Serpent as Primal Ancestor: Selected Indo-European and African Cultural and Religious Contexts

Dahomey greeting given to a python encountered in the wild: “You are my father and my mother. Be propitious to me.”

My father is coping well, overall, with his monthly chemotherapy treatments, and I’m very grateful for having the opportunity to spend so much time with him. This past Sunday was the most important Serbian cultural one for my parents and me: The Feast Day (Slava, pronounced SLAH-vuh) of our family’s patron saint, John the Baptist. The activities surrounding ritual purification with talismanic water (blessed during a special Mass by a bishop using sprigs of dried hyssop, basil, and rue) clearly are vestiges of pre-Christian Slavic customs designed to promote renewal. I gladly welcome the opportunity to fully celebrate these time-honored customs with my family. So after Sunday’s private Mass (held for families observing their John the Baptist Slava), Dad and I headed straight for my brother’s grave a short walk away from the monastery entrance. The Chicagoland area was gifted with nearly 10 inches of snow from the previous day’s storm; the day was sunny but cold, with a daytime high temperature of 11°. As I watched my frail, cancer-stricken father wade into the snow to make offerings of ritual foods at my brother’s grave, my heart immediately felt weighted by a heavy sadness.

dadatcemetery

Dad clearing space in the snow to leave offerings of ritual food on my brother’s grave.

I thought about the importance of the day, and how the uniquely Serbian concept of the Slava is a patrilineal one, with different saints “assigned” as protectors to Serbian clans, and I wondered which Pagan Gods those saints displaced. How far back into the mists of antiquity did this observance go? I thought about the cultural importance attached to the male head of the household and the enormous magico-religious role played by that man in every Serbian family, about how he serves as bringer of luck (or the lack of it) to a Serbian family’s Sudbina, or Destiny, and how he serves as mediator between the present and the past, between the living and the dead, stretching all the way back in time to the First Ancestor (i.e., the God of the Underworld, Veles), who incarnated as a serpent. I also thought about similar beliefs held about the head of the household and the connection to serpent-ancestors in ancient Greek and Roman religions and contemporary East African and West African ones. The cultic practice dots definitely connected in my mind in strikingly similar ways, as the research I’ve done and share below bears out. Join me on this cross-cultural spiritual odyssey into the serpentine Labyrinth of the Ancestors, won’t you?

The Slavic God Veles: Black Serpent of the Underworld, Primal Ancestor

img_6761

Detail of my sheepskin shrine to Veles, featuring offerings of shelled wheat, a horn of mead, and snakeskin shed by my own pet corn snake, Brimo.

From the archaeological record and from toponymy, we know that the worship of Veles, “who dwells in the underworld in the shape of a black snake” (Ristić, Witchcraft, 73), was prevalent in all Slavic lands prior to the coming of Christianity. His origins are old, indeed; so much so that He is considered a proto-Indo-European Deity (Ristić, Balkan, 189). A complex Lord of the Underworld and Master of Magic (and Music, incidentally) responsible for all earthly wealth, for the health and fertility of humans and livestock, Veles is often depicted as a robust, bearded older man sporting horns on his head and carrying a shepherd’s crook; or He may be depicted as a bull- or ram-horned serpent. “He was a popular folk deity, shamanistic in nature,” writes contemporary Serbian Polytheist and Vraćar (Witch), Radomir Ristić (Balkan Traditional Witchcraft, 189), who goes on to state:

Veles is the protector of cattle, wildlife, music, magic, trickery, and health. He is also known for his generosity and magical powers. He was the one who bestowed magical knowledge concerning money, fertility, or anything else. He fought his battles in the form of a black dragon, a snake, or a bull. … Because he is the greatest snake in the underworld, other snakes were considered the souls of the deceased, and that is why the cult of the snake exists in the Balkans (Ristić, Balkan,189).

