured as a snake curled around the spine of a papyrus plant, was a force to be reckoned with. As the protector goddess of Egypt, she commanded the utmost respect from her devotees, which, by the way, was the vast majority of ancient Egyptians.

But she didn’t always have great national appeal. If you’d have lived in the small city of Dep, before the powerful pharaohs and in a time when communities were decentralised and run by chiefs, you would have worshipped Wadjet as your local goddess. Dep grew into the city of Per-Wadjet, and by the end of the predynastic period, Wadjet was considered the personification of lower Egypt.

Towards the end of the next great age in Egyptian history, known as The Old Kingdom, Wadjet gets a mention in the very famous pyramid texts. The pyramid texts were found carved into tomb walls and intended for the eyes of the deceased pharaoh only. However, listen to the language in this example… it sounds a lot like kundalini energy rising to me.

‘The goddess Wadjet comes to you in the form of the living Uraeus to anoint your head with her flames. She rises up on the left side of your head and she shines from the right side of your temples without speech; she rises up on your head during each and every hour of the day, even as she does for her father Ra, and through her, the terror which you inspire in the spirits is increased … she will never leave you, are of you strikes into the souls which are made perfect.’

Wadjet was also known to nurse the falcon-headed sky god Horus. Predynastic rulers were known as ‘The Followers of Horus’. The eye of Horus, an ancient Egyptian symbol also known as ‘the all-seeing eye’, was thought to bring wisdom and wealth to the individuals flaunting it on their jewellery and amulets. This symbol was later known as ‘Wadjet’, meaning ‘whole’. If Horus represented wisdom, could kundalini energy ‘nurse’ this awakened state?

Our friends in ancient Egypt didn’t always celebrate serpents. There is some mention of dark, destructive serpent gods in old texts such as the Pyramid Texts. 

Apep

Apep, sometimes called Apophis, was the official nemesis of Ra, the sun god. Every night without fail, Apep would travel across the sky and attempt to eat the sun, only to be stopped by Set, who was usually the hated brother of Osiris, but in this instance, had some benefit to humanity in that he was somehow able to protect himself from the trance-like state Apep cast over the other gods which allowed him to interrupt Apep’s journey towards his fiery dinner. 

You see, when the Old Kingdom was transitioning into the Middle Kingdom, chaos erupted. There was apparently crisis after crisis, poverty, hardship, famine (even wild reports of people eating their own children, just to stay alive) and all manner of other dark things associated with social unrest as the split rulers fought for power. 

So could it be that the tale of Apep evolved from this chaos as a teaching about balance, fighting evil and maintaining order on a cosmic level? The ancient Egyptians were all about balance. Ma’at, the goddess of balance and justice was almost at the top of the pantheon during the Old Kingdom, only being succeeded by her father Ra. The spiritual beliefs of the ancient Egyptians were essentially shamanic. They wanted to consistently seek harmony with the natural, cosmic and physical worlds, along with the afterlife. 

I wonder if our snakey friends were ever really evil. Were they the superstars in teaching stories passed down from generation to generation? Teaching stories about the right use of power, or the misuse of power in an awakened soul? When your energy is fully awakened, will you be a force for good or a force for evil? 

Snake Magic

Why were the ancient Egyptian gods so often depicted as carrying snakes on their royal staffs? Thoth and Heka, both associated with magic, were often depicted with serpent symbolism. The caduceus is one of the main symbols for medicine, still used abundantly today. The symbol is formed by two snakes winding around a central pole, with angelic, or eagle wings spread wide at the top. Interestingly enough, the original meaning of medicine and meditation are the same – attention. 

Kundalini energy has always been recognised as a way of healing the body and the mind. Shedding the ego and emotional unrest that is the cause of our pain on this earthly plane comes as a direct result of striving to wake your kundalini up.

What’s more, Moses may have even known about kundalini energy. Guess what he held in his hand in a certain passage of Exodus in the Old Testament?

The story goes like this: the Israelites were complaining about their survival needs (survival needs are predominantly running the lower chakras in Indian traditions until awakened consciousness transmutes them), so god sent ‘fiery snakes’ to destroy them (the awakening of the kundalini energy in the lower chakras perhaps?). When they started praying for mercy, God told Moses to place a copper snake on a pole. When the Israelites gazed upon this strange object, they were cured of their suffering. Could this be a hidden teaching metaphor in the bible? 

The pole that Moses had in his hand is known as a Nehushtan, and examples of it can be found across ancient lands. If Moses really was born in Egypt and adopted by the royal court, he would have been surrounded by serpent imagery and probably, at least some knowledge of the mystical, magical practices the ancient Egyptians highly revered. 

There are just so many associations with kundalini, chi or awakened life force in ancient Egypt, found in their artwork and hieroglyphic texts. It’s interesting that often ancient cultures and their belief systems are often thought of these days as simplistic as if they only ever had a child-like understanding of the world. If we take what these people are saying literally, it can look that way. But I don’t think the ancient Egyptians left anything to chance, including their important spiritual teachings. Their spiritual teachings were literally the difference between life and death. Careful metaphors and symbolism were chosen and woven into epic stories of good Vs evil, magic Vs mayhem and the very important quest for enlightenment to ensure eternal life. Is it possible that ancient Egyptian ‘magic’ was the system that evolved around this quest for enlightened states? If so, snakes were one of the main ways of teaching these complicated practices. Perhaps the snake represented the spinal cord and the energy that could move through it, opening up the brain, shedding the ego’s skin and inducing exalted states of being. No wonder they were so obsessed. 

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