Several readers of this blog have wondered about the meaning of the battling serpent and eagle, a very dynamic image, especially popular in tattoos. It turns out there is no simple explanation. In some cases, it represents a battle of good vs. evil. In others, a battle of the present vs. the past, or one belief system vs. another. In others, it is a dynamic combination of opposites that becomes the force that turns the universe.
The eagle is a logical choice for a group’s symbol. It’s a large, powerful predator. Like all raptors, it has amazing eyesight, a hooked beak designed to deliver a killing bite and rip flesh off bones, and sharp talons that can pierce and hold prey. An eagle’s wingspan is typically twice the length of its body, allowing it to soar easily.
The eagle stands for admirable, intimidating power, which is why it appears in connection with so many political entities, second only to the sun, moon, and stars in its appearance on official flags and seals. It might be the black eagle, golden eagle, or bald eagle. It might have one head or two. In some cases, the two headed eagle represents the combination of secular and religious power.
The eagle is sometimes shown with a crown over its head, reinforcing its connection with royal power. In the same way, the eagle might be holding a royal scepter or orb in its talons. It often has a shield or emblem on its chest carrying the colors or symbols of the political
entity. The United States versions, shown on everything from the official seal of the President of the United States to the dollar bill, feature the eagle carrying a bundle of arrows (a symbol of military might) in one foot, an olive branch (a symbol of peace) in the other.
The Mexican flag carries the image of the golden eagle atop a cactus, grasping a snake, the very image the people had been promised would direct them to the place they would make their new home, Tenochtitlan, now the site of Mexico City.
The eagle is also used as a team name and symbol (e.g. the Philadelphia Eagles), taking the impressive power of the animal and associating it with the sports team, in the same way as the Chicago Bears, Seattle Seahawks, Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Falcons, Memphis Grizzlies, Jacksonville Jaguars, Carolina Panthers, St. Louis Rams, and many more.
So the eagle symbol seems pretty clear. It’s powerful, strong, and beautiful. It demands respect. It transfers the strength and glory of the eagle to the group, or at least to its leader(s).
The serpent/snake/dragon is a far more complicated part of the equation. Many people associate the serpent with evil because of the Bible story in which the snake offers Eve the fruit from the forbidden tree, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” In the Genesis story of the Fall of Man, the serpent is described as “more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.” The serpent says to Eve: “Did God really say, ’You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’” When she replies that God told them not to eat the fruit or even touch the tree in the center of the Garden for if they did, they would die, the serpent replies, “You will not surely die…for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” That’s apparently the selling point, for then Eve, “desirous of gaining wisdom,” takes the fruit, eats it, and gives some to her husband. (It’s very curious that this image and others portray the fruit as the Amanita muscaria mushroom!)
After that, all the problems of humankind were laid at the feet of the woman – and the snake.
Except that, even in the Bible, the snake is not necessarily evil. But it is associated with scary power. When Moses and his brother Aaron go before the Pharaoh to demand he let the Israelites go out of Egypt, Aaron throws down his staff and it becomes a snake, just as God had promised. In reply, the Pharaoh’s sorcerers throw down their staffs and each one becomes a snake. In a final show of power, Aaron’s staff/snake swallows up the other staffs/snakes. Both sides used snakes as tools of power.
In the New Testament, Jesus tells his disciples to go forth and be “as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves” (Mathew 10:16).
Admittedly, there are lots more negative serpent images than positive ones in the Bible. Take the deadly Leviathan in the sea, the Apocalyptic red dragon with seven heads bearing seven crowns that throws a third of the heavenly stars to the earth, and “the dragon, that old serpent, which is Satan and the Devil” from the Book of Revelations.
Still, even in the Bible, the snake is not always a symbol of evil.
Curiously, even with the negative press the Bible gives the snake, its symbolic use is fairly common. It shows up on many flags, including one for Gaius College, Cambridge (illustration).
In 1754, during the French and Indian War, Benjamin Franklin published the famous “Join or Die” cartoon in the Pennsylvania Gazette. It shows a snake cut into eight segments, each labeled with the initials of one of the American colonies. American colonists adopted the rattlesnake and the eagle as symbols of their new land.
The Gadsden American flag, first created in 1775, features a coiled rattlesnake on a yellow background, and the words “Don’t tread on me.” It effectively connected the power of the snake (and the fear it instills in others) with the fledgling American colonies that were facing the much stronger British forces. It is currently being used by the Tea Party, a right-wing faction of the Republican Party.
In the rest of the world, serpents have a long history as symbols of fertility and rebirth, as well as spiritual power. The meditating Buddha was shielded by a multi-headed serpent deity, or naga, named Mucalinda (photo). In Hindu mythology, Vishnu was said to sleep peacefully while floating on the cosmic waters, supported by the serpent Shesha. In Dahomey mythology (West Africa) the serpent that supports everything is called Dan. In Vodun of Benin and Haiti, Ayida Weddo, the Rainbow Serpent, is a symbol of fertility, rainbows and snakes, and a wife of Dan, the father of spirits.
In Mesoamerican and North American Indian groups, snakes often served as spirit guides, or Others, during shamanic trances, enabling the shaman to cross over into the spirit realm in order to restore balance between the two worlds. The figure on the right side of the rock art photo has snakes on the left and right side, generally interpreted to be the shaman’s spirit guides.
The vision serpent curls up from the dish holding a Maya blood offering, allowing the penitent to communicate with the ancestors. In the illustration, the head of the ancestor appears out of the vision serpent’s mouth.