Like many other cultures, the ancient Slavs envisioned a great and sacred Tree at the center of their Cosmos, an Oak whose great span anchored many planes of existence, with branches spanning into the Heavens and roots running deep into the Underworld. Veles was said to be the Serpent coiled at the Tree’s roots, guarding the marshy landscape that characterized the Slavic Otherworld. Veles was locked in enmity with the Sky-God, Perun, the White Eagle (many flags of modern Slavic nations have white eagles in them!) perched in the Tree’s branches, the Storm God Whose blessings ensured abundant crops. Could this mythic struggle between these two Gods serve as a dimly heard ancient echo depicting the contentious shift, after the last Ice Age, from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural ones? I’ve always wondered. At any rate, I venerate both Veles and Perun in my contemporary Slavic Polytheist practices, keeping Their shrines very far apart from each other! You can read a hymn I composed to Veles here.

Veles first entered my consciousness when I was 13, even though I didn’t recognize Him at first. It was the summer of 1987 and my family had gone to Yugoslavia (as it was still called then) to have extended visits with our relatives, as we did each summer. While visiting cousins and nephews at the gorgeous alpine resort of Zlatibor/Tara Mountain in central Serbia, I enjoyed long daily hikes in emerald, serene, old-growth pine forests.

zlatibor-2879644__340

Zlatibor, Serbia. Creative Commons licensed photo courtesy of Pixabay.

I began to have a recurring dream of hiking in the dark woods at the base of Tara Mountain, all alone but unafraid, as the dense tree canopy blocked out the afternoon summer sun. I steadily climbed a trail and could faintly hear my mother’s voice in the wind, calling my name. She sounded terrified. I would pause to strain to hear her cries and then I would slowly turn around, only to discover that a supernaturally colossal black snake—a good 30 feet long or more—was slithering up the hill just a few feet behind me. The snake’s eyes were red and they protruded rather oddly; they seemed to both look at me and through me, if that makes any sense. I was always calm, however, and knew that the serpent accompanying me was an immensely powerful Being Who meant me no harm. A good 10 years or so would pass before I would learn that the base of Tara Mountain was a major center of cultic activity for Veles in pre-Christian Serbia!

A much more harrowing encounter was something I experienced during our family vacation exactly two summers later. This time, my Mama, Aunt Gordana, and I went by ourselves to the fabled lakeside resort community of Lake Ohrid, Macedonia, located about 66 miles from the ancient city of—drum roll, please—Veles, Macedonia! Lake Ohrid is renowned for its magical healing powers because the Black Drin River is submerged at one end of the lake and resurfaces on the other end. Accessing this magical water comes at a high price, however, because local folklore teaches that a massive black dragon (yes, that’s our God Veles again!) guards the waterway and swims throughout Lake Ohrid, looking for virgins to devour! I was a 15-year-old virgin during our holiday in the summer of 1989 and since I have loved dragons greatly ever since early childhood (another sign that Veles marked me as one of His own?), I figured I would be spared from serving as a future meal for a dragon.

 

lake ohrid-1365440__340

The gorgeous and magical Lake Ohrid in Macedonia. Creative Commons licensed photo courtesy of Pixabay.

It was late in the morning (nearing noon, a time of magical power) of this particular hot and lazy August day when I had my harrowing encounter. Gordana, Mama, and I brought our beach towels and picnic basket from our room at the Hotel Galeb (Seagull) and staked a spot of shade under a tree near the lake’s shoreline. Local children and swarms of tourists, mostly from Germany, played in the water and swam about. I found the crowds and their multilingual cacophony annoying, so I was determined to swim out as far as I could, away from everyone else. My mother knew I was an avid swimmer—her nickname for me to this day is “Swimming Swami”—so she didn’t object. I wanted to feel mermaid-like in my spirit of adolescent anti-social rebellion. I devised a little rhyme and chanted it to myself the further away from the beachgoers that I swam: “I am the Queen of the Deep / I get no sleep / That’s because I shout: / I AM THE FARTHEST ONE OUT!” I had swum out about a quarter of a mile when I arbitrarily paused, my body inexplicably shivering not just with cold, but with terror. As I tread water, I tried to look at my legs kicking below me, but I couldn’t see them. I must have somehow stirred peat moss or some other dark organic substance. I whirled around, looking for the beach and my Mother’s and Aunt’s figures, and that’s when I saw the receding figure of my Mother, waving her arms in the international distress signal and shouting, “Ana! Ana!” 

