Rattlesnakes and Scorpions

By Kary Vannice

I grew up going to the Community United Methodist Church. Mostly, because my mother made me. In my adulthood, I’ve chosen to reject most of the dogma of my youth. I no longer consider myself to be a “religious” person, but religion, in all its forms, continues to fascinate me.

Symbolism is an incredibly powerful part of every religion, with some symbols denoting “evil” and others “good,” or should I say “God”?

One thing that I’ve always found intriguing is how so many different denominations could spring from the same teachings. It happens in nearly every religion, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, the list goes on. What I’ve realized is, it all comes down to interpretation. Some interpret the teachings very literally, while others, see them more as “guidelines,” shall we say.

For example, in a small number of Pentecostal churches in the southern part of the United States, snake handling is part of their religious practice. Pastors and parishioners alike prove their purity, and thus, protection from harm. When “moved by the Holy Spirit” they reach into boxes containing venomous snakes, usually rattlesnakes, and hold them up as they dance, sing and pray.

Why such a dangerous practice to prove one’s faith? Well, the Holy Bible actually makes reference to poisonous snakes several times. The most frequently cited by those who practice snake handling is Mark 16:17:

“And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them;”

Interestingly, those who die from snakebites, and many have, are never condemned for lack of adequate faith, it’s simply believed that it was the deceased’s time to die.

When it comes to snakes, the Pentecostals are, of course, associating the rattlesnake with evil, but serpents have long been a part of many religions and have represented both good and evil.

Some of them you will easily recognize. Ancient Greeks considered snakes sacred to Asclepius, the god of medicine. Asclepius carried a staff with one or two serpents wrapped around it, and this has become the symbol of modern medicine.

In Ancient Chinese beliefs, the serpent was associated with life-giving rain. Tribes in Australia, India, North America, and Africa have all connected snakes with rainbows, which to them, are often related to fertility and birth.

Here in Mexico, depictions of the Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl, show him as a serpent eating a man, while still other drawings from both the Aztec and Mayan cultures have a serpent as their sun-god and the originator of humankind.

To support their belief in snake handling, Pentecostals often quote another passage from the Bible, Luke 10:19:

“Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.”

Here again, we see the serpent and the scorpion lumped together in the same category of evil. But are scorpions always viewed as evil, in every religion? Of course not!

In ancient Mesopotamia, the scorpion goddess, Ishhara, was the goddess of love and fertility. Texts say sometimes Ishhara acted as a judge in human affairs and although she was firm, she was also considered fair.

In Egyptian mythology, the goddess Serket was the principal divine personification of the scorpion. She was a protector goddess. The Scorpion as a symbol of protection is also found in Greek mythology. And some Hindu religions still to this day pray to the goddess Chelamma for protection.

Closer to home, in Mayan paintings, the god Ek Chuaj, the deity patron of cacao, is often depicted as an old man with a pack of goods upon his back and a scorpion tail. There is no indication as to whether or not he is a symbol of good or evil, but a kindly old man bearing chocolate, lands him solidly in the “good” category in my book.

But, in truth, in most traditions, the scorpion remains a symbol of evil.

Perhaps one of the best known, but of unknown origin, is the fable known as the turtle and the scorpion.

The fable begins with a turtle about to cross a large river. Just as she is about to begin her swim, a scorpion asks for her help to also cross the river, because he cannot swim, as the turtle can. Fearing the scorpion might sting her, she agrees to help him only if he promises not to. The scorpion responds, “…if I sting you, we would both drown.” With that reassurance, the turtle agrees. But when they get to the middle of the river, the scorpion stings the turtle! When the turtle asks why, because now they will both drown, the scorpion responds,

“It’s my nature.”

This fable has been told in various forms in the Indian tradition in the Panchatantra originally written in Sanskrit, and later during the Middle Ages in Asia, and also emerged in the 12th and 13th centuries in the Persian language. It even found its way into the 1955 Orson Welles film Mr. Arkadin.

I understand that this fable is meant to teach that one cannot change their true nature. But in looking at the symbolism of both the snake and the scorpion in religion and mythology, where many of our beliefs are founded, I believe it teaches that one’s true nature is neither all good, nor all bad, but, rather a matter of interpretation. The truth lies in the eye of the beholder, just as in religion itself.