Ancient Egyptians And Their Snake Obsession
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.
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.
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.
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