It was then that I honestly, sincerely believed that the Black Dragon was near me in the water. It was directly below me, in fact, stirring up the peat moss from the bottom of the lake with its huge tail. I was going to die. I began to panic, and struggled to breathe as I thrashed and kicked my way back into form to begin the long, tiresome swim back to shore. Shaking uncontrollably, I heaved myself onto the sand after what seemed like an eternity. And within a minute of being engulfed by the towel held out by my sobbing, fear-stricken Mother, a massive outpouring of water snakes took everyone gathered around by surprise. Dozens of snakes literally shot out of the water—black snakes, brown snakes, snakes with white stripes or diamond patterns—and slithered away in the sand, amongst the screaming German tourists and the excited local children, who darted about to catch as many by hand as they could. I will remember that terrifying experience for the rest of my life as vividly as if it just happened last week. I truly do believe that it was a shamanic initiation of sorts, a Chthonic calling card from Veles. And exactly a year later, my brother would be dead.

Serpent Lore in Serbia: The Guardian Snake of the House

According to Serbian anthropologist Dušan Bandić, of all animals the serpent (zmija) has the greatest hold on the Serbian imagination (Narodna Religija, 30). Folk belief holds that snakes were either created by the Devil, or by a terrifying supernatural creature called the ala, feared for its limitless gorging abilities, or by the world’s first dragon (Bandić 30). The snake’s supernatural powers can be felt from the creature’s intense gaze. Those powers could be evoked even by simple sympathetic magical methods, such as engraving wavy, zig-zag patterns that mimic a snake’s shape and movement onto talismans, etching those lines and imbuing everyday objects—from farming implements (especially plows and scythes), to weapons (sword blades), and even Easter eggs!—with the serpent’s powers of healing and fecundity (Bandić 31). While it was taboo to kill a snake, Serbian witches used and still use snakes’ heads, fangs, vertebrae, blood, and shed skins in healing medicines and protective spells, as well as in curses (Bandić 30).

It is very good for a person to help a wild snake in distress; the snake will repay the human’s kindness by teaching that person many magical things, especially about healing herbs (Ristić, Balkan, 201). Snakes were thought to protect farmers also:

Sometimes when people went to work in the fields, they carried their children with them and placed them under the shade of large trees. They said that snakes came and stayed near the children or they lay coiled on their chests, not allowing anyone to approach them until their mothers returned. When their mothers returned, the snakes would quietly leave (Ristić, Balkan, 200).

The most important snake in Serbian belief, the one accorded the highest respect and propitiation, was the snake living in a family’s dwelling. These naturally wild but people-friendly snakes were thought of as home guardians and were variously called kućnim zmiijama, kućaricama, or ćuvar kućama. These are all euphemistic epithets (forms of the phrase “watcher of the house”) because it’s a huge taboo to call out the snake by its name.   When it comes to tracing the ancestral connection, the greatest epithet for this type of snake is called cjen novite, which means “full of soul” in the Old Slavonic language. In other words, the house-dwelling snake actually has a human soul. The animal serves as the embodiment/incarnation of an ancestor, probably the first head of that family (Bandić 33).

brimo2019

Brimo, my beloved corn snake, is now 3 years old as of January 17, 2019. I love dancing with her. She is the best household guardian a Serbian gal could ever ask for!

This ancestor-guardian snake lived either under the foundation of the house (near the threshold) or near the hearth (typically a wood-burning stove), the focal point of a villager’s modest house. The presence of the house-guardian snake would guarantee the protection of the household from all danger (Bandić 33). All manner of taboos, grounded in the culturally important rules of hospitality and the host-guest relationship of reciprocity, surrounded the human-snake interaction in the household. Great care was taken to never offend the snake. Words were chosen carefully in addressing the snake—foul language use was prohibited, for example, as one ought to never lose their temper in front of the snake—with a preference given to speaking in rhyme (Bandić 33)! Offerings of food were always deposited in places where the snake would be seen coiled up and resting. The greatest fear was offending the snake to the degree that it would decide to leave.