In Australian Dreamtime stories, the Rainbow Serpent is the Mother of Life, creator of the waterways and the laws, the humans and the stones.
Then why are Western images of serpents so negative?
Pre-Christian Europeans were animists, believers in spirits that resided in natural elements such as trees, rivers, the sky, and various animals. Snakes and birds were especially important because they were capable of crossing between worlds: the snake could go above ground or to the Underworld; the bird could be on the earth or part of the sky. As such, they held special powers. Because they can shed their skins, snakes were associated with the cycle of life and death. A very old Celtic snake goddess named Corchen was connected with the energy of the earth and rebirth. The Ouroboros, the snake biting its tail, was a symbol of eternity. The Celtic god named Cernunnos was usually portrayed as a man with stag antlers because he could shape-shift into a stag. Typically his legs were snakes, sometimes horned snakes.
Serpent devotion was common in Britain and the continent. The Druids’ symbol was the snake.
When Christianity arrived in the British Isles, the Catholic Church felt it was important to transfer religious power from the Druids to the new religion. Saint Patrick is said to have driven the snakes out of Ireland, but actually there weren’t any snakes in Ireland after the last Ice Age. The driving out was symbolic, one of many such efforts. The snakes belonged to the old religion. St. George impaled the dragon on his righteous spear. St Margaret stabbed a dragon with a cross.
Meanwhile, Cernunnos, the god with snake legs and stag horns, was made into a devil figure.
A combination of Old and New
But the dragon refused to be conquered. Long a favorite of the Celts, Anglo-Saxons, and Norsemen, the dragon continued, even after the advent of Christianity, to be the emblem of the chief. King Arthur, whose father was Uther Pen-dragon, wore a dragon insignia on his helmet. Later, the dragon became the symbol of the kings of England, especially those who needed to establish themselves as having a legitimate claim to power. Henry VII took as his personal symbol the red dragon, which helped to link his family, the Tudors, to the ancient kings. Later it was used by Henry VIII, Edward V, and Elizabeth I. (Of course, the imperial dragon was the symbol of the Chinese Emperor, as well.)
More often, the old ways simply merged with the new ones. The Book of Kells, the beautiful illustrated manuscript made in Ireland (c. 800 AD) features many snakes and birds, as well as other animals, plants, and landscapes in the decorative chapter pages and initial letters of sections. The snake, always a symbol of rebirth, becomes a symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection in the book. So while it appears in a Christian book, it continues its original pagan association.
The Eagle and the Serpent as One Entity
Pliny the Elder (c.100 AD), in his work Natural History, refers to a certain large serpent that fights with eagles. It tries to steal the eagle’s eggs. In the struggle, the snake wraps itself around the eagle so tightly that the two look like one animal with two heads. This is a very early reference to the eagle and snake involved in a match of equal, opposite powers. It’s also a reference to what seems to be the combined animal – the winged serpent.
At this point, when the eagle and serpent are perfectly paired opposites, they represent not victory or defeat but dynamic cosmic completion, the union of spirit and matter, as shown in the Japanese emblem (illustration).
This is the same combination as the American Indian winged rattlesnakes, the Mesoamerican feathered serpent, the Egyptian winged snake goddess Wadjet, and the paired winged, serpent-tailed creator beings in Chinese myth. This is the force that drives the universe as the celestial bird and the serpent wheel forever, in perfect balance of opposite energies, around the portal of heaven.
Sources and Interesting Reading:
“Adam and Eve,” painted wood ceiling at St. Michael’s church, Hildesheim, Germany, 1192 AD www.ambrosiasociety.org/the_fruit_of_the_tree_of_life.html
Birrell, Anne. Chinese Mythology: An Introduction. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993
“Celtic Gods and Goddesses,” www.joellssacredgrove.com
“Dragon,” The Medieval Bestiary http://bestiary.ca./beasts/beast262.htm
“Double-headed eagle,” Wikipedia
“Eagle” A-Z Animals. A-Zanimals.com/animals/eagle
“Eagle,” The Medieval Bestiary http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast232.htm
“Eagle Snake” tattoo design by stoffe3337 on deviantart.com
“Gadsden flag,” Wikipedia
Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South. Richard Townsend (ed.) The Art Institute of Chicago in association with Yale University Press, 2004
Holy Bible, New International Version, 1984.
Oodgeroo Nunukul. Dreamtime: Aboriginal Stories. First published as Stadbroke Dreamtime. Angus & Robertson, 1972
Power, Susan C. Early Art of the Southeastern Indians: Feathered Serpents & Winged Beings. University of Georgia Press, 2004
“Rainbow Serpent, The” ferrebeekeeper.wordpress.com (a wonderful blog)
Rock Art images, http://www.eskimo.com/~noir/southwest/rockart
“Saint George and the Dragon,” painting by Paulo Uccello (c. 1458), Wikipedia Commons
Saint George and The Dragon, retold by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, Little, Brown, 1984.
“Serpent,” New World Encyclopedia. www.newworldencyclopedia.org
“Serpent and Saint Patrick,” I Am An Owl blog, (a very interesting blog) http://amayodruid.blogspot.com
Saunders, Nicholas. J. Animal Spirits. Little, Brown, 1995
“Serpent (symbolism)” Wikipedia
“Snake,” The Medieval Bestiary (1400 AD) http://besatiary.ca/beasts/beast264f.htm
Taylor, Sea, and Fernando Vilela. The Great Snake: Stories from the Amazon. Frances Lincoln, 2008