The serpent has long been a symbol of importance in the human history of storytelling. Since time immemorial, the serpent has been included in stories, myths, and dreams in order to represent the immoral, evil, or dishonest. However, the serpent is also represented less nefariously in certain cultures, with many even worshiping it as a deity or God.
For many of us, the serpent speaks to us on a profound level, and its’ very existence sparks thoughts of the devil for many people of a religious nature. Serpents have been used to symbolize evil in art and literature throughout human history, and they have also disturbed people’s dreams when troubling thoughts have been present.
This post will seek to understand the serpent’s significance in ancient myth and legend before focusing on what symbolic meaning the serpent has within Freemasonry today.
The serpent in myth and legend
The serpent has played an essential role in many mythological and theological systems of the past. Reference to a serpent, or a snake, is made throughout human history.
From a mythological perspective, serpents appear in dreams, and those who study them see that they represent something mystical and threatening, and many analysts believe that the serpent even represents the gulf between personal sleep and waking collective myth.
Snake worship in Ancient cultures
Snake worship is the devotion to serpent deities and has been prevalent within cultures across the world for thousands of years. All over the world, snake worship has taken many forms, and there is evidence of the serpent being prevalent in many cultures.
In Ancient Mesopotamia, for example, snakes were seen as immortal because they could shed their skin and appear unaffected by age. In Ancient Egypt, cobras were worshiped as they were associated with the sun god Ra and many other deities, including Wadjet, Renenutet, and Meretseger.
In North America, indigenous peoples such as the Hopi considered the rattlesnake to be the king of the snakes, and they believed that the snake was able to provide optimum conditions or stir up a storm.
Snakes and serpents have also been important symbols across Asia for centuries, and in India in particular, snakes have a very high status in Hindu mythology. The word ‘naga’ is often used in Indian culture to refer to serpents, and many schools of thought have incorporated the use of the snake into their symbology.
As we can see, serpents have been prevalent in culture since the start of humanity, and they are interpreted differently in different parts of the world. They are widely considered deities, most often deities that negatively influence people in some way.
The serpent in Western ideologies
Arguably the most famous serpent in Western ideology is the one that is introduced in the book of Genesis in the Holy Bible. In the Garden of Eden, a snake tempts Eve to eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. The serpent is described in the following way:
“Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.” (Gen. 3:1)
Many Christian theologians and historians believe the serpent in the Garden of Eden to be the literal embodiment of Satan himself, even though no suggestion is made about the snake being a deity in the book of Genesis.
Reference to the serpent is made throughout both the Old and New Testaments, and on each occasion, the snake appears to detract individuals away from the path God has set for them and encourages people to sin.
Outside of the Bible, the serpent is often portrayed in a less Satanic light. In Greek mythology, for instance, the serpent plays the role of guardian of the center of the world. In Chinese mythology, a snake symbolizes an intermediary to the Gods and is an important symbol in one’s personal development.
The Serpent in relation to Freemasonry
Arguably most significantly to Freemasonry, the Ancient Egyptians saw the serpent as one of the primary forms of the Sun God Ra, as has already been mentioned. Furthermore, the Pharaohs were also portrayed with snakes coming out of their heads. Historians have speculated that this relates to the spiritual eye, which is said to be all-seeing.
Furthermore, the serpent in Ancient Egypt can be understood within the stories of the struggles between Seth and Osiris, the lord and judge of the dead. In this story, the father of Horus Seth and the brother of Osiris tried to kill Osiris and take the world for themselves.
In this story, a God named Hathor transformed itself into a poisonous snake called Agep and killed the would-be assassins, essentially acting as a protector of sorts. The snake also guarded the wheat fields where the spirit of Horus lived. In this tale, the sheaf and wheat are regarded as symbols of living and rebirth.
This is pertinent because in the second degree of Freemasonry, this symbol is used, and it is thought that its origins are in this story within Ancient Egypt.
In the higher degrees of Freemasonry, the snake is used as an important symbol. For example, the 25th degree of Freemasonry is called The Knight of the Brazen Serpent, within which many snake symbols are used. The 25th degree is within the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, one of the appendant bodies to the Blue Lodge of Masonry.
The 25th degree relates to the time when the camp of the Israelites was pitched at Punon, on the eastern side of the mountains of Hor, Seir, or Edom, in Arabia Petraea. The duties of a Knight of the Brazen Serpent are as follows:
To purify the soul of its alloy of earthliness, that through the gate of Capricorn and the seven spheres it may at length ascend to its eternal home beyond the stars; and also to perpetuate the great truths enveloped in the symbols and allegories of the ancient mysteries of faith.
For Freemasons, then, the link between the all-seeing spiritual eye on the Pharaohs’ foreheads is a direct link to the eye of providence, one of the most significant symbols of Freemasonry today.
How should the serpent be understood within Freemasonry?
Although Freemasonry relies on certain Christian teachings for its allegories and rituals, we should not confuse the symbol of the serpent within Freemasonry for the snake introduced to us in the Book of Genesis.
The snake that tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is considered by many to be Satan, or at the very least, a creature doing the devil’s bidding. It is from the story in Genesis that Christians interpret the symbol of the serpent, and they believe it to be a sign of the evil that exists in the world.
Within Freemasonry, the serpent is viewed in a much different way. Masonry teaches brothers about the hope in eternal life and encourages them to live by the principles of brotherly love and wisdom. It is in these attributes that the serpent can be seen to have masonic significance.
Although the snake is viewed by Christians as the embodiment of evil, in many other cultures, the snake is seen as the wisest of all creatures and even the symbol of divine wisdom. This complex duality of the symbolic serpent is essential to acknowledge, and it’s far too simplistic to associate the serpent’s appearance on specific Masonic regalia as proof of something sinister.
For Masons, the serpent’s presence is essentially a reminder of the benefit of wisdom, and there is no direct correlation between the Christian representation of the snake and that of Freemasonry. If anything, we can look back to antiquity to see the different ways in which the serpent has been used over time, as proof that it would be narrow-minded to consider the serpent’s use within Freemasonry as Satanic or evil.
Related: Are Freemasons Satanic?
Conclusion: the serpent as a contrasting symbol
Throughout human history, the serpent has been used by civilizations to represent different belief systems and values. It has been used in both art and literature as a way of showcasing a particular viewpoint, and groups have adopted it from antiquity and religions to symbolize a specific form of life.
In Freemasonry, the serpent is prevalent in several instances, but it is not representative of the Christian teaching about the evil the snake is said to represent. Instead, the serpent is a reminder of the importance of wisdom and brotherhood, two critical elements of modern-day Freemasonry.