In the event that it did depart the household, the family’s ruin was assured. Losses (šteta) were sure to follow: crop failure, disease (affecting people and livestock), poverty, and even the deaths of the head of the household and children. No Pagan or Christian magic could counteract the egregiously ill effects or even the sense of hopelessness wrought by the guardian’s departure.

The Serpent Ancestor and Household Guardian in Ancient Greece and Rome

The religious concept of sacred serpents as Gods and as primal ancestors linked to the male head of the household is several thousands of years old. In ancient Greece, an aspect of mighty Zeus, known as Meilichios (“the Kindly”), was regarded not as a God of Olympus but of the Underworld, a Chthonic bestower of wealth Who was depicted either as a bearded snake or as a bearded and enthroned figure holding a cornucopia (Mierzwicki 17). The veneration of this aspect of Zeus may have bled over into the domestic cult practices of honoring the family Agathos Daimôn, or “Good Spirit,” the guardian of the household depicted in serpent form. “The first libation in wine drinking was offered to him” (Mierzwicki 50). The Agathos Daimôn was also especially honored on the second day of the lunar month (Mierzwicki 118).

Senior Druid in the ADF, Kirk Thomas, links the pater familias, or male head of the household, with the serpent protector of the household in ancient Rome:

There is a charming and quite famous wall painting from the House of Vetti in Pompeii that depicts the pater familias … wearing a toga with his head covered. With his right hand he is pouring a libation from a small offering dish, called a patera. In his left hand, he is holding a box of incense grains. … The man is flanked by two statues of genii (spirits, in this case probably two lares), each of whom are [sic] holding a drinking horn (cornu) in the form of a Capricorn (with the forequarters of a goat and the tail of a fish) in one hand and a small bucket of water (situla) for the sacrifice in the other. Below these figures there is crested a bearded snake, which represents the Lars familiaris (a household spirit that has control over its immediate domain), and the snake is approaching a small offering of fruit that sits on the domestic altar (Sacred Gifts, 81-82).

Serpent as Creator and Ancestor in East and West Africa

img_6771

My ancestor fetish in the West African religion of Ifá, in which I’m initiated. This Yoruba-made fetish (note it’s a male with a serpent entwined about him) honors my First Father.

The cultic reverence for serpents in Africa is thought to have originated in Uganda and moved from East to West with the migrations of various peoples (Hambly 659). The most venerated serpent is the python, which can grow to a massive size, averaging 3.5 meters or 9-10 feet long (the largest have measured 4.8 meters or 16 feet long!). In the early 20th century, an anthropologist composed the following field notes of python worship among a clan of the Budu tribe in south Uganda:

The temple… is a large conical hut built of poles and thatched with grass. On one side of the building is the place of the snake and his guardian, a woman who is required to remain celibate. Over a log and a stool, a bark cloth is stretched for the python to lie upon. In one side of the building is a circular hole so that the python is free to go to the banks of the river, where it feeds on tethered animals. In addition to this diet the python is fed daily on milk from sacred cows, which are kept on an adjacent island. The python is supposed to give success in fishing because he has power over the river and all that is in it. Worship is at the new moon, at which time childless men and women petition for offspring. For seven days all work is stopped in the vicinity of the temple when time has been arranged for the ceremonies. A priest, whose office is hereditary, drinks from the bowl of the python, then takes a draught of beer. The spirit of the python goes into the medium, who wriggles on the floor like a snake, uttering strange sounds, and talking in a language which has to be interpreted to the worshipers. When the medium is in a state of coma, an interpreter explains to the people what they must do in order to realize their desires. If children are born to the supplicants, they must bring an offering to the python. The Bahima and Banyankole believe that their royal dead enter pythons, which enjoy immunity in a special reservation. At one time the kings of Uganda used to send messengers to ask the sacred python to grant children to the royal house. In East Africa, as in the West, these are many scattered beliefs which suggest themselves as survivals of a more widespread cult (Hambly 658).

