Snakes and Symbols

I sent this petroglyph photograph to SmartGirlsRock for my recent interview, despite the fact that I've never posted it on my site. There is a bit of background story to it. My mom, who teaches high school anthropology, has always been a big fan of ancient rock art. A few summers ago, we drove cross country to California, and stopped in Utah to check out a few carvings along the way. While we were there, I found a lizard warming himself on a rock, not too far from a rock covered in petroglyphs. The clearest picture on the rock was a lizard. I was delighted to find prehistory repeating. This led to discussions about symbols that endure through time, making it a very enjoyable road trip.

A few months later, my mom was out, hunting for rock art, when she found prehistory repeating with petroglyphs once again. Even though the scene made her skin crawl, she ventured forward and took a picture for me:


A snake, pictured at Petroglyph National Monument, NM, posing beneath an ancient picture of a snake.

Since I was pulling the picture out for the interview, I figured I would ask her a few questions, inspired by our conversations in the desert:

This petroglyph is rather basic; does that indicate it was pre-Puebloan? Were there any other signs nearby indicating which culture created this art?

The photo was taken at Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico.  Most of the petroglyphs in this park were created 400-700 years ago--well into the Pueblo period.  There are several ancient Pueblo ruins near this monument; artifacts associated with Ancestral Puebloans were found nearby.

i-1b59786ff1bbe25a1bea06a07e283c5e-snakcloseup.jpgIn most cases, all we can say for certain about a prehistoric image is that it was a cultural symbol. However, some cultural symbols seem to be fairly universal, for instance, the crescent moon. Is there any sort of universal meaning associated with the snake?

Snakes seem to be universally associated with rebirth and renewal (the shedding of their skin and their reemergence)--commonly found in agricultural communities in temperate climates where everything goes dormant in the winter and is "reborn" in the spring.  This rebirth and renewal can be be extended into the concept of eternal life. (The biblical snake in Eden, Gilgamesh and the snake that steals his eternal youth.)
Natives in the southwest seemed to use snakes as a symbol for a river--the same undulating line.  Water was so important in this arid climate it achieves very spiritual meaning.

You are not the biggest fan of snakes. If you were a hunter-gatherer in an area with deadly snakes, that fear would be well founded, and aid in your survival. Would a group living in an area with deadly snakes be more likely to associate the snake with danger or power? Does your own trepidation affect the way you view this symbol? Is it an advantage in our culture? For instance, should we naturally be wary of someone with a large snake tattoo?

This is a big question that I am in no way qualified to answer.  My paranoia of snakes makes it very difficult to even read about them in any detail.  I would be willing to guess that people view snakes as a dangerous symbol of power, one to be respected and even feared.  Of course that begs the question of how do cultures that have no dangerous snakes view them?  Or are there any cultures with no associated symbols of snakes that have snakes in their environment?  Interestingly, while real snakes and pictures and discussions make my skin crawl, abstract symbols (like petroglyphs) and cartoon snakes don't bother me at all.

Of course, now, I'm wondering if all those guys with snakes tattooed around their arms are trying to express a yearning for rebirth and eternal life...

Thank you, Mom, for the great picture and your patience in answering all my questions!

Image and answers by Wendy Havelick.

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I recall a discussion from a Wilson book claiming that snake phobia represents a classic bit of "prepared learning". It's triggered by a simple visual stimulus, during a specific "vulnerable period" in childhood. The interesting part of the story was that it doesn't have to be a real snake, anything that moves in that "snakey" fashion can trigger the phobia.

Psychologically, the snake often represents the sexual drive. The traditional Christian enemity to snakes probably has a lot to do with that.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 26 Jun 2007 #permalink

Snakes are a little creepy. When I was a kid I was scared of rattlesnakes (and severely perforated one with a rifle before I found out how ecologically important they are) but eventually I got used to them. As long as you stay 2 snake-lengths away, you're fine. They won't chase you; you're too big to eat.

It is unlikely that hunter-gatherers were all that afraid of them - they probably just knew not to step on them. They're easy enough to catch, if one is so inclined, and the meat is edible. Given their strange shape and unexpectedly powerful bite, it's no surprise legends grew up about them.

The interesting part of the story was that it doesn't have to be a real snake, anything that moves in that "snakey" fashion can trigger the phobia.

While I'm often skeptical about psychological theories like the one you mention, I can believe this part. I was chewed out a few times for spooking out my mother with a toy snake, even unrealistic-looking ones.

As long as you stay 2 snake-lengths away, you're fine. They won't chase you; you're too big to eat.

I wish I had known that as a kid, too... I had my grandpa kill a rattlesnake with a shotgun after I saw it, even thought it was a safe distance away.

Also, I hadn't considered snakes as food for the hunter-gatherer. Your theory makes sense. (I've actually eaten snake before, and it isn't bad.)

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