Most people think of the Dahomey, West African-exported religion of Vodou and the Great Creator Lwa, Danbala the Python, Who, along with His wife, the Rainbow Serpent Lwa Ayida-Wedo, rule all of life and create cosmic equilibrium by supporting the Universe with Their great coils. Danbala-Wedo are revered as the Lwa of Wisdom (celestial) and bringers of rain (terrestrial). They are rightly revered as the utterly benevolent Beings that They are; nowhere in Vodou does the Christian folly exist that equates serpents with “evil.” Climbing down the wooden pole in the Vodou temple known as the peristyle, which represents the Axis Mundi (yet another World Tree concept with Serpents in it!), Danbala-Wedo can join in the dances offered by the devotees, ultimately possessing one or more of them to give counsel to the congregation.

danballa wedo

My Haitian-made drapeau, or ritual flag, depicting the dual lwa Danbala-Wedo.

Revitalize Your Ancestor Devotionals with Serpent Power

Whether it’s loving and caring for an actual snake in your home, or pouring out libations to the Agathos Daimôn of your family, or creating serpent-themed talismans to leave as offerings on your loved ones’ graves, I hope this post will encourage you to think of ways to make that sacred serpent-ancestor connection in your own devotional practices. It’s an ancient and worldwide belief that your own ancestors are your first, most immediate line of aid in calling out to the Divine. Your ancestors have a vested interest in your present well-being and your future success. Remember, you sit enthroned upon their bones. How will you honor their legacy?

Hail, those who have gone before us!

Hail, those who will come after us!

Hail the Sacred Serpent who holds us all in an unbroken circle of connection!

 

Works Cited

Bandić, Dušan. Narodna Religija Srba U 100 Pojmova.Beograd: Nolit, 2004.

Hambly, Wilfrid. D. The serpent in African belief and custom. American Anthropologist. 1929;5(31):655-666. Available at: https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1525/aa.1929.31.4.02a00060. Accessed January 22, 2019.

Mierzwicki, Tony. Hellenismos: Practicing Greek Polytheism Today.Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2018.

Ristić,  Radomir. Balkan Traditional Witchcraft.Trans. Michael C. Carter, Jr. Los Angeles: Pendraig Publishing, 2009.

—–. Witchcraft and Sorcery of the Balkans.Richmond, CA: Three Hands Press, 2015.

Thomas, Kirk S. Sacred Gifts: Reciprocity and the Gods.Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2015.

12 thoughts on “Serpent as Primal Ancestor: Selected Indo-European and African Cultural and Religious Contexts

  1. As usual, I start reading, my mind starts connecting dots from MY OWN STUDIES and i freak out a little bit. Sri Shiva’s white cobra companion has horns in some depictions. Just a thought. . . I wish I could find the reference again! Ok, panic net digging. . . .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing this – it’s fascinating. Particularly about Veles being a primal ancestor and Lord of the Underworld. Oddly in relation to this six years ago when I made my initial dedication to Gwyn he challenged me by appearing as a black dragon, Michael is depicted fighting a dragon on the church on Glastonbury Tor (one of Gwyn’s sacred places) and his father, Nodens/Nudd is associated with dragons. I wonder whether there is a world-wide tradition of underworld deities being connected with dragons, serpents, and snakes? I know that the underworld god Dis was named by Caesar as a primal ancestor god too.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Merlin interpreted the fight between the red and white dragons from within the earth. This may also speak of Gwyn & his rival. If Gwyn appears as a black dragon (Underworld, Winter, Night, Mystery), how would Gwythyr appear? (Surface World, Summer, Day, Revealed). Dis Pater rules the Underworld, the disir are female ancestors who move us through divination and spirit. Dis_ reverses the initial meaning of many words it is placed in front of – dissemble, disappear, disavow, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, it’s no mistake that Gwyn and Gwythyr battle the same night the dragons fight. Caesar says that the Gauls believe they are descended from Dis as an ancestor god. I hadn’t thought of his links dissemble etc. Thanks for bringing that out. And the link to the disir.

        Like

  3. Snakes and serpent-like beings show up so often in ancient mythologies, but are slain or driven out in some of them — Tiamat (killed by Marduk), the Python (killed by Apollo), Jormungand (killed by Thor at Ragnorok), Vritra in the Rig Veda, the snake in the Garden of Eden…